If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory
-The Easter Epistle
I. Easter and remembrance
The concept of remembrance is central in the Bible because we are forgetful people. We were created in God’s image and given dominion over the creation, but we forgot the goodness and generosity of our maker. We believed the serpent’s lie, forfeited our throne, and became servants of the creation rather than its rulers. Whenever God intervened in history to save his people and restore them to their former dignity, he commanded his people to remember. “Remember this day when God led you out of Egypt” (Ex 13:3). Remember how God led you through the wilderness to test you (Deut. 8:2). “Do this in Remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
To remember in the Bible is not just to think about some past thing. To remember means to experience God’s saving power again, right now. The ancient rabbis taught that when each generation of Jewish people celebrated the memorial feast of the Passover (Ex 13:3), it was as if they set their own feet on the bottom of the Red Sea. During Holy Week, we remember, and experience again, the Passover deliverance of Israel as it was fulfilled by Jesus in the new Exodus. We freed from the tyranny of Satan, sin and death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
On Easter, we remember our baptism. Baptism is the historical moment when each of us participated in the events of Good Friday and Easter. As St. Paul explains in Colossians (a few verses before the Easter epistle), you were “buried with [Christ]in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith” (Col. 2:12). In Lent we focused on remembering one part of baptism; our death to sin through renewed repentance. Easter calls us to remember the other part of our baptism; rising again to new life through renewed faith.
As we remember that we died and rose with Christ in baptism, we remember that baptism gives us a vocation. The Easter epistle exhorts us, “If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above.” “Seek” is a present tense verb that implies constant activity. Easter is not just a day. Easter is a forty-day season and a way of life.
We adopted certain practices for Lent. Easter calls for its own unique disciplines and practices. So, what will we do for Easter? How will we seek those things which are above? One answer is simple. We will do all the things we weren’t doing for Lent! However, there a danger of turning the Lent/Easter baptismal experience into a kind of purge/binge disorder. We fasted to detach ourselves from things and make more room in our lives for Christ. We feast now to embrace the life for which we made more room. What does that life look like?
The first discipline of Easter is to establish prayer as the foundation of our lives. We do not fast and pray in Lent so that we can feast and not pray in Easter. In Easter the focus of prayer shifts from the penitence and preparation of Lent to praise and thanksgiving for the life we have received. The central act of Christian prayer is called the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. We gather around the altar to give thanks for all that Christ has done for us. Easter is a Eucharistic season, a season to leave behind the murmuring and grumbling of the wilderness and give thanks for our entry into the Promised Land of God’s New Creation.
But someone might object: “My life is difficult and painful. How can I give thanks?” Consider this. Apart from the experience of baptism into Christ, the pain and the challenges of life remain. We are just alone in them. We give thanks that Christ is present with us; that our pain is united with his pain through the cross in the hope of resurrection. We give thanks because “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
During Easter, practice giving thanks to God each day. When you are tempted to grumble and complain, give thanks instead. Give thanks for the good things he has given you. Give thanks for his presence with you in your tribulations. During Easter, cultivate a Eucharistic heart.
During the season of Easter, practice reconciliation. Our sins have been washed away in baptism. Now, let us forgive those who have sinned against us. In a world full of lust for revenge, let us be agents of grace. Reconciliation in not possible in all our relationships. However, in Easter, let that not be because we are unwilling.
During Easter, let us seek the things which are above is by cultivating the virtue of detachment from the world. The witness of the church is handicapped by the captivity of its member to temporal causes and goals that overshadow their faith. Christ becomes the means to getting something in this world. Detachment means not being enslaved to temporal goals and to the false promises and anxieties of the world—the very things we renounced in baptism.
Detachment is not a lack of concern for the world. Rather detachment remembers that this world cannot be perfected, and death cannot be conquered, apart from the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Our goal is not to “make this world a better place” or end hunger, poverty, or injustice, or create the perfect economic system. Our aim is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves; to grow into the people God made us to be in baptism as we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Our aim is to be faithful witnesses for Christ and for kingdom.
Mother Theresa is arguably the most notable saint of the last two generations. She provides an example of detachment. Mother Theresa did not aim to end poverty in Calcutta. Her aim was to love and serve the image of Christ in the poor. She said on one occasion. “We are not social workers. We do it Christ.” Detachment focuses on the acts of love themselves, not the goals that may or may not be achieved. Detachment seeks first the kingdom, and trusts God to add the things to us, or not, as he pleases.
III. Conclusion: Remembrance and the goal of life
On Easter we rise from the dead with Christ as we remember and renew our baptism. Therefore, during Easter, let us seek those things which are above. Let us practice giving thanks, let us practice reconciliation, and let practice detachment from the goals and anxieties of this world. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
A. Intro to Passiontide
We call the final two weeks of Lent “Passiontide.” We focus on the Passion or suffering of Jesus. We veil the statues and pictures in the church. As Jesus hid himself from his adversaries in the gospel, so the image of the life-giving crucifix is hidden from us until Good Friday. The holiness of the saints, which results from the Passion, is, likewise, taken from view. We do not say Gloria Patri after the Psalms and canticles during Passiontide. This makes our meditation on the Passion more austere and solemn.
The gospel tells us who Jesus is: “Before Abraham was, I am.” The epistle tells us what he came to do: “By his own blood he entered in once into the Holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” Together, they express the essence of Passiontide. It is an encounter with Jesus the Son of God that reveals our sins and leads us to repentance, forgiveness and new life through the cross.
B. The tension between grace and authority
The lesson highlights the tension between the attraction we feel to God’s grace and the contrary reticence and fear we feel about the authority of Jesus as God. We are drawn to the promise of mercy and forgiveness. But we are made uneasy by the truth that confession is required. “I am” is not a consumer choice.
Martin Thornton describes this as the tension between succor and demand. Succor: “Come to me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28). Demand: “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:33).
People avoid the demand by attacking the identity of Jesus. Some try to prove that Jesus isn’t who the Bible says he is. The twentieth century saw “the search for the historical Jesus,” who always turned out not to be the biblical one. Some people try to explain that Jesus didn’t really say or mean all the difficult things recorded in the Bible. It is revealing that people always try to explain away the challenging statements of Jesus. No one ever doubts that Jesus said all the things that make us feel good.
Some people object, “How can Jesus be Lord when there is so much suffering in the world?” This is overplayed. After all, the Bible portrays God’s people as a suffering community, gives us Job and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, among other things, and comes to fruition with the Passion of God’s Son. The doctrine of the Fall of Man remains the most plausible explanation of human suffering, and the cross remains the most plausible answer.
C. The reasons people deny Jesus is God
We attack the claim that “before Abraham was, I am” because it threatens our autonomy. If he is truly the Son of God, then we must do what he says to do. It is easier to deny his identity and authority than it is to repent. Most of our intellectual doubts are moral doubts in disguise. We are comfortable with our unfaithful patterns of living and we don’t want to change. So, we offer intellectual objections to avoid the challenge presented by the authority of the Son of God.
A promiscuous culture is threatened by Jesus’ call to sexual purity. It is easier to claim that Jesus is just one great religious voice among many than it is to repent and glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). A wealthy culture is threatened by the claim that Jesus is owner of everything. It is easier to complain about suffering and injustice in the world that it is to repent of our service to mammon and make sure what we do and make glorifies God and is good, and then give to help those in need.
D. The authentic struggle of the life of faith
If we are honest we will admit that we are in the process of becoming obedient to Son of God and his commandments. We have made progress is some areas and are not quite there yet in others. This is the reason we practice spiritual disciplines and observe Lent. We are growing into the people God made us to be in baptism. We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” when that process will be completed.
However, if we are honest, we will admit that the issue is our weakness and not any ambiguity about who Jesus is and what he requires of us. It is honest when we confess our struggles and pray for God’s grace to help us change and grow. However, it is quite another thing when we try to justify our disobedience by claiming there is some lack of clarity about who Jesus is or what he wants us to do.
E. A good confession
We will only desire God will when we believe it is best for us. We are, generally, most discontented in the very areas of life where have we resisted God’s will the most. We know by experience that our own way isn’t working, but we are determined to stay our course of rebellion nonetheless. God lets us have what we want until we are ready to let him change us.
The central issue is trust. Do we really trust Jesus? Do we really believe that God is good and that what he commands us to do is for our good? Disobedience is distrust. Distrust takes us back to the old conversation in the garden with the serpent (Gen. 3). Did God really say not to do that? He only keeps that from you because he doesn’t want you to have some good thing. It was and is a lie. We will remain captive to our disordered patterns of behavior, and to our fallen state of guilt, shame, fear, and hiding from God, as long we continue to believe it.
We complete our Lenten disciplines by making a good confession. A good confession acknowledges the areas of life where we do not yet say with full conviction, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” In Lent, we ask Jesus to reveal to us what is really going on in our hearts and listen for the answer. In Passiontide, we turn what we have heard into a narrative of confession. The point of confession is not the confession per se. The point is that honesty about ourselves combined with a renewed trust in Jesus opens the door for us to experience the power of his resurrection in new ways.
The good news is that the whole purpose of the authority and sacrifice of Jesus is to lead us through the cross to Easter. As the epistle says, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?”
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2018
The Epistle, Galatians 4:21-31 – The Gospel, St. John 6:1-14
The Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. A sacramental perspective on life
A sacrament, by definition, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (BCP 292). This definition is rooted in the principle that the things we see point us to things we can’t see. The creation is a sign that points us to the creator. Jesus, the Son of God, is the sign that reveals the invisible Father. The bread and wine are signs that reveal Jesus.
The church is sacramental. The Bible calls us “the Body of Christ”—the same language that is used of the Sacrament. Each Christian is a sign of the presence of Jesus in the world. Jesus’ standard of judgment will be, “Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). This means that our interactions with each other always have a deeper meaning and larger implications.
Fallen humanity is not able to see the sacramental meaning of life. Fallen humanity sees the creation as just a physical reality, and life in this mortal body in this world as the ultimate thing. This is what the Bible calls living according to the “flesh.”
II. The Gospel and the signs
In today’s gospel, a large crowd was following Jesus. St. John tells us that the people were attracted by “the signs that he performed on those who were diseased.” The word “sign” reflects the sacramental character of the miracles of Jesus. When Jesus turned water into wine, healed the sick, and created bread, these actions pointed to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, “by whom all things were made.”
In John 6 after the feeding miracle, St. John tells us that the crowd did not understand the signs. They followed Jesus because they saw him as a source of free food and health care. They wanted to make him their ruler so that he would free them from the afflictions of life. They lacked sacramental vision—the ability to see what the signs pointed to.
After the event of today’s gospel, Jesus tried to escape from the crowd. When the people finally caught up with him, Jesus picked a fight with them. He said, “You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you (6:27).
Jesus contrasted the food he would give with manna God gave to Israel in the Old Testament. “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die” (John 6:48-50). God gave the people of Israel miraculous food in the wilderness. But they all died anyway. Jesus will give himself as a kind of food that imparts and sustains eternal life, life that will never die. This is the meaning of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood hath eternal life and I will raise him up at the Last Day” (John 6:54).
III. The union of flesh and spirit
Sacramental food is not merely “spiritual” as opposed to physical food. We were created as a union of matter and spirit. God gave man sacramental food in the beginning, the fruit of the Tree of Life. This food was intended to sustain humans in their union with God. Through sin, the first humans partook of the creation without regard to God’s will, with ingratitude for the life God had given. Their union with God was severed. The result was a loss of sacramental vision. Humanity came to live on a merely physical level. We began to pursue the physical creation as an end in and of itself. We began to pursue the food that perishes. We became idolaters.
By his life and death, Jesus restored us to the union with God that we lost through sin. We no longer live merely “in the flesh.” We live in bodies, but we also live in the Spirit in union with God. Our lives are now sustained by the Bread of Life. The Bread of Life is the same food as the fruit of the Tree of Life. After the first sin, man was forbidden to eat this food (Genesis 3:24). Now, in Christ, this food is accessible to us. We may eat and live.
The feeding of the multitudes reveals the pattern of life for God’s New Creation. Jesus took the loaves and offered them back to God in Thanksgiving. God multiplied the loaves so that they were sufficient to meet the need. This was man’s original priestly vocation; to take the creation that God had given and offer it back to God in thanksgiving. All that man offers to God in thanksgiving is given back to man to use with God’s blessing.
Sin is ingratitude. When we sin we say to God, “I will do as I please with the gifts you have given me.” When we sin we partake of the creation without regard to God’s will, without regard to the deeper meaning of created things and without giving thanks. Our non-Eucharistic partaking lacks the blessing and presence of God. We use the creation wrongly because we are blind to the sacramental meaning of created things. Our lives become disordered and discontented because we live only in the flesh. We are cut off from eternal life. This is the pattern of life from which Christ has saved us.
IV. The Eucharist as the restoration of our priestly vocation
We exercise the priestly vocation to which we have been restored in Christ when we gather around the altar. We offer bread and wine to God. Like the loaves in the feeding, the bread and the wine represent the creation and our participation in it. We offer the creation back to God in thanksgiving. We offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies to God in Christ and through Christ. The miracle of consecration is two-fold; ordinary food that perishes becomes the bread from heaven; and ordinary mortal people become the body of Christ.
The pattern of the Eucharist is the pattern for life. We are called, as St. Paul says, to give thanks in everything (Ephesians 5:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). We give thanks for the eternal life that God has given us by obeying the commandments; by honoring the image of Christ in other people; by using our gifts in service to the kingdom. As all of life is offered to God in this manner, Christ becomes present in all things to sustain us, to bring the order and beauty of his New Creation out of our chaos of our sin.
V. Implication of this perspective for life
This perspective changes the way we look at life. We can never focus merely on the visible events and results. Instead sacramental vision leads us to focus on what God is accomplishing in and through visible things. Thus, while the world focuses on how much money a person or a company makes, a sacramental perspective focuses on whether what the person or company does is good. Is the work itself worthy? Does it provide something that is good for people?
The world focuses on how much we accumulate for ourselves. A sacramental perspective focuses on what we are giving to others; for “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7). And, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
The world tries to avoid the pain of life. A sacramental perspective focuses on what God accomplishes in us through the pain. The world tried to avoid death at all costs. A sacramental perspective is always preparing for a good death, always preparing for life in the coming kingdom of God… “For or our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Thus, as Jesus said, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you.” And, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 15:21-28
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. The Woman of Canaan
Jesus concluded his encounter with the Woman of Canaan in today’s gospel by saying, “Woman, great is thy faith.” She can teach us some things about faith.
The tradition is that St. Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience. He presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. When he calls this woman, a “Woman of Canaan” it is likely that he means to connect her with the Old Testament Canaanites, the people Israel conquered when they entered the Promised Land. This person of great faith is at least symbolically connected to people who worshiped idols and opposed God. The point is that Jesus is changing the requirements for being accepted by God. Background and ethnicity are now irrelevant. God accepts us when we put our faith in Jesus.
In his epistles, St. Paul develops the idea of “justification by faith.” As a well-known passage from Romans says:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the Law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through the faith of Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:21-24).
Language from today’s gospel is used in our “Prayer of Humble Access,” which we pray before communion. However, we see this woman’s humility and raise it a notch. She said the dogs ate the crumbs; we claim to be unworthy even of these! Of course, the point is not merely to sound humble. The liturgy is teaching us how to approach God if we want to be accepted like the Woman of Canaan. As we come to the altar, have we chosen a nice outfit to wear? Have we been faithful to the church for decades? Do we come from a good family? Have we avoided the major sins? None of these things matter. Nothing we are, nothing we inherited, nothing we have done, and nothing we have given entitles us to anything from God. We can receive God’s grace only through faith in Jesus Christ.
III. Faith as trust and dependence rather that belief in doctrine
The Woman of Canaan exposes a common error about faith; namely, that faith is rooted in the mind or intellect. When some people talk about justification by faith, they imply that we are justified by a right understanding of how we are saved. Thus, some people object to an early age for Confirmation and Communion because “they are not yet old enough to understand.” But we could turn that question around and get closer to heart of faith. We could say, “You are old enough to understand, but do you still have childlike faith?” For Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
The Woman of Canaan illustrates that to have faith means to trust God and depend upon him. This trust includes the belief that God can do what we pray for. God is Almighty, and Jesus is Lord. Because she trusted Jesus, because she came to him with humility, believing that Jesus could do what she asked, Jesus heard her prayer and answered it.
Faith as trust is illustrated by a story that I think was told by Billy Graham (may he rest in peace and rise in glory). A man was attempting to push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers. A spectator was asked, “Do you believe he can do it?” He answered, “Yes, I believe he can” Then the spectator was asked, “Will you ride in the wheelbarrow?”
For many people, faith is merely an intellectual conviction about God. They say “amen” to the creeds, or they memorize doctrine about how a person is saved; but they won’t trust Jesus by doing what he says to do—by obeying his commandments. They won’t get into the wheelbarrow; consequently, they do not experience God’s presence and power in their lives. As Matthew 13:38 says of Jesus ministry in Nazareth, “He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.”
The faith of the Woman of Canaan did include some doctrine about Jesus. She called Jesus the “Son of David.” She believed Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. However, her prayer was heard because she trusted him—not just because she knew who he was. When we recite the Nicene Creed, we give our assent to the doctrine that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God. However, this assent does not save us. We are saved by trusting him. It is possible to know who Jesus is and not trust him. As St. James writes, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (Jas. 2:19).
III. Faith as honesty and vulnerability
There is another, notable point about the faith of the Woman of Canaan that we usually miss. She created a scene. She screamed about her demonized daughter and her need for help right in front of the nice rabbi and his pious followers. The pious followers told her to be quiet and begged their leader to get rid of the nuisance. Do we ever do that to people who come to Jesus for help? — “Go away, we’ve got a nice religious thing going on here.”
There were, no doubt, other people in the crowd who had pressing needs but were too ashamed to make them known. They did not trust Jesus enough to be open and honest with him, they were too ashamed to say anything, and their prayers were not answered. Often our prayers are not answered because we are not honest with God and others about what we are really struggling with. We are too ashamed and afraid to be known (See Genesis 3:9-10). Consequently, we walk along with crowd that is following Jesus, but we do not experience his power because our faith is not touching the real stuff of our lives
One reason people are drawn to recovery groups is that they tolerate and encourage honesty. You can stand up and say, I’m Joe and I am addicted to drink or drugs or sex.” There is freedom to say that because you are in a group with others who are also being honest. The church should be a community in which the members of the Body of Christ are honest and open with each other. This doesn’t mean we tell everybody our deep secrets the first time we talk. Trust takes time to develop. It means that we work over time at cultivating authentically intimate relationships, in which we are known to others and others feel safe being known to us. Genuine communion with God and others is the source of all healing and is the answer to our deepest prayers.
This is our central challenge in mission. The trappings of religion don’t matter to people anymore—and that is a good thing. But people are still alienated from God and from authentically intimate relationships with others. God wants his church to be a place reconciliation; a place where people can make good and honest confessions about the real stuff of their lives; a place where people can experience grace and healing over time as they grow in communion with Christ and with the members of his body.
This begins with each of us. We cannot bear witness to the healing power of Christ for the sins and afflictions of the world unless we have experienced it in our own sins and afflictions. So, let us learn a Lenten lesson about faith from an unacceptable and unclean pagan with a demonized daughter. Let us come to Jesus without any sense of entitlement. Let us trust Jesus and obey him and continue in our prayer until he answers us. And let us move past our shame and fear and practice being honest with God and with each other. If we follow the Woman of Canaan in this way, two things will happen. The trusted people we are honest with will not be shocked at our real stuff, because it will look a lot like their real stuff. They will say to us, “Welcome to the club.” And Jesus will say to us, “Great is your faith, let is be to you as you desire.”
A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018
The Epistle, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 4:1-11
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
Lent is the central chapter in the story of the Christian year. Easter lies out in the horizon as the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams—the fullness of life in the body in God’s New Creation. Lent teaches us that we can only get to Easter through the cross. This is why Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. To save the world he must say not to it and its promises; he must die to it and for it. This is where the gospel confronts our world. Most people want Easter; most people want to be set free from the effects of sin and the reality of death. Most people want to live in a world full of health and peace. That is why our world is full of activism and agitation. Everyone has a plan for how to fix what is wrong in the world. But these plans try to get to Easter without the cross.
Jesus did not join any of the movements of his day; movements that planned to save the world by politics, revolt, or religion. He did not side with the Sadducees, who wanted to maintain their power, rooted in the control of the temple, by maintaining rapprochement with the Roman authorities. He did not become a zealot, advocating armed rebellion. He did not become a Pharisee, who believed that if Israel would only obey the Torah and the tradition, God would save the nation. Jesus saved the world by dying to it and for it.
II. Dying with Christ.
Jesus invites us to participate in his work of salvation by dying with him. This is the meaning of our baptism. As Romans says:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
The Christian life is a continual growth into our baptismal identity; a continual dying to the world and for the world. Baptism confronts us with the unavoidable truth that we cannot rise to newness of life unless we die first. Lent is a season of growth in to our baptismal identity. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24).
Death sounds pessimistic because it emphasizes only part of the truth. What Lent really teaches us is that when we unite our sufferings and our death with cross, they will result in resurrection. This is good news. For we will suffer and die anyway; apart from Christ that pain will be fruitless. But everything we offer to God through the cross will rise with Christ on Easter. Thus, as 1 Corinthians says,
We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
III. What is means to try to reach Easter without the cross
What does it mean to try to reach Easter by skipping the cross? To skip the cross means to try to solve the problems of the world while avoiding the reality of sin that is in all human hearts. The temptation of the world and its activism is to locate the problem “out there” somewhere. If we can fix the external problem in the system, or get our people in charge of the government, or cure all disease, then we can build paradise—or the Tower of Babel.
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he calls us to die to the world and for the world with him. This means we must face a hard truth. The problem is not out there somewhere; the problem is in each of our hearts. If I want to change the world, I must begin by changing me. Or, more accurately, I must begin by becoming what Christ has made me to be through baptism and faith.
The only hope for this world is Christ, who saved the world through the cross. There is nothing in this world that can be saved except through its participation in the cross; nothing gets to the Easter except by way of Good Friday. Thus, the only thing I can offer to the world is my participation in the cross; my dying to the world and for the world with Christ. We are witness for Christ and for the life he has given us. When the world sees us, does it see Christ in us?
IV. Lent is an interior pilgrimage.
Lent forces us to look within ourselves. The cross does not allow us to blame people and circumstances out there. The cross is a mirror into our own hearts. When we look at Jesus on the cross, dying for us and for the sins of everyone, everywhere, and always, we see our own selfishness. We see our own pride, anger, greed, covetousness, gluttony, lust, and sloth. The cross moves us to humility and confession. We experience grace, the forgiveness of our sins and the power to live in a new way. In this grace of forgiveness, we find the power to forgive others. This means the power to stop blaming them for everything that is wrong with our lives and the world. Grace sets us free from captivity to sins—both our own and the sins of others.
It is only as we grow into Christ through the cross that we have anything to offer to the world. Christ is the savior of the world, and it is only as witnesses to his life, his grace, and his power to conquer sin that we can lead people into Easter, into God’s New Creation. Thus, the focus of Lent must be our own hearts.
Lent is not merely about giving things up. Lent is about entering more fully into our union with the cross so that that we may enter more fully into the power of Jesus’ resurrection. As St. Paul says, “Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10).
So, let us fast and pray, but let us also ask the larger questions. Are you taking responsibility for your role in the disorder of your life and the world? Are you ready to make a good confession? As Jesus said to the man by the pool of Bethesda, do you want to get well? Whom do you need to forgive? Against whom do you hold a deep grudge? Are you ready to let go of your right of retribution and your need for anything to be different than it is so that you may enter into Easter through the cross? Or do you want to continue to fight your old, losing battle? What deep pain in your past do you need to face and grieve through? Is Christ the foundation for your life—the thing around which your life is ordered? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Until you do you, until you begin to open your heart to God, you will never love your neighbor as yourself. With whom do you need to reconcile? Blessed are the peacemakers. These are questions that require a season. Lent is a season of opportunity to ask them and answer them in new ways. As St. Paul said in our epistle:
We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
A Sermon for Sexagesima, February 4, 2018
The Epistle, 2 Corinthians 11:19-31 – The Gospel, St. Luke 8:4-15
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Organic vs non-organic analogies.
Last week our lessons likened the Christian life and the kingdom of God to running a race and working in a field. We noted that the main impact of these analogies was in the way they did not work. The Christian life does not consist of working for the reward of heaven or competing against each other in a race that only one can win.
These analogies can be contrasted with today’s gospel, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, which, along with other agricultural parables and analogies, more accurately describes the Christian. The greater accuracy lies in its organic nature. The life that has been planted within us through the Holy Spirit grows in a way that corresponds to the way plants and babies grow. Thus, the more we rely on organic models to understand that life, the more accurate our knowledge of it will be.
- Judgment vs Growth
The contrast between competition and labor on the one hand, and organic growth on the other, gets at the reason many people struggle in the life of prayer. Many people are stuck living in narratives that focus on judgment. “If I say my prayers and am a good boy or girl, then God will reward me with eternal life.” The Christian life becomes a striving to be good. Since goodness is not attained by human effort, the inevitable result is a perpetual feeling of guilt, of having fallen short—which is relieved only by periodic feelings of forgiveness.
When we shift from judgment to horticulture, the picture changes. We are no longer working for a reward; we are, rather, fostering the growth of a life. The evil that is present in us, the remnant of our fallen nature, consists of weeds to be removed by confession and hearts to be softened by grace. The good that has been planted within us is to be nourished by the grace of Word, Sacrament, prayer and close connection with others in the Body of Christ.
When we do something wrong, which inevitably we all will do, the point is not that we are immediately condemned by our heavenly Father—any more than a good parent immediately disowns a child for misbehavior. What God wants from us is the same thing a parent want from a child; to acknowledge the wrong that was done and to learn and grow from it—pull the weed and fertilize the good. God does not expect perfection. He wants us to continue to grow over time.
- The foundational areas of our work
The Parable the Sower and the Seed is the foundational parable that Jesus told to describe what was happening in his ministry as he preached the word of God and it took root, or did not take root, in human hearts. The success of the seed depended on the hardness of the heart, and the things that were competing in the heart for nourishment.
The parable reveals the enemies of the soul—the world the flesh, and the devil—which we renounced in baptism (BCP 276, 277). The devil is seen in the seed by the wayside. Jesus said, “Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Lk. 8:12). The devil tries to crush faith with feelings of doubt and anxiety, and by making the would-be believer so afraid of the implications of faith and obedience that faith is abandoned immediately.
The world is seen in the seed that among the thorns. “The ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Lk. 8:14). Here faith competes in the heart of the would-be believer with worldly attachments. The worldly attachments leave no room for the growth of the good seed.
The flesh is seen in the seed that fell on the rocky soil. “The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Lk. 8:13). Here, the would-be believer is not willing to give up the satisfaction of disordered desire—is not willing to give up pain killers to make room for genuine interior fulfillment. Thus, the word of God cannot become deeply rooted and produce the fruit of holy behavior.
This is the ongoing organic struggle in the life of prayer. The life that has been planted in us in baptism, which we receive by faith and continue to grow in through our ongoing trust in God, is challenged by these enemies of the soul. Spiritual forces of evil constantly tempt us to doubt and despair. The world offers us success, status, and pleasure to pull our hearts away from Christ. Our disordered desires tempt us to say, “Forget the will of God. I want to do what I want to do—and I deserve it!”
The pattern of temptation and sin is the same in all cases. It is tempting and powerful in the moment of temptation, but when we give in to it, it leaves us feeling guilty, empty and despairing afterwards; then it offers to take care of these feelings with another dose of painkiller—and the cycle continues.
- Spiritual Disciplines
We talk about “spiritual disciplines.” These are practices of spiritual horticulture; things that reduce the pull of temptation and help the life of Christ within us to grow. In Matthew 6, Jesus discusses the three foundational spiritual disciplines; prayer, fasting and alms giving. These three disciplines are the primary ways we combat the three enemies of the soul.
Prayer is the primary way we combat demonic temptation. Maintaining a close relational connection to God through prayer is the main we keep doubt and despair at bay. We cannot overcome spiritual evil except through constant prayer. We cannot fight the demons with our own strength, but as St. John says, “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 Jn. 4:4).
Fasting is the primary way we combat the temptations of the flesh. If our appetites overwhelm us so that we cannot say no to things, we must practice fasting—practice saying no to things to gain the mastery over them. This is a necessary but neglected discipline in our overindulged culture. Most of us need to practice it in our use of electronics and technology. These things often threaten the spiritual life more than excesses of food and drink.
Almsgiving is how we combat the temptation of the world. When we become too attached to worldly things, we must practice giving them away. Tithing is the foundational discipline of freedom from money, and generosity is the ongoing practice of freedom from the world. Rather than pursuing more, we look for ways to give. Practicing humility is how we fast from our need for worldly status.
During the pre-Lenten season we should examine our hearts to see how we are being tempted and tested by the enemies of the soul; then we should adopt spiritual disciplines for Lent that root out the weeds, soften our hearts, and draw us nearer to God. Are you struggling with doubt and despair that comes from the evil one? How will you increase your practice of prayer to live in closer communion with God? Are you overcome by your appetites? What things will you fast—and which electronics, video games, and social media will you give up to develop greater self-control? Are you too attached to the things of the world, and to the status that the world gives you? How will you give and practice humility in new ways?
For we are practicing spiritual horticulture. And, as Jesus said, “The ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience” (Lk. 8:15).
A Sermon for Septuagesima, January 28, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 20:1-16
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The meaning of Pre-Lent
We arrive at church today to discover a change in the season. The green of the Epiphany season has given way to the violet of pre-Lent. Septuagesima reorients us. Epiphany season, which just ended, is a meditation on the Incarnation; it looks back at Christmas. Today, we turn our heads and begin to look forward to Easter and to the cross that necessarily precedes it. Pre-Lent is a tap on the shoulder that tells us that Lent is coming in two and a half weeks.
I remember a professor who wrote a commentary on Mark’s Gospel. He said that as Jesus is being revealed as the Son of God, there is a growing drumbeat of rejection that says, “He is going to die.” Pre-Lent has this effect on the life of prayer. Just as we are glorying in the revelation of the Son of God, in the ways we have come to know him, and in all the possibilities of faith, we remember that he is going to die, and we share his resurrection life by sharing in his death. Or, to put it in positive terms. Easter is coming, but there is this little thing called the cross that we must participate in first.
- We are not in Lent yet. Pre-Lent provides us with a runway. We are not fasting, but we begin to think about the ways we will, even as we enjoy some final pre-Lent celebrations!
- Laboring in the field and running the race
The lessons for Septuagesima, the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard, and a 1 Corinthians passage about the discipline necessary to win a race, both point forward to a goal. The laborer works for the denarius, which represents salvation. The runner strives for the crown, which represents eternal glory. Both point us towards Easter. We are striving for the crown of resurrection; we are laboring faithfully in time towards the end of eternal life.
However, there is a significant way that each analogy does not work—and that is part of the point. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a man who hired laborers for his vineyard. Then he preceded to tell a parable that explains, precisely, how the kingdom of heaven is utterly unlike the standard labor arrangement. The man who worked an hour got the same as the man worked twelve. Try that at your business and see how it affects morale!
St. Paul says that all run in a race but only one receives the prize. However, his whole point is that every Christian can run in such a way as to receive the prize. To win, we must strive against the adversaries called the world, the flesh, and the devil, but we do not have to compete against each other. We can all win. So, the kingdom of God is not exactly like a race either.
One point made by both lessons is that the dynamics of grace don’t always fit into ordinary life examples. We get the point of both only when we understand the discordance; the way the kingdom of God is not like an ordinary race or a normal labor arrangement. This discordance reflects a foundational paradox of the Christian life. All is grace, but we must work very hard. Salvation is a gift that costs everything we have.
III. The Paradox of Grace and Labor
Reconciling this paradox is of no small importance. The division of the western church is founded upon it. On the one hand, there is the proclamation that salvation comes by faith and cannot be earned by our labors and merits. On the other hand, there is the truth that spiritual growth requires the practice of actual disciplines over extended periods of time.
Alexander Schmemman exposes the excesses on one side when he writes, “The fight of the new Adam against the old is a long and painful one, and what a naïve oversimplification it is to think, as some do, that the salvation they experience in revivals and “decisions for Christ” and which result in moral righteousness, soberness, and warm philanthropy, is the whole of salvation, is what God meant when he gave his Son for the life of the world” (For The Life of the World 78).
But it is also an error to think that performance of religious duties and good works somehow stores up merits that will earn us entry into the kingdom on the Day when our Lord comes to judge. For every worthy religious thing we do is deeply rooted in grace—is itself a gift from God. We must, indeed, establish disciplines of prayer and fasting. Yet, the very ability to pray requires the Holy Spirit, whom we received as a gift.
The primarily labor of the Christian life is repentance; the continued death of the old Adam through confession, and the continual purification of our motives and aims through the work of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is a gift, but we must open our hearts to receive it. Salvation does not mean freedom from labor. It means freedom from futility. In Christ, through the Spirit, our labor is fruitful.
- Lessons from our lessons
As we orient towards Easter, we can draw a lesson from each of our lessons. The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard challenges our pride and our selfishness. If we are honest, we are sympathetic with the guy who worked all day and got the same as the man who worked only one hour. But this is about the kingdom of God, not about paying your employees. No matter when you come to faith, you will receive the reward of eternal life and resurrection.
The sin of the all-day laborer is the sin of self-righteous religious people who think they deserve more: “I’ve been in church all my life; then these new people come in and take my seat and get all the attention.” The longer you have been in the church as a believing and practicing follower of Jesus, the more you should know about the love of God and the more you should want to share it with others. Do you think you deserve more because of how good you’ve been for so long a time? Do you begrudge God’s goodness to newer believers whom you deem less worthy? Such attitudes reveal a need for self-examination and repentance as we move towards Easter.
The teaching of St. Paul about running a race reminds me of a scene from a high school cross country meet. One on my sons did a year of cross country, so it was new to me. The scene I remember was at the end of the race. Every runner had finished except one girl, who was finishing quite a bit behind the pack. But the whole team was at the finish line cheering on this one girl as she finished. However, the point was not merely charitable support for a girl who did not have natural gifts for running. They were cheering because this girl was running hard to achieve her personal best time, which, if memory serves, she achieved on this day. She wasn’t running against anyone else; she was running against her “old self” and trying to get better—and that is all that matters in the race we are running.
As we look towards Easter and contemplate the ways we want to grow, it is important not to look at other people and compare ourselves with them. God doesn’t care how we compare with anyone else. Comparisons are demonic in origin. They serve only to distract us from the real goal of the spiritual life. We are striving to grow beyond our own sins—not the sins of others; we are striving to grow into the image of Christ in the unique way God placed that image within each of us through the gift of the Spirit.
A Sermon for The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2018
The Epistle, Romans 12:16-21 – The Gospel, St. John 2:1-11
The Rt. Rev=d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The epiphany miracles in our lessons
In the lessons for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, the miracle of changing water into wine in the gospel is paired with an epistle that describes another miracle Jesus performs in us. By his work of grace, Jesus enables us to respond to evil with good. As Romans says,
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:19-21).
In both miracles Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who changes things. He changes water, the water of Old Testament purification, into the new wine of the kingdom of God. He changes angry, unforgiving people into his new people who can respond to evil with good. By changing water into wine, Jesus manifested or revealed his glory. When we learn to do good to those who hurt us and hate us, the glory of Jesus is revealed in us and through us.
- Our outward behavior is the result of our own experience of grace
We can only respond to evil with good because God responds to our evil with his good, and this experience of grace changes us. Romans says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The grace of the cross comes to us continually in the Sacrament even though we still have sin. As we partake of grace, we become agents of grace.
The opposite is also true. Someone who has not experienced grace from God will have difficulty acting with grace towards others. People who are complaining and critical towards others typically feel criticized and judged themselves. We pass along our own experience. Our outward behavior reflects our own interior experience.
Our anger, our desire to make others pay, doesn’t magically vanish the moment we come to faith. We are not always able to immediately forgive those who have hurt us. Sometimes we will forgive only to discover that the anger returns, and we must forgive again. We grow into the experience of grace. Our progress will be measured by an increasing interior experience of love and grace from God that leads to an increasing ability to love and forgive others. This growth in grace and love reveals that Christ is at work in us. We must be patient without ourselves in the process of growth.
III. We must face the truth about our anger
Forgiving others and acting in love does not mean denying or ignoring our anger. In fact, Jesus cannot change us until we are honest about our thoughts and feelings. Anger and vengefulness are symptoms of our inner wounds. Healing requires that we look beneath these surface emotions and ask, why? Why am I so angry? We will usually discover pain and injuries beneath our anger; something was done to us, or we experienced something painful that makes us angry at others—perhaps even angry at God. We must let God touch this deep interior pain if we want to be healed.
There is a reason we avoid this work. It is easier for me to blame you. My anger allows me to pretend that my unhappiness is your fault. You can be my scapegoat. This is as old as the first sin. Rather than looking within himself, Cain blamed his brother Abel and took his anger out on him (Gen. 4). Conversely, if I look within myself I must face the truth that I am the one who must change—or who must be changed by grace.
This does not mean that we are all as guilty as Cain, whose offering was rejected because he did the wrong thing. Sometimes we are victims of malice perpetrated by others—and it was not our fault. Our relatively innocent victimhood is a door through which Christ enters our lives. For he was the truly innocent victim. As 1 Peter says, he “bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). He took upon himself all the anger we feel for the wounds of our sin. As we unite our pain with his pain, our wounds are healed by his wounds; as Isaiah says, “by his stripes we are healed” (53:5). As we experience healing through the cross, we find the grace from God to say with him, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
- The rationale for responding to evil with good
Forgiveness is logical. To forgive is to give up our right of retribution. To refuse to forgive keeps us stuck in the timeless human cycle of injury and vengeance. When give up our right of retribution and commit the job of judgment to God, we refuse to let the evil of others determine our behavior. We set ourselves free from the tyranny of sin and anger. We allow our behavior to be determined by who we are in Christ, not by what others have done to us. We are free to do good no matter what anyone else does.
This keeps us from judgement. When we respond to evil with retribution, we invariably become subject to judgment ourselves. Our retribution is not always just. Our anger typically leads us into sin even we think it is righteous anger. It might begin as righteous anger, but it will become something else if we allow anger to have free reign. This is how the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. We respond to sin with sin and perpetuate the timeless cycle of sin, guilt, judgment, and death. Responded to evil with good breaks this cycle, and initiates a new pattern of grace, forgiveness, transformation, and life.
One point about forgiveness should be clarified. Nothing about forgiving others mitigates against the responsibility of governing authorities to administer justice for crimes. In Romans 13:4, we are told that the governing authorities are “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Nothing about forgiveness mitigates against the justice that God himself promises to execute. The epistle says, “Vengeance is mine says the Lord. I will repay.” Justice will be done. However, we are to focus on doing what is right and commit the task of judgment to God.
This is the final Sunday in the Epiphany season this year. Epiphany is about how Jesus is revealed. Today, Jesus is revealed as the Creator who changes water into wine and changes us from fallen, wounded, and angry people into new people who are being re-created in his image. Thus, as Romans says, “Repay no one evil for evil…. Do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21).