A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, July 29, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – The Gospel, St. Luke 15:11-32
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The connection between the Exodus story and our story in Christ
The epistle teaches us that the Christian life is to be understood in the light of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. Israel was “baptized into Moses” as we were baptized into Christ. Israel was fed in the wilderness by manna from heaven and water from a rock as we are fed by the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. However, despite these gifts and graces the Israelites were overcome by temptation in the wilderness. This teaches us that our baptism and reception of the Sacrament do not guarantee that we will inherit the kingdom of God. We also can be overcome by temptation and overthrown. St. Paul writes,
These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12).
The wilderness was time of testing that prepared Israel to enter the Promised Land. The Christian life is a time of testing that is preparing us to live in the coming kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is already here through the gift of the Holy Spirit. But it is not yet fully here. The central task of the Christian life is to follow the Holy Spirit through the wilderness as the Israelites followed the fire and the cloud—and not to be distracted and thrown off course by temptation and sin (John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress comes to mind here). The goal is to remain faithful through testing and make it to God’s New Creation.
B. The Pursuit of Happiness vs. the Pursuit of the Kingdom
This framework of understanding teaches us that nothing in this world is ultimate. We can be content with things in this world only inasmuch we enjoy them as gifts from God and foretastes of his kingdom. This is a sacramental perspective. We receive Christ in the Sacrament. However, the Sacrament also points beyond itself to the Coming of Christ in person. What we receive now is meant to sustain us as we await its fulfillment.
The sacramental perspective stands in contrast with the perspective of the world. The world offers us the creation as the end and goal. The world sells us non-sacraments. Get this thing—the relationship, the sex, the fulfillment of appetite, money, power, luxury—and you will be happy.
This purpose of the wilderness is to wean us from this idolatry. Someone observed that it took God a week to lead Israel out of Egypt, but it took forty years to remove Egypt from the Israelites. Baptism and conversion of the heart may occur in short seasons of time, but the reformation of our disordered desires takes a lifetime. The Israelites who died in the wilderness represent our fallen nature that must die so that our new human nature, remade in the image of Christ, can grow towards its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. The key to resisting temptation is perceiving the lie that is being presented to us. Temptations promise us what they can never give us. God wants more for his children in his kingdom.
Many Christians struggle with their faith because they do not understand that this life is a wilderness of testing. Many Christians have embraced the world’s idea that we should pursue happiness right now above all else and that all pain should be avoided in the pursuit of happiness. If we try to follow God through the wilderness and aim at happiness in this world, these two vocations will clash; one will eventually give way to the other.
C. The Discipline of Fasting
The wilderness highlights the importance of the spiritual discipline of fasting. We must learn to say no things if we want to say yes to God. Fasting is the way we practice saying no. Many Christians have a fear of fasting—for two reasons. First, if you believe that you will be made happy by having everything you want, it sounds senseless to give up something you want. Won’t that make you unhappy? Second, fasting calls to mind extreme forms of asceticism. For example, St. Simon the Stylite, who lived his life atop a pillar, ate food only occasionally, and never bathed. Does God want us to be like him?
The first fear is overcome by learning that having everything we crave does not make us happy—it makes us miserable. Learning to say no is essential to living a contented life in Christ. However, we are often unable to say no. Thus, we must practice saying no if we want to get spiritually stronger. The fear of asceticism can be overcome by realizing that God probably won’t call you to live on a pole, eat little, and never bathe. But God will call you to practice saying so to things.
We have seasons of fasting, Advent and Lent, where we say no to things for an extended period to prepare to receive Christ in new ways at the feasts of Christmas and Easter. A good regular discipline is to practice some form of fasting at least a day a week. Whatever you are too attached to—food, electronics, entertainments, you know what it is for you—go without it for at least a day a week. One day a week—at least—practice saying no. Start small. For most people simply eating nothing between meals will be a good start. Practice that.
It is unfortunate that in the most overindulged culture in human history most Christians have no regular practice of fasting. It is one reason so many Christians are overcome by so many things, including discontentment. We can’t resist temptation just by trying to say no when the moment of trial is upon us. Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights before he faced temptation. An athlete practices before the game. We must prepare for the spiritual battle by fasting and praying before we face temptation. The epistle says,
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10:12-13).
The way of escape may be the regular practice of fasting, combined with prayer, that increases our ability to say no to things and yes to God.
A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, July 22, 2018
The Epistle, Romans 8:12-17 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 7:15-21
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
“As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
I. The epistle and the ongoing experience of Baptism
We have had a series of epistles from Romans. Today’s epistle can be understood in the light of the epistle from Trinity 6 about baptism. Romans 6:3-4 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.
The epistles from Romans last week and this week emphasize that Baptism initiates us into an ongoing experience of dying and rising with Christ. The death of baptism becomes the ongoing activity of putting to death the deeds of the body, which is how we share in the sufferings of Christ.
We often think of spiritual experience as mystical and peaceful. However, one of the main things we experience because of our baptism is interior conflict. Today’s Epistle is the source of a term in the spiritual life called “mortification.” St. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death (or mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
In the New Testament the word “flesh” refers to the disordered desires of our fallen human nature—the human nature we were born with. The baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit puts the flesh to death. However, the Spirit also redeems and recreates our human nature in the image of Christ’s new humanity. The Spirit leads us to do new things that are oriented towards love for God and love for others rather than merely self-gratification.
II. How we mortify the deeds of the body
We put to death the past deeds of the body by making good confessions that take stock of both our actions and our motives; by receiving the grace of forgiveness that removes the guilt, shame and fear caused by sin; and by establishing new patterns of faithful and loving behavior in the place of the old selfish habits of sin.
We put to death the deed of the body each day by avoiding and turning away from the temptations that come upon us. For example,
Something provokes us to anger and we are tempted to strike out and strike back. Instead, we take a deep breath, pray, remember who we are in Christ and, by the grace the Spirit gives us, we do not react in anger—we mortify our selfish anger. Then, after we calm down, we respond to those who provoked with some action of love. As Jesus said,
“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).
Or, something visual may tempt us. It may be something sexual, or it may be something that we tempted to covet. Rather than entertaining the thought and embracing the lust or the greed, we immediately turn our eyes away from the temptation, using the grace the Spirit gives us. We use this circumstance of our temptation to pray for the grace of contentment and self-control.
Because prevention is better than cure, we examine our habits and identify the places and circumstances that cause us to face repeated temptation. We reorganize our schedule and so that we avoid those places and circumstances in the future.
III. The results of mortification.
Sin tempts us because it promises us things we want right now, but when we give in to it we experience guilt, shame, fear and death instead. We replay the scene of Genesis 3, the pattern of the original sin. This is what it means to be slaves of sin. We are stuck following impulses that never produce anything good in our lives.
We live “in the Spirit” when we establish a foundation of prayer in our lives and practice following the impulses of the Spirit each day, saying no to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). As we practice this pattern of life over time, we experience new results. The experience of grace and forgiveness replaces the experience of guilt. The experience of being accepted by God replaces the experience of shame. Fear is replaced by trust in God and his provision and providence.
The experience of life in the Spirit involves conflict, but the long-term result of the conflict is peace. It is a necessary battle. The battle of the Spirit against the flesh is the cross we are called to bear in the Christian life. Our suffering in Christ, our cross bearing, is not merely our share of the general pain of the world. We take up our cross when we persevere in God’s will against the influences that pull us away from God and our prayer and back into the patterns of sin and the false and temporal hopes of the world.
It is here that authentic Christian faith stands in the clearest contrast with the promises of our consumer and therapeutic culture. The implication of our culture is that pursuing what you want will make you happy. This leads people to try to gratify themselves apart from God and his will. This is the cause of the discontentment of our culture. People are committed to finding fulfillment in that which cannot provide it.
The Spirit fills us we a deeper desire; the desire for God, who alone can satisfy us. The Spirit teaches us that our disordered desires must be put to death if we are to get what we really want. Thus, as we mortify the flesh and persevere in our pursuit of God and our deep spiritual longings, we confirm our status as God’s children. As our Epistle says,
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Rom. 8:14-17).
A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, July 15, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Romans 6:19-23 – The Gospel, St. Mark 8:1-9
I. The Gospel and the Eucharistic pattern
We think of the feeding of the five thousand as a miracle—and it is that. But it also a pattern for the life of faith—a pattern for what we can call a Eucharistic life. When we follow the example of Jesus in the feeding miracle as a habit or pattern of life, we experience continuing the miracle of God’s provision.
The gospel story takes place in a remote setting in Israel, but it portrays a typical crisis. There are too many needs and not enough resources. In the gospel, there were 4000 mouths and only a few loaves and fishes. In our lives, there are too many things to do and not enough time; there are too many financial needs and not enough money; there is too much work and not enough laborers.
Apart from God our response to need follows a characteristic pattern. First, we get anxious about the problem; then we develop a plan to solve it; then we anxiously pursue our plan. Prayer typically comes in at this point. We ask God to help us with our plan, the plan that results from anxiety rather than faith. We work hard and pray hard and hope that we will get what we want for our efforts. We often achieve just enough of the illusion of success to tempt us to continue to try to control life this way.
Jesus established a new pattern. The first thing Jesus did was to take the inadequate supply of food and give thanks to God for it. Rather than complaining about what he did not have or becoming anxious, Jesus took what he had and offered in to God in thanksgiving. Then he went about the business of feeding the people—and there was enough to meet the need and more.
II. How we follow this pattern.
The Greek word for giving thanks is Eucharist. We follow the Eucharistic pattern of Jesus when we begin by giving thanks. We begin by taking everything that God has given us, as inadequate as it seems for the needs before us, and we offer it back to God in thanksgiving. Today is the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, the beginning of our time. We begin by giving thanks. We offer the Eucharist. We offer ourselves and all we are and have to God. Our inadequate offering is made acceptable because it is united with and consecrated by the offering of Jesus. By ourselves we do not have enough, but in Christ we have all that we need.
We receive back from God the Bread of Life. Our inadequate offering becomes sufficient food to meet the needs of our lives. An exchange, a trade, takes place in the Eucharist. We offer to God all the unmanageable stuff of our lives. We give it to God because he is God and he alone can change our inadequate supply in his abundance. We receive back a sense of vocation and ministry. We receive the wisdom to know what can do and the grace to do it. As we faithfully do the work God has given us, God provides for us.
This is the pattern Jesus alludes to in Matthew 6:
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you (Matt. 6:31-33).
This is the pattern St. Paul describes in Philippians 4:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7).
Jesus gave God thanks for the inadequate supply of food first, then he went about the business of the feeding the people. This teaches us to give thanks to God and offer everything to God first, and then to focus on doing God’s will in our lives each day. As we do this, God will provide for us and give us his peace.
III. The need to learn this pattern by practice.
We learn this pattern by practice. We can experience God’s provision and peace in one circumstance, but then easily digress back into the pattern of the world when we face our next challenge. God’s provision and peace can easily be replaced by new anxiety and need. We live our faith by a Rule or pattern of prayer. Our Rule of prayer teaches us to live by the Eucharistic pattern by teaching us to offer life to God again and again in thanksgiving. We need to practice letting God be God and practice focusing on our own faithfulness rather than worrying about the results. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” because we are forgetful people. We gather in church to remember and practice.
The discipline of offering prayer to God each day—what we call the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer—are the way we extend the Eucharistic pattern into our daily lives. We begin each day by offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God. We begin each day by offering our anxieties to God and recommitting ourselves to focusing on the work we are called to do rather than the problem or the needed results. We return to our prayer each day to remember again and to practice again the discipline of a Eucharistic life.
The goal is to remember God always, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). However, the ability to pray without ceasing is built on the foundation of our habits of prayer. Skill is developed by habitual practice. A golfer who does not practice may hit some good shots, but he won’t hit them as consistently as he would if he practiced. A musician who does not practice may have a moment of brilliance, but he will not be as consistently good as he would be if he practiced. Prayer works the same way. As we persevere in our habits and practices of prayer over long seasons of time, we develop habitual competence—we learn to “pray without ceasing.” The Eucharistic pattern becomes the default setting.
Many Christians do not experience the miracle of God’s provision and God’s peace because their faith is not embodied in daily practices of prayer and thanksgiving that produce the fruit of faith and peace over time. They live according to the anxious pattern of the world and run to God only for occasional help when their plan isn’t working. Consequently, they experience the anxiety and neediness of the world more than God’s provision and God’s peace.
The feeding miracle teaches us the simple—but hard to learn—pattern of faith. Begin by giving thanks. Begin each week and each day in prayer by offering our lives to God in thanksgiving. Give thanks for what seems like inadequate resources and provision. Give thanks for the life God has given us and for the presence of Christ with us in all things. In response to our prayer, God will give us the wisdom and grace we need to do the good works he has prepared for us to walk in today. God will provide for us and give us his peace. We will experience God’s continuous miracle of feeding and faithfulness.
A Sermon for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 2018
For the Epistle, Isaiah 40:1 – The Gospel, St. Luke 1: 57
The Rt. Rev. Stephen C. Scarlett
I. John the Baptist and prophets in Israel
Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. He was sixth months older than his cousin Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in sixth months on Christmas Day. Unlike the Blessed Virgin Mother of our Lord, the father of John the Baptist, Zacharias, did not believe the angel Gabriel when he announced a miraculous pregnancy—that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to their first child in her old. The consequence was that Zacharias became mute until John was born. He regained his speech when he obeyed Gabriel’s and named the child John.
John the Baptist is the focus of a few old Testament prophecies, one of which is the last two verses of the Old Testament from the Book of Malachi:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” (Mal. 4:5-6)
Luke 1:17 tells us that John came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” to fulfill this prophesy.
Most people date Malachi somewhere around 450 BC. From the time of Malachi to the appearance of John the Baptist, there was not a recognized prophet in Israel—a gap of roughly 480 years. This prophetic gap is highly significant for our understanding of the Old Testament. From the time that God appeared to Moses, traditionally understood to be about 1450 BC, to the time of Malachi, Israel had prophets, people to whom God spoke. To be sure, there were times when Israel’s disobedience resulted God’s silence for an extended season, but never for 400 years.
The absence of a prophet is the principle characteristic of the intertestamental period, the period between Malachi and John. During this time there was no one in Israel who could say, “Thus says the Lord.” There was no one to whom “the word of the Lord came” (cf. Ezek. 1:3, Jer. 1:4, Hos 1:1, John 1:1). The books of the Apocrypha come from this period. These books help us understand the history of the time between the Old and New Testament. We read them in church. However, we do not prove doctrine by them because they were not written by prophets.
II. The Epistle and the exile
The absence of a recognized prophet in Israel helps us to understand the meaning of the concept of exile. In 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple and Old Testament Israel was taken in exile Babylon. This happened because the people were unfaithful to God’s covenant. God led his people to return to the land and rebuild the temple around 515 BC. The last of the Old Testament prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, prophesied to Israel during the time that the Jew were rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem—up until around 450 BC. Then God did not speak directly to Israel through a prophet until John.
This is one way of saying that Israel’s exile ended, but not completely. The geographical exile from God’s temple in Jerusalem was ended, but the rebuilt community did not enjoy the fullness of the covenant blessings God promised Israel through Moses. The rebuilt temple was a shadow of Solomon’s glorious temple. Israel was under the dominion of foreign rulers, and many Jews never returned to the land. Israel was still waiting for God to come and save the nation.
The epistle lesson from Isaiah 40 is used in all the gospels to describe the ministry of John the Baptist. John is “The voice of one crying, in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4f., John 1:23). God was returning to Israel. The 480-year gap was over. God was speaking again through John, the last of the Old Covenant prophets. He would prepare the people to receive THE prophet (cf. Deut. 18:15), the Word made flesh.
Isaiah’s highway building imagery is metaphor for cleaning out the sin that separates human beings from God. The valleys that must be filled are the absence of faith and holiness. The mountains and hills are human pride. The crooked road is the people’s perverse way of living. As Isaiah said in another passage, “The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; Nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. (Isa. 59:1-2). The roadwork necessary to prepare the way for God is described by John in one word, “Repent!”
John’s was an egalitarian. He taught that everyone needed to repent, the religious and the irreligious, the rich and poor. John pulled no punches and showed no delicacy. When he sensed the insincerity of the religious leaders he said to “You snakes! … Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send?” (Luke 3:7, GNB).
John’s taught that genuine repentance results in concrete change. We can’t just say we are sorry. We must “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We must respond to the needs of the poor. We must be honest and just in the workplace. We must be content with what we have and not complain. For John these were not mere suggestions. As John said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit in cut down and thrown into the fire.”
III. Prophetic ministry in the church
Someone once observed that John was full of truth, while Jesus is full of grace and truth. We need the truth, but we also need the grace. There is more than John, but John cannot be skipped. We live in a time when teaching about sin is minimized while teaching about God’s love is maximized. Sometimes people falsely assume God’s love for us causes him to ignore our sin. As God said in Jeremiah, “They have healed the hurt of the daughter of My people slightly, Saying, `Peace, peace!’ When there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11).
The gift of the Holy Spirit to all of God’s people on Pentecost and in baptism changed the nature of prophetic ministry. As Moses said to Joshua, “Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29).
Prophetic ministry in the church is connected to the ministry of the Word as it is proclaimed and read in church, and as the Bible is read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested in Bible reading and study. The Holy Spirit ministers both conviction and grace to each believer. Exile and return from exile are themes of our lives of prayer. When we drift into complacency, bad habits, and actual sin, we need to hear again the voice of John calling us to return, calling us to make room in our hearts for Christ, calling to change our behavior in concrete ways.
Repentance is the means to the end, the telos, that is Christ. John confronts our sin, then introduces us to the answer. His most important words are embedded in our liturgy: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”