Sermon for Trinity Sunday | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the Spirit…
From Advent through Pentecost, the Sunday readings and collects have taken us through the mighty works of God. Advent taught us to expect that our God would come to us, both in the Incarnation and on the last day to judge the world. Christmas celebrated the mystery of the Father sending the Son to take on our flesh by the Holy Spirit, coming among us to dwell as one of us. Epiphany remembered the manifestations of Christ’s glory and power in the Holy Spirit even as He taught us of the Father. Lent turned our attention to the battle of Christ against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and Holy Week culminated in the revelation of the God who saves His people, as Christ died for us to redeem us. Easter celebrated the Resurrection of Christ and His victory over sin and death, opening the door to new life through Him with His Father. Ascension remembered Christ going to the Father to make a place for us in the house of God and to send to us the Spirit. Finally, on Pentecost we received the Holy Spirit promised by Christ to unite us into one life with Him by the work of the Spirit in the love of the Father. And so today, before we begin our long season of growth in this life we have received, we pause to turn from these meditations on what God has done for us to a celebration of who God is: our God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three divine persons and yet One God, the Holy Trinity.
Our Epistle lesson leads us this morning through the doorway of heaven, opened by Christ and passed through in the Spirit. The threshold to heavenly things may not be crossed unless we are invited, welcomed into things that are higher than us. To know that we must ascend by the Spirit to see the bounty of the Father, we must admit that we are too lowly to understand of ourselves. This is the foundation of what it means to understand anything–we must confess that we stand under something that is above our heads. Without this humility no one may hope to see God. God wills that we see Him, but also wills how we see Him: the one seeking the Father is welcomed only through the Son and goes there in the Spirit. We have no right to demand that God reveal Himself to us. Rather, God has done all as a gift of His grace to make us able to know Him as He is. The Holy Spirit attends to the soul who is invited to behold God and safeguards the passage. As our Lord tells Nicodemus, except a person be born of water and of the Holy Spirit, they cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. Only through Baptism are we made fit by the Spirit to be led into the truth of God.
When looking on God as He is, our language cracks under the strain of communicating what is, by virtue of being above our understanding, also above the symbolism of our language. The image of heaven is at once revelation and poetry. St. John’s language moves swiftly to capture this scene during which each new sight exceeds in the complexity the one that came before it. Wonder follows wonder, and our imaginations are left breathless as at last we are brought by the Spirit to the center of all wonders: the vision of God Himself. Suddenly, God’s radiance redefines the whole scene and we hear the song of praise that had been going on all along and always, before we even became aware of it. All the voices of heaven come together into one voice whose one song is a threefold Holy. The invitation to behold the vision of God, begun in the humility of understanding, is enlightened by the Holy Spirit to lead us by the hand into the worship of heaven itself. The consummation of revelation is adoration.
To confess the Trinity is a gift. It is the answer to Christ’s priestly prayer that the Spirit would lead us into all truth. The revelation of God as Trinity is a gift to the Church to liberate us from the bondage of our own ideas about God. It is the revelation of God we could never imagine or engineer for ourselves — In showing us Himself, God the Trinity liberates us to worship not as we might seek to know God but as God knows Himself to be. Where we would be tempted to worship merely a divine unity we would find ourselves in flat submission to a distant Power. Where we would be tempted to worship an ever-expanding plurality we would exhaust ourselves with fear and contradiction. The gospel of the Trinity means that we have been rescued by from both the divine tyranny and the divine absurdity we so often make for ourselves.
Even so, one cannot celebrate God as Trinity simply by stating the Creed. We do not need new life merely to cite ancient formulas of belief. No, the sacred, gifted life is for nothing less than participation in the Trinity. The life of the Church is lived through perpetual prayer, our union with God the Trinity. We continually offer prayers of praise and confession and intercession to God the Father through God the Son by God the Spirit. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to share life with the Trinity. To pray the Daily Offices is to share in the life of the Trinity. To pray during Mass is to share in the life of the Trinity. To cross ourselves, to genuflect, to partake of the Eucharist is to share in the life of the Trinity. To give ourselves to service and charity is to share in the life of the Trinity. Yet to partake of the life of the Trinity is to share in the life of love that is the life of the Trinity, and this means that as we share in the Spirit of love who is the unity of the Father loving His Son and the Son loving His Father, we must be transformed as persons who love as they love in the free gift of our lives to redeem all things into that life of love until all things become the Kingdom of God.
And so that means, my beloved brothers and sisters, that today our celebration of God as Trinity and the life of prayer through which we share in the eternal life and love of the Triune Persons must become the shape of our life forevermore. We have been led through the waters of Baptism to this new life, and this new life has the purpose of being shared. We become true partakers in the life of God only as this life bears fruit in lives that witness to the love of God. And so today, let us bind ourselves to the life of our Triune God, let us become one with that love that moves all things, redeems all things. Let us love the person sitting next to us. Let us love the person we’ve not yet talked to. Let us love the families we go home to in their messiness and in their nobility. Let us love the stranger we meet who may need our help. Let us love our enemies, commending them to God’s redemption in hope of their salvation, for the Father through the Son by the Spirit has made us who were His enemies into His beloved children. “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. They who do not love do not know God, for God is love.”
Sermon for the Second Sunday After Easter | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
The Scriptures reveal that God has always declared Himself to be the Shepherd of His people. The Psalmist prays: “Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth.” The prophet Isaiah declares that “the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel conveys the Lord’s words as He declares Himself to be “a shepherd [who] looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” Without fail, God stands as a shepherd who leads His people with gentleness and also strength, who is endlessly attentive to their needs while defending them with a fierce love against their enemies.
So too, God has always called certain people into service as shepherds, and required them to act in such a way that truthfully revealed the identity of God as Shepherd. The Psalms reveal how God acts through His under-shepherds, recounting how God “led [His] people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Then Jeremiah delivers the words of God who promises to His people “ shepherds […] who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.” We remember Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, shepherds of sheep called to serve and lead.These were good shepherds, those who despite their many imperfections stood as living icons of God, leading His people toward the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise of peace and rest.
But this did not always go so well. There were many supposed shepherds of Israel who utterly failed in their calling. Of these, God declared through Isaiah: They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.” Against these God would summarily declare judgment through Ezekiel the prophet, saying “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”
Far from leading the people to rest and peace, these shepherds exploited and went astray through selfishness, negligence, ignorance, and immorality. They falsely represented God and they brought ruin and destruction as the people of God were scattered across the world. Everyone suffered because of bad shepherds; everyone suffered because of hirelings pretending to be shepherds.
And so at the end of Israel’s long history of shepherds and hirelings, Christ stands face-to-face with the religious leaders of the day. The God of Israel has taken on humanity to regather the scattered sheep of the people of God from both Israel and from among the Gentiles and to lead them into God’s peace. He has condemned in His opponents their misguided religiosity, their opportunistic political maneuvering, their short-sighted revolutions against their enemies. Then our Lord makes a dramatic statement–Christ makes a claim to own the sheep. They are His own. He is their Creator. He lays down His life for the sheep. It is by the sacrifice of His own life that the sheep will be gathered together into one flock. From henceforth God Himself will stand as One with His people and lead them as their shepherd. Through His Passion and Resurrection, Christ has made one flock under Himself the Chief Shepherd. He is the One who now gathers, tends, sustains, and leads his sheep to their promised rest. Christ is the fullness of God as Shepherd.
So too, Christ has continued to call shepherds to live as icons of the Good Shepherd over His flock, the Church. One such pastor is the author of our Epistle lesson: St. Peter. After the Resurrection, Christ takes St. Peter aside and restores him. “Peter, feed my sheep” he says. This was the same Peter who betrayed Him, denied knowing Him at His darkest hour. When St. Peter ends his Epistle by saying: “all ye were as sheep who went astray” he is speaking from personal experience as one who had run away from His Shepherd. But in the Resurrection, Christ brought him back with gentleness and grace and appointed him as a shepherd to His people. This is the foundation of the pastoral presence in the church. Christ has given us icons of Himself to lead, to teach, to direct, to bring the sacraments. These Shepherds are good insofar as they represent Christ truly in the laying down of their lives for the sheep. These pastors become the accursed hirelings when they exploit, mislead, and neglect the sheep for their own interest.
As we continue to live in Easter-time we begin to explore what it means to live this new life we have received in Christ. The Good Shepherd has made us His people, gathered through His sacrifice for us. The Good Shepherd knows each of us, loves each of us, lays down His life for each of us. The Good Shepherd calls the pastors of His people to be good like He is good as they care for His sheep by watching over them, loving them, giving everything for them. But as we will see in time, God calls us all to life patterned after the Good Shepherd. We are all called to love one another by giving ourselves for one another, laying down our lives in humility before one another, and diligently seeking out those scattered sheep for whom He died and to bring them into the flock. Having come to the glory of Easter, our Shepherd now leads us forward. The Good Shepherd lays down His life to give life. We His sheep have been given life; so we may give life, too.
“I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep, and am known of mine, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.”
Sermon for Good Friday | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross…
Good Friday reveals there is no life outside of family. Humanity was created to be a family–the Man and the Woman who would bring forth new life to fill the earth. Humanity fell as a family–the Man and the Woman together ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and brought forth death to fill the earth. Beneath all the many identities we use to divide ourselves from one another, all human beings share in the common family identity as those death-born children of the Man and the Woman. In their exile from the Garden, our first parents left behind the life that was to be our birthright, leaving us with an inheritance of death.
On Ash Wednesday we learned the truth of our condition: Remember, O Man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. It is the only possible verdict for our family. We were formed of the dust of the earth and then God breathed into us the breath of life and made us living souls. But we betrayed Him and renounced that life, making for ourselves a world filled with death. The dust is our legacy, our destiny. Yet we became dust that tried in increasingly desperate ways to breathe the breath of life back into ourselves and into one another. But our whole history of trying to evade the verdict of the Garden is the story of dust blowing around dust. Where God made us living things we chose instead to become what we are: we are the family of the dying.
Deep down, we all know that we must face this truth. And yet there are so many ways that we go about trying to deny it or distract ourselves from it or control it. The figures we meet in the Gospel lesson reveal to us some of our most iconic methods to alter the destiny of our dust. Judas is betrayed by his pragmatism and obsession with money, cutting a deal with the higher powers and betraying the life of his friend for a shortsighted return on investment. The chief priests, consumed by monomaniacal religious zeal, cut a deal with their mortal enemies the Romans in order to preserve their costly niche of cultural influence against this itinerant Rabbi who has defeated their every challenge. Pilate, consumed by a gnawing need to assert his authority, preens himself through dramatic and violent symbolic gestures while crippling doubt eats at him in the presence of this prisoner who speaks like a King. But then, if we haven’t found ourselves yet, there is the crowd who in the seeming anonymity of a mob wield shame and rejection as the piety of the high feast melts away to reveal the desperate, frail, and vengeful spirit at the heart of humanity.
We belong to this crowd–this crowd is Adam’s family. This is our part in the story. And suddenly, it comes time to choose whom to condemn. On the one hand we have Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. On the other hand we have the man of violent ambition, a failed revolutionary at the head of yet one more short-lived grasp at freedom– Barabbas, Bar-Abbas, meaning son of the father. As we join the crowd in the exultation of mob bloodlust, we are called upon to choose. “Behold the Man!” cries Pilate. Behold Adam, beaten and fragile. Behold Barabbas, cunning and violent. Choose now! The man of sorrows unwilling to save Himself or the man of power? Which son of the father do we want!? Give us power! Don’t make us look at the truth of ourselves! Give us one more chance to establish ourselves on our own terms!
But what about the man who bears our image, brutalized by the power we seek to wield? Crucify him! Crucify Him! And thus the whole world and its grandeur commits collective suicide. At that moment, everyone conspired to kill the life of the world. There is no breath of life but through the true Son of God our Father, and in consigning Him to death, the world killed itself, killed it’s very source of life. For the rest of the Gospel lesson, and for the rest of time, the crowd will forever yell crucify to its own destruction. Behold the family of the dying.
And yet, as all things near their end, if you found your way right to the middle of the crowd, right at the foot of the cross, a small group has formed. Three women and the beloved disciple. As the body weight of the crucified Christ pressed down on His lungs, making it difficult to breathe, you’d have to be close to hear what He said to them. Behold thy Mother. Behold thy Son. And so as the breath of life forever departs from the children of Adam, a new thing comes forth from the new Adam. Behold the Man, behold the Woman, Behold the Son. It is a new family in the midst of the old family. In His final moments, the One through whom all things are made makes for us a new humanity.
This world is dying. All that we share of the family of Adam must die. Only what we have received at the word and breath of the new Adam will live. The way to life begins at the foot of the cross, where all that must die must come to die, and where all that will live will begin to live. For we were created as a family. We fell as a family. The old family is finished. All things have reached their end. We are the family at the foot of the Cross. Today we come back here to die. Today we come back here to live.
Behold, O Lord, your family.
Behold, my sister, my brother, your family.
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
Our journey in Lent thus far has been about war with the devil. Lent begins with Christ’s victory in His own temptation in the wilderness, and the power of this victory pours out in the second week’s lesson with the healing of the Canaanite woman’s child and the exorcising of the demon afflicting her. This morning, the Gospel lesson begins with Jesus casting out a mute demon and the crowd’s response to this exorcism.
We have to start out by remembering that not all demons are silent when they come face to face with Jesus. At the Synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus drives out a spirit who immediately asks for mercy and immediately calls Him the “Holy One of God.” In facing Legion, the demon afflicting a man near the cliffs of Gadara, the demons submit and ask to be sent out into a local herd of swine, whom they drive over a cliff to drown in the sea. In the seven or so exorcisms that are specifically mentioned in the Gospels, and the many others that are referenced more generally, we get the overall sense that the demons recognize who Jesus is, and while they are reluctant they are always obedient to His word of command.
This brings us to St. Luke’s Gospel this morning. Having exorcised the demon, and finding it to be silent, the crowd fills the silence, and immediately starts to speak, to mutter, to murmur. But this crowd made up of the religious experts of the day and Jesus’ own people all arrive instantly at the completely wrong conclusion, claiming that He was casting out demons through a black magic driven by demonic power. They immediately start in with demands that Jesus prove He is doing good and not evil. They want proof His power is from heaven. We miss it if we don’t look closely here but St. Luke uses the word “seeking” in a sense that these people will always be searching for a proof but never find it–they are unpersuadable. St. Luke doesn’t miss the irony of the situation. Where earlier in the Gospel the demonic enemies of Christ were direct and immediate in identifying Him as the Holy One of God and asking of mercy, this group of Christ’s own people call Him evil and oppose Him. This situates them in a particular place. The very thing they accuse Jesus of being is the thing the demons don’t dare to do. Their scrutiny and endless seeking of a further sign position them in the exact same place where earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel another stood, testing Jesus and asking for signs of His power and origins: of course this was the Devil.
Jesus responds to this scandal by peeling back the veil of the world to show what is really happening there, and also what has always been the case. Heaven and hell are at war. The continuous exorcisms that characterize Jesus’ ministry are a declaration that Satan is losing his grip over the world he has held in reinforced and savagely defended occupation since the Fall. The strongman has met One stronger than him and is about to lose everything. Out of the shattered stronghold of the devil flee away the demons seeking for shelter against the overwhelming onslaught of heaven, finding their only brief refuge in willing human souls. Now, even that small rest is being stripped away through Christ’s unrelenting campaign of exorcism. There is a warning here. No demon can resist being driven out by Christ, but a soul that has been delivered can still be reoccupied unless it is filled with something to replace it. It is not enough to have an absence of evil, but it must be filled with goodness, with the Spirit of God that St. Paul says confirms us as the children of God and fills us with the light of God. This cosmic vision comes to an incisive conclusion as Christ infers that while the unnamed person who had been delivered has been healed, the onlooking crowd has revealed itself to be fitting home for a fleeing devil who gathers others and then returns.
The Gospel then lets us sit for an uncomfortable moment with a burning question in our minds: “how are we to avoid being vulnerable to the repeated intrusions of a restless and brutal fleeing army of devils?” There’s a silence, but then someone else speaks: an unnamed woman in the crowd does just the thing; she prays “Blessed is your mother.” It’s the exactly right thing. For her in the idiom of the day this would have meant something like ‘Your mom must be really proud of you!’ Jesus takes it and immediately brings it forward, extends the sentiment: Yes! “And blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” He sees to the heart of what is in that prayer. St. Luke sees the beauty here because he was so attentive to Mary’s story earlier in the Gospel. The word of the Lord came to Mary and she kept it, and she is blessed for it. Elizabeth hails Mary as the mother of her Lord. Mary, filled with the Spirit, responds by declaring prophetically that all generations will call her blessed, and we see that already proven true in today’s lesson. She who heard the word of God in the Anunciation, who bore the word of God in the Incarnation, who heard and kept the words of Word her Son as she followed Him to His Passion. “Behold,” is ever Mary’s prayer, “the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.”
We need this at this center of the Lenten pilgrimage because it’s not enough to be emptied of sin. We must become like Mary in hearing and accepting and keeping the word. This means we are faced with a decision. Have we experienced some deliverance in our lives? Have we seen Christ work in others? Are we perhaps still holding something back because we do not think we have seen enough to be convinced? Have we remained lukewarm in our loyalties, delivered but not yet decided?
We have to remember what we have received by the Word of the Lord. We have received the new life and cleansing and exorcism of Baptism, we have received the mind of God and strength in the Spirit through Confirmation, we have received the Body and Blood of Christ in Eucharist, we have received the profundity and wisdom of Scripture delivered to us, we have received the great cloud of testimony from saints whose queen is Mary the mother of God, exalted in the humility that will save us today if we will follow after her as she follows after Christ.
We are the children of God the Father in Christ the Son our brother, the home of the Holy Spirit. We lack nothing. We have received all things. The road to the Cross and the glory of Resurrection is before us.
“Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”