Sermon for Trinity XIX: 2014
By Rev’d Hayden A. Butler
+In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
“Be ye kind one to another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
In the Gospel lesson, the paralyzed man has no power to approach Jesus on his own, and has to rely on the charity of his friends for assistance. Jesus reveals that for this man, there is a spiritual and a physical component to his sickness – he is paralyzed physically but also spiritually. In healing this man, Christ shows that He possesses the divine authority to forgive sins and has brought this power into action in the world. He comes to provide ultimate healing, but healing in the proper order of things. The paralyzed man represents all of us. We come before Christ as broken and weak, in great need of His mercy and healing. We experience the forgiveness of Jesus through a personal encounter with Him, and by reliance on our community. Sometimes the reason for which we come to Jesus is not the most profound reason for why we need Him. He cares about all of our needs, but He primarily cares about the health of our souls. This is salvation. Christ heals first soul then body, and in so doing, reveals the healing that all will receive in the Resurrection.
The Epistle elaborates on this theme’s communal sense by declaring that God has overcome the ancient divisions in humanity between Jew and Gentile and made a new people that will erase old sources of contention and enmity. St. Paul reminds the churches that as members of that new humanity through baptism, they are stop believing and behaving according to what they used to be and start doing so according to their new identity. In short, they are to stop doing things that will jeopardize the peace and unity among believers, and instead to pursue whatever will build and cultivate healthy and edifying relationships among the faithful. St. Paul’s exhorts the church thusly because unity within the church is a sign to the world that we belong to God and that the Spirit is actually working among us. It sets us apart from fake religiosity, from cults, and from being mere do-gooders. It shows that we actually believe that God forgave us and sent His Son to die for us, thereby overcoming the chasm of sin and alienation so to save us. God heals our relationship with Him so that we might participate in this healing, and calls us to participate by experiencing His forgiveness and by forgiving each other.
Forgiveness is a decision and a habitual practice. When we are wronged and seek to forgive someone, we are called to enter into a process of releasing the debt of guilt that they owe us and then work to place the hurt of that wrong within a framework of grace so to find how it can be redeemed and to live that out. Sometimes this is a quick process. Sometimes, we spend years learning how to forgive our enemies. Either way, forgiveness is the essential activity of reconciliation, which is the central fact of Christian identity.
Reconciliation is the process by which the order of our lives and relations progresses in similarity to the order of the relations within the Trinity. It is ordained and founded by the Father, enabled through the Son, and performed by the Holy Spirit. It is the primary relational experience of our life in God, not just a legal fact, it has less to do with a status of culpability than it does with possessing a relationship marked by charity. So too, it is the identifying activity of the Church, through the community of the penitent to the lost. It is the primary duty of all Christians to be reconcilers, first amongst themselves and then to the world.
Even so, reconciliation is often challenged by habits that work against unity and healthy relationships. This often takes the form of quiet and passive bitterness rather than open confrontation; we often fall into the temptation to be “good” or “nice.” This does not prevent us from exercising vices, but it does change their means of delivery. Instead of being loud and boisterous about our impatience, discord, and animosity toward others, we do so in passive ways through gossip and sullenness. Open anger and impatience could almost, but not quite, be excused as instinctive or perhaps a fault in our self-control. Gossip and sullenness, the smiling-on-the-outside but seething within type of anger takes a lot of thought and deliberation, and consume more of us. It’s probably worse, and this is typically what we do at church. We smile and shake hands, while yet being two feet and a thousand miles away from others in our hearts. As the Epistle shows, though, the Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from our duty to love our neighbor. We cannot mature in the faith if we habitually live in discord with others.
To counter these habits, reconciliation in the Church serves to establish a powerful threefold unity: with God, with each other, and with the lost. All of these form a symbiotic relationship; take one out and the others are inhibited in the way they manifest in our lives. If we lack the central fact of our identity, then everything else will feel that lack. As we practice unity, we participate in the activity of God, and are drawn by grace into the life of God so to dwell with Him.
Reconciliation is worked out through community. By the virtue of our baptisms we are the family of God; we cannot change that even if sometimes we’d like to do so. What we then have to do is to pursue unity. Our experiences of living amongst each other over time means that there are times I will need the forgiveness of others and they’ll need mine, too. Though it is at times awkward and sometimes painful, the more we forgive, the stronger our community gets and the more that God dwells among us.
We practice reconciliation through confession (in private prayer, in the Offices, in the Mass, and in confessions made to a priest). It is more than just saying the words. We have to self-examine, come to a knowledge of the ways that we fail God and one another, feel the weight of this failure, and then earnestly apologize and try to turn away from those things. Moreover, we not only have to confess sin, but we also have to practice receiving forgiveness. This second activity is a discipline and a habit of soul that begins to see past mistakes in the light of grace as those things that bring us back to God, as part of the story that, though it may seem broken, nevertheless has become the means by which God has enacted His mercy and love.
Reconciliation reaches its proper end in evangelism, as our experience of forgiveness from God and within community changes our lives and provides something attractive for others on the outside. There is a brokenness at the heart of being human, and all of us are agents of God’s healing, exercised by the faithful use of gifts and means, but above all by being those who are always on the lookout for those who are hurting or lost so that we might bring them back here to our Lord where He can heal them.
Sin paralyzes and alienates; holiness reconciles and liberates. Eventually, habitual discord and strife arrive at their final destination—the unrepentant and angry person gets what they really want: a life all to themselves, untouched by the troublesome presence of others, in the waste places outside of the city of God. Habitual concord and peace, however, has its ultimate home as well: they lead us through a lifetime of practicing reconciliation into the peace of God, the healing of the nations, and the life of the world to come.
As our Lord says: “Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
“Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed…for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
If you’re anything like me, then you’ll know what I mean when I describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. Throughout my upbringing, my family knew both times of plenty and times of very great want. Perhaps it was the product of being the firstborn, but while growing up I was a very anxious kid, with a tendency to worry. As an adult, a persistent temptation for me has been always to look out for what might happen, or ever to wait for the other shoe to drop. To be sure, the modern world has a great many matters with which we could be concerned; even a cursory glance at world events would give us more than enough reason to be apprehensive. But many of us do not need the distant specters of political strife, religious persecution, and economic disaster to fund our worry banks. For those of us who are persistently tempted by anxiousness, we can find sufficient fodder in our own friends, families, and finances. The Gospel lesson for this morning is there to meet us in such circumstances, in the times when we are harried by the conditions of life, when we expect that the worst is just around the next corner, when we attempt to stabilize ourselves or even when we are trying with all our might to conceal from others our own profound insecurities.
When we speak of anxiety in this context, though, we are not talking about any of the sorts of neurological disorders or psychological conditions that may afflict a person. The Gospel is not suggesting that those responding to trauma or who are experiencing an illness should simply get over it, nor is it an attempt to supplant the wisdom of the medical and psychiatric fields. Neither are we talking about concern in the sense of being diligent in the prudent management of those things for which we are responsible. The Gospel is not exhorting us to carelessness.
The nature of “anxiety” in Christ’s use of the term is concerned with a future over which the worrier has no control. There is no denial of the reality of concern; in fact it is taken for granted that concerns govern the sway and tenor of our lives. Rather, the passage speaks to the need to be concerned with the proper things, to shift our concern for the things of this world to concern for the things of God that constitute the term “the Kingdom.” Christ confronts the inherent foolishness in the assumption that stability and security can be gained from anything that is not itself stable and secure.
Anxiety as the Scripture warns against is, at its core, a product of vanity or pride. It is the active reliance upon ourselves as the ultimate source of safety or security. Whatever we openly profess to others or to ourselves, anxiety reveals our tacit and actual belief that we are the only ones who can help ourselves, and that if we don’t do so then no one will. As such it is a skeptical disposition of soul angled against the reality of God’s goodness and faithfulness to care for us. Eventually, this trickles down into a similar regard for everyone and everything else; if our ideas about the source of all things are so marred, how can anything else hope to escape? But all of us deep down knows that we don’t have what it takes to be the gods of our own worlds. This inner conflict produces panic, and then restlessness of soul. To attempt as finite beings to be all things in all places, we are bound to be tossed about to and fro until we become exhausted. At last, we collapse into despair. This is the tragedy of pride, and the ultimate goal of the Devil: to get us to attempt to be everything, so that we end up pursuing nothing.
Because anxiety is a product of pride, its defeat is in the corresponding virtue of humility. We must learn to view ourselves correctly as limited by things outside of our control. We have to admit that we in fact make lousy gods over our lives and then actively renounce that title. We learn to concern ourselves and act prudently with what lies within the abilities and place that God has granted to us. And we learn to trust Him, to remember the many ways He has been faithful, and to look for His provision for our ongoing needs.
The ability to translate this anxiety into a trust in God is presupposed by the Gospel lesson to be an attainable feat and is in fact accomplished through obedience to Christ’s exhortation to seek first the kingdom of God. By this He means the subjection of all things to the will of God both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, we are to trust that the God who managed to create and sustain all things in the cosmos down to the botanical structure of lilies in a field is, in fact, able to govern well in the lives of those in whom He uniquely stamped His own likeness, and over whom He has declared His love as a Father to His children. Outwardly, we are to practice and master this trust through obedience to God’s commands to love Him and our neighbor, rendering proper worship to God using our resources of time and treasure, and constantly looking outward for those whom we can draw into the fellowship of salvation. It is in such actions that we properly say the Kingdom of God is present among us and goes forth.
The ultimate icon of humility, this subjection of worldly concern, trust in God, and love for others is Christ crucified. The community formed around this icon is the Church, which exists in the world so to imitate constantly Christ’s humility, worship, and charity. Christ’s example is perfect and complete in His self-giving. But the Cross does not admit of degrees. St. Paul’s point in the Epistle is precisely this: the Christian life is defined by sharing in Christ’s crucifixion, and it will have all of us or none of us. Just as one cannot say, “I am kind of crucified,” one cannot properly say that “I am kind of a Christian.” The full expression of such a life as the one to which we are called may lead us to regard it as a hopelessly unattainable ideal, only to be found in some great beyond. But Christ’s message in the Gospel is clear: our Lord’s profound and singular trust in the Father is the very path set out for us to walk in right here and now.
To those of us who are anxious, God asks whether we will trust Him. Will we take Him at His word as it comes to us in Epistle and Gospel? Will we profess a faith in Him? Will we trust Him to bless our offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies? Will we then approach Him, and on our knees look up to receive of Him our daily bread, and in it find the source and sustenance of a life so stable and secure so as to heal our worried and wearied hearts? Will we then apply this pattern of giving up ourselves to Him in every detail of our lives, particularly in those scared and secret corners that we are afraid to show Him?
If we will turn again to the Father, if we will say yes to these questions, then let us hear our Lord and take Him at His word when He says: “Be not therefore anxious but seek ye first the kingdom of God.”
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
There is very little we know for certain about the details of the life of St. Bartholomew, yet this is not an uncommon phenomenon. For many of the Apostles, the particulars of their personalities, work, and ministries on either side of Christ’s Ascension have not been recorded or are a matter of lore. For St. Bartholomew and for many of his colleagues we know mainly this: that when Jesus spoke to them and said, “Follow me,” they showed us what it looks like to say yes and follow Him.
In its Greek origin, the term “martyr” means “witness.” We commonly associate the word with the event of someone dying for the sake of faithfulness to a person or an ideology. In the news as of late, we have heard profound and startling accounts of our brothers and sisters overseas who have remained faithful to Christ even to the death. As Christians we believe that our lives are lived under the sign of the cross, that we are shaped by the pattern established by Christ in which we live, work, suffer, and die in Him that we might rise again to the joy of the resurrected world with Him. Martyrs are witnesses, they testify to the reality of the Kingdom of God through their lives in the world. Those martyrs who die for this testimony establish an especially robust sign of this conviction. Even more so did St. Bartholomew, whose eyewitness knowledge and certainty of the legitimacy of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension led him to die for what he knew to be true. The Christian idea of martyrdom, though, is so robust that it moves outward from the point of death to assume the whole of life. All Christians are called to live out a type of martyrdom in their daily lives, one characterized by self-denial and discipline, by renunciation and simplicity, and by putting to death the temptations to sin as they come to us. This is not to suggest that there is not a difference between the common acts of self-denial to which we are all called and the experience of our brothers and sisters who even in this century are being put to the sword for their faith. Neither should we fall into the bad habit of persecution-mongering, where we unnaturally seek out persecution from others to gratify some inordinate desire. Martyrdom is not about being a hero, and it is not about indulging in self-pity. At its core, martyrdom is about life, the life of the world to come, a life so good and beautiful that it is worth using everything within our grasp, even the gifts of our bodies and mortal lives to attain it.
A life shaped by martyrdom is difficult to live, though, because it testifies to the order of God’s Kingdom in an often disordered world. This is the heart of the problem in our Gospel lesson. St. Luke records a quarrel among the Apostles over who will be the greatest in the kingdom they thought Jesus was about to bring about by conquering the Romans. It is a struggle common to us all. How many times do we consider how we rank among our peers in our jobs or in school, or perhaps even among the people sitting on either side of us at Church? By what rubric do we judge our relative superiority or inferiority? It’s probably not that different from the Apostles. We often judge ourselves and others by some measure of success arising from quantities of goods or accolades, in Church by perceived piety or volume of ministries. Yet our Lord gives us a very different rubric in his admonition to the Apostles: “He that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve…I am among you as he that serveth.” Greatness in the Kingdom of God is attained only through service and humility. Power is granted only to those whose lives are shaped habitually by the love for God and for one another. To live in the way of Christ is to follow Him in humility and simplicity on the path to resurrection and glory.
The Anglican poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.” Humility is the proper recognition of ourselves before God and among others. In other words, it is the honest acknowledgment of what we are. The virtue of humility is at the heart of martyrdom. It teaches us to esteem God so appropriately that we recognize how much all things pale in comparison to Him. It teaches us to see others in both strength and weakness as those stamped with the image of God and thus possessing dignity and lovability. Humility leads us to an assessment of our relative weakness to follow after Christ and to live in His way, and leads us to rely on His power, His gifts, and His Church. When we do this, we will see what was seen among the Apostles in Acts: life lived of one accord and signs of the Kingdom in our midst. This is martyrdom: the Kingdom in our midst as a testimony of the Kingdom to come.
The relative historical obscurity of the life of St. Bartholomew reminds us that the recording of our deeds so as to be heroically remembered is not the point. The details are known to God, and precious in His sight is the death of His saints. For us, there is a lifetime to live in the love of God and neighbor through the exercise of humility. In so doing we testify to the Kingdom, we make ready our martyrdom. At some point, all of us will have to make a final offering of our lives. For some of us, it may be through the extreme circumstances of persecution. For the rest of us it will be through the daily habit of conversation and communion with God so that we may, by His grace, make a good end. The witness of the martyrs calls us back to the exhortation at the heart of all Christian life: “be a saint—what else is there?”
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.