A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Trinity, November 3, 2019
In the Octave of All Saints
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 5:15-21 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 22:1-14
- Sex, money, and the kingdom of God.
I have discovered over the years that the topics of sex and money get people’s attention. I remember a sermon I gave about chastity. The next week someone invited me to lunch to ask whether I really meant what I said! Money gets people’s attention because our culture worships it. People set life goals based on mainly on economic criteria, and major decisions in our culture are framed in terms of their monetary impact. There is a reason Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). Thus, sex and money comprise a discipleship litmus test Only those who are serious about following Jesus as Lord and Savior are willing to surrender these two areas of life to him.
However, I have come to realize that the real issue concerning sex, money, or whatever hot button topic is on the table or in the sermon is not the issue itself. The real issue is how our faith in Jesus relates to life in this world. What story are we living in? Who are we? Where do we think we are going? What is the goal and purpose of life?
- Two competing narratives.
There are two narratives or stories that compete for our devotion; the narrative of the world and the narrative of the kingdom. The narrative of the world can be summarized in this way. It begins at birth and ends at death. The goal is to achieve happiness between birth and death. This means minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure and profit. Religion serves three purposes in this story. First, its role is to help us become happier and experience less pain. We pray that God will give us good things and free us from painful things. Second, religion gives us a sense of purpose. We will do good works to make us feel better about ourselves. Third, religion provides consolation or comfort. When we must give up this life, religion will give us a “better place” called “heaven.”
This is the default narrative of our culture. Within this narrative, religion is like a consumer product. It gives us help, purpose, and comfort when we need it, but we can put it aside when it demands too much of us.
The biblical narrative of the kingdom of God is different. According to the Bible, life begins—not at birth—but with the new birth that takes place when we are born again through baptism and faith. As Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). According to the Bible, the end point of life is not death or even “heaven”; the end point, the goal or telos of life is “the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” In the biblical narrative, life begins in baptism and ends in the Resurrection. The goal is to appear before Christ and be found “blameless” (cf. 1 Thess. 3:13); to hear our Lord say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matt. 25:23).
In the narrative of the world, the focus is on life in the world. God comes in to “help” us. In the narrative of the kingdom, the focus in on life in Christ and how we are growing in faith and in the image of Christ. Life in the world is interpreted in terms of its impact on our life in Christ. In the language of today’s gospel, we will say no to anything that distracts us from saying yes to the invitation to the Wedding Feast. Our greatest fear is not pain or a lack of happiness in this world; our greatest fear is that we might be that guy to whom the king says, “How did you come in here without a wedding garment?” (Matt. 22:12).
Within the narrative of the kingdom, means of economic gain that conflict with the values of the kingdom are rejected. Money is viewed as a temptation as well as a blessing because the desire to have it and keep it tempts us to do things that are not faithful. Opportunities for pleasure that conflict with God’s will are rejected. We would rather be in need for season than be separated from God by sin. Things that seem like defeat or failure in the narrative of the world become ways God helps us to grow in the Spirit. In the narrative of the kingdom, this life is a time of testing and trial that prepares us for the fullness of life in the coming kingdom of God.
III. Money within the narrative of the kingdom
This is a sermon I give every year to remind people that the Bible calls us to practice tithing and generosity with our money. The disciplines of tithing and generosity can only be fully understood within the narrative of the kingdom. To be sure, it is possible to exhort people to give within the narrative of the world. The Bible says that things will go better for us in the world if we are generous. Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Lk. 6:38). Proverbs says, “Honor the Lord with your possessions, And with the firstfruits of all your increase; So your barns will be filled with plenty, And your vats will overflow with new wine” (Prov. 3:9-10). God said that he gave Israel his commandments, including the commandments to tithe and be generous, “for your good.” (Deut.10:13).
The problem arises when this is our main motivation for giving. For we will be tested. During some season, things will not turn out better because we do what God says. As God said in Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deut. 8:2). If we obey God only because of the good we get, we will murmur and disobey when God leads us into the wilderness.
There is well-known story about a man who tithed from the proceeds of his business. His business did so well that he increased his giving and ended up giving away 90% and keeping 10%. There is a less well-known story about a man who tithed from the proceeds of his business and his business failed. He was asked, “Did you lose everything?” He replied, “No, I still have all the money I gave away.”
- How and why we tithe
To tithe is to give the first tenth our income back to God through his church. This means it should be the first check we write or the first electronic transfer we make. The point of tithing is a transfer of ownership. By giving God the first part, we acknowledge that everything we have belongs to him. We bring our money into the kingdom. In response, God puts his blessing on it and promises to make it sufficient to meet our needs.
This is part of a pattern of firsts that characterize the narrative of the kingdom. We worship as a church on the first day of the week, as a means of dedicating all of our tine to God. We begin each day and each meal with prayer. As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). This pattern is the antidote to the disordered pattern of life caused by sin, in which we start by doing the things we want to do and buying all the things we want, and then we give God some of the time and money we have left over.
For those who have never tithed, it seems like a daunting discipline—it seems like a lot of money. However, a costly offering is the only worthy response to our Lord’s sacrifice for us on the cross. As king David said, “I will not . . . offer burnt offerings [to the Lord] with that which costs me nothing.” (1 Chr. 21:24). Costly offerings yield profound rewards. There is no resurrection without the cross, and there is no great experience of the presence of Christ in our lives without costly sacrifices of faith. As Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
Faithfulness bring rewards in this life, but the primary reward we seek in the Resurrection and the life of the world to come. The Octave of All Saints reminds us, as Philippians says, that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). And, as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
A Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, October 10. 2019
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 4:1-6 – The Gospel, St. Luke 14:1-11
- The Pharisees.
The Pharisees appear often in our gospels, but seldom are they portrayed in a favorable light. In today’s gospel, Jesus has been invited to dinner by a Pharisee on the Sabbath Day. The religious leaders in charge of this feast are said to “watch” Jesus, looking for a reason to criticize him. Jesus, for his part, tells a parable that attacks the behavior of these leaders and their invited guests. It doesn’t sound like a very restful Sabbath meal.
Ironically, of all the New Testament Jewish groups, the Pharisees were theologically closest to Jesus. They believed the right things, but they did not always do them. As Jesus said in Matthew 23, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matt. 23:2-3).
Who are the Pharisees? They arose a distinct religious group in the time between the Old and New Testaments (between 450 BC and the first century AD). The legalistic attitude associated with the Pharisees is often connected with the Old Testament. However, the were no Old Testament Pharisees. The main religious problem in the Old Testament was to ignore the Torah and mix the worship of the Lord with various pagan practices.
The Old Testament prophets warned Israel about laxity, pagan practices, and also about the nation’s tendency to trust in the military protection of other nations rather than trusting the living God of Israel. Ultimately, Old Testament Israel’s unfaithfulness led to a national catastrophe; the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC., and Israel went into exile in to Babylon.
The attitude that come to characterize the Pharisees arose as Israel returned from exile to rebuild the temple. As religious leaders reflected on the causes of God’s judgment, they were determined that would never happen again. They become known for their zeal for the Torah and for the tradition that developed around the Torah.
The tradition was developed to guard the Torah. It defined Torah observance more precisely. For example, the Torah says, “Keep holy the Sabbath Day.” The tradition listed the specific things you could and could not do on the Sabbath. The Torah does not forbid healing on the Sabbath, but the tradition came to define Sabbath healing as “work.” Jesus never criticizes the Pharisee’s Torah observance. Rather, he criticizes the way their practice of the tradition served to miss the main point of the Torah—like refusing to help a sick person.
The Pharisees believed that if Israel was zealous to observe the Torah, God would vindicate Israel and restore Israel to prominence among the nations. This belief was understandable but erroneous. St. Paul, the converted Pharisee, highlights the error. After his conversion on the Damascus Road—after his encounter with Jesus—he realized that human zeal for the Torah was insufficient to fulfill the intent of the Torah. As he said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No amount of zeal can overcome the reality of sin. St. Paul explains that the Son of God became man to fulfill the Torah for Israel—and for everyone. The Torah highlights our sin and leads us to Jesus Christ., who saves us.
- The Error in the Gospel and its lesson for us
The Pharisees’ zeal for the Torah blinded them to the presence of Jesus, the Messiah. They argued about the Torah with the very Messiah the Torah points to and they claimed to be looking for. The legalism of the Pharisees reflects a tendency of human nature that is present even in non-religious people. It can be seen, for example, in situations where people insist on enforcing the rules of the club or organization when such enforcement unnecessary harms people and does not really further the goals of the organization.
Traditionalist Christians are tempted to fall into some of the errors of the Pharisees. The pattern is the same. In response to false belief and practice that has led to judgment on the church, we become zealous for the faith once delivered to the saints; then we develop various traditions that guard and enshrine that faith; then the traditions gain such a heightened importance that they actually come to work against the foundational principles of the gospel. Being caught up in doing things the “right way” we miss the presence of Jesus and call to love.
The message of the Risen Christ in Revelation to the first century church in Ephesus is letter traditionalists need to hear again and again. The Risen Christ says:
I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Rev. 2:2-4).
The first love of the church is always a two-fold expression of love. Love for the Christ and love for others, especially for the members of the Body of Christ. As St. John says, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also (1 Jn. 4:20-1).
III. Seeing Jesus in worship and in others
The most striking features of today gospel is that the Pharisees care more about their opposition to Jesus than about a man who is suffering from a disease. They are practicing a faith that actually forbids a man to be healed! The invited guests are so concerned about where they are going to sit to gain honor that they miss presence of the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel—they try to sit in higher places than him!
Like the Pharisees, we have a tradition. Our tradition is a good thing. It teaches how to approach the altar and reverence the presence of Christ. It teaches us how to confess our Trinitarian faith. It teaches us when to make the sign of the cross and when to bow and genuflect. It teaches us how to receive the sacrament at the altar. But we must never confuse the means with the end; we must never focus so much on the details that miss the presence of Jesus.
Thus, as we gather for our holy meal on the Lord’s Day, as we follow both the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of our tradition, let us never lose sight of the main guest as the feast, or of the people for whom he died that we are called to serve. Let us never leave our first love.
A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, October 5, 2019
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 3:13-21 – The Gospel, St. Luke 7:11-17
- The gospel and the two processions
Today’s gospel from St. Luke describes two processions that take place near the city of Nain. The first procession consists of Jesus and his followers. St. Luke writes, “[Jesus] went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd” (Lk. 7:11).
The other procession is a funeral. St. Luke says that as Jesus his followers “came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her” (Lk. 7:12). There would have more than the usual amount of grief because the departed was a young man, and likely his mother’s main source of support.
The funeral procession was a procession of death. It symbolizes the natural path of human life apart from God. We are all marching toward the grave—despite the fervent efforts of the world to avoid or deny it. The procession following Jesus is a procession of life. Jesus is “the Bread of Life” (John 6:48-50), “The Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25), and “The Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). As Jesus said in John 5:24, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” At the gate of the city of Nain, the procession of death met the procession of life, and death was conquered by Life.
- Jesus authority over death as a sign of our Resurrection hope
This miracle or sign shows that Jesus has power over the greatest human enemy, which is death. It provides a visual image of our resurrection hope. The authority over death that Jesus exercised by his command in the gospel points to the authority Jesus will exercise over death by his command on the Day of Resurrection. As Jesus says in John 5:28-29, “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” It also provides an image of our baptism, in which Jesus gave us the gift of eternal life.
III. Our baptismal resurrection is a greater than the raising of the widow’s son
It is easy to miss the point of this resurrection story. We might be tempted to ask why Jesus doesn’t do this for all people who have died—especially young children. The answer is that the biblical healings, exorcisms, and resurrections are limited miracles. They restored people to health at a point in time, but they did not solve the problem of the human condition. Everyone Jesus raised from the dead got sick again and died again.
This calls to mind a story we were told in Scotland. A woman known as “half-hanged Maggie Dickson” was sentenced to death by hanging for some crime. Because she was so small, the rope did not succeed in killing her. It merely made her pass out. However, everyone thought she died and she was carted off to the grave. When the wagon stopped for a break, Maggie opened the coffin cover and sat up. She lived for another forty years or so. Though Maggie’s “resurrection” was not a miracle in the same sense as the raising of the widow’s son, its net effect was the same, for the widow’s son also died again.
The Son of God did not become man just to make our temporal lives longer or even happier. He came to conquer, evil, sin and death. Thus the biblical miracles that give a temporary benefit pale in comparison with the two main New Testament miracles. These are, first, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, which conquered sin and death; and, second, his gift to us of eternal life through baptism and faith—his sharing with us of the fruits of his Cross and Resurrection. If Jesus answers a prayer and solves a problem, we have a seasonal benefit—one for which we may indeed be very grateful. But through baptism and faith we have eternal life—life that will never end—and we should give thanks for this above all things.
It is, in fact, a temptation to focus so much on the desire for God to give us things in this world that we lose sight of the greater miracle, the gift of eternal life. The gift of eternal life is within us through the Holy Spirit. It is growing and producing in us things that we will never lose. Most often, it is our sharing in the cross of Jesus, our struggling in faith through temporal things we wish were different, that most contributes to the growth of eternal things in us. As 2 Corinthians says,
Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
- How we experience a greater miracle than the gospel miracle
Thus, the raising of the widow’s son is a sign of the greater miracle that we have already experienced and continue to experience in Christ. We were in the world’s procession of death, separated from God and headed to the grave without hope like everyone else. But Jesus intervened in our lives. He touched us through the water of baptism and the gift of faith. He said to us, “Arise.” And we began to live new lives in him. Ephesians describes the miracle of baptismal resurrection in this way:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:1-6).
We experience this miracle of resurrection every time we come to the altar of God. We need to experience this miracle of resurrection again because life in the world distracts us from the eternal things and drags us back into the world’s procession of sin and death. We take on the world’s guilt, anxiety, fear, and despair and lose sight of the grace of forgiveness and the faith, hope, and love that Christ has planted in our hearts. Thus, at the altar of God, the procession of life once again stops the funeral procession. Jesus touches us again and commands us, again, to “rise and live.”
It will help us to sustain our prayer if we realize that the main purpose of prayer is not to ask God’s help for our needs or to fulfill a religious duty. The main purpose of our prayer is to raise us from the dead—again. Life in Christ, Resurrection life, is a different kind of life. Life in Christ does not begin at birth and end at death. Rather, life in Christ begins with baptism and faith, it is sustained through the prayer and the Bread of Life, and it will come to its completion in the Resurrection and the life of the world to come.
There are three great miracles we celebrate when we gather around the altar. First, the cross and resurrection of Jesus; second, our dying and rising with Christ through baptism and faith; and third, our sure and certain hope, our eager anticipation, that Jesus will come again to finish his work in us and complete his New Creation. As Philippians says,
Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself (Phil. 3:20-21).