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.”
A Sermon on the Third Sunday after Trinity, June 17, 2018
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 5:5-11 – The Gospel, St. Luke 15:1-10
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. Two tax collector meals
There are two gospel stories about meals with tax collectors. One comes after the call of Matthew the tax collector to be an apostle. The other is in today’s gospel. In both cases certain religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, objected. They believed that those who faithfully observed the Torah would be made unclean by contact with those who did not. For Jesus, the infection worked in the other direction. He was not being drawn into the sin of the sinners. Rather, he was inviting them into his pathway of healing and wholeness.
The punch lines in the two stories are similar, but each has a different focus. After the call of Matthew, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:30-32). In today’s gospel, Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk. 15:10). In other words, the sick need a doctor named Jesus, and God and the angels are happy when they find him.
B. The parable of the prodigal son and the reconfigured community
In St. Luke’s Gospel, today’s gospel story leads into the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which concludes with a model for a reconfigured community. In the old community, the lost son, the sinner, was on the outside and the obedient son was on the inside. After the lost son returned, he was on the inside celebrating with his father and the household, and the obedient son was on the outside refusing to come in and join the party.
In the old Israel the Pharisees were on the inside; those viewed as sinners were on the outside. In the New Israel, all who repent and follow Jesus are on the inside and many who were considered righteous are now on the outside. Repentance is now the mark of genuine faith and membership in God’s people. As Romans says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24). Repentance and faith in Jesus make us members of the new Israel.
Over time religious communities are tempted to drift back into the error of the scribes and Pharisees. Human nature constructs an “in” group that consists of me and those like me, and an “out” group that consists of everyone else. This kind of division permeates our culture. Jesus reconfigured Israel. The “in” group, the Israel of God, is everyone who repents and follows him. The “out” group is everyone else. The key to healthy and evangelistic ministry is to build the church according to the new pattern that Jesus established.
C. The paradox of repentance
Repentance involves a kind of paradox—like most Christian doctrines. On the one hand, Jesus welcomes all regardless of their sins. On the other hand, Jesus never lessens the demands of the law for those who come to him. On the one hand, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). On the other hand, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29).
Repentance is an orientation rather than an event. We grow in our repentance over time. As we come to see Christ, the Light of the world, more clearly and we come to see ourselves more clearly in his light. We make better confessions. Our experience of grace grows. In contrast, those who refuse to repent continue to justify their disobedience. They ignore their own sins and pick on the sins of others—certain others. They argue they are better than most—or they argue that everyone is okay as is.
To be faithful to the teaching of Jesus and carry out a genuine healing ministry in his name, we must cling tightly to both sides of the paradox. We must insist that Jesus invites sinners, like you and me, to eat with him. We can come even though we have done what we ought not to have done and left undone what we ought to have done. We can come even though our desires are disordered, and we are still in the process of being made whole. But we must equally insist that Jesus has not reduced on jot or tittle of his moral requirements for any of us (Matthew 5:18). After we receive his grace and forgiveness, his command is always the same: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Jesus tells us to sin no more because our sins do not make us whole. We can have compassion for the addict, but we lie to him if we tell him he can be healed by continuing to use his drug of choice. If the church is just one big pot of acceptance with no moral demand, it keeps people stuck in spiritual sickness and in a state of separation from God. However, if the church is just one big message of moral demand without accepting people where they are, the sick will never find the Great Physician.
D. A community of repentance and invitation
The liturgy teaches us to grow in our repentance. Repentance is a requirement for communion. “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent…” We confess that we have sinned in “thought, word and deed.” Jesus communes with us sinners in the Sacrament to make our bodies clean and wash our souls. Then he sends us out to sin nor more and, instead, to do the good works he has prepared for us to walk in.
We will be back next week to repent all over again. But this is a progressive cycle, not an endless loop. We are being made whole and holy. We return to the altar of God each week, and to our prayer each day, to grow in holiness. The end of the process is the resurrection. As 1 Corinthians says, “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51-53).
The greatest miracle that takes place in this world is the process by which sinful mortals because holy and immortal. The central task of the Christian life is to persevere in the life of repentance and prayer so that God will continue to work this miracle of change in us. The central task of evangelism is to invite other sinners to join us in the process of being made whole. For “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick.” And, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity, June 10, 2018
The Epistle, 1 John 3:13-24 – The Gospel, St. Luke 14:16-24
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The Parable of the Great Supper: Coming when Jesus calls.
The Parable of the Great Supper teaches us that we must come when Jesus calls us to follow him, and that there are consequences when we do not come. It is easy to misunderstand the parable as a general statement about evangelism. This parable is addressed specifically to God’s own people. In the Old Testament God promised that he was preparing a future feast, a messianic banquet. As Isaiah 25:6 says, “The LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow.” Jesus came to announce that the feast was ready. He began his ministry with these words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mk. 1:15). But most of the people did not repent and come. Consequently, their invitations were revoked, and others were invited in their place.
All the invited guests were Jews. They were all, supposedly, waiting for the Messiah to come. However, because they did not respond to the call when the Messiah came. This is an obvious parallel application is us. We have been baptized into Christ. We observe the various traditions of faith that have been handed down to us. We are waiting for Christ to come and fulfill his promises to us. Right? The question is, when Jesus comes, or when we come to Jesus in death, will he find us prepared for the kingdom. As Jesus said in Luke 18:8, “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”
B. The tension between habit and heart
There is a problem with sermons that talk about the coming of Jesus. It is easy to get excited for a moment and do some things differently for a few days or weeks based on this newfound emotional energy. But our enthusiasm will eventually wane. We cannot live faithfully based on emotional energy. Movements that focus on the imminent coming of Jesus inevitably fade away over time because the emotional energy cannot be sustained.
This is true of every aspect of life. The things you do effectively and well you do because you have a commitment to do them whether you feel like doing them or not. For example, you will be able to sustain an exercise program over time only if you learn to exercise when you don’t feel like it. This transfers to more other areas of life also. Woe to the child whose parents decide to love and care for her only when they feel like it!
There is tension between the habitual and the relational aspect of our faith. One the one hand, our practice of the faith needs a pattern or Rule. We can’t just pray when we feel like it. On the other hand, our practice of the faith cannot become merely a series of religious activities from which our hearts are absent. We live in union with the Father through Christ in the Spirit. God often criticized Israel for a merely perfunctory performance of religious duties. However, the answer was not to abandon their religious duties. The answer was to carry out their duties from the heart.
This tension exists in all relationships. Marriage and friendship both require certain forms of liturgy. The relationship partners must seek the good of the other in habitual and faithful ways at time when they do not feel like doing it. If the relationship liturgies become a form grudging service, the relationship will struggle. But if the relational habits are abandoned altogether, the results will not be much better.
C. Making our habits transformative
The key to our practice of the faith is allowing our habits of faith to change us. One problem is our overall orientation. We tend to look at our faith as means of help for our life. Thus, we are always praying for God to give us this or that thing, or to heal us in this or that way. In other words, we tend to ask God to do things for us rather than asking God what he wants us to do. Prayer should involve as least as much listening as talking.
Each week we come to the Great Supper in our celebration of the Eucharist. Each week the requirements for participation are stated: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbors and intend to lead a new life draw near with faith.” We must take these words seriously. How has our behavior has been unfaithful in the past week? Are we truly in love and charity with our neighbors? If we are not, then we need to forgive those against whom we are harboring grudges and ask forgiveness of those we have wronged. How will our behavior be new and different this coming week? Can we discern the fruit of the Spirit in our lives? (Galatians 5:22).
We pray that we may do all such good works as God has prepared for us to walk in. We need to learn to for the image of Christ in those we see every day. Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Recognizing Christ in other people doesn’t make it easy to respond to the invitation. Some people are hard to love, and the implications of love are not always clear. For example, how are we to respond to the homeless we see every day asking for money? Simply emptying our pockets for them is not the answer. But what is? How are we to respond to the difficult person we face each day at work? What about the tension that exists in our relationships with family and friends? The demands of love are hard. That is why we avoid them. When we wrestle each day with the difficulties inherent in the command to love, we begin to be disciples; we begin to respond to the invitation to come to the feast.
In summary, we respond to the invitation by taking our religion seriously, by responding to Jesus as though he really is the Son of God, and our Creator and Judge, and as though he really wants and expects us to do what he tells us to do. This means we must be willing to change. How is Jesus calling you to change your life right now? “Come, for all things are now ready!”
A Sermon for Pentecost, May 20, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. Spiritual gifts and the gift of the Spirit
Our stated mission includes the charge to “work and pray and give for the spread of [God’s] kingdom” (BCP 291). We regularly instruct people, with some detail, about how to pray and give. What about our spiritual work? Pentecost is an appropriate time to begin a discussion about spiritual gifts, which are the unique ways the gift of the Spirit is manifested in each believer.
Before we can understand our unique spiritual gifts, we must first understand how the gift of the Spirit reorients our lives. The gift of the Spirit is the remedy for sin. The spiritual death that resulted from the first sin was the loss of communion with God through the Spirit of God (Gen. 2:17). As the Holy Spirit is given to the church on Pentecost, this life-giving connection is restored.
The objective sign of the gift of the Spirit, the way Pentecost comes to us, is the water of baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). From the beginning of church, the water of baptism was completed by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands—what we now call Confirmation (Acts 8:14-17, Hebrews 6:1-2). God conveys the gift of the Spirit through sacramental signs so that you can know that we have been given this gift.
But receiving a gift does guarantee we will use it. Planting a seed does not guarantee growth into a tree. Baptism is the beginning. The question is, “What is God doing in your life now? The Bishop prays over those being Confirmed that they will “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” (BCP 297).
II. The gift of the Spirit as a reorientation of Life
The first sin and the spiritual death of Genesis led to notable consequences. The first humans blamed someone else for their own sinful behavior. Then they began to hurt each other. Cain killed his brother Abel. The first murder was tied to worship. Cain made an unacceptable offering to God (Genesis 4:4-5). When God rejected his worship, Cain took it out on his brother (Gen. 4:8).
Sin disconnects us from God and leaves us in a state of emptiness and neediness. We try to meet our needs at the expense of others. We deny our guilt by blaming others. We deal with our pain by hurting others. This is our inheritance “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22). Our emptiness must be filled by something. That something ends up being the various idolatries and addictions of the human condition.
The gift of the Spirit reorients our lives away from the patterns of sin and towards love for God and others. When we stop blaming others, take responsibility for our own behavior, and turn back to God in faith, God gives us his Spirit and restores to us relationship with him. As Jesus said in the gospel,
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (Jn. 14:23).
As the Father and the Son make their home within us through the Spirit, our lives produce a different kind of fruit. The Spirit fills the empty places of our hearts and begins to heal the wounds of sin. Our interior experience of God’s love and grace is manifested outwardly in love for others. Instead of inflicting our pain on others, we share our experience of grace. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
The word for “comfort” in this passage is the verbal form of the noun “paraclete,” the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16-18). We are comforted, strengthened, and healed by the Spirit so that we can be agents of comfort, strength, and healing for others through the Spirit.
III. Worship and prayer as the foundation for love of neighbor
Worship and prayer are the foundation of our love for others. God fills our emptiness and heals our wounds in a progressive manner—not unlike the way an antibiotic slowly kills an infection in our bodies. In the liturgies of the Christian life, we continually bring our disordered selves to God, who continually forgives, heals, and strengthens us. As we “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” we grow in both our interior healing and the love for others that results from it.
The sin of Cain, the Bible’s first murder, was rooted in his refusal to worship God with his whole being. Our ability to love others is dependent upon our worship. When we neglect worship, we lose our ability to love with the love that come from God. The first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our ability to fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is dependent upon our obedience to the first commandment (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). Mere philanthropy can never reach the heights of agape love.
There are errors in the other direction. Our prayer can be self-centered. Interior peace can become the goal with the result that we have no concern for the brokenness of the world. Thus, there are two errors. One occurs when the church neglects its worship and life of prayer and gets caught up in various forms of activism. The church reflects the anxiety and “busy-ness” of the world rather than the peace of God. The other error occurs when the church becomes absorbed in its own spirituality and has no ministry outside of itself. In its authentic pattern, the Christian life begins in worship and prayer. This experience of God’s love is then manifested in good works done for others in love. The absence of either part is a serious defect—even heresy.
IV. Our ministries and the use of our gifts
We often approach the topic of ministry by focusing on what “the church” is doing. The church develops a “program” and recruits its member to give their time and labor. However, ministry works best in the other direction. You are the church. As you pray and experience the love and grace of God through the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will naturally move you into loving behavior towards others. This is not just volunteer work at church. Your “ministry” is your total life “in Christ.” It is what you do at home, work and leisure. Your most significant ministry may be the way you manifest the presence of Christ in a challenging work environment or in a difficult marriage; doing what is right and encouraging others in response to harsh treatment or dishonesty. The worst kind of ministry occurs when we do wonderful things at church but are dishonest and unkind in the other areas of our lives.
The ministry of the church is the sum of the work of the members of the body of Christ. Some of that work takes place at church, but most of that work takes place in the world. The best ministry in the church occurs when there is a pooling of our spiritual gifts for the sake of efficiency; when we can do something better together than we can separately. The worst ministry is when the church decides it should do something and then pressures reluctant volunteers to do things they do not have the gifts, time, or desire to do. Of course, there is also sloth. You must be willing to use your gifts, and this will take time and effort.
Your spiritual gifts are the unique form that love takes in your life. Some people have a gift for quiet service. Some have the gift for giving encouragement or wise counsel. Some people have a gift for giving money. Some have gifts for prayer and intercession. What are your gifts? What form does love take in your life? What is the shape of your ministry? What new things might God be calling your to do? These are questions to ask on Pentecost. You experience God’s love in the sacraments and prayer. How do you share that love with others? In Eucharistic terms, as you receive the body and blood of Jesus at the altar, consider, what are the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in? (BCP 83, Eph. 2:10).