Advent 3 Sermon: Judgment and Joy

Here is today’s sermon: Judgment and Joy

Sermon: Letting Go (Advent 1 2015)

Here is today’s sermon: Letting Go. Have a listen!

Sermon: Hannah’s Prayer

Here is a link to yesterday’s sermon. Have a listen; leave a comment!

Sermon: God’s Alien Work (The Book of Ruth)

Today’s sermon can be found here. Leave a comment; start a conversation!

Book review: James Spitzer, Finding True Happiness

I wrote a review a while back for Now that the Papal Visit and Synod on the Family have wrapped up, they’ve kindly published it! Thanks to Russ Saltzman for allowing an Anglican to write for a Catholic website. It was fun.

You can read the review here. By all means leave a comment there, but if you want to chat with me about it, head back here!


Collect for St. Matthew’s Day

O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy blessed Son didst call Matthew from the receipt of custom to be an Apostle and Evangelist: Grant us grace to forsake all covetous desires and inordinate love of riches, and to follow the same thy Son Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (Canada)

Sermon: Wisdom’s Way (James 3:13-4:8)

Over the last few weeks, our Old and New Testament lessons together have invited us to reconsider a life of wisdom. Last week, wisdom, personified as a wealthy woman, called out to us in the streets of our lives, she called to us in the places where we live and work, where we hope and dream. She called us to pursue her and the goods she offered. My way, she said, leads to the good life; the way of foolishness on the other hand leads to calamity.

Well, what is this wise way? What does it look like?

We began to flesh that out two weeks ago with the Proverb writer. The wise way of life, the route to the good life, begins with remembering the God who makes both rich and poor alike and continues by taking the side of the poor in their cause, for it is God’s own cause. Our NT reading from James fleshed that out further by casting this very issue as one that happens within our communities. When you draw distinctions based on wealth—when you say to a wealthy member, have this seat of honor but to a poor member, go sit by the door—you have left the way to which wisdom calls us. Wisdom calls us to a life of faithful remembrance. Wisdom calls us to a life of generosity.

Wisdom also calls us to a life of prudent speech. Last week, James used wonderfully accessible language to describe our tongues. Your tongue is like a bridle that, though small, can steer a horse. Your tongue is like a rudder that, with the push of a pilot’s finger can direct a huge ship. Your tongue—here he is most graphic—is like a small flame that can grow to consume a forest. It is a fire lit by hell. The tongue, says James, will always get us into trouble. We all stumble when it comes to our speech, he says. And so wisdom calls us to recognize the power of our words, to cultivate habits of good and prudent speech. The wise way of life, Padre Ray reminded us in last week’s sermon, is one in which our words are carefully weighed.

Today, James steps back from the specifics of a wise way of life to give us a glimpse of the big picture. What difference does the way of wisdom make? What difference in our lives is the result of pursuing her call?

Well, first, wisdom’s call is practical. Show by your works the gentleness born of wisdom! Be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Wisdom is not the mastery of an esoteric field of knowledge. Wisdom is not the amassing of biblical trivia with which to amaze and astound friends at dinner parties. Wisdom is a lived way of life. It is pure—that is uncontaminated. It is gentle—it is willing to yield. It is merciful, and is so with all people and integrally. Its mercy, in other words, is not a mask for another motive, but flows straight from the heart. All that wrapped up in one word. James Boyce puts it well when he writes that wisdom “is a summation all that common sense would identify as the marks of wholeness in human relationships, as the very best of God’s gifts in creation.”

Second, wisdom’s call is to peace. “Where do those conflicts among you come from?” James asks the community to which he writes. Certainly James was writing to a particular community or set of communities, but it or they are not named. James is one of the traditionally called “general epistles,” meaning that his words apply to all Christians everywhere. Unlike Paul’s letters, directed to specific churches, and with advice for those churches from which we then extrapolate, the words of the general epistles are immediately for us. All this to say, it won’t do to wonder to whom James writes. It won’t do to ask “I wonder what they were fighting about back then.”

No, James’s question is to us. Immediate and this morning. Where do those conflicts among you come from? And James answers his own question: they come from your inner cravings at war with each other. And whether in the first century or the 21st, that remains true. When we see conflict in our midst, it is a sure sign that we, collectively, have forsaken wisdom. But we have a promise, too: a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. The wise person in the midst of conflict is the one who, through gentleness, purity, equanimity and integrity seeks to restore peace in the community.

This past week, I watched a podcast roundtable on church unity. The participants were Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Anglican. There were two points in that podcast that help illumine my point here. The first was the response of the Evangelical participant to a young woman who asked this question: “What would you say to a young Christian who refuses to join a local church because of the church’s history of divisions?” His answer? “Join that local church and let it break your heart.” There is no church, or any other human institution, where conflict can be avoided. Where wisdom is forsaken and foolishness embraced. But we are not called to forsake our gathering together when conflict erupts, but to work toward peace as we pursue peace in our own lives. That’s where the harvest of righteousness is.

The second point expands on the first. The Anglican participant, Rev Dr Ephraim Radner of Wycliffe College, was asked what true unity looked like. His answer was straightforward. We do not yet know for we live in division at all levels. We will have true unity, he went on, when Christians live out the call of Ephesians 5. The call of Paul that points to Christ who loved the Church and gave himself for her. We will have unity, Radner said, when Christians give themselves utterly to each other even to the point of dying for them. The way of peace that leads to a harvest of righteousness is not the easy way. The way of wisdom, which is at one level so immediately obvious and applicable, is at another the costly way of the cross. The Christian way, as G.K Chesteron wrote, has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

My friends the way of wisdom is easily understood; the way of wisdom, whether we are talking about generosity, prudent speech, or making peace, is hard to practice. It is the narrow way that few find. But it is the way that leads to life. Wisdom’s call is to peace.

Third, Wisdom’s call is to prayer. James goes on contrast foolish and wise prayers. The selfish desires that lead to conflict also lead us to ask for things we shouldn’t in prayer, or to ask for good things out of wrong motives. You do not have because you do not ask, James says, and when you ask, you ask wrongly. Don’t ask God for worldly things! To do so, says James bluntly, is spiritual adultery. It is breaking covenant with God. You simply cannot expect God to cultivate the conditions through which you make friends with the world. It’s oil and water. They don’t mix. God yearns jealously for you! And if you pray wisely, if you in humility and confidence, pray to receive wisdom’s gifts, then, James says, god will exalt you.

Fourth, wisdom’s goal is nearness to God. Simply, to pray rightly is to imagine a “friendship” (James 4:4) with the very creator of “every good gift” God’s gifts have the ability to center our lives in good works that flow from God’s indwelling Spirit. In our human relationships it is much easier to walk the daily journey amid the sometimes difficult decisions and choices we are called to make when a close friend or a broader community of encouragers and supporters surrounds us. So the same is true when we live in a relationship of nearness and trust in a God who continues to supply us with wisdom and every good gift of creation. In the presence of One whose Spirit yearns over us we can imagine that we will not be left to drift in a state of “double-minded” incapacity (James 4:8; see also James 1:5-8). Instead we will be inspired to the exercise of wisdom in humility — in making the fine choices that are “born of wisdom” (James 3:13) and which lead to the kind of “harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18) seen in peaceful human relationships.

I hope finally the relevance to the sacrament of baptism. Nathan and Maggie, you have brought Georgia to the font. Just what are you doing? You’re not only dressing Georgia in a nice dress and having some sort of religious rite of passage to honour her birth, and then going out to lunch afterwards. Far more so, you are giving Georgia to God. You are surrendering your hopes and dreams for her, whatever they may be. You are drowning those hopes and dreams in the font. You are promising instead to raise her in the way of wisdom. Maggie, you will make those promises during the examination, and as you renew your own baptismal covenant with the all of us. Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you want, insofar as it is in your power, to raise Georgia in this practical, peaceful, prayerful life that is the way of the cross? This way is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to shoe who are being saved, it is the wisdom of God.



A Collect for Holy Cross Day

Almighty God,
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of life and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Sermon: A Good Name (Prov 22:1-2; 8-9; 22-23)

The book of Proverbs doesn’t make for easy preaching. Apart from three or four large sections at the beginning and the end, which praise wisdom and decry foolishness as way of life, it is just short sayings. Each saying is a nugget on its own, not necessarily related to what came before or after. The same is true today. What our first lesson presented as one paragraph addressing wealth and poverty is three selections. In between and around these three are all sorts of bits of advice on fearing God, raising children, and generally how to approach life.

Moreover, Proverbs’ advice is often not terribly “religious” or “inspirational.” It’s just good. Wisdom literature—to which Proverbs belongs—is not a particularly Jewish genre. Wisdom literature is found throughout the writings of Ancient Near East. Indeed, much of Proverbs can be found elsewhere in ancient sources outside the Bible.

Why is this a hard book for preachers? It’s full of good advice that’s easily understood and not terribly religious or even culturally limited. It’s given in bite-size chunks, too small to do much with. Do you get it? Good. Go home. That’s a sermon from Proverbs.

Some of you are thinking, “Yes! Five minute sermon today!” And yet. . . The Proverbs of Solomonare part of our canon. They do need to be proclaimed and not merely announced.

The Proverbs need to be proclaimed because they remind us that the Gospel is ultimately about a way of life. The Gospel is about living a life covenanted to God. It is about being and becoming the people of God.

The Gospel is not about abstract truths which we acknowledge when we recite the Creed and then ignore for the rest of the week. It is about these truths forming us into a people shaped to live life as God’s friends and heralds of God’s Kingdom.

But the life is not so peculiar to have no points of contact with other peoples. The moral and spiritual formation the Gospel brings is good news for everyone. Christians are wise to affirm all that is good and right and life-affirming wherever it is found, recognizing that God has not left himself without a witness anywhere.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s look at the Proverbs before us today.

The first two wise sayings put matters of wealth and poverty in perspective: they are not ultimate or final. More important, the first proverb tells us, is a good name. A reputation, in other words, as a decent, honorable, and trustworthy human being. And the place to begin cultivating a good name is to remember God—who makes rich and poor alike.

What’s the point here? Is it that our wealth or lack thereof is a matter of divine will? There is nothing to be done about it either way? In the movie Gods and Generals—a powerful portrayal of the Civil War—General Stonewall Jackson expresses this kind of fatalism when he’s asked how he can stay calm and stand in the midst of the most intense battles. Here’s what he says: “Mr. Smith, my religious faith teaches me that God has already fixed the time of my death; therefore, I think not of it. I am as calm in battle as I would be in my own parlor. God will come for me in his own time.”

No, I don’t think that’s the point the Proverb writer is making. He’s saying something else. He’s saying, rather, there is a court outside the self to which to be grateful in times of plenty, to whom to appeal in times of poverty. And, in this seemingly endless election campaign, it’s good to remember it isn’t government (whether one tilts red, blue, orange or green). It’s God.

What’s more important than wealth? A good name. Where does one begin to get a good name? One begins by remembering I’m not the centre of the universe.

Which brings us to our second set of sayings—“whoever sows injustice will reap calamity. . . . Those who are generous are blessed.” The relationship to the first set of sayings is not immediately clear. It becomes clear, however, when we read verses 8-9 alongside verse 7. “The rich rules over the poor and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” V. 7 describes the way things are; not as they should be.

The word translated poor is different from the first saying we’ve just looked at. There, the word “poor” is the Hebrew word ras. It simply means, poor. There’s no moral connotation to it either way. In v 7, the word rendered poor is dal. It also means poor but carries with it connotations of helplessness and even oppression. It is a favorite term of the prophets. And here we find it in the proverbs.

The wealthy person rules over the helpless person, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. Ah. Now we are dealing with matters of good and evil. This is not simply a description of the way things are. It is a description of the way things are, and should NOT be. And, if one is wealthy and desires a good name, it is behavior that they will avoid. For to sow injustice by “ruling” over the poor through the unjust lending of wealth is to reap calamity and the rod of anger will fail.

On the other hand, those who are generous are favored by God—that is what blessed means—for they share their bread with the poor. They do not rule through lending. In their generosity they share.  To build for oneself a good name—the thing to be valued more than riches—is to cultivate a life of generosity. Of sharing.

Which brings us to our final saying. “Don’t rob the poor!” that’s how it begins. A simple enough imperative. But then there’s a reason given—because they are poor. Hang on. That doesn’t make sense. Who would take advantage of the poor because they are poor? The short answer, is “somebody who wants to get away with it!” Who better to take advantage of than the one who has no means to fight for justice, no wealth to hire a lawyer to plead their case before the judge? Don’t crush the afflicted at the gate. This makes the legal setting obvious. For it is saying that when the poor come to the gate—the place where the cases were tried by the wise of the city—to plead their case, don’t crush them. Don’t keep them from finding justice. Don’t keep them from finding whatever relief is available to them.

Why? Because the LORD is their advocate. He will please their cause. And the LORD is their judge. He will despoil of life those who despoil the poor. God, in other words, is not a neutral and unbiased party. God has taken a side. He has seen how the rich rule the helpless, how borrowers have become slaves of lenders. And he has taken up the cause of the poor and will render a judgment on their behalf. This is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures, old and new.

So it is that we are left with one piece of advice about how those who claim to be the people of God should behave. They should above all things, cultivate a good name. Here’s how. Because God has created rich and poor alike, they should be generous with the poor—not the far away poor either, but the poor close enough to break bread with—for the situation could very easily be reversed. For God has intervened decisively in behalf of the poor and their rescue is at hand.

So, people of God, one way to bear witness to the good life—a life that has been and is being shaped by the claims of the Gospel, a life that is being shaped by the claim that God has, in fact, intervened on behalf of the poor in the most radical of ways, by becoming one of them, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth—one way is to be generous! To live a life of generosity.  And not generosity at a distance, but the get-your-hands-dirty generosity that comes with breaking bread in close quarters.

Here, at last, I can be specific. I hope that you have seen and been horrified by the pictures of the little Kurdish boy who drowned as his family fled the Syrian civil war. And I hope you’ve been similarly horrified by politicians who would use this unmitigated tragedy as leverage in the election. Should it influence your vote? Certainly. But let’s be clear, that little boy’s tragic death is no more the fault of any politician, European, North American or Canadian, than it is yours and mine. There needs to be political debate about the right course of action, but not, as Archbishop Justin reminds us in his letter, as an alternative to seeking practical ways to help refugees. That little boy’s death is a call to all of us, and a judgment on all of us.

So let’s ask the really hard question. If I am to have a good name before God, if I am to break bread with the poor, if God will finally judge in their favour and hold accountable those who rob them of justice, of safety, of life itself, then what shall I do?

So, Epiphany, what shall we do? What are the avenues for us to be generous?

In our newsletter this week, I’ve included Archbishop Justin’s reflection on the refugee crisis. Start by reading it. It’s focused largely on UK and European matters—as it should be—but it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to re-cast it in Canadian terms

Then start asking questions like. . . .

How can I increase my prayer support for people like Archbishop Mouneer of Egypt and Archbishop Suheil of Jerusalem?

How can I increase my financial support for refugee relief through organizations like PWRDF, AURA (Diocese of Toronto), and the Refugee Working Group (Diocese of Ottawa)?

Am I prepared to do the work to cooperate with others to sponsor a refugee family to come to Canada?

Might I have to forego this home reno, that long waited for trip, this little extravagance (none of which are evil in themselves) to do what the Lord, who is the advocate of the poor, has called me to do?

As you prayerfully reflect on these questions, remember “I have an idea that someone else needs to accomplish,” won’t do. It’s an evasion. Think in terms of “this is what generosity looks like for me.” And then do it.

The Gospel and Ashley Madison (Mark 7:1-23)

It’s hard to read today’s Gospel and not think about the Ashley Madison hack, is it? Famous names of people or maybe infamous names. People who loved to talk about marriage and family being publicly shown to have failed to live up to their own standards. And the reactions spanned the gamut, didn’t they. Shock, anger, disappointment, smug schadenfreude—I love that word. It means finding joy in the failures of others. They were all on display. What do you think Jesus would have to say to those whose names were found on the list? What would he say to their critics? What does he have to say to us?

There are three audiences for Jesus’ words in our Gospel this morning. I think the audiences in the text map neatly on to the audiences in our three questions. I wonder if you do, too.

Some Pharisees and scribes have come from Jerusalem and are following Jesus around the Galillean countryside to sniff out just who this young upstart thinks he is. It’s as though the Pope sent cardinals from Rome, or the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a sufferagan from Lambeth, to a backwater parish to check up on a priest who had begun to make waves. Head office wants to know what’s going on. So boots are on the ground. And immediately, they find a fault. “Why do your disciples not wash their hands?” Why, in other words, do they not obey the religious rules?

Here are the religious rule enforcers. And they’ve come to make sure everything is being done decently and in order.

And Jesus says, these rules are dumb. So my followers don’t follow those rules. Right? No? That’s certainly what we expect Jesus to say. He’s relaxed compared to those uptight overly religious Charlie Churches that have come from Jerusalem. He tells them to lighten up!

Except he doesn’t. He, as Jesus so often does, changes the subject. You, he says, also abandon God’s commandments. And what’s worse, you do it by creating religious rules to help you get around religious rules! In an important paragraph that our reading omits, he accuses them of inventing religious justifications for disobeying one of the 10 commandments! The really big rules!

And Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah. You honor God with your lips, but your hearts are far from God.

And I think that would be the rebuke that Jesus would offer to those people who publicly extol family values, but privately register on Ashley Madison. You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me.

The problem is not so much that they hold people to rules they themselves cannot obey. The problem is that their heart needs to be renewed and their preoccupation with rules prevents that renewal from happening.

The second audience is the crowd. The gaggle of people following along from town to town hoping to see a miracle. They’ve just seen Jesus shame the religious experts who seem to enjoy making life difficult for people, who thrive on calling the judgment of God down on those who can’t measure up to their list of expectations no matter how hard they try.

And what does Jesus say? He says, “Those uptight religious nuts. I’m with you guys!” No. That’s not what he says.

“Listen!” he says, “Nothing coming from the outside in makes you unclean. It’s what comes from the inside to the outside that defiles.”

Jesus is using the Old Testament language of cleanliness and belonging to make his point here. In his day, as in the days of the Old Testament, to be part of the community was to be “clean.” To be cut off from the community was to be “unclean.” And one could be cut off from the community for many reasons. If a person had a skin disease, that person was unclean. Separated from the community to contain the contagion. If a person had touched a corpse, that person was unclean because of taboos surrounding death. If a person had sinned, had broken the laws by which the community lived, that person was unclean.

And what does Jesus say here? He says that belonging to God’s community is indeed a matter of being clean. But being is not about being fastidious about purity rules. It was about being renewed, changed, converted from the inside out. In other words, his message to the crowd is the same as his message to his enemies. You need to be renewed! You need to be converted!

And I think that would be his message to our second audience this morning, too. To those who were heartbroken at the Ashley Madison scandal as much as to those who enjoyed it. Don’t be distracted by their failure to obey the rules. Your hearts need to be renewed, too! Don’t think that because they failed, the rules are without value; don’t think that because they failed, you are their moral superior. You’re in the same boat! Your heart needs to be renewed, it needs to be converted, it needs to be changed too!

Then there’s a third audience. We miss the audience shift because our Gospel lesson again omits a paragraph. But it is there in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus left the crowd, we read, and entered the house and called his disciples to him. So we’ve moved from the Pharisees, to the crowds, to finally the small group of dedicated followers. The disciples.

To this last group Jesus gives a bit more explanation. The problem with purity he tells them, is not a matter of the body. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s from the heart that evil intentions come. From the heart comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, evny, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within! They defile a person.”

What cuts people off from the community of God’s people? The sin in our own hearts.

The disciples too are not immune from Jesus’ judgment. Look inside, Jesus says. What’s in there? What intentions lie within? Keeping the rules, following me from a distance, even following me into the house is no guarantee. Your heart is what matters. The core of your being.

And the message is the same for us, Jesus modern disciples. Look inside. Do you find adultery there? Then who cares if you’ve registered with a cheating website. Do you find a desire for another person’s property? Then who cares if you’ve actually stolen it or not! It’s the heart that needs changing! Even yours.

This past Thursday, we celebrated the feast day of that great sinner become a saint, Augustine of Hippo. Maybe you’ve read some of his Confessions. In the early chapters, he details his own sexual awakening, and how he enjoyed women. And from this side of his conversion, he’s ashamed of his sexual promiscuity. But he acknowledges that that promiscuity was rooted in an understandable inner intention. I longed for nothing but to love and to be loved, he writes.

Why didn’t my parents intervene to help me? Why didn’t they get me married off to channel my sexual desire? Clearly, he thinks they failed in their parental duty. They sinned, too. But again, his parents’ sin is also understandable. They wanted me to gain an education and a good living. What parent doesn’t want a good future for their children? And all of us who are parents can understand when that good desire sometimes leads to bad actions.

But then comes, for Augustine, the sin of sins. The sin that cannot be justified. Do you know what it was? Stealing pears. He tells that he and his friends did not steal the pears because they were beautiful. They were kind of ugly, in fact. He tells us that he and his friends did not steal because they were hungry. They fed the pears to pigs. No what makes the theft of the pears the worst sin—far worse than his promiscuity—is that he and his friends stole for the sheer joy of stealing. It showed that there was something wrong with Augustine’s heart. It needed to be renewed. It needed to be changed.

So it is that all of us are with the religious inspectors, the miracle seekers, the dimwitted disciples. All of us are with Augustine. All of us have hearts that defile. That keep us from God’s community. That, if we look inside and honestly, show us all—every one of us—to be sinners. That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news. Only sinners can be saved.

And I, as likely the worst of all the sinners here, can invite the rest of the sinners here to come to this table with these words:

Ye that do earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort.

Here, at this altar, God has promised to change our hearts. Here at this altar as we feed on Christ by faith in our hearts and with thanksgiving, the rules will be set aside for the law will be written in us. We will be converted. We will be born again.