The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

(19 October 2014, 4 October 2015)

The Collect:
LORD, we beseech you, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 122; 1 Corinthians 1:4-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Reflection:
Today’s Scriptures are very clear in their focus on teaching us about union with God through loving him first above all; the Old Testament even provides the quote that Jesus recites in the Gospel. Such union is meant to enrich our knowledge of God as well as our ability to speak about him, serve him, and anticipate Christ’s return, as St. Paul teaches in the Epistle. The Psalms, then, gives us an example of a prayer putting love for God first, and so the Collect asks God to purify our hearts and minds so we can truly love him first, specifically asking for grace to resist sin’s influences upon us.

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St. Luke’s Day

(18 October)

The Collect:
ALMIGHTY God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please you, that, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Isaiah 35:3-6; Psalm 147:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:5-15; Luke 10:1-9

Reflection:
The concept of sickness and healing is common throughout the Bible, frequently referring both to physical ailments as well as to spiritual ailments caused by sin. The Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel, and Collect each speak to the healing ministry of God through his people in various ways. Because Saint Luke is identified as a physician, his feast day is an appropriate day for the Church to remember Christ as the Great Physician. For God’s blessings of health and peace are not merely worldly promises that apply to our bodies today, but eternal promises that apply to our very souls.

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The Minor Feast of our Lady of Walsingham

The Minor Feast Day of Our Lady of Walsingham is celebrated in Anglican calendars on October 15th.  I will be preaching the following homily this evening.  The Epistle reading is 1 John 4:7-16 and the Gospel reading is Luke 1:26-38.  The Collect is as follows:

Lord God, in the mystery of the Incarnation,
Mary conceived your Son in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb.
As we, your pilgrim people, rejoice in her patronage,
grant that we also may welcome Him into our hearts,
and so, like her, be made a holy house fit for His eternal dwelling.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.

Image of Our Lady of Walsingham

Our Lady of Walsingham is a title of Mary the mother of Jesus. The title derives from the belief that Mary appeared in a vision to Richeldis de Faverches, a devout English noblewoman, in 1061 in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk, England.  Lady Richeldis had a Holy House built in Walsingham which became a shrine and place of pilgrimage. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this quick introduction.)  Although it was destroyed early in the English Reformation, its memory was never quite destroyed, and a shrine has been rebuilt and pilgrimages there have picked back up since the 1890’s.

Why do we celebrate Mary on days like this? Primarily because Mary is a prototype of Christians. This can be expressed in many ways. Let’s look at four quick examples.

First, Mary was the first person to receive Jesus. When the angel Gabriel announced his impending arrival in the world, she said yes, and literally received Jesus in her womb, becoming his mother.

Second, Mary is the first person described in the Bible to be “full of grace.” Those of you who are familiar with the Hail Mary (the Ave Maria), you’re recognize this phrase, or its Latin, gratia plena. Protestant translations of this evening’s Gospel reading have preferred the words “Greetings, favored one.”  The Greek behind it is kecharitomene which is a participle meaning “one who was & remains filled with grace.”  (Yeah, Greek verbs really do carry a lot of information thanks to their complicated system of conjugations.) Protestants interpret this greeting to be a respectful greeting to a woman God has decided to act graciously towards.  The historical interpretation has been more literal, though: God has filled her with grace.

Third, Mary was the first person, after Jesus, to participate in the New Creation. When Gabriel explains to Mary what God has planned, she responds, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (let it be to me according to your will). That word fiat, translated as “let it be,” is the same fiat as God’s “let there be” way back in Genesis 1. God said, fiat lux, and there was light. The Old Creation was by God’s word alone, “Creation by Fiat” it’s sometimes called. But the New Creation in Christ, which we are a part of through faith and the Sacraments, invites our participation. Our labors in the Lord actually contribute to the building of God’s Kingdom! And Mary was the first in line to join in Christ’s work of the New Creation. When God revealed his plan to her, she responded fiat mihi, and it was done unto her.

Fourthly, Mary was a Temple for Jesus, just as the Church has since become the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Think about it: a mother’s womb is an unborn baby’s home! A temple is the home of a god. So when Jesus was being carried about in Mary’s womb, she was literally the New Temple or Tabernacle, physically carrying God within herself! The Church, meanwhile, according to various New Testament Scriptures*, is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Mary was the physical prototype for what we have become spiritually.

(* such as 1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21, and Revelation 3:12.)

As we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary this evening, and her amazing role in the most pivotal of Gospel events, the Epistle reading directs our attention to such topics as loving God, God’s love for us, and abiding in Christ. Personally, I tend to find 1 John rather difficult to read; it feels all tangled up, saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. The detailed logic of St. Paul and the organized structure of Hebrews instead give way to John’s more creative and visionary writing style.

Attempting to unravel what we read this evening, though, this is what we find.

First, St. John tells us that love must be defined from an objective truth: God loves us. And he showed that love by sending his only Son to us to exchange his life for ours. Only once we believe and understand that, can we then know how to love God in return, not to mention love our neighbors also.

Secondly, because true love for God is built upon his sacrifice for us, it therefore must include our belief in and acceptance of that sacrifice. And in that knowledge and belief is salvation: we are “born of God,” receiving new life from him.

Thirdly, once we have that knowledge and belief, and the resulting love and life, we also receive God the Holy Spirit as a confirmation of that knowledge and belief and love and life. So all these things go together as one package: God’s love for us, our love for God, our knowledge of God, our belief in God and his works, the new life of Christ in us, and the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling (or abiding) within us.

Why do we read this on a feast day celebrating Saint Mary the Virgin? Well, it’s a counterpart to the Gospel reading. There, we see the great glory of Mary: the mystery of her being gratia plena, her becoming the Mother of God, her speaking the first human fiat of the New Creation, her being the prototype of the Church and all Christians… she’s an amazing woman! So what we read in the First Epistle of Saint John is the balancing reminder that all human glory comes completely from God. Mary was “full of grace” because God filled her with grace. And it was that work of God that had prepared her for that precious moment when she would say “yes” to God in her New Creation fiat.

The lesson for us, then, is simple. Towards the beginning of this service I read the Collect of the Day; it started out by asserting that Mary conceived God’s Son in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb, and then it prayed that we also may welcome Him into our hearts, and so, like her, be made a holy house fit for His eternal dwelling. Basically, what we see God to have done with her and through her, we pray the same for ourselves. She accepted Jesus in her heart – expressed through her fiat – before she conceived him in her womb. So in the same way we seek to welcome Jesus in our own hearts in order to become Temples of the Holy Spirit. Now yes, we normally speak of “accepting Jesus into our hearts” as a one-time event at the beginning of our salvation. But in reality, faith is not an event, it’s a life. We have to abide in Christ just as the Spirit abides in us. So we continually look to Jesus and his example of perfection, and we look to Mary and her example of perfect reception of Jesus. She took God by his word, and as a result received his Word. May we do the same, today and every day.

Amen.

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The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

(12 October 2014, 27 Sept. 2015)

The Collect:
LORD, we pray you that your grace may always go before and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Proverbs 25:6-14; Psalm 33:6-12; Ephesians 4:1-6; Luke 14:1-11

Reflection:
Starting here, several Sundays in a row deal with various aspects of our union with God.  The Epistle serves as a sort of introduction to this theme.  Today, specifically, the Gospel gives us a parable of a wedding banquet, which teaches us that it is appropriate for us to consider ourselves lesser than others in the Kingdom of God, for God will exalt the humble and humble the exalted.  The Proverbs add their voice to this scenario, adding the advice to avoid hasty judgment, and rather to speak prudently.  The Psalm continues these thoughts by describing the power of God’s word both to create and to judge.  The Collect, finally, is a model prayer of a properly humble Christian, putting today’s Scriptures into practice.

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The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

(5 October 2014, 20 Sept. 2015)

The Collect:
O LORD, we beseech you, let your continual pity cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your aid, preserve it evermore by your help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 102:12-17; Ephesians 3:13-21; Luke 7:11-17

Reflection:
This Sunday we are reminded that no matter how young or mature we are as Christians, we always need to rely upon God’s continual help and pity. Like the widows in the Old Testament and Gospel stories who had lost their only sons, we are utterly reliant upon God to protect us. The Collect, Psalm, and Epistle, thus, take this to prayer in different ways. The Collect applies this to the Church: we seek God’s cleansing and defense for all Christians. The Psalm applies this more personally: we remember that God “regards the prayer of the destitute.” The Epistle, finally, contains a prayer by St. Paul that we would all be filled with the strength of the Holy Spirit.

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St. Michael & All Angels

(29 September)

The Collect:
O EVERLASTING God, who has ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant, that as your holy Angels always do you service in heaven, so by your appointment they may aid and defend us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Daniel 10:10-19a; Psalm 103:17-22; Revelation 12:7-12; Matthew 18:1-10

Reflection:
Today we remember and celebrate the invisible realms of God’s creation – the whole diverse orders of angels and archangels, particularly with Michael as their leader.  His role as a warrior against Satan and his armies is highlighted in both the Old and New Testament readings.  And, remembering that they do this battle for our sake (and especially for the young and innocent as described in the Gospel), we both ask God for their continual protection over us, and that we can join in their unending worship of Him in heaven.

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Christian Identity Crisis

This is my sermon for the 15th Sunday after Trinity at Grace Anglican Church.

“Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.  And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” – Galatians 6:15-16

Who are we?

            We live in an Age of Information. Thanks, at first, to the invention of the Printing Press, the proliferation of books over the past couple centuries, and now the advent of the Internet, there is almost nothing we cannot learn. If you want to know something, you just look it up on Google. If it’s too complicated to read about, you just look it up on YouTube for some visual instructions. There is so much information out there that we don’t know what to do with it all. After all, once you learn something new, there’s almost always a list of new questions that emerge from it, and so the more you know, the more you know you don’t know! It can honestly get really confusing sometimes.

Of course, when it comes to the deeper questions of life, the universe, and everything, Google and YouTube tend to fall short. Perhaps the deepest question is “Who are you?” The struggle to label, realize, and comprehend our own identity is one of the most fundamental questions of all. As Christians, we believe we’ve found the best set of answers to that question. We are God’s creation. We are God’s stewards. We are God’s servants. We are God’s children. We are beloved!

Taking that a step further, Christians are part of this group called the Church. What is the Church? It’s God’s family, the Body of Christ, a royal priesthood, and a chosen people. But how do we make that real? How do we protect that and define that? Getting this question wrong is probably the #1 source of all divisions in the Church throughout our entire 2,000-year history. It began even while the original Apostles were still alive.

 The Judaizers had an identity crisis.

            Perhaps the very first identity crisis in the Church took place when Gentiles started converting to the faith. The first few thousand believers were all Jewish, so they had a common cultural heritage to draw upon as they initially understood the Church, but once these non-Jewish people started to believe the Gospel and commit to Christ and join the Church, things started to get confusing. We can read in Acts 10 about how Saint Peter wrestled through this issue, and some time later in Acts 15 there was a council held in Jerusalem to work out how Jews and Gentiles would get along with each other in the Church. And for the most part it worked.

But not everyone was happy with that arrangement. There was a group called the Judaizers: they believed that everyone who would become Christian had to become Jewish also. They looked at what the Old Testament said and what the Apostles preached, and concluded that the Church’s identity was built upon the foundation of the Law of Moses. And so, just like Jesus, we all have to become circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses. After all, Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees if we are to merit the Kingdom of Heaven.

 They imposed Law & Circumcision upon Gentile Christians.

What the Judaizers did, therefore, was impose the Law and circumcision upon all the Gentiles who became Christians, even though St. Peter learned that this was not necessary in Acts 10, and the Jerusalem Council declared this was not necessary in Acts 15. And, for whatever reason, the Judaizers were particularly powerful in the region of Galatia. In response to this, St. Paul wrote a letter to them, which we have in the New Testament as the book of Galatians. While most of his epistles include a thanksgiving for the given church to which he’s writing, Paul offers none for the church in Galatia. Instead, he pulls no punches and cuts to the chase: he is astonished that they’re deserting the one who evangelized them (likely Paul himself) in favor of “no gospel at all,” or, in short, heresy. And heresy on this level deserves being declared “anathema,” often translated as “God’s curse” or “eternally condemned to hell!” In short, this identity crisis that the Judaizers had, and were imposing upon others, was not just an innocent mistake, but a fatal mistake! He had to nip this one in the bud quickly and decisively.

 Saint Paul corrects them, emphasizing his authority and the true gospel.

In order to set the Galatians straight, St. Paul had to go back to the basics. The whole letter to the Galatians revolves around two basic themes. First, he was reestablishing his authority as an Apostle, especially helping them respect their rightful leaders. Second, he was re-explaining the Gospel, especially helping them to untwist what the Judaizers had twisted.

To reestablish his authority, Paul recounted much of his personal testimony, pointing out both his unique calling from God on the Road to Damascus as well as his later approval from the other Apostles. Not only did he have a personal testimony of God, but it was also affirmed by the other leaders of the Church. The Judaizers had no right to ignore or contradict him.

To re-explain the Gospel, however, took a bit longer. In fact, more than half of the book of Galatians is on this subject. He breaks it down into a two-pronged argument: first dealing with God’s Law given through Moses, and second dealing with God’s covenant with Abraham and circumcision.

With regards to the Law, Paul essentially argues that the Law is powerless to save us. In the end, all it does is set limits and define sin. The better we know the Law, the more we realize that we are completely unable to keep it. And because the Law is just a written set of rules, there is no power there to help us out. It’s not all bad, though. In fact, the Law was – and remains – extremely useful. Paul compares it to a guardian or a tutor: the Law helps us to learn about God, and especially about God’s will. But in the end all that really does is convict us of our sins. We need the Gospel of Christ to save us from those sins. Thus the Law is not enough.

And then, with regards to Abraham, God’s promises to him, and the practice of circumcision, Paul points out that the underlying ingredient behind all of that is faith. It was by faith that Abraham received promises from God. His faith even preceded circumcision, and that’s important. For, a lot of Jews by that time had come to view circumcision almost as magical: once a boy was circumcised, he was part of God’s covenant-people no matter what. Paul pointed out that, in the beginning, it was faith that made someone part of God’s covenant-people. So even though circumcision was commanded to be administered to boys when they’re only eight days old, it was still a sign of the underlying faith that really brought people to God.

 The Church is Israel, not needing the Law and Circumcision.

            One of the most ground-breaking things that St. Paul writes to the Galatians is in chapter 4. There, he draws up an analogy between Abraham’s first two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Even though Ishmael was born first, he did not receive the covenant of God’s promise. You see, Ishmael was born to Abraham through his wife’s personal slave. And so, because God had made promises to Abraham and his wife, the identity of being part of God’s covenant-people was passed on to their son, Isaac, instead.   Even though Ishmael was a child of Abraham, he was not part of God’s people. Paul takes this fact and applies it to the rest of history. Being a part of God’s people is not about who your parents are, but about faith in God’s promise. Therefore, just because someone’s born Jewish, that doesn’t guarantee that they are part of God’s people. Now, this should not have been ground-breaking news: the Old Testament prophets said the same thing. Even Jesus said the same thing. But the Judaizers missed the memo.

The other, and probably most ground-breaking thing that Paul wrote to the Galatians is in chapter 6, which we heard read to us this morning. In verse 15, he wrote, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” This is huge. First of all, he’s saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re circumcised or not. Instead, what counts toward being part of God’s people is the “new creation.” This is an allusion to Baptism, in which we are made new, in which we die to sin and are raised with Christ in new life. (He writes of this more extensively in Romans 6, and I encourage you to explore that on your own time as I can’t go after that rabbit-trail today.)

As if that wasn’t enough, he continues in verse 16: “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” This may be a little awkward to read in English. In Greek there are a couple different words that can be translated as “and.” One version of ‘and’ means “and also” like you’re making a list. The other version of ‘and’ is one of equation or identity; that’s what’s used here. So what verse 16 is saying is that all who walk by this rule of a new creation is the Israel of God. Simply put, God’s chosen people, known as Israel, is made up of those who have received new life in Christ. If you want to be part of Israel, you just need to be a Christian. All you need is Jesus. If you’re in Christ, you’re in Israel. It no longer matters if you’re Jewish or Greek, or any other ethnicity or race. It no longer matters if you’re male or female: circumcision, which is obviously a male-only rite, has given way to Baptism, which is for everyone!

This is an important lesson that many Christians have forgotten in recent years, particularly since (back in the 40’s) a new country was created in the Middle East called Israel. We’ve reached a point where many Christians seem to have lost track of the ancient understanding of the Church as the New Israel, even though both Early Christian writings and the New Testament itself is full of that imagery. There are twelve Apostles, just like there were twelve tribes in Israel. Jesus promised the twelve Apostles that they’d sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes. In the Revelation of John we see twenty four elders sitting on thrones: depicting the twelve tribes of Old Israel and the twelve apostles of New Israel in perfect unity. It feels strange to be preaching this in a Jewish Synagogue, but then again, this is one of the reasons Christians were kicked out of the synagogues: the Gospel asserts that God’s people are not the Jewish race, but those who believe in Christ and are baptized into his Body.

 Look to the spiritual, not to the flesh.

            One of the basic principles of Christianity that results from this is the opposition of the spirit and the flesh. Last week, for example, we looked at Galatians 5 and the two opposing lists of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.” It’s the same with our very identity: who we are as Christians has nothing to do with the flesh – our humanity, our gender, our race, our socio-economic status – and everything to do with our spirit – is the Holy Spirit living in you?

When it comes to our personal identity, this can be very challenging and difficult. I enjoy the fact that my dad is from England, and I celebrate that heritage in many ways. It’s a source of pride, in its own way, and it defines a significant portion of my life. Other people feel that way about different ethnicities, or about being a woman, or being a man, or being wealthy, or being frugal, or being the first college graduate in their family, or about their healthy lifestyle, or a million other things. These things are all fine, but there are two conditions: first of all, we should not be proud of sin. If I’m really good at lying and cheating, that’s not something I should ever be proud of or flaunt. And secondly, even these good things about us cannot be allowed to become more important than the spirit – than the faith of the Gospel which is ours in Christ Jesus. To do so would be idolatry, and that’s a dangerous sin.

 What other identity crises do people have today?

            Now try to imagine that on a large scale, in which a whole group of Christians share the same idolatrous confusion over who they are supposed to be as Christians. What starts off as an already-dangerous sin for the individual can become a very dangerous heresy on the large scale.

Imagine a congregation that brought into its worship service rituals from other religions.

Imagine a congregation that imports our culture’s values into the teachings of the Bible.

Imagine a congregation advocating an ideology based on the US Constitution instead of the Bible.

Imagine a congregation more concerned about physical needs than about spiritual needs. We heard about this one in the Gospel reading; we are not to be anxious about such things as food, drink, clothing and shelter. Yes we can be concerned about them, even interested in them and passionate about them! But Jesus tells us to seek after his Kingdom and his righteousness above any earthly concern.

So the final word for us is simple. As Joshua said to the ancient Israelites, so Paul said to the Galatians: choose for yourself this day whom you will serve. Will you stake your identity in the God of the Bible, with the Gospel St. Paul preached, or in something else? Will we, as a congregation, choose to follow the teachings, commands, and calling of Christ, or in some other agenda? Will our decisions and desires be ruled by the Spirit or by the flesh? These are decisions that we must make individually and corporately, not only once, but frequently. And as often as we turn back on that commitment, we must repent, which means returning to Christ and starting again with a clean slate.

Therefore, let us stand together and recommit ourselves to the faith, in reciting the Creed;
then recommit ourselves to prayer, in the Prayers of the People;
then recommit ourselves to Christ, in the prayer of confession;
then recommit ourselves to His Church in the Offertory;
then receive him in Holy Communion.

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