I have more understanding than the aged

On the 25th day of the month, at Evening Prayer, the Anglican Prayer Book tradition leads us through the middle of Psalm 119.  The end of this evening’s portion of the psalm includes verses 97-104.

Lord, what love I have for your law;
all the day long I meditate on it.

You, through your commandments, have made me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.

I have more understanding than my teachers,
for your testimonies are my study.

I am wiser than the agéd,
because I keep your commandments.

I have restrained my feet from every evil way,
that I may keep your word.

I have not turned aside from your judgments,
for you yourself have taught me.

Oh how sweet are your words to my taste;
indeed, sweeter than honey to my mouth.

Through your commandments I get understanding;
therefore I hate all evil ways.

All of Psalm 119 is broken into 8-verse sections, clearly marked in every translation I’ve ever seen, so these verses are a discreet unit within the psalm.  The first verse in here is an introduction to the overarching thought for this piece: “I” love God’s law and meditate on it throughout the day.  Even with that verse alone… who could say this with complete honesty?  Only Jesus, seriously.  So let us proceed with him in mind.

The next three verses are comparisons: the one who truly loves God’s law is wiser than enemies, teachers, and elders-by-age.  This is born out in Christ’s life – one can think of the pharisees and scribes astonished at his public teaching, and the Temple priests impressed with his questions and answers when Jesus was only 12 years old.  Saint Paul also advised the young bishop Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 4) not to let people put him down for his youth, but to trust the good Word taught to him since childhood, and to remember his ordination – the laying on of hands by Paul and the other elders.  This is an encouragement to young ministers to this day – the ultimate test of wisdom is not sheer age but love for God’s law.

And yet wisdom is not a purely internal matter.  The next two verses of Psalm 119 deals with how God’s law is loved: restraining feet from evil, not turning aside.  Wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matthew 11:19).  A holy life, a blameless character, these are also signs of true wisdom, and love for God’s law.  Again, Jesus is the only perfect example of this reality – he is himself the Word of God and the only sinless man.  And so the requirements for ordination in the pastoral epistles (primarily Titus and 1 Timothy) also emphasize good character and Christian maturity as critical necessities.

The final two verses sum up and celebrate.  God’s words are sweet to those who love them.  Those who truly love God’s Word can never get enough of the Bible.  Those who truly love Jesus can never spend too much time in his presence.  These joys are greater than earthly joys, honey being the example of sweetness in this psalm (and throughout the biblical wisdom literature).  By contrast, at the end, evil ways are rejected, or hated.  This is in essence repentance, or turning around: one turns away from evil (rejecting and despising it) and turns toward the good (accepting and embracing, with the Church, Christ as Lord and Savior).

Can you pray this part of Psalm 119 with integrity?  Probably not… the more spiritually aware a person is, the more aware one is of one’s own sinfulness.  We can not declare our perfect love for God’s law or Word; it would be presumptuous of me to declare myself wiser than the agéd in my congregation (even if I am their pastor)!  And yet, by God’s grace, we do have tastes of his grace working in our lives, deepening our love for him and his word, growing us in holiness, making us more like Jesus who alone fulfills this Scripture to utter perfection.  Thanks be to God!

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Let another take his office

It may be strange, but my favorite story in the book of Acts is the latter half of chapter 1, wherein the eleven apostles meet, discern who is to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle, and ordain him.  When I hear other people talk about it, they most often seem to point out that this is the last time God’s people “draw lots” to discern God’s will; after this is Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all the truth.  But what I see is kingdom-building.

Look back at how Acts begins.  “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” they ask Jesus.  And he says that it is not for them to know times and seasons, but they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come.  So he (once again) corrects their misunderstandings about the nature of the Kingdom of God, but affirms that their true power is about to be bestowed.  They’re not going to wear literal crowns and sit on literal thrones to rule over an earthly geographic kingdom in vassalage to High King Jesus, but rather they will be clothed in the royal robes of the Holy Spirit.  To use later imagery, their crowns would be mitres and their thrones would be episcopal seats – both being symbols of a teaching office.

And so, with that realization in place – that they’re going to be building the kingdom of God now – the Eleven set about to make sure they’ve got a new twelfth man.  Why must there be twelve?  Look at how Israel was founded in the first place: one line of patriarchs, branching into twelve tribes.  The fullness of Israel was always identified as the twelve tribes, even though sometimes the Levites were omitted (in terms of land ownership) or the the tribe of Joseph was often counted as two separate ones (Ephraim and Manasseh).  With the Kingdom of God being re-established according to the spiritual charter of Christ instead of the dynastic line of David, and membership being by spiritual birth & baptism instead of physical birth & circumcision, the Apostles understood that it was right and fitting that they begin their work with the full complement of Twelve.

Saint Peter acknowledges that it was within God’s will that Judas should fall away, and he quotes Psalm 109 – “Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and `His office let another take.’”  The word for “office” here is ἐπισκοπὴν, episkopen, from which we get the word episcopacy: Judas is no longer a bishop; it’s time for a new one.  I’ve seen that verse used on bumper stickers and in memes to pray against President Obama and President Trump; both are pretty crass uses of the psalm, which is a rebuke or imprecation against one who has actively betrayed or persecuted the faithful.  Many a Christian has rightful grievances against the previous and current American Presidents, but they’re no Judas Iscariot.  Judas is the archetype for whom this psalm is to be directed at; we shouldn’t be flippant about prayer, or in our use of the Scriptures.

In the end, this is a Kingdom-building story, as the disciples prepare for Pentecost.  It is my hope, and the hope of my diocesan leadership, that these days of “covidtide” while we’re all quarantined at home and waiting for The Great Reopening, will be a time of preparation and planning.  We don’t want to curl up, turn inward, and hibernate during this time.  How will we minister to people differently as we come out of social distancing?  How will we witness to the love and power of Christ, given the needs around us?  Are we ready, from a spiritual standpoint, truly to re-open the churches?

As Ascensiontide’s time of active preparation leads to the powerful activity of Pentecost, so may this time of quarantine pave the way for a fresh movement of spiritual vitality, not just among our own numbers, but in a movement across our community and culture.

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Being Rich is Pointless?

If you, like me, tire quickly of the cutesy rosy platitudes that Christians like to throw around, then you will find Ecclesiastes to be a delightfully cynical book.  How many times have you heard someone quote Jeremiah 29I know the plans I have for you…” or Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ…” and you just wanted to retch?  Like yeah, those verses are true an’ all, but sometimes they get taken pretty grievously out of context.  And, more to the heart of the matter, people sometimes use these verses to hide from the reality that sometimes life just plain stinks.  The book of Ecclesiastes, meanwhile, unapologetically explains in great detail just how stinky life can be.

If you want a quick introduction (with video!) to Ecclesiastes, I made one here a few days ago.

So let’s look at the beginning of chapter 6 right now.

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them.  This is vanity, it is a grievous evil.

The author goes on from there to detail similar forms of successful living that goes uncelebrated and unenjoyed, declaring them pointless, and asserting that it would be better not to be born at all.  Hardly a rosy cozy Christianity.

The end of verses 6 and the beginning of verse 7 are perhaps the central thoughts that tie this chapter together:

…do not all go to the one place?

All the toil of man is for his mouth…

Taken in reverse order, this is a profoundly simple biblical truth, yet enormously life-changing if you take it seriously.  “All the toil of man is for his mouth” – that is, our normal earthly labors are all geared toward keeping ourselves and others alive.  Yet, “do not all go to the one place?” that is, to death.  We spend our whole lives working to survive, only to die in the end; there is no escaping that.  The philosophy of Nihilism is very influential in our culture right now; it wisely recognizes the truth of these two statements, and rightly concludes that life is meaningless and pointless; we have to create meaning for ourselves where there is none.  But what the author of Ecclesiastes teaches, if you push through the book as a whole, is that while earthly life is pointless, God is still very real and serving him is very meaningful.  And thus we can do things in this life and in this world that do ultimately matter!

This is a super timely message, as the Rogation Days are wrapping up and Ascension Day is tomorrow morning.  The Rogation Days are special times of prayer for labor and work, especially (historically) for agriculture and lands.  These are the classic toils that feed the mouths of mankind.  And Ascension Day is the day Jesus rose bodily into heaven.  If we are in Christ, then we too share in his heavenly reign and intercession – we have been lifted above the futility of this life, our labor can be hallowed if we labor in the Lord.

So, as the title of this reflection indicates, being rich is kind of pointless.  If the goal is to have stuff and accumulate money then you’re living a life without true meaning or purpose.  If you aim to live for God, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.  Earthly success can be useful, but it makes for a useless god or goal.  That is the profound wisdom of Ecclesiastes.

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Psalm 90: O God our help in ages past

Psalm 90 begins with the simple but heartfelt words

Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to another.

This is captured and paraphrased in a famous and beloved hymn:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home;

Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Yes, O God our help in ages past is a hymn that was written to paraphrase and reflect upon Psalm 90.  It was written by Isaac Watts in 1719, and many of his hymns are re-workings of biblical psalms.  Let’s see how more of this hymn teases out layers of meaning from Psalm 90.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

This approximates verse 2 of the psalm:

Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth and the world were made,
you are God from everlasting, and world without end.

The ancient helping power of God traced through the generation of his saints in the first verse of the psalm and first two stanzas of the hymn is here found all the in the very Days of Creation.  God has always been God, “world without end” or “from ages of ages”.  Before the aeon of time itself, God was the same God we now know and love.

The next stanza in our hymnal reads thus:

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

This matches verses 4 & 5 of the Psalm:

For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday,
even as a day that is past.

You scatter them them as a night-watch that comes quickly to an end;
they are even as a dream and fade away.

Verses 6 & 7 also provides more context and application of this concept of God’s timelessness:

They are like the grass, which in the morning is green,
but in the evening is dried up and withered.

For we consume away in your displeasure
and are afraid at your wrathful indignation.

The eternity of God causes us to reflect upon our mortality, and our insignificance in comparison with Him.  The days of our lives compared to his eternity is like comparing our long lives with the brief life of grass in the desert climes – just one hot day can dry and wither it away.

This leads to the next stanza in the hymn.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Verse 7 of Psalm 90, above, and also verse 10, here, both play into that stanza.

The days of our life are seventy years, and though some be so strong that they come to eighty years,
yet is their span but labor and sorrow; so soon it passes away, and we are gone.

The following verses of the Psalm continue on that meditation: we must learn to “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” which, we know from the scriptures, is the fear of the Lord.  The fear of the Lord has also been described in the psalm, especially in verses 7, 8, 9, and 11.  It doesn’t feed into Isaac Watts’ hymn too directly, but it’s an important piece of context to keep in mind as we sing.

The hymn ends with a partial repetition of the beginning, but a slightly different petition.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home.

This matches the tone of Psalm 90 in its final few verses, which step back from the language of fear and the shortness of life, and settle upon prayers for comfort.  The Psalm does not overtly return to the language and imagery of God as our refuge or help in ages past, nor of being our home or shelter, but it the hymn and the psalm do wrap up with the same tone or mood.  Thus the hymn is an encapsulation of Psalm 90 in miniature, pulling out some major themes and leaving only hints of others.  It’s no substitute for praying the psalm, of course, but it is a wonderful point of entry.

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Christian Growth Illustrated

The Parable of the Four Soils, such as in Luke 8, is pretty famous.  The sower scatters seeds all over the place, there are four situations that the seeds end up in, and the last one is the healthy fruitful example.  Most times that this parable is addressed in a sermon or a Bible Study, all four “soils” are examined, compared, and explained.  For the sake of a short and focused reflection today, let’s just look at the positive example.  Eschewing the warnings of what we are not to be like, what are we supposed to be?  Verse 15:

[And] as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.

Let’s unpack just this one sentence, as this is the primary “application” or lesson for us from the parable overall.

#1 Hearing the Word

This is true for all the four “soils” but it’s a critical starting point.  The seed in the parable represents the Gospel, after all.  All four situations, three straying from Christ and one steadfast Christian, begin with the reception of the Gospel.  See to it that you always and constantly listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  You can never outgrow it.

#2 Hold it fast

Seriously, you can never outgrow the Gospel.  No matter how old or advanced you may consider yourself as a Christian, the Gospel is as food and drink to you.  As Saint Paul himself wrote, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Time and again throughout that epistle Paul brought the Corinthians back to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our life-long participation or communion in that dying and rising.

#3 an Honest and Good Heart

One might object, surely “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9) and “there is none who does good” (Psalms 14 & 53, verses 1 & 3).  But “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).  As Jesus taught just a couple chapters before this parable:

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Luke 6:43-45

So if you are baptized and believe, you have been made into a good tree to bear good fruit.  You have been given an “honest and good heart” with which to hold fast to the Word of God.

#4 Bring forth Fruit with Patience

Jesus’ fruit tree metaphor continues to serve our understanding of this parable’s application: we are to bear good fruit.  But remember, fruit does not appear on a branch overnight; it grows over many weeks, even months.  You can look at the blossoms in the early Spring and not pick the actual fruit until the late Autumn.  This indicates to us that some of the “fruit” we bear may begin to manifest when we are young, but not come to clearly beneficial fruition until we are old.  We must be patient with ourselves and with one another; Christian growth is a life-long project.  Some even speak of continual growth in love for God after death, though the Bible gives us very little direct information about that Intermediate State between death and resurrection.

Thus this parable gives us one picture (of many) of what discipleship looks like.  Hearing the Word of the Gospel, you must hold it fast for the long haul, using the honest and good heart that God has given you, to its patient fruition throughout the course of this life.  The harvest at the end of the age, that is when your fruits will truly be counted.  Don’t worry overmuch about what you’ve “accomplished” for Christ; this parable teaches us that one of the primary duties of the Christian is to be cultivators.  Hear the Word, read and preached; hold fast to it in your heart and the reception of the Sacraments; nurture the changes it directs and demands within you, making you grow in Christian maturity.  Let someone else (like Jesus) worry about the “results” and the “benefits” – let us be simply faithful.

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Remember and Obey

This is my homily for the 5th Sunday of Eastertide, 10 May 2020…

Collect of the Day: Almighty God, whom truly to know is eternal life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow in his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons: Deuteronomy 6:20-25, Psalm 66:1-8, 1 Peter 2:1-12, John 14:1-14

Transcript:

Happy Easter!  We continue through the great festive season of Easter with the endless and joyful celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Sometimes, though, people get a little mixed up about the concept of feasting and fasting, praise and penitence, across the seasons of the Christian calendar.  I’ve known people who think we don’t need to confess our sins in the liturgy during Easter because it’s a time for joy, and people who only read the Ten Commandments in church during Lent because that’s just a penitential thing.  In reality, though, Christians are invited to remember the commands of God and confess their sins daily, no matter the season.  It is not a violation of the “spirit of Easter”, or of Christmas for that matter, to speak of sin, obedience, and the Law.

Our Collect and Lessons today provide us with a prime example of this.  The resounding theme across the readings today is REMEMBER AND OBEY.  Both Moses, in Deuteronomy, and Jesus, in St. John’s Gospel, give us these words.

The reading from Deuteronomy begins with a very important question: “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’”  This question, and its answer, give us a framework for receiving the commands of God.  Why does God give us commandments to follow?  The answer begins with history: God has delivered his people from bondage, from slavery, from exile, from death.  And he followed that up with commands “for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.”  A skeptic or conspiracy theorist might look at this scenario and argue that God has simply pulled the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery to make them his own slaves instead.  The key difference between that accusation and the biblical reality is that God gives commands for our good always and to be righteousness for us.  So he rescued his people not to re-enslave them but to protect their freedom by teaching them the way to live in that freedom.

When you bring that into the New Testament, we see God, in the person of Jesus, not only teaching us the way to live, but showing us the way to live.  The Law is no longer a list of commandments on a stone or a scroll, but a way, a truth, a life, perfectly embodied in the man Jesus of Nazareth.  That is what we read in John 14 – Jesus is explaining that he himself is the way to the Father.  And more than that, he is the truth and the life: to follow him is to know the truth of God and is to have life eternal.  This is a step up from what was promised in Deuteronomy for following the Law of Moses.  At best, to obey those commands was that God would “preserve us alive, as we are this day” – meaning it was a good way to live and to enjoy a holy, even righteous, life on earth.  But there is no promise therein for eternity.  And that’s because we all are sinners, unable to keep that Law perfectly.  Thus we have the long-awaited New Covenant, promised by Moses and some of the Prophets.

So you, fellow followers of Christ, remember and obey.  Remember what God has done for you.  Not just the exodus from Egypt, or the manna in the wildnerness, or the land that he has given you to live in, but the exodus from sin, the true bread from heaven, your eternal dwelling in the heavenly places.  Or, as today’s Psalm puts it, Say to God, “How wonderful are your works; through the greatness of your power shall your enemies cower before you. For all the world shall worship you, sing to you, and praise your Name.”  Remember the Gospel – we do this in the various prayers of the Church, especially at the Holy Communion.  His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of your sins is the basis for receiving his teachings and commands to live the new life, the holy life, following in the way of Christ.

Saint Peter’s epistle contains much that is relevant here; some have gone so far as to call it an Easter Encyclical, a letter he wrote particularly to expound and apply the doctrine of the resurrection.  From there we read today “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation”.  That is a line that stuck out to me in seminary.  I didn’t go on to memorize it, or put it on my wall or anything like that, but it has kicked around for the past 9 or 10 years in the back of my mind.  His concern is that you may grow up into salvation.  I came from an evangelical background where salvation was usually treated as a one-and-done thing; the process of growth in holiness, or sanctification, was mentioned but not emphasized.  Peter provides a needed correction to that mentality: salvation is something that we grow into.  It has been a passion of mine ever since, especially as a pastor, to help Christians to grow up in the faith, so they won’t be stuck as newborn infants all their lives.  You know – infants are not very safe, they’re easily hurt, led astray, or outright stolen by the Enemy.  Infants are also not very obedient.  So to keep the commands of Christ we must grow as Christians deeper and taller in the faith.

Let us conclude with the Collect of the Day that we already read:

Almighty God, whom truly to know is eternal life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow in his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son.  Amen.

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Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – Deut. 9:26-29

I put together a little homily on a reading from Deuteronomy!

Subject index:

* 00:00 Introduction to the text
*
01:35 Breaking down the prayer
*
05:17 The Communion of Saints
*
06:46 The Need for an Intermediary
*
10:38 Concluding thoughts

Partial Transcript / Outline

Much of the Book of Deuteronomy is Moses simply re-hashing what the Israelites had gone through over the previous forty years in the wilderness.  He reminds them of their rebellions, of their striving with God, of God’s miraculous provision for them and the great victories he brought about.  He revisits the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Calf, and even some of the prayers that he’s made back then.  At the end of this morning reading from chapter 9, we have an example of such a prayer that Moses made.  He had just rehearsed the incident of the Golden Calf and the wrath of God that followed, and then gets to the prayer that he made at the time.

I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage, whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin, 28 lest the land from which you brought us say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.” 29 For they are your people and your heritage, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.’

The basic structure of this prayer is a doublet: there are two pairs of Petition & Reason (almost like two collects in a row).

Petition I: do not destroy your people

Reason I: your heritage, whom you have redeemed… whom you have brought out

Appeal: Remember your servants…

Petition II: do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin

Reason II: lest the land from which you brought us [mock the Lord]
they are your people and your heritage

Notice that right in the middle is an appeal.  It’s similar to a Reason, but it’s worded more like a petition.

Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This teaches us two profound truths.

  1. The Communion of Saints is an organic, living whole.
  2. We earthly sinners need intermediaries to ensure our “connection” with God.

Communion of Saints: we benefit from the faithfulness of others, the departed are still with us and significant, there is a sense in which we all stand or fall together, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep

Intermediary: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were imperfect intermediaries, as were the priests descended from Aaron; our perfect intercessor and intermediary is Jesus the Great High Priest; only through him do we have access to the Father.

So “me and God” is never going to work.  Jesus, who is both God and man, has to be our link to the divine.

And “me and Jesus” is never going to work either, because we are bound in Christ to his whole mystical Body.

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