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Sermon 5/15/16



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  1. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

I believe in freedom of the press. I believe that the Internet should be open and accessible. I think that political opinions shouldn’t be censored by government.

I think that creative people should be able to express their ideas and make their art and direct their films. I don’t believe that I’m puritanical—at least, no more puritanical than the typical person of my age and background!

And yet, I find that there are limits to my support of free speech. For example, I’m uncomfortable about much of the language spoken on television shows; it seems unpleasantly crude. Jokes are made about bodily functions and body parts. Characters in drama series swear frequently.

I don’t think I’m being overly pious. In general, people should be free to say what they want to say. But I get an uneasy feeling about all this bad language.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his own take on free speech. He says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” The things that come out of our mouths get us in moral trouble.

Christ is referring here to Hebrew dietary laws. These rules prohibited eating certain foods, such as pork, and—as Jesus notes—Jews were required to perform ritual washing of their hands and utensils before they ate. These laws were important to the people of Israel because they reinforced their identity. They marked the difference between Jews and non-Jews.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the worst conflicts in the early Church pitted converts from Judaism who wanted to keep the dietary rules of their original faith against Christian converts from pagan religion who had never followed these rules.

Eventually, the church reached a fortunate compromise that allowed it to grow: Hebrew Christians could keep the old laws if they wanted to, while pagan Christians could eat what they wanted.

So it came to pass that believers were identified as followers of Christ not by what went into their mouths but by the words that came out of their lips.

Past generations of churchgoers agreed that Christians shouldn’t swear.

Christians cared about their words. They wanted what they said to reflect who they were: human beings bound for an eternal Kingdom. So Christians would try to avoid crude language; it was unworthy of the children of God.

These days, we worry much less about vulgar speech. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe we are freer as a result. We can certainly be less inhibited! Maybe we can be less uptight than Christians used to be without jeopardizing our faith.

I once knew a clergyman whose private conversation was filled with four letter words! I was amazed that he could get away with this! Yet he was as caring a pastor as you could find, much loved by his people. Members of his congregation were willing to ignore the profanity of the priest’s words because the priest himself was so genuine.

I question, though, whether the condition of the human race is improved by vulgar language. Using sitcom language in real life certainly isn’t the worst of sins; but I don’t know that our mimicking of TV shows contributes much to the Kingdom of God!

And there’s a deeper reason to watch what we say. As Jesus taught, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”

Jesus gives 12 examples of these “evil intentions”: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” Quite a list!

“Fornication” and “licentiousness” might be encouraged by the vulgar TV and movie language I referred to earlier. But the sin of envy, for instance, is also fostered by what we say. We’re jealous of the success of a rival at work, so we use malicious gossip to try to tear her down in the eyes of others.

Another example of what shouldn’t come out of our mouths would be “hate speech.” While bigoted lies about certain groups might be guaranteed by the Constitution, in terms of Christ’s teaching, it creates an atmosphere that can be “murderous.”

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that good things can also come out of our mouths. Our words can nurture life and health and community. In painful situations, we can offer kind words–helpful words—healing words.

And, after all, there is such a thing as good swearing. In a court of law, witnesses take the oath: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

In a similar way, if you’re wrongly accused of making an error at work, you defend yourself with the words: “I didn’t do it—I swear!” This kind of swearing shows your commitment to truth.

The spiritual point Jesus was making is this: when we pay attention to our language, we’re paying attention to what is going on in our souls. Controlling our language can help us to control our emotions.

At one time, scientists challenged the value of this control. Psychologists advised their patients that when they got angry, it was therapeutic for them to “let off steam.” Freud proposed the model of the pressure cooker, where if someone holds anger inside without letting it out, it will build to dangerous levels – like steam in a pressure cooker will build if it is not vented.

So, it was thought that expressing your anger would allow you to get the bad emotion out of your system. However, recent research suggests the opposite conclusion. While people report that they feel better after venting, they actually become more angry.

Negative self-expression takes a toll. As the venom flows out of our mouths, we savor it.

I once knew another clergyman who had a quick temper. He didn’t swear, but he rarely passed up an opportunity to get in a quarrel! I would guess that some of his happiest moments were spent in feuding with bishops! Yet he was a good example of someone who should have held his tongue. Although those of us who knew this priest loved his forceful personality, we knew that his free speech could get the better of him, and we should steer clear of him when he was in a bad mood.

Of course, actions can be more important than words. It’s better to have a kind employer whose language is rough than a boss with pristine speech who treats his workers badly.

In the end, it’s that evil intention that counts. Why do we say what we say? If we feel the anger leads us to swear, we can ask what is in our souls that’s making us mad. And we can ask God to put something better in our hearts.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.



Sermons

  1. Jn. 6.51-58

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The words of today’s Gospel are familiar to regular churchgoers. They are repeated in one form or another every time the bread and wine of the Eucharist are shared.

Yet to someone hearing them for the first time, these words could be shocking. “Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven…the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The context of this passage is a discussion Christ is having with Hebrew leaders about the nature of his mission. They hear his words and they’re shocked! The leaders ask the common sense question: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

But Jesus sticks by his prediction: “Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

And to be sure the point is made, Jesus goes on to say, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’’

These images certainly get our attention. They’re puzzling. They’re disturbing. But I don’t think they’re a challenge to faith.

On the contrary: these words are intended to deepen our faith. For Christ is giving us a way that we can get closer to God. The bread and wine remind us that we can actually share the life of the divine.

St. Paul said that we “live in Christ;” he claimed that Christ “lives in us.” We are part of a community united by the Spirit of Christ. In fact, the unity we find is so strong that we can think of ourselves not just as one in the Spirit of Christ but part of the Body of Christ. Which is precisely what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel.

The vivid language Jesus uses has another purpose. It reminds us that Christ’s spirit comes to us in the bread and the wine of the sacrament. These “elements” of the rite, as they are called, are a unique way of coming to feel the shared life of God’s Kingdom.

Over the centuries, of course, Christians have tried to dig deeper. They have asked what the Eucharist means in philosophical or theological terms. Our Anglican tradition explains the sacrament by the doctrine of the “real presence.”

This understanding was formulated in reaction to the theological controversies of the English Reformation in the 1500’s. When the Church of England broke away from the Pope, it attempted to combine the best ideas of the Roman Catholic Church with the most useful concepts of the Protestant churches.

The split between Catholics and Protestants had originally occurred in part because of a disagreement about the Mass. Catholics claimed that the substance of the bread and wine changed into the substance of Christ’s body; this doctrine was called, “transubstantiation.”

Protestants like John Calvin, on the other hand, felt that the Eucharist had become too prominent in the church’s life. People became so obsessed with it that a lot of magical thinking revolved around it.

Protestants thus felt that the best thing was to see the ritual as a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus died once on the Cross. The Holy Communion is only a reminder of that original sacrifice, not a new sacrifice.

The doctrine of the Real Presence aims to keep the strengths of each position. Like the Protestants, Anglicans recognize the dangers of superstitious belief in the Eucharist. So we purposely leave the metaphysics vague. We don’t get specific about “what happens” at the Lord’s Table.

But, like the Roman Catholics, we do believe that something happens. We believe that when the rite is properly celebrated, there is a unique divine presence—the spirit of God that was incarnate in his Son Jesus when Jesus was on earth also comes to us, today. God-in-Christ is present. Really!

Now if you’re still perplexed about the meaning of the Eucharist—well, don’t be surprised that you’re perplexed! After all, the communion service is referred to as the “holy mysteries.”

I have sometimes pointed this out when I talk with parents about their children receiving communion. Children can come to the altar rail so long as they are baptized and the parents agree they can receive.

But some parents have asked me, “What if my child doesn’t understand the doctrines associated with Communion”.

My answer is that no one completely understands this ceremony! Bishops, theologians, saints—no one can comprehend how the Almighty God, the creator of all things becomes present to us in ordinary food and drink.

No wonder, then, that individual responses to the sacrament can vary quite a lot. At the communion rail, some of us think of the man, Jesus, and his compassion for all human beings.

Others of us sometimes have a general feeling of divine love. Others of us will have a less defined experience–yet we will often leave church with an awareness that we have been fed. Our spiritual hunger has been satisfied.

Whatever we feel, our Anglican view of sacraments is valuable. As we say, a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.” So, in rites like the communion service or baptism or marriage, God always acts.

The failings of the priest or the imperfections of the worshippers don’t matter. When the outward signs are present—the bread and wine of communion, the water of baptism, the wedding vows–God will deliver the inward grace. That’s the reason for the bold language. God is a real presence.

Now in our culture today, the term, “real” is supposed to be a guarantee of authenticity—like cookies made with “real butter.”

But “real” is a tricky word. For example, what does it mean to say that some food has “real butter flavor?” Does the food have butter in it or not?

When people ask the question, “Really?” they’re wondering if something is what it claims to be. For the Christian, what’s really real lies beyond the material. It is in the spiritual that we find the deepest reality.

I believe the spiritual was present in our Assembly Hall on Friday, when the Vacation Bible School students had their closing communion service. There were many non-Anglican children there who were receiving Christ for the first time. They couldn’t have been able to describe the doctrine of the Real Presence. But they were able to realize they were in the presence of something beyond the ordinary. Something Spiritual. Something Holy. Something Real.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.



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Sermons

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

We aren’t the best judges of ourselves. As the old joke reminds us! “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”

Besides being a river, “Denial” is delusion about ourselves – delusion that we cling to with all our hearts. A woman believes that she’s always the life of the party. In reality, her constant craving for attention and awkward jokes make the people around her uncomfortable. Often she is the death of the party.

Now we may think that we have a treatment that will cure these delusions about ourselves. For example, we have the benefits of psychology to tell us who we really are.

The science of psychology reveals our unconscious desires and motivations. Psychotherapists can employ their subtle methods to help us unlock the secrets of our hearts and after we get therapy, we don’t pretend that we’re people that we’re not.

But sometimes denial can’t be overcome by science. Sometimes denial is a moral problem, not a medical one. Today’s Old Testament reading presents a breathtaking case. In the story, Nathan, a Hebrew prophet, functions like a psychiatrist; he helps David see himself as he really is.

The Bible’s account of David’s affair with Bathsheba extends over several chapters of the Second Book of Samuel; bits of the story have been assigned for our lessons during several recent Sunday services.

The story begins when David looks out from his palace balcony and sees a beautiful woman bathing. Being a king, he has the power to summon the woman named Bathsheba to his presence. David has her brought to his palace, and he seduces her.

Bathsheba turns out to be married. She is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, an officer in the army of Israel.

David, however, finds a way to rid himself of the inconvenient husband. He sends Uriah out into a harsh battle, having arranged beforehand for the troops around him to retreat. The Hebrew soldiers fall back, and Uriah finds himself alone and overwhelmed by the enemy. Despite his bravery, he is slain.

As today’s portion of the story begins, the period of mourning for Uriah is over and King David adds Bathsheba to his collection of wives. But God won’t let David get away with this outrage. He sends the prophet Nathan to David and Nathan tells David a story:

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.

“Now there came a traveler to visit the rich man, and the rich man was loath to take one of his own flock to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”

David is furious when he hears of the rich man’s greed. He said to Nathan, “the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Then Nathan replies, in unforgettable words: “You are the man!”

King David had many virtues. He was the brave conqueror of the giant Goliath and the Philistines. He was a fine musician and a brilliant composer. History regards him as the greatest of Israel’s kings. The early Church saw him as an ancestor of Jesus, the Messiah, who was known as the “Son of David.”

And yet what David did to poor Uriah is appalling. The king had access to a number of women, a power kings possessed in those days. Uriah, though had just his one cherished “lamb”—his one lovely wife. And yet David took Bathsheba away from Uriah and arranged for his death.

“You are the man.” Imagine what David felt when he heard those words. He was “the man”—whatever his virtues, he was a cruel and selfish person.

And imagine what the people of Israel thought when they heard this story. If the great David could be so blind to his failings, what about them? What about ordinary people?

This story reminds us of the dangers of submitting ourselves to supreme rulers. As one of the Psalms advises: “Put not your trust in princes.” But the story also should remind us that however wise we are, we can never be sure that we’re really behaving the way we believe we are.

Think of the excuses we come up with to justify our self-indulgence. Recall, for instance, a time when you were tempted to have a late night snack—of course, that would be a snack with miniscule nutritional value and lots of calories!

To justify the snack, you pretended to yourself that the food would make you sleep better. Or that you thought that you deserved a little treat after a long day of work. Or you told yourself that your treat wouldn’t be bad for you. A simple action—supported by a complicated web of denial!

Or think of a casual remark you made one day to a friend. Without realizing it, you hurt his feelings so he calls you on it—you respond that you didn’t mean any offense.

Only much later, days later, do you admit to yourself that you did want to insult your friend. You were jealous of his success, and you wanted to try to pull him down a little.

In the end of the story, King David confesses to the prophet Nathan: “I have sinned against the LORD.” It’s no wonder that our liturgy reminds us so often of our sinfulness. We might prefer not even to hear the word, “sin”—much less consider our actions that fall into that category. But it’s there, nevertheless.

Denial is real. Sin is real.

Yet so is confession. And so is forgiveness.

And so is freedom – the real freedom from delusion and selfishness that comes when we acknowledge our imperfections before God and accept His generous grace.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.



Sermons

  1. Psalm 14/Ephesians 3

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

A recent poll has gotten a lot of church leaders worried.

The poll by the Pew Research Center claims that the percentage of Americans who don’t profess any faith or who claim to be atheists has increased dramatically in the last few years.

Researchers were surprised to learn that 23% of our citizens classify themselves as not believing in any religion. The percentage of atheists and agnostics doubled from 3.5% to 7% of the population. Equally worrisome for the future of the church: the younger persons polled tended to be more skeptical than the older ones.

Many explanations have been offered for these poll results. I would speculate that some people who have always been indifferent to religion now feel free to admit that they are unbelievers. In these cases, people aren’t becoming more unreligious—just more honest about what they don’t believe.

Researchers have suggested that other respondents may have been swayed by the anti-religious arguments of some recent best-selling authors. Still others may simply be turned off by the violence and extremism of the religious fanatics who are now in the news. In these cases, declining church affiliation is predictable, and it shouldn’t surprise us.

But whatever the cause, “atheism” has become a more common word than it used to be. Those widely-read authors I mentioned—such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins–are now sometimes referred to as the “New Atheists.”

Yet it’s questionable just how “new” this skepticism really is. For example, today’s Psalm—which is at least 2,500 years old—talks about an atheist. And it happens to have some very interesting things to say about unbelief.

Psalm 14 begins, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Of course the Psalms are written from a religious point of view. For Hebrews, God certainly did exist. Theism is taken for granted, so from the Hebrew perspective, saying in your heart that there isn’t any God is indeed foolish!

But if we look further at the text, we see that it has something to say to teach modern people, whatever their belief or non-belief. For example, according to the text, the fool says there is no God. That is, he states it as a fact. The non-existence of the divine is therefore a conclusion that the fool has reached in his mind.

Yet, also according to the text, the fool says there is no God “in his heart.” The Psalm writer thus suggests that a person can disbelieve in two ways: mentally in his mind, or emotionally in his soul. The atheist can think that God is an impossible concept. Or she can feel indifferent to religion.

This distinction is important for us who have faith and want to share it. It implies that we should adopt different strategies to approach intellectual atheists than we employ to address emotional atheists.

For instance, we could respond to the intellectual skeptic by referring to the arguments of the many Christian philosophers writing today. These thinkers present a coherent defense of belief in God that incorporates modern logic and scientific research.

Take the belief in life after death. Some Christian philosophers have argued that the idea of immortality that the Bible talks about can now be described as taking place in another dimension – like those described in modern physics.

Physicists contend that there may be 6 or 7 dimensions beyond the three dimensions of space and single dimension of time that we now know. Perhaps our souls go into one of these dimensions when we die. That seems possible.

Life in Heaven would still be a mystery—but it wouldn’t be a total mystery. Eternal life with God would remain a hope for Christians.

What, then, about emotional atheists? How could their doubts be overcome?

Well, they might be moved by forms of worship. Many people attend our carol services at Christmas even though they’re not regular churchgoers. These visitors often respond to the services at the level of feeling. For emotional atheists, worship suggests warmth and community and transcendence – gifts that are hard to find in a purely secular environment.

Today’s Psalm also has some advice for those of us who already possess religious faith. For the Psalm goes on to say, “The LORD looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise, if there is one who seeks after God.”

The wise person, unlike the fool, searches for the divine. Notice that, on this view, it isn’t achieving some high level of belief that pleases God. Rather, what’s important is the attempt you make to “seek after God.”

If you’re smart, you’ll know what’s good for you. And it’s good for you always to be looking for more spiritual knowledge. For that spiritual knowledge helps you figure out what’s important to you at any given moment – what will make you content with your life.

In that regard, it’s interesting that the same polls that have charted a decline of religious belief have also noted a trend that goes in the opposite direction. Surveys of believers and non-believers have consistently indicated that believers are happier.

It’s not clear why. Perhaps because religious people have more control over their appetites, so they don’t abuse their bodies like the unreligious. (I myself don’t find this argument persuasive. All human beings are tempted by self-indulgence. Religious people may be happier than non-religious but I don’t think we’re morally superior.)

Nor does religion necessarily make life easier. Christians have a responsibility to care for the poor, for example. According to our ideals, as long as there is someone suffering, somewhere in the world we are bound to care for that person. This is who we are, and if the suffering of others makes us feel guilty until we do something about it—well, that guilt comes with the territory. That’s part of bearing the Cross of Christ in a fallen world.

Still, it really shouldn’t surprise us that religious people are happier. If indeed there is wisdom in the religious quest, then there should be benefits to that wisdom. So we may gain an increasing sense of God’s care for us. And we may have fewer anxieties as we become more confident that God is on our side.

As the Bible also says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Atheists come and go. And there are always fools who rush to follow them.

Fortunately, there is an option for those who search for spiritual truth. As St. Paul says, we can “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” And in that love, we “may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Amen.



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