Sermons

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Light in the Darkness . . .

Trinity 24, 2021 – Fr. Geromel – “For this cause . . . do not cease to pray . . .”

In today’s Epistle lesson, we are introduced to one of Paul’s fellow-laborers, Epaphras. He is mentioned one other times in the Book of Colossians and in the Book of Philemon, where he is described as a “fellow-prisoner” in Rome with Paul. Here we have a fellow who is always wrestling in prayer for the people committed to his charge and he was, according to Christian tradition, the first bishop of the Colossian church. I want to dwell on this theme of ceaseless prayer as we look at two saints remembered on November 14th, St. Gregory of Palamas and St. Lawrence O’Tool.

          St. Gregory Palamas is an Eastern saint born in the late 13th century, a bright student taken under the wing of the Emperor of Byzantium who chose to become a monk instead of a courtier like his father. After living in several different communities on the holy island of Mount Athos, he became the most prominent and well-known teacher of the unceasing prayer of the heart, known as Hesychasm. This is mostly associated today with the practice of the “Jesus Prayer,” a repetitive invocation directed at bringing the words said in the mind into the heart. Originally, the practice was likely taking the psalms which the desert monks in Egypt had memorized and saying them methodically, all 150 psalms every day, and directing those words of Scripture at the heart. In the West, as in the East, the practice of Hesychasm was practiced using prayer beads, or rosaries. Here the Pater Noster Beads were 150 Our Fathers that were prayed by lay associates of monasteries as the equivalent out in the world of the 150 psalms said by the monks in the cloister. The Most Holy Rosary takes the words of Scripture, a combination of the words said to Mary by Gabriel and the words said to her by Elizabeth and combining them into the Ave Maria, a meditation, we might say without ceasing, on the Incarnation of Our Lord, praying that the fruit that was in the womb of Mary, implant in our hearts.

          St. Gregory eventually came to Thessalonica due to threats and troubles from the Turks, where he became a priest and he was a good priest. When people asked him if he only worked on Sundays, he answered that he did, actually, only work on Sundays. The fact was that he was never seen by his parishioners Monday through Friday, so unceasing was his life of prayer. (And here he was, in my opinion, emulating the Desert Fathers of Egypt, because often they would spend their time out in the desert Monday thru Friday in prayer, and then come into the cities on Sunday to worship with the normal congregation.) But this life of prayer worked for him and his parishioners, because his preaching was very powerful on Sunday, no doubt because he had put so much prayer into it, so I suppose his congregation forgave him for only working on Sunday.

          In the West, St. Lawrence O’Tool combined the best of Celtic Monasticism in Ireland with the best of monasticism that he could find on the continent of Europe especially in France. Like St. Gregory of Palamas his connections with the political powers of the day made his turning to monasticism noteworthy. His father was a King, and his brother-in-law was the King of Leinster and St. Lawrence became the Abbot of Glendalough at age 26, just as St. Gregory Palamas was an Abbot by about the same age, a remarkably young age. At 32, in 1162 A.D., St. Lawrence was elected unanimously as the Archbishop of Dublin and served as the first non-Dane or non-Norwegian prelate in that city which had been established by the Vikings. He laid the foundation stone of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (now Christ Church) and invited Augustinian monks to Dublin and encouraged the use of Gregorian Chant – which effectively connected Irish Monasticism with Roman Monasticism. Nevertheless, he spent 40 days a year as a hermit in the cave used by St. Kevin of Glendalough.

          We can say that like a Rector in the Episcopal Church, St. Lawrence O’Tool got a month off a year, but unlike so many Rectors who spend their vacations at posh locations, we can imagine the Archbishop of Dublin, like a Celtic Monk or a Greek or Russian one, spending his month off in prayer where there was a nice cold floor for his bed and chilling cold brooks and lakes to bathe in. Indeed, we can jokingly say that while St. Gregory of Palamas perfected the art of only working on Sundays, St. Lawrence O’Tool worked hard all year looking forward to his month-long vacation at his mountain resort. I’m sure the fishing was great! No, in fact, like Epaphras, like Paul, I’m sure he was praying without ceasing.

          In the Western Church, the practice of praying without ceasing is through the liturgies of the hours, or canonical hours, seven times of prayer each day. While the Eastern Church has these as well, the tendency – as in the Book of Common Prayer tradition – is to combine some of these offices together and then the Eastern monks give themselves wholeheartedly, literally, to working on the Prayer of the Heart while doing the various labors that make up the life of an Eastern monk. In the Western Church, as I have said, the different practice is to punctuate the day, alternating between work and prayer, by having shorter offices of prayer interspersed. Again, St. Lawrence combined the method of the eremitic Gaelic tradition (so similar to that of the Desert Fathers and Byzantines and Russians) with the method of the Roman church, with its carefully prescribed orders with carefully prescribed rules and carefully and exactly followed rules or offices of prayer.

          Now just a couple years into being Archbishop, St. Lawrence faced a political dilemma, and the outworking of that would be to simultaneously complete the subjugation of the Irish church to the Roman discipline and to make the Irish Church Anglican, that is, to make the Irish Church subject to Rome by way of being subject to Canterbury and, thereby, part of Ecclesia Anglicana, the English Church. It played out like this: St. Lawrence’s brother-in-law King Diarmait of Leinster ran into trouble when a new High King of Ireland Rory or Roderick O’Connor replaced the King of Leinster’s ally in 1166. Diarmait was exiled (abducting the new High King’s wife didn’t help in this) and he went to the court of Henry II of England for help. The result was the invasion of Ireland by the Norman-Welshman, Strongbow, and his gang of Norman knights. Like William the Conqueror a century earlier a group of Normans, Welsh and Flemish adventurers entered in to try to help King Diarmait regain his throne and these knight-mercenaries and Welsh bowmen gained the old Norse towns of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin in the bargain. Strongbow also got King Diarmait’s daughter (that is St. Lawrence’s niece) as a wife in the bargain as well. But Strongbow got a little too big for his britches and thought he could go from being the vassal of Henry II to being king in his own right, so Henry II came over, even more like his grandfather William the Conqueror, to establish law and order, Norman style, and like William the Conqueror with the Pope’s blessing, since Henry was going to furthermore bring the Irish Church in line with the Roman and Anglo-Norman Church at the Synod of Cashel.

          In 1171, the good Archbishop went to see Henry II who was at Canterbury at the time and, in that very same place where St. Thomas A Beckett was brutally martyred, St. Lawrence was attacked when about to go say mass by a maniac who figured he would make St. Lawrence into a new St. Thomas. He was struck down and appeared dead or mortally wounded, but like our Gospel lesson today, he was not dead but sleeping a moment (or was he actually dead?) and like St. Paul who when stoned and thought dead (or was he?) just got up and went back into the city. Again, like the Gospel lesson today, when St. Lawrence was roused up from what appeared mortal wounds, he asked for some water, blessed it, washed his wounds and the flow of blood was stopped and then he went on to offer the unbloodied sacrifice of the mass.

Later, after going to Rome for the Third Lateran Council, he returned to Dublin. He wasn’t back there long as the Papal Legate when he needed to find Henry II again since there was some strain between Henry II and the High King of Ireland, Roderic O’Connor. Despite O’Connor being the enemy of Lawrence’s clan, he followed Henry II to Normandy to effect this reconciliation and died there at an Augustinian Monastery in Eu in 1180. Later, his heart was returned to Christ Church, Dublin, where it remained and continued to be a treasured relic by the established Anglican Church of Ireland despite the Reformation’s hatred of relics. In 2012, that relic was stolen from the Cathedral and recovered in 2018 and restored to Christ Church Dublin by a special evensong ceremony by Anglican Archbishop Michael Jackson.

          Like Paul and Epaphras, St. Gregory of Palamas and St. Lawrence O’Tool knew that the ministry was an arduous task requiring ceaseless prayer, despite folks, I’m sure, sometimes thinking they only worked on Sundays! Now, during their Sabbath rest with Jesus, they continue ceaselessly to pray alongside Paul and Epaphras in heaven. This ceaseless prayer is something, whether by saying the daily office, or practicing the Rosary, or the Jesus Prayer, we should all endeavor to follow today. By it the Church is built up, the Church’s enemies kept at bay, and the salvation of souls is won. “For this cause . . . do not cease to pray . . . giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the Saints in light.”

Let us pray.

O Glorious and almighty God, in Whom all the spirits of the blessed place the confidence of their hope; grant to us that, by Thy help, we may be able ever to serve Thee with a pure mind; Through …[1]

[1] Sarum Breviary, A.D. 1085. Chain of Prayer Across the Ages, 170.

 

Trinity 23, 2021 – Fr. Geromel

Behold and identify. The works which men do are they for mammon or for God? If they are for mammon do they still return to the glory of God? Christ beheld a coin and it belonged to Caesar because it had Caesar’s image upon it and Christ returned it to Caesar. But whose was it in the end? Caesar already had his reward. He was ruler of the Roman world. Christ bided his time and, behold, all things came to him through the Cross. Caesar ruled the world at the time of Christ. But Christ shall rule the world to come. Caesar’s gold perished with him. The gold Christ inherited from the Father is building up the heavenly Jerusalem. Are we citizens of heaven or of earth? Both. And yet, the gold we return to the government returns to us because we already own it in the Lord Jesus.

Do you feel that your tax money is spoilt by the government? In a sense, it is spoilt already when we spend it on food, raiment, televisions, automobiles, all of which will corrupt, decay, and be rendered useless by the passage of time. Do you eat today? Good. Then give the government its due. If you do not eat today, then we might have cause to wonder what the government was doing with our money. Citizenship is a matter of to whom we belong, not to whom we pay money. We pay money to all sorts of people to whom we certainly do not belong. The government renders us a service because it has an obligation to us due to our payment of taxes. Christ renders us a service out of love, not because we pay Him money. He doesn’t need money. He made the material out of which it is made. He can give it to whomsoever he desires. And as it stands, He desires that we give some to government.

These are simple enough matters. But the matter of simplicity ends when we consider that we are as perishable as the money. More so, because we still have coins which Caesar minted. He minted and he is dead. We spend and then we die. But because all things belong to Christ, he returns to us what is our due – a body in which to worship him and enjoy him forever. This we are owed not by our own merits but because of something Christ owes to himself – worship. That is not simple. That is something we shall marvel at for ages to come in a life of perfect worship.

What then do we owe to the Church? What is the Church’s? It is even those things which have the Church’s mark upon them – which bears the Church’s image. Worship items in ancient Israel were inscribed with the words, “Holy to Jehovah”. We in the New Covenant are worship items, baptized and sanctified through use. When we bless a thurible, vestments, icons, statues, rosaries, there are two ways that we bless. 1st we exorcise it and then consecrate it, set it aside and don’t use it for anything else. 2nd we bless it through using it in the sanctuary of the Lord. Those who have been baptized but never again enter the Church have been blessed in the 1st sense but not by in the 2nd, they aren’t darkening the door of the sanctuary they were consecrated to serve and worship in. Ye baptized who stand here today are blessed by both.

Now, who then is blessed when we present our tithes and offerings to the Lord? Money sits in a bank and collects interest. It bears the mark of the government and the government is blessed because the economy is flowing. The bank is blessed because the money has been used to invest elsewhere. The customer is blessed because the money has increased in value by being lent to the bank. But in the Church who is blessed when money is given? The giver is blessed because he has been freed from the money and his worship has been intensified by the giving of it. The Church is blessed because the money has been invested in the preservation of the Church and the salvation of souls and because the Church’s main function, the Worship of God, could not be performed without it. The government is interestingly blessed in a round-about way because the money that is offered, having the image and superscription of the government, is evidence that the government has allowed the Church to operate freely, or at least somewhat freely (depending on the government) within its borders.

And whether the gold is at the bank or at the church, God is glorified because it is His gold in the first place and in the end it shall be His gold again. But the bank shall perish while the Church shall exist for all eternity. By Faith, the money is nothing to us. And by Faith being nothing it is again everything – our food, our raiment, our life. This is because, when we make the money nothing by Faith, it becomes God’s money by Faith. God is life forever. Money is life for a time. God and Money – They both become a matter of eternal life – but only when God comes first. If money comes first, then Money is death and we are dead. Since our money perishes with us, then we should get rid of as much as possible in this life – not just to the church mind you, but to the needy, and our children and our grandchildren. This is true. The only way that we can invest it so that it is ultimately safe is to place it in God’s bank, the Church. There is corruption in the Church. Embezzlement happens in the Church, unfortunately. Yet investing it in the Church with the right heart, is always lending to the Lord, even if a corrupt person in the Church makes off with our money, or a thief breaks in and steals (and the church insurance doesn’t pay up.) If we invest it in the bank, the bank will play with it and then our heirs will play with it but we shall not play with it after we die. If we invest it in materials objects, we shall play with the material object until it breaks or until we die. If, however, we invest it in the Church, then we really invest it in each other’s salvation. And if we do so, we shall be able to enjoy one another’s company in heaven forever.

If instead of money you give time to Church, I can not argue with this theologically. But let it be said that the money in this church is given with prayer and blessing. Let your time be given with much prayer so that it can be the best volunteerism that you do, the most productive time in your week, the most fruitful. Yet I prefer that you give money. Time is good, but money is better. That is a strange point, but one that needs to be carefully admitted.

The time we give to the Church is our time. It is generally relaxing, peaceful, a wonderful environment in which to work (although sometimes volunteering in a church can be aggravating). Volunteering feels good. I submit, though, that the hell we went through to earn our daily bread is harder, tougher, and more irritating work than the volunteering that we do for the Church. And so what is the greater sacrifice, time in a peaceful few hours with the Lord in his sweet service or the money that was a headache to earn? Indeed, not only a headache to earn, but it is a headache to keep. Not as a theological rule, but as a word of spiritual advice, I advise that we give in money and let our volunteer time be the icing on the cake. No, not even that, for the time we spend serving the Lord in His sanctuary is such a blessing to us because it is so sweet to work directly for God, that it is rarely a sacrifice.

 Giving is always fun, but giving money is strangely more fun than giving time. Why else would we give expensive Christmas presents? It is like saying, “I would like to come to your Christmas party, but instead of bringing a present I would like the time I spend with you to be my present.” A gracious host certainly says, “By all means come without a present for I would rather have you here without a present than not here at all.” But who would not feel that they were a poor guest and a downright Bah-humbug?

So let us give in the spirit of Christmas every Sunday and we shall be as happy every Sunday as we are at Christmas. Let us give as if money is going out of style, because, in fact, it is going out of existence. Let us pray.

We praise thee, O God, with gladness and humility for all the joys of life, for health and strength, for the love of friends, for work to do, and play to re-create us. We thank thee for the adventure of life. Above all, we thank thee for thy unspeakable gift of Jesus Christ our Lord, for the blessings that have come to us through his body the Church; and help us to show our thankfulness, not only with our lips, but in our lives, always endeavouring to do that which shall please thee; O God, the giver of all good gifts, we thank thee for all the blessings which we have. Give us always contented minds, cheerful hearts, and ready wills, so that we may spend and be spent in the service of others, after the example of him who gave his life a ransom for many, our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Amen.[1]   

[1] Adapted from Prayers for All Occasions, 11.

 

Christ the King – Fr. Geromel

“Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible or invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers.”

On this Christ the King Sunday, or Reformation Sunday, as it is known in many other churches, I am reminded – being Halloween – of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I find myself intrigued by the name of the hero, an unlucky hero, but a hero nonetheless – Ichabod Crane. Like Moby Dick, with its “Call me Ishmael,” the story indicates from the beginning that we have something of Old Testament reverberations happening before us. Ishmael means “God has hearkened” but was, of course, the luckless son of Abraham and the slave Hagar. Ichabod comes from the 1 Book of Samuel, “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband” both of whom had just died. In Puritan New England, Old Testament names abound but why Ishmael, why Ichabod? Why “the Glory has departed” Crane? I think it tells you something about what was going on. American Independence had been won, and we enter into a story about a remote and obscure village along the Hudson River, Dutch, like the Colony of New York was before the English took it over; now it’s Yankee. Ichabod is from Connecticut. Everything is Calvinist. He’s Calvinist. The Dutch are Calvinist. But there are ghost stories and war stories, and jealousies and a schoolteacher who’s also a teacher of Psalmody and the Catechism who reads Cotton Mather’s book on Witchcraft in New England as a hobby. He’s jilted in love, tries to return late at night after a party where he’s so poor, he’s eating up as many doughnuts and pie as he can, to where he is boarding, and is attacked by a headless horseman. It is his rival in love, of course, dressed up as the ghost of a Hessian soldier, complete with a pumpkin head. Ichabod disappears, leaving all of his possessions (everybody thinks he’s dead) to become a successful lawyer in the city. It is a likely story. But what is the glory that has departed? The “City on a Hill” has departed, I might argue, and has been replaced by what Washington Irving called “Gotham City” – New York City (to later become immortalized in Batman comics.)

          I want to turn to John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon. Delivered before reaching the New World in 1630, Winthrop writes: “God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.” The first reason why? “First to hold conformity with the rest of His world, being delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures, and the glory of His power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole, and the glory of His greatness, that as it is the glory of princes to have many officers, so this great king will have many stewards, counting himself more honored in dispensing his gifts to man by man, than if he did it by his own immediate hands.” This is consistent with our Epistle: “for by him were all things created . . .  whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers. All things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the Church . . . that in all things he might have the preeminence.” But note this difference. Winthrop offers that the poor shall always be with us and also those who are lofty, as well as meek, but not to set up and exploit a sort of class struggle and warfare like Karl Marx. Winthrop outlines communal living in the early church and in the Old Testament church as being something done in times of persecution and great need, but not as the normal course of matters. For him, as with the Christian Church, poverty becomes the opportunity for charity, rather than the opportunity for stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Thus he says, “Secondly, that [God] might have the more occasion to manifest the work of his Spirit: first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them, so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against and shake off their yoke.”

          In the story of Ichabod Crane, we have a poor schoolteacher hoping to marry a rich farmer’s wife. Despite already being jilted, he is made the butt of a cruel joke by what we would call today the “jock” who planned to marry the “homecoming queen.” This is the opposite of what John Winthrop outlined in his third reason as to why God ordered in this world both rich and poor, “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection….” Here at the end of the Puritan era, and the beginning of American Independence, nearly two-hundred years after John Winthrop preached his oft-read sermon, this City on a Hill was still imperfect. And here we are, two hundred years after Irving’s writing, and the City on a Hill is all but extinguished. What shall we do? We return, as always, to first principles

          There are three spheres of a Christian commonwealth according to Richard Hooker the great Anglican political and ecclesiastical thinker: “a natural, a civil, and a spiritual.” Hooker says that you are never cut off from the natural state until you are dead. The civil state you can be put in jail. In a spiritual state, you can be excommunicated. Now what is the relationship between the civil state and a spiritual state. Hooker sees that laws are enacted by the civil state and then when the elected official assumes leadership, and he does in fact see that kings are in a sense elected, then our spiritual obligation is to obey them. He says this, “And therefore of what kind soever the means be whereby governors are lawfully advanced unto their seats, as we by the law of God stand bound meekly to acknowledge them for God’s lieutenants, and to confess their power his, so they by the same law are both authorized and required to use that power as far as it may be in any sort available to his honour.” God’s lieutenants is what Hooker describes them as. So we vote and we obey the Law – that is generally our part as Christians living in a commonwealth.

          But what of the spiritual? We are part of a spiritual state as well, are we not? The basis of this is also covenant and law. So Richard Mather, the father of Increase, who was the father of Cotton Mather, wrote in his Apology for the Church in New England in 1639, “concerning Church-Covenant . . . it may be thus described: A solemn and public promise before the Lord, whereby a company of Christians, called by the power and mercy of God to fellowship with Christ, and by his providence to live together, and by his grace to cleave together in the unity of the faith, and brotherly love, and desirous to partake together in all the holy Ordinances of God, do in confidence of his gracious acceptance in Christ, bind themselves to the Lord, and to one another, to walk together by the assistance of his Spirit, in all such ways of holy worship in him and of edification one towards another, as the Gospel of Christ requireth of every Christian Church, and the members thereof.” But you think, jeez, this is a congregational church we’re talking about here. Yet Richard Mather acknowledges the universal church and says, “The Catholic Church indeed is one, i.e. the whole company of God’s Elect in heaven, in earth, dead, now living, and not yet born. But as there is the Church-Catholic, which is but one; so there are particular and visible Churches, which are in number many.” Mather says, “the means of reforming and restoring a Church when it is corrupted . . . is by entering into Covenant anew with God.” This you did when you formed the ACC and this parish. Throughout his Apology, like Richard Hooker, Richard Mather presumes that there is a parallelism between the civil and ecclesial societies and that one gives us information about the other.  

Thus, we can say that as there are three levels of the civil estate: Nation or State, Town, and Family, so there are three levels of the spiritual estate: Denomination or diocese, parish, and family. In both, of course, the first level is marriage, which is the exact analogy and touchstone that both Mather and Hooker outline. The husband and wife, mutually covenanted together, according to the Law of God, and in like manner the other spheres of government are constituted. Marriage is a free association, not enacted by compulsion but by freely giving and receiving of rings, freely giving power to one another over physical bodies and temporal goods, ind the midst of boundaries and roles instituted by God’s Law. In the same way, all the other spheres of government are free associations under the King of kings and Lord of lords, whether they be “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” they are constituted by “the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.”

We need to get back to the basics, and back to first principles, and to this end we should renew ourselves constantly with those same principles and in that Covenant, by which our forefathers won their liberties of old. As John Winthrop said on a boat sailing for a new world, “Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant. Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us . . .” That is to say, beloved, that it shall no longer be Ichabod with us, the Glory has departed, for the Glory shall have returned.

Trinity 21, 2021 – Fr. Geromel

“That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” Ephesians 4

What does “pardon and peace” mean? Absolution, yes, but from what. Sins, yes, but also “all things that may hurt us.” All things that might disquiet our conscience, and take away our peace unnecessarily. St. Paul says a few things about dietary issues.

“For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” Romans 14:7

“But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.” 1 Cor. 8:8

“Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body.” 1 Cor. 6:13

“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:” Col. 2:16

These speak in the first instance to the Judaizers, those who would hold Christians to the dietary laws of Moses, but in the second instance to Gnostics, sects of Christianity more given to philosophy than the Gospel. So Paul says to Timothy, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” 1 Timothy 4:1-3

Philosophical sects had dietary laws too:

  • Pythagoreans were vegetarians. Pythagoras was strongly against eating beans because they are full of air, so they must have life in them. He believed that beans and humans were spawned from the same thing so that it was equivalent to eating flesh.
  • “In Manichaeism, worship and ritual are means to release the divine light particles imbued in the Earth and that which dwells on it; for a Manichee, one’s life goal was to minimize the amount of dark particles being consumed, but to increase the amount of light particles in one’s diet. At death, the light particles are released, bringing more power to the cosmic forces of light that do battle with the darkness in the grand scheme of things.”[1]

The Christian Gospel releases one from all of these matters, all of these strains on the conscience. It provides “pardon and peace” in relation to dietary matters.

          In Heathen society too, health takes on way in which one is blown by many winds of doctrine. A Jesuit in the 17th Century, working among the Huron tribes records, “The dream is the oracle that all these poor people consult and obey, the prophet that predicts future events to them, the Cassandra which warns them of misfortunes threatening them, the doctor in their illness. It is the most absolute master they have. If a chief argues one way, and the dreams speaks another, the dream will be obeyed. The dream presides in their councils; trading, fishing and hunting are usually undertaken by its permission, and almost as if to satisfy it. . . A dream prescribes the feasts, the dances, the songs, the games; in a word, the dream does everything here, and in truth, is to be regarded as the chief gods of the Hurons.” He wrote, “these sorcerors . . . after a feast or a sweat, undertake to tell a sick man the origin and nature of his illness. Some order the person to make a dog feast, another to play games of crosse or dish, another to sleep in a certain skin, and other foolish and diabolical extravagances.” “This people is not so stupefied . . . that it does not seek and acknowledge something more lofty than the senses. Since their licentious life and their lewdness prevent them from finding God, it is very easy for the devil to insinuate himself and to offer them his services in the urgent need in which he sees them.”[2] These are the actual eye-witness reports of what passed for religion and medicine before the coming of Christ. This is not some Pocahontas idealism cast before children’s eyes to dazzle them with the purity of paganism and the supposed hypocrisy, extortionist motives, of western Christians and the supposed dirtiness of Western Civilization.

          And yet, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood”. The Heathens are not our enemies. The Philosophers are not our enemies. The Hollywood producers are not our enemies. The Politicians, although it would be nice to have someone to get mad at and they are not so likeable, are not our enemies. The Big Pharmaceutical companies are not our enemies. “we wrestle . . . against principalities” not princes “against powers,” not political powers, “against rulers of the darkness of this world,” not against rulers in Washington, “against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

          Concerning Pharmaceuticals, medical studies, the latest health craze, we wrestle not for or against them, although we may have an opinion about them. But before we have an opinion concerning the science of this world, it is “meet we arm us ‘gainst the foe,” putting on the whole armour of God, so we be not blown about with every wind of doctrine. It is good if we fast, so that we make sure that no idol stands in our hearts as we investigate the supposed “facts” presented to us by the media, or by medical studies, or by the latest health craze, or even by a doctor during a normal wellness checkup. When our God is our Belly, as St. Paul puts it, it is hard not to fall for every latest health craze. When we fear death, because our hearts are not where they should be with Jesus, it is constantly tempting to be blown about by every wind of medical study. It impedes our truly living, seers our consciences, angers us against those who might be deceiving us, makes to praise too highly those whom we believe to be correct about the facts of the day.

“Then said Jesus . . ., Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”   

[1] https://manichaeism.weebly.com/theology.html

[2] Francis X. Talbot, Jean De Brébeuf: Saint among the Hurons, 71-72

Trinity 20, 2021 – Fr. Geromel – “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Our collect today is especially suited for a missionary, someone who offers salvation to those along the highways and byways of life. We pray that God of his “bountiful goodness” would “keep us” “from all things that may hurt us; that we, being ready both in body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things which” He commands. In the first instance, in the case of our Epistle today, the things that God commands is the “will of the Lord” – specifically, that we should not be “drunk with wine, …but… filled with the Spirit.” This is followed with a Gospel lesson having to do with a wedding feast, and, of course, wine is a part of a wedding feast, as is “singing and making melody” and “giving of thanks” but drunkenness should not, really, be a part of a wedding feast. All of these are straightforward facts. And we are reminded that those of us who have been called to the “King’s feast” should not use it as an opportunity to be immoral, but by the Spirit of God to go out and do the work, “cheerfully,” as if we are a little relaxed and our tongue loosened with wine. After all, the Apostles, when first preaching about Christ, were mistakenly thought to be drunk. Thus we return back to the subject of missionaries: The “King’s feast” this is something to which we are all invited, and which we should “cheerfully” go about inviting people to. In the case of St. Etheldreda (or St. Audrey), whom we celebrate today and who died in 679 A.D., she had a nominal marriage, and then fled her second marriage, to Egfrid, King of Northumbria. She fled her second marriage, in order spiritually to attend the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Having fled, she made her vows as a nun, and technically, to make a vow as a nun, is to marry Christ. In this way, she was married, we might say, three times. Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, who didst enkindle the flame of love in the heart of Saint Etheldreda, thy servant, so that, at thy call, she gave up the old life for the new: Grant us the same faith and power of love that, as we rejoice in her triumph, we may learn her obedience; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[1]  

Two other worthy Christians celebrated today, both having to do with Persia, are helpful in elucidating the missionary effort of the Church.   

          The first saint of Persia that we will talk about is St. Mamelta, of whom Fr. Hughson says, “She was a Persian heathen priestess of the fifth century, who was converted through the instrumentality of a sister who was a Christian.” She was invited, we might assume “cheerfully,” by one who was already a Christian. Another record shows that she “received an admonition from an angel” and then “embraced the Christian Faith”[2] and given the fact that the Persian religion had much to do with angelology, such a contributing event is not implausible. He goes on, “She was baptised by a bishop whose name has not been preserved, and publicly denounced the old worship over which she had presided.” This we can connect to our Gospel lesson today where it says, “Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: and the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.” This refers to the Jews, both Pharisee and Sadducee, rejecting the offer of Christ. John Chrysostom says the reference to “burned up their city” prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem, and John Calvin says, the Old Testament priests, “had gained such influence over simple persons and the ignorant multitude, that the religion of the Jews depended on their will and decision. Christ therefore forewarns the weak, and shows that, as so many prophets, one after another, had formerly been slain by the priests, no one ought to be distressed, if a similar instance were exhibited in his own person.” It is also noteworthy that, while according to the Book of Acts, some priests were obedient to the Faith of Christ, many were not. There are many good Jews who bear the name Cohen, meaning that they are of the priestly line. So, having been rejected by much of the Aaronic priesthood, Christ often turned and gathered in, from the highways and byways, folks of the priestly class of pagan cultures (he did so especially in the Celtic lands) and establishes them in the Church. “So enraged were the pagan votaries of the gods that, while wearing her baptismal robe, and with the anointing of the regenerating sacrament still fragrant on her brow, she was seized and, after cruel torture which had no power to shake her faith, was drowned in a lake.”[3] Some of the hagiographies say that she was crushed with stones and then thrown in the lake.

          But I want you to imagine the drama of this real life event. Do you have the picture? Freshly baptized this good woman is tortured and martyred, still fragrant from the ritual of Baptism as we have it in the Fifth Century in that part of the world. We actually have records about baptism from the Fifth Century in Persia from a fellow by the name of Narsai. It matches well the themes of today’s Gospel. Narsai says that the baptismal candidate, having renounced the Devil, “names himself a soldier of the Kingdom of the height – a fugitive who has returned to take refuge with the King of kings.” So was St. Mamelta. “In the books the priest enters the name of the lost one, and he brings it in and places it in the archives of the King’s books.” So was St. Mamelta’s name enrolled, just as today I enroll every baptized name in the Parish Register. Concerning the anointing oil in Baptism, Narsai says “The three Names he traces upon his face as a shield; that the tyrant may see the image of the Divinity on the head of a man. . . . An armour is the oil with which the earth-born are anointed, that they may not be captured by the [evil] spirits in the hidden warfare. It is the great brand of the King of kings with which they are stamped, that they may serve [as soldiers] in the spiritual contest. . . . Like brave soldiers they stand at the King’s door, and the priest at their head like a general at the head of his army. He sets their ranks as if for battle at the hour of the mysteries, that they may be casting sharp arrows at the foe. . . . They renounce the standard of the Evil One, and his power and his angels; and then [the priest] traces the standard of the King on their forehead.” In this exact way was she was anointed just before being called to stand, physically, on the battle line and give her body up to the smiters. Having been plunged into the waters of Baptism to save her soul, she gave up the ghost, like Christ, but in the midst of a lake. The death that was offered and declined by the priests of Judaism, was accepted and “cheerfully accomplished” by a pagan priestess. In this way, literally clothed with the wedding garment of Holy Baptism, she went into the King’s feast.

          Some 1300 years later, another individual would walk in the land of Persia and India and give up the ghost in that world where St. Mamelta fell asleep, awaiting the Resurrection of the Just. Henry Martyn who lived between 1781 and 1812, was an Anglican missionary. Educated at St. John’s, Cambridge, he encountered Charles Simeon there, the great preacher of Cambridge, who spoke of the good work that William Carey was doing in India, and this led Martyn to be a missionary. (He was ordained a deacon at Ely Cathedral, which ironically was established first as an Abbey by St. Etheldreda whom we have already talked about.) After serving as Charles Simeon’s curate, He became a chaplain for the British East India Company and this became his place of duty and of death. Arriving in India in April 1806, he preached and worked on learning the languages around him. He translated the New Testament into Urdu, Persian and Judaeo-Persic. He translated the Psalms and Book of Common Prayer into Persian. Arriving in Shiraz, he disputed the Faith like St. Paul with “Sufi, Muslim, Jew, and Jewish Muslim, even Armenians” all of whom were “anxious to test their powers of argument with the first English priest who had visited them.” On October 16, 1812, he went to his reward and was buried by Armenian priests. He, also, went out into the highways and byways, seeking those who would wish to come into the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, we thank thee for thy servant Henry Martyn, whom thou didst call to preach the Gospel to the people of India and Persia: Raise up, we pray thee, in this and every land, heralds and evangelists of thy Kingdom, that thy Church may make known the unsearchable riches of Christ, and may increase with the increase of God; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[4]  

[1] Frere, Black Letter Saints Days, 55.

[2] Roman and British Martyrology, 345.

[3] Hughson, Athletes of God, 334.

[4] Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 145.

 

Trinity 19, 2021 – Fr. Peter Geromel

“And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.”

I want to look at the Epistle lesson today to understand how it is, in a sense, a commentary by St. Paul on the Ten Commandments. Commandments are like fences, regular ones, not electric ones. When you touch an electric fence, you get zapped. Someone who expects to get zapped by lightening the minute he breaks a commandment might be disappointed. It could happen, I suppose, but it would be a scientific fluke if it did. No. Commandments are like regular fences. We have a kitten. The kitten likes to try to get out the door but, fortunately, we have a fence on the porch. At first, he just came out and sniffed around. Eventually, he darts for a corner, trying to hide. Then he makes a dart between the posts of the fence onto the lawn. There really is very little danger on the lawn. But just a few feet away is a busy road. As he gets bolder, the danger gets stronger. St. James says, “[E]very man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” It’s a gradual process. We pray today, “Mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts” against this!

St. Paul exhorts us today, “that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.” This first part of the reading from Ephesians 4 refers to the I and II Commandments but this is more easily seen from the vantage point of Romans 1, where Paul speaks about the same themes at greater length: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead . . .” (Rom. 1:20). This relates to the 1st Commandment: God is One, as His creation is one universe. There is no other God. Him only shalt thou Worship. St. Paul mentions the pagans, that “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Here we begin to go into the 2nd Commandment, against making idols, graven images. “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.” What is so wrong with that? Well, idols numb something about who we are. Ephesians says, “being past feeling” being numbed “have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.” Romans expands on this and says, “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves.” As if we don’t get it, Paul repeats himself a bit, “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature.” The text in Romans 1 keeps going on and is a little shocking in how plainly it describes the impact of idolatry on the human heart – that it leads to a pornographic mind and a perverted lifestyle. It numbs our conscience.

Today, in the life of the Church, we recall the brother and sister duo, Saints Eulampius and Eulampia, who lived in the beginning of the fourth century in Nicomedia. Eulampius, refusing to deny his faith, was raked with iron hooks, and then placed on a barbeque grill. He said he wanted to visit the pagan temple. The persecutors thought he was coming their way. He went into the temple of the God of War, Mars, and prophesied against the idol saying, “In the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ I command you to fall to the floor and crumble into dust.” The idol did so. It was an Elijah moment. The people observing this cried out, “The Supreme God is the Christian God, Who is great and mighty!” Unlike the Elijah moment, the people did not rise up and slay the pagan priests, but the pagans slew the people. Two hundred were martyred with Eulampius and Eulampia. Now, if you’re willing to believe the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven as we have it in the Bible, you might as well believe this story which comes to us from Church History and from eyewitness report and not so long ago as Elijah lived. Even if you want to be skeptical and cynical, what does the story symbolize? Well, Maximian the Emperor, under whose persecution these two died, who lived between 250 and 310 A.D., was a great conqueror. He suppressed the rebels in Gaul called the Bagaudae, then fought against the Germanic tribes on the Rhine river; He dealt with rebels in Gaul and Britain, Carausius and Allectus, then moved south to fight piracy in modern day Spain and North Africa. He was a man of war and the saint, Eulampius, had specifically denounced him as one who had made war on his own people, the Christian subjects of Rome, just as he had made war on the barbarians and rebels. It is fitting that it was a temple of Mars that Eulampius vanquished with the power of God, because Mars is the god of War, and Maximian had remade himself like his own idol, into a god, a Caesar of War.

St. Paul says that Christians are supposed to be different from Gentiles. “But ye have not so learned Christ; if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: that ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” Every man puts off his old man, changing over cells every seven or so years, becoming a completely new person every ten years. The question is, will you put on the new man according the image of Jesus Christ, or a new man in the image of your idols. Maximian became a new Mars, according to the idol he prayed to in a temple; Eulampius became a new Man, according the image of Jesus Christ. Concerning the III Commandment, we avoid taking the Lord’s Name in Vain, when we receive His Holy Name in Baptism, and actually put off the Old Man, and put on the New, which is the spiritual outworking of Holy Baptism.

Let’s look at the rest of these ten commandments. IV Commandment – Paul says we should be “renewed in the spirit of [our minds]” and that renewal happens especially when we “assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.” Renewal happens especially when we keep the Sabbath day Holy. Next, St. Paul says, “Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another.” This refers to the V Commandment, “Honor thy Father and thy Mother.” You say, how? Well, the commandment must be more than about biological parents, or else there would be no commandment to keep once one’s parents were dead! Let’s take a look at St. James’ Epistle again. In the First Chapter, he seems to rely on Proverbs 16:32, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty . . .” with his own, “. . . let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath . . .” (verse 19). Likewise, in Chapter 3, James seems to be working off of the theme from Proverbs 16:31, “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness,” by way of a comment on that in the Book of Wisdom 4:9 “But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age” to reach the conclusions he does “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.” The wise man full of righteousness and good conversation (truth spoken to a neighbor, to use St. Paul’s words), is a father within the community of faith. On the other hand, Proverbs 17:24 and 25 says, “Wisdom is before him that hath understanding . . . A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him.” Foolishness does not honor father and mother. This St. Paul confirms to Timothy in two places, that Timothy should instruct in meekness (II Timothy 2:25) and in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” In this way, the bishop, even if a young man full of wisdom, like St. Timothy, is worthy of honor, even double honor, as St. Paul says to St. Timothy later in 5:17. So honoring Father and Mother is in the spirit of the words honoring those who are honest, full of wisdom and righteousness, knowing that we are members one of another.

Moving on to VI and VII Commandments, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath” refers to “Thou shalt do no murder”. It also refers to “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” How did I come up with that one? When the sun goes down upon your wrath in marriage, the devil finds a place to dwell, encouraging lust, and ultimately, the death of the marriage through adultery. Thus St. Paul writes elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 7:5, “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourself to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.”

“Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” That straightforwardly refers to VIII Commandment “Thou shalt not steal” but also hints at how we overcome the vice of avarice or greed according to Moral theology, with the virtue of generosity, “that he may have to give to him that needeth.” “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” This refers to IX Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” because corrupt communication slanders other people, truth builds up and ministers grace to the hearers. Finally, covetousness X Commandment is excluded from our hearts when we put away bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamoring, and evil speaking, and malice. This is confirmed in Moral Theology, by the teaching that the vice of envy or jealousy is combatted with the virtue of magnanimity, being big hearted, or, as St. Paul puts it “kind” “tender-hearted” “forgiving.”

Now all of this instruction by St. Paul on the Ten Commandments, confronts the mistake that the Pharisees make in the Gospel lesson today. The Scribes are envious of Jesus and slander him in their hearts, saying “This man blasphemeth” but Jesus knows the thoughts of their hearts, and our hearts; He tells them that they are thinking evil in their hearts. The same God who can bring idols to dust in Nicomedia, can dissolve the idols from our hearts. He can forgive sins. When that happens, the multitudes, as on this day in Nicomedia, can turn to the Lord having seen an idol of Mars dissolve into sand, but can also marvel and glorify God, because God can forgive sins, just as easily as he raises the sick from their sickbed.   

“And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.”

 

Trinity 18, 2021 – Fr. Peter Geromel

One of the rather normal features of a church is someone or some people who fulfil the role of “gate keeper.” What is a “gate keeper”? Often there is a person, or a couple, or a few people in the church who are the first to meet and greet and introduce a visitor around. It is probably a necessary role. It is certainly sociologically natural that it develops in any organization. At the ordination service in the Prayer Book, the man about to be ordained a priest is exhorted concerning gatekeeping and promises to be one. The very gospel lesson appointed to be read says, “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.” The one about to be ordained is later asked the question, “Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both public and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your Cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given?” By these words, it is evident that the Priest of the Parish, he is the chief and only official “gate keeper” and not any particular person or persons in the congregation.

That doesn’t mean that others can’t fulfill some aspect of the role. In the church where I grew up, we always hoped that Erma would be there when a visitor came. Erma was great! She had a gift. She would introduce herself with a beaming smile and sit with the visitor, handing them a prayer book, working through it with them. Many tried to do the same thing when she wasn’t there, and it never went quite as well. Even the oft-used tactic, “here is a Prayer Book, this is how we use it” must be carefully applied. It has a way of welcoming some but also telling others that ours is a culture that is foreign to them. It can make such a person feel alienated. How does someone who wants to welcome others proceed in the right way? The Holy Spirit will usually make a way, if we are listening.

          In today’s Gospel lesson, there is a gate keeper thing probably going on. “When the Pharisees had heard that Jesus had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.” The Pharisees thought, he didn’t join the Sadducee church, maybe he will join the Pharisee church. Maybe we can get the multitudes who are following him to come our church. “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying . . .” He was gate keeping, to a certain extent, asking Jesus, are you one of us? Are you up on your Pharisee theology? Do you have the proper Pharisee union card? Jesus turns the tables quite simply and flawlessly. He answers the question just fine and then has a few of his own. “What think ye of Christ? Whose son is he?” This reminds me of some of the Brit Crime shows I watch. Occasionally, trying to get one over on the detective, someone being interrogated starts to ask the detective some questions. “Are you getting anywhere in your investigation? Do you have any suspects?” Jesus politely says to the Pharisees, like a detective, “I’m the one asking the questions today.” It’s great!

          In addition, it is absurd to be a gate keeper to Jesus. He’s the gate keeper and He’s the gate. “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9, NIV). The real difference between a good gate keeper in a church, and a bad one, is pretty simple, pretty straightforward. By way of example, in one particular church I knew of, before you were even all the way in the front door, one of the ushers was already greeting you, already asking you questions. Literally, you’d be halfway through the door, held up, answering his questions. You immediately got the impression that it was his church (and, in fact, there was some indication that he and his wife had, in fact, bought the building). This is the same problem that the Pharisees had. They thought it was their Covenant because they were Abraham’s sons, and they could let in or out anybody that they wanted, based on their theology, the teaching of their dead rabbis, and based on their egos. The same thing happened when St. Paul went visiting different synagogues, and then, later, folks came into the church of God and started saying, you’ve got to do it my way, you’ve got to get circumcised. They started gate keeping in the bad way.

          Gate keeping, in the best way, is pretty simple, even if you don’t have the gift that Erma had (God rest her soul). All you need to do is exude that this is Jesus’ church, that Jesus is the ultimate gate. He will let in whoever is His, so to some extent, we can relax. When each and every one of us has the right spirit in our hearts, it will be evident to all. It doesn’t always mean that it will work. It takes two to tango. Sometimes people come in with the wrong spirit and, despite having Jesus present in our hearts, something goes wrong. Yet the onus is always on us to find out where we are at in the whole thing.

          How do we have the right spirit in our hearts? Paul prays today for Corinth, “that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift . . .” He prays for Corinth that in all utterance they come behind in no gift. We might pray for the gift of uttering words that indicate that Jesus is here. It’s still pretty hard though. Today, we pray that we might withstand the “temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.” The Gospel lesson I quoted from the ordination service says this as well, “All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

Recently, some messages by text and spam calls worried me, and I went ahead and got identity theft insurance. I was concerned about my security and that of my family. You know, we just go through our lives trying to take care of our business and take care of our families, but there are folks out there always thinking, thinking non-stop, of how to invade our world and take our stuff. They can steal your peace, even when they never take anything. They steal your peace without stealing anything when you suddenly realize you are vulnerable. These wicked people learn from the best. They learn from the demons how to steal your peace. Temptations are thieves as well; they steal the peace of Jesus from our hearts, and then we don’t show forth Jesus to others. Temptations instead of giving us abundance and quality of life, reduce us, make us less of who Jesus meant us to be. I find it fascinating that the Sikhs, that fifth largest religion in the world (that I talk about in the newsletter this month) teach about fighting against “five thieves” – lust, rage, greed, attachment, and ego. (I can’t help but think of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves when I read this.) Or rather Sikhs seek to transform them. These are not unlike our seven deadly sins – pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Transforming them is a good way to talk about how we turn these impulses to good, with the virtues.

          There are three ways in which we are attacked and tempted when a visitor comes into our midst. As in all things, The world, the flesh, and the devil, are trying to steal our peace. The world says to us, you need to be a certain size church to count. This leads to a sense of insecurity in all of us, a tendency to talk about being a “little church” in a slightly embarrassed or apologetic tone. There is no church that is actually “little” that has Jesus present with it and when it is part of the full company of the saints on earth and in heaven. The flesh says to us all sorts of things (mostly through a sense of self-consciousness), and all of them can distract us from really connecting with a visitor and showing them that Jesus is here. And, of course, the Devil is always ready to exploit anything, being the author of confusion, stealing our peace on the way to church so that we are flustered or distracted or in a bad place mentally when a visitor walks in. To be of a right mind on Sunday morning takes forethought and preparation. It’s good for us, our souls, for each other, and good if there is a visitor that comes, for all of us to prepare aright before church.

          Thomas Ridgley (1667-1734) a dissenting minister, wrote on the subject many years ago: “Now, we ought, the evening before [the Lord’s Day], to lay aside our care and worldly business, that our thoughts may not be encumbered, diverted, or taken up with unseasonable or unlawful concerns about it. . . . We may add, that all envyings, contentions, evil surmising against our neighbour, are to be laid aside; since these will tend to defile our souls and deprave our minds, when we ought to be wholly taken up about divine things. . . . It would also be expedient for us to meditate on the vanity of worldly things, which we have laid aside all care about, and think how contemptible the gain of them is, if compared with communion with God, which is our great concern. . . . To these meditations we ought to join our fervent prayers to God, that the sins committed by us in former sabbaths may be forgiven, that he may not be provoked to withdraw the influences of his Spirit on the approaching day, and that the world, with its cares, may not then be a snare to us, through the temptations of Satan, together with the corruption of our own hearts, whereby our converse with God would be interrupted. We ought to pray also that he would assist his ministers in preparing a seasonable word, which may be blessed to ourselves and others. . . . We ought to be very importunate with God, that he would sanctify and fill our thoughts, from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s day, which he has consecrated for his immediate service and glory.”[1] And to this we might add, Amen and Amen. Whether visitors come or not, the Lord’s Day is to His glory and to whatever purpose He has intended it.

[1] Ridgley, Thomas. A Body of Divinity. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855. Print. From APuritansMind.com.

 

Trinity 17, 2021 – Fr. Geromel

“There is one body, and one Spirit, . . . one Lord, one Faith, one baptism . . .”

For anything natural (or, as we shall show, supernatural) to work properly, for it to work, we might say, excellently, it needs to have both the proper form and the proper function. I am not sure that “work” is the proper way to describe how the supernatural operates, but that is still the idea that I’ll work with here. It is the reason why the wife in her kitchen seeks diligently till she finds that essential piece of her favorite blender, the proper lid for the correct sized pot. It is the reason why the husband searches for the correct tool and gets irritated when he does not find it. It is the reason why both of them, if they work, like to have the right program or app installed on their devices. Another tool might do, but not as well, not as excellently. It is even why the child throws a toy across the room when it becomes marred or distorted, or when the battery needs to be changed. Form and function are important in what we do everyday and how we use things in every way.

          The first part of our text for today: “There is one body, and one Spirit” and this refers to the natural and the supernatural parts of the Church. “One Body” is the natural part, and “One Spirit” is the supernatural part. The Church being The Sacrament, Christ’s Body on Earth, is the outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible “Holy Spirit” in the world today after the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. We might say that this is the “Form” that the Church takes, “One Body, and One Spirit.” Our catechism answers the question, “What is the Church?” with “The Church is the Body of which Jesus Christ in the Head, and all baptized people are the members.” There is, however, a function. That function we can understand through the next three ideas. She operates and functions by “one Lord, one Faith, one baptism.” She functions by “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

          That all might sound a bit pie in the sky, a bit nitpicky. Why so, when we have so many times every day that we rely on just such a distinction as form and function? If you have a chef’s knife that looks beautiful, has a great shape, a serrated edge, and yet doesn’t cut, then it has wonderful form but doesn’t function. What kind of a knife would that be, I ask you? If on the other hand, you have a rustic knife made of flintstone, it might not be very beautiful, it might not have a very nice form, but it still functions. And wouldn’t we be tempted to say that that flintstone knife more excellent knife, if it at least works? On the other hand, if you use a bowling pin to hammer a nail, it might function quite well as a hammer, but there is something really lacking in its form. A bowling pin is quite nice in its own way, as a bowling pin, and can sort of adequately function as a hammer – but it isn’t a hammer, and definitely not, therefore, an excellent hammer. When it comes to pounding in nails excellently, we want to have a hammer, something specifically designed to have both the form and function of driving nails home.

          When it come to driving us home to heaven, when it comes to something as important as eternal salvation, does it not seem logical that this same principle applies? Doesn’t it seem quite clear that we should have something in place that has the form and function adequate to so important a task? In this way, there is a form “one Body, and one Spirit” made to function so that those people of whom the Church is constituted proclaim “one Lord and one Faith” having been washed by “one Baptism.” John Wesley said this in a sermon we will be quoting from on this same bible text: “‘There is one Spirit’ who animates all these, all the living members of the Church of God. . . .” “‘There is,’ in all those that have received this Spirit, ‘one hope;’ a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave.” That is a function of the Spirit being animate in our lives. Fearlessness in the face of death is contrary to nature, where each creature is endowed with a fight or flight instinct. It is a supernatural gift to be fearless in the face of death. And yet, many heathens with a partial sense of the truth can be fearless in the face of death. So clearly this in and of itself is not enough to distinguish the Christian man from other religious people.

          John Wesley continues, “‘There is one Lord,’ who has now dominion over them, who has set up his kingdom in their hearts, and reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope. To obey him, to run the way of his commandments, is their glory and joy.” This is good and helpful so that we can say that this gets closer to the true function of a Christian. Yet we do note that there are other religions that cause men to obey, to do what is commanded and to do so to the glory of the truth and with joy. Again, this is helpful but not enough. So we are to learn that St. Paul adds yet more.

          John Wesley says this, “‘There is one faith;’ which is the free gift of God, and is the ground of their hope. This is not barely the faith of a Heathen; Namely, a belief that ‘there is a God,’ and that he is gracious and just, and, consequently, ‘a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.’ Neither is it barely the faith of a devil; though this goes much farther than the former. For the devil believes, and cannot but believe, all that is written both in the Old and New Testament to be true. But it is the faith of St. Thomas, teaching him to say with holy boldness, ‘My Lord, and my God!’ It is the faith which enables every true Christian believer to testify with St. Paul, ‘The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’” This is not, we might say, of our own doing. It is the Spirit of God that works this in us.

          Finally, the idea of “one Baptism” something still worked by God, but something that we more clearly do, in some sense, ourselves. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is a sacrament. Of it Fr. Wesley says well that it is “the outward sign our one Lord has been pleased to appoint, of all that inward and spiritual grace which he is continually bestowing upon his Church. It is likewise a precious means, whereby this faith and hope are given to those that diligently seek him.” In itself it has a form, “I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” which is said with water. It has itself a function, to graft us into the Body of Christ, to graft us into this one hope, this one Lord, this one faith. Unlike our imaginary knife that can have a beautiful form, but fail to cut; given the proper form, since it is Christ Who is wielding that knife, it does not fail to cut. But if we offer it without the proper form, we are unsure that it will function – because the Form was given to us by Christ himself, the one Who makes the Form to Function. Baptize someone with rose petals instead of water; Baptize someone with the words, “I baptize thee in the Name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” or in the Name of Jesus only, and we have deviated. We have tried to drive a nail with a bowling pin, when Christ has clearly given us a hammer, and then we are unsure of the direction and unsure of the precision and unsure of the end result. Since the end result should be eternal salvation and the hope of heaven, these are not things we are wise to contrive or to innovate.

          The same is true, as we return to the concept of the Church. The Form, which is made up of baptized individuals, is made up into a Functional Army of God, a Church Militant, against which the Gates of Hell cannot stand, though it tries and tries. A hammer, in the hands of a trained craftsman, cannot fail to drive a hammer. A knife, in the hands of a skilled chef, cannot fail to carve. The Church in the hands of Christ the King, cannot fail to function against the Gates of Hell, which stands in our way, as we drive on to heaven.

          On their way to the promised land, there stood a mighty fortress in the way of the Army of God, known as the Hebrews of the Wilderness. There stood a mighty fortress in their way, but God was the wielder of that knife and of that hammer. That Church in old Israel had “One Body, and One Spirit.” She had “One Lord,” “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One.” “One Faith,” which was loyalty to the Covenant that God had made with them through the Law of Moses. “One Baptism” or as it was called then circumcision, which was cut with a stone knife, not so beautifully but beautifully and excellently functioning to remove the foreskin from the male member of the male population. Seven priests carried seven rams horns, just as we today have seven sacraments. That gate of Hell, which stood against Israel and their new homeland of paradise, a land flowing with milk and honey, was no match for the form and function of that Old Church, when wielded by Christ the King.

Let us pray.

O Lord Jesu Christ, Lord mighty in battle, make, we pray Thee, Thy Church militant mighty also in battle. Give her courage to attack all strongholds of infidelity and sin; arm her with patience under apparent failure, and perseverance against ever-renewed opposition. Above all, kindle in her such love of souls for Thy most blessed sake, that she may toil and travail for the salvation of all men, and may always and everywhere reflect Thine Image, and impart Thy consolations. Amen.        

 

Trinity 16, 2021 – Fr. Geromel

“Jesus went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people. Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her.”

We see here, beloved, the repetition of the words “much people” and so we are to draw from this that, indeed, there were many people there. There was a crowd coming and a crowd going and, like a crowd trying to get on the elevator while the other crowd is trying to get off the elevator, we might imagine that the two crowds – the one following a dead son of a widow and the other following the alive son of the Mother of God – must have bumped there at that place of entrance, the gate of the city of Nain.

The gate in ancient times was the place of judgment; it is where the king of the city adjudicated; it served as a court of law. In this court of law then, Jesus, as He does with all sinful persons, had pity. “He had compassion on her” and said “weep not”. Why am I now talking about sinful persons? Wasn’t he having compassion on a dead person and on the mother of that dead person? Well, we can easily make the connection between sin and death by virtue of the fact that sin brings death.

But I want to make a further point. Death, our death, is not really something that makes us suffer. It is, on a certain level, the end of our suffering. No. Our death affects our friends, our family, our coworkers, but not us. So it is with sin. Sin does not affect us as much as it affects others. For us, temptation is our suffering. The alleviation of that suffering is sin. When we are tempted we suffer. When we give in to that temptation we are relieved. Of course, when we get to the final judgment we do get our just deserves, but that is not specifically what I am talking about here. And certainly sin can hurt the body, but that is not specifically the point that I am trying to make.

The ancient philosopher Epicurus believed in nothing immaterial or spiritual. For him the soul was still made of atoms, atoms that gave sensation to the body, physical atoms. He said of Death that it was nothing to us because when we are, death is not and when death is, we are not. And we Christian philosophers – for that is what the followers of the Way of Christianity are – can follow Epicurus to a certain extent. While the soul feels the effects of death, the body does not, not until after the Resurrection of the Body. After the Resurrection of the Body whether the punishment is sorrow or the reward bliss, the Body joins the Soul in feeling the retribution given in the Final Judgment but prior to that only the soul feels the effects of sin, in whatever way that might be during what is called the Intermediate State. The Intermediate State is the time between death and the General Resurrection and Final Judgment.

Now, to get back to this widow: Sin takes effect on those we love. Death does so likewise, and fittingly so as it is the proper effect of sin. So while we feel the effects of sin sometimes, others feel it always – if not before our death then at the time of our death. So it is that the teenager or young person who drowns away his life in drugs and alcohol feels nothing but euphoria, or claims that he is quote “happy”, the family feels it always and finally comes to the funeral of such a poor soul. When Jesus meets this poor soul, we are not told if it was for a depraved life that he died young or just fell from an aneurism. I mention an aneurism because Nain is where an Old Testament prophet, Elisha, raised a boy who seems to have died from something like an aneurism. Yet Jesus, at the place of judgment, the gate of the city, chooses to raise this son from the dead, not for the widow only but for us today so that we might hear and believe that God can not only raise from the dead but forgive sins, of which death is the proper judgment. If he can raise from the dead, he can also forgive sins.

People can heal, but not ultimately. People can cast out demons, but not for forever. Only God, the Creator of life, can ultimately do all things. Only God, as Creator of Life, can remove the curse of sinning in life, which is the opposite of life, which is death. That is to say, only God can forgive sins. Only a Jesus who is God can do it. As a symbol of the Judgment to come, Jesus stops at the place of judgment, the gate, and, as a symbol of good things to come, raises from the dead. But He did so as a sign that He is God.

We might imagine the immense size of this crowd, because when a young person dies many come to the funeral. When an old person dies, fewer come. But when a teenager is hit by a car, or dies of drug abuse, whatever the cause, innocent or depraved, the whole town shows up and the funeral director has to bring in chairs from the competition, from other funeral homes, to accommodate all who will arrive. So we can imagine that the crowd at this funeral was great indeed. We can also imagine that the crowd following Jesus was great indeed, because he had just cured the servant of the Centurion, the Roman officer, mentioned earlier in the 7th Chapter of Luke. When they bumped into one another it was the crowd following Life bumping into the crowd following Death.

We might take a moment to imagine our Lord, coming humble to the gates of Nain. He is that God/man who brings life to all. He creates. He sustains. He saves and sanctifies. But when he went wandering around, he did not get drawn in a grand chariot, or carriage, or Cadillac or limo. No. It is the one who is dead who is carried on a bier, or in a hearse made by Cadillac. It is the family of the deceased who drive in a limo, like important people drive in when they go about the great affairs of State and even the great affairs of Church. Yet on this occasion, our Lord does not get carried, even though the people are elated by His miracles and may well wish to carry Him. When He is finally carried, for the purposes of bringing about His own death for our salvation, when He is carried into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, even then He rides a donkey, not a great chariot.

So here we can see the humility of Life and the elevation of Death that is so a part of the perverted generation and age in which we live. Humility draws its meaning from “humus” – not a dip for pita bread – but the word “earth”. Yet humility is life-giving and elevation is death giving. It is elevation through pride that first brought us death. So our Gospel lesson shows us that the folks were elevating the dead boy and carrying him to show us that elevation brings death. Our Gospel lesson tells us that Jesus was walking on the ground, not riding in a grand carriage, to show us that humility brings life. Important leaders of the world roam around in fancy cars, saving life here and delivering death there. But ultimately those leaders are dead. They can spare. They can make others despair. But they cannot bring back from the dead. But Our Lord, who can spare and make others despair can also repair the body, bring the breath of life back into the body, and raise the dead. No matter how elevated one is on earth, everyone is ultimately humbled when they are placed back in the earth.

Beloved, we are not to follow the crowd which leads to death, but the crowd that leads to life. We are not to follow after those crowds who exalt and carry about important persons who are not quickened by the Holy Spirit and who are, in fact, spiritually dead and whose bodies are dying.

We are to draw from this the healthy conclusion that the gate of life and the gate of death are one and the same gate. One direction leads to death, the other to life. We are in that gate now. The choice is before us. Do we follow Jesus and Life? Do we follow dead men and death?

Let us pray.

O Blessed Jesus, keep us this day and ever from evil and danger of soul and body, and from all that would offend Thee. Come, O Holy Spirit, and help us in all our temptations, and in all our desires to advance in holiness, that, living holy lives, we may die happy deaths. Never leave us to ourselves, lest we fall. Guide us to the strait gate, lead us in the narrow path, so that, saved at last, we may have no more to fear, but may rejoice before Thee for ever and ever. Amen.[1]      

[1] Chain of Prayer Across the Ages, 161. From The Narrow Way, 1869.

 

Trinity 15, 2021 – Fr. Geromel

The first thing I wish to do today is to compare the kind of “glorying in the flesh” or making a “fair show in the flesh” that we see in Galatians 6 today, with some of the saints who are commemorated on September 12th. (Today is also the Holy Name or Nativity of Mary, but there are many saints that we would never remember if we only commemorated the Marian Feasts.) The glorying or making a fair show in the flesh through circumcision, which the Judaizers, with whom Paul was contending, were doing, has a very different spirit from the saints that we will cover today.

The first I would like to mention is the venerable Bassian of Tiksnensk, Vologda, a Slavic monk, who died in 1624. Now this fellow, for thirty years “wore chains on his body: on his shoulders a heavy chain, on his loins an iron belt, and on his head beneath [the monastic] head covering an iron cap.” Evidently, he was an eccentric fellow and, we might say, ostentatious. Nevertheless, he was clearly considered by those around him to be not a vain person but one who was engaged in ascetic struggle and therefore was, no doubt, using these pieces of iron as constant reminders to keep himself humble, which is the total opposite of those who, in Paul’s day, became puffed up over their circumcision.

You might say, well, I don’t think the monastic life is for me especially if iron chastity belts are in order. Well, another possibility of humility is to be a quiet church mouse, like Guy of Anderlecht, a Belgian saint who lived between 950 and 1012. He was a simple “farm boy” who served as a sexton and sacristan, sweeping the church, cleaning the vestments, fixing the flowers on the altar, getting ready between services. He did not “glory in the flesh” but did the menial tasks, staying out of the way, and letting Jesus shine through.

The next saint to be considered is St. Ailbe, or as the Anglicized version of his name has it, St. Elvis. Now, we don’t know too much about St. Elvis, but we know that there is some indication that he was baptized by Palladius, someone who was sent to convert Ireland prior to St. Patrick, and there is an indication that St. Elvis baptized St. David of Wales, the great patron saint of that kingdom. Of course, it is interesting who baptized who and might help us know something of the history of the early Church, but as St. Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 1 “Was Paul crucified for you? Either were ye baptized into the name of Paul?”; it’s not about who baptized anyone. Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” The way we sacramentally participate, first and foremost, in the Cross of Christ is through Holy Baptism, which is not a work of Palladius or of St. Elvis, or of any saint, but Christ who is working the work.

The next one that I would like to consider is Saint Eanswith, born in 630, an Anglo-Saxon princess who is said to have founded Folkestone Priory. A pagan prince came by to seek her hand in marriage. She could have left the nunnery and married him, as her aunt, St. Ethelburga had married King Edwin two or three years before (which led to King Edwin’s conversion) but she did not do as her aunt had done, and serve Christ the King that way, but chose a different path, the one laid out for her. Choosing your particular path as a Christian is important. Just because another relative or friend has chosen one path to glorification through our Lord, does not mean that it is your path – and if you choose someone else’s path, it may lead to “glorying in the flesh” or someone else glorying in your flesh, but not to your glorification through following the Cross of Christ.

The last saint I want to particularly look at, and there are many that I had to choose from, is Hieromartyr (Priest-Martyr) Dositheus Metropolitan of Tbilisi, who was martyred on this day in 1795. At that time, 35,000 soldiers of Iran under Aqa Muhammed Khan, known as the “Eunuch King,” had marched against the Christian Kingdom of Georgia in order to re-subjugate it and through treachery, the Christian King Erekle’s life was threatened. Although he was willing to die on the field of battle, he was gotten out of harm’s way. Nonetheless, the city of Tbilisi was put to the torch and the people of that city murdered, the fires taking with them the libraries and print shop, destruction was dealt to the churches and the king’s palace. Of the bishop Dositheus, the soldiers demanded a renunciation of his faith, requiring him to trample upon the image of the Holy Cross. And, rather than glorying in saving his flesh, he gloried in the life to come. This is that last sort of bearing in the body the marks of the Lord Jesus that Paul talks about today. Dositheus followed the example of St. Paul, and of Coronatus, Bishop of Nicomedia and Autonomus, a Bishop of Italy, both of whom were also martyred for the Faith on this day. 

The second thing that I want to today is to look at the Gospel lesson, in which we are reminded, like so many saints that have gone before, that this body is not all that matters and that the food of today, can be gone tomorrow, just as our mortal life is gone tomorrow. We are reminded that God is the provider of food and life. And that we can not serve the God of life and of food, while worshipping “mammon” – those other means by which food is secured. There is a bumper sticker that says, “NO FARM NO FOOD”. The cities have a tendency to feel pretty self-sufficient – that’s the point of the bumper sticker – and, yet, without the farms to support the city they would have nothing. This isn’t an American reality, or a Southern reality, but a Biblical times reality. “Cain also knew his wife, which conceived and bore Enoch: and he built a city, and called the name of the city by the name of his son, Enoch” (Genesis 4:17). “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah, brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, And overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that grew upon the earth” (Genesis 19:24-25). “Therefore did they set taskmasters over them, to keep them under with burdens: and they built the cities of Pithom and Raamses for the treasures of Pharaoh” (Exodus 1: 11). Samson is said to have gone down to the city of Timnah, and that was the beginning of his fall. Psalm 55 says, “O that I had wings like a dove! . . . Lo, then would I get me away far off, and remain in the wilderness. I would make haste to escape, because of the stormy wind and tempest. Destroy their tongues, O Lord, and divide them; for I have spied unrighteousness and strife in the city . . . mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it. Wickedness is therein; deceit and guile go not out of her streets.” We can quote much that says that the city folks are where unrighteousness takes place and the country folk as being sort of the good guys, the religious folks, the righteous folk. Of course, this is not true. But one thing is certain, where the food is stored up and your daily bread is not based on the capricious nature of the weather, as the farmer’s is, then your heart has a tendency to move away from the Lord. Of course, both groups of people are linked more than they might like to be, and both have a tendency to follow mammon rather than God spiritually. Yet the spiritual dangers of cities, especially, is noted in the Old Testament and prominent in the New Testament world as well.

The Universe 25 experiment was an attempt to produce a “Paradise of Mice” by allowing mice a world where they didn’t have to seek after food. The result was that eventually the males did not seek to mate with females, homosexuality among the male mice began, and, despite plenty of food, cannibalism ensued. The experiment was repeated 25 times with the same result. What does this tell us? Perhaps that despite the ills of poverty and hunger, creatures are made by Almighty God for struggle and for thriving under pressure. This is why many saints chose to move out from the cities, to go to the isolated spaces, to find that spiritual struggle for which their souls longed.

The remedy whether living in city or country is to turn from God and eat the bread that comes down from God, rather than from Mammon, eaten with thankfulness for Providence, rather than with the assumption that it is from my own hard work or is simply owed to me because I exist and am sitting here, waiting for a handout. Martin Luther wrote to city-dwellers (and by extension country folk) about Holy Communion saying two things of note: “That Christ with all his saints is one spiritual body, just as the people in a city are a community and a body, and every citizen is related as a member to his neighbour and to the city. So are all saints members in Christ and in the church, which is a spiritual eternal City of God; and when one is received into this City, he is said to be received into fellowship of the saints, and incorporated into, made a member of, Christ’s spiritual body. . . . Thus to receive this sacrament in bread and wine is naught else than to receive a sign of this fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all his saints.” That sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Like a nice hand out? But it does entail struggle, hard work, of a certain, grace-filled, sort. Thus Luther also says that in a community, in a city, “suffering and sin are shared in common, and so love is kindled from love. In the sacrament God gives us help against sin, as though he were to say: See, thou art troubled by manifold sins; receive then this sign, whereby I assure thee that thy sin troubles not thee alone, but also my Son Christ and all his saints in heaven and on earth. Therefore be comforted, and be of good courage; thou fightest not alone; strong help and succour are around thee.”[1]

Today, I must add in closing, as we remember the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, those in other countries, and those in this country, can still, I am afraid, be tempted by Satan to say, it was for the sins of New York City, perhaps of Wall Street, that that place of decadence, of perversion, God visited and scourged. New York City is that very sort of place that, perhaps, before 9/11 some Christians might have called a cesspool of HIV, a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sort of place that God would visit with great affliction. But on that day, no Christian that I knew was saying, God has smitten that place – because there was no doubt that, on that day, we were able to see those of the Big Apple as just people like those in our little slice of the pie, afflicted with sin, yes, but people who loved each other, were loved by many, and who showed love in the midst of suffering. On that day, it was a day to feel connected, the country with the city, to say “Lord, have mercy on us all”. The city and the country are, in fact, united, by prayer, by sin, by sacraments and Grace that overcome that sin – and this country, wherever Christians are, is united by bonds of glory – with that city and country above, where with the Father, and the Holy Ghost, Christ is the Lamp and Light, now and forever and unto the Ages of ages. Amen.     

[1] Luther’s Works, Weimar Edition, II. 743, 744.

 

Trinity 14, 2021 – Fr. Geromel

Coming off of last week’s sermon, where we learned about how the Samaritans (to this day) have a rival lineage of the Aaronic Priesthood, that they have claimed to be the true Priesthood, it is fascinating to see again a Samaritan in our Gospel lesson today. It is fascinating to see that this Samaritan must return to the Jewish Priesthood in order to be healed. As Christ told the woman at the well, Salvation is of the Jews, meaning that the Priesthood of the Holy Temple must be incorporated into any healing according to the Law of Moses and was incorporated until the Temple was destroyed. Definitely at that point, the Jews returned to their Synagogues and the Christians built temples, and these Christians continued the succession of Priesthood through Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, (being as the new High Priest, Priest, and Levite) according to the Order of Melchizedek (as we see in the Book of Hebrews). False priesthoods have existed for many centuries. In the Middle Ages, for example, there were the Cathari or Albigensians, the pure ones, who provided false priesthoods to the people of Europe. Today, there are the false priesthoods, for example, among the Mormons. We cannot return to these and be healed.

          Pseudo-Dionysius, writing in the fifth or sixth century, probably a Syrian monk, became important for the teaching of theology in both the East and West in the Middle Ages. He provides a rationale for Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, and how they heal by virtue of the sacramental life in his work, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Here he says that “The divine order of hierarchs [the bishops] is therefore the first of those who behold God.” That sounds rather elitist, not very egalitarian, certainly not very Protestant, but it matches up perfectly with what he said in a previous work, The Celestial Hierarchy from which we get the nine choirs or orders of angels that we talk about and sing about in Hymn 599, “Ye watchers and ye holy ones, Bright seraphs, cherubims, and thrones . . .” Just as there are nine choirs of angels in heaven, so there are, roughly, nine orders of ministry on earth: Bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist or catechist, lector and porter. (All of these minor orders still exist functionally in the Church of God, through the subdeacon/clerk or as we call it Epistoler, the acolyte, the exorcist exists, the catechist is the Sunday school teacher, the lector or chanter or cantor is a choir member, and the Porter or doorkeeper is an usher, someone who stands at the door.)

So, the bishops, closest to God in the hierarchy of how the divine illumination flows downward and outward, is like the higher orders of angels who stand closer to the face of God, and through whom the rest of the orders of angels receive their directives, and divine communications, messages, from the Holy Throne of Grace. Thus, “[The Order of Bishops] is the first and also the last, for in it the whole arrangement of the human hierarchy is fulfilled and completed. And just as we observe that every hierarchy ends in Jesus” (there is something the evangelical can get on board with!) “so each individual hierarchy reaches its term in its own inspired hierarch. The power of the order of hierarchs spreads throughout the entire sacred company” that is the sacred ministers “and it works special mysteries of its own hierarchy through all the sacred orders.” “The order of hierarchs” that is bishops “is that which fully possesses the power of consecration.” That is fully consecrates the holy oils, by which the priests, the deacons, the baptized, the altars, everything is anointed. It sounds bizarre to talk this way, but note in Exodus 29:7, the whole process begins with the anointing of Aaron with holy oil, and in Exodus 30 the Tabernacle of the Congregation, the Ark of Testimony, the Table, the instruments thereof, the Candlestick, and instruments thereof, the altar of incense, and all the priests are anointed. Then the description is given for this holy oil: “This shall be an holy anointing oil unto me, throughout your generations” and the recipe is given. The unity of the Faith, and the connectedness of the whole hierarchy is symbolized, revealed and sacramental by this holy oil. Pseudo-Dionysius is just maintaining a very Old Testament, priestly, consistency in the New Testament world. Remember Psalm 133, “Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, that ran down unto the beard, even unto Aaron’s beard, and went down to the skirts of his clothing.” The whole hierarchy of grace, flowing downward, from the Throne of Grace, is likened by David to the oil, the holy oil, which ran down the beard, and then down the fringes of Aaron’s garments.

He then speaks of the Priesthood: “It revealingly teaches others to understand, explaining their sacred things, proportionate characteristics, and their holy powers. The light-bearing order of priests guides the initiates to the divine visions of the sacraments. It does so by the authority of the inspired hierarchs [the bishops] in fellowship with whom it exercises the functions of its own ministry.” Then he describes the “order of deacons [which] purifies and discerns those who do not carry God’s likeness within themselves and it does so before they come to the sacred rites performed by the priests. It purifies all who approach by drawing them from all dalliance with what is evil. It makes them receptive to the ritual vision and communion. . . . during the rite of divine birth [baptism] it is the deacons who take away the postulant’s old clothes. It is they who untie [his sandals]. It is they who turn him west for the abjuration and then to the east, since theirs is the power of purification.” That is when they take the person about to be Baptized and turn him West so that he can renounce the devil and all his works, and spit upon the devil’s face, as in the older rites. “It is they who show him the darkness in which he has lived hitherto. It is they who teach him to leave the shadows and turn toward the light.”

          This is the word we have from the Lord in Galatians 5 today, turning away from the “works of the flesh” being purified, and turning toward the “fruit of the Spirit” which is implanted, nurtured, grown, and harvested in the sacramental life, through the purifying divine energy (Grace) channeled into it by God through the Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. We say, well, this is an odd way of talking about it. But if you study the older rites of Baptism, Pseudo-Dionysius’ commentary on the rites of Holy Church make perfect sense. These sacraments were and are called the “Mysteries” the “Divine Mysteries” and those mysteries in the Catholic Faith were and are better than those found elsewhere in the Law of Moses, or in the Rites and Ceremonies of the Greeks. And the world recognized this, and came in to be one with Christ.

          Thus Justin Martyr, the Philosopher, (living earlier than Pseudo-Dionysius) turning away from Plato and towards Christ, spoke about this purification through instruction by the deacons, and says to the Greeks: “Henceforth, ye Greeks, come and partake of incomparable wisdom, and be instructed by the Divine Word, and acquaint yourselves with the King immortal . . . For our own Ruler, the Divine Word, who even now constantly aids us, does not desire strength of body and beauty of feature, nor yet the high spirit of earth’s nobility, but a pure soul, fortified by holiness, and the watchwords of our King, holy actions, for through the Word power passes into the soul.” These are good words not just for the Greek of yesteryear but the American of today. Today, we build up beautiful bodies in gyms as Greeks did, and tear down the soul through lust, as the Greeks did. Today, we allow the works of the flesh to manifest themselves in private, so long as life is well-kempt on the surface. Today, we allow pornographic images to fly past our eyes, but tear down statues that are tributes to the good examples of those who have gone before, those who have exhibited the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance) against which, I should add, the laws of Nature, of Moses, nor of America have ever stood. Justin Martyr says this: “O trumpet of peace to the soul that is at war! O weapon that puttest to flight terrible passions! O instruction that quenches the innate fire of the soul! The Word exercises an influence which does not make poets: it does not equip philosophers nor skilled orators, but by its instruction it makes mortals immortal, mortals gods; and from the earth transports them to realms above Olympus.” He is saying that through Baptism and the Life of the Sacraments we become Saints, and Saints are higher and holier than the gods of Olympus. “Come, be taught; become as I am, for I, too, was as ye are. These have conquered me – the divinity of the instruction, and the power of the Word: for as a skilled serpent-charmer lures the terrible reptile from his den and causes it to flee, so the Word drives the fearful passions of our sensual nature from the very recesses of the soul; first driving forth lust, through which every ill is begotten – hatreds, strife, envy, emulations, anger, and such like. Lust being once banished, the soul becomes calm and serene. And being set free from the ills in which it was sunk up to the neck, it returns to Him who made it. For it is fit that it be restored to that state whence it departed, whence every soul was or is.”

          “Returns to Him who made it” – that is what the Samaritan does today. He obeys Christ, turning first to the Priests of the Old Dispensation of Grace, and away from the false priesthood of the Samaritans, and then turns from Old Dispensation to the New of Grace, by going back, in returning to Christ to give thanks. This was the task of the early Christians, as well. They needed folks to return to the truth, both Jews, Greeks, and Samaritans, and to be healed. That was the task of their preaching. We can and ought to do so again today. We should encourage the Muslim, Jew and Mormon, to turn from their false or eclipsed priesthoods, to the Truth, as it is in Christ, and to the priesthood of Christ embodied and anointed in the Bishops, Priests, and Deacons of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith.   

Trinity 13, 2021 – Fr. Geromel

Today, I would like to ask the question, based upon our Gospel lesson today, who were the Priests as opposed to the Levites? And who were the Samaritans? The answer might surprise you. The answer might help us to discover a new and deeper understanding of the Epistle lesson today, and the role of the Law, versus the role of the Gospel, in Justifying us before God our Father, through the merits of Jesus Christ.

          To talk about the Priests and the Levites, as it turns out, is not to talk about a synonymous thing. Both are different groups of hereditary servants in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Bishop Whipple, the first Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, said this in 1875:

In all ages of the world there has been a visible Church. God originated it; He appointed the means of admission to its fellowship; He commissioned its officers; He ordained its mode of access to Himself. Man did not make the Church of God, and man has no authority to change it. In the earlier ages of the world, the head of the family was the Priest, and he had authority to offer the daily sacrifice. It pleased God to unite men into a closer bond of fellowship with Himself and with one another, he ordained the descendants of Abraham to be His covenanted people, and from the days of Moses to the coming of Jesus Christ that church consisted of the Jewish nation and strangers who had been adopted into it, and who had received the rite of circumcision. God appointed for this church a three-fold ministry – a High Priest, Priests, and Levites. He gave to it the law, the rites and ceremonies, and the sacrifices which pointed them to the mediation and atonement by the coming of His only begotten Son.[1]

So far Bishop Whipple. Now, as I’ve been saying, it turns out that the High Priests and Priests came from the sons of Aaron. However, the Levites were taken from the sons of Kohath, the sons of Gershon, and the sons of Merari. So the Levites were, in a sense, distinct clans from the Tribe of Levi. I am speaking here of what is recorded in Numbers chapter 3 (Geneva Bible). They had different tasks. “And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the Tabernacle of the Congregation, shall be the Tabernacle, and the pavilion, the covering thereof, and the veil of the door of the Tabernacle of the Congregation” (verse 25). Concerning the sons of Kohath, “And their charge shall be the Ark, and the Table, and the Candlestick, and the altars, and the instruments of the Sanctuary that they minister with, and the veil, and all that serveth thereto” (verse 31). “And in the charge and custody of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the Tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and his pillars, and his sockets, and all the instruments thereof, and all that serveth thereto” (verse 36). Thus when the Priest passed by on the other side of the wounded man, and the Levite, presumably on their way up to Jerusalem to work in the Holy Temple, their tasks were quite different.

          Now the Samaritans, that’s where things get interesting. 1) it appears that Samaritans believe that the Pentateuch, the first five Books of the Bible, were corrupted by the Jews. They read it in what is called “Paleo-Hebrew” un-pointed, that is without traditional vowel markings added in the middle ages, with an earlier, less evolved, script or letters. 2) They claim to be from Joseph’s tribe, from his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as from the Levites. 3) The word “Samaritan” appears to be derived from the idea of “watchers,” “keepers” or “guardians” of the true Torah. 4) They worshiped, as you might be aware, on Mount Gerazim, where they believed God commanded them to worship in their version of the Pentateuch. They claimed that Eli, the same Eli that the 1 Book of Samuel says had corrupt sons, was himself corrupt, offering impure sacrifice, and that he moved from Mount Gerazim, where the Tabernacle had been placed by Joshua after entering the land of Canaan, to Shiloh, where Eli established an alternate place of sacrifice; according to the Samaritans, Eli usurped the High Priesthood. The Samaritan account says, “At this time the Children of Israel split into three factions. A loyal faction on Mount Gerazim; a heretical faction that followed false gods; and the faction that followed Eli son of Yafni in Shiloh.” Shiloh, of course, is where Samuel himself was trained and raised. Interestingly, Samuel was an Ephraimite, and was given a linen ephod and allowed to help Eli in the Temple at Shiloh. So this lends credence of sorts to the bizarre thing I am going to say, which is that the Samaritans claimed to have the true lineage of High Priests, according to their own records. Both the Priests and Levites (being very likely Sadducees) and the Samaritans used only the first five books of the Bible, and especially not the books such as the Prophets, which is what made them different from the Pharisees.

          Thus, when we come back to this story in the Gospel, we are tempted to see it in a light that we might not have seen before, that the Samaritan may have been from an alternate lineage of priesthood, claiming to be of the true lineage of the priesthood. (This was the case as well in the Essene community in which there was a hierarchy of officers, elders, priests and the bishop, or “mebaqqer” or “paqid”.) There is no positive evidence that this Samaritan in the gospel lesson was a priest, but the thing that distinguished this man from others was a different place of worship, and a different set of priests, and this should cause us to take notice when he is talked about next to a Priest and a Levite. A different place of worship, and a different set of priests, and yet God calls him the better example of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, which is the essence of the Law.

Jesus stands in the tradition of the Pharisees, while often criticizing them. The Pharisees, the tradition of the Rabbis, like the Essenes, didn’t think much of the Priesthood and the Pharisees certainly didn’t think much of the Samaritans. A lawyer, very likely a Pharisee, who would not have thought much about Priests and Levites (Sadducees) and Samaritans, neither of whom used anything but the first five books of the Bible, where the Law was found, is asked by Jesus to decide which one is more righteous – there is no Pharisee in the parable for the Lawyer to pick and point out as the most righteous. It’s like asking a Republican to decide who is more righteous, a Communist or a Democrat – nope, you can’t pick a Republican. For a Pharisaical studier of the Law, a Scribe or Lawyer, the Prophets and the Rabbis, were essential, were needed to understand the Law properly, but Sadducees and the Samaritans used neither. This gives us a sense of what we see in the Epistle, the Law cannot bring righteousness. The Pharisee might answer, yes the Law by itself cannot, for the Sadducees and Samaritans have it and are not righteous; yes, the Law by itself cannot, not without the tradition of the Rabbis and Prophets to interpret said Law. Paul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, however, argues in Galatians today that it is not the interpretation of the Rabbis, Prophets, or anything else, but Jesus’ interpretation that matters, that all are under sin – the Pharisee, the Sadducee and the Samaritan. All three cannot bring themselves to atonement by being a following of the Law, because it has to be by Faith to them that Believe. There is no question that Jesus sided with the Sadducees and the Pharisees against the Samaritans, telling the woman at the well that true worshippers did not worship on the Samaritans’ sacrificial mount, but on the holy mountain of Jerusalem. There is no question that Jesus sided with the Pharisees against the Sadducees that there was an afterlife and the resurrection of the dead. Minute theological arguments are still important to Jesus. Yet all are concluded under sin, in order to be brought to Jesus.

          In Acts 6:7, it says, “And the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples was multiplied at Jerusalem greatly, and a great company of the Priests were obedient unto the faith.” So the Priests and Levites came into the Christian church to a noteworthy degree. Acts 8 says, “Now when the Apostles, which were at Jerusalem, heard say, that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Which when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the holy Ghost.” The Samaritans and the gentiles were brought into the Christian church to a noteworthy degree. All were brought into the Kingdom, and set as the same and equal with Pharisees, for the Apostles were, almost to a man, zealots and pharisees. All the Pharisees needed to learn who was neighbor, because pretty soon their neighbors were going to start to join the Christian church. Soon their neighbors, who were unrighteous – in the eyes of the Pharisees – unclean even, were going to be brought into the Christian church. Jesus said to the women at the well, “believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain [Mount Gerazim], nor at Jerusalem worship the Father.” The Sadducees and Pharisees who joined the Christian church eventually ceased to worship at Jerusalem, the Samaritans who joined the Christian church eventually ceased to worship at Mount Gerazim. Having become convinced of their sinfulness, and distrusting their ability to keep the Law, they worshipped through Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father. They then realized their true bond of being neighbors was Jesus Christ, realizing that they had all been a little bit wrong, and Jesus was right, by that they were righteous. Let us pray.

O Benignant King of ages and Master or all creation, receive Thy Church approaching Thee through Christ; fulfil for each of us what is good for him; bring us all to perfection, and make us meet for the grace of Thy sanctification, uniting us together in Thy Holy Church, which Thou hast purchased with the precious Blood of thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ with Whom, and with Thine All-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, Thou art blessed and glorified forever. Amen.[2]

[1] Rt. Rev. H. B. Whipple, “Christian Unity,” (New York: Pott, Young & Co., 1875).

[2] Liturgy of St. James, as quoted in Bright’s Collects, 130.

Trinity 12, 2021

Some years ago, I gave up trying to give blood. It was when I was trying to give blood for the sake of a two year old in a community where I was serving. This was because my veins are horrible and the blood would not flow as it ought to do and the blood starts to harden faster than it was flowing. My veins are not easy to find in the first place but then they start moving the needle around in order to try to get a better flow and it hurts. Finally they just gave up. Now, that’s not much of a sacrifice, as you know. I do also have to answer questions. I have to have my finger poked so they can test the blood. Perhaps you have been through this. I went through all of that, all of the poking and the moving of a needle around in my arm, in order for nothing to happen.

          Now, I have to relate this for a moment to ministry. There are a bunch of things I had to do in order to get to the point where I could give blood. There are a bunch of things I couldn’t do before giving blood. The last time I tried to give I was asked, “Have you slept with any prostitutes”, I said no. I was asked, “Have you slept with any men”, I said, no. They asked, have you spent more than three months in the United Kingdoms, I said, “no, unfortunately”. All of these things, some innocent, others abominable, I did not do and I had good blood; then I get up there and just can’t give. What a disappointment. Having had bad experiences with drawing blood in the past, I had mental anxiety beforehand and still nothing happened.

And the same is true with the Ministry. There are a bunch of things that you have to do beforehand. There are a bunch of things you can’t do beforehand. And yet, having done all, you can get up there and preach and it is as God said to Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.”

In our Gospel lesson today, once again, the people of Israel had closed ears and did not hear. God’s Son Jesus Christ had been preaching to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and some were listening and most were not. So here in our Gospel lesson, “Jesus, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.” Jesus was on a mission trip, first to “Tyre and Sidon” Phoenician cities of pagans and then to Decapolis, the ten cities of Greek pagans. There it is that he saw men bringing a deaf man with an impediment of speech and it was here that he opened up his ears so that he could hear.

Opening ears is a necessary prerequisite to hearing the Gospel. And the pagans needed their ears opened. Nothing else could be done without it. No progress in the spiritual lives of these righteous pagans could get done without the ears first being opened. Before drawing blood, my veins had to be opened up. No giving could be done first without it. And it hurt. The same was true in God’s son Jesus Christ. No giving could be done for us in terms of eternal life before God’s blood was pierced by the needle, the nails on his hands and his feet. And it hurt. All of that had to be done. Think of all the things Jesus could not do. All the prostitutes he had to minister to and be tempted by and all the things that he could not go and touch because they were unclean and would have made this Lamb of God an unclean sacrifice for us. It would have made his blood unclean and it would not have then been the perfect blood transfusion for us his children.

When we speak of the blood transfusion to us, his little lambs, we are speaking of that Holy Eucharist in which Christ’s spiritual sacrifice is made present to us. The Holy Eucharist is a blood transfusion in which by ingestion his blood spiritually preserves us unto eternal life when our own blood is mortal and will kill us, eventually. It’s a spiritual dialysis. Yes, we all need a blood transfusion and it is the Sacrifice of the Mass, a spiritual presence of Jesus Christ taken and received by earthly ingestion of bread and wine which preserves us unto eternal life. When I say the words, “the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto eternal life” I am speaking of a blood transfusion of a spiritual nature. Our own bad blood is always being let out of our veins as the sands of time allow our mortal lives to come to their natural close. Somehow we must put something back in before the hour glass is empty, something which will preserve us for eternity.

Is this not a glorious way for us to be given eternal life? Is this not a medical procedure from heaven itself? How else would the Lord desire for us to attain eternal life but by being given this medicine for our spiritual well being? Paul says to us today, “For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.” The ministration of condemnation was the sacrifice of the in which priests endlessly offered the sin offering of goats and sheep and they poured the blood out at the base of the altar. The Jews were not allowed to partake of the blood of the animals because the blood was the life and Jesus Christ was the only blood that they should ever partake in. And we should never partake in anything else. Why would we wish to become vampires, as those Satanic cults, Voodoo and Wicca allow their followers to partake in the blood of sacrifice for the mark of the Beast? The Jews were not asked to do so. Blood must be ingested to replace the blood which is necessarily bad by the offence which Adam committed in Paradise. And God does not wish us to do that which is revolting. He allowed the Jews a sacrifice which atoned for their sins in an incomplete way without drinking blood and he offers us his life-giving blood without the necessity of tasting of the physical blood which flowed down the hard wood of the Cross. He gives us blood which tastes sweet and pleasant to the tongue.

Oh how gracious is our God that He gives his atoning blood in the sweet fermentation of grapes! For I know if it were a choice between eternal death or eternal life we would all be willing to lick up the blood pools which sat by the knees of Mary and John as they knelt beneath that Cross on Calvary. Yet he does not want us to partake of the fruit of that unhappy day, but in dignity and celebration to partake of it with a handful of friends on a beautiful Sunday morning. The sun streams softly through the windows and it is not devilishly darkened as on that day of Crucifixion. The wind does not blow as on that day and if it does we are sheltered by walls. The earth does not quake, hades is not opened; an invisible hand does not rip the curtain of this Holy Temple. Such is our great High Priest that He offers us a banquet fit for a king and not the execution meant for a criminal. How delicious is that spiritual presence of God in the cup of blessing which we bless in His name! It is such that instead of being repulsed our mouths water at the sight and we wish to taste again and again of this happy cup. It is said, that “a little sugar makes the medicine go down” and so it is on this happy morning.

   And there is no end to this banquet, beloved. There is no want of wine. The psalmist saith, “Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than when their corn and wine and oil increase.” This banquet, this delicious cough medicine of our Lord’s making, does not end, though we should not dare to take it gluttonously, just a sip will do. We pray today, “Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve; Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ . . .” God is always ready to hear our supplication that He change the bread and wine we place before him into the Body and Blood of his Son. God is ready always to pour down the abundance of His mercy. The needle has been stuck into his precious sacrificial body and He the Great High Priest is always ready to open the vein wider so as to let the mercy flow in abundance. Once the vein is pierced, once the needle is in, it is not a big deal to give out His blood constantly.

This is how it is. He was willing to go through all the prerequisite work in order to make this blood transfusion possible. He was willing to go through the trials of standing under the hard Law of Moses perfectly. He was willing to stand before Pontius Pilate. He was willing to carry that hospital litter, that heavy cross, to the top of Golgotha. He was willing to allow the nail to pass through his hand and into the wood behind. He was willing to do all this for just one of us, for any one of us, for the greatest of all sinners or the saintliest of all the children of men. Once it was done, the blood transfusion was set up. And we have the hook up. And we might as well tap into it as much as God gives us bidding to his supper.

I remember my disappointment that I went through so much and was not able to give blood to help a child with a blood transfusion. What a disappointment to God when He sent His Son to die and we refuse to receive His precious living-giving Blood with thanksgiving and celebration. Would you not weep over such a refusal if you were God?

 

The Assumption of Mary – welcoming a relic of St. Spyridon

Today, you will notice that we have a new pulpit standing between the altar rails and the pews, that I found in an antiques store in Wytheville, and which Vestry was kind enough to vote to pay for. The lectern has also been moved down, and to the other side from the pulpit, between the altar rails and the pews. This provides the traditional Anglican (and universal) division of nave, chancel, and sanctuary – even if there isn’t room in the chancel for a choir. An important aspect of this division in the church is that you then have the proclamation of the word standing in front of (and prior to) the reception of the word in sacraments. As a faithful communicant, you move past the reading and preaching of the audible word, to the reception of the tangible word at the altar rails. Archbishop Cranmer wrote: “For as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears, so likewise these elements of water, bread, and wine, joined to God’s word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses.” The angelic and prophetic proclamation of word in the chancel (by preachers, lay readers, and sometimes choir) is what we move past on our way towards the celestial city, since the altar rails mark the symbolic delineation between heaven and earth. 

“And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.” Acts 19:12

We wish today to speak a few words concerning the new relic that has been brought to our altar. Fr. Trent, at our sister church of St. Leonard’s in Keystone, West Virginia, when he was a western rite Russian Orthodox priest, was given two pieces of St. Spyridon’s shoes. St. Spyridon was a Bishop in Cyprus, a shepherd, who became a bishop, around the time of the First Ecumenical Council, which he attended. He died about 350 A.D. Oddly enough, his body, now kept on the island of Corfu, is incorrupt. Meaning that is his body is decayed, but not at that level of decay that one should expect after 1500 years, and his flesh still maintains a certain amount of flexibility. More strange indeed is the fact that the shoes with which he is clothed continue to wear away, as if being worn on a regular basis. When those shoes do wear out, they are sent out as relics to various places. Fr. Trent received two of these from his Orthodox bishop, when he only needed one, and so decided that he might endow us with one of the two. Our parish, which has had no relics, should rejoice in now having what is called a “third class relic,” one that has touched, like the handkerchiefs and aprons in the Book of Acts, a saint. Will it work miracles? Only time will tell. As you might imagine, I want to speak a few minutes about the significance and theological importance of relics.

          Like so many things as Anglican Catholics, on this subject we are called to nice and careful distinctions. The Affirmation of St. Louis, our founding and guiding document, makes us inheritors of the Holy Tradition of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. We are Conciliar Christians and Catholics, rather than Papal Christians. I want to quote a minute from Fr Munday, sometime Dean of Nashotah House seminary, in his tract on the Seven Ecumenical Councils. He says: “Specifically, with regard to relics, the Seventh Ecumenical Council affirmed the following:

Let relics of the Holy Martyrs be placed in such churches as have been consecrated without them, and this with the accustomed prayers. But whoever shall consecrate a church without these shall be deposed as a transgressor to the traditions of the Church.

“This canon must be understood within its historical context. In this period, those who were establishing churches without relics were usually either schismatics or heretics. Having access to obtain the relic of a saint and including it in the construction of a new church indicate that the congregation was in communion with the wider Church and under the authority of a bishop who stood in apostolic succession. The presence of a saint’s relic in the church was like a ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ and indicated that the congregation was a valid part of the orthodox and catholic Church.” You see, early on, during the days of Persecution, there was a sense in which, if you didn’t have martyrs you hadn’t stood for the Faith, you’d waffled, lost your “candle” as the Book of Revelation put it. Then later, those churches who had been established since the days of Persecution and those churches who had turned back to Orthodoxy after waffling under pressure, were assured of their status as part of the Universal Church by receiving parts of bodies of those who had suffered for the Faith, and often died for the Faith, and, later, had clearly proclaimed the Faith even though they never had to give their lives for it – still they had clearly been willing to do so.

          Now, a distinction should be made for clarity’s sake: This disciplinary canon is not required of us as Anglican Catholics; just as Orthodoxy today does not require all disciplinary canons to still be followed, neither do we. When we say we stand for the Seven Ecumenical Councils as Anglican Catholics we mean that we stand for the theological statements of those councils, not every jot and tittle of them. For example, according to some of those disciplinary canons, I could not, as a clergyman, go into a bar with you. I could not marry a woman who had been a waitress in a bar, or even an actress. Now you can see, immediately, why there might have been a time and a place when such a disciplinary canon made sense – but, of course, despite sounding fundamentalist, even today an Orthodox priest can go into a bar, can marry a girl who in her college days had served a beer, or even played in a high school musical. This canon concerning having a relic in every church no longer applies, but we can see the historical point and are happy to follow the same today by welcoming this relic into our midst.

          Another point should be made, with another distinction: Relics are a natural part of human connection but expecting miracles to happen every time we have a relic is above and beyond what we should expect as humans. To the first point, I was sitting in a doctoral class at Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in an environment where they distinctly disagree with the Seventh Ecumenical Council and have zero tolerance for icons, and yet, all around me are pictures of John Calvin, or of other Scottish divines, or of glorious battles fought by Scotsmen for the sake of religious freedom. Pictures of heroes are natural and innocuous in God’s eyes. So are relics. In the middle of a class the professor came back to lecture from a break and set a fedora down on the table and was delighted to tell us that this hat had belonged to none other than the great Princeton Divine and founder of Westminster Seminary and of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen. I immediately pointed out, jokingly, but seriously, that what he was showing us was a “third class relic” even though he would be aghast to think of it that way. He smiled. To the second point and distinction, there are many, many relics in this world that have never wrought any miracles. In my family we have two first class (bones) relics and a second class (something actually worn by the saint) relic. No miracles have really ever occurred in my family due to these that we know of. They simply remain a bond of friendship, and outward sign of the communion of saints, and a delight to tell people about. Yet, occasionally, according to Scripture, miracles do happen, as in the case of Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons, and in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 13: “And Elisha died, and they buried him. . . . And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood upon his feet.”

          Today we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a saint of whose relics we have none, of which nobody has any. The very meaning of “assumption” is that God took to Himself the Blessed Virgin Mary, not leaving any portion of her to be venerated, or divided up for the faithful. This is similar to what happened with Moses and Elijah. There is no known burial place for them. Again there is nothing unscriptural about the fact that Mary, by Tradition, like Moses and Elijah (explicitly) by Scripture and Tradition, has never had a burial place.

          There is a more practical statement that I would like to make about the nature of any relic in our lives, of which you know doubt have some. All of you have an heirloom, a relic, from a relative, a picture, an icon, of an ancestor. But there are two things that spell trouble, two sides of the coin in regards to this: One is getting rid of too much, the other is hoarding. Hoarding is an inability to have a healthy grieving process, to be unable to let the past go. Getting rid of too much, is the other immoderation that says that you, too, cannot come to terms with the past. We all know of the horror scenarios from movies and television – rooms that have never been touched since someone has died, or even a corpse of mom kept somewhere. In either case, we have to look at ourselves. In the time of the Reformation, ironically, Luther’s patron the Elector of Saxony, was a hoarder of relics. Before the Reformation was over, far too many people swung in the opposite direction, and got rid of too many relics. Wittenberg, which housed a great collection of relics before the Reformation, was suddenly descended upon by misguided folks, who sought to destroy all the images and statues in that town. Puritans, by their very attempt to get back to the early Church and ignore Church History, must demolish icons and relics because they cannot come to terms with, or reconcile their theological positions with actual Church History. I speak of folks I genuinely love who make this mistake, and it sounds harsh, but it is true.

The same thing can be true of Mary. You meet with Roman Catholics, and others, who want to talk about Mary more than about Jesus. This ought not to be so, and Mary never would have wished it, and even at this moment in the presence of Christ, she does not wish it. She says instead, “Do as He tells you,” “Ponder His miracles in your hearts” and “Be it unto me according to His will.” On the other hand you have folks who don’t want to talk about how precious Mary is, so precious that God of His great goodness allowed her to fall asleep and then made the place of her burial, or the abode of her abiding maidenhood, exceptionally mysterious – lest they sound like Roman Catholics. Concerning both, our rhetoric and our example should be moderation, healthy esteem for the saints, without possessiveness or expecting them to do something for us, as if God can’t do something for us better than mere creatures, albeit mere creatures who have become a delightful repository of His grace; healthy veneration of the relics and of icons and of Mary, without expecting that by possessing such we have power apart from Christ, or a greater hold on Him. He is no respecter of persons, and He desires and demands from us holy lives more than that we purchase holy objects. Only if they lead us to greater holiness are these objects of any proper use. There is no healthy power apart from Christ and to Him be Glory, now and forever and unto the Ages of ages. Amen.         

 

Trinity 10, 2021 – Blessed John Mason Neale

“And he taught daily in the temple.” Today, in the life of the Church we gratefully remember the faith and witness of John Mason Neale who lived between 1818-1866. It is said of him

. . . while an undergraduate at Cambridge, [he] was influenced by the ideas of the Tractarians. He was founder of the Cambridge Camden Society, which stimulated interest in ecclesiastical art and which played a part in the revival of Catholic ritual in the Church of England. While Warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead, a post he held from 1846, Neale founded the Society of Saint Margaret, which grew into one of the largest of Anglican women’s religious communities. Neale is remembered as an accomplished hymn writer and his influence on Anglican worship has been considerable. He suffered frail health for many years and died on the Feast of the Transfiguration 1866.[1]

I first remember hearing about J.M. Neale, or rather coming face to face with him, as he stared back at me from a photograph, on the cover of a book, displayed at the gift shop at Canterbury Cathedral. It was in this shop that we purchased, as I recall, the BBC series of Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers. The irony is that I sometimes wonder if Trollope didn’t partly base his character, Mr Harding, after J.M. Neale. Both the fictional Mr Harding, a Warden for Hierome’s Hospital, a retirement home for retired Woolcarters, and J.M. Neale, as Warden of Sackville College, which isn’t an academic position – no it is an almshouse to house poor folks – were subjects of political trials and tribulations. The real J.M. Neale was inhibited by his bishop for fourteen years because of his High Church views. That is to say, he could serve there at that college, but not anywhere else in the diocese.  

There are three points I would like to draw out from our gospel lesson today,

  • Jesus beheld the city of Jerusalem and wept.
  • Jesus prophesied the doom and destruction of the city.
  • Jesus said it was because they did not know the time of their visitation, meaning his visit.
  • He cleansed the Temple.
  • Even though he knew it was going to be destroyed, Jesus went back and “taught daily in the temple.”

Similar to the time in which Jesus lived, and our time, the time when J.M. Neale lived, matters were at a low ebb. The Church was strong in the 19th century – at least the invisible church. Evangelicals were not too concerned with the outward state of the Church, of the church buildings. They were concerned with their inward piety – and this was a good thing. But the Tractarians saw the low ebb of the outward Church, and like Jesus, wept over it. They could see the effects of civil religion. That is to say, they could see the effects that the Church of England, being a Church for an English Nation, and only that, would have. They could prophetically see the rise of Nationalism, which would culminate in multiple empires colliding over multiple colonies, and lead, eventually to World War. They sought to explain that the Church of England, as a branch of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, was to be a Church, to have, as our Epistle lesson today says, “diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” “Differences of administrations, but the same Lord.” “Diversities of operations, but . . . the same God which worketh all in all.” It was to be a Church Militant, but part of, not in opposition to, the Church of France, or the Church of Italy, or Spain, or the Princedoms of the Astro-Hungarian Empire.

          Another way to talk about Visitation is to talk about the idea of God’s Visitation in Sickness. This was Neale’s lot in life. His father, a late vocation to the ministry, hardly made it a year as a clergyman before being snuffed out from consumption, like some other male relatives. Neale, taking a post when a deacon as a tutor as well as a chaplain at Downing College, Cambridge, hardly lasted more than a year. Then he tried to be a curate, started to be a curate, and a few weeks later, the bishop refused to license him. He then became an incumbent, a rector we might say, and lasted just a few weeks before having a fright due to chronic lung disease himself. So he resigned his living, married the girl he was engaged to, and they took off (on mom’s money) to warmer climates. Not a great start in the ministry! Returning, he became the Warden, where he stayed the rest of his life. He never got to be the parish priest that he dreamed of being, but he recognized God’s Visitation, God’s hand, that God would do something else with him that he had not seen coming. And the Church has never been the same since.

          Jesus cleansed the Temple, and so did these Tractarians and Ritualists. There was a difference between this high church movement at Oxford, the Tractarians, from the one at Cambridge – which was the hotbed of Ritualism, rather than Tractarianism. What was the difference? One author put it this way: “The Tractarians may be said to be concerned with the recovery of Catholic concepts and doctrines within the devotional and intellectual life of the Church of England, whereas Neale and his friends were concerned with the expression of dogma in the architectural symbolism of both extant and newly-erected buildings.”[2] You see in his Camden Society, he and his friends were working to undo just what we have been talking about in our Sunday school class on colonial churches. Box pews, that showed your status in society, and showcased you, but which left you without being able to even see the altar, or adequately hear the word of God preached from the pulpit. Chancels so small and inadequate that you ended up storing your hat inside the altar rails, in the sanctuary space, or so little reverence for the altar that a churchwarden would think nothing of getting up on the altar to open a window in the middle of a service. Yes, these mighty men worked long and hard to cleanse the temple outwardly, while preaching the word of God to cleanse it inwardly. You see the fruits of it today, whenever you see a gothic revival church, a high altar, a beautiful altar rail, or rood screen, even in a Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran Church, these things could not have been without J.M. Neale and his friends. You say, well what does the outward building matter? Hear the Word of God on that subject from Nehemiah 2: “And I arose in the night . . . And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king’s pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass.” Jerusalem needed rebuilding, outwardly, as well as inwardly in the time of Nehemiah.

          But here’s the important thing, as I said in the beginning. When all was done, and all had wept, and all had cleansed, they went back and “taught daily in the Temple.” It wasn’t for the sake of aesthetics only that they went uphill, against the tide, culturally. It was not for the sake of saving the music program for posterity, only. It wasn’t for the sake of keeping the artists out of the gutters, only. They went back, as their Lord had given them example, and the “taught daily in the Temple.” By reviving daily services, continuing to preach evangelical sermons, with a Catholic tone, by rededicating themselves as priests, both of altar and of pulpit. John Mason Neale was just one man, among many men, that God called at that time, to raise the standards high again. “For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretations of tongues: but all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.” “And he taught daily in the temple.” Let us pray.

Almighty God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give to thy holy Apostles many excellent gifts, and didst charge them to feed Thy flock; Give grace, we beseech Thee, to all Bishops, and Pastors of Thy Church, that they may diligently preach Thy Word, and duly administer the godly Discipline thereof; and grant to the people, that they may obediently follow the same; that all may receive the crown of everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.       

[1] Celebrating the Saints, 252.

[2] Michael Chandler, The Life and Work of John Mason Neale, 29.

 

Trinity 9, 2021

“But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”

The question I would like task in the sermon is: How did the father’s righteousness possibly contribute to the return of the prodigal son? It is a subject requiring much delicacy, because the automatic assumption which goes with such an essay is that if one’s child has not returned yet, then one must lack righteousness and be a sinner. That is a somewhat vexing question, because much of the theology of the Old Testament, none of which has been changed in the New, indicates that this is in some sense the case. Remember that they said of Our Lord Jesus Christ when he healed, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness” said the Archangel Raphael in the Book of Tobit. In the Book of Tobit, Raphael explains, “When you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought a reminder of your prayer before the Holy One; and when you buried the dead, I was likewise present with you. When you did not hesitate to rise and leave your dinner in order to go and lay out the dead, your good deed was not hidden from me… So now God sent me to heal.” I would also like to cite Genesis, “And [Abraham] believed the Lord; and [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

               Now, first of all, we must make the distinction between sinner and sinner, between sins of omission and sins of commission. Sin is, at its root, not believing fully and not being grateful, fully. Sin is a radical thing which manifests itself in little things. Sin, as a lack of believing, a lack of Faith, is an obstacle to complete prayer. And so, it is logical that the Lord cannot listen to the prayers of sinners, because prayer without believing is not prayer. So, if we have a loved one, who has not returned yet, there is a possibility that we lack Faith and thus are “sinners” in the Old Testament sense of things.

               Second of all, we cannot rightly give glory to God for the return of a loved one, without first being ready to receive the blessing of that return. Otherwise, we may miss the blessing and God is not glorified in the return of a sinner that does not give glory to his Grace. And so, we must be ready to receive the blessing of a returned loved one before it is truly a blessing. As has already been stated, lack of gratitude is sin and so when we are not ready to receive the blessing, we are still, in the omission sense, in a state of sin. God is not doing us any favors in returning our loved ones to us until we are ready.

               Furthermore, we must distinguish between our prayer and righteousness contributing to the return of a loved one and our prayer causing the return of a loved one. There is a great difference between contributing to and causing. “Causing” implies a summation of the whole contribution and contribution, of course, is simply a partial cause. To believe that our prayer constituted the summa causa of the return of a loved one would be pretty arrogant and would constitute sin on our part, and God could never allow us to be so deluded if he loved us. So, I think, when Archangel Raphael states, “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness” we must understand that none of our prayer is perfect, and is often still filled somewhat with sin. St. John of Kronstadt said concerning this:

. . . Asking for things is not, in the last resort, real prayer; at best it is an inferior kind of prayer. Adoration, contemplation, contrition, and so on – these are real, or at least much better, prayer. Asking is too self-centered, or at least too man-centered, is too primitive a form of praying to be other than the very bottom rung of the ladder, and he or she who would really pray, who would really take prayer seriously, must pass beyond it.

And I think that we can generally say that although praying, fasting, almsgiving, and other righteous acts are all imperfectly done by us humans, when they are done by us in combination, it makes the prayer better, in that it means we are all the more ready to receive the blessing when God answers the prayer.

               Do you see how we are not speaking of works righteousness, if we speak in terms of our readiness to receive what God has given to us? Nevertheless, all of this may be in place, and yet our loved one does not return. I am, of course, relying on Scripture references such as Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” thus making the assumption that generally the prodigal will return. So what are we to say when the loved one does not return? We say that we do not know how long the father in today’s Gospel was ready and waiting. He may have been ready to receive the blessing of his son’s return for six months, a year, six years, maybe twenty years. I guess we say the same thing here as we would for a young person who believes he or she is truly ready to receive the blessing of a spouse – “Maybe you are ready but the other party is not ready yet.” The father may have been ready but the prodigal son wasn’t. And here we insert the fact that, if our prayer and righteousness is contributing to the return only, there have to be other contributing causes that have taken place before the return happens. So we must wait, and wait, and wait, trying not to worry, trying not to fret, trying not to be anxious (because anxiety is lack of faith and sin) wondering when the loved one will return to the Lord.

               I have two things to say about this: 1) we are directed by St. Paul to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” This means, in terms Kierkegaard would like, we must be knights of faith who stand on the brink of insanity, being faithfully intensely prayerful (never anxious); beseeching God that he would return our loved ones to us and to himself. This is the cross we must bear in wishing our loved ones back again. We must be ready to sacrifice everything and constantly refine and purge ourselves by God’s Grace in case it is something lacking in us which is impeding this reconciliation. We are, no doubt, simultaneously drawn into constant prayer on behalf of the one who is not yet ready to be reconciled (and in cases of a broken relationship, we must pray that we and the other party are both made ready for the reconciliation.) This is good, because it is an impetus for more prayer and for more good works which refine our souls. It seems to me that when St. John of Kronstadt says that prayer for things is something selfish, it must be understood that the prayer of a Christian should mean that we are not seeking after something simply personal, but rather that, like good Christians, we see the big picture and pray for more than just our little slice of the pie. We pray ultimately for and with the whole communion of saints and with the angels. We pray that we and the whole world might be delivered from this present age and made ready for the age to come. It would, after all, be rather selfish if we knew by foreknowledge that the Titanic was going to crash and instead of praying that the whole ship be delivered, we only prayed that our relatives be delivered. In praying for the salvation of the whole world, we naturally include prayer for our own friends, but do so in ways closer to the nature of Christ himself and that can only make the prayer better (read that: “more mature”) prayer.

               2) I believe that it behooves us to keep in mind that the phrases, “Make one’s peace with God” and “Deathbed Conversion” do not come into the English parlance out of a vacuum, but have their birth in a true pastoral reality. That reality is that for all the years Christianity has been around, folks have often not become reconciled until the end of their lives. Therefore, if we are speaking of those younger than us, especially our children, we may not see their reconciliation. We may never be able to bring them to our loving arms like the father in today’s Gospel lesson and sing with them in church the way we once did when they were younger. Unfortunately, for many who have strayed from the way of righteousness, for many such children, their parents do outlive them. Certainly the prodigal son may well have died had he not returned to his father’s house. Every man must die and that deathbed experience can be a time of reconciliation especially if we are constantly looking for the right times to bring in the right people. A priest is trained to minister to those dying and prepare them for that end. It is good if we are always ready to call up a priest, not only for our children, but for other people’s children, no matter what age they are. They were, of course, somebody’s children. Making certain that a priest is brought in when somebody is dying, if at all possible, is a work of mercy and will be counted to you for righteousness.

               If we are blessed to live to see the reconciliation of a loved one, what are we to expect? We have to expect to have the good with the bad. If they have moved away from home and move back, we have to live with our children (or children with their parents) once again. There is some good in that and some bad. The prodigal son had both good things and bad things. He may have gotten a nice cloak and a nice ring and a fatted calf, but he also had already squandered his inheritance. He still had connected himself with harlots. He may have had diseases from living in filth and in brothels. King Saul, when he became estranged from the Lord, became oppressed by an evil spirit, but he also gained a great son-in-law, David, from whose line would come the savior of the whole world. David, when he sinned with Bathsheba, was promised that the sword would not depart from his household, right down to the sword which pierced Mary’s heart at the Crucifixion. But from his connection with Bathsheba came not only King Solomon, the wisest king, but from his connection with Bathsheba came Christ himself. We must be prepared for the good with the bad when the reconciliation has happened.

               The final reconciliation, beloved, has none of this sorrow in it. The final reconciliation, that final deliverance from this present age which our deep prayer as the Communion of Saints is helping to fulfill, will deliver us from the bad side to our many blessings. It shall no longer be the good with the bad, but the good with the good, and the even greater blessing heaped upon every blessing. These blessings shall no longer be worked out in fear and trembling, but worked out in peace and safety. We shall no longer be concerned about what is lacking in our Faith, for our Faith will be confirmed and we shall not be lacking anything at all.  

 

St. James Day, July 25th, 2021

“But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We come to this day commemorating our Father and Apostle among the Saints, St. James, the brother of John and the son of him called “Zebedee.” They were both renamed by Jesus, “Sons of Thunder.” We are not sure the reason for this name, but it may have had to do with their personalities. Although, to be sure, we are given much of St. John’s personality in his Gospel and three Epistles, but it does not appear especially fiery or thunderous. St. John is tough, but not temperamental; bold, but not belligerent; solemn and sober, expressing God’s sovereignty without acting sovereign himself. Perhaps this is the ‘thunder’ of their characters.

            For a Christian, thunder is not so much a ruckus as a rumble; the storm cloud is on the horizon. The prophet and seer of God’s oracles does not want to be right in his prophecies, he wishes he were wrong. When Samuel anointed a king, did he want his prophecy to be correct; did he wish the Israelite kings to become corrupt as his prophecy foretold? Did Isaiah wish for the captivity of Israel? Did Jerusalem wish to lament over fallen Jerusalem? Did Daniel desire that Babylon should fall to the northern Barbarians? Only Jonah, perhaps, wished the destruction of Assyria, but then it did not happen. But for the most part, prophets wish that they were wrong.

            The thunder of James and John was to rumble throughout the horizon in the words they preached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Psalm 19: 4 says, “Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words into the ends of the world.” They did not rumble to set a house on fire, or to catch a field in flames, but to build up the Church of God; to sanctify and order a house, not by destructive flames, but by the flaming fire of the Holy Spirit. Such is the work of a prophet of God. Prophets may be called warmongers, seeing the storm clouds of destruction afar off, but they never wish for pain and suffering and starvation to come. They wish rather that the people of God would hear and act, hear the Word of God and act upon it, changing their hearts to be in line with the thoughts and desires of their Lord God.

            One must be aware of one of the stark warnings in today’s Gospel: “the mother of Zebedee’s children [came]… and saith unto [Jesus], ‘Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.’” Nothing is more in contrast with the Gospel than these well-meant words by a good woman of Israel, a good woman who would see Christ to the end, who, as it turns out, was there at the Crucifixion. Christ, however, is not angry. First he uses it to test the faith of the Sons of Thunder. “Are ye able?” he asks, to drink of and be baptized with Christ’s own blood? They answer, “We are”. They take an oath at that moment. He uses it also as a learning lesson. He uses it to show the Apostles what the basis of leadership is. This is a lesson Christ tries to drive home again and again.

            The basis of satanic cults is this: 1) Come to me all ye that are special and special abilities and I will give to you special knowledge. 2) I shall set over you a burden which you cannot bear. 3) I shall then hold that burden over your head and make you my slave. This good woman of Israel does not know it, but she is burdening her sons with something which they cannot bear on their own without God’s good grace. First, she is setting her sons up as special, and as a teaching lesson Christ asks if the burden is something they can bear. Christ then shows to us the result of such a line of reasoning, “the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.” This is the way of the occult and pagan society. The Occult’s line of reasoning is this: Do you wish to be bright and shiny and glisten in the sun and sit at the right hand of the ineffable, mysterious Supreme God for all eternity? This can only happen if you are special. If you are special then you can bear such and such a burden. Once you struggle under that heavy burden, then you are my slave – because you need my help, or because you fall into corruption being under extreme pressure, and then you owe me.

            Christ breaks the power of paganism in this one example. Yes, you may be baptized in the same baptism in which I am baptized, says Christ, but so can every other man. Yes, you may sit with God eternally in the heavenly realms, but because of that free gift of Grace which God bestows on all them who are endowed with a rational soul and made in the Image of God. Yes, you may bear that burden, because that burden is now a light yoke, made easy by the Cross of Christ. Yes, you are special because I made you. You are special because I made you special and not because you are special. Yes, through Christ’s action in the Incarnation, on the Cross, and through the Resurrection, we are given a blessed liberty, a liberty of servanthood and ministry, a liberty of dominion through discipleship, a liberty of servant leadership, of ignoble nobility and unspecial speciality, and it is a paradox and it is hard to understand, but we have all of our Christian lives to learn it. We have it through Christ, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20).

            This is why our thunder is thunderless, if we are sons of God and cry to the Father using that blessed word, “Abba.” Again as Psalm 19 says, “There is neither speech nor language; but their voices are heard among them [another paradox!]. Their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words into the ends of the world.” This is the quiet which cannot be kept silent. The voice of Christ before Pilate, led like a dumb sheep before his shearers, speaking only a few words, words the gravity of which could never ever be overstated and the blaze of which will never be put out: “Thou sayest that I am a king.” Yes, these were the words spoken before Pilate. “Thou sayest”. Christ affirms Pilate’s words and then as soon as words are unnecessary then silence once again. These are the words of the martyrs. “Will you burn incense before the Emperor’s Image, Will you deny Christ, Will you spit on the image of the Crucified one?” – Silence, Rebuke of the persecutors without words, contempt without speech. Some words are spoken, certainly, but no more than are absolutely necessary. This is the thunderless thunder and the silent speech – to speak only when necessary and to keep quiet as long as possible and to pray to God long and hard before saying anything at all.

            “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.” Today, God shows us that the real leader is the one who treats all people with that deference and silence and careful choice of words, which we often choose when speaking to someone with authority over us. This is one difference between the secular world and our Christian one. In the secular world, the pagans believe that they will be heard for their “much saying” and their “vain babblings”. In the Christian world, the leader is a servant who speaks as little as possible and then carefully, prayerfully, and prudently.           

Let us pray,

Grant, O Lord, that, as Thine Apostle Saint James readily obeyed the calling of Thy Son Jesus Christ, we may by Thy grace be enabled to forsake all worldly and carnal affections and to follow Him alone; through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.[1]        

[1] Traditional Lutheran Hymnal, 92.

 

July 4th Weekend

Thy kingdom is an everlasting / kingdom, * and thy dominion endureth throughout all / ages.

In preparation for today’s sermon, I decided to research the Homily, in three parts, called “Against Willful Rebellion.” This Homily is from the Book of Homilies, appointed to be read from the English pulpits word for word during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. The Homily “Against Willful Rebellion,” as you might guess is specifically condemning rebelling against the English monarch. It equates the act of rebelling with the first sin in the Garden of Eden, with the sinfulness of Satan.

          Of Rebellion, the Homily says, “If … all subjects that mislike of their prince should rebel, no realm should ever be without rebellion.” Point taken. It asks, “What if the prince be undiscreet and evil indeed, and it also evident to all men’s eyes that he so is? … Shall you hear the Scriptures concerning this point? God, say the holy Scriptures, maketh a wicked man to reign for the sins of the people. Again, God giveth a prince in his anger, meaning an evil one, and taketh away a prince in his displeasure . . .” So, it is no surprise then, given this anti-Sedition theology, that by the end of the War for American Independence, many of the clergymen of the Church of England, the Established Church in many colonies before the Revolution, had fled to England or Canada. So, no wonder, “At the war’s end, there were but five priests in New Jersey, four in Massachusetts, one in New Hampshire, and none in Rhode Island or Maine.” But we quickly rallied again. After the Revolution, when the first bishops of the Episcopal Church got started, “[Bishop] Ravenscroft found four churches in North Carolina, and left twenty-seven. [Bishop] Moore found five clergymen in Virginia and left one hundred.”

          So is our United States left wholly without support from our Mother Church in England by her theology concerning our Revolution? The Homily describes lawful authority as “when mankind increased and spread itself more largely over the world, [God] by his holy word did constitute and ordain in cities and countries several and special governors and rulers, unto whom the residue of his people should be obedient.” And also, concerning David’s refusal to kill Saul, “let him live [saith good David] until God appoint and work his end, either by natural death, or in war by lawful enemies, not by traitorous subjects.” Fair enough. But the Founding Fathers believed themselves to be the lawful authority duly elected in the colonies according the rules in the charters of those colonies granted by monarchs of England previous to King George, to which agreements King George should have been adhering.

What does the Declaration of Independence say? “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

What are we to do, beloved, now that we have found that the Freedom of America has given rise to what is contrary to the “Right” “to life,” namely, Abortion; What are we to do, beloved, when the marriage given between man and woman, the most natural acts of the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God, given us by Nature’s God in Paradise, is given equal rights with a supposed marriage which is contrary to Nature? What did we do when the children of our future were put under the knife when unwanted? We promoted adoption. And then what happened? – Those who are so-called married come and request, no, demand, the right to adopt the children who are unwanted but not aborted. When the Right of such People is now the majority in many States, what are we to do?

Many times during the War for Independence, the words from the Litany rang from the lips of those Churchmen fighting on the side of the United States, men like William White in the white sanctuary of Christ Church, Philadelphia, or George Washington in his pew there, or Francis Lightfoot Lee in Virginia. What did they pray then? After proclaiming themselves “miserable sinners” many times, they cried, “O God, merciful Father, who despisest not the sighing of a contrite heart . . . graciously hear us, that those evils which the craft and subtilty of the devil or man worketh against us, may, by thy good providence, be brought to nought; that we thy servants being hurt by no persecutions, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church.” And here you are, beloved, on this peaceful July 4th weekend, but engaged, nevertheless, in a bloodless culture war.

I would not leave you hopeless without some practical advice. 1) Prayer. As the Homily Against Willful Rebellion states, “whether the prince be good or evil, let us, according to the counsel of holy Scriptures, pray for the prince; for his continuance and increase in goodness, if he be good, and for his amendment, if he be evil.” If we are concerned, let us assault heaven’s ears with prayer and like a Church Militant take the kingdom of heaven violently with petition and shake the rafters not of this holy house only but of that smoke-filled house above with our vibrant hymn singing. So often, I know full well, our minds are so disturbed by the times that the prayers do not come to us and for this we have in times of peace prepared for war, by pre-composing prayers for such an hour of evil. Remember that the Prayer Book is not to be set in some convenient place to be observed but never used.

If possible, gather together to say a few prayers. The Prayer Book is not

primarily a book of private devotion, but of common prayer and a means by which the faithful come together for mutual support and protection. As any civilized nation gathers together for mutuality, so does the Church. And like any civilized nation, it is helpful, nay, as Shakespeare wrote “It is most meet we arm us ‘gainst the foe; For peace itself should not so dull a kingdom, Though war nor no known quarrel were in question, But that defences, musters, preparations, Should be maintain’d, assembled and collected, As were a war in expectation.” We arm ourselves by prayer for we are spiritual warriors and His Kingdom is not of this world and, yet, though He is enthroned elsewhere, we are promised that when two or three are gathered together commonly, so He is in the midst of us and His Kingdom becomes present on earth. Oh, that we would learn that as the fish can not breathe without water and the natural man without air, so the spiritual man cannot breathe without prayer, let alone fight with all his might against the Lord of the Air and our ghostly enemy!

2) It is noticeable that the Homily Against Willful Rebellion says that one of the ways rebellious war violates the Ten Commandments is by taking people away from “assembling in [God’s] temple and church upon his day as becometh the Lord’s servants.” If we really love assembling together peacefully for a beautiful liturgy without persecution, then we must exercise that God-given and constitutional right. A weapon not used against the enemy will be taken from us and used against us by the enemy. I know there are many good reasons, such as work, why we do not make it to this temple every Sabbath. But, one wonders, if we had all been attending as we ought, if 100% were attending on Sunday forty years ago, would we have ever started to have to work? Our idleness was used against us. 3) We should put away filthiness both of speech and idolatry on the internet. George Washington exhorted his army “that we can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our Arms if we insult it with our impiety and folly.” And we as a Church Militant should do nothing less than assemble at the mandatory formations for military inspection on the Sabbath, having kept our mouths and eyes clean.

These are the small things that a righteous nation did to continue to be a righteous nation and to win their liberties of old from persecution and tyranny. We should do nothing less today. (I shall finish with a part of what was written and required to be prayed following the Homily Against Willful Rebellion.)

Let us pray.

O Most mighty God, the Lord of hosts, the Governor of all creatures, the only Giver of all victories, who alone art able to strengthen the weak against the mighty, and to vanquish infinite multitudes of thine enemies with the countenance of a few of thy servants calling upon thy Name, and trusting in thee . . .

Withstand the cruelty of those which be common enemies as well to the truth of thy eternal word, as to their own . . . country . . .

Lighten, we beseech thee, their ignorant hearts to embrace the truth of thy word: or else so abate their cruelty, O most mighty Lord, that this our Christian region, with others that confess thy holy Gospel, may obtain by thine aid and strength surety from all enemies without shedding of Christian blood; whereby all they which be oppressed with their tyranny may be relieved, and they which be in fear of their cruelty may be comforted; and finally that all Christian realms . . . may by thy defence and protection continue in the truth of the Gospel, and enjoy perfect peace, quietness, and security; and that we for these thy mercies, jointly all together with one consonant heart and voice, may thankfully render to thee all laud and praise; that we, knit in one godly concord and unity amongst ourselves, may continually magnify thy glorious Name; who, with thy son our Saviour Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, art one eternal, almighty, and most merciful God. To whom be all laud and praise world without end. Amen.

 

Trinity 3, 2021 – On Institution of Rectors

In today’s Epistle and Gospel, we are told of the role of the minister and people, to stand in humility, to look out for the evil one, and to seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I would like investigate this, by also reviewing the Office of Institution, found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 570. To be more accurate, that Office, along with the Consecration of a Church Building is found in the Ordinal, or the portion of the Prayer Book devoted to Ordinations. I will be looking more precisely at the Office as it stands in our American Prayer Book during Sunday school today. This is because its history is wrapped up in the history of colonial churches, which is what Adult Sunday School is studying right now. Let us pray.

Grant, we pray thee, that this thy servant may so minister thy Word and Sacraments, that having faithfully fulfilled his course, he may at last receive the crown of righteousness from the Lord, the righteous Judge, who liveth and reigneth, one God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.

Since it has likely been a while since this parish has had an Institution of a Rector, I thought it only fitting, and consistent, Providentially, with our lessons today to look these things over, so that we may all be more prepared next Sunday to participate in heart and mind on such a solemn occasion. The prayer I just read is from the Irish Book of Common Prayer from 1926 and its service similar to what will occur next week. There is also a service from the Canadian Prayer book of 1912, which I will be referencing.

The service of an Institution of a Rector has similar language to that of an ordination. And this is because, in the early church, there was almost no occasion when a minister, deacon, priest or bishop, would be transferred from one church to another. This is quite a change to the time we live in now. When I was growing up, not all that long ago, the average stay of a pastor was 5 years. It then decreased to three years, and might be as low as 18 months, depending on the study you look at. This speaks, really, to the instability of our times, how mobile we are as a society, how quickly things appear to be changing.

We read in the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostolic Constitutions from around 375 A.D. the following:

“A bishop ought not to leave his own parish and leap to another, although the multitude should compel him, unless there be some good reason forcing him to do this, as that he can contribute much greater profit to the people of the new parish by the word of piety; but this is not to be settled by himself, but by the judgment of the bishops, and very great supplication.”

The reason that the Office of Institution has similar language to an ordination and is in the Ordinal is because, as I have said, transferring from one church to another was unusual. The Apostles, such as St. Peter and St. Paul, did preach and teach from church to church, but the office-bearers, the elders, of the Church – that is the early priests – did not. They were, by all accounts, both Catholic and Protestant accounts, local office-holders, elders of the local church, as Jewish elders had been for local synagogues, and ordained for that church. The canonical rule is still that no priest may be ordained without cure of souls, a local congregation in which he functions and officiates, ministers and administers sacraments. As Christian communities arose around the Mediterranean, there began to be a need for transferring such already ordained office-holders, such as elders, or as we call them, priests. This is because most every minister in the earliest days was bi-vocational and bi-vocational merchants, and government officials, and such, would naturally move about the Empire and would need to transferred. This was done by letters of commendation, or, as we call them now, Letters Dimissory or Dismissory.  

Again we read from the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostolic Constitutions,

“If any presbyter or deacon, or any one of the catalogue of the clergy, leaves his own parish and goes to another, and, entirely removing himself, continues in that other parish without the consent of his own bishop, him we command no longer to go on in his ministry, especially in case his bishop calls upon him to return, and he does not obey, but continues in his disorder. However, let him communicate there as a layman.”

Furthermore, the Laity, the People, have, in a strong sense, a role to play in the selection, election and ordination of an individual. In the Orthodox Church, they cry out “Worthy” when the priest is ordained. In our own tradition, the Rector is duly elected and called by the Vestry. We saw another one just a moment ago from the reading of the SiQuis to the congregations, which is required by our canons. We can learn something from the low church Anglican, W. H. Griffith-Thomas, who is in agreement, in some sense with the Orthodox Church. He says, “the government of the Church is not vested solely in either the ministry or in the laity, but is vested in both minister and people, and this was the view emphasized at the Reformation . . .” He says, “The laity have a Scriptural right to a voice in the counsels of the Church and in the selection of their pastors. They have no share in the transmission of Ordination of the ministerial commission, but they should have a voice in the settlement of the place where the commission is to be exercised.”[1] He then points out that in Acts 6, the decision of who the deacons were was in the hands of the laity, and then the Apostles ordained them. Similarly, the Orthodox Study Bible lists out four orders in the Church, starting with the Laity. It says, “The laity (Gr. laos) are the people of God, the “priesthood” (1 Peter 2:4-10). Technically, the term “laity” includes the clergy, though in our day the word usually refers to those in the Church who are not ordained. It is from among the laity that the other three orders emerge.” Concerning the Priesthood, the same source tells us that “The presbyters, or elders, are visible throughout the New Testament. Their ministry from the start was to “rule,” “labor in the word,” and teach true “doctrine” (1Ti 5:17) in the local congregation. . . . In no way is the ordained Christian priesthood seen as a throwback to or a reenacting of the Old Testament priesthood. Rather, joined to Christ who is our High Priest . . . the Orthodox priest is likewise a minister of a new covenant that supersedes the old.”[2] Griffith-Thomas essentially agrees, saying, “. . . the word ‘priest’ is therefore used in the Prayer Book as the equivalent of the latter idea of ‘presbyter.’ Wherever it is found it is the exact representation of the ‘presbyter’ or ‘elder’.”[3]

          Hear what the beginning of the Institution of a Minister says in the Book of Common Prayer in Ireland and, especially, the role of the laity, “Dearly beloved in the Lord; in the name of God, and in the presence of this Congregation, we purpose now to give institution into the cure of souls in the parish, [such and such], to our well-beloved in Christ, [so and so] Clerk in Holy Orders. And forasmuch as the charge of immortal souls, which our blessed Lord and Saviour has purchased with his own most precious blood, is so solemn and weighty a thing, we beseech you to join together with us in hearty prayer to Almighty God, that he would vouchsafe to give to this his servant grace to fulfil among the people committed to his charge the vows that were made by him, when he was ordained by the laying on of hands to the ministry of Christ’s Church.” The Canadian Prayer Book uses almost exactly the same words, but also says these words of exhortation to the congregation: “It is the duty of the people to afford to their Minister at all times all needful help and encouragement in his work, and to give of their substance to his support; so that, being free from worldly anxieties, he may devote himself wholly to the preaching of God’s Word and the ministration of the Sacraments. Therefore, I charge and exhort you, Brethren and Churchwardens of this Parish” says the Bishop, “to pray continually for this your Minister who is set over you in the Lord, and to help him forward in all the duties of his holy calling. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” I shall now end with a prayer from the Irish Service of Institution, Let us pray.

Bless, O Lord, we pray thee, thy servant, to whom care of the souls of thy people in this Parish is [soon] to be [fully] committed. Pour out thy Holy Spirit upon him, and fit him to perform, with all faithfulness and diligence, the sacred duties with which he has been entrusted. Give to him the spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound judgement. Make his ministry to be the means of awakening the careless, of strengthening the faithful, of comforting the afflicted, and of edifying thy Church. Guard him against the snares of temptation, that he may be kept pure in heart, and stedfast in the right way; and grant that at the last he may receive the crown of life, which thou hast promised to thy faithful ones; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.       

[1] W.H. Griffith-Thomas, The Catholic Faith, 143.

[2] P. 1635.

[3] The Catholic Faith, 142.

Trinity 2, 2021 – “Compel them to Come In” – St. Vladimir of Kiev

I want to tell you a story and that story I shall call “How to Evangelize like a Viking.” One thing our Gospel lesson today does not do is give a sense that usually it takes several presentations of the message of Christ before someone finally gets it. That is not the point of today’s Gospel. The point is the urgency and the fact that once our lives are over (and when that shall be we shall never know) the opportunity to hear the message and come into the Marriage Supper of the Lamb is over. But that does not mean that God is not merciful. Instead, He often allows us several chances and blesses many people with the opportunity of sharing that message with us. Let us think of opportunities in Evangelism instead of the challenges and obstacles. I remember doing an exercise in “Christian Formation”, a program out of the Diocese of Fort Worth, which asked, “Who do you remember influencing you to become a Christian?” Well? Who do you remember? Was it just one person or many? It is rather likely that it was several.

          Concerning one person whose witness and example resulted, eventually, in all of Russia becoming Christian (I am speaking of St. Vladimir, Prince of Kiev) the influences on his becoming a Christian were various. Many think of St. Vladimir as a man who became a Christian, because he wanted to unite his kingdom, or because he wanted to marry a bride who was a princess of Constantinople. Yet the thorough way in which he went about converting and the thorough way in which he compelled his subjects to come in and the fact that he defiled the idols he had previously worshipped, all point to something not done out of hatred or halfway, but like the King Hezekiah, “And he did right in the eyes of the Lord, according to everything his father David did. He removed the high places and broke in pieces the sacred pillars. He cut down the sacred wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent Moses had made, because up to those days, the sons of Israel had burned incense to it.” I remember very young reading a child’s version of the Chronicle of Kiev. I copied out word after word to present to the Russian Orthodox priest in town. I was so impressed that these Russians not only cut down their sacred idols, tall poles like totem poles in Alaska, but whipped those images they once had thought the embodiment of sacred entities. They also in one place dragged the idols over dung. What influenced such a man as this?

          Vladimir was of a noble class of Vikings, whose people settled among the natives inhabiting the river cities of Russia. They came in longboats, first to trade, then to protect these farmers and furriers and tradesman from the roving bands of barbarians along the Steppes of Russia. Then they were asked to rule and govern the natives. The mercenaries became managers. Vladimir’s grandmother had become a Christian, perhaps because of evangelism done further south or to the east, due no doubt to the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, two brothers whose exploits in evangelism along the Black Sea and east to Germany won them the title among the Eastern Christians of “Equal to the Apostles” – a title Vladimir would eventually attain himself. Vladimir’s father was not a Christian and even after a raid brought Vladimir’s older brother home a wife, only problem was that she was a nun. (This wife, this dedicated virgin, in his heathen days, Vladimir eventually accumulated from his brother.) Vladimir’s grandmother, Olga, was not always a Christian and when she was originally widowed she protected her power ruthlessly. She murdered five thousand to revenge those who had killed her husband. In one city she had laid siege to for a year, she feigned mercy and the only tribute she required to leave them be was every bird in every house. They were collected and brought to her and when the citizens were rejoicing that night, she had her men wrap sulfur in cloth bags to the legs of the birds and then, lighting the bags on fire, the birds returned to their homes, catching the whole city in a tremendous blaze. But she became a Christian and asked the Church in Germany to send missionaries to her, but her son thwarted her plans and she had to bide her time and eventually die before she would see her city, Kiev, become Christian. She took a chaplain with her everywhere, built a church in town, and dedicated her life to prayer and converting others.

          Eventually, Vladimir became a prince of his own minor city, Novgorod, and his father died, murdered returning from a raid, his skull made into a drinking cup by the barbarian chieftain who lifted his head. Vladimir’s brother decided it was time to exterminate his competing brothers and Vladimir disappeared. He is thought to have disappeared with Olaf Tryggvason, or Olaf I of Norway. Olaf himself had an interesting history. Hakon the Good, the youngest son of Harald Fairhair, tried to introduce Christianity to Norway and failed. Olaf’s father Tryggvi Olaffson was murdered and Olaf and his mother were captured by Estonian pirates. His uncle, Sigurd, was working for Vladimir and he ransomed them both. Later Olaf saw one of his captors in the marketplace in Novgorod and killed him outright. This got the Estonians and natives in an uproar, but Vladimir’s wife, Olava, thought something of Olaf, paid off the victim’s family and Vladimir and he became fast friends.

          Olaf had a fascinating conversion. He was already acquainted with Christianity, but, after his Novgorod days, was baptized by a hermit living on the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall because Olaf was impressed by his powers of prophetic perception. There was a good chance then that this holy man was a hermit of the Celtic church. Olaf continued a life of raiding and attacked England in hopes of extracting some tribute. At the Battle of Maldon Bridge, he was invited onto the mainland for a fair fight with a Christian Earl, who could have fought Olaf off with just a few men by blocking a narrow slit of land. This fair play brought defeat, and the Anglo-Saxon warriors refused to retreat and chose to die with their Earl. King Aelthelred the Unready parlayed and paid tribute to Olaf and then Olaf, for some reason (was it the fair play?) received Holy Confirmation by the Bishop of Winchester, the English King standing up as his sponsor. This seems to have been the turning point. He went to Dublin and then took missionaries to Norway and started preaching in churches there. He was elected as King of Norway in 995 A.D. He visited Iceland and Greenland and used his post-election tour called an “Ericsgata” as an opportunity to spread Christianity. For his pains, like his father, he was murdered.

          So Vladimir returned after two years and with his own retinue of warriors and after a while ousted his brother, taking his brother’s nun wife as his own. He then continued to dialogue with Constantinople who needed mercenaries from him in order to put down an insurrection. He demanded that the Emperor’s sister be given to him in marriage if he helped. Vladimir’s conversion was definitely part of a trend. Prince Mieszko of Poland had been baptized in 966, King Harold of Denmark, 974, Olaf, around 976, and Duke Geza of Hungary, 985. There had been martyrs during Prince Vladimir’s heathen reign. He had also entertained and supported missionaries headed off to convert his enemies during his rule as a pagan. In the fullness of time he was able to marry Byzantine royalty and he needed to become baptized in the process, but did it follow that his people had to be? That was the trend, certainly. He thought they needed to be and they were baptized en masse in the Dnieper. They were compelled to come in. In Novgorod, there was a riot, but Vladimir’s emissary prevailed, the god Perun was dragged over dung while the pagans wailed and, no doubt, expected lightning to fall from the sky, and the folks at Novgorod were baptized in the Volkhov, men upstream from the bridge, women downstream, decently and in good order. Everyone was given a little cross once immersed so that they knew who had been and who had not been washed by the laver of regeneration.

          In a moment of inspiration, Vladimir is said to have extended his arms over the people of Kiev and exclaimed, like King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, “O God, who hast created heaven, earth, sea and all that is in them! Look down upon these thy new men, and cause them to know Thee who art the true God, even as other Christian nations do. Continue in them a right and inalterable faith, and help me, O Lord, against the foe who confronts me, so that hoping in Thee and in thy might, I may overcome his snares.”

          So what do we learn from this? Do we compel people to come in this way anymore? No more than we expect that the King approve every marriage between persons of noble birth or that above eighteen one is still bound to obey one’s parents. It was a different time and kings were expected to be kings and subjects to be subjects. We learn rather that there are a lot of ways that people impact our lives for Christ and that it very often takes many interactions with the message of the Gospel to bring people to it. It can be a stranger or an intimate friend who shares the message and just because it doesn’t have an immediate impact does not mean that it doesn’t have an impact. A hermit on an island off the coast of Cornwall may have only baptized one person in his whole ministry, but the missionaries Olaf Tryggvason took back to Norway baptized thousands. The chaplain of Vladimir’s grandmother at St. Sophia’s in Kiev may never have baptized anyone and only ever buried one Christian, Olga herself. But St. Sophia’s in Kiev was to be thronged with baptized believers.

There are those in the streets and the lanes of the city, “the poor, the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.” There are those in the highways and the hedges. We are moved today to compel them to come in so that God’s house may be full, not for our sakes but for His. As 2 Corinthians 9 says, “He that soweth little shall reap little; and he that soweth plenteously shall reap plenteously. Let every man do according as he is disposed in his heart, not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver.” Let us give our efforts at evangelism cheerfully, not grudgingly, nor of necessity, but each as he is disposed in his heart.             

 

Trinity 1, 2021

William Porcher Dubose was a Confederate Officer, and alumnus of The Citadel; he served as the renowned Theology professor at the University of the South after the war. He was a professor for Deacon Milnor Jones, about whom I wrote in this month’s Newsletter. And he said this on his deathbed, “I have looked death in the face, and felt it in my body, and I am ready to face it. If God should take me tonight, I would be glad. The Eternal Father, the risen Christ, the Blessed Holy Ghost have been my companion.”[1] You see when we’ve lived our lives according the threefold way that I talked about last week, we have lived our lives in the Holy Trinity, and the same Holy Trinity Who has been our companion along the pilgrim’s way is the same Holy Trinity Whom we meet at the end of the road. So often, those who have felt the heat of battle, that purgative way, know so well the illuminative and the unitive way. They die without fear because they have already died many times, psychologically, on the battlefield.

               We trace this idea through our Epistle Lesson today, in which one lives within the Holy Trinity. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might life through him.” This is living in the Holy Trinity. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” This is living in the Holy Trinity. “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” This also is living in the Holy Trinity. “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, so are we in this world.” This speaks of ending our life in Faith and Hope, without Suffering and without Reproach, in the Holy Trinity.

               Dubose whether he was fighting in the thick of battle in the Civil War, or wrestling with God, attempting to speak of the mysteries of the Holy Trinity in the Lecture hall as a professor, or offering the Holy Eucharist as a priest, or watching a son die as child, knew that the Holy Trinity was his companion. He wrote to a friend in his 80th year of his Faith.

               . . . I feel that I can say modestly that I have conquered, it has only had the beneficent effect, as most certainly the gracious purpose, of throwing me back upon a re-examination and a deeper questioning and testing of my religion. I have gone deeper into it, and reached higher than ever before, and I humbly believe I can say now “I not only believe but know.” At any rate, I have discovered that the more persistently and perseveringly one believes to the bitterest end, the more certainly one knows, and is grateful for having been spared none of the tests… I have nothing to show, but I am firmer on the rock.”[2] He could have easily said, with the Celtic mystics of old, the following.

The Three Who are over me,

The Three Who are below me,

The Three Who are above me here,

The Three Who are above me yonder;

The Three Who are in the earth,

The Three Who are in the air,

The Three Who are in the heaven,

The Three Who are in the great pouring sea.[3]

Or could have said, in the struggle of life,

               The compassing of God and His right hand

               Be upon my form and upon my frame;

The compassing of the High King and the grace of the Trinity

               Be upon me abiding ever eternally.

May the compassing of the Three shield me in my means,

               The compassing of the Three shield me this day,

               The compassing of the Three shield me this night

               From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.

               From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.[1]

Our Gospel lesson today tells of the Great Divide, or Great Divorce, between the Blessed and the Damned. Yet it is also telling us about living our lives in the Holy Trinity, because by living in relationship, we live in the Holy Trinity. Would it have been enough for the rich man to feed the hungry in order to make it into heaven? Heaven forbid! For if it were so, the Gospel would be overthrown. The Rich Man passed by the Leper, Lazarus (for Lazarus means Leper) many times, but was not in relationship with him. The fact that he was not in relationship with the Leper was an outward, spiritual manifestation that the Rich Man was not in the Holy Trinity. Again, listen to St. John: “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” The Spirit of God compels us to act by being in relationship, as the Persons of the Holy Trinity are in relationship with one another – perfect relationship. There are many, beloved, who give of their disposable income to feed the hungry, who will, like the Rich Man, be in torments in the afterlife. It is not the act of giving that saves. Giving, true giving, by the Spirit of God, is done by, with and through, the Holy Trinity – it is the Spirit of Personal Relationship. That personal relationship does not preclude giving, but just including giving in one’s budget does not prove that one has the Spirit of Christ. It does not justify us on the day of judgment. “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.” What does this mean? Suffering. Compassion. Suffering with others. He came down to earth to suffer with and for us. That’s compassion. Did the Rich Man, watching Lazarus in heaven, get told by Father Abraham, “you should have given Lazarus money?” Elsewhere this is indicated. For it says elsewhere, in Matthew 25, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? . . . Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Yes. Giving is assumed. But to make the point further, the answer to the Rich Man in today’s lesson is not about giving; it’s about suffering. Did the Rich Man suffer? No. Did Lazarus suffer? Yes. “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The usual way to explain this is to say, the Rich Man didn’t give, therefore now he is tormented. No! The Rich Man did not suffer (the way by the example of Christ we are to suffer in this world) therefore he is tormented. He did not suffer with Lazarus, by being in relationship with a suffering soul, therefore, now he is suffering in the afterlife. Let’s think this thru carefully: If it were about giving, and if you had naught to give, you would be damned and only Rich Men could get into heaven. The point is, it is not about money. For whether one has little or one has much, the one with little can still suffer in relationship with a suffering soul, and the one with much can suffer with and give to the suffering soul. Again, if it is about giving, then only people who have something to give can get into heaven. Sometimes in a sermon on this topic, the point is made, well if you don’t have money you have time to give, volunteer somewhere! Volunteering is great. But what if one doesn’t have time to volunteer? Then one is damned for not having disposable time. And so on…

But then you say, must I go out and suffer in order to be saved? Must I sit on the curbside, scratching flees? Shall I start a bed bug colony in my home in order to be like Lazarus? This is not the only kind of suffering. Listen to the Collect again, “O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee; Mercifully accept our prayers; and because through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee, both in will and deed . . .” This indicates to us that we can’t do any good thing, because of the weakness of our mortal nature. If it is by strength of character only that we offer ourselves to the poor of this world, then are we still damned. Why? Because we have given out of our abundance, rather than out of our lack. Remember the widow’s mite. Who gave more? The rich man or her? The widow, for she gave out of her lack. It is in our weakness of character, our lack, that true giving occurs; this is suffering in soul. The good news is that whether one is rich or one is poor, one may be saved. But in order to do this, we must give food, money, time, compassionate concern, not haughtily, but while in a state of suffering in soul. In the right spirit. We must give while acknowledging through painstaking effort at character examination our defects, and when we have found ourselves to be without righteousness or merit, to be unprofitable, wretched sinners. When we are in relationship with others, while being honest with ourselves, then is our giving to others justified. You see, it is giving honestly, from one wretched, suffering soul, to another. That is the Spirit in which we are to be in giving relationship.

To conclude this, let me commit you to God on your pilgrim’s way from another one of these Celtic prayers, which I’ve changed up a bit from last week. Let us pray.              

The [compassion] of God be on thee,

The [compassion] of the God of life.

The [compassion] of Christ be on thee,

The [compassion] of the Christ of love. 

The [compassion] of Spirit be on thee,

The [compassion] of the Spirit of Grace.

The [compassion] of the Three be on thee,

The compassing of the Three preserve thee,

The [compassion] of the Three preserve thee. Amen.[1]

 

[1] Michael D. Blackwell, Remember Now Thy Creator in the Days of Thy Youth: The Religious Heritage of The Citadel, 178.

[2] Ibid, 183.

[3] The Celtic Vision: Prayers and Blessings from the Outer Hebrides, 167.

Trinity Sunday, 2021

We have come to Trinity Sunday, the third, if I might say, of our Springtime festivals. The first is Easter, then Pentecost, then our Feast of the Holy Trinity celebrated today. I would like to relate these three feasts to three stages, the threefold way of spirituality: The Purgative, the Illuminative, and the Unitive ways. The first is the way of Purification, the second of Illumination, the third of Union. We can easily relate these to the three feasts of Easter, Pentecost, and Holy Trinity. We shall end with a reflection on what the Trinity means for soldiers. Let us pray.

God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in my eyes, and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking; God be at my end, and at my departing. Amen.[1]   

In Easter, we celebrate the Death (and Resurrection) of the sacred humanity and full divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Pentecost, or Whitsunday, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, and the whole Church. On Holy Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the full revelation and enjoy full life in the Holy Trinity, now that the Church has received the full vision of who God is: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, One God. Amen.

          In Christ’s Death and Resurrection, we are purged from that old enemy death and sin, and raised to newness of life. The whole of our purgation, our purification, in the spiritual life is a way of purging out the old leaven, the leaven of malice and wickedness; mortifying the old man, in light of the new man revealed to us in the Holy Resurrection. In the Coming of the Holy Spirit, we are provided that vital means of sanctification which illuminates through Holy Wisdom our path, showing us holiness and a way forward in victory, not being overcome of evil but overcoming evil with good. In the Holy Trinity, we begin to live anew in that mutual fulfillment which is the Life of the Holy Trinity – it is Union with Him. This Thursday, on Corpus Christi, when we celebrate Jesus coming to us as the Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation, in the fullness of His Body and Blood, we celebrate the most tangible experience of Union we have on earth. “He in us, and We in Him.” “By Whom, and with Whom, in the Unity of the Holy Ghost” we offer to him simple gifts of bread and wine and He returns to us that means of union with Himself, through physical chewing and physical sipping.

          By way of explication, I want to use as an illustration a hymn not found in our hymnal, but one you might find in a more Baptist-type Hymnal. It reveals to us that Christians, of whatever branch of Christ’s Church, know this threefold way by experience, it becoming very easily expressed in their poetry. The hymns is “Blessed Assurance” and the refrain is “This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior all the day long.”

          The first verse speaks of the Purgative Way or the Way of Purification. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O, what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.” This speaks to us of how we are purged of sin by the Blood of Christ, and by Him redeemed, so as the purchase of God we have an assurance that the pilgrimage of trials and tribulations walked and this life ended, we will come at last to His heavenly joys.

          The second verse speaks of the Illuminative Way or the Way of Illumination. “Perfect submission, perfect delight, Visions of rapture now burst on my sight; Angels descending, bring from above Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” This speaks of the joy of the Holy Spirit through submission to God the Father, through the mercies of Jesus Christ. To be raptured, is to be seized by holy things from above. To have angels ascending and descending upon us, is to be in constant communication and prayer with the Father, through Jesus Christ, and by the Power of the Holy Ghost. Here we know by the voice of God, by the still small of the Holy Ghost, we know that we are forgiven and that we are loved.

          The third verse speaks especially to today, Holy Trinity Sunday. Here we have the words, “Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my Savior am happy and blest; Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.” This speaks of Union with Christ which will only be totally the case when we are at rest, that is, when we die and are with Him in Paradise. This is the Unitive Way, in which we are “filled with His goodness” and are “lost in His love.” This is the moment of contemplation and of prayer when we are “Lost in Wonder, Love and Praise” to quote another hymn.

          But I want to add a further point to all of this. Bishop Kirk explains that the mystics “held that whilst the three paths were, in strict logic, successive, they were to a great extent in Christian experience concurrent. Even the soul still struggling with passion in the purgative way received constant rays of illumination and occasional moments of mystic union with God – foretastes of the privileges, as well as means of strength and encouragement for the conflict of the present.”[2] Isn’t this your experience? Isn’t this your story as you tread on along the pilgrim’s path? In all three of these ways, the Holy Trinity is active and present, at our beginning and at our end. On this threefold way, we trust the Holy Trinity to be our guard and succor.

Finally, Hear these prayers of protection from the Celtic lands of the Outer Hebrides and let them remind you of Who it is that guards and guides your way, with His guardian angels to keep you. To conclude this, let me commit you to God on your pilgrim’s way from another one of these Celtic prayers. Let us pray.

          The compassing of God be on thee,

          The compassing of the God of life.

          The compassing of Christ be on thee,

          The compassing of the Christ of love.

          The compassing of Spirit be on thee,

          The compassing of the Spirit of Grace.

          The compassing of the Three be on thee,

          The compassing of the Three preserve thee,

The compassing of the Three preserve thee. Amen.[3]

[1] From the Sarum Primer. St. Augustine’s Prayer Book, 30.

[2] Kenneth Kirk, Some Principles of Moral Theology, 51

[3] The Celtic Vision: Prayers and Blessings form the Outer Hebrides, 161.

Pentecost, 2021

For so the ways of them which lived on the earth were reformed, and men were taught the things that are pleasing unto thee, and were saved through wisdom.” Wisdom 9:18

We asked ourselves a couple of weeks ago about the waiting process before the coming of the Holy Spirit. What were the Apostles doing while waiting? They were praying. “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14). What was that prayer? We do not know, but a very likely model for such a prayer can be found in the apocryphal work, the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 9. It is a prayer attributed to Solomon as he is asking for help to rule God’s people well. This matches what Christ said the Apostles would do. What were they to do? The Apostles were to judge the Twelve tribes. Today, we pray to have a right judgment in all things. So does this prayer. Let’s see.

Chapter 9 goes like this, “O God of our fathers, and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word. And ordained man through thy wisdom, that he should have dominion over the creatures which thou hast made. And order the world according to equity and righteousness, and execute judgment with an upright heart” This prayer begins by taking us back to Genesis, where Adam was given the breath of life, and part and parcel with that, very likely, the Holy Spirit, and Adam was commissioned to use that breath to name the animals and to take care of Paradise. John Paul II said of this text that it is “easy to intuit that this ‘wisdom’ is not mere intelligence or practical ability, but rather a participation in the very mind of God who ‘with his wisdom [has] established man.’… Thus it is the ability to penetrate the deep meaning of being, of life, … going beyond the surface of things … to discover their ultimate meaning, willed by the Lord.”[1] By this kind of wisdom, Adam was able to see the intelligence of God when he created each living being and to give them apt names according their function and purposefulness within the created order, the cosmos.

Wisdom as described in this prayer is not the Holy Spirit, exactly.  It’s Christ. The Orthodox Study Bible explains: “Word and wisdom are synonymous; both are a reference to Christ.” We can understand this to be so from a short quote by St. Athanasius, “In former times, the Wisdom of God stamped his seal on all created things – and the presence of his sign is the reason why we call them ‘created’ – to reveal himself and make his Father known. But later, this same Wisdom, who is the Word, was made flesh, as John says, and having overcome death and saved the human race, he revealed himself in a clearer way and, through himself, revealed the Father.”[2] We can say, in short, Jesus is the New Adam.

The prayer continues, “Give me wisdom, that sitteth by thy throne: and reject me not from among thy children: For I thy servant and son of thine handmaid am a feeble person, and of a short time, and too young for the understanding of judgment and laws.” Let’s focus on the words, “of a short time”. Here we can recall that primitive man, misusing that intelligence and perceptive insight into the laws of nature, did not use it for good, but for ill. So we read in Genesis, “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.” God shortened the days of man, drawing out from him, after one hundred and twenty years, the breath that He gave. Solomon is lamenting the fact that he has only a short time to learn the laws and judgments of God. For those who love knowledge, for artists, for people who want to do anything better, the shortening of life is a tragedy.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Today, celebrating Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, we can see that the Holy Spirit has descended. At Easter we recall that Christ overcoming Death is like Noah and the Ark in which eight souls were saved by floating on the top of water that was killing everything else; that Christ is that place of refuge, like the Ark, and dying to death in baptism, we rise to newness of life in Him. The same water that destroyed the earth is now water that begets us unto eternal life. You see, in Genesis, first God removes the Spirit that rests on man in Genesis 6, and then destroys man. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, . . . And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth…” Again, God floods the earth, but only after He removes His Holy Spirit, collectively, from mankind. After Christ died and rose again, (and the Apostles had been made one with Him through the Holy Eucharist,) then and only then, God gave again his Holy Spirit collectively to his people – not just to a prophet here or there. Not just “at sundry times and in diverse manners” spoken “unto the fathers by the prophets” as Hebrews 1:1 says. Now everywhere. 

  1. Holy Spirit Removed, Gen. 6:3\                         /1. Jesus Dies and is Raised
  2. Earth Floods – Death, Gen. 6:7/                         \2. The Holy Spirit is given. 

This was prefigured also in the Book of Exodus. We recall that Easter is prefigured in the Old Testament, not only in story of Noah, but in another story concerning water, that of Pharoah and his chariots destroyed in the Red Sea. That is another story in which the same water that saved the people of God, destroyed the enemies of God. It is a prefigure of Baptism. And just after that, God feeds his people with Manna in the Wilderness in Exodus 16, and then in Exodus 17 He gives them drink. This is to prefigure the Eucharist.

  1. Death at the Red Sea, Ex. 14 \                /1. Jesus gives Himself in Food and Drink
  2. Food & Drink given, Ex. 16, 17 /             \2. Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

It is after this that Moses assembles the number of judges, according to the advice of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro. And then, and only then, do they receive the Law. Pentecost, beloved, is the day designated by the Rabbis as the day that the Torah, the Law, was given to Moses. This is recorded in Exodus 19, 20, and following. When it happened, first Moses ascended up onto Mount Sinai, was wrapped in a cloud, while being observed by the elders (likely 70 in number), then he came down again with the Law. This prefigured Christ being wrapped in a cloud and ascending up to heaven before the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, the very Apostles who had observed his Holy Ascension.

  1. Exodus: Judges are chosen for Israel, Moses Ascends, the Law Descends with Moses.
  2. Jesus Ascends on High, the 12 “Judges” are completed, the Holy Spirit descends on the “Judges”.

While they are waiting for the day of Pentecost, Peter leads the Apostles in choosing a replacement judge for Judas, who killed himself. Then, when the judges are 12 in number, for the Twelve tribes, then the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Thereupon the 12 Apostles, and the 70 disciples, constituted a substitute for the Sanhedrin which numbered 71 wise elders, a Sanhedrin which judged Israel from the inner courts of the Temple. In contrast, the 12 Apostles, headquartered in the Upper Room, constituting this new Sanhedrin, were to rebuild the Temple and Kingdom of God, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. Thus they might well have prayed, from the Wisdom of Solomon, while awaiting the Holy Spirit, “Thou hast commanded me to build a temple upon thy holy mount, and an altar in the city wherein thou dwellest, a resemblance of the holy tabernacle, which thou hast prepared from the beginning.” Starting at the Upper Room, and that holy altar table where the first Eucharist was celebrated, they were to fulfil the Lord’s Command recorded in Acts 1: 8: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: And ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”

The Apostles in the Book of Acts did not hesitate to make judgments and to give commands from the Upper Room, as a substitute Sanhedrin. When the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, Peter declared, “Can any forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? (10:47)” So new commandments, that circumcision, for example, was not necessary, were declared by the Apostles. So likewise could the Apostles pray, “And wisdom was with thee: which knoweth thy works, and was present when thou madest the world, and knew what was acceptable in thy sight, and right in thy commandments. O send her out of thy holy heavens, and from the throne of thy glory, that being present she may labour with me, that I may know what is pleasing unto thee. For she knoweth and understanding all things, and she shall lead me soberly in my doings, and preserve me in her power. So shall my works be acceptable, and then shall I judge thy people righteously, and be worthy to sit in my father’s seat.

Wisdom 9 – this is a great prayer. Do you want to be a good father of your family? A good grandmother? A good employer? A good citizen? A good student? Meditate on this prayer. Pray this prayer!

Finally, the Holy Fathers, according to the revelation of Jesus Christ and by the Power of the Holy Spirit, were able to pronounce that God was always and ever shall be One God, but also three Persons in unity. This we see shining forth to us at the end of the prayer of Solomon in the Book of Wisdom. “And thy counsel who hath known, except thou give wisdom, and send thy Holy Spirit from above?” (This we shall celebrate next week on Trinity Sunday.) As the Orthodox Study Bible explains, “The presence of the Holy Trinity is unveiled here. Your counsel refers to God the Father, who gives His Son, wisdom, and sends His Holy Spirit to reveal the knowledge of salvation to mankind.” And we end this reflection in the last words of Wisdom chapter 9: “For so the ways of them which lived on the earth were reformed, and men were taught the things that are pleasing unto thee, and were saved through wisdom.” Let us pray.

O God, who at this time didst send down thy Holy Spirit from above upon thine apostles, and dost evermore send him to renew thine image in our souls: Mercifully grant that by the working of his grace we may be saved from sin and may glorify thee: through the merits and mediation of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the same Spirit, on God, world without end. Amen.[3]

[1] General Audience, January 29, 2003. As quoted from the Ignatius Study Bible.

[2] Contra Ariano, 2, 81-82. As quoted from the Ignatius Study Bible.

[3] The Book of Worship, 128.

Sunday after the Ascension, 2021

“Again, the kingdom of Heaven is like this. A merchant looking out for fine pearls found one of very special value; so he went and sold everything he had and bought it.” Matthew 13:45

My oldest sister, with whom I trade conversation on investing and such, sent some books one Christmas to my wife and me. One was Payback Time: Making Big Money is the Best Revenge by Phil Town. Nowhere in this sermon do I intend to endorse his ideas but his big idea is this, stockpile stock. Identify a company that you know is valuable because it is something of interest to you, that you are passionate about, that you would be interested in owning and interested in keeping an eye on and because, well, because it’s valuable. Then when the price goes down, buy the stock. If the price goes down further, buy more stock. Either way you can’t lose. This isn’t the buy low sell high idea. This is the, “if one is good, two is better”, idea.

There was a fellow in the Bible who felt the same. His name was Lamech and he was the father of Noah. He married two wives, Adah and Zillah. See, “if one is good, two is better.” He then tempted God. He said to his wives, “I kill a man for wounding me, a young man for a blow. If sevenfold vengeance was to be exacted for Cain, for Lamech it would be seventy-sevenfold.” He could be called a tempter of God, but he was also the first one to realize the extent of God’s mercy, “seventy-sevenfold” or as Christ told St. Peter, seventy times seven is the number of times that we are to forgive a brother. He could be called the first “stockpiler” in the Bible – stockpiling wives and mercy.

Now, Phil Town’s concept is fairly simple. He says, you can’t lose. If the stock goes down, you buy more and get rich. If the stock goes up, your stock goes up and you get rich. The point is to know the value of the stock that you are going to buy. For example, if you know cars, then you know the value of a certain car – like Bishop Kleppinger, with whom I worked, he knew the value of a Cadillac. He’s always bought Cadillacs. So if you can buy two, it doesn’t matter if Cadillacs are selling below their value, because you know the value. It will rise to its value when you drive it. So you just got a steal on a Cadillac. Actually, it doesn’t rise to its value. It always has the value, if the value is there.

Phil Town says this, “The one and only secret to stockpiling is to make sure the value of the business is substantially greater than the price you are paying for it. I swear to you that’s all there is to it. If you get this right, you cannot help but get rich. Most investors make the mistake of thinking the price they paid has some necessary connection to the value of the thing they bought. I don’t know why stock market investors think that when it’s so manifestly and obviously not true in any other sort of market they buy in regularly.”

Let me try to apply this to fashion. A lot of teenagers who shop in malls think that the clothes that they buy that fall apart after being washed five times are of value because they are expensive. Whereas those of you who have been around a while know that this is silly. The value of the clothes is in its quality. If you find it at Goodwill, treat yourself. Get two. And this has application in religion. Folks figure that if it’s popular religion, it must be of value. Basically, price = value is only valuable if you are trying to impress people that you have money, hence buying poor quality clothes not for the quality but for the price tag. In fact, some teenagers for a while just kept the price tag on it so you could tell how much they spent. If I leave the tag on, it itches my neck. Maybe that’s just me.

Phil says this is how to identify value in a company. Again, you may agree or disagree in investing world; it makes no difference to the thesis of this sermon. He describes a perfect business according to six criteria. 1. Is as simple as a lemonade stand. 2. Is protected by some form of monopoly. 3. Has universal appeal. 4. Is habit-forming. 5. Makes the world a better place. 6. Is run by people who are owner-oriented, passionate, dedicated, and honest.

Now you may already know where I am going with this. But let’s begin with the sixth point. Can you find a business where the owner and executives are completely and utterly passionate, dedicated, and above all honest? Is it possible to be completely honest? No. Not unless you are God. So what business is run by God? You got it, the Church. Now count it back. Makes the world a better place? Yes, we tend to believe that the Church makes the world a better place. Next, is it habit-forming? I hope so, otherwise you wouldn’t come back. Does it have universal appeal? Certainly, it is for all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues. Is it protected by some monopoly? Absolutely, there is only one way and Jesus and His Church are it. Is it as simple as a lemonade stand? Sort of, it starts out simple but as the habit forms you find that there is just more and more to learn and that is part of the habit-forming nature of God’s Truth.

Now, this might seem a bit trite. But I assure you it isn’t for a couple of reasons. You might say that the Church isn’t a company, but it is. Read your prayer book where it says the Church is, “the blessed company of all faithful people.” That word “company” is related to the word “with bread”, people who share bread together along their journey. People in a company journey and earn money, bread, together. We are about to do so in the Holy Eucharist.

I have said in past sermons on tithing (not here. I have never preached on giving here, I don’t think) that investing with the Church is really investing in each other and this is true, yet we also have to remember that the value of something is not the price of something. I think that that is definitely the case when it comes to investing in Our Faith and Our Church. Sometimes it takes just a widow’s mite to keep things going. Sometimes it takes a higher price paid – no, not necessarily an endowment fund – sometimes it requires martyrdom. “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” But the value of the Church is the same, no matter what the era, where the market is, how bad the economy is, how bad the persecution is.

If something is valuable, then it’s worth waiting for. I found myself contemplating this passage from Ascension’s Gospel lesson: “tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.” Why? I found myself considering Elijah and Elisha. On the day that Elijah was to depart from this earth, the same phrase in the King James is used. Elijah’s last day before retirement was a busy day for Elijah. Much to do. “Tarry here, I pray thee” he said to Elisha “for the Lord hath sent me to Beth-el”. But Elisha, said “not on your life!” and followed. (“As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.”) “Tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Jericho” but Elisha followed. “Tarry I pray thee, here; for the Lord hath sent me to Jordan.” But did Elisha listen? No. If Elisha saw Elijah go up into heaven, Elisha was to get a double-portion and this was immediately apparent. “And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.” What was his first act? He went to that cursed city Jericho, and there cast salt, and the barren waters were healed (2 Kings 19-22). He then went back to Beth-el and worked wonders there, by the power of God. Yesterday, I stopped in at a drive thru and it took a while. When I got the burger, it just didn’t taste all that great. The money was gone. The time was gone. Now the burger was in the trash. Earlier, I had to wait at the Dollar Store. But I was a little less annoyed because I knew the value of the items I was purchasing. They were the same brand name products at a lower price. Thus I didn’t mind waiting. So what was the point of tarrying in Jerusalem until the Day of Pentecost? I’m still wondering. I do think, however, it had something to do with the value. It also had to do with the fullness of the Spirit that the Apostles were to receive on Pentecost. Let us pray.

God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ sons; Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast: Each age its solemn task may claim but once; Make each one nobler, stronger than the last. . . .

Make them apostles, heralds of thy cross; Forth may they go to tell all realms thy grace:

Inspired of thee, may they count all but loss, And stand at last with joy before thy face. Amen. (Hymn 220)

Fourth Sunday after Easter, 2021

This last week, on April 30, a festival was celebrated in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia known as Walpurgisnacht or the Eve of St. Walpurga or Walburga. It is not related to the word “purge”, although bonfires are used. It is not a holy night among those who generally celebrate it, exactly, but is also known as Hexxenacht, associated with Witchcraft. It is the night before May Day, which is an ancient day of fertility celebrations, and has been revived among the communists and by labor celebrations in this last century.

               You will not find St. Walpurga or Walburga easily. She is not in the American Missal of the Anglican tradition (from what I could find), being as it is an adaption of the Roman Missal and the Roman Missal (I can say this as I am a quarter Italian) is a bit too taken with Italian saints and ignores Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and other Germanic ones. But you will find her in the Anglican Breviary (even there she has been thrown among the English saints in the back of the book) and I quote: “Walburga was the daughter of the West Saxon Thane Saint Richard, and sister to Willibald and Wunnibald, all of whom were venerated by the Saxons as great Saints of God. Walburga became a nun at Wimborne; and when her kinsman Saint Boniface was evangelizing the Germans, she was sent, along with Saint Lioba and other nuns, to help him. The Abbey of Heidenheim, which had been founded by her aforesaid brothers, now added a house for women; and Walburga held rule over both the monks and nuns thereof until her death, about the year 780. She is venerated under various names throughout France, Germany, and the Low Countries, where her feast is kept on May 1st.” Let us pray.

O GOD, who hast bestowed upon thy Church divers gifts and graces of Ministry: We give thee humble thanks for thy servant St. Walpurga whom we commemorated yesterday; and we beseech thee to help us follow in her steps, and fill our hearts with love of thee, and of others for thy sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

May Day is associated, beloved, with pagan rites, as we have already said – although for us it is the Feast of Ss. Philip and James, which being prayer book holy days takes precedence over St. Walpurga. We might well remember Led Zeppelin in their hit song, “Stairway to Heaven” talking about flagrant fornication in the “hedgerow” and saying, it’s no big deal, it’s just a sprinkling for the May Queen. It is a day, we might say, of female empowerment, of fertility certainly. It is even a day for gardening in the nude, combining both sexuality and horticulture together on that special day. And this is why, no doubt, the Church in contrast says, “May is Mary’s Month” in which, in many parishes, Mary’s statue is crowned and remains crowned throughout the month of May. Is this why the Church made May Mary’s month, to counteract the paganism that surrounds May? Certainly. It is also likely the reason why St. Walpurga was moved to the day, to counteract the paganism associated with May Day. It is likely the same reason why St. Brigit, an historical person whose shrines in Celtic lands overcame the cult worship of the Celtic goddess of the same name, was celebrated, fittingly, on Candlemas, February 2nd, a pagan worship day. In other words, the Church not only overcame February 2nd’s (Groundhog Day) pagan association with the aid of the feast of the Purification of Mary, but also, in Celtic lands, with St. Brigit, the “St. Mary of the Gael” and thus Candlemas is also known as “St. Bride’s Day”. And so the ditty goes from Celtic lands, very fitting for Candlemas…

               I am under the shielding

                              Of good Brigit each day;

               I am under the shielding

                              Of Good Brigit each night.

               I am under the keeping

                              Of the Nurse of Mary

               Each early and late,

                              Every dark, every light[1]

The modern sense is that men (and men only) being priests is lacking in empowerment for women. Yet power and influence is a bit more subtle than that. I heard a story once of a Russian Orthodox woman who poo-pooed all of that stuff about women not being able to be priests by saying that women were more important than men in the matter because they gave birth to the sons who became priests. You see, it’s all a bit about perspective. Bishop Grafton describes that Penda, pagan king of Mercia, “did all that he could to crush out Christianity (633 to 655 A.D.). He had, however, a son, Paeda, described by Bede as ‘an excellent young man,’ to whom his father gave the kingdom of the Middle Angles. He married Elfleda, a Christian princess. It is to be noted that there was a remarkable series of Christian princesses in a line of eight descents from mother to daughter, whose pagan husbands became Christian kings.”[2] Who then, we might ask, made England, Christian, or Europe for that matter? It was standard practice for a Christian princess to go to wed a pagan king accompanied by a chaplain, a monk, deacon, priest or bishop. When Bertha, daughter of the King of Paris, went to marry Ethelbert of Kent, a pagan, she took with her Augustine, later known St. Augustine of Canterbury, for he was the first bishop of Canterbury. When Bertha and Ethelbert had a daughter, she went to marry King Edwin of Northumbria, a pagan, and she took with her as chaplain St. Paulinus, and the same thing happened. Again, its all a bit more subtle. Only a priest or bishop may be able to say mass and perform other sacraments. This is true. But only a woman can have the influence for evangelism that a Christian princess had time and time again, not only in England, but throughout Western and Eastern Europe and Russia. In Russia, for example, the same sort of thing happened with St. Olga of Kiev, the grandmother of Vladimir. She failed to introduce Christianity in modern-day Ukraine because her sons weren’t interested, but her grandson was.   

               Consider Margaret of Scotland, whose mother was a Bavarian princess. Accompanied by a Benedictine monk, as chaplain, she wedded Malcolm of Scotland, already a Christian. Nevertheless, one author described her – “Although her religion bore the marks of her time, her piety was genuine and beautiful, showing a rare combination of womanly gentleness and independent strength. In her personal religion as described by her father-confessor, earnest study of the Bible, close attention to Church rules, constant prayerfulness and an abstinence which threatened her health were balanced by tender care for the poor, diligence in the education of her own children and a genial concern for her household servants. . . . For the guidance of her court, before Christmas and during Lent, she publicly washed the feet of six poor men as a daily exercise. Thereafter she gathered nine orphan children round her, taking the infants in her lap and feeding them with motherly attentions. Three hundred of the poor were brought into the State apartments to receive food and alms from royal hands, while twenty-four special pensioners were always at her side. Her ladies were occupied in sewing garments for the poor and tapestries for the church.”[3] To her it has been credited that she brought the Celtic Church of Scotland into conformity with the rest of the Universal Church at that time, by love and not by constraint, just as the Abbess, St. Hilda of Whitby, baptized by the St. Paulinus whom we already mentioned, had done four hundred years earlier when conflicts arose between modern Roman church practices and the Celtic Church of Britain.

               Neo-Paganism, or Witchcraft, however you choose to call it, celebrated on May Day as well as many others, is not a resurgence of natural religion; it distorts it. Natural religion is fulfilled when the Comforter has come, when the Holy Spirit has come, and has reproved the world of sin, of righteousness and judgment. Christianity is the most natural religion in the world. In it, man’s true nature becomes purged and resurged by the Holy Spirit. Man becomes more a man. Woman becomes more a woman. There is no need to purge it, and “burn it all down” when it comes to Christendom, or Western Civilization. Christendom and Western Civilization, with its emphasis on Holy Mary, the Mother of God, with its history of Christian princesses who married pagan kings, who then gave birth to Christian princesses who married more pagan kings, or else became great abbesses of great convents and helped with the missionary effort of the Church in pagan lands, is perfectly balanced between masculinity and femininity. Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft, even academia, would have you believe that the evangelism of Europe from Paganism was the result of male domination and patriarchy. I think the history of women’s roles in all of that (that I’ve recounted today) really calls into question the propaganda that witchcraft is needed, that we must become pagan again, in order to give women their place in religion, to empower women.

There is no reason for a woman to get in touch with her masculine side, because in Christ is all the masculinity she needs. A woman can be a warrior for Christ, “manfully” fighting “under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto her life’s end”. No need for a guy to get in touch with his feminine side, because in contemplating Mary, Jesus’ mother, and being more like her, he has gotten in touch with the best feminine side that there is. There is no need for a may queen; God gave us one when He did not abhor the Virgin of virgins’ womb, Mary’s womb, when he came down and took flesh, became male flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, having been formed of female flesh of the virgin Mary. Christianity is the religion that really respects and fulfils the integrity of both “genders” or sexes. There’s no need to blur or erase the lines, through empowerment, steroids or surgery. Let us pray.

O GOD Most High, the creator of all mankind, we bless thy holy Name for the virtue and grace which thou hast given unto holy women in all ages, and we pray that the example of their faith and purity, and sometimes their courage unto death, may inspire many souls in this generation to look unto thee, and to follow thy blessed Son Jesus Christ our Saviour; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.

[1] The Celtic Vision: Prayers and Blessings from the Outer Hebrides, 198

[2] Grafton, The Lineage of the American Catholic Church, 93-94

[3] A.R. MacEwan, A History of the Church in Scotland, Vol I, 155-56.

St. Mark’s Day, Third Sunday after Easter, 2021

In the very excellent, 1975 film The Wind and the Lion, a story about true events, the capture of an American woman and her children by a desert chieftain in Morocco, that desert chieftain, Raisuli the Magnificent, at the end of the film, sends President Teddy Roosevelt a telegram. The telegram is a footnote on what this desert chieftain thinks about European imperialism and American interventionism – “You are like the Wind” says the Raisuli to Teddy Roosevelt “I like the Lion. You form the tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I like the Lion must remain in my place, but you like the wind, will never know yours.” Today’s Saint, St. Mark the Evangelist, or John Mark as we might call him, was a Jew and cousin of St. Barnabas. He went with Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey, then to Cyprus with Barnabas and then to Rome with Paul and then Peter. It is believed that his Gospel is based on what St. Peter had to say. St. Mark, as an Evangelist or Gospel-writer, is often depicted as a winged Lion. Today, we pray that we might hold fast to the doctrine that he taught. This is in opposition to “every wind of doctrine” that blows when heresy is speaking. Heresy is like the wind – it never knows its place. Doctrine, as St. Mark taught, must stay within the bounds of what Jesus taught and always knows its place. Let us pray.

O Almighty God, who hast enriched Thy Church with the precious Gospel written by Thine Evangelist Saint Mark, give us grace that we may firmly believe Thy glad tidings of salvation and daily walk as it becometh the Gospel of Christ; through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord . . . Amen.[1]

The way in which St. Mark’s Gospel starts, tells us something about why he has the face of a Lion. He begins by really sinking his teeth in and getting down to business. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” He gets to it, telling us about the coming of John the Baptist. There is also a great deal of focus on Spiritual Warfare in Mark. St. Peter, who mentored Mark, called Satan a Lion, roaring after his prey, going to and fro upon the earth, similar to how the Evil One is described in the Book of Job. So here the Gospel Lion is opposed to the diabolical lion, who, like the wind, goes to and fro upon the earth, not knowing his place, seeking whom he may devour. Mark, the winged Lion, the angelic Lion, stands firm on the doctrines of Christ, growling into the wind. I am reminded here of what Spurgeon said about the Bible. “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”

               On the other hand, the wind, knowing not its own place, must constantly shift its ground. This is how heresy works. It shifts from one extreme of the issue to another. It never stands on the modest, moderate, and balanced ground, but comes gusting from one end of the spectrum or the other, blowing passionately, without let or self-control, like a fanatic. Or else it whispers softly and gently into the ear, tickling the ear, with savory delights, fanciful and fantastic, making one think, “that’s just so simple. That’s such a loving, simple, answer to the problem. I don’t need to be mean, or be in conflict with others; I just need to get along.” This small tickling in the ear produces pat answers to life’s problems such as, “I need simple Faith” or “The basic idea of Christianity is be good” or “Plain, no nonsense, straightforward, religion is good enough” or “Every religion if held sincerely can produce a good, kind, and loving person.” All of these come across as the slightest, littlest, sensation of wind against the ear drum – but just watch: If you push back against these ideas with sound doctrine, then comes the gust, then comes the passion, then comes the roar of the abominable lion. “You bigot!” “You fascist!” “You insensitive soul.” Not knowing its place, this abominable and heretical wind of doctrine, goes from false humility to over-dominating judgmentalism in an instant. Instead, the true lion, the true Christian, he is steady, knows his ground, knows his topic, knows who Christ is, and stands his ground, undaunted, immovable, ready to pounce. But that goes to show that if you wish to be a true lion, a true follower of Jesus, the Lion of Judah, and be like St. Mark, you must know your ground, know your topic, know your Christ.

So, let us ask? What doctrines are revealed in today’s lessons? I will point out that there are four articles of the Christian Creed (actually five) described in today’s lessons. 1) “He Descended into Hell.” 2) He ascended into Heaven.  “I believe in” 3) “The holy Catholic Church” 4) “The Communion of Saints.” First, the Descent into Hell is referred to in Ephesians 4 in these words: “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” This is an opaque statement, so it seems, and we might wonder what it can do for us. But there is comfort there. The Heidelberg Catechism tells us what this doctrine communicates to us. “That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains and terrors, which he suffered in his soul upon the cross, and before, hath delivered me from the anguish, and torments of hell.”[2] Second, the Ascent into heaven is described right after in the words, “He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.” We can then see that these words “that he might fill all things” refers to Pentecost, and this event we acknowledge when we say, “I believe in the Holy Ghost” or as it is more specifically stated, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life.” This Holy Ghost is He who was sent, after the Ascension, on the day of Pentecost. So, there you have 5 articles of the Creed.

“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come to the unity of the faith . . . that we be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine . . .” This is the outworking of Pentecost, the holy Catholic Church and the Communion of Saints. It’s action oriented. St. John of Kronstadt asks us concerning this article of the Creed, “Do you believe that all Orthodox Christians are members of one and the same body . . .? . . . Do you respect every Christian . . .? Do you love everybody, as yourself, as your own flesh and blood? Do you generously forgive offenses? Do you help others in need? Do you teach the ignorant? Do you turn the sinner from the error of his ways? Do you comfort those who are in affliction? Faith in the Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church inspires, obliges you to do all this; and for all this you are promised a great reward from the Head of the Church – our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3]

               In our Gospel lesson, the Christian and Catholic Church is described as branches of the true Vine, Christ. True branches of the True Vine, which bear True Fruit, not false fruit, such as the heretics produce. These false fruits shall be burned up as withered branches. If you live in the Middle East, or any kind of arid climate, what is it that produces withered branches? Scorching sun and lack of moisture, yes, but also dry wind; so it is with the heretics. They preach hot air and don’t feed you with nutrients of truth. Nutrients of Truth flow, in contrast, through the life of Holy Church, through the Sacraments, until the end of time. Genesis 2 says, “there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” The preaching of the word is such a misty, rather than dry, air, and it produces lush fruits. The Raisuli, played by Sean Connery, said this, “I am the true defender of the faithful and the blood of the Prophet runs in me and I am but a servant of His will.” Do we believe this about ourselves as they do about themselves? Are we true defenders, true lions, of our Holy Faith? Do we believe that by baptism and reception of Holy Communion, we as true branches of the true Vine, have the blood of the Messiah running, supernaturally, through our veins? Do we believe that we are instruments of his will, bearing fruit according to His Word?

               Far too many Christians are like the Wind, not staying in one place, shifting ground, unsure of what ground to stand on. But we have the opportunity, time and again, to reclaim our heritage, our place in the Holy Catholic Church, as branches of the true vine, abiding in Him, until the end of time. What is our goodly heritage? Jeremy Taylor said this, “If we go into the fields, we find them tilled by the mercies of heaven, and watered with showers from God to feed us, and to clothe us. If we go down into the deep, there God hath multiplied our stores, and filled a magazine which no hunger can exhaust. The air drops down delicacies, and the wilderness can sustain us, and all that is in nature, that which feeds lions, and that which the ox eats, that which the fishes live upon, and that which is the provision for the birds, all that can keep us alive.”[4] He said it about the natural world. How, when such things have been provided to us through natural nutrients and supernatural sacraments, can we still fail to produce fruit? It can still happen. Bishop Taylor gives us this advice, “It is considerable, that the fruit which comes from the many days of recreation and vanity is very little; and, although we scatter much, yet we gather but little profit: but from the few hours we spend in prayer and the exercises of a pious life, the return is great and profitable; and what we sow in the minutes and spare portions of a few years, grows up to crowns and sceptres in a happy and glorious eternity.”[5] Let us pray.

Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that the examples of Thy Saints may stir us up to a better life, so that we who celebrate their solemnities, may also imitate their actions; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[6]

[1] Traditional Lutheran Hymnal, 1941, page 90.

[2] Question 44

[3] John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, 389

[4] Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living: A Year Book of Thoughts from the Works of . . ., 216.

[5] Ibid, 337

[6] Bright’s Ancient Collects, 69

Second Sunday after Easter, 2021

In 2006, a movie was released directed by Robert de Niro called The Good Shepherd. It claimed to be a bit of a history of the CIA coming into existence. I don’t know how historically accurate it was, but I had the unusual opportunity to review it before it came out, with all of the uncut scenes and with what might be called multiple endings. We were then asked to fill out a survey so I guess Robert de Niro could figure out the most popular ending for the movie. A bizarre experience indeed. I wasn’t crazy about the movie either and I’ve been meaning for years to watch it to see if he used any of my recommendations, but I haven’t and I can’t remember what my recommendations were anyway.

          This brings me to a bit of what I want to talk about today, the relationship between suffering and being a good shepherd because all of us, in our capacity as Christians have the opportunity to be good shepherds after the example of Christ – not by our own strength but because we are part of the Body of Christ, the Church. We are called to this, again, not by our own strength, and it’s when we try to do it in our own strength, with our own brains, and without humility and prayer that we start to run into trouble.

          If you read a commentary on the idea of the Good Shepherd, you will likely run into the notion that it’s a very middle eastern cultural thing. They’ll even sort of hint that the “pastoral” parts (pastoral, the word, is itself related to the pasture, where the sheep are kept) of the Bible were influenced by Zoroastrianism, which also has some pastoral language. But, of course, the Middle East is not the only place where sheep are raised. In fact, it’s just a great concept because it’s an analogy that works the world over.

          In Plato’s Republic, sheep and shepherds is set forward as an analogy for that relationship which is between ruled and ruler. Egyptian Pharoahs have both the rod and shepherd’s crook in their hands. More precisely, there is the concept of the “Guardians” in Plato’s Republic that I think is important here.  Guardians, in Plato’s conception of the ideal city, are those persons who, below the Philosopher-King, take care of the city. The education of the Guardians includes the gymnasium and music – one balances the other. In advising St. Timothy, St. Paul refers to the gymnasium saying, “bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things. . .” (1 Tim. 4:8). Plato somewhat agreed, feeling that the good soul produced right action, and therefore one would exercise in moderation and towards the right end (being a good guardian) rather than to excess, and one wouldn’t listen to too much music either and become soft.

          But we have to admit that any time in the gym is suffering, that’s why we struggle to go there rather than to watch television. In Sparta, where every citizen was chosen to be a guardian, every citizen was a citizen-soldier, and was exposed to the harshest conditions in youth on up and trained up for war. Plato doesn’t think everybody should be trained up for war and that those who are trained up should be balanced, well-rounded, moderate. In today’s epistle, we hear the words, “This is thank-worthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief . . .” Here is the same connection between suffering and godliness (or conscience toward God) as we see in St. Paul to Timothy. “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth . . .” Again, suffering is to serve godliness, just as bodily exercise, i.e. the gymnasium, should serve godliness, which is uniquely profitable at all times and in all places.

          In the Prayer Book, we can say that there are two, almost three, places where the language of the Good Shepherd is specifically used. In the Ordination to Priesthood is said, “And now again we exhort you . . . that ye have in remembrance, into how high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called: that is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad . . .” And, “Have always therefore printed in your remembrance how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood.” In the consecration of a bishop is said, when the Bible is delivered to him, “Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not.” This phrase was, in the ordinal of 1550, was actually said when the consecrating bishop handed to the new bishop the crozier, or shepherd’s crook.[1] And in the Office of Institution of a Rector, the Good Shepherd is often referenced.

          In addition to the clergy, we have other guardians in the Anglican church. These are the caretakers of the church’s temporalities, the churchwardens and even the verger. The churchwardens have staves traditionally belonging to their office, the verger a wand – literally a mace. Their job too, is to ward, to guard. Not only do they have the legal right in England to arrest those who are causing trouble on church property, but they have historically had the canonical duty of presenting to ecclesiastical court those who are, for example, missing church too often.

          Yet all of us have the duty, as Christians, to guard or shepherd our hearts from evil, from sin. It’s fascinating to think about because Plato’s Republic is about the ideal or just city, but in discussing that he’s actually talking about the ideal, the just, the well-ordered and well-balanced soul. These guardians of which he speaks are actually folks who aren’t easily swayed by passions and emotions, but keep them in check, and then they keep the city from running away with itself. In our soul, we execute the virtues as our guardians, to serve the Philosopher-King of our souls, which is Holy Wisdom. This is not perfectly consistent with Plato, but when we think of our souls as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, Holy Wisdom, we know that we have the duty to guard that precious gem, and to ward of evil, to trip and thwart evil in our hearts with a mighty stave, to crush that serpent’s head with a mighty mace. For “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” Whosoever is led by this Philosopher-King, Holy Wisdom, or the Spirit of God, is a son of God.

           Now, I want to speak just a moment about, HRH Prince Philip, whose funeral was yesterday. His job was to be a guardian of the Queen, to be her husband. It was a unique role not often seen in history. Queen Elizabeth insisted at her wedding to say the “and to obey” clause in her marriage vow in accordance with the 1662 BCP, but directly after the Archbishop of Canterbury’s and all the Bishops’ oath of allegiance to her at her coronation came the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, to pledge fealty. “I, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.” (Prince Philip had already renounced any claim that he might have on the thrones of both Greece and Denmark.) This was a man whose father and mother were royalty in Greece and Denmark, but had to flee Greece when he was 18 months old. He saw his mother, something of a Greek Orthodox nun, succumb to schizophrenia. He lost many of his immediate family in a plane crash. He was trained in a vigorous but not abusive school under the noteworthy educator Kurt Hahn, first at Hahn’s school in Germany, and then fleeing the Nazis since Hahn was a Jew, at a boarding school in Scotland. He lived through seeing his beloved uncle and guardian, Lord Mountbatten, assassinated by the IRA in 1979. Prince Philip’s task, however, was to be a guardian of the realm, officer and gentleman, Christian knight, and husband to the Queen, for which, I am sure, all of his sufferings prepared him for. They enabled him to do this one great duty for the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth and world. We might aptly say at his passing, “May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ make whatsoever good thou hast done, or evil thou hast endured, be unto thee for the forgiveness of sins, the increase of grace, and the reward of eternal life.”

          I might furthermore add another word from the burial office and from the Bible. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Let us guard, despite sufferings in many things, that “godliness” which “is profitable unto all things. . .” Let us entrust ourselves to the King of kings, the Shepherd of shepherds, and Guardian of guardians. Let us pray. May that God of Peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant: Make us perfect in every good work to do his will, working in us that which is well pleasing in his sight; through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.   

 

[1] Vernon Staley, The Ceremonial of the English Church, 181.

Easter Sunday, 2021

“He put upon him perfect glory; and strengthened him with rich garments, with breeches, with a long robe, and the ephod. And he compassed him with pomegranates and with many golden bells round about, that as he went there might be a sound, and a noise made that might be heard in the temple, for a memorial to the children of his people” (Ecclus. 45: 8-9)

Dorothy L. Sayers in her Foreword to The Nine Taylors, her Sir Peter Wimsey murder mystery from 1934 which has much to do with bellringing, states,

From time to time complaints are made about the ringing of church bells. It seems strange that a generation which tolerates the uproar of the internal combustion engine and the wailing of the jazz band should be so sensitive to the one loud noise that is made to the glory of God. England, alone in the world, has perfected the art of change-ringing and the true ringing of bells by rope and wheel, and will not lightly surrender her unique heritage.

If you are curious to what Sayers refers when she talks about “change-ringing” you can hear it for a few moments at least at the beginning of The Chieftains’ Christmas Album, The Bells of Dublin, displaying the exquisite musical art of the change-ringers of the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, or Christ Church Dublin. Perhaps the reason why Sayers’ generation tolerated the sounds of industry is because it signaled that men were working and families were eating. Certainly, since the word “jazz” means making love, jazz music gives voice for better or worse to the God-given passionate nature of men and women by which life is begotten. But very likely, a point I can make, of which Dorothy Sayers would likely approve, is that bell-ringing too is an indication of life, spiritual life, breaking forth in joyful praise to the God of Life. Bell-ringing was curtailed during World War One and, in fact, throughout Europe, many bells were transformed into artillery guns. Deacon Karl Munzinger, seeing the bells of his parish requisitioned for weapons of war spoke in a sermon on November 22, 1917, “They will speak a different language in future.” And “It goes against any feelings, that they, who like no other preach peace and should heal wounded hearts, should tear apart bodies in gruesome murders and open wounds that will never heal.” In the Church, the bells are silenced from Good Friday until Easter and a certain Pastor Penczek from outside Cologne commented, “the silence of the bells makes clear that something has fallen apart.”

The priestly garments of the Temple were made, according to Exodus 28 with a golden bell and pomegranate alternating around the hem of the garment of the Priest. Pomegranate, as you might recall from a study of ancient mythology – namely Persephone, who had to stay in Hades half the year because she ate of pomegranate seeds in that netherworld – pomegranates are symbolic of eternal life. Some speculate that the apple that Adam and Eve ate of was, in fact, if matched up with other mythologies, instead a pomegranate. So, we have the sign of eternal life, knocking against bells, making them ring as one comes and goes from the holy of holies.

In the tradition of the Church, we ring bells on Maundy Thursday during the Gloria and then silence them again until Easter, signifying, we might say, that our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, is entering into the holy of holies, bearing not the blood of bulls and of goats, but bearing His own blood, entering once in. While he is that netherworld, that Sheol, harrowing hell, the bells are silenced, so that we can not hear him for a while. Why can we not hear him? Because he has descended for that three days in the tomb to the souls in prison, preaching to them, ringing those bells for them. Thus we believe when we say that Jesus “descended into Hell” in the Creed. It is true that the world has fallen apart, but in falling apart, during that descensus ad infernum Christ was remaking the world with a sacrifice far more powerful than the sprinkling of blood from animals.

It was possible that the bells rang out from the vestments of the priest so that nobody would approach to him and touch him and making him ritually impure to offer sacrifice. As we have said, it is different now. And today we have a thurible with bells, which are very likely a continuation of the basic idea – incense is sacrifice, bells tell us where the sacrifice is. Bells tell us where the priest is. Unlike the Old Testament, however, we are not to stay away from the priest, but we are to draw near to the priest of the New Covenant, for the priest of the New Covenant represents the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is able to make us clean, because of his all-atoning sacrifice and glorious resurrection.

Today, the bells ring again. It’s nice to have them back and it’s nice to have Christ back. Remember that praise is what these bells signify, praise unto eternal life. When the warfare is ended, the bells begin again. We have walked through the three days of darkness: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. The strife is o’er. The battle won. Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who by an ineffable mercy and a blood-bought redemption has made us partakers of thy Sonship, and has promised to set us with thee before thy Father’s face; add thy prayers to ours, and ours to thine, and ask for us the blessing which shall not be denied, the living love, the Holy and life-giving Spirit: to whom, with the Father and thee, be Ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, dominion, majesty and power, henceforth and for ever. Amen.[1]

[1] Austin Farrer

Lent I, 2021

Let us consider now the fourth of those styled “Penitential Psalms,” indeed, the most well-known, Psalm 51. This Psalm is, by quite consistent tradition, that which David recited in the midst of his repentance. In fact that description appears in the title for this Psalm as it is in the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament (although that doesn’t mean it is true). It is said to be the very Psalm that David said in the midst of his repentance for lust with Bathsheba. Thus we can imagine, although 2 Samuel does not say so, that he is saying or composing this Psalm as he is lying, as if dead, praying that God would spare the child that he conceived with Bathsheba.

          We know it, more personally, as that Psalm which we recite together in the Penitential Office on page 60 of the Prayer Book on Ash Wednesday. This Office is, actually, a shorter version of that longer service known as A Commination, composed for the original Prayer Book of 1549. This Commination was begun, read from the pulpit, thus, “Brethren, in the primitive church there was a godly discipline, that at the beginning of Lent such persons as were notorious sinners, were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord. And that other, admonished by their example, might be more afraid to offend.” This is followed by reading “the general sentences of god’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the xxviii. Chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of scripture. And that ye should answer to every sentence, Amen.”[1] Those things then being rehearsed and the people calling that curse down upon themselves, if they be offenders in those things, and a quite long exhortation having being read, it was only then that Psalm 51 was recited, “Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness,” etc.  

          I want us to pause for a moment and take in the explicitness of this statement, “have mercy upon me.” Notice how personally we recite this Psalm. It was understood, by tradition, to be said when Nathan the Prophet “brought home” the personal nature of that sin which David, the King, the Lord’s Anointed, the Lord’s Prophet, committed with Bathsheba. Martin Luther said of the Devil that “one little word shall fell Him.” Well, with one little Word, Nathan the Prophet, felled David the Prophet, Priestly-anointed, King – “You are the man.” You are the man who committed this sin. We all, beloved, as baptized into the New Covenant, are baptized as prophets, priests, and kings. This reality we have in Christ. And so, when we sin, Nathan’s reproach falls on us as well. “You are the man.” The man who lacks likeness with Christ; at least at that moment, we lack that likeness.

          “Eleison me ho theos[2] is the Greek for this phrase, ‘have mercy upon me, O God” and we might well recognize that Greek from Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. But more directly, more personal, are the words of the ancient eastern Trisagion hymn, recited on Good Friday: Agios o Theos (Holy God), Agios ischyros (Holy mighty), Agios athanatos (Holy and Immortal), eleison imas (have mercy upon me). Here in corporate worship, in the worshipping community, it is not always that we say, “have mercy upon us” as if we could be asking mercy for the person who has sinned against us in the pews next to us, instead of us, but rather “have mercy upon me.” Let me try to elaborate and bring this method of devotion “home” to you.

          I said last week that I would get back to St. Gregory of Nerak. Not that we follow, as Anglicans, what Pope Francis says or does, but he, incidentally, just recently, in 2015, proclaimed this Armenian monk who was born in 945 A.D. a “doctor of the Church”. That’s noteworthy but what is fascinating is that Gregory of Nerak is the first one ever given that standing in the Roman Catholic Church that was never ever in communion with the Roman church. Remember, as I explained in the newsletter a few weeks back, the Armenians have been out of communion from the Greek and Roman churches since the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Part of the reason they fell out of communion was because their bishops could not attend the Council of Chalcedon because they were dealing with a national crisis, an invasion, at the time; no doubt, another part of the reason was because they had huge ties with the Syrian church, and when they got the Syrian’s report of that council in the Greek-speaking part of modern-day Turkey, they got a negative report. So, they followed the Syrians in not signing the Creed of Chalcedon.

In his work, The Book of Lamentations (which for the Armenians is a bit like The Imitation of Christ and they keep it regularly near their Bibles), Gregory of Nerak, follows an old Armenian devotional practice of reading oneself into the Biblical narrative. Thus one reads the story of the Prodigal Son imagines oneself the Prodigal Son.[3] This, I think, is a fascinating practice, not unlike the Ignatian Method of reading scripture, where you do, in fact, place yourself in the midst of the narrative. Perhaps this is why Pope Francis, a Jesuit, chose to give this status to a monk whose method of lectio divina was quite similar to that of the founder of the Jesuit Order, Ignatius of Loyola. We hear these words from Gregory of Nerak on the Psalms, that we should “daily seek the comfort of the familiar scolding voice of the Psalms” to “expose our guilty souls to the prosecuting voice of God.” In commentary on Gregory, Carlos Overstreet states, “The psalms, particularly 51 help us to remember that we are constantly wavering in our committment [sic] to living The Way. By joining our prayer to the Psalmist’s, we enter into the daily work of examination and repentance, which over time produces a vigilant mind and a humble heart.”[4]

          Now how can we do this in a devotional sense? You could, I suppose, say the Penitential Office every day this Lent. But another possibility presents itself to my mind. William Augustus Muhlenberg, a 19th century minister in the Episcopal Church, was the great-grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who helped set up the Lutheran Church in the Colonies, and the grandson of Frederick Muhlenberg (I used to live next to a town named after him and a church established by him in Pennsylvania), as well as the great-nephew (is that how you say it?) of Peter Muhlenberg, that Lutheran minister who proclaimed in the pulpit of the Swedish congregation of Woodstock, Virginia, “there is a time for peace, and a time for war,” and taking off his clerical gown revealed a Colonel’s uniform of the Continental Army. William Augustus had some plans for editing the 1789 American Prayer Book, some of which, I understand, were adopted. One idea of his that was that in Lent “day after day” at Morning Prayer “the fifty-first or other penitential psalms, [be] appointed to be ‘said or sung’ . . .”[5] Indeed, on a personal level, this might be possible in place of the Venite, exultemus Domino, or Psalm 95. Incidentally, when we end the General Confession at daily prayer, the first thing we say is “O Lord, open thou our lips. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.” This is precisely what the latter part of Psalm 51 says, “Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall show thy praise.” In other words, at the very beginning of daily Morning and Evening Prayer, after a confession of sin, follows the “O Lord, open thou our lips”; and this is the progression implicit in the fifty-first Psalm.

          Again, in daily Morning Prayer, we move from Confession of “wickedness,” (verses 2 & 5), then we receive the assurance of pardon from the minister right afterward, and this corresponds to verses 7 (“Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean . . .” thru verse 12 (“O give me the comfort of thy help again . . .”), we ask that God open our lips for a purpose in verse 13 (“Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked . . .”), verse 14 (“and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness”) and, of course, verse 15 (“Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord . . .”). In Morning Prayer, which is consistently called a daily sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving by our Anglican Divines, we continue on with praise and thanksgiving following from the Venite, “O Come, let us sing unto the Lord. . .” Similarly, Verses 16 thru 19 of Psalm 51 talk about offering sacrifice in the temple now that we are cleansed. So you see that the logical progression of Psalm 51 is the same as the progression at the beginning of daily Morning Prayer in the Prayer Book. Psalm 51 is a logical progression to begin any time of prayer. 

          If you are looking for a devotional practice this Lent. It might be well to recite, at the beginning of Morning Prayer, as you did on Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51 – focusing on you, in the place of David, bewailing your sinfulness and crying out to the Lord. We bewail our sins in full assurance, of course, of forgiveness, foretold by the Prophet David in Psalm 51, and promised and assured by our Lord Jesus Christ, through His atoning sacrifice on the Cross.  

[1] Brian Cummings, ed. The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 92-93. (Editing done to make readable for the congregation from older English spelling.)

[2] Lancelot C.L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 726.

[3] Here I am indebted to Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian of the Armenian Orthodox Church in his online lecture in Summer 2020 at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. Vahan Hovhanessian, “The Holy Bible in the Armenian Church,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qSqRAI4ZVk&feature=youtu.be (Accessed February 10, 2021).

[4] Carlos Overstreet, “Pray with the Psalms – St. Gregory of Narek,” May 14, 2015, Veritas https://catholicveritas.com/blog/pray-psalms-st-gregory-narek (Accessed February 10, 2021)

[5] William Augustus Muhlenberg, A Collection of Essays, Letters, and Tractates, from writings of Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg, D.D., During the Last Forty Years, Anne Ayres, compiler (New York: St. Johnland Press and Stereotype Foundry, 1875), 174.

Quinquagesima, 2021

The title given by the Hebrews for our third penitential psalm, Psalm 38, is “to bring to remembrance”. Is this a devotional sentiment? There is the same title given for Psalm 70. Some have speculated this idea “remembrance” is a liturgical notation, indicating that it was sung during a part of the Temple worship where “memorial” sacrifice of meat-offering and frankincense was put with the kindled fire upon the altar.[1] Perhaps this is so. Which raises a great question. How is that the Psalms, many of which were designed for use in the Temple worship and the Temple Sacrifice, can be brought over to Christianity?[2]

               We might answer this by a statement from St. Paul in Romans 12 verse 1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” The Temple was a place of sacrifice, a place of worship; therefore, a place of “service.” What we render now is not the service, quoting Psalm 32 (our sermon from last week), of “brute beasts that have no understanding,” (actually that’s from the marriage ceremony, but a pretty clear reference to Psalm 32) nor by sacrificing of such brute beasts on altars. Rather our worship is as the ancient Liturgy of St. James describes it a “reasonable service.”[3] So like the ancient Jews in their worship, so we render even better worship, through Jesus Christ “worshipping what we know”[4] and, therefore, since we offer true worship, we worship using the Psalms.  

               That being said, let us turn our attention to Verse 1: “Put me not to rebuke, O Lord, in Thine anger: neither chasten me in Thy heavy displeasure. For Thine arrows stick fast in me: and Thy hand presseth me sore.” Here the author connects up the idea of God’s anger, or wrath, with arrows. And this is a pretty consistent connection. Bishop George Horne says that these arrows and hand “are his judgments on sin; those internal pangs and terrors which pierce the soul, and those external afflictions and calamities which sink and weigh down the spirits.”[5] John Donne, propounding on this very psalm speaks about these arrows, preaches

Yea, let this arrow be considered a tentation, yet his hand is upon it; at least God sees the shooting of it, and yet lets it flie. Either hee tries us by these arrows, what proof we are; Or he punishes us by those arrows of new sins, for our former sins; and so, when he hath lost one arrow, he shoots another. He shoots a sermon, and that arrow is lost; He shoots a sicknesse, and that arrow is lost; He shoots a sin; not that he is authour of any sin, as sin; but as sin is a punishment of sin, he concurs with it. And so he shoots arrow after arrow, permits sin after sin, that at last some sin, that draws affliction with it, might bring us to understanding…[6]

The direct ramification this arrow, as it follows in the reading of this Psalm is, in fact, sickness and sin. “There is no health in my flesh, because of Thy displeasure: neither is there any rest in my bones, by reason of sin” (Verse 3).

The author follows this up, amplifying his discussion of sin and sickness with sin in verse 4, “For my wickednesses are gone over my head” like some kind of flood “and are like a sore burden” just as when water is on top of you, it presses down “too heavy for me to bear.”[7] Here we can remember the death through drowning that men by sin incurred in the time of Noah. Sickness is then evoked again in verse 5, “My wounds stink, and are corrupt: through my foolishness.” Verse 6, “I am brought into so great trouble and misery: that I go mourning all the day long.” Here in these two verses, dealing with sickness, we might recall Holy Job in his sufferings and in his state of mourning. Verse 7 “For my loins are filled with a sore disease: and there is no whole part in my body.” Whom might we point to in the Old Testament like this fellow? This one is a bit trickier. We could point to Job, couldn’t we, as we can for verses 8 thru 11. Yet here I would point to Adam more particularly and every man who follows from his lineage. In a sense, we can understand the very nature of sin according to the seed of Adam as loins filled with a sore disease. Yes. The idea of sin and sickness, and the effects of both, death, are strongly upheld in this Psalm as in others that we have studied.

It’s interesting: Many of us know about Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and we probably can’t forget the poignancy of his elocution. “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow is made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrows at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”[8] Here he is elaborating on another Psalm, Psalm 7 verse 13 and 14, “If a man will not turn, he [God] will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow, and made it ready. He hath prepared for him the instruments of death; he ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors.” This talks about death, that “battle, murder, and sudden death” as the Litany in the Prayer Book proclaims, which we are to fear and should pray that God turn himself from it. Yet God is merciful.        

How is He merciful? He declares it in this psalm and John Donne has already explained it to us. The instruments of death have been prepared for us, of sudden death, sure, but also the instruments of slow death. Slow death? So many people nowadays ask that they not be allowed to “suffer” and that they die quickly. This is not how Christian people in time past saw it, I think, because they knew the mighty victory that Christ often won through slow death, a mercifully slow death. Jonathan Edwards, like the Litany, is warning people of the horrible tragedy of sudden death when it happens in the midst of unbelief. But sickness, actually, draws us to the Lord, hopefully, if health does not. Even a sermon a long, slow, boring sermon is better than a quick one if it brings people to Christ. St. Anselm of Canterbury prayed before sermon, “Let the words which thou wilt give unto thy servant be as sharp arrows and fiery darts to pierce the minds of such as do hear with thy holy fear and to kindle in them the fire of thy love.”[9] Yes, better a slow sermon than a quick one if it brings people to Christ.

It is true that Christian people also pray as the ancient Liturgy of St. James prayed, “Make the end or our lives Christian, acceptable, blameless, and peaceful, O Lord, gathering us together, O Lord, under the feet of Thine elect, when Thou wilt, and as Thou wilt; only without shame and transgressions. . .”[10] Surely, we pray not for a slow death of suffering to no purpose, but, instead, whatever might take us down, whenever it might come, without reproach, without shame, without transgressions, acceptable, blameless, and finally peaceful is the reasonable hope of every Christian. Sudden death without reproach is, on the whole, a reasonable hope. But if that sudden death be filled with reproach, sins not repented of, filled with transgressions we have not asked forgiveness for, let it rather be a slow death and not a quick one. As Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon says of this, “repentance . . . according to one of the last petitions of the litany [of St. John Chrysostom], . . . is something to be perfected (ektelesai) until the end of our lives.”[11]

We are going to skip a bit, but I want to draw your attention to the parts of this Psalm which are almost imprecatory. “Imprecatory” is when you essential curse your enemy and there are many such parts to many such psalms. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer made these parts of the Psalms optional, unfortunately, because as one commentator put it, “Some passages, not a few of them in the Psalms, are offensive to Christian taste and sentiment.”[12] C.S. Lewis points out that we could in fact “leave them alone. But unfortunately the bad parts will not ‘come away clean’” that they are “intertwined with the most exquisite things.” Lewis points out that, as the collect we know so well says, Holy Scripture is “written for our learning” and thus we should “make some use of them.” But what use, he asks.[13] Reardon says of these imprecatory parts where we curse our enemies instead of praying for them “. . . the demons are the only true enemies of the man who correctly prays the Book of Psalms. Nowhere does Holy Scripture exhort us to forgive or pity the demons. They are the only true enemies that our prayer recognizes. Unlike human enemies who are to be prayed for, the demons are always to be prayed against.”[14] His commentary is sound, although I certainly wonder if there aren’t other evils and “enemies” that we might likely pray against, such as microbes and bacteria and virus and cancer. Diseases are under the sovereignty of God, as are also the demons, and are more directly the medical cause of sickness, which, again, is ultimately the price we pay for sin.

So we see these enemies prayed against (or witnessed against) in this Psalm, although they are not outright cursed. Verse 12, “They also that sought after my life laid snares for me: and they that went about to do me evil talked of wickedness, and imagined deceit all the day long.” Verse 16, “I have required that they, even mine enemies, should not triumph over me: for when my foot slipped, they rejoiced greatly against me.” Verse 19 and 20. “But mine enemies live, and are mighty: and they that hate me wrongfully are many in number. They also that reward evil for good are against me: because I follow the thing that good is.”

We might be wondering where is Christ in all of this? I could have brought him up more directly before but let’s do so now. St. Gregary of Narek (945-1003 A.D.), an Armenian monk, whom we will discuss further next week, points to the Psalms as like the Cross, because they “promise restoration for the righteous” and they are “an assurance of salvation that triumphs over demons and the doubts of the Devil.”[15] How is it that they do this, but by turning us back to Christ in all of our doubts, trials and tribulations. Verse 21 and 22, “Forsake me not, O Lord my God: be not Thou far from me. Haste Thee to help me: O Lord God of my salvation.”

In Matthew 19, someone said to Jesus, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Jesus said back to him, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” When we follow Christ, we follow His Father and His Commandments, “the thing that good is.” Christ is that “Good Master” and His Commandments are the “Good thing” that we should do. We should follow both.     

[1] J. Gurnhill, The Companion to The Psalter, Consisting of Introductions, Notes, and Meditations, Contributed as a help to the Psalms in dailpy public and private worship (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), 112.

[2] Here I am indebted to Bishop Daniel Findikyan of the Armenian Orthodox Church in his online lecture in Summer 2020 at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. Daniel Findikyan, “Bishop on Worship, The Psalms in Worship,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXji_42I2R4&feature=youtu.be (Accessed February 10, 2021).

[3] A. Cleveland Coxe, Alexander Roberts, & James Donaldson, editors. The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 7: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, 2 Clement, Early Liturgies (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2004), 543.

[4] John 4:22

[5] George Horne, Commentary on the Book of Psalms in which their literal or historical sense, as they relate to King David, and the People of Israel, is Illustrated; And their Application to the Messiah, to the Church, and to Individuals, as members thereof, is pointed out, with a view to render the use of the Psalter pleasing and profitable to all orders and degrees of Christians (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths Publications, 1997), 173.

[6] John Donne, The Sermons of John Donne, Vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955), 67.

[7] Cf. Horne, Commentary on the Psalms, 174.

[8] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 406.

[9] G.A.C. Whatton, The Priest’s Companion: A Manual of Instructions and Prayers for Priests and Religious (London: W. Knott & Son Limited, 1960),95.

[10] Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 7, 546.

[11] Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2000), 73.

[12] Massey Hamilton Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford UP, 1950), vii-viii.

[13] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Fontana Books, 1962), 24.

[14] Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, 76.

[15] Carlos Overstreet, “Pray with the Psalms – St. Gregory of Narek,” May 14, 2015, Veritas https://catholicveritas.com/blog/pray-psalms-st-gregory-narek (Accessed February 10, 2021)

Sexagesima, 2021

We continue today our exposition of the Penitential Psalms. We remember how in medieval times in England, when the sick were visited, they were visited by the priest, yes, but also by the whole choir. All singing the penitential psalms, they would process to the home of the sick man and, then, would speak that apostolic salutation, “Peace be to this house” before beginning the prayers. This would be hard to do during Covid! Getting the whole village involved, however, goes far beyond our best churches, who lovingly bring chicken soup when someone is ailing. It is also a recognition that each and every sickness, indeed, each and every sin, is an ailment of the whole community. Covid has taught us, in our generation, what other plagues taught others in other generations. Sickness concerns all the people. If sickness concerns all the people, then sin, which is the cause of sickness, is a “reproach to all any nation” (Proverbs 14:34).

               As we pro-cess then through the next few weeks, we will be processing through the Seven Penitential Psalms. Last week we covered Psalm 6. Today, we will discuss Psalm 32 (page 377). When we reach Passion Sunday, we should hope for a deeper sense of who we are in sin, and who Christ has made us through His righteousness. While praying let us remember our cry to the Lord, “Correct us, O Lord, but with judgment: not in thine anger, lest thou bring us to nothing.” Let us pray. Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable unto Thee, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

What might strike us in the 32nd Psalm is how it doesn’t at first appear penitential. Psalm 6, our last penitential psalm, begins, “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine indignation, neither chasten me in thy displeasure.” But this psalm begins, (Read Verses 1-2). Some have said that it, with Psalm 51, were written by King David concerning his scandal with Bathsheba.[1] Psalm 51 is before, perhaps, the child that they conceived together in adultery died, and Psalm 32 afterward. This one is called by the Hebrews, “Maschil,” which means “to consider,” or “to be wise” and instructs one in the fact that forgiveness is attainable and commendable.[2] (Verses 9-10) Alfred the Great in his commentary on the first 50 Psalms, “David sang this . . ., wondering at the unspeakable happiness of those men whom God forgives their trespasses and from whom he removes every travail, just God had often done for him. . . . And likewise he prophesied about every good man for whom God did the same.”[3]

(Verses 3 & 4). When we look at sickness or sin, there are both corporate and personal aspects to it. I recall the first time I was really faced with sickness. My mother took me aside after school one day and said that a kid in my class had brain cancer. For years afterward, there were community events to raise money for his treatment. There was a corporate and personal impact to sickness and, likewise, to sin.

               Let us consider the effects of sin in the Old Testament. You might know that I help at the local funeral home, and this includes being on call to pickup those recently deceased. After doing so recently, not having even showered, I came to the church to pray and I recalled with a start that, in the Law of Moses, I was unclean and shouldn’t be in the “sanctuary”. In Numbers, one who touches a dead body is unclean seven days and purifies himself the third day with sacrifice and if not, “whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel . . . his uncleanness is yet upon him” (19:11-13). In the Book of Leviticus, “And he that is the high priest among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil was poured, and that is consecrated to put on the garments, shall not uncover his head, nor rend his clothes; Neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother. Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the Lord” (21:10-12). Tobit, in that Apocryphal book, despite being exiled from the land of Israel, doesn’t want to be cut off, he wants to stay connected with the tabernacle in Jerusalem. He says, “But I alone went often to Jerusalem at the feasts . . .”[4] When he sees that one of God’s people has been strangled by the pagan King Sennacherib, “Then before I had tasted of any meat, I started up, and took [the deceased] up into a room until the going down of the sun. Then I returned, and washed myself, and ate my meat in heaviness . . .”[5] After dark, Tobit buried him, but stayed in the courtyard all that night because of his uncleanness. He didn’t want to be “cut off” spiritually from the tabernacle in Jerusalem despite being a far off from it geographically

               David took seriously the Law about being unclean because Saul believes it to be the most logical explanation when David, now a member of his household, does not show up to family dinner (1 Sam. 20:26). David, having been anointed king, should certainly have taken these laws very seriously, given the restrictions on an anointed priest. Fascinatingly, after David and Bathsheba’s adultery, Uriah the Hittite, her husband, slept, like Tobit, outside, when made drunk and encouraged by David to go home to his wife. He said it was because his men were out in the field that he stayed outside as well. Uriah was a righteous man, spiritually in tune with good ethics. It did not feel right to him to go indoors, and without fully intending to, when following his soldier’s sense of honor, he, a gentile, fell in line with the spirit of the Law of Moses. Uriah had been in battle, near death. He stayed outside, as if unclean. David later “touched” death by conspiring to kill Uriah and needed to be “dead” lying on the ground in penance, before later washing himself, going back into the tabernacle to pray, and then eating.[6] (Verses 5-8) Yet there is still both a personal and corporate effect of sin. David and Bathsheba lost a child due to their adultery, then later in 2 Samuel 24, David says “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly” (10). David then had to choose between three things: Seven years of famine, three months fleeing before his enemies, or three days pestilence. (Verses 11-12)

               In Hinduism, working with dead bodies along the river Ganges is work for untouchables, people totally cut off from society, being of “no caste”. In Zoroastrianism, fire, water and earth are sacred and one cannot cremate a body lest that which is yuckiest come in contact with that which is purest. In the Law of Moses, neither a priest nor a Levite can touch a dead body, and the reason why it’s a Samaritan in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who ends up helping a man who has fell among thieves. The possibility that the mugged man was dead might well have been the reason why the Priest and the Levite stayed away.[7] But I, as an ordained minister, was not afraid to walk into the sanctuary of the Lord and pray after I had touched a dead body? Why?

               In order to understand this, we turn to the Book of Hebrews which says, “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (9:13-14 ESV). As my mentor Bishop Hewett was fond of saying, “In the Old Testament, it is touch God and die; In the New Testament, it is touch God and live.”

               Traditionally, folks come together as a community for a funeral to mourn the dead, to celebrate a life, and on a certain penitential level to process failings in relationship (of which there are always some). In this sense, funeral directors have traditionally been community-builders, working with families in a town death after death and, in a certain, sense ministers of reconciliation, like the pastors themselves. They facilitate and help people become reconciled with the situation, reconciled to one another at the funeral gathering, and reconciled to the past. In a Christian culture, this is possible because of the “hope of the resurrection,” that God can raise us up, reconcile and heal us. That death is not so unclean now that God will raise the dead.

More and more, like other cultures that have no hope, as people draw away from God, they likewise draw away from traditional funerals. Funeral Directors become functionaries of the state, either embalming or cremating, but not ministers of the community, not helping as much to reconcile and bring people to terms, along with the pastors, with the situation as it stands. More and more, death is something that one is an outcast to touch, and a ministry that gives meaning to people’s lives is lost.

Beloved, it is important the we close with these thoughts: Psalm 32 is telling us of the effects of sickness and sin, yes, but also the Gospel, “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). Sin and sickness stand as a witness against us, personally and as a nation; death too. Yet in Psalm 32 we learn of Christ, Who is that blessed “man unto whom the Lord imputeth no sin, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” We learn the effects of sin and sickness (Verses 3-4). We are taught to call upon Christ and to hide ourselves in His righteousness (Verse 7-8). We are instructed in the way in which we should go (Verse 9). We learn to confess our sins and that when confessed they are forgiven (Verse 6). We are taught about grace, which restrains us better than bit and bridle (Verse 10). We are taught that we shall be saved with this grace when others are overcome with sin, sickness and death (Verse 11). And we are taught to rejoice about this (Verse 12). Let us pray.

 

O Almighty Lord God, who by thy wisdom not only guideth and ordereth all things most suitable to thine own justice; but also performest thy pleasure in such a manner, that we cannot but acknowledge thee to be righteous in all thy ways, and holy in all thy works: . . . . we do therefore here humble ourselves before thee, beseeching thee to deliver this Nation from blood-guiltiness . . . and to turn from us, and our posterity, all those judgments, which we by our sins have worthily deserved: Grant this for the all-sufficient merits of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.[8]

[1] J. Gurnhill, The Companion to The Psalter, Consisting of Introductions, Notes, and Meditations, Contributed as a help to the Psalms in dailpy public and private worship (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), 93.

[2] Ibid, 93.

[3] Michael Treschow, trans., King Alfred’s Prefaces to the First Fifty Psalms (Ottawa, ONT: A.C.C.C. Convent Society), 21.

[4] Tobit 1:6

[5] Tobit 2:4-5

[6] 2 Sam. 12:20

[7] Luke 10:25-37

[8] Adapted from The Order for Evening Prayer for King Charles the Martyr, 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Septuagesima, 7 Penitential Psalms, Psalm 6

Introduction to the “Seven Penitential Psalms.”

  • These are simply a traditional category.
  • They can be seen in all sorts of different books of devotion.
  • More to the point, for our purposes, they were used in the medieval English (Sarum) tradition and said with their antiphons, in procession, on their way to a sick person’s house.[1]
  1. As we progress towards Easter, towards, we hope, a more perfect healing in Christ Jesus, we will be meditating on these Seven Penitential Psalms, Septuagesima thru to the Fourth Sunday in Lent.

Let us pray,

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.[2]

Psalm 6 is found on page 348 of the Book of Common Prayer.

  • The first verse, “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine indignation, neither chasten me in thy displeasure” speaks of divine wrath.
  1. What is this divine wrath? It is due to “original sin”.
  2. The Catechism says we “being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath.”[3]
  3. Patrick Reardon says this on Psalm 6, “The divine wrath is not some sort of irritation; God does not become peeved or annoyed. The wrath of God is infinitely more serious than a temper tantrum. It is a deliberate resolve in response to a specific state of the human soul.”[4]
  4. Reardon then points us, in evidence, towards Romans 1:18-19. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.”
  • Verses 2-4 reveal the extent of this difficulty: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are vexed. My soul also is sore troubled: but, Lord, how long wilt thou punish me? Turn thee, O Lord, and deliver my soul; O save me, for thy mercy’s sake.”
  1. We should note that this difficulty that deserves, in some sense, Divine Wrath is couched in terms of health, in need of healing. Bishop George Horne, John Wesley’s own bishop, wrote concerning this, “The penitent entreats for mercy, by representing his pitiable case, under the image of sickness.”[5]
  2. We are given evidence that this is an outward and visible and inward and spiritual malady. Both body and soul are revealed as having a “sore disease”.
  • Verse 5 brings us to the temporal or terminal nature of this disease. “For in death no man remembereth thee; and who will give thee thanks in the pit.”
  1. This verse should be balanced with other places in holy scripture. We are reminded here of the verse in Psalm 139: 7, “If I climb up into heaven, thou art there; if I go down to hell, thou art there also.” So we should understand this as pertaining to the temporal plan of salvation. There is an expiration date on our bodies, but not on our souls.
  • Verse 6, “I am weary of my groaning” and I “water my couch with my tears” speaks to our grief over our expiration date.
  • Verse 7, “My beauty is gone for very trouble, and worn away because of all mine enemies.”
  1. Furniture disorder, “when your chest falls into your drawers.”
  2. There are not only spiritual adversaries but there are bacteria, diseases, all sorts of things that become our enemies in life, even though they are created by God, and subject to his power and will.
  3. We should remember that the “Last enemy is death” 1 Cor. 15:26
  • Verse 8-10 speaks about remembering the Lord as sovereign over all of these things.

Conclusion.

We can’t turn back the clock. God created the clock. He made us and can remake us in Resurrection. We should trust in the Lord and praise him, while we have breath, and voice. We should call upon the Name of the Lord in confidence, as in Verses 8-10.

 

[1]“The Sarum form was as follows: The Penitential Psalms (vi, xxxii, xxxviii, li, cii, cxxx, and cxliii) were said with their antiphons in procession on the way to the sick person’s house; upon arrival at the house, the Salutation of ‘peace’ was given, followed by Kyrie, Lord’s Prayer, suffrages, and nine collects . . .” Massey Hamilton Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford UP, 1950), 308.

[2] Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, 1928 Book of Common Prayer, 92.

[3] Ibid, 581.

[4] Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2000), 11.

[5] George Horne, Commentary on the Psalms, 45.

Epiphany III – 2021 – “Does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?” Amos 3:6

Today we pray that God would “look upon our infirmities” and “stretch forth [His] right hand to help and defend us.” In Anglican moral theology, we have a distinction between sins not often talked about in the last century or so similar to the distinction between mortal and venial sins. This is the distinction between “sins of malice” and “sins of infirmity.” We might be able to say that “infirmity” is a lack of goodness or being-ness or rectitude which is perhaps not-willed completely and “malice” is a lack of these things which is completely willful. -More on this later.

            When we witness acts of violence and evil in the world, we can be faced with an inability to understand how anybody could be responsible. We can be faced with the inability to understand how God could be responsible. St. Augustine’s intuition that evil is not a thing, not a being, but a lack thereof, is often attacked for not taking into consideration that evil is, well, evil. You certainly can’t walk up to somebody whose wife has just been shot and say, yes, this is a lack of being. But you can walk up to somebody and say, this is horrible, I just can’t understand it. I have a sense that you have in fact said to that victim exactly what God would say. I think that God would say that He simply can’t understand it either. In non-philosophical lingo, God not understanding something is the same as a lack of existence.

          There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, God can’t make nonsense. You can’t ask him to make a round-triangle or a square-star. Most of you know this as Aquinas 101 or Chesterton 101 or C.S. Lewis 101. It should be Theology 101, but somehow the fact that God can’t make nonsense doesn’t get taught to people in most churches as quickly as “Jesus loves me” does. For our purposes, the full text of “Jesus loves me” should be “Jesus loves me as much as I am me and… in so far as I am not acting like myself, or the me that God made me, I am evil and God can neither know or love that part of me.” Put another way, “Jesus loves me and the part of me He doesn’t love is the part of me he doesn’t understand”, in the same way that you don’t understand a friend who turns on you for no reason. God doesn’t get it when we turn on him for no reason. Nonsense is certainly something that cannot be understood, logical gibberish. And God can’t have knowledge of logical gibberish. Only God has perfect knowledge of things, because knowledge and creation go hand in hand. You know a car fully, so to speak, when you put the car together.

          So you can see how evil is “lack of existence” and that the Christian reaction to evil and violence is the same response as the non-Christian’s and God’s – “I don’t understand how such a thing could happen.” Yet we have a text before us which says, “Does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?” We have already stated that God cannot understand what isn’t and I don’t just mean non-being, by what isn’t, one has to include dysfunction, chaos, broken down cars, etc. But wait. God does, ultimately, know why the car is broken down, better than any auto-mechanic out there.

          How many times has God allowed the car to break down when you had the money to fix it or just before you went on vacation or at the beginning of a vacation it turned out it was best for you not to go on. He allowed you to see that something was wrong with the car by allowing it to break down. Once it is discovered what is wrong with the car, the car is not always fixed, but usually if one understands completely what is wrong with the car, one can completely fix it. And it is the same with this passage. God allows the city to be dysfunctional, or chaotic, or broken, or plagued, to show it what is wrong with it. “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” or auto-mechanics.

          People are plagued, however, by the idea that God causes evil. We know in Faith, rather, that God allows evil. They are not quite the same things. When the car breaks down we can use the term “understand” in two different ways. We can say, “I don’t understand why the car isn’t working” and we can say, “I don’t understand why the car chose this moment, of all moments, to break down.” God can answer both   questions and you can answer neither, at least at that moment. But when it comes to pure evil, God can only answer why he has allowed it, that He understands. But as to why it exists, or rather doesn’t exist, that even He cannot ultimately answer – because to answer why something doesn’t exist is pure gibberish. When we ask God to tell us why evil exists, we have asked him an illogical question, because of course it doesn’t and that’s what makes it evil.   

          And here we fail to understand God and that is simply an infirmity, unless we choose not to understand Him, and then that’s malicious. God, you see, is pure being, pure action. He is sovereign over the lack of being, the evil. He stands hovering above the void, the darkness. He is sovereign over it, but even He cannot know it or understand it, except that it’s there. He can understand that logical gibberish can be stated but not that it could be solved, because it can’t. Why then doesn’t He fill all things with being and quench the darkness and the void? And isn’t He responsible and blameworthy for not filling all things with his being and with his love? Here we must make yet another distinction.

          When God allows it to be cold outside, it is simply because he hasn’t made it warm. Now if you choose to make a room cold, to the discomfort of your family, friends and neighbours, you are responsible and blameworthy for that action. Similarly, if you see somebody walking across the street to shoot someone and you do nothing to stop it, you are, in some sense, responsible. You have allowed evil. But there is a difference between us and God. Our ability to understand evil, which is zip, zill, and nada, is the same as God’s. But His ways are not our ways and His time is not our time. Remember, again, that God is pure action. When momma says go home and build a fire so that it will be warm for the party it is only lack of action on our part which causes the room to be cold when the guests arrive. Similarly, our lack of action may be what allowed the fellow crossing the street to kill someone. But with God there is no lack of action, because he is by definition pure action and so even when he is allowing, it is not allowing with a lack of action but allowing with action. And that action, my friends, is what we call sovereignty and providence.

          He is precisely not culpable for evil because He is doing something about it, because He is the only one who can do anything about it. When we chose not to act, that was evil. But God’s allowance can never be choosing not to act, because He is the only one in all creation who is acting fully, completely, and without division. We when we are holy act through Him. His angels who have not fallen act through Him. They do so in part. He does so wholly and without parts. When the prophet Amos says that God has “done it” it is because Amos understands that God is pure action and so even His allowing is action, and good, even when it is allowing evil, whereas if we were to allow evil it would be inertia, lack of something, and also evil.

          My friends, God is without blame for the evil in the world, even though he has “done it”, as our text today says, precisely because He is without evil. Now, I know that sounds like logical gibberish, but I assure you it isn’t. If God is pure action then He isn’t evil. If God is pure being, then He isn’t evil. But to be sovereign over the evil, to be sovereign over the void, to be sovereign over the darkness, is to comprehend the darkness while the darkness comprehends not. Like us, He attempts to comprehend the un-comprehendible; He attempts to understand the un-understandable. He climbs up to heaven and He fathoms the great depths of hell. By way of analogy: He simply can’t attempt to unravel the knot, without allowing the knot to exist. He can’t, as the great auto-mechanic, fix the car without allowing the car to sit there. In these analogies, the knot exists and the car exists. But you can’t sit there and expect God to do away with something that doesn’t exist. As He did at the beginning of Creation, He has to, has to, has to, allow His feet to hover over darkness and then give existence, where non-existence was, to give understanding, where understanding was not, to comprehend what cannot comprehend back.

          God is there to stretch forth his right hand to help and defend us. God is there to mercifully regard the infirmities in our souls, in our limbs, in our minds, and yes, in our cars. He is there to stretch forth His hand to fix all of those things. But we must hold forth our souls for him to make righteous, and stretch forth our crooked limbs for him to make straight, and our minds for him to give understanding instead of misunderstanding. Just as in the beginning He made firmament where there was darkness, He wishes to make firm what is infirm. But it is most certainly malicious on our parts, to blame Him for causing the very thing He is willing to fix. It is a misunderstanding of God and of evil to believe that something without a cause could have been caused by God. Go ahead and join God in not being able to understand evil, but don’t choose to misunderstand God and his merciful, loving-kindness.     

Epiphany II/Sanctity of Life – 2021 – Abhor that which is evil, Cleave to that which is good

In our Epistle lesson today, we are struck perhaps with the simplicity of such an ethical system. It sounds trite. How can it possibly be that effective in all the complexity of life? Perhaps it works for some local yokel with little going on, but for modern people with modern concerns it just doesn’t seem to help us all that much. But it does help us if we remember the overarching principle that God is Sovereign. God is sovereign over the affairs of men. God is sovereign over all things pertaining to the ethical dilemmas of life.

               The very question, “how can it possibly be that effective in all the complexity of life?” carries with it an assumption that the complexity is ours to manage. It is not ours to manage. It is God’s to manage. As Luther said, “Pray and let God worry.” This “Pray and let God worry” is not to say “Ours is not to reason why” from Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Our rank and file of service to God is a Church Militant, to be sure. But taking such a position that we should just do the Ten Commandments and not “reason why” is something I wouldn’t advise; That is not Christianity. A caricature version of Christianity of this sort has been used in popular television and media against the Church to stereotype us as Lemmings, unthinking, unfeeling robots who can be directed in any direction by pastors preaching pounding on pulpits. No. We are allowed to reason why. We are allowed to think out the ethical dilemmas of life, to work out our own salvation in “fear and trembling.” These things are permitted by our God. But there is a limit. In our rational deliberations we are not permitted to become God.

               The very question, “how can ‘abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good’ and still navigate all the complexities of life?” presumes a Utilitarian perspective, basically that we are supposed to be able to figure out which action we might take will “promote the greatest happiness” for as many people as are involved. The problem with Utilitarianism or the “Greatest Happiness Principle” is that we are not allowed to play God and trying to figure what is going to make the most people happy is playing God. We can “reason why” but we also must fall back on “abhor that which is evil” and “cleave to that which is good” as the touchstone of ethics when things get complicated.

               We might then ask, “what is evil” “what is good?” That, you see, does require some thinking, a limited amount of feeling, and some education, but first and foremost some pretty clear ground rules and those are found listed out in the Ten Commandments. This is precisely what St. Thomas Aquinas said that we are to do, “avoid evil and do good.” It’s pretty much what St. Augustine said. It’s pretty much what the Church has said, at least when the Church didn’t want to play footsy with politicians and powers that be.

               When it comes to the issue of Sanctity of Life the principle “abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good” clarifies matters quite remarkably, clarifies them when things seem the most complex. “Abhor that which is evil” that is “Do no Murder” and “Cleave to that which is good” that is Good is Life, because God is Life, and God is good, and all things that He gives to us is Life and an abundance of it. What if you’ve been raped? That’s an incredibly complicated issue that, presumably, because I am of the male sex it is hard for me, as a man, to speak on. But I do not speak as man from the pulpit, I speak with God’s Word and God’s authority – and while we properly refer to God as a man, God transcends sexual distinctions. He speaks as firmly and lovingly to female concerns as to male concerns thru His Word. And still, the answer comes back, “abhor that which is evil” i.e. “Do not commit adultery” (which condemns rape) and “Do no Murder” (which lovingly points the victim of rape away from aborting any child conceived in the midst of rape.) And the answer still comes back, “Cleave to that which is good” which is Life, and in that particularly complicated and complex situation we are reminded of another Scripture passage, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). What could be a greater good than to bring forth life from the death that is rape? And in those cases when a child is aborted for being the product of rape, what could be a greater good than that God provides forgiveness and the possibility of healing for the mother and for the rapist alike at the foot of the Cross?

               Coming then to our Gospel lesson today, which is about a wedding, we are presented with a great complexity indeed, perhaps the greatest complexity and the greatest mystery – the mysterious relationship between men and women. In this complexity we find much miscommunication and misunderstanding that our spiritual adversary exposes and leads on the couple or the mother on her own to seek an abortion. Will the man be there? Will he be there financially? Will he be there emotionally? Will he be there for the midnight feedings? These pestering and penetrating questions are ones that I can imagine a woman finding herself newly pregnant will be asking herself repeatedly, and they are ones that better communication between man and woman would help to overcome. But so often that communication sadly does not happen. Sadly our spiritual adversary walks in to answer the question with negative answers. He won’t be there. He won’t be there. He won’t be there.

               So it is fitting that when our Lord begins to reveal Himself to His people He does so on the occasion of a wedding. It is fitting that he reveals himself in the blessing and distribution of wine, in overflowing wine and very good wine at that. You say, why wine? Because it is a sign of blessing and it blesses weddings in the Jewish culture, as it does in ours. We just use champagne. What were they doing while they drank wine? I could imagine that they were doing what those in every culture do with alcohol – they were toasting. And in this toasting were they saying “Cheers” as the English do, or “Salut” as the Italians do, or “skoal” as the Scandinavians do, or “Slàinte,” as the Irish do? What were they saying? “Lacheim,” as the Jews do, and what does that mean? It means “to life.” And life is what they came together to see in the blessing of a man and a woman in holy matrimony, and it is what Christ came to see and to bless as well.  

               I think with our natural Puritanical tendencies as Americans we are a little bit embarrassed at this part of Holy Scripture. Was Jesus encouraging drunkenness? Was he encouraging the lowering of inhibitions, of immorality, even encouraging the possibility of rape? I think not. To run out of wine was to run out of opportunities for people to bless the wedding, and to bless life, and to offer good wishes of life on those who had come together in matrimony. It was to run out of life, symbolically. Running out of wine, I imagine, was symbolically (or shall we say a bad “omen”) pointing towards death and barrenness in the marriage instead of fruitfulness and children – because wine is the product of fruitfulness in the fruit of the grapevine. The grapevine itself is a symbol of family relations, of lineage and connectedness, as each branch of the vine is connected up with other parts of the vine. Like a godly heritage, a vineyard takes years to develop and moments to destroy. It’s as fragile as married life, and as strong as married life. Christ said concerning his relationship with us, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” We are in Him, and He is in Us. The fruit of that is grapes, or the good works that we do by grace quite naturally flowing from our life in Christ.  

Essentially, my friends, the wine was symbolic and sacramental. It was used to bless the wedding and to offer life. A little bit of wine actually loosens the tongue and allows communication to happen better. This is why we offer wine at dinner parties and evening gatherings, so that we can socialize and open up with one another. Of course, a lot of wine loosens the tongue too much and causes problems – all things in moderation! So too we might push this a bit further and say that blessing the wedding with wine was to wish good communication on the newly married couple (or on those about to be technically and physically married – because the sexual relationship, whose natural most obvious fruitfulness is children, is the marriage). So when Jesus offered to replenish the wine, he was, in this first wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, blessing that couple with good communication – because that would make them happier – and because, as we have already shown, bad communication between man and woman can have devastating and disastrous results.

Epiphany 1 – 2021

For something to be revealed, it must first have been hidden. For something to have first been hidden, even earlier it must have been hidden by someone and if it was a thing hidden by God, it was hidden for a reason. A sign is often an indication to look more closely. A sign is always something missing. Even if there is something new, it is always new in place of something that is missing. “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”[1] Instead of an empty manger, the Shepherds found a babe, swaddling clothes, in it. What was missing? Just plain old hay was missing. Instead of just plain hay, there was hay touched by the rump of a king, which is the very definition of a throne – something sat on by the rump of a king.

          A sign was also a star. “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” Instead of empty space, there was, in the sky, a bright star. There are two very important things to understanding signs; first, to figure out what is missing. It is to play the game, “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things is not the same.” The next is to interpret what the missing thing means. It does not do to call up the police if your car is missing, when it is simply that your wife has headed off with it to do errands. Someone who misinterprets signs and insists on the misinterpretation we almost always call insane. To believe aliens took the car, while the wife is having her nails done is not a good way to go if you are planning to run for public office.

          Blood is a sign. It is a sign of life. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:10). Where it is missing from the flesh, there is no life. It stands to reason then that this spiritual battle in which we participate, is battle. We either reveal God, by making the enemies of Christ to be missing or the enemies of Christ make the things of God to be missing, thus revealing the devil. It is either us or them. It is either Christ or the demons.

          One way to reveal God is to sprinkle the world with life. The Word of life is revealed, if death is missing. Christ the Word of life manifests life by his birth, his rebirth at his baptism, and his resurrection from death. In the Old Testament this happened often as well. Where the sin offering was made and the blood thereof was sprinkled around, sin was missing and the people were exonerated of their offenses – there was life. For example, one of many, many, such sprinklings, Lev. 16:15, “Then he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times.”

This is to manifest cleanness and sinless-ness where sin and uncleanness once were.

          The Feast of the Epiphany in the East does not read the lesson of the wise men, but the story of Christ coming to John to be baptized. On which occasion, God the Father revealed him as his son, “Now when the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). This is also a manifestation of God in the water and so the Eastern Church blesses the water on their Epiphany. That water is then used to sprinkle around the homes in the parish for the Epiphany House Blessing. In the West, the same blessing is done, but since our Epiphany lesson in the West revolves around the coming of the three wise men, often the children dress up as the three wise men when the priest comes, and the three names are initialed: CMB – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (the traditional names of these three kings of orient) which is also, Christus Mansionem Benedicat “Christ Bless this Home”. The priest uses specially blessed Chalk.

          This is a good time to manifest the baptized nature of the home. If the home is a home of believers, it is a “baptized home”. And as such, we reveal its baptized nature by sprinkling it with water, which is the New Testament sign of life, when once blood was the spiritual sign of life. It is a good time, as well, for the priest to inspect the home. The priests in the Old Testament inspected homes for leprosy (that is mildew) and other plagues. “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses” (Exod. 12:18). St. Paul speaks of the leaven at Eastertide, which is right around the feast of Unleavened Bread, which is Passover, as a sign of Malice and Weakness. He says, “Purge out therefore the old leaven, [“purge out” being a reference to that family searching for bread crumbs] that ye may be a new lump, as yea are unleavened.” Leaven, yeast, is like mold, like leprosy; they are spores that grow and grow.

The language used in blessing the water for house blessings is evocative of driving out that which corrupts. “O God, who for the salvation of mankind has hidden one of thy greatest sacraments in the element of water” (notice, hidden, in order to reveal something!) …pour upon this element prepared by divers purifications the power of thy blessing, that this thy creature, serving in thy mysteries, may acquire the effectual power of divine grace for casting out devils, and for driving away diseases; and that on whatsoever in the houses or dwelling places of the faithful this water shall be sprinkled, it may be freed from all uncleanness, and may be delivered from hurt. Let no pestilential spirit, no corrupting air, linger there. Let all the insidious attacks of the lurking enemy be dissipated; and if there be aught which threatens the safety of the peace of the inhabitants, let it be driven away by the sprinkling of this water, so that saved by the invocation of thy holy name they may be defended from all assaults.”

          Malice and wickedness accumulate in a home, like mildew. Sins accumulate: sins of immodesty, insincerity, inordinate accumulation of material things, abominations, filthiness, intemperance, gluttony and seeds of fornication develop like little mildew pollens.

          A Christian’s home is revealed more by what is missing than by what is present. A home in America is not unlikely to have some religious items around the house. That is just considered good taste. But what should be missing in a holy home are the things that we ought not to have. “The Fellowship of the mystery”, the mystery of that peace which gave us such joy at Christmas Eve when we put Baby Jesus in the Creche, is what the priest hopes to find revealed. That mysterious fellowship, between husband and wife, child and parent, individual and God, which is manifest in things missing: Malice (Anger), Wickedness (Pride), Contempt (Envy), Fornication (Lust), Idolatry (Greed – or the inordinate accumulation of things), Intemperance (Gluttony) and Uncleanness (laziness). These seven missing are the signs of a holy home. To reveal what is truly in our hearts to God is for God to pour his healing love on the situation. To reveal what is truly in our homes is to allow God to do the same. And when you open your home to a priest, it is so that he can sprinkle life and blessing, prosperity and good-will, peace and brotherly love. Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”[2] When we open the door of our home to Jesus, no matter how disheveled and unkempt the home, Christ is all the more happy to make it his home too. He doesn’t care about a little dirt but he would like an invitation. He just doesn’t want to be missing.          

[1] BCP 99

[2] Rev. 3:20

 

Epiphany – “Burning Babe and Burning Bread”

In Robert Southwell’s fabulous 16th century poem, we have these words for thought:

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,

Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;

And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,

A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;

Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,

Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!

My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;

The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,

For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,

             So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”

               With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,

              And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

The allusion is clearly to the Christ Child, but also to the holy mass. Southwell, a Jesuit, was to suffer death under Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabeth herself, was a fan of his works, published anonymously and might have spared his life had she known it was he who went to execution for operating the Roman Catholic church in England, illegally. Yet, for all this, a hymn in our hymnal, hymn 39, still agrees with Southwell’s artistic license, “A Babe lies in the cradle, a little babe so dear, With noble light he shineth As shines a mirror clear.” Let us pray,

O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant, that we, who know thee now by faith, may be led onward through this earthly life (especially through a devout and regular reception of Holy Communion), until we see the vision of thy heavenly glory; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.[1]

There, in England, Jesuits perceived (wrongly, I should add) that the holy mass was not properly revered. Thus “Alas . . . but newly born, in fiery heats I fry, Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!” Could be taken as an allusion to the holy mass, neglected at that time, so the Roman Catholics said. And we should remember the poem anytime we are tempted to ignore the wonderful grace and favor bestowed on us in His Sacrament of His Body and Blood, His Blessed Sacrament to us. Why might we understand it to be an allusion to the holy mass? Because Christ, in the manger lying, resembled that burning bush that Moses experienced in the wilderness, a bush burning yet not consumed, “If he do but touch the hills, they shall smoke” says Psalms, but here lies the Lord of glory, not consumed by said glory. The hay resembled the branches of the bush and the babe the fire thereon. And there is more to it than that. The church fathers often likened the holy eucharist, which we celebrate this night, to a burning bush, or the live coal that cleansed the lips of Isaiah, especially in the Syrian Church in the vicinity of modern-day Turkey.

          Thus we see St. Ephrem the Syrian, the great hymn writer for the ancient Antiochene Church, making this connection for us, in his Epiphany hymns and other such places. Consider these statements:

The seraph could not touch the coal of fire with his fingers,

          And the coal merely touched Isaiah’s mouth:

          The seraph did not hold it, Isaiah did not consume it,

          But our Lord has allowed us to do both.

Again,

In Your bread, Lord, there is hidden the Spirit who is not consumed

          In Your Wine there dwells the Fire that is not drunk:

          The Spirit is in Your Bread, the Fire in Your Wine,

          A manifest wonder, that our lips have received.

Again, working with the motif of Elijah’s contesting with the Baal Prophets on Mt. Carmel,    

Fire descended and consumed Elijah’s sacrifices;

          The Fire of Mercy has become a living sacrifice for us:

          Fire consumed Elijah’s oblations,

          But we, Lord, have consumed Your Fire in Your oblation.

Again, discussing Genesis 19:24, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone,

Fire descended in wrath and consumed the sinners

          The Fire of Mercy has now descended and dwells in Bread:

          Instead of that fire which consumed mankind,

          We have consumed Fire in the Bread – and we have come to life.[2]

More specifically talking about themes of Christmas, Epiphany, and the Incarnation, St. Ephrem says this,

See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore You,

          See, Fire and Spirit in the river in which You were baptized.

          Fire and Spirit in our Baptism,

          In the Bread and the Cup, Fire and the Holy Spirit.[3]

We should, therefore, remember that Christ is symbolically fire and light, in bread and wine, present but not consumed, ready to consume us with His love and favor if we would but approach and consume that Bread and Wine humbly and with basic belief in His words, “This is my Body, This is my Blood.”

          The Wise Men, we remember today, came from far away, to seek that burning babe, following yonder Star. How far are we willing to come? How far are we willing to stretch our understandings of science? How much are we willing to give up? When we see the priest raise that consecrated bread and that consecrated wine above his head for all to see, it becomes like that Star that those wise men followed, in order to find the King of kings, and Lord of lords, veiled in flesh – only this time He is veiled in Bread and Wine. We are wise if we follow those men of science who followed by Faith.

          St. Ambrose, ancient Bishop of Milan, and mentor of St. Augustine, said that we should understand the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist in the same way in which we understand the Virgin birth, “If we seek [the natural] order, a woman usually conceives after intercourse with a man. And so it is clear that the Virgin conceived outside the order of nature.” He asks why we seek anything but the same sort of mystery when it comes to Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist. “Before the blessing,” he says, “one species is named; after the consecration, the body is signified. Before the consecration, it is called one thing; after consecration, it is called blood. And you say: Amen, that is: It is true.” Augustine agrees saying, “In the species of bread and wine, which we see, we honour invisible things, that is, flesh and blood. Nor do we give these two species the same weight as we did before the consecration, since we faithfully profess that before the consecration they were the bread and which nature formed, but after the consecration they are the body and blood of Christ which the blessing consecrated.” Ambrose again says, “Ordinary bread is on the altar before the sacred words; after consecration, from bread it becomes Christ’s flesh. How is it possible . . .? By consecration, which is done by Christ’s word.”[4] Again Ambrose says, similar to St. Ephrem, “This very bread which we receive in the mystery, I understand to be wholly that which was formed by the hand of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin’s womb and baked by the fire of the passion on the altar of the cross. For the bread of angels has become the food of men.”[5]

          We are to ask ourselves, “What was the significance of the presents which the Wise Men offered to the Saviour? In offering gold the Wise Men honored the infant Jesus as King; in frankincense, as God; as myrrh, as suffering Man.”[6] This Jesus, born King of the Universe, was eternally-begotten as the Son of God, and, upon the Cross, was baked in the fiery furnace of adversity, and will, in a few minutes, shine before us as the true and divine Star of Bethlehem, pure fire, which the astronomical Star of Bethlehem was simply a sign of. We are what we eat. And we are to become, as the 19th century Russian ascetic, St. Seraphim of Sarov said, we are to become “all fire.” We are to be completely consumed by the Holy Spirit. We can never become God, homoousion, as it is in the Greek, but we must become homoiousion, like God, sons of God, adoptive sons of the most high, radiantly clothed in holiness and light.

          What shall you bring then today after he has brought us so much? “How can we offer to Jesus similar gifts (as those Wise Men)? We can present Him with gold by giving up to Him what we value most, our will; also by giving alms in His to name to the poor. We can present him incense in fervent and devout prayers ascending to heaven; and myrrh, by preserving purity of body and soul.”[7] Let us pray,

Lord, if I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part; But, Lord, what I can I give you, just my heart. Amen.[8]

[1] Adapted from the Canadian BCP’s collect for Epiphany.

[2] The Luminous Eye, 104-105.

[3] Ibid, 94.

[4] Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Book IV, Chapter 2 (59), 53.

[5] Ibid, 56.

[6] Goffine’s Devout Instructions, Epiphany, page 57.

[7] Ibid, 57.

[8] Adapted from “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

 

Christmas 2 (On the Significance of Armenian Rugs in front of Altars.)

“Behold, the Tabernacle of God is with man…”

Our Introit for today begins, “When as all the world was in profoundest quietness, and night was in the midst of her swift course: thine almighty word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne.” For centuries, Prophets told of the coming of the Lord. As we heard on Christmas day, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.” The words of the Prophets weave a revelation of a Saviour for to come; that promise is woven into various historic tales of woe: kings falling from grace, pagan nations invading, calls to repentance, indeed, calling out sinners, Kings, Priests and Peasants alike. The lineage of Christ is recounted by Matthew, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham . . . And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Mathan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.” Anybody studying genealogy knows how it looks like an intricate tapestry. Our introit today continues, “The Lord is King, and hath put on glorious apparel: the Lord hath put on his apparel, and girded himself with strength.” The Lord’s genealogy, as well as nature itself, is part of his beautiful apparel that he wears and it’s part of his strength.

          Christian art following the time of Jesus began to show such intricacy, evoking to us the various and sundry ways in which Christ was revealed in nature and His special Revelation of Himself in the Old Testament, evoking to us a tangled lineage, a hereditary path by which our Saviour came to us. We know this kind of artwork well from Celtic manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, taking well-known pre-Christian art forms and then, splendidly, transferring those art forms to serve a new Master, Christ. The same thing happened in Armenia in eastern Turkey and northern Iran, where, through the ministry of Gregory the Illuminator, the King of Armenia was converted from Zoroastrianism in 301 A.D. Thereafter the native art forms of intricate, interwoven, patterns were used, similar to Celtic art, to embellish the Holy Cross – again, evoking to the senses the beautiful and splendid way in which our God works, “here a little, there a little,” pushing and prodding us, poking His head out to show us his handiwork, His little miracles in our lives, and then hiding himself again so that we might wish to seek Him.

          Armenian Christians did this same thing with another ancient art form, that of carpet weaving. After the Christian era began, that old art form that once sat on the floors of houses, and more significantly the floors of tents out in the desert, were used to stand before the Holy Altar. Why? Well, because they are pretty, of course. But there is, as always, a little more to it. In fact, the Judeo-Christian heresy, Islam, chose to utilize these same carpets when they prayed, to such an extent that the Arabic word for “prayer” and for “carpet” is the same word. The practice of praying on carpets is originally Christian, being used for prostrations at the seven canonical hours of prayer in the Armenian and Indian Church, Ethiopian/Eritrean Orthodox. The Russian Orthodox Old Believers use one called a Podruchnik. But is the practice even older than that? I wonder. The Christian desert fathers in Egypt spent their week praying psalms and weaving and making mats, and baskets, out of desert materials. But let us go further back than that.

          The Book of Exodus clearly gives directives about walls and veils, nicely embroidered, (in which the Lord clothes himself, veiling his presence) for the partitions of the Tabernacle, and we are left wondering, what was on the desert floor? Of course, rugs were used by the nomadic tribes for the floors of tents. It seems possible that the use of rugs for worship predates Christian use because we read, “And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp . . . And it came to pass, that every one which sought the Lord went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp. And it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the tabernacle, that all the people rose up, and stood every man at his tent door . . . .” Furthermore, it says, “And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door.” We might then wonder on what were they standing when they worshipped? A rug? Very likely. But we do not know for sure.

          In the Armenian rug tradition, there is a transition from the Zoroastrian religious imagery in the rugs to the more Christians ones. The border of a Persian rug, superstitiously, is intended to create a barrier against evil. And inside there is often some kind of symbol of endlessness, like the Swastika of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism – not a Nazi symbol but one of Reincarnation. Zoroastrianism was a reform of the classic sort of Hindu paganism of Iraq and Iran, but this same wheel-of-life imagery continues to be seen. (It’s what we think the Magi, the three wise men, might have been.) Sometimes the Armenians, when they became Christians, transitioned this into a Cross, not artistically too dissimilar from a wheel-of-life or a Swastika. (Look at insert.) The Cross starts at the Incarnation. Jesus became flesh, garbed in the intricate tapestry of the human body, in order to be crucified.

          You see, as one of my old professors, Fr. John Heidt, explained to me, the difficulty with some of these older pagan philosophical traditions is that there is no way to get God into our world. How do you get the eternal into the temporal? Well, that’s easy if, with the eastern religions we just say that it is all eternal, it’s all just a continuous wheel-of-life. But if we are to say that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” that isn’t continuous. There’s a beginning and there, then, by logical contrast is an end, an end of the world. If it’s temporal, time-bound, how do we get God into it? How does he “leap” down “from heaven”? Now Zoroastrianism, what the Armenians believed before they knew Christ, had already gotten to the idea that there would be a bodily fight to the death between Good and Evil, a literal Armageddon, and yet they were still stuck in some respects in this older “It’s all going round and round in circles,” that they’d inherited from Hinduism, that the dragon was chasing his tail, over and over again. With Christ, however, things change. God proves, simply by clothing himself in the tapestry of human flesh, and getting the eternal into the temporal, that he can get us off the ridiculous merry-go-round of Reincarnation, from which Hinduism and Buddhism can’t seem to get unstuck, unless they get themselves completely unstuck from all reality, which just isn’t unstuck, strictly-speaking. The Armenians rejoiced at getting “unstuck” through Christ’s coming and made their churches to model, symbolically, the Incarnation.

          In Armenian churches, like our own to some degree, the Sanctuary (where the Altar is) symbolizes heaven, and the chancel, earth. No wonder then that the rug in front of the Altar traditionally has this sign of the endlessness of eternity, or the sign of the Cross, which is the sign of the Incarnation. The rug shows us the bridge that has been built. No wonder then that the rug is the tapestry that shows to us the Incarnation, Christ becoming veiled in the tapestry of Flesh and genealogy and dwelling among us. The Incarnation actually bridges that gap between heaven and earth and leaps down God from heaven to us. Indeed, so strong is their imagery of the Incarnation that the Armenians have two side altars, one is dedicated to John the Baptist and the other the Mother of God, Mary most-holy. This too is symbolically bridging the gap and pointing to the Incarnation, moving us from the Prophets to the Messiah-made-flesh.

          So when you come up to take communion, if you are looking up from the Altar Rail, you will see the Sign of your Redemption, Christ dying for your sins. But when you look down, you will see this rug on which the priest stands to offer the Holy Sacrifice. There in that rug remember the Incarnation of your Lord. If he never took on flesh, he could have never bridged the gap between eternity and us time-bound creatures. If he never took on flesh, he could never have died for our sins. And since the rug is a place where we prostrate ourselves before his majesty, and worship towards his tabernacle, look upon that rug and let your heart be prostrate in holy fear and reverence.      

 

St. John the Evangelist, Christmas 1 – “God from God, Light from Light.”

Today we remember St. John the Evangelist and I am reminded of a story that in his old age he would just repeat in his teachings and in his sermons how God was love and saying, over and over, little children love one another. It is fascinating to see that right after Christmas and right after Easter, we turn to the Epistles of John. Today, we turn to him on this Third day of the Twelve days of Christmas. And we turn to him on the first Sunday after Easter, as well, “For there are three” he says on the first Sunday after Easter, “that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.” John is a key witness to all that Christ did and said. As he says today, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . .” It is said of him, that the reason why he wrote his gospel was because in the later days, “heretics sprang up in God’s church and said that Christ did not exist before he was born of Mary. Then all the bishops of the people asked the holy apostle to compose the fourth book, and he extinguished the presumption of those heretics.”[1] The outworking of this kind of witness, to the confusion and destruction of heresies, are Creeds, and “God from God, Light from Light,” as we know, comes from the Nicene Creed. Let us pray.

O King of Glory, lift up my heart to the highest, that I may glorify Thy Name on earth, as Thy angels glorify it in heaven. Whatever I shall say or do, let it be to Thy glory, without seeking mine own; and from my mouth may this word never depart; Glory be to God, Three and One; glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. Glory to the Father for having given me His Son; glory to the Son, for having become man for my redemption; and glory to the Holy Ghost, from whose love this work did proceed. Amen. (The Golden Gate)

In the ancient French baptismal liturgy from the 8th Century as we have it in, what’s called, the Gelasian Sacramentary, portions of the Gospels were read to those about to be baptized and it is explained why each Evangelist symbolically (as prophesied in the Book of Ezekiel) has the face of a man, or an ox, or Lion, or in the case of St. John, an Eagle. “John has the likeness of an eagle because he sought the greatest heights: for he says In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This was in the beginning with God.” The next thing on the agenda that evening, during the Holy Baptisms, was the Introduction of the Creed to the Elect. “Dearly beloved, who seek to receive the sacraments of baptism, and to be born unto a new creature of the Holy Spirit: lay hold with your whole heart upon the faith which ye shall receive to your justification: and setting your minds upon right paths turn to God who is the light of our minds and receive the sacrament of the gospel symbol; which is inspired by the Lord and instituted by the Apostles, of which the words indeed are few but the mystery great.” The Nicene Creed was then chanted in Greek and then in Latin over the infants and then the following explanation was given: “Dearly beloved, this is the sum of our belief, these are the words of the Creed, not contrived by art of human wisdom but set out by God’s grace in a true order. There is no one who is not sufficient and fitted to understand and observe these things. Here is affirmed the one equal power of God the Father and the Son. Here is shown the Only-Begotten Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit according to the flesh.” It continues on explaining the other points or “articles” of the Creed and then says, “. . . you may use the defence of this confession. For the power of such weapons is always invincible, it is of service to every good soldier of Christ against all the snares of the enemy. The devil, who never ceases to tempt mankind, must always find you protected by this Creed: so that with the enemy whom you renounce cast down, and by the protection of him whom you confess, you may preserve the grace of the Lord pure and spotless unto the end, so that wherein you receive remission of sins, you may also have the glory of the resurrection.”

          This is what St. John the Evangelist, whom we celebrate today, wants for you today. He wants you to know Jesus, and know Him truly, as He truly is. Not some figment of your imagination, or some idol celebrity nice guy, or some Confucius, simply expressing great sayings in poignant anecdotes and analogies. He wants you to know Jesus, by holding the mystery of the Faith without wavering. The Baptismal liturgy that we just recounted is exactly right, the Creed is a defense against the wiles of our spiritual adversary and there to make you wise unto Salvation. It stands as a witness to the truth, a confession to the truth, and glorifies God when it is said or chanted. The Russian Orthodox Longer Catechism of St. Philaret from 1830, explains well this article of the Creed that we are presently examining.

“What mean in the Creed the words Light from light?” And it is answered, “Under the figure of the visible light they in some manner explain the incomprehensible generation of the Son of God” (it is incomprehensible, beloved, we can’t really understand it) “from the Father. When we look at the sun, we see light: from this light is generated the light visible every where beneath; but both the one and the other is one light, indivisible, and of one nature. In like manner, God the Father is the everlasting light.” There St. John’s First Epistle Chapter One, Verse 5, is given as a proof text. “Of him is begotten the Son of God, who also is the everlasting Light; but God the Father and God the Son are one and the same everlasting Light, indivisible, and of one divine nature.” Given as a proof text of these facts is 1 John V. 20 as well, “We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us [light and] understanding, that we may know the true God, and be in him that is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”

Today, we celebrate the life and witness of St. John the Divine, the Evangelist, who dealt in obscure statements hard to say and understand. In celebrating his life and witness, we celebrate the doctrine that he taught. I wish that it were easy to understand a conception like “God from God, Light from Light, Very God of Very God.” But remember, the same Apostle who gave us the Book of the Revelation, and statements hard to understand, also gave us something that we believe to be so easy to understand. How many times have you heard, “God is love.” This is quoting St. John himself. And how many times have you heard that same “God is love,” used to justify all sorts of behavior that is not at all loving to God or neighbor? It is not in the simple statements, and simple truth, that we are protected from falsehood and wrong, from heresy and schism, from devils and spiritual death. It is in the hard sayings, and the hard precepts, and in the mysterious facts of God that we are protected. “God is love” will protect you from the Devil, sure, but only when it is upheld by other holy facts, by the articles of the Creeds, by the Whole Counsel of God’s Word and the Witness and Confession of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Against the scoffers of this Holy Faith, and those who minimize that faith into the lowest common denominator and simplify it into ineffectiveness, we must say with St. John of Kronstadt, with tears in our eyes, “If some Christians cannot comprehend our Orthodox faith, its Sacraments, it proves that the minds and hearts of such persons are too impure and passionate to bear its purity and brightness, just as sick eyes cannot bear the light of the sun.”[2] Let us pray.

O Thou God of infinite mercy and compassion, in Whose hands are all the hearts of the sons of men, look, we beseech Thee, graciously upon the darkened souls of the multitudes who know not Thee. Enlighten them with the saving knowledge of the truth. Let the beams of Thy gospel break forth upon them, and bring them to a sound belief in Thee, God manifested in the flesh. . . . Grant this, through Jesus Christ. Amen. (Bishop Hall) 

 

[1] Aelfric, St. John the Apostle, Anglo-Saxon Spirituality, 105.

[2] My Life in Christ, 328.

 

Christmas Eve – Tidings of Comfort and Joy

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them . . .”

Beloved, we are brought to this night when our sense of the world has been shaken, by pandemics, by elections, and events following an election. It has been difficult to know what our duty is, in which course it lies, and what will be the result when we follow it. Shall we wear masks, shall we accept a new vaccine, what shall be the result of changes in elected leaders?

It should be a comfort, therefore, to read and mark in holy Scriptures when and at what times Angels have brought glad tidings of great joy. We shall find that it was when men, although imperfectly understood and imperfectly performed, have been attempting to perform their duties. This is when Angels have appeared to men, with tidings of great joy.

The first is when our first parents, Adam and Eve, were brought into desolation and reproach, stripped naked in the eyes of Angels, in their own eyes, shamed before the eyes of their children, great grandchildren, and every age of man that has come and will come until the end of the Age.

In the midst of the great desolation, we read, “So [God] drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” Here there is bad news – a fearful Cherub and a flaming sword. Here there is good news – to keep our first parents from the tree of life, “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” in a state of sin and reproach. There is more good news accompanying this vision of angels – a rebuke to the Serpent, Satan, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise its heel.”[1] This “seed,” St. Paul identifies as “Christ” in the Galatians 3:16, where he identifies the same seed as the seed of Abraham, in effect, the Messiah. “He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” Thus in Genesis 3, elucidated by Galatians 3, we have the Protoevangelium – the first proclamation of the Messiah to come. This is in a chapter where Angels came and ministered to Adam and Eve, through a flaming sword.

The same seed is proclaimed as forthcoming in the midst of an Angelic vision, filled with “tidings of comfort and joy,” when three Angels visited Abraham in Genesis 18. There they proclaimed that Abraham would have a son by Sarah. That son, Isaac, by holy lineage, was of that Seed, and would become the forebear of the Messiah. There Abraham was seeking to do his duty, although imperfectly, to provide for a son and heir to his people who had placed themselves under his care as a desert chieftain.

When that son was provided, Abraham was asked to sacrifice that firstborn son, Isaac. In fulfilling the duty of holy piety, to love God before and above all things, Abraham, again saw a vision of an angel, with “tidings of comfort and joy.” “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” More tidings of great joy accompanied this visitation and Abraham learned that God would indeed offer His own self a Sacrifice, and we know that that Sacrifice was Christ dying on the Cross for us miserable sinners. Again the Angel provided tidings of great joy saying, “because  thou hast done this thing, and has not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven . . .”[2]

We see that Tobit, in the Apocrypha, when trying to perform the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, when performing almsgiving, and when providing a bride for his pious son, saw a vision of St. Raphael, who healed his blindness.

We see that Zechariah saw a vision of St. Gabriel who told him of his son to come, Jesus’ cousin, John Baptist – and this while he did his duty in the temple.

We see that St. Joseph saw a vision of an Angel when he attempted to discern the will of God, whether he should put St. Mary away quietly with a writ of divorce, according to the Law of Moses.

We see that Mary, while performing, according to Holy Tradition, the devout prayers of the Israelite Church, said from Nazareth and perhaps towards the Temple at the time of the Sacrifice, then and at that time was visited by the Angel Gabriel as well.

Today, we see, that Shepherds, on duty, watching their flock by night, lest wolves came to devour them, saw as well a vision of Angels, telling of the birth of our and their savior.

We should be comforted in this, beloved, that in the midst of trying, to the best of our ability, in these difficult and uncertain times, to do our duty, we shall be comforted by Holy Angels. In submitting our lives wholly to Christ, we are reminded, on the most holy night, that Christ asks us only to do our duty, humbly, without pretense to perfection. He is our perfection, and he will do what he has set out to do, to save mankind from his sins, and open the gates of paradise.

 

[1] Gen. 3.

[2] Gen. 22

Second Sunday in Advent 2020 – Behold the hour is at hand… To be reading Scripture

An Anglo-Saxon Sermon from the ninth century preached: “Let us now see and acknowledge and zealously perceive that the end of this world is very near and that many perils have appeared and the evil deeds and wrongdoings of the people have multiplied. And from one day to the next we hear of unnatural torments and unnatural deaths that have come upon people throughout the nation. And we often see nation arise against nation and disastrous battle arise in wicked deeds. . . . Likewise we also hear about various plagues and growing hunger in many places of middle earth. . . . Such are the signs that just now I have mentioned of the troubles and dangers of this world.”[1] It sounds like the six o’clock news doesn’t it? And yet, it is my duty, even though Christ has not come in the eleven-hundred years since that sermon was written, to quote it to you. It is even more true today. St. Paul told us last week, “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” We can only go forward. Are things better or worse than they used to be? That too is a great question. In the Prophecies of St. Niphon of Constantia from the 4th Century, a young monk asked the saint, ‘“There has been an increase in the number of holy men throughout the world today. Will it be so in the last days?” To such an inquiry, the blessed one answered: “My son, Prophets of the Lord God will not be in scarce supply in the last days, yet the same applies for those who serve Satan.”’

Let us pray, O God, the Life of the faithful, the glory of the lowly, and the Blessedness of the righteous; graciously hear the prayers of Thy servants, that the souls which thirst after Thy promises may be filled with the abundance of Thy love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

          Today is Holy Scripture Sunday. The theme is also one of fleeting time, the preciousness of it, and the joy of those gentiles who have received the Word of God. I can stand up here and tell you in many words how Scripture is true, it is inerrant, it is infallible, it is God’s Word and it is His love letter to us. All of that is true. It is so very true. But knowing that will do you no good unless your life is orderly enough to find time to read Scripture. I am not talking about some fifteen minutes in between a ninety-nine-cent heart attack and your cell phone going off. That is a sure-fire way to get indigestion and heart burn; that is a sure-fire way to get spiritual indigestion and to let your heart grow cold instead of burning with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Fifteen minutes of Bible reading in between your Hardee’s and your heart burn is better than nothing, just as Hardee’s is better than no lunch at all. But we pray today, “Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them”. “Hear them”, where? – In the church. “Read them”, to whom? – Your children, parents, friends, family, “Mark them”, with what? – A highlighter, pen, pencil, with your mind. “Learn them”, by what? – Memorization. And inwardly digest them, not “indigest” them.

           This happens by having your whole day ordered properly. Not that you “find” time for reading Scripture but so that you find time to do everything else, all the relatively unimportant stuff. It may not be a nine-to-five kind of world anymore and that may be an excuse not to be using your kitchens and to be eating out more. It is no excuse to be eating over your Bibles. Wives rarely are at home to make dinner and clean the house all day, but we don’t consider that an excuse to have a dirty house. And needing to clean the house in a two-income world is no excuse for not cleaning out our souls with Scripture. You may have to rush through dinner to make it to an evening activity. That is no excuse to be rushing through your Bibles. You shouldn’t need to find time. I shouldn’t need to find time. That is a first sign that Satan is winning. It is the first sign that the sun, the Son of God, is falling out of your lives. It is the first sign that the demons are mooning you, mocking and scolding you. It is the first sign that you are walking starry eyed into hell fire instead of Holy Spirit fire.

We cannot, beloved, underestimate the power of the Word of God read and heard. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky, uses his character the Russian Orthodox Fr. Zossima, based on the historic St. Tikhon of Zadonsk to elucidate this point. He says, “What a book the Bible is, what a miracle, what strength is given with it to man. It is like a mould cast of the world and man and human nature, everything is there, and a law for everything for all the ages. And what mysteries are solved and revealed…” He says of it read at home: “precious memories remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious. With my memories of home I count, too, my memories of the Bible, which, child as I was, I was very eager to read at home.” Of hearing it read in the church he says, “But even before I learned to read, I remember first being moved to devotional feeling at eight years old. My mother took me alone to mass…. It was a fine day, and I remember to-day, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God’s word in my heart. A youth came out into the middle of the church carrying a big book, so large that at the time I fancied he could scarcely carry it. He laid it on the reading desk, opened it, and began reading, and suddenly for the first time I understood something read in the church of God.” He went on to lament that his brother priests did not gather the children of the parish together weekly and read the Scriptures to them.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, that great founder of Cistercian monasteries, saw that the Holy Scriptures had lost their centrality in the daily lives of the Benedictines and sought to restore its centrality through the establishment of Cistercian monasteries. He said of Advent. Venit: Ad homines. He comes to men. Venit: in homines. He comes in men. Venit: contra homines. He comes against men. Venit: Ad homines. He has come to men. He has left a record of it in his Word. He will come again to men, in power and great glory. Venit: in homines. He comes in men, through inward digestion of his Word and Sacrament. And if he comes again and finds nothing in you worthy of himself, then Venit: contra homines – he comes against you, as is written in Leviticus, “I will set my face against you.”

It is no longer a nine-to-five world. As spiritual children, I want you eating right. I want you exercising. I want you involved in the community. I want you to find time for recreation. But one of the great blessings I want for you, I want you reading Scripture. At the expense of all of those things, I would rather you were reading Scripture. Perhaps if we “seek his kingdom first” all the other things will fall into place. During this Advent season, feel blessed, be blessed, but more than feelings, be reading Scripture. The pre-Christmas season is a special time to be with family, to feel holiday cheer, to watch great movies and attend wonderful community events. The pre-Christmas season is also a special time to be stressed out, outside your budget, busting at the seams from too much food, festively leaving your debit card places. Before you go make yourself feel better with some hot chocolate or hot toddy; before you reach for your antacid or aspirin; reach for your Bible. Try that next to a cozy fire for a good hour or so, and then see how your Advent season starts to go. “Behold the hour at hand” to be reading Scripture.

Let us pray. “O Lord Jesus Christ, God of God, and Light of Light, guide us by Thy Holy Spirit to an ever-increasing knowledge of Thee.”[2] “Lord God, if in this I have said anything that is Thine, Thine own will recognize it. If I have said anything which is mine, or contrary to the Catholic religion, do Thou and Thine forgive it. . . . and bring us all to that Vision glorious where we can no longer err, but only adore, . . .”[3] The Father, etc. Amen.

[1] Blickling Homily X, The End of the World.

[2] Fr. Francis J. Hall, 1915.

[3] St. Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 15:51.

Sunday next Before Advent 2020

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous branch . . .”

As I contemplate the lessons today, I remembered two fascinating stories. They both come from the English gardening show that my wife has been watching recently. She says that it comforts her, and I can certainly understand that, now at this time as wave after wave of disturbing news reaches us and seems to shoot up unexpectedly from the earth. Such times as we see today are definitely prophesied by Christ, “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity . . .” He saw it coming. Nevertheless, unchanging and ever-changing and not concerned with the winds of change, the flowers keep sprouting and blooming. This too should signal to us that Christ is still in control.

          The first story I shall tell is of a certain variety of Cherry Blossom from Japan that went practically extinct in Japan. In the midst of volcanic explosions and tsunamis, much was lost and Japan, looking for a sign of unity and strength, planted one particular variety of Cherry to the exclusion of others. Especially when they beat Russia in the early part of the last century, they used it as a sign of national victory. Unfortunately, the very diverse varieties produced by different feudal lords in their private gardens were forgotten as this unifying principle of the fascist Divine Emperor overshadowed the previous feudalism of warring clans and unswerving loyalty to the Daimyo, the lord. The Cherry Blossom, as I’m sure you’re aware, is hailed as the philosophical symbol of the Samurai, ready to live in splendor and write poems about beauty but ready also to die at a moment’s notice, just as the Cherry Blossom falls beautifully to blanket the lawn, itself the picture of blood spilled in battle. In the midst of industrialization and commercialization of a country projected forward by nationalism, like swine over a cliff, projected ferociously towards world war, certain varieties of the Cherry Blossom were lost to the Island and found, like bread cast upon the water, on another Island far away, indeed, in Britain because of a fellow by the name of Charles Collingwood. The “Great White Cherry” he brought back from his Honeymoon, growing it in a potato on his voyage home in 1907, and it was grown for many years in England and has now been reintroduced successfully in Japan.

          The second story that I shall tell you is also about British adventurism, this time in the realm of Egyptology and horticulture together. In this story, which many say is more apocryphal than the one about cherry blossoms, Howard Carter finding the lost tomb of King Tut also found a specific variety of purple peas that had been preserved, buried in the arid desert for centuries. Remarkably, when reintroduced to soil, they sprang up and blossomed and are now grown quite freely. Far from giving us a curse, we received a blessing in that tomb, an extinct variety of peas now brought back to life!

          These two stories are helpful in showing us the relevance of our Scripture passage from Jeremiah and our collect today. This shoot of Jesse, this “righteous branch” is what we awaited for centuries and await again in the Messiah and King of kings’ second return. “The Lord liveth” – let us pause there and take those words in – “The Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed” – the what? – “the seed of the house of Israel out of the north-country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.” They speak to the way in which our God can take a seed and make it last a long time and then bear fruit from one place to another, even after the interim of many decades or centuries. These stories also – with a stretch – elucidate our Collect today. “Stir up” – we must stir up the soil, let the air in, let the nutrients breathe, “Stir up, we beseech thee, the wills of thy faithful people”. For what purpose? To bring forth the fruit of good works. Fruit comes from seed of course.

          All of this has to happen in God’s time not our own. It is the difference in the Greek between Kairos and Cronos. Cronus is time as it marches on, unstoppable and unyielding. It is related to words like chronological and chronic. Kairos is in the “fulness of time,” in effect in God’s time. Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways. It increases his glory 1) because it increases our patience and makes us holy and 2) because we bless him for the miraculous when we see these fabulous stories unfold in our age or hear about them in another age. It is a “Kairotic Moment,” or as we call it “a God thing.”

          Despite everything happening in God’s time, we are still called to holiness now, even if the fruit of it is still a long way off. St. Aelfric the Anglo-Saxon preacher said this:

“Every good tree worketh good fruits, and an evil tree worketh evil fruits.” By these words the Lord meant not those trees which grow in an orchard . . . but . . . rational men, who have understanding, and work by their own will, either good or evil. Good is the tree that brings forth good fruit, evil is that which stands barren, worse is that which bears evil fruit; and the man is praiseworthy who busies himself with good works, and sets example to others; he is not praiseworthy who lives useless; he is pernicious and doubly dead, as the apostle said, who is barren in goodness, and in evil ever growing and fruit-bearing.”[1]

We cannot stand by and say that, since the days are evil, we should not be expected to work good. It is not enough to say that, since the days are evil, we should hold off from doing anything at all since it’s a waste of time or not the right time to expend our energies or because nothing will bear fruit in an evil time. Avoiding good works is not stirring up the gift that is in you, from the seed of the Holy One, as seed that was planted by Baptism. It’s all God’s time not our time.  

          It also does not mean, beloved, that we stand alone. We might say, how am I to bear good fruits in such an evil time? We look for resources. We don’t stand alone, and we are not expected to work alone. There might be a resource somewhere to the north, or south, or east or west, hidden on an island, or maybe back in some book somewhere. Christ can bring that resource to us if we pray for help. We have more than two thousand years of resources, seeds and tools, to assist us in good works. We stand with all our fellow Christians who have received the good seed of Christ. We might find a blooming variety of the Wisdom of God, some nugget, hidden somewhere. We might find a blossom, some jewel, that can help us to make things a little better in this church or in someone’s life. We really just have to ask ourselves “do we want it?” God will help us if we really do want it. St. John of Kronstadt says this, “God’s Wisdom, Mercy, and Omnipotence may be observed above all in the fact that the Lord places each of us in such a position, that if we wish we can bring to God the fruits of good works, and save ourselves and others. . . .”[2] The same Father John also said this, remember it well: “I am morally nothing without the Lord. I have really not one true thought or good feeling, and can do no good works . . . . The Lord is the accomplishment of everything good that I think, feel, and do. O, how boundlessly wide is the Lord’s grace acting in me!”[3] Let us pray for help in doing good works; Let us pray.

Let the power of the Father shepherd [us], the wisdom of the Son enlighten [us], the operation of the Spirit quicken [us], Preserve [our] souls, stablish [our bodies], upraise [our senses], direct [our conversations], compose [our manners], [and] bless [our] actions. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.[4]

Now unto Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us; unto him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen

[1] Aelfric’s Sermons, edited and translated by Benjamin Thorpe, The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.

[2] John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, 223.

[3] Ibid, 284.

[4] Adapted from Bishop Andrewes’ Preces Privatae (London: Methuen, 1949), 103.

Trinity 23, 2020 – Dueling Mouths, Dueling Vows

“Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” James 3:10

St. Paul this Sunday points us to two very basic uses of our mouths, either a cursing or a blessing. What are these two uses? Very basic. One is to eat and the other is to speak. One might say we breathe through our mouths, sometimes, that’s true. But eating and speaking makes sense. The first one is pointed to when St. Paul says, “be ye followers of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.” There’s a great old Mel Brooks joke where, in Robin Hood Men in Tights, the Sheriff of Rottingham says to some folks as he trots off in the direction of the castle, “Walk this way.” He brushes his hair back vainly and arrogantly and starts to strut in an exaggerated manner towards the castle. All the folks following him, taking him literally, brush their hair back similarly and follow him in an overexaggerated manner. This isn’t, of course, what St. Paul is speaking about. He is talking about right teaching and right doing. He teaches certain things and we are to follow those things and teach the same. He does certain things and we are to follow in doing those same things. Part of it has to do with “walking” as in the things we do with our body, but also, implicitly with what we confess with our lips and believe in our hearts – it has partly to do with the use of our mouths.

          St. Paul points to another matter, mentioning some particular evil known as the god of the belly. Who is this god of the belly? Is it Zeus or Baal or Mammon? No, it is all gods and none. It is the spirit of idolatry or lusting after or minding “earthly things.” Many of these things are spoken of with the lips, obsessively, some of them are eaten. Others we simply hold our breaths with excitement when we think of them. But idolatry usually involves three things, the eyes, the mind, and the mouth. So St. John says in his first Epistle General, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof . . .” (2:16-17). The lust of the flesh often involves the mouth, the lust of the eyes, the eyes, and the pride of life, the mind. Let us pray a moment, asking God to deliver us from such evils.

O my Lord Jesus! Enlighten us today, that we may direct the path of our Christian life towards the heavenly Jerusalem, where we shall be forever; having all our delights and desires in thee as thou hast in us; grant us to have a longing for thee, and to keep thee, the bread of life, as the companion of our path. Preserve us, O thou unchangeable and everlasting God! From the fickleness of the children of this world, that we may not become equal to them in hypocrisy, but remain faithful to our calling in godliness, and decrease in vice and increase in virtue, so that we may faithfully serve thee, our Lord, despise earthly things, be exalted in thee, feel thy grace and protection, and forever be grateful unto thee, for Christ’s sake. Amen.[1]

There is another way in which St. Pa    ul points to the mouth in his Epistle to us today: That is the notion of “our citizenship is in heaven.” Citizenship can also be understood, and is understood in other translations, as “conversation.” If you think about that, it makes sense, because what is a major feature of society but that we are in conversation with one another, being fellow citizens of this great Republic together. A party spirit is exactly that, a place where people get together and talk. Some are invited and others are not and certainly, especially at this time during the continued polarization in America, as alternate social media, like Parler and MeWe, syphons off many from Facebook and Twitter, we see how we have a “party” so to speak, when we converse with one another, with those who agree with us, and not so much with those who disagree with us.

          This party spirit becomes apparent to us in immediately upon hearing the Gospel appointed for us today. “Then went the Pharisees” (a party) “and took counsel” (they talked) how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians” (another party) . . . So right there we know that these partisans with their party spirit, and their god being their bellies, sought to entangle Jesus. Now certainly we wonder, how is their god their bellies on this occasion? Let’s back up. What did we consider from 1 John? The lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, right? We in fact can pin all three of these on the Pharisees pretty rapidly if we think about why they envied Jesus. First, the lust of the flesh: they sought their own disciples who would follow their own example, their own vain traditions, their rabbinic glosses and interpretations of the Law of Moses, in short, disciples of their own opinions. Against such a party spirit, Jesus said not to call others teacher, not to call others rabbi (Matt. 23:8, consult further James 3:1). This robbed the Pharisees of what they lusted after, disciples. Then the lust of the eyes: Elsewhere it says “And he taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him” (Luke 19:47) – they looked with their eyes for ways to entangle Him and shed the Innocent blood. All of this why, because of their “Pride of Life,” their station in life, their learning, their ambition.

          The final way that we can see the mouth at work here is in Jesus’ own confession of the Truth of the matter. “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?” We can imagine the authority, the divine authority, that must have resonated and reverberated in that Blessed and Uncorrupted and Incorruptible Mouth, “Shew me the tribute money.” And what does He tell them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” What was rendered to Caesar? That which was vowed with the lips, due honor and, what we used to call, homage and fealty – basically what we say when we say the Pledge of Allegiance. What is God’s? Everything. Not everything else, just everything. Yet there is room in what we owe to God, what we have vowed to Him with our lips, for all of the proper relationships between family and friends, within community and nation. Sometimes we feel as if there’s a choice, that we have to make a choice between God and Country, but we don’t. God is big enough to show us the way. Sir Cecil Spring-Rice wrote a great hymn about this and you’ll see it often sung at Westminster Abbey on State Occasions – “I vow to Thee.”

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

God spoke by Moses and said, “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deut. 30:19). Sometimes we think, can I really do this? Can I choose a path between God and Country that will leave me with integrity? Look how big a curse might fall on me if I fail! But God also said by his prophet Micah, “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Mic. 6:8) May God show you the way, this day and evermore. Amen.  

 

[1] Adapted from Habermann’s Prayers, 109-10.

Trinity 22, 2020 – Equipping the Saints, Ephesians 4:12

“For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:12

          Today is Trinity 22, but also within the Octave of All Saints. Because of this let’s consider the text above. What is it to be perfected as a saint, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ? This verse can be compared with value to the one we just heard from Philippians, Paul remembering the Philippian saints in prayer, doing so with joy, remembering the fellowship he had with them, “being confident in this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” What is it that God shall perform? The perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, and the edifying of the whole body of Christ. That’s certainly part of it.

Usually the number one thing that folks want to know about when a new rector comes to town is, what’s he going to do to grow the parish? Even in 1896 the new Rector of Trinity, New Haven, Connecticut preached, “. . . there are two ways of receiving a new rector on the part of a parish. One method is for the people simply to look on and see what happens, somewhat as people look at a menagerie. If the Rector pleases, the spectators are interested; if he does odd things, the spectators are amused or displeased, according to their character; if the Rector is positively displeasing, the spectators drop away. The show is a failure. That is one way of receiving a new Rector. The other way is for Rector and people to recognize that neither he nor they can act apart, and that none of his people can be mere spectators even if they wish to be, because Christ, whose Name they all bear, holds them responsible for the results.” I hear the same sentiment often from colleagues today. I don’t agree and I don’t quite disagree. I’d like to clarify. 

The scheme today is often to “partner” with the congregation in such a way so that practically everybody is equipped to do ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Many modern biblical Anglicans have been influenced by the likes of Anglican evangelical John Stott who said, “There is immense value in the team concept . . . because then we can capitalize one another’s strengths and supplement one another’s weaknesses.” (So far so good!) But then he continues, “Moreover, gifted lay people should be encouraged to join the team, and exercise their ministry in a voluntary capacity according to their gifts. One of these is preaching, and the Church needs many more lay preachers” (Between Two Worlds 121). There, unfortunately, Stott, in my estimation, has missed the mark.

Some of this confusion has to do with the emphasis placed in modern translations. Note that the English Standard Version (one of the better ones) reads, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” while the King James says, “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” The subtlety of difference is clear enough. The modern translations presume that practically everybody will be doing some sort of ministry more or less in line with a Protestant concept of the “Priesthood of all believers.” Ephesians 4: 12 should rather be carefully read in light of the Office of Instruction in the Book of Common Prayer, “My bounden duty is to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.” In fact, Stott comes a bit closer the mark, in my estimation, when he says “all church members have a responsibility to let Christ’s Word dwell richly within them so that they may ‘teach and admonish one another in all wisdom’ (Col. 3:16)” (119).

Of course, facilitating of “volunteers” is something of the task of a priest; of course, there are valuable gifts and insights that the congregation has as baptized and confirmed individuals, complete with education and knowledge and skills of the world. That the direction of the congregation is not somehow influenced by this “team” of lay people is to miss the uniqueness of a particular church and how it can build a symbiotic energy with and positive outreach in the local community. The discussion sort of hinges, however, on what is meant by “Ministry”. What is “ministry” and what is “The Ministry” and how much have we garbled up the two in our reading of Ephesians 4? Ministry, generically speaking, is to “work and pray and give” (not just monetarily!) “for the spread of his kingdom.” The Ministry is a duly ordained, apostolic and divine mandate, which falls on those men properly educated and trained for that particular duty, tried, tested, called and sent to particular congregations in order to feed them and lead them or as Stott says, a “call and commissioning of specialists . . .” (119).

The first task of such a spiritual leader isn’t to lead the congregation to church growth, not because church growth is not important, but because the church isn’t a business that either grows or dies, that either rises or falls in stock price. The Church is the Body of Christ against which the Gates of Hell shall not prevail! We need to have faith and believe that fact (for Jesus said it!), or else our perspective as to where and how the Church should grow will also be garbled. The first leadership skill that a spiritual leader should have is to lead the flock into green pastures and still waters (Psalm 23), because he is a shepherd after all, not a business consultant. That being said, sheep, when fed, tend to grow. That’s just nature taking course. They tend to become larger as a flock. Sometimes I think the best thing we can show people to understand “Church Growth” and the role of a priest is the wonderful BBC television series All Creatures Great and Small. Veterinary medicine is one of the best analogies out there for pastoral care as God sees it.

We, as Americans, often want to get involved and do our “bit”. Many Americans pastors have learned over the years that helping the laity to get involved is to do them great good spiritually. They’ve just settled into the role of facilitating opportunities for laity to “serve”. That attitude has developed a sort of pastor-as-volunteer-coordinator tradition over the last century. That’s, of course, a good thing, but not the best thing. Not everybody is from the “greatest generation,” eager to “do their bit.” And yet, those who need to be served (instead of to serve), they too, must be fed and led to Jesus.

The priest, as visitor-in-the-place-of-Christ, is an older model, and still holds value for many. In my first parish, I was doing door-to-door evangelism and was getting a few friendly remarks but mostly cold shoulders. I was wearing a traditional collar and long frock coat. I am not sure what some thought as I trapesed thru their neighborhood as if it was Halloween. That was until I got up to a door that will ever live in my memory. A man in his mid-sixties opened it and, seeing the collar, said without hesitation, “come in.” I came into the living room to find himself, his wife, daughter and son-in-law. He beckoned me to sit down. In conversation with the daughter and son-in-law who spoke English well, I gathered that this daughter and her parents were Romanian Orthodox and had been living in the town for many years. This was the first time a priest had been in their home. Their parish was in New Jersey many miles away. The son-in-law was an American Protestant with no understanding of the Orthodox church he had married into. We talked for some time. Eventually, I asked them to bring out their icons. We prayed together. As I looked over at the couch, the father of the family, hardly able to speak English, was weeping. A priest was in his home! Here there was no conversation about all the programs in our church, all the ways that they could “get involved” if they joined our church; there was just priest and people, and Jesus too was there.

I moved on to another congregation just a few months later. The obvious question that arises in our minds might be, “did they join the church?” Did it “work”? But to ask that question is to look upon the congregation as a business, and people as means to an end, not as ends in themselves; not as the Body of Christ filled with souls needing care, both inside the church building and outside it. The Body of Christ was strengthened that day; souls were encouraged in their Faith that Jesus was real and cared for them, sending them a priest when and where he was needed. That congregation where I ministered thirteen years ago is still there too, alive and kicking, with a new young priest, who has a nice young family. They have moved into the vicarage at the end of the block, and the congregation is still reaching out with the presence of Jesus into the town around them. Let us pray.

O Lord, we beseech Thee to pour Thy heavenly blessing on all those who are engaged in doing and furthering good works in Thy holy Church; prosper their undertakings, grant them perseverance therein, and stimulate others by their example to like zeal in Thy service. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Priest’s Prayer Book)

All Saints, 2020 – “Icons of our Nation”

My son received this from his school for Halloween,

I’m like a Christian pumpkin

With a smile upon my face;

Planted by the Lord above

And growing in His grace.

 

He scooped out all the mush

And washed away the dirt.

He took away

The seeds of doubt

And other things that hurt.

 

He carved my eyes and mouth

And placed his light in me.

I’m like the Christian pumpkin

Shining for the world to see.

This nicely describes a Christian. It follows well the Anglican emphasis on saints as “choice vessels of . . . grace, and the lights of the world in their several generations,” as the first Book of Common Prayer prays. Mattathias Maccabee, not a Scottish guy but an Old Testament one, referred to this notion on his deathbed in his final charge to the living, “Now therefore, my sons, be ye zealous for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of your fathers. Call to remembrance what acts our fathers did in their time; so shall ye receive great honour and an everlasting name.”[1] Mattathias goes on to recollect and to commemorate the examples of Abraham, Joseph, Phineas, Joshua, Caleb, David, Elijah, the three boys in the fiery furnace and Daniel. In the Book of Hebrews, in a passage reminiscent of what is in the First Book of Maccabees, the writer says, “the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued Kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”[2]

          These passages of Scripture point to the Anglican emphasis on example. We pray on page 336, “most humbly beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow the example of their steadfastness in thy faith, and obedience to thy holy commandments, that at the day of the general Resurrection, we, with all those who are of the mystical body of thy Son, may be set at his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you . . .” So we pray and so we believe.

          This is not to reject the imperfections of the Saints. That is one beautiful thing about Scripture, that it does not whitewash the Saints. More clearly stating this, we pray in our prayer book “give us grace so to follow their good examples” – not their bad ones. It is not as though we can’t say anything bad about them because the Pope canonized some of them or simply because they are in the Bible. The Bible clearly shows us that they were imperfect. The point is that they are “choice vessels” through whom God showed His light, like stained glass windows, pointing us to them, because they point us to Christ.

          Stained Glass windows? Isn’t that a denial of the second commandment, “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image”? That question gets me to my next point. There was a time, in the 8th century, when Islam threatened the East and West and Paganism was on the rise in the borderlands, when it seemed that Icons, Images of the Saints, had gotten a bit out of hand. At the Council of Hieria, in 754, the Byzantine Emperor outlawed Icons. This was overturned 33 years later at what is now considered the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The important statement coming forth from thence is as follows, “Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype.” What is it that is commemorated and loved in their prototype? It is the Grace of God exhibited in the lives of these good examples, and in their good examples only, not in their bad ones.

          We today are faced with a form of iconoclasm. Once again, the Church is called to careful critique of culture. Shall we, like the Iconoclasts of Old, like the Puritans under Cromwell, tear down the icons of our nation, or shall we build up our nation with the good examples of our forefathers? Failing to commemorate the Saints, as Mattathias told his sons to do in the First Book of Maccabees, as the Book of Hebrews does, is to violate another commandment – “Honour thy father and thy mother, That thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” No man but Jesus Christ is perfect, and no parent is perfect, but a parent is to be honoured and a forebear is to be honoured; and a saint is for this reason to be venerated. Icons, Stained Glass, Statues are not raising up images to ourselves for our own lusts and appetites, and to worship ourselves, but in conformity with the commandment to “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”

Some of you know that I have been watching the BBC series, The Last Kingdom, and Alfred the Great is a major character in it. And you might recall that I shared this with you some weeks ago: “Alfred was perhaps more admired than venerated. But as we look back over more than a thousand years to his death and receive the precious gifts which God gave us through him, we have come to need a day on which to honour him and praise God for him, and pray for a continuance of his gifts among us.”[3] What gifts, beloved? Do our young people today know that we trace to Alfred the Great and those like him notions of equality under the law, notions of one being innocent until proven guilty, notions of being tried by 12 peers, rather than by arbitrary or elevated persons who have no notion what our daily lives are like? Do they know that not only were these notions bequeathed to us in these United States, but throughout the British Empire? No. They probably only know that some forefathers were slaveowners, denying to others the rights they believed they were naturally endowed with due to the colour of their white skins. No. They probably only associate the British Empire with the evils so-called of Imperialism.  

          Certainly, at some point in our life, we learn about the imperfections of our parents, but I believe all are agreed that it should be later rather than earlier. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, seeing the rising darkness in Nazi Germany, wrote an essay, asking “What it is to tell the truth.” In it he gives the example of a schoolteacher, where the school is an appendage of the State, making a child stand up in class and asking that child, “Is your father a drunk”? He goes on to identify some ethical considerations out of that example, but I ask you, are you not outraged by such a question? Is not such a question the sign of an abusive and totalitarian, indeed, a tyrannical teacher? And if such a teacher does so with the authority of the state, then that state too is abusive and tyrannical. Yet when we teach our children to know only the evil of our forefathers in our education system, we encourage them to violate a Commandment, a Commandment that robs them of the promise to stay “long in the land which the Lord [their] God gives [to them]” just as surely as does a teacher who asks a child to dishonor a father, by admitting, before the whole class that, in fact, “Daddy is a drunk.”

          Now surely, adulthood and true maturity cannot be reached until we make peace with the fact that our parents are not perfect and forgive them for this; and thank God that they were, by God’s grace, not worse than they in fact were. And surely, no Nation has done anything but devolve from maturity and adulthood, surely, no Nation can long endure, which has made war on its forebears for their imperfections, rather than loving them for the goodness which made them great. Surely, nothing but the most radical form of pride can claim that we, in our generation, have reached a level of perfection so eminent that it can, with impunity, rashly tear down the images of its history. Surely, nothing but worship of ourselves, the true spirit of Idolatry, can reign in such hearts. During the English Civil War, a commentator wrote on the differences between Cavaliers and Roundheads, that the sins of the Cavalier were those of men, dice, drink and women, while the sins of the army of Cromwell, who smashed statues and broke stained glass windows, were the sins of demons, spiritual pride and sedition.

          If we as a nation will long endure, we must, beloved, teach to venerate goodness in our ancestors before we teach about their imperfections. We must teach our youth to venerate parents, rather than allowing the State to drive a wedge between children and parents. We must teach our youth to venerate their past, rather than drive a wedge between their past and their future. Only once that veneration has formed character, built by the good examples of our past, can we show them that even their heroes have flaws, and the virtuous have vices. In so doing, we have not lied to them. We have helped them to understand, in the right way and at the right time, that the cause all goodness in imperfect human beings is God’s Grace, and the prototype of every good man is Jesus Christ Himself. Let us pray.   

O God of the Covenant, who dost choose thine elect out of every nation, and dost shew forth thy glory in their lives: Grant, we pray thee, that following the example of thy servants, we may be fruitful in good works to the praise of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[4]

[1] 1 Macc. 2: 50-51.

[2] Heb. 11: 32-34.

[3] Black Letter Saints Days, 37.

[4] Adapted from the Scottish Prayer Book, 1929

 

Christ the King, 2020 – “A Tale of Two Princes”

There is the apocryphal story of King Cnut and the Tide. His flattering courtiers tell him that he can command the waves and the tide. King Cnut  no doubt remembering the Holy Scriptures and the Sovereign Power of God, shows his nobility that he isn’t everything they’ve made him out to be and gets his feet wet as a result. He simply sits where the tide is coming in and shows them that he doesn’t have the power to stop the wind and the waves. That’s God’s power alone and this we know from the Bible. The Book of Job relates God saying concerning the waves, the sea and the tide, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.” It is Christ Who calms the wind and the waves when they rise up in storm and tempest. Did you know that King Cnut, who was the Danish King of England and Scandinavia, put together, with the help of St. Wulfstan, the most comprehensive set of laws for the Anglo-Saxons and for the Danes alike? It acknowledges God as the head of the nation. Hear this: “If any be so bold, clerk or lay, Dane or English, to go against God’s law and against my royal authority, or against secular law, and be unwilling to make amends, and to alter according to my bishops’ teaching, then I pray . . . my earl, and also command him, that he bend that unrighteous one to right if he can.” Acknowledging Christ as King is a significant part of the role of any Christian monarch or ruler. Today, in our churches, Christ the King is celebrated. For others, in other liturgical churches, Reformation Sunday is celebrated, being the week just around the time when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, beginning the Reformation. Christ the King was designed by the Roman church in 1925 to oppose growing nationalism and secularism and it is, indeed, a very fine feast – but the two are not opposed to each other.

          Christ is the King of the nations. The Reformation of the Church was led by theologians and university professors, but also very much by godly (though imperfect) Kings and Princes. We spend a lot of time studying perhaps Martin Luther or Henry VIII, but seldom look at the whole scene as it was playing out in the 15th and early 16th centuries. It was a Prince, the Elector of Saxony, who defended Martin Luther. Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy is in 1534 and his Ten Articles of doctrine are issued in 1536. In the same year Christian III of Denmark, Norway, and Iceland marched into Copenhagen and in six days established the Reformation. In 1536, the Synod of Upsala, Sweden, abolished Roman Canon Law. This was fueled when the King of Sweden appointed an Archbishop without papal confirmation in 1530.

But being stuck between the Pope and the threat of Islam was much of the fuel for the Reformation as well. Reaching back into the 15th century, two princeps, princes, of Romania, Vlad Tepes and Stephen the Great, were cousins and were both patriots loyal to their homeland, defending their country against political pressures and invasions. The Romanian people are loyal to the Eastern Orthodox Faith. Many German Saxon mercenaries settled there, loyal to Roman Catholicism. There is, in fact, later a Transylvanian Lutheran Church because of all the Saxons in that area. The Orthodox Church in the 15th century needed help from the West against the Muslims and so had bandaged up their relationship with the Pope of Rome, at least the politicians had and the politicking bishops had. But the local people and the monks, they were suspicious of this peace between Rome and Constantinople. They knew that it was the concoction of politicians, to try to save their precious Eastern Christendom from the Turks, but the cockeyed concoction of politicians nonetheless. So for these two princes, Vlad and Stephen, the ecclesiastical-political scene was complex indeed.

          Vlad, like his father, was Roman Catholic and was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, a semi-secret fraternal society. In fact, Dracula means “little Dragon” because his father was “Dracul,” the big dragon. It was a secret society of nobles dedicated to seeing that the Bishop of Rome’s interests were promoted within the European courts. Vlad later became Romanian Orthodox when he was called to rule Wallachia. He then switched back to Roman Catholicism, because it was advantageous to his protector and captor, the king of Hungary, into whose family Vlad eventually married.

          Again, these two had a lot in common. Both had illegitimate children. Both killed in battle. Both impaled people. Both fought Hungary and each other. Both switched sides and allies. Both built churches and monasteries. Both fought for the Church. Interestingly enough, because of the advice of his spiritual father, St. Daniel the Hermit of Voronet, St. Stephen of Moldavia built a monastery every time he won a victory. He did this 44 times! And only lost two battles!

          Stephen remained loyal to the Orthodox Faith his whole life, but defended all of Christendom. When Pope Sixtus IV called for yet another crusade, St. Stephen was to follow the lead of the Bishop of Rome, declaring “We are ready to resume the struggle for the defense of Christendom with all the power and heart which Almighty God [has] chosen to invest in us.” And then, at the time, Stephen requested that his cousin, Vlad, who had been a political prisoner of Hungary, be allowed to return to Wallachia to lead up the crusade from there, especially against Vlad’s own brother, Radu the Handsome, who was moving to rule Wallachia as the Sultan’s puppet ruler. Incidentally, invasions of the Ottoman Empire into Europe and raids on her coasts played heavily into politics during the Reformation as well.

          At the end of his life, Vlad, who had often changed his loyalty in favor of the Roman Church, was to be denounced as a sick and tyrannical prince by that very Church, despite his heroic and almost miraculous defeat of the Sultan. While, on the other hand, St. Stephen, remaining loyal to the Orthodox Faith his whole life, was to be named by the Pope, an “Athlete of Christ” and “Defender of the Faith.” The only one, besides an Albanian freedom fighter, to be so named in the fifteenth century – irony indeed.  (Henry VIII too was named Defender of the Faith in 1521 by a Bishop of Rome, and he had been involved in schemes with the Pope in 1518 for another Crusade against the Ottomans.)

          Unfortunately, shortly after his bittersweet return to power, like some sick, tragic, celebrity death, Vlad the Impaler, a national hero, was found by some monks decapitated in a swamp near the island monastery where he was probably buried. Even Vlad’s burial site is a matter for speculation, to the glee of Vampire enthusiasts. The differences continue: Vlad the Impaler only ruled six years between exiles. He was a political prisoner of the Sultan as a child. He watched his younger brother, Radu the Handsome, receive molestation and abuse. He became estranged from this brother, who eventually became a competitor for the princedom of Wallachia.

          Stephen, on the other hand, was one of the longest ruling in Romanian history, and that was no easy task. Romanian princes ruled, in many respects, like Scandinavian ones, at the pleasure of the landed gentry, the local nobles, known as boyars. This is why Vlad often failed in ruling, because he lost the confidence or was too harsh with his boyars. Stephen too, was occasionally harsh with his nobles, but remained in power, popularly. Both were freedom fighters of a holy land against an unholy invader. Like so many Kings and princes who had a love-hate relationship with the Church and with the Bishop of Rome, they show us what it is to proclaim Christ as King over the Nations and over Christendom.

          Furthermore, it is important to understand that Christ will have His way. Whether with godly rulers or ungodly ones, Christ will be King and will establish His Church, call in His harvest, and set down the ungodly in His good time. He will do so through reformations and revivals, through tumults and wars, with the Bad princes, like Vlad the Impaler, and Good ones, like St. Stephen of Moldavia or King Cnut. Let us pray.

O God, by whose providence thine only-begotten Son was made an High Priest forever, [and King of the Nations,] that in him thy majesty might be glorified, and all men might find salvation: mercifully grant that so many as he hath called to be ministers and stewards of his mysteries [and magistrates and rulers of his justice], may ever be found faithful in their vocation and ministry, [through Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord]. Amen.[1]

[1] Collect of the Eternal High Priest (adapted), Anglican Service Book, 150.

St. Luke’s, 2020 

We celebrate St. Luke today who is described by St. Jerome as “a physician of Antioch, who, as appeareth from his writings, was skilled in the Greek tongue. He was a follower of the Apostle Paul, and his fellow traveler in all his wanderings.” Of course, he wrote the Gospel named after him and the Acts of the Apostles. Jerome says, “He was never married. He lived eighty-four years. He is buried at Constantinople, whither his bones are supposed to have been brought from Achaia . . . together with the relicks of St. Andrew.” Let us pray.

ALMIGHTY God, who calledst Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please thee that, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed. Through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The priest of God, in various liturgies and traditions of the Church Catholic, begins the holy ministry of Word and Sacrament with prayer, prayer for protection, as he prepares to ascend to the Altar of God. “Lord, put the helmet of salvation upon my head” says the Armenian Orthodox priest “to fight against the powers of the enemy, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to whom is befitting glory, dominion and honor, now and always and unto the ages of ages.” Very similar it is to the prayer of the priest in our tradition. “Put on my feet, O Lord God” says the Syrian Orthodox priest “the footwear of the preparation of the Gospel of peace that I may tread upon the snakes, the scorpions and all the power of the enemy forever.” Notice in today’s Gospel how our Lord says, “Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves.” Notice in today’s Epistle how St. Paul is harried by wolves and how he makes reference to such a wolf: “Alexander the copper-smith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words.” Pastors today can relate.

What then of the 70 disciples when they were sent out two by two? They were told “Go your ways . . . Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes.” So why do the priests wear anything at all? You see, the point of both is the same, trust in God. The disciples trusted in God through prayer without purse or scrip or shoes. The priest trusts in God through prayer, praying as the vestments are put on in order to say mass. St. Paul trusted in God, yet he did not need to discard all material things in order to do so. He says to Timothy, “The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.”

Why are the disciples sent out two by two? There are many reasons. Bishop Jeremy Taylor, the great 17th century Anglican writer of Holy Living and Holy Dying, outlines to his clergy in Ireland, in the counties of Down and Connor, how they should conduct themselves. Concerning visitation of parishioners he says, “In order to these and many other good purposes, every Minister ought frequently to converse with his Parishioners; to go to their houses, but always publickly, with witness, and with prudence, lest what is charitably intended be scandalously reported: and in all your conversation be sure to give good example, and upon all occasions to give good counsel.” That’s the most obvious reason why. Note our text from Timothy. Notice how the Ministry still entails two-by-two in a sense: “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry. And Tychicus have I sent to Ephesus.” They are not doing ministry in a vacuum. So it is even today. Sometimes two pastors go together. Sometimes pastor and his wife. Sometimes priest and deacon, bishop and deacon. When going to England to evangelize, St. Augustine of Canterbury had a fellow named Laurence with him as his companion, who later succeeded him as Bishop in Canterbury. Later on a fellow went to York to evangelize, later known as St. Paulinus of York and there he had James the Deacon to help him. Some of our traditional Anglican bishops today feel that every parish should have a priest and a deaconess, not a female deacon who serves on the altar, but a holy and discreet, godly widow, that the ministry be done with no scandal. I mention that in reference to our lessons today, not in order to push for such in this parish. And it doesn’t mean that the priest can’t go alone, either. But the wisdom of two going is obvious.

Why else might they be sent out two by two? What did Christ say? If you continue to read beyond our Gospel appointed for today you will note that in these villages the ministry team are to “heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.” St. Luke was a doctor, a physician. And physicians heal through medicine and they usually have to get their hands on the people who are sick. Tele-visits during times of great sickness only does so much, I’m sure. But physicians also heal through consultation with one another. King Solomon says, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.” Here as well the disciples begin to take the role not only of elders in Israel (of which there were originally 70 under Moses) who judged and excommunicated people from society for uncleanness and sin, but of priests. Why? Notice in our Gospel lesson a few weeks ago, Jesus sent the ten lepers “unto the priests”. Why “unto the priests” instead of just to a single priest? First, because priests declare that healing has taken place and that the person may be reincorporated into society, and, two, because by “two or three witnesses ever word may be established” (Matt. 18:16). Two or three witnesses today has the force of law as well.

How did they heal? Presumably by laying on of hands in prayer. How were the sick healed? By Faith and Repentance. The same is necessary for healing through the Ministry of the Word and of the Sacraments in today’s dispensation of God’s grace. Bishop Taylor in a catechism that he wrote for young people asks the question, “What is the Covenant which Jesus Christ our Mediator hath made between God and us? Answer: That God will write his Laws in our hearts, and will pardon us, and defend us, and raise us up again at the last day, and give us an inheritance in his Kingdome.” He asks the question, “To what Conditions hath he bound us on our part? Ans. Faith, and Repentance.” He then makes a distinction between a Covenant of Faith and a Covenant of Repentance. “What is the Covenant of Faith?” He outlines a few things, basically the tenets of the Apostles’ Creed. “What is the Covenant of Repentance?” “We promise to leave all our sins, and with a hearty and sincere endevour to give up our will and affections to Christ, and do what he hath commanded (according to our power and weakness.)” That is a pretty tall order. A covenant is a contract, so to speak. And in this contract, Bishop Taylor is saying that there is grace and mercy even if we can’t hold up our end of this contract. “[What] if we fail” he asks “[in] this Promise through infirmity, and commit sins?” Ans. “Still we are within the Covenant of Repentance,” (We’re not thrown out, such is God’s forbearance!) “that is, [we still have] the promise of pardon, and possibility of returning from dead works . . .”  This is good news! God knows that we can’t keep on keeping on alone, that we need help. He ordains certain helpers, certain ministries, both of Word and Sacrament, starting with such as Paul and Luke and Timothy. Bishop Taylor explains: “Jesus Christ hath appointed Ministers and [Ambassadors] of his own to preach his Word to us, to pray for us, to exhort and to reprove, to comfort and instruct, to restore and reconcile us, if we be overtaken in a fault, to visit the sick, to separate the vile from the precious, to administer the Sacraments, and to watch for the good of our souls.” The even better news is that where these men come, Jesus Christ is sure to follow. For it is said, He “sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come.” He sent them to you, despite wolves, because He loves you. Let us pray.

ALMIGHTY Lord, and everlasting God, vouchsafe, we beseech thee, to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that, through thy most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in body and soul; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Trinity 18, 2020 “Finding Winterberries” – Fr. Peter Geromel

“For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time: . . . a time to plant and a time to uproot.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Recently, we have gotten a jolt due to the weather. We have been reminded that winter is coming. “Winter is Coming” as a saying has been quite popularized lately by the TV series Game of Thrones, in which the main civilization, The Seven Kingdoms of the continent of Westeros, await the coming ice age. They know it will come. They do not know when. Hence the folk of the northern area have a saying, “Winter is Coming.” They are always preparing for it. Often the work after Harvest and before Winter has to do with seeds: Pumpkin seeds to be roasted, chestnuts to be collected, berries (with or without seeds) to make preserves, wheat that has been harvested must be ground up and made into grain: Out of this bread is prepared. We stock up on these seeds and other things because “Winter is Coming” and Our Lord had a few things to say about this. Our Lord said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” It is small, but it grows into a huge tree. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour till it was all leavened.” (Matt. 13: 31-33) ‘Till it was all leavened – He did not say, until she wanted it to be leavened. He did not say until part of it was leavened. He said until all of it was leavened. He did not expect for her to say, I have a TV show I want to watch at seven, so the bread needs to rise now on my timetable rather than the bread’s.

Baking bread is an all-day process, or at least it used to be until the advent of the bread maker. Jams and Jellies and Preserves take up a lot of time preparing for winter. But we are going a bit off topic – not a lot off topic, but a bit off topic. What is the topic? St. Paul said in First Corinthians, “I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it; but God made it grow.” He makes all of it grow in His time, just as He makes all the lump to leaven in His own good time. St Paul goes on to say, “It is not the gardeners with their planting and watering who count, but God who makes it grow.” He continues, “Whether they plant or water, they work as a team, though each will get his own pay for his own labour. We are fellow-workers in God’s service, and you are God’s garden.”

We are in a season of sowing seeds – spiritually, I mean, and primarily, I mean. It is a pretty peculiar or pretty unsuccessful farmer who does not know what season it is. In Spring, of course, we plant seeds. In summer, we water and let the heat of the sun do its magic. In Fall, we harvest and in winter we let the ground rest from its labour. Thus speaks the farmer. Fair enough. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus they asked for a sign from heaven. He said that they knew it would be fine weather the following day, because the sky’s red and that it in the morning, if the sky is red, there would be storms. Yet they could not figure out the signs of the times. So these Pharisees and Sadducees were pretty bad farmers – spiritually, I mean. They could interpret the Law. They could be amateur meteorologists, but they couldn’t figure out the signs of the times.

We are always in the business of planting seeds no matter the weather, no matter the future. We who are in the Church are always so acting; it is our modus operandi. St. Paul is quite clear about this in the instance of telling young people that they should not hesitate to get married and bear children despite the fact that persecution is coming. The early Christians knew it was coming. They knew that Christ had said, “Alas for women with child in those days, and for those who have children at the breast! Pray that it may not be winter or a Sabbath when you have to make your escape” (Matt. 24). He was talking about the Tribulation. They knew The tribulation might be coming so they were abstaining from marrying and having children. But Paul was essentially saying: it is always the season for having children, just as it is always the season to be planting the Word of God.

Sometimes you need an incubator, a greenhouse, if you want to plant seeds out of season. That is what the Church is. She is an incubator, a greenhouse. In early spring, while the frost was still crusting the earth, my mother would be in my room early in the morning to tend to the early spring plants. She had a greenhouse built onto one of the windows in my room. Sometimes we need such a feature. Sometimes we need to find a plant that is hardly holding up against the weather and we need to transplant it and let it grow in a greenhouse, away from the early spring frosts. This is evangelism and discipleship.

When planting season comes, we need to pierce the earth, puncture the earth and insert the seeds in the ground. How is this done? Today, it is done with a tractor. Before, it was done with a plow. Before that, it was done with a stick, especially by monks. And we can imagine the great missionaries, the bishops and apostles of the Church, St. Peter and Paul and their companions in the Roman Empire, St. Bartholomew and his companions among the Aramaic speaking peoples, St. Thomas in India, St. Mark among the Egyptians, the great missionaries to the Ethiopians, walking hundreds of miles and, like Johnny Appleseed, spreading the Word as they went. The Crozier is not only a sign of pastoring sheep, hooking them and pulling them one way, prodding them and driving them another. The Crozier is a symbol of this act of puncturing a hole deeply into the earth and inserting the Word of God there.

When summer comes and springtime is over, the seed time is not over. Remember, different things take root at different times. Different things blossom at different times. Different things are harvested at different times. We know when the big harvest arrives, at the end of summer, at the beginning of fall. Yes, but what of all those little harvests that come with so many blessings? What of the watermelon, and berries, the fruit ripening on the trees. Even dandelions have a wonder all their own and medicinal value. Yes, we all want to be in on the big harvests. We all want to see the big take at the end of summer, but these are not the only fruits of the earth to be had. What is the analogy here? The analogy is that there are different sorts of people with whom the Word of God takes root at different times. It may be a small berry here, and medium-sized apple or pear there – a little bitten by the worm, not quite pretty to look at – and this too is a harvest. This too is glorious to God.

Even in winter there are fruits to be gathered. I looked them up. Consider these: Citrus, Citron, Mandarin, sour Orange, Kumquat, Mandarin/Kumquat, Crabapple, Bearberry, Firethorn, Strawberry tree, Barberry, Beautyberry, Clusterberry, Holly, Dwarf pomegranate, Laurustinus, English hawthorn, Washington thorn, and Pomegranate – No wonder the Pomegranate was a sign of eternal life to the ancients, because it harvests in winter. Beloved, if we are going to be good spiritual farmers, we must know what blooms when. We must know the type of people and when to give them the Word of God and when to Water them, how to Water them, and when to Harvest them. This is not just an endeavor to be done when the major harvesting is done, the times of revival and spiritual awakening. This must be done all year round. A different approach for different folks!

Yes, we must look for winter berries if, indeed, winter is coming. This is harder. It requires leaving our warm toasty homes, strapping on our snowshoes and our skies, bundled up carefully against frostbite. It requires searching diligently; striving against the cold and biting wind. It requires us to be more than just good stewards and good farmers. It requires us to be good hunters. Yes, we must look for those winterberries if, indeed, winter is coming. But more importantly, whatever the season is, we need to be poking and prodding around, seeking an opportunity to plant a seed. Let us pray.

O God, Who employest men to plant and water Thy vineyard, whilst Thou alone givest the increase; grant Thy grace unto Thy fellow-workers, that, going on unto perfection in holiness and good works, they may not only save themselves but those who hear them. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Priest’s Prayerbook #136)

Michaelmas – Balaam’s Ass, Fr. Peter Geromel

“Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face. And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:” Numbers 22.

As we are celebrating St. Michael and All Angels today, it is alright to speak a bit about other angel stories in the Bible, including the Old Testament story of Balaam’s talking donkey. It is a story that you will find skipped over in your 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Even in 1928, liberalism had so crept into the Episcopal Church that they did not expect you, educated and sophisticated people that you no doubt are, to believe that a donkey actually spoke and as in Numbers 22: 28 said “’What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?” And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.” Balaam the prophet, you see, had been called upon as the prince Balak’s prophet to curse the people of Israel. Balaam had withstood these commands of men and said that he would only say what the Lord allowed him to speak. Balaam gave in to pressure at one point from the princes of Moab to accompany them. Then “God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him.”

On this occasion the Angel stands with a sword in his hand. When else does an angel stand with a sword in his hand? In the Book of Genesis. There God “drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” To keep the way of the tree of life. To protect us from taking something that would harm us, God put up a flaming sword and angels to keep us from that way that would bring us to harm. Similarly, Psalm 91: 11-12 says “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee in their hands, that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.” There we have the idea of “way” again. The way to the Tree of Life is stopped by angels for our protection. The way for Balaam was kept, similarly, by a sword, to keep him from doing something that would be bad for him. The angels keep us in all of our way, that we hurt not our foot against a stone.

This then points us to an important role for Angels – keeping our way, keeping us from harm. It isn’t just physical harm. Man fears the “boo boo” sometimes more than the boogey man. This is true. We often desire protection for our physical body from our guardian angel but, hey, if I can hazard my soul for a little fun or to vent a little anger or to get a little more rest today because – after all – I work pretty hard, well hopefully God is merciful. God is merciful. But He doesn’t just forgive us for making mistakes and sinning and polluting our souls, He actually keeps our way, the way of our soul, with holy Angels so that we don’t pollute our soul. He made our soul, just as much as our bodies. The soul is precious in His sight. The guardian angel, stands, even with sword in hand, to keep us from polluting our souls. This is an important thing to note in the story of Balaam’s Ass and Balaam’s Guardian Angel. This Guardian Angel assigned to Balaam was actually ready to strike off his head and slay him rather than let Balaam pollute his soul be turning from the path of integrity and give in to peer pressure and princely pressure and curse that which God had already blessed, and the way that God had already blessed, the way of Israel through the wilderness and through the land of Moab. So, for God, the “boo boo” is sometimes better, even unto death, rather than that we should fall into the hands of the boogey man, Satan, who wishes to inflict torment and punishment on us for all eternity.

And why? Why does he we wish to do this? Simply because you were born. That’s all. Satan is so jealous of your body and soul that he wants to destroy it over and over again in a fiery furnace for all eternity. A fellow once said to me, “Why am I stuck between God and the Devil and all I did was be born and I didn’t choose to be born.” Well, you’ve just answered your own question. You were born. That was enough. It isn’t necessary to blame God for placing you between Himself and the Devil. The Devil doesn’t like what God chose to do, to let you be born. The Devil doesn’t like anything God chose to do, because He chose to do it – and that was enough to tick the Devil off. Yet God is merciful. He gives to you guardian angels to keep that fiend far from you, even if it means allowing you to die sooner lest you fall into that fiend’s hands for all eternity. You will get your body back, after all, in the life of the age to come. It’s pretty easy for God to give you another body. But that soul is another matter. That soul is you. The soul is you consistently as the atoms in your body come and go. In a few years not a single atom remains in your body that was there before. You see, science shows us that God does give you a new body, several times in your lifetime, by changing the atoms out with new atoms. God gives you a sign in science that proves that He can give you a new body in the life of the age to come. But that soul is you. Tarnish that, lose that, and you are lost, because that soul is you. There’s no getting you back again once you’re eternally lost.

One of my students in Ethics was telling me about her sense of ethics – it’s a pretty common one today: Everything is permissible unless you are harming someone else. Well, that would be pretty okay, except that there is always somebody that you are harming when you sin. We all hurt ourselves when we sin. We misuse the body that God has given to us and we hurt, tarnish and pollute our souls. Once you realize that, you might start to realize all the ways that you hurt other people every time one of God’s commandments is broken. Two consenting adults doing whatever they want, for example, in the privacy of their own bedroom does not make a right, just as two wrongs don’t make a right. They might believe very strongly that they have not misused each other, that everybody in the room was consenting and freely giving of themselves to one another, but, if it is against a commandment, it definitely hurts your own soul. So even when freely giving of yourself in a consenting but illicit relationship, you are actually helping someone else hurt his or her own soul, and that is just not a very kind thing to do as it happens. It isn’t free love – because love is never free. Love is always a bondage and a sacrifice of self for another, even unto death.

Why do we celebrate the Holy Angels? Because they love us. They didn’t just get made and then choose to love us. They actually engaged in a really real conflict in heaven, fighting against apostate and wicked fellow creatures, in order to be able to help us in our spiritual journey. They freely chose a course of action, fighting with Michael and the blessed company of heaven, that would lead many of them to be linked and bonded to us through thick and thin. What do I mean? Angels have to watch every time you fall into sin. Every time you and I do something in secret that you and I would and should blush to tell someone else, they, who observe the indescribable glories of heaven, are forced (not “forced” they freely choose it) to observe and bear with us through all the mud and mire of mortal life and the sinful strife of the soul. The Holy Angels, once upon at time, chose love, real love, suffering love; they chose to do God’s will and be with us and that’s worth celebrating.  Let us pray.

We humbly beseech thee, O Lord, that the prayers of thy holy Angels may assist us thy servants who offer unto thee this sacrifice of praise: that this our offering may be acceptable in thy sight, and profitable unto us for our salvation. Through… (“Secret” for Michaelmas)

Trinity 15, 2020 – Fr. Peter Geromel

On Monday, we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and, today, we are again brought to that theme, especially in the Epistle lesson from Galatians. The very term “Exaltation” carries with it a paradox because the Cross, as an instrument of torture, is not a means of “exaltation” but an instrument of “humiliation”. Our Collect calls to mind our frailty as men, and frail we are. Is not the answer to our plight then “Exaltation” and not “Humiliation”? This is the secular answer. The thing needed in our frailty, in our vulnerability, in our exposure to the changes and chances of this mortal life, to the possibility of racial injustice, of sexual assault, to prejudice, is not further humiliation but rather exaltation in the form of “empowerment.” If we are oppressed, the answer according to the secular world must be empowerment. If we are vulnerable, it is the same. Many are the preachers who preach not the Cross and Humiliation, but Empowerment, not the Frailty of man but the Exaltation of man. This is not to preach at all because this is not the Christian faith. It should be added that there is probably a morally neutral version of “empowerment”. You have the right to choose a doctor, and you are empowered to do so by those who remind you to get a second opinion. You have a right to choose a good college or a good job, and you are empowered to do so by the laws of the land which outlines equal opportunity. But the whole concept when brought forward as a virtue in itself, let alone when it is brought to a frenzy, means nothing more than a passionate feeling for or against something. Passion even in its moral neutrality still has a dangerous tendency to elevate the worst of human nature – selfishness.

In almost a commentary on our Collect today, Nicholas Arseniev, reflecting on Russian Piety, says, “There is a dilemma here: We are called to be soldiers of God, we are called to virility, courage and activity, to effort and spiritual combat, and yet we are feeble, powerless, and ought not even to dare to enter into the fray on our own resources. How may we resolve this dilemma?” How indeed? His answer – he says, it’s St. Paul’s answer – is prayer and not just prayer, but prayer that leads ultimately to humility. Thus “[w]e are weak, but in Christ we become strong. . . . We are called to be active, but we cannot be active by our own power. For it is He who comes to fight for us and to sustain our efforts. . . . There are the gifts of the Spirit, the grace of perseverance in combat, the virility of the soul, spiritual heroism, the process of sanctification and ascension which begins now and to which we are called now. But all these are gifts, powers which He lends to us and which He can withdraw at any moment.” What Arseniev sees as necessary is humility. He says, “this humility is not a ‘virtue’ that is added, it is the fundamental quality of the holy soul who sees himself in the presence of God, who sees his own littleness and feebleness, and God’s greatness.”[1]

What does this humility, this humility of the Cross look like? Monk Damascene says, “True Christian love is not just a feeling or a pleasant disposition of the soul. It is a self-sacrificing, ceaseless, life-long act of heroism – unto death. It is fiery yet dispassionate, not dependent on anything, not on being loved in return . . . One no longer thinks of receiving something for oneself. One can be spat upon and reviled, and yet in this suffering there is such a deep, profound peace that one finds it impossible to return to the lifeless state one was in before the suffering. One blesses life and all that is around one, and this blessing becomes universal. Such love can only come from God.”[2] How different this is from the world’s sense of “empowerment,” this desire to be lifted up high above others in a selfish justice that claims that you are the wronged party and everyone else is wrong. Holy justice instead vaunts not itself, is not puffed up, and claims that one’s personal sins are the worst sins in the world. The Eastern Orthodox prayer before Holy Communion is a confession that the one about to receive Holy Communion is the worst sinner in the world – “of whom I am chief.” This is the way of the Cross. This is to be humiliated with Him that we might be raised with Him, glorified, exalted.

How similar this Russian theology is to our own ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition. In the Dream of the Rood, one of the earliest pieces of English religious poetry we have, there is a vision of the Cross, the Rood, and in it the visionary sees a simple piece of wood that stands by the Crucified and doesn’t leave Christ before the Sacrifice is complete. The hardwood stands fast. As such, the Cross is likened to a loyal and steadfast retainer, a holy knight, that does not leave his Lord but stands by him in battle, in the spiritual and physical suffering, to the death. Here we can imagine how a retainer stands by his lord in victory or defeat, not just in Anglo-Saxon culture, but in so many great warrior societies – Japan for example. If the lord makes a mistake and leads the earthly soldiers into a battle that can’t be won, they don’t forsake him but stand fast as if they are tied to a pole and cannot retreat. In this poem, in apparent defeat, the Rood stands by the Saviour of the World and by such wins great honor and is thus exalted. Such is the Christian. Andrew Murray, the insightful Presbyterian spiritual writer and missionary said, “Our King is none other than the crucified Jesus. All that we know of Him – His divine power, His abiding presence, His wonderful love – does not teach us to know Him fully unless we are deeply conscious that our King is the crucified Jesus. . . . Christ’s cross is His highest glory. Through it He conquered every enemy and gained His place on the throne of God.”

We carry our cross and we are the crucified if we follow Christ. We follow into apparent defeat, into apparent reproach, into apparent confusion, and into real suffering for as Isaiah says, “every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood . . .” (9:5). One scholar comments on the Dream of the Rood saying, “The Rood and Christ are one in the portrayal of the Passion – they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured. Then, just as with Christ, the Cross is resurrected, and adorned with gold and silver. It is honoured above all trees just as Jesus is honoured above men.”[3] So, you see, the Cross is a type of the Christian. And in the Shield of the Crusader, which when interpreted is “soldier of the Cross”, we can see a symbol of our Christian life. As you leave today, take a look at the heraldry, the crest, of the Anglican Catholic Church on our sign outside. You will see the Cross, the Cross of St. George, and of our English Heritage sure. But you will see the crossed crozier and key in the blue field. Both are symbolic tools for the frailty of man. The crozier is the shepherd’s crook that guides, because we are all frail sheep likely to stray. The key is the key of Church Discipline and absolution, it opens up the kingdom of heaven when we do err and stray like lost sheep. The collect today, in fact, matches the original Epistle lesson for Trinity 15 as it stood in the Sarum Missal. In the middle ages, the earlier part of the same chapter in Galatians was read instead, the part that says, “if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one . . .” – that’s what the Keys of the Kingdom are for. Yet I want you to notice most of all the shape of the shield. It is pointed at the bottom – that’s the “knight’s shield” that we recognize from our cultural heritage. But why is it pointed at the bottom? It was originally pointed at the bottom so that it could be planted into the ground. So that the loyal retainer and shield-bearer could stand firm and stand resolute in the face of oncoming hordes, howling and shouting as if from hell itself, so that the Christian knight could hear the words of Christ as from the mouth of Moses, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you to day: for the [sufferings, the tears, the reproach, the hellions, the hordes of Satan] whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more [in the life of the age to come]” (Exodus 14:13).

[1] Nicholas Arseniev, Russian Piety, 34.

[2] Orthodox Word #75.

[3] Adelhied L. J. Thieme as quoted in Wikipedia, The Dream of the Rood.

Praying practically for Faith, Hope, and Charity with the Litany – Trinity 14, 2020 by Fr. Peter Geromel

We pray today for the increase of Faith, Hope, and Charity. It is all well and good to know that we should have it and that, with it, should come other spiritual blessings – the Fruit of the Spirit. What are the “Fruit of the Spirit”? “Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” But how do we pray for it? How do we receive this spiritual blessing?

Let us pray. “God of grace and God of glory, On thy people pour thy power. Crown thine ancient Church’s story; Bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, For the facing of this hour.” Amen.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is how badly do we want it? Galatians says that we need to “crucify” these lusts of the flesh. St. Paul in writing to the Galatians lists out various things that we must crucify, many things. “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envying, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.” It isn’t a comprehensive list, but it is circumspect. We can’t enter the kingdom of God with these things implanted in our hearts and rooted in our souls, so it seems pretty important to get rid of them. Again, we can ask, how do we do this? “Lo!” Says the hymn we earlier prayed, “the hosts of evil round us Scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!” The Catechism gives us the answer, “My good Child, know this; that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the Commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace; which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer.”

One excellent way to pray for Faith, Hope, and Charity can be found in the Litany starting on page 54. Before the Book of Common Prayer was forged as a mighty weapon of prayer against the spiritual adversary in 1549, the Litany was written in the original English form at least by 1544, printed and circulated prior to the whole Prayer Book project being completed. The Litany was a hammer of prayer to help the whole of England be protected while the Prayer book was being forged. In all fairness to history, it does borrow from both medieval English sources as well as from Luther’s own German Litany. Incidentally, in many Lutheran and German Reformed hymnals in English published last century, you can see that their litanies and ours are really incredibly similar, although each German-American denomination renders the original Litany by Luther a little differently. It was said of Luther that, after the Lord’s Prayer, he believed the best prayer possible was the Great Litany, as the Lutherans have tended to call the German one.

I was, for a short time, a youth minister or youth leader in a Methodist Church during seminary. The pastor I was working for was a really decent guy but when there were complaints from parents (would you believe it!) that I was praying the Litany with the youth group, the pastor said to me that he loved the Book of Common Prayer and the language therein but it was basically of no practical value today. You can imagine why I didn’t last long at that job. You can very well imagine I begged and do beg to differ and not only for the reasons that I am about to give. Nevertheless, I am about to give some very practical reasons why the Litany is practically useful today in relation to what St. Paul begs us to do today.

First, to get rid of the things we don’t want, there are petitions in the Litany such as “From all blindness of heart, from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness. Good Lord, deliver us.” Right there, we’ve covered praying against hatred – obviously – variance and wrath – all mentioned in Galatians 5. We’ve prayed against idolatry, in the form of pride and vainglory, because the root of idolatry is pride and vainglory – reveling in ourselves rather than in God. When we pray against “sinful affections” and ask to be delivered “from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil” we’ve prayed against “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness” and “lasciviousness” “drunkenness, revellings, and such like.” We pray also against “sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion . . . all false doctrine, heresy and schism” and in so doing we do as St. Paul bids us and “pour contempt” and spit upon the works of the Devil as they manifest themselves in “strife, seditions, heresies” and “witchcraft” – witchcraft being rebellious and conspiratorial dark arts intended to subvert the created order of God. These are the ways in which the Litany helps us to do what St. Paul encourages us to do, to get rid of these evil works lest we miss the narrow gate that leads to eternal life. O Lord, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.” The exhortation commanded to be read to the people of England as they first used the Litany in 1544 said this, “Our ghostly enemy is strong, violent, fierce, subtle, and exceeding cruel. And therefore we must continually pray, with all instance that in all his assaults we may be delivered by the mighty hand of our heavenly Father from all evil.”[1]

Now it is time to see how the Litany helps pray for Faith, Hope and Charity. First Faith is prayed for when we appeal to the Trinity, “O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth;” “O God the Son, Redeemer of the world;” “O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful;” “O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God; Have mercy upon us.” We don’t primarily have faith, you see, by somehow studying in a scholarly way the truths of God, and who God is. We have faith by confessing the faith. Faith is a gift. It isn’t something we primarily grasp by our own power, but by grace. The Faith is professed, confessed, and invoked when we say, “By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation” “By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord, deliver us.” These are all basically points of the Creed.

Next, Hope. We pray for Hope when we pray for the Church and the State. There is so often reason for pessimism and cynicism when we observe the Church and the State. The practice of praying hopefully, feeds Hope. “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” is a hopeful prayer. It is certainly charitable to pray for these two institutions as well. So from praying for the President of these United States through the petition “That it may please thee to give to all nations unity, peace, and concord” I would say we are praying in the spirit and with gift of Hope. This is because our ultimate Hope is for the Kingdom of God to come. The Church and the State are foretastes of the Kingdom of God to come, a Kingdom which is, as the proper preface for the Feast of Christ the King recites, “a Kingdom universal and everlasting; a Kingdom of truth and life; a Kingdom of sanctity and grace; a Kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” In all hopefulness, we don’t want to miss His kingdom’s goal, do we. And so we pass to the biggest one, Charity.

We pray for Charitable things and we feed our hearts into being more Charitable. In the Litany, we start to pray for Charity when we as for “an heart to love and fear” God “and diligently to live after [his] commandments”. We then pray that ourselves and others may have “increase of grace to hear meekly [His] Word, and to receive it with pure affection, and to bring for the fruits of the Spirit.” (Those are, again, those exact fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5 today.) We pray for folks who are in heresy and schism – “That it may please thee to bring into the way of truth all such as have erred, and are deceived.” Thus we are praying for those who are swept up in heresies, witchcraft, idolatry as well as for those who have contempt for God’s holy word. We pray for those who are strong, those who are weak, those who have fallen, that we and they may “beat down Satan under our feet” – we’re all in the same condition, we’re all in this together. We pray for those “in danger, necessity, and tribulation” and for those who travel, pregnant women, sick persons, children, prisoners and captives; for the fatherless children and widows, the desolate and oppressed.” It is summed up as well praying that God would have “mercy upon all men” and asking God to “forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers.” These are all prayers for charity.

I will end with a short quote from Richard Sibbes, the Puritan Anglican, in his work filled with spiritual salve and healing, The Bruised Reed: “Let us then bring our hearts to holy resolutions, and set ourselves upon that which is good, and against that which is ill, in ourselves or others, according to our callings, with this encouragement, that Christ’s grace and power will go along with us. . . . . According to our faith, so is our encouragement to all duties, therefore let us strengthen faith, so that it may strengthen all other graces. The very belief that faith shall be victorious is a means to make it so indeed.”[2] Let us pray for Faith, Hope and Charity.

O Lord, “Set our feet on lofty places; Gird our lives that they may be Armored with all Christ-like graces In the fight to set men free. Grant us Wisdom, grant us courage, That we fail not man nor thee. Amen.”

[1] “An exhortation unto prayer, thought mete by the King’s Majesty, and his clergy, to be read to the people in every church afore processions,” 1544.

[2] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 127.

“God is One,” a Moral and not just Metaphysical Fact. – Trinity 13, 2020 by Fr. Peter Geromel 

By this one statement from St. Paul, he places himself squarely within the Jewish tradition. It is this statement that forms a connective between the Epistle and Gospel lessons. The lawyer in the Gospel lessons quotes from the Shema, after all, the Jewish recitation of the whole of duty of man, Love of God and Love of Neighbor; the statement that “God is One” is the beginning portion of that summation. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One.”

In this statement, we hear of the doctrine of “Divine Simplicity.” Simply put, that means God is perfect, cohesive, an inseparable being. “There is but on living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions” says the First Article of Religion and we fail to recognize this truth to our peril. It is not just a metaphysical fact. It is a moral fact.

We might ask then of the Holy Trinity. The First Article just quoted recognizes this blessed Trinity saying, “And in unity of this Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity . . .” How does divine simplicity, the notion that God is One, square with that? Perhaps, first, by contrast. Imagine the heathenism, the paganism, all around the Jews. Multiple gods. They are in rivalry. Forming allegiances with some and not others. They are passionate and excite the passions, being more like Hollywood celebrities than divine beings. Their mythology is like a soap opera and trying to base your morality off of such is about as crazy as basing your morality off of a soap opera. This mythology is metaphysical, supposedly, but fails the test of being moral. The Holy Trinity, on the other hand, promotes morality, by providing and example of true love, neighborly love, between the persons of that blessed union.

The heathens couldn’t shake addiction to these myths, like we in our Hollywood culture can’t. Our Hollywood celebrities are moral and upright people, right, who promote charities? That’s the myth. In their personal lives they can’t maintain a decent marriage, when really ever married at all, for a decent period of time, failing morally. We nevertheless stay loyal to these gods, our actors. They represent something to us of great metaphysical and, in some sense, moral import – They are our totems. Our movies unite us as a culture.

We should not diminish the devastating influence that idols play in our lives. Idolatry is not simply a primitive culture falling down before wood and stone, a thing we might be tempted to pity, and laugh at, rather than to actually confront as Christians, because we love them. Idols play a role in our modern lives as well. It isn’t just the love of food or drink, of lust and all those pleasurable “devices and desires of our hearts.” Idols invade the mind from everywhere. It is even frighteningly possible to idolize God, by making Him after our own hearts rather than as He actually is. To make a straw man of God might be a likely candidate for what is actually blaspheming the Holy Spirit, the only unforgivable sin. If you really think you’ve got God pegged, and know Who it is that you are worshipping, and from Whom you are receiving forgiveness, you might be in trouble if wrong. How can you receive forgiveness from the God that is, when you are seeking forgiveness from the god that is a fiction of your own mythology?

This is what occurs here in our Gospel lesson. The lawyer has the right morality but has mythologized it. He knows what it is to “Love God, Who is One.” But he’s missed Who God actually is. You see, the lawyer in today’s Gospel lesson chose not the God of Moses, but Moses’ Law as his god. He idolized the Law and thought God was the Law, and the Law was God. Lucky for him, when asked to flesh it out, the lawyer realized that he’d missed God in God’s Law; he’d missed his neighbor.

God will not be mocked. Many who read this Gospel lesson miss God and mythologize Him. They hear of the “Good Samaritan.” They read their bibles. And then, frustratingly, decide that love is God and they idolize love. Fact Check: God is Love; love is not God. Here they have failed and built up an idol after their own hearts, literally. They take human love and decide that anytime human love is manifested, there is God. They cannot see the God Who is Love, because they’ve idolized Love. Fact Check: God is One. His love is one. He is to be revealed and manifested in love toward neighbor. God is to be emulated and we are to become holy by practicing loving neighbor as self. This is all true. Yet to disconnect some act of love which we perform from God and set that up as our idol is to worship a work of our own hands, and thus to worship ourselves. “What I do is my God.” Love that is disconnected from the God of Love withers and dies, just as the Law of Moses, disconnected from the God of Moses, withers and dies. Both are idolatrous and thereby incomplete, finite, and decaying, putrefying, actions. There is no wholeness in those acts severed from the Author of goodness, from the God who Is and the God who is One.

This last point was a subtle one, but what I am about to say will be understood clearly enough. In the Roman empire, many gods could be tolerated as long as the One Emperor was considered Divine. Today, Christians are asked more and more to navigate between two extremes – the fully-engaged version of Socialism and the undiluted form of Islam. In this form of Socialism, many gods can be tolerated as long as Love is elevated, that is to say, when “The Love of Neighbor” is supreme. In undiluted Islam, love of neighbor is only fully meritorious when practiced by one who is submitted to the one god Allah, on behalf of another who has also submitted to the one god Allah. Socialism has made a god of “Love of Neighbor,” a god which will unite the whole world in love and peace, so it is promised, if we would just get on the band wagon. Islam has made Allah the one god to whom submission must be made if the world is to be united in love and peace.

Both have the scriptures to base their arguments on. Both, like Herod and Pilate, can unite when crucifying Christ afresh, and persecuting good Christians. Islam relies on the Old Testament, Socialism on the New. You will find very few Socialists arguing for Socialism from the Old Testament and very few Muslims arguing for Islam from the New Testament. But God is One. He is the God of both the Old Testament and the New. Article VII says, “both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.”

Labor Day is one of those days that was put on the secular calendar, for better or worse, to promote the brotherhood of man, love of neighbor. It is fitting then that we pray for the same, as long as we understand that any love of neighbor disconnected from the One Mediator, Jesus Christ (Who unites all in all) is doomed to fail. Let us pray.

Almighty God, who rulest in the kingdom of men . . . Draw together, we pray thee, in true fellowship the men of diverse races, languages, and customs, who dwell [throughout the nations of the world], that, bearing one another’s burdens, and working together in brotherly concord, they may fulfil the purpose of thy providence, and set forward thy everlasting kingdom. Pardon, we beseech thee, ours sins and shortcomings: keep far from us all selfishness and pride: and give us grace to employ thy good gifts of order and freedom to thy glory and the welfare of mankind; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all glory and dominion, world without end. Amen.[1]

[1] Adapted from a prayer “For the British Empire,” Proposed 1928 BCP of the Church of England, 126.

“Building an Identity in Christ” – Trinity 12, 2020 by Fr. Geromel

“O Look unto him and be lightened; and your faces shall not be ashamed.” – Psalm 34

What I wish to consider today is “Building an Identity in Christ.” What does that look like? How do we do it? Two weeks ago, when I preached to you last, we looked at the idea of the city – how man is a microcosm of it, or rather how the city is a macrocosm of a man. How a man is divided up a bit like the way a city is divided up. There are the different parts or faculties of a man and there are the different parts and faculties of a city. There are different organs or “members,” all belonging and related to one another. Two weeks ago, we saw Jesus weep over a city that didn’t work right, that was not at unity, divided against itself, not long to live – the Romans were going to come in in 70 A.D. and destroy it. It was divided by sin. Two weeks ago, we followed Jesus as he stepped further into the city, to the very heart of it, the Temple of the Lord there. We see him drive out the symbolic sin that, like leaven and malice, like mold and mildew, creeps in and divides worshippers from their own God. He drove out “them that sold therein, and them that bought.” A week ago, we saw Jesus observe by parable two men, the hearts of two men – and so we have gone even deeper into the personhood of a man. What the Temple is to a City, the place of worship, so is the heart of a man. The heart of a man is his place of worship. If the heart is right, worship is right. If the heart is wrong, worship is wrong. So in the Temple, there are two hearts, two temples – one beating towards God aright, and one not so much; two hearts, one is able to worship right – the Publican – the other is not able to worship aright – he’s the Pharisee, the Hypocrite. You see how we are entering in further and further into the very identity of a man here.

The city was, in ancient times, a man’s identity. I am an Athenian. I am a Spartan. Your ideals, your virtues, your personhood, was in relation to and relation with other people living in community. A Jew was very much, if right believing and right worshipping, a man or woman of Jerusalem. There the ideals are framed. There the virtues are primarily taught, by priests and rabbis and scribes and Jesus Himself, once upon a time. Even if you were in exile, living in Nineveh, or Babylon, your mind and your heart, if you were a Jew was centered on a city, and the heart of that city, the Temple. Today, you may be a Jew living in New York or New Jersey, but I guarantee a part of your heart is always in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual personhood, the man of God.

In today’s Gospel lesson, what is happening? We again find Jesus in relation to cities, cities of Gentiles, of pagans. Tyre. Sidon. And then going to another set of cities, Decapolis. Where is Decapolis? Tyre and Sidon are modern day Lebanon. Decapolis is on the border between Lebanon and Israel and Syria. They are Hellenic cities. The Greek word just means, “Ten” – “Deca” – “Cities” – “Polis”. So he is going from city to city proclaiming the Kingdom of God, healing the sick. There in Decapolis “they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech”. He was not at unity in himself. He couldn’t hear and he couldn’t speak. We know something about that today. We wear masks, so we can’t hear each other; and we have trouble speaking. We feel disconnected as a society, as a city. We tend to have to work harder to be clear with each other and not be short with one another, on zoom meeting for work, in meeting with colleagues. We know that lack of communication is a problem for any city, company or family.

There was an effect of sin here, in this man. Did this man or his parents sin that he had these impairments? Not necessarily. But the effect of sin is that we are separated one from another, not reconciled, not able to communicate or hear each other well. This man has a straightforward and very personal handicap. But he becomes a sign of generic man in his sinfulness. Man that is not at unity with himself, others, and God; he’s under a curse. Here we have the cultural idea of the “Forgotten Man,” a hobo, a homeless person. Not at unity with society nor with himself, because, if nothing else, he isn’t a part of society.  It isn’t the only imagery we can conjure up with this gospel lesson, but it’s the one I am going to go with.

This week, as I set up a bank account and put the information together for that, I was reminded of how difficult it is for someone to lose his or her identity. All it takes is for someone, homeless, to have a wallet stolen and it can take years to rebuild your identity. How easy it can be for someone to steal your identity as well. (It seems unfair that it is perhaps easier to lose or have your identity stolen than to rebuild your identity after it is lost. But so it is.) This is because one document is dependent on another. If I try to go get document A over again, they will ask for document B and C. If I then go to another bureaucratic center to get document B they will ask for document A and C. Around and around you go. In our Quakertown church where I came from, it took five years to help one fellow do all of this and get out of a bed bug infested no-tell motel and into subsidized living. Add on the possibilities of impaired faculties, difficulties of speech, hardness of hearing, mental exhaustion combined with chronic malnutrition, if not straight up mental illness and it can be very difficult very quickly to help such a person rebuild his identity if his wallet is stolen.

But this is very much what Christ is trying to do for us. Each part of our body is infected with sin, disunited in some sense from itself, from God, from neighbor. You think that your hip can’t do what you want it to do because of an old wound or an old car accident or because you earn you daily bread sitting at a desk all day or driving around all day? Think of your will, your soul. Like St. Paul, you do the thing you don’t want to do and the thing you want to do, you can’t do it! The whole self is not adhering together as a consistent whole unit, worshipping God aright and loving neighbor as self. You are like that man who begs an overworked bureaucrat whose hip hurts from sitting all day for one single document so that he can get the ball rolling and get all the other documents.

We might ask why God in Christ Jesus chose to heal both the deaf ear and the impaired speech? Why does he heal some in one way and not in another? Why doesn’t he just heal everything at once? The short answer is, because he’s God and I don’t really know why. But I’ll hazard a guess this morning as the preacher. – Because he’s building the identity, his identity in another person. His identity is being built; ours is not being rebuilt.

Now this is on a metaphysical level. If your hip is bad, Jesus isn’t going to give you his hip, in a hip replacement. No, he’ll give you one that’s an immortal in the life of the age to come. If you lose your driver’s license, you won’t wake up with one that says Jesus on it hiding under your pillow as if the tooth fairy put it there. But in Baptism, we begin the process of rebuilding our identity in Christ. It’s a slow process that lasts all of our lives. And it’s a necessary one, because, like that the homeless man or the fellow with an impediment in his speech and ringing in his ears, or whatever he had, we’ve lost ourselves. We’ve lost our identity. We are disconnected from God, Society, Neighbor, ourselves. We need to replace all of our documents, all of our faculties; everything has to be reidentified with Christ.

Of course, we don’t cease to be us in this process. That’s an important point. Yet we’re still hesitant to undergo that process that began at our baptism. Why is that? Well, I’ll try to help you see one or two reasons: If each one of us were to take out our driver’s licenses right now, they’d probably look reasonably in good condition. If a cop pulled us over, he wouldn’t haul us away because he couldn’t read it. When I used to check Driver’s Licenses as a security guard, logging in and out trucks from warehouses, I saw some pretty beat up licenses. Now when that’s the case, it isn’t hard to convince somebody that, when they’ve got the time to stand in line at the bureaucratic office, that they should go get a new one. Of course, a truck driver can be away from a home state for quite a while and not be able to replace it. A homeless person doesn’t take much convincing either. Hey, you don’t have a life, let’s get you one and some means of identification to go along with it!

But it’s just harder when things seem to be pretty good. When your identity looks pretty good, it’s hard to convince you to work on getting a new one just as quickly as you can. The Sacraments do help though. They infuse grace into our lives. They both inspire us to do, and help us to accomplish, and, also, they preserve us in the way of everlasting life. They preserve us in the path that continues the process of reidentifying us in and with Christ. They even actively do some of the reidentifying of us with Christ. They are agents to “be filled with [His] grace and heavenly benediction” that we may be “made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” That sounds like pretty powerful reidentification to me. Let us pray,

Regard, O Lord, we pray thee, this our bounden duty and service: that this sacrifice may be an oblation acceptable unto thee, and effectually avail for the succour of our frailty. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[1]

[1] “Secret” priestly prayer for Trinity 12, from Anglican Missal.