Sermon Archive

SERMON: Pentecost 7 (July 27)

Category: News, Sermon Tags: July 28, 2014 @ 9:57 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

1 Kings 3.5-12
Psalm 105:1-11
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Text

“Give your servant an understanding mind….”
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

In her posthumously published Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor writes, “My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us.” Even as a young woman, O’Connor sensed that the Lord prays in and for us.

At a recent gathering of local pastors, one of my colleagues noted a disjunction between ways in which the national church records parish data and ways in which local congregations actually experience the church such data are meant to record. The pastor said, “We simply don’t have an appropriate metric for information we need to convey.” We don’t have an appropriate metric, an appropriate measure, an apt quantifier, a numeric means to express the church.

We clergy come late to parties. Just when the rest of western culture has begun to show signs of suspicion regarding omniscient claims for quantification, the numeric expression of meaning, clergy grow smitten with the idea of a metric to quantify the poetic, to measure metaphor by number. As Joseph Stalin apparently observed: “Quantity has a quality all its own;” quantity’s quality seduces. Bigger trumps smaller, a larger church outshines a smaller one. How much church do we need? One pound? Two meters? Four light-years? Perhaps 3, 7, 12, or, maybe, 666 ecclesial cubits? I suspect that at the heart of a tendency to quantify the church lurks a bias such as, well, God is, you know, “BIG.” “God is really BIG.” Therefore, the church must be big too, and the bigger the better.

Then cometh the mustard seed. Why does Jesus choose a mustard seed to illustrate the kingdom of heaven? Mustard seeds are small, unimpressive, and plain. Jesus says they’re the smallest of all seeds. How small? He doesn’t provide a botanic metric. Jesus is not a botanist; he intends more than science, more than quantified meaning. He means that, in eternity, small will trump big.

Mustard seeds are small—whether smallest of all is of no matter. What matters to Jesus is that, though small, a mustard seed, nonetheless, grows to become a large and useful shrub—a bush providing shelter for birds. Hence, the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a small thing which grows into something sufficient to provide protection for other small things, like birds, babies and all death-plagued creatures.

No matter how you cut it, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a small thing helpful to other little things of apparently meager import. Even the largest bird is small compared to a fighter jet, a military transport, or even a Malaysian airliner. Oddly, at 33,000 feet, it may have been easier to bring down a Malaysian airliner with a surface to air missile, than, even the largest of birds. Smaller things generally have greater capacity to hide.

Be that as it tragically may be, the fact remains that Jesus does not offer impressive statistics to illustrate the kingdom of heaven, but rather something tiny: the homely little mustard seed. In a world of terrible power, amid cultures of imperial strength and clashing world views, the Lord’s reign is unimpressive, puny, and short-lived. Most of the empires of imperial history (the Roman, the British, the Vedic, the Ming, the Ottoman, the Ptolemaic, the Silla, the Ethiopian, the Incan) managed to survive several decades, and some for several centuries. Yet a mustard shrub lives but a brief time and is gone. As compared to a phenomenon like the Roman Empire, a mustard seed is weak—next to nothing—like the kingdom of heaven. Yet “next to nothing” may be more than all our earthly powers combined.

St. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit helps us not in our strength, but in our weakness. Paul’s little dictum is at home with tiny things, birds, and babies like Johanna; dismissed by the grand and glorious, Paul’s insight is treasured by the least, the little, and the last.

Of course, we can hardly expect the powers of earth to find solace in a spirit of weakness, a teaching that locates greatest hope in deepest weakness, an ethic that acts not on a wealth of strength, but on a poverty of weakness. That would be like asking the bank to loan us money according to our inability to pay it back; like the Packers drafting players based on their disability, inexperience, and lack of winning; it would be like hiring chief executives and generals not according to their superior knowledge, financial clout, and successful track record, but on account of their extensive and repeated failures. How long would Badger Nation praise Coach Anderson if instead of recruiting the biggest, the fastest, and the most decorated, he recruited the smallest, the slowest, and the unrecognized?

Badgers and Packers aside, the kingdom of heaven is alien not only to football, but to all other human endeavors as well. The Spirit helps us in our weakness precisely because in our weakness the Spirit can help us. In our strength, success, and power, we have no awareness of the Spirit, but only of our own spirits. We ourselves are the biggest impediment to God’s Spirit, not because we are stronger than the Spirit, but because we think we are. Unlike Solomon, we refuse to ask for understanding because we think we already possess it; and, clearly, if we think we understand God, we don’t.

“We do not know how to pray as we ought,” precisely because when we are powerful (or think we are), we have no need of proper prayer, no awareness of our need of God, no insight into our total dependence, no proper sense of limit, loss, and liability—liability not merely to civil and criminal courts, but liability to eternal judgment. Awareness of the Lord’s judgment gives desire for the Lord’s grace. Awareness of our weakness reveals our need of Christ. Christ is our strength in weakness before the very God who made us; the One who can erase us with a word; who, amid death and decay, gives us life and hope through the death and resurrection of Christ—the grace to confess and believe. And what is faith? Little more than a drop of water on a tiny child; a mustard seed—not even that—and yet more than enough; more than all, until the Lord gives us something—even something small. Thanks be to God.

Pentecost 6 (July 20)

Category: Sermon Tags: July 20, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86;11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Text

“Thus says the Lord…I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
“‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has cone this.’”

On Ascension Day the college chapel was full and, as I was nearly late, I was self-conscious on entering. Except for soccer matches the English are seldom loud, and a college chapel at 7:30 in the morning is no exception. I found one of the few vacant places and sat down. Just opposite me sat a woman dressed as a priest: only this woman wore purple: the color of bishops—a sight I had never before seen in the Church of England. I recognized her as someone with whom I had exchanged e-mails years ago concerning John Henry Newman. In any case, she had become a bishop in New Zealand, and was in Oxford for meetings. A female bishop! I was astonished and, as I think her a fine church theologian, I was pleased—pleased for her and pleased for the church. Then, this past week, the Church of England voted to consecrate women as bishops. Most, but not all, were pleased.

“The church has left me forever.” So wrote a friend last Monday. His church, the Church of England, had made a decision with which he had publically and rather stridently disagreed, and (as a result) he felt abandoned. Never mind the substance of the decision (to ordain women as bishops), a decision with which I happen to agree. But never mind that. Think instead of the assertion that “The church has left me,” and worse still, “The church has left me forever.” Can the church leave us, leave us forever, and still be the church?

I do not find fault with my old friend. In the fullness of time, he may be revealed as correct in his rather subtle and strongly held views. He is a traditionalist in some of the best (and perhaps most fervent) senses of that word. And, it must be said, the one holy catholic and apostolic church must (in order to be itself) bear the burden of Tradition. After all, it’s by Tradition that the Apostle Paul hands on the Gospel, even as by Tradition Judaism handed on (and hands on) the Law and the Prophets, without which there can be neither Gospel nor Church. Thus, arguments over Tradition (whether large T or small) take on greater or lesser weight depending on whether or not one believes the issues at stake lay claim to capital T authority.

I, for one, do not believe that the question of women as bishops rises to the level of “capital T” authority—the non-negotiable elements of faith referenced, for instance, in the Creeds, the sacraments, the judgment and grace of Christ himself. But I could be wrong about this, as I have often been wrong about other things, both factual and intellectual. If there’s one thing about which I’m certain it’s my own uncertainty in relation to tradition beyond Christ himself, his sacramental presence within the life-work of the Holy Trinity. What this means in relation to a whole host of issues, I cannot with certainty say. But I hope and pray that such change is both good and holy, and those for whom such issues pose disaffection might be given the patience to endure them in hope.

Of course, I should like to speak with certainty concerning many questions, issues, and uncertainties beyond the elemental truths of the Trinitarian-Christ tradition. But the hard truth is I cannot. This, among other things, is what Paul struggles with in the 8th chapter of his Letter to the Romans. In today’s Second Lesson, Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” These hopeful assertions follow Paul’s distinction between “the flesh” and “the Spirit.” He exhorts us to live not “to the flesh,” but “by the Spirit.” Paul assures us that in Baptism we have been adopted as “children of God,” and that as God’s children we are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

I’m not entirely clear what Paul means when he juxtaposes suffering with [Christ] and being “glorified with him,” but he seems to link suffering (or perhaps struggle) with hope. He goes on to speak of suffering in connection with the whole creation’s waiting “in eager longing” for the revealing of the children of God. He says the creation suffers in “futility” in the hope that it will be set free from bondage to decay, and then obtain the glorious freedom of God’s children—that is, I think, freedom from sin and death.

What’s all this have to do with Tradition, uncertainty, and hope? Just this: our struggles to make sense of life and faith, our yearning to have now what is not yet, our longing for the end of suffering and the fulfillment of joy—these struggles are elemental not only to Christians, but to creation itself. Such struggle is elemental to us and to all. Baptized, we’re joined to and reveal the struggle of Christ’s death and resurrection. We can’t have one without the other. Christ’s life bears no perfection apart from the perfect imperfection of his wounded life; no fulfillment without longing; no joy without sorrow, no life without struggle, pain, and death.

Death, of course, is certain. We know for certain we must die. We do not baptize Benjamin Lawrence because he thereby avoids death, but because the Christ who has died and been raised, promises to raise Benjamin and us from the futility of death and decay.

“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” We are impatient for fulfillment. We do not yet know Christ’s resurrection as certain. Without the certainty of sight, our hope remains uncertain. Our lives are fraught with the certainty of suffering and death. The whole creation writhes in pain. Yet the Spirit gives hope. By means of water, bread, wine, and the sight of struggling people like ourselves sharing in Christ by simple sacramental means, we have hope. In this hope we baptize Benjamin Lawrence. In this hope we eat bread and drink wine. In this hope we await the restoration of all things, the glorious freedom of the children of God—adoption, the redemption of our bodies, the sight and certainty for which we long. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Neither he nor his church will leave us. Amen. Come Lord Jesus. We wait with patience.

Pentecost 5 (July 13)

Category: Sermon Tags: July 13, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

Readings

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:1-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Listen

Pentecost 4 (July 6)

Category: Sermon Tags: July 6, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Peter and Paul, Apostles (June 29)

Category: Sermon Tags: June 29, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

Readings

Acts 12:1-11
Psalm 87:1-3, 5-7
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
John 21:15-19

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Pentecost 2 (June 22)

Category: Sermon Tags: June 22, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Peter Sherven

Readings

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

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The Holy Trinity (June 15)

Category: Sermon Tags: June 15, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

Readings

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

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Day of Pentecost (June 8)

Category: Sermon Tags: June 8, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Jon Enslin

Readings

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

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7 Easter (June 1)

Category: Sermon Tags: June 1, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

Readings

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

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6 Easter (May 25)

Category: Sermon Tags: May 25, 2014 @ 9:00 am

Amy Grunewald Mattison

Readings

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

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