Sermon Archive

SERMON: Ash Wednesday (Feb 18)

Category: News, Sermon Tags: February 19, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Text

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Listen

Isaiah turns religion inside out.  On Ash Wednesday, fasting is an imperative to feed hungry people and house homeless people.  We fast not merely to deny ourselves food, but to deny ourselves.

When was the last time you did something self-consciously religious?  Was it saying grace at table last evening at dinner?  Or maybe you said your prayers before going to sleep last night.  Or (could it be possible?) perhaps you skipped breakfast and lunch today before receiving the Lord’s Supper—as saints of old would have done.

Of course, the very word “breakfast” implies a practice largely vanished from the modern Christian west apart from monastic communities which may refrain from eating until the morning Mass is ended.  But, then, there’s the common (but nonetheless religious) practice of refraining from the consumption of food until after having our blood drawn in preparation for an annual physical.

Gone are the days when most of us would willingly deprive ourselves of food in preparation for eating what the ancients termed “the medicine of immortality” the body and blood of Christ.  We inhabit an era in which we willingly deprive ourselves of food in preparation for a biologically longer life—or at least the physical examination thereof.  In other words, many (if not most) of us will fast to serve our own physical self-interest.  But seldom will we do so in order to benefit our own souls, and we’ll almost never go without food in order to benefit someone else—whether in body or soul.

Isaiah 58 gives evidence of an ancient religious argument:  do we engage religious activity (like fasting) in order to advantage ourselves in relation to God’s judgment?  Or do we discipline ourselves (fasting/self-limitation) in order to benefit others, people dependent on us or less privileged than ourselves?  At least it appears that, in Isaiah’s post-exilic age, the discipline of fasting was actually practiced, albeit for disingenuous reasons.  The Prophet attacks religious practice undertaken for self-gain.  But in our day, the argument about why fasting was practiced at all—whether for selfish or altruistic reasons—will generally fall on ears deaf to God’s voice.

No so, however, when my physician tells me I should exercise more frequently, limit myself to one helping per meal, and cut back on my consumption of carbohydrates, fats, and red meats.  I listen to impressive statistics suggesting that it would be to my own advantage to discipline myself.  When he tells me I should limit my consumption of alcohol to one or at most two drinks per day, he offers compelling evidence that I will live longer if I do.  When he tells me to abstain from tobacco at all costs, he provides unending data demonstrating that the use of nicotine damages my physical health in more ways than I can either count or remember.  In no case (whether in relation to exercise, diet, alcohol, or tobacco) does he argue that self-discipline will either benefit my fellow citizens or please God.  Though I suspect that, at least in relation to the well-being of the human community, strong arguments could be made on behalf of the social benefits of dietary discipline, to say nothing of the negative social burdens stemming from my lack of discipline.

Be that as it may, current arguments encouraging self-discipline seem largely oriented toward my own benefit, and not the welfare of others.  But Isaiah takes the opposite tack, and does so in the name of and with the voice of God.  For Isaiah (and therefore for God) the purpose of fasting is the limitation of myself for the benefit of others—and especially for the benefit of “workers,” that is, for the benefit of those who depend on me and my self-limitation for their very lives.

But Isaiah goes further.  The Prophet moves beyond the literal practice of religious fasting to fasting as a metaphor for breaking (or loosing) the bonds of injustice, for freeing laborers from their yoked bondage, and letting the captive oppressed go free.  Rather than understanding the discipline of fasting as denying myself food for a specifically religious purpose, Isaiah interprets fasting as sharing our bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our homes, and clothing those who are naked.  Like Luther, Isaiah interprets the command “Do not kill” in terms of “protecting our neighbor and his means of making a living;” Isaiah understands that before God there is no distinction between religious and secular acts.  Fasting that I might please God while ignoring my hungry neighbor is no less sinful than eating less in order to live longer and get more life for me.

On Ash Wednesday, God’s Word declares that, no matter whether we eat or fast, we ourselves remain the essential problem.  We incur God’s wrath whether we eat less to live longer or fast merely to benefit our own greedy selves.  Fasting to get more of God for myself has the same ruinous effect as eating less to get more for me.

Both eating and fasting confront us with the fact that, whether we eat or are eaten, we are dust and to dust we shall return.  True Lenten discipline revolves around the elemental truths that we are mortal, dependent, and selfish.  Whatever serves to limit us—to hold our own greedy mortality and our neighbor’s need before our eyes—drives us to the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of Christ.  The crucified savior is both the model and the goal of life. Eating and drinking him, drives us again and again to the Eucharistic fast that feeds all—in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Transfiguration of Our Lord (Feb 15)

Category: Sermon Tags: February 15, 2015 @ 10:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Text

“And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
“Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God shines forth in glory.”
“This is my son, the beloved, listen to him….As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

Listen

The Transfiguration of Our Lord is upon us:  Lent’s season of baptismal renewal draws near.  But what draws us? Transfiguration fixes us on the fantastic: Elijah swept up in a chariot of fire; God shining forth from Zion; Moses’ veiled face; Jesus shining like the sun, his face and clothes brighter than new-fallen snow in mid-winter sun.  Yet, each of these bright figures—and perhaps most especially Jesus himself—shines within the shadow darkness, loss, and death.  What draws us?

Elijah swept up means Elisha grieving Elijah gone.  God shines forth from “a raging storm round about.”  Paul sets shining Moses against unbelief:  “those who are perishing,” and minds “blinded by the god of this world.”  And, finally, we read Jesus transfigured on the mountain within the context of Peter’s babbling confusion—his manic desire to do something religious, his frantic eagerness to make meaning of this strange event—an event which defies any meaning we might hope to make of it and, to an even greater degree, anything we might want to do in light of it.

So much so, that the heavenly imperative is neither to interpret nor act, but rather, to listen!  And not merely to listen in general: not to practice mindfulness, nor center ourselves, nor listen to our passions, but rather listen to this and only this, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” The Transfiguration of Our Lord is more than an abstraction, more than a concept, more than a religious idea.  It’s our Lord: Then, when they looked about, suddenly, “They saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” They saw him in a different light—not merely the unearthly light of his Transfiguration, nor even the impressive light of his association with Moses and Elijah— two monumental figures from Israel’s history, nor even in the earnest light of discipled friendship—his having chosen them, and only them, to see such wondrous things.  At last, they saw him in light of the heavenly Voice, they saw him in light of God:  “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”  They saw him in stunning silencelisten to him!

The silence speaks:  “He ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  According to Jesus, the Transfiguration of Our Lord is unspeakable.  Or, put another way, our Lord’s Transfiguration, may be told only in light of Easter.  It’s not merely that we don’t know what to say—though, given Peter’s example, we surely don’t.  But it’s also that whatever we would say apart from Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is beside the point; like going to the Grand Canyon to see fast food restaurants, or like visiting Washington, D. C. to count the crosswalks, or like worshipping at Luther Memorial Church to observe various kinds of litter in the alleyway, or the numbers of students wearing red, or (and this might be interesting) the number of pauses in a sermon.  More pauses, larger silences: fewer words might convey greater meaning.

Therefore, “He ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Silence! Listen!  Tell no one….until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  It turns out the one they knew in familiar terms as “Rabbi,” is the Beloved Son of God.  It turns out the one they talked to and ate with and went about with and fished with, this ordinary guy from Nazareth, this carpenter’s son whose mother bears the ordinary name of Miriam (Mary)….it turns out this one from the back country handed over to the authorities, tortured, abused, and put to humiliating death as a criminal….it turns out this most desired-reviled of ordinary men has in most extraordinary fashion been raised from the dead.

We do not listen to Jesus because he shines brighter than the lights at Camp Randal.  We do not listen to Jesus because he converses with famous religious figures.  We do not listen to Jesus because he exercises miraculous power.  We do not listen to Jesus because we like his politics, or his economics, or his stories, or his crafty ways of outfoxing his opponents—entertaining though that may be.  We listen to Jesus because God raised him from the dead.  We listen to Jesus because even though he was dead and buried, he is now alive. We listen to Jesus because even though (before God) we deserve eternal death and damnation, the crucified and risen Christ has bound us to himself in the watery promise of baptism.  And, more than that, we listen to Jesus because even though we do not invite our hungry neighbors to our own tables, even though we do not welcome and forgive our obnoxious neighbors, even though we do not regularly visit our sick and imprisoned and lonely neighbors….we listen to Jesus because, even in spite of our failure to love God with our whole hearts, minds, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves….we listen to Jesus because the crucified and risen Christ, the Beloved Son of God, welcomes us to his table, and feeds us, and forgives us in, with, and under his own body and blood.

In short, we listen to Jesus not only because he has the words of eternal life, but because he is eternal life.  We listen to Jesus because the Father has commanded it; we listen to Jesus because, in the end, he’s the only One worth listening to.  Beautiful and charming though the rest may be, all other voices (including my own) bear the stench of death.  Therefore, listen to the Beloved Son. Tell anyone you please: the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

5 Epiphany (Feb 8)

Category: Sermon Tags: February 8, 2015 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Text

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”
“Everyone is searching for you.”
“I do it for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

Listen

St. Paul is a strange person. I say “is” instead of “was,” because, well, according to the gospel, Paul is yet (and always shall be) a person, though (having died), he may no longer be a man.  According to Jesus, eternal life will be gender free. That may, on the face of it, seem a small matter.  But the church contends it’s important.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again in order to complete his work of salvation for all persons who, beyond time, shall be neither male nor female, but persons: the creatures God intends for all eternity.

Sometimes Paul speaks as a man, a Jewish male in the mid-first century of our era, and sometimes he speaks as an apostle commissioned by Christ himself.  The latter we are called to imitate; the former we may ignore, study for historical insight, enjoy as religious entertainment, or even despise for his occasionally arrogant and narrow-minded ways.  The difficulty comes in distinguishing between the bigot and the apostle.  But, the trouble is, bigot and apostle are bound together in one person.  Today we hear the apostle called and commissioned by Christ to the impossible task of becoming “all things to all people.” Today we hear the Paul sent to us, since we too are counted among “all people.”

Anyone even marginally acquainted with matters psychological will know that “becoming all things to all people” is a fool’s errand, a crazy-making task if ever there were one, indeed, a calling only a crazy person would undertake in the first place.  It was, I imagine, for this reason a physician in my last parish opined that, had Prozac been available in the first century, we might never have heard of Paul, unless perhaps as a hyper-graphic traveling tentmaker.

But, in fact, Prozac was not available in the first century, and moreover we cannot say with certainty what, if any, difference it might have made in the personal disposition of Paul, the rabbi-tentmaker who believed he had been commissioned and sent to bear the gospel—the good news of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  For all we know, had Paul taken Prozac he might have been even more convinced (and not less) that he was sent by God to proclaim the crucified Christ as Savior of the whole Jew-gentile world—a world embodied by Galilee.

According to today’s Gospel, everyone was searching for Jesus.  Following a whole series of miraculous events (Jesus casting out evil spirits, and generally amazing the local populace), Mark says that Peter and others went hunting.  According to lexicons, the word hunting almost always bears hostile overtones.  They hunted (in hostile fashion) for Jesus.  They may have been irritated with him.  He had got up early in the morning—without telling anyone—and had gone to pray in a deserted place.  On finding their quarry, in exasperated tone, they told Jesus, “Everyone is searching for you.”  In other words:  “What were you thinking to go off alone?  You’re expected back in town!  People are waiting for you!”  As if indifferent to popularity and human need, Jesus replied, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.”

Everyone was astonished at Jesus’ power to heal disease, command demons, and turn back evil forces.  Think what it would mean to be near such a man, someone who, with a mere word, could make sick people well, feed thousands, and silence evil.  Such a man would mean the end of suffering and the beginning of peace.  His enormous fan-base would have exceeded those of Aaron Rogers, Katie Perry, and Tom Brady combined.  That’s what Mark seems to indicate when Peter tells Jesus, “Everyone is searching for you.”  He’d done his tricks for free, and everyone was on his trail.  Jesus was so successful he made health care reform, the White House, Fortune Five Hundred, the Emmys, the Oscars, and the Nobel Prize, look like chopped liver.  Jesus had gone “viral,” and he didn’t care.

Jesus moves on.  That’s the miracle.  He had it all:  fans, fame, and fortune.  Yet he turned his back on it.  He left everyone and went off by himself to pray. Then, when they found him, he left that place too, and went to other places to “proclaim the message.”  “He went through out Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”  In other words, he went about making more fans and then intentionally jilting them in order to save them.  In the end, the most amazing thing about Jesus the miracle worker was not his miraculous power, but his failure to use that power to enhance his brand, increase his fan base, and maintain it.  The miracle was his refusal to use his power for himself.  But he hadn’t come for himself; he came for others. Mark says he came to proclaim the message to others.  And that message was not his; it didn’t belong to him.  It belonged to God the Father; it still does.  And the Father is no one to trifle with.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”  To God we are like grasshoppers: billions of swarming insects, flitting first one way than the other, fickle, fearful, and greedy, ever acting out of self-interest, fleeing to escape death, only to fall prey to it.

There’s a reason Jesus went his own way. There’s a reason for Paul’s manic driven focus:  the gospel, the message, the good news.  Jesus, who had it all, gave up everything for grasshoppers doomed to die.  He who had it all, gave up all things for grasshoppers; gave it up for us.  On this annual meeting day, once again we are reminded that whatever we do, whatever we have, we have it and we do it for the sake of the gospel.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard? In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.

4 Epiphany (Feb 1)

Category: Sermon Tags: February 1, 2015 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Text

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Listen

Below a photo of Manhattanites preparing for the biggest snowstorm ever, last Tuesday’s paper read, “More than 7,700 flights in and out of the Northeast were canceled, and many of them may not take off again until Wednesday.  Schools and businesses let out early, Government offices closed. Shoppers stocking up on food jammed supermarkets and elbowed one another for what was left.  Broadway stages went dark.”  Everyone knew Manhattan would get two feet of snow; it got eight inches.  In certain knowledge of impending scarcity, shoppers elbowed one another to get the last bit.  Knowledge elbows, love gives way.

The unclean spirit knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God.  But such knowledge, in and of itself, conveys little beyond vulnerability:  “Have you come to destroy us?”  Knowledge without love devolves into power bent toward fear, intimidation, and coercion.  Loveless knowledge empowers us to destroy—to elbow our way toward the last loaf of bread while the devil takes the hindmost.

Within the precincts of this (or any) university, it may prove difficult to hear Paul’s critique of loveless knowledge:  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  Paul seeks to build up the community, the church, the body of Christ.  He seeks this not merely that the church might be big.  He seeks to build up the church, because dividing the church divides Christ.  When we use our superior knowledge merely to our own advantage, we disadvantage our “weaker” brothers and sisters; we divide the church and crucify Christ anew.

The “unclean spirit” in Mark’s first chapter does not lack knowledge; it knows who Jesus is more clearly than the disciples.  The unclean spirit knows (and confesses!), “I know who you are, the holy one of God.”  But it doesn’t know the way of Jesus, doesn’t know how Jesus is, doesn’t know that he will not destroy, but be destroyed, and thereby take away the sin of the whole world.  Apart from love, such knowledge is inconceivable.  Apart from love, such knowledge is utter foolishness.

Therefore, the unclean spirit assumes that the holy one of God wields power to destroy; that such power will be used only to destroy the enemy, the unholy, the unclean and sinful.  The spirit’s knowledge cannot conceive of power exercised on behalf of an enemy, cannot conceive of power exercised for an enemy’s sake.  But such is the lovely power of Jesus, the holy one of God.  He has the power to give up power, the power to build up the weak through love.

St. Anselm famously defines “faith” as “seeking understanding.” But understanding (informed by demonstrable evidence) cannot obtain faith (evoked by compelling testimony).  St. Mark’s account of Jesus casting out the unclean spirit compels, not merely by the triumph of evidentiary power, but more by the exercise of power that builds up.  Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, orders it to be silent and come out, and the spirit fights: it convulses the man and cries out—signs of disobedience.  But Jesus does not destroy it when, according to the unclean spirit’s own expectation, he could have done so.  Mark’s most compelling testimony, then, is not merely that Jesus cast out the unclean spirit, but that he did so in love and without the destructive power the unclean spirit expected.

Mark’s witness accords with St. Paul’s dictum: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  When it comes to matters of conscience, ours is not merely to act out of superior knowledge.  Baptized into Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection, ours is to imitate Christ Jesus, the holy one of God, who knows us, and who exercises divine power to protect, save, and forgive the unholy, the sinful, and the weak.

In the Corinthian community, Paul terms “weak” people whose conscience is subject to the knowledge that food (perhaps at a community meal) might have come from sacrifices offered in a pagan temple—offerings made to a false god that (they fear) if consumed would provoke the true God’s wrath, and the destruction of those who dare to dine at the table of a false god.  Their knowledge is faulty, says Paul (there is only one true God), and their fear unfounded (Christ is the righteousness of God), but even so, their faith (though weak) ought not be endangered by the free exercise of knowledge that there is only one true God and that food sacrificed to idols is simply food given by the grace of God.  Why shouldn’t we challenge weak faith by superior knowledge and freedom?  Because we could injure the weak, and thereby offend Christ who exercises power not to destroy, but to save.

This is Paul’s ethic of weakness, and he bids us imitate it, acting not merely out of what knowledge and freedom allow, but out of what Christ’s love compels.  Paul bids us use whatever power we have not for our own advantage, but on behalf of the weak:  for when we are weak, then we are strong.  Just as the crucified Christ who could have destroyed us who are weak, saves us instead: casts out our sin, and makes us right by faith.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”   But only the beginning: love—what we might call charity toward the weak—is end (or purpose) of wisdom.  Sometimes the storm doesn’t come.  But when it does, Paul bids us care for the weak, the least, the little, the last, and the lost.

3 Epiphany (Jan 25)

Category: Sermon Tags: January 25, 2015 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

Readings

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Listen

2 Epiphany (Jan 18)

Category: Sermon Tags: January 18, 2015 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Text

“Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
“And [Jesus} said to [Nathaniel], “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Listen

God speaks and, at length, Samuel listens.  Just imagine.  Your own private audience with God:   God, up close and personal.  God calling you by name.  God sharing top security information with you.  God giving you the inside scoop:  how it’s gonna go down.But, here’s the deal.  You’re a child—in the case of Samuel, a boy maybe ten or twelve years old.  What are you supposed to do with the inside dope?  I mean, it’s a privilege to share the divine confidence, know God’s plans, to see things from the perspective.  But, once you know what God knows, what are you supposed to do with it?  Who should you tell?  And especially if what you’ve just heard tells of God’s wrath inflicted on your mentor, the holy man to whom your parents have entrusted you, the guy who calls you “my son.”  You weren’t told what to do.  You have the plot with no instructions.

On the face of it, God’s behavior is inappropriate.  By even the modest standards of current “boundary theory,” the Lord ought not involve a prepubescent boy in matters beyond the boy’s maturity.  I mean, Samuel was a novice, an entry level acolyte, whose mentor’s sons had badly misbehaved, abused both trust and privilege, and taken advantage of others in their care.  It’s a wonder they hadn’t violated the boy himself.  So now God speaks directly to Samuel, disclosing to him terrible things about his mentor’s impending punishment.  It’s outrageous, inappropriate, even dangerous to expose a boy to such grim news.  The terrified child lay awake all night just thinking about it.  His trusted mentor was persona non grata.  Whom should he tell?  “[He] was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.”

True to human form, Eli wasn’t all bad.  There’s a little bit of the divine image in the worst of us, and a lot of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the best of us.  Though he’d failed in terms of his wicked sons, Eli already knew what was coming from God.  What he may not have guessed, was that the final announcement of God’s judgment would come from Samuel, his little assistant.  As the Prophet Isaiah would have it:  “A little child shall lead them.”  It was true of Samuel; it would become true of David whom Samuel would anoint king when yet a lowly shepherd boy; the prophecy would come to ultimate completion in the Child born of Mary, the One who would confound his astonished parents as he debated learned teachers in the Temple at age 12.

In the morning, when Eli interviewed the fearful boy, he said, “What was it that he told you?  Do not hide it from me.  May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”  Caught between the Rock and a very hard place, “Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.”  Even though he was afraid, Samuel obeyed, and his fearful obedience becomes a model for all called into God’s service.  There’s no such thing as a faithful servant of God without fear.  Courage is not fearlessness; it’s obeying God’s command in the midst of fear.  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or selling something.  Therefore, Luther begins each of his explanations of God’s commandments with the cautionary admonition that we are to “fear and love God.”  There can be no true love of God without fear, and no true fear of God without love.  So Samuel will later express profound fear when called to anoint a new king (which turns out to be the boy, David); even as Jesus will sweat blood on the eve of his crucifixion and pray, “Father, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

Even in the wayward exercise of his priestly office, Eli knows God will be God; he and his family must suffer the just consequences of sin, and God’s righteous wrath:  “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”  God seeks a trustworthy prophet and will have one even if it means the destruction of Eli and his house; even if it means terror in the heart of a little boy.  The result is, at least for a time, that “…all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.”

This portion of Samuel’s story begins with a chilling statement:  “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  The writer cautions us:  The LORD operates in ways beyond our understanding; God reveals his word when, where, and to whom he pleases.  God does not operate according to our standards; but we are called to operate according to God’s, even when we are afraid and in the dark.  This is the realm of faith: not clarity of sight, but fearful uncertainty punctuated by rare manifestations of God’s will contrary to our own.

Today’s Gospel manifests a similar dynamic.  Jesus found Philip, and Philip in turn found Nathaniel.  But then, true to human form, Philip reverses the direction of God’s work saying, “We have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  But they did not find Jesus; Jesus found them, even has he has found and claimed us.  The entire direction of the Good News is from God to us, and not the other way round.

Nathaniel’s question (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) exhibits our inclination to doubt God’s persistent movement among the little, the despised, the weak and the dead.  We seek the preeminent; God chooses the despised.  We seek novelty and creativity.  God chooses obedience, imitation, the lowly and poor—an obscure woman, an unmarried virgin, a lowly child, a crucified Jew.  We extol independence.  God prizes dependence and obedience shot through with fear.   On this weekend, the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. may serve as an example.

Jesus asks, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? …. You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  Do not look for God merely in power; look for him nailed to a cross.  There, in that pathetic form, the angels of God ascend and descend on the Son of Man.  “It is the Lord; he will do as seems good to him.” In faith, we are right to fear and love God.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Baptism of Our Lord (Jan 11)

Category: Sermon Tags: January 11, 2015 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Text

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep….”
“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Listen

The Baptism of Our Lord proclaims God’s pleasure—not a theory of divine pleasure, but a person of divine pleasure, the person: Jesus of Nazareth, the One baptized by John in the Jordan. This One gives God delight. He is the beloved Son.

The Father discloses his pleasure to the Son. Following his baptism, when the Spirit had descended upon Jesus in the form a dove—a dove (I believe) Noah had sent to locate dry land following the flood of the whole earth. That dove alights on the person of salvation, on the One who, by means of the baptism of his death, gives life and salvation to all. He is the safe place, our refuge from the storm.

Elsewhere Jesus refers to death as his “baptism,” a metaphor for crucifixion. Here, however, Christ’s baptism takes not the form of a cross, but of a literal flood. Immersion in Jordan water binds the incarnate God to all that is earthly, human, and mortal. His submission to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is mortification: the Sinless assumes the sin of all.

Christian tradition proclaims Christ sinless. But it’s more complicated than that. Paul says,“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul writes this in chapter 5 of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. He goes on to say that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…. All this (Paul says) “is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself….”

Christ’s baptism by John in Jordan, the decent of the Spirit as a dove, signals salvation from the flood of God’s primeval wrath. Seen in the context of “a new creation,” our Lord’s baptism becomes the initial sign of Christ’s whole purpose. He comes not to condemn humankind, but to save and deliver us by means of his death and resurrection, by means of his “baptism.” Christ’s baptism by John signals his self-sacrifice, his self-giving, his condescension to bear sin and death for us. The drowning Christ is our ark, our safe passage to the new creation.

St Mark says that ‘the whole region of Judea’ (the South) and “all of Jerusalem” were baptized by John in the Jordan River. In other words, John’s ministry was a regional phenomenon; John’s baptism was in and for Judea, including Jerusalem.

But John also preached. His preaching prepared the way for the coming of a “stronger one.” Of this “stronger one,” John says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John’s “I am not” in relation to the “stronger one” parallels the 4th Gospel’s account of John’s self-denial. There, religious leaders ask John, “Are you the messiah?” And he replies, “I am not.” John goes out his way to deny himself. Here in Mark he simply says, “I am not worthy.” Not worthy even to stoop down and untie the stronger ones shoes. John says he baptizes with water, but the stronger one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then, says Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.”

Notice: according to Mark, all who came out to be baptized by John were from the South, from Judea and all of Jerusalem. But Jesus came from the North—from “Galilee of the Gentiles”—from that quasi-pagan region of ritual and social contamination, a zone infected by Gentile filth, unrighteousness beyond the law of God.

Jesus came from unclean Galilee and was washed by John in Jordan. After Jesus came up out of the water, Mark says the heavens were torn apart, and “the spirit as a dove descended upon him.” Then a voice out of the heavens said: “You are my son, the beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” God takes pleasure in this most unlikely son, this tainted Jew from unrighteous Galilee.

In what sense, then, does Jesus’ baptism reveal him as God’s delightful Son? For starters, the Spirit lands on him. According John, the Spirit is the agent of the stronger ones baptism. But why does Jesus delight the Father? How is he stronger? He is stronger in his holy weakness, his willing condescension to John’s baptism, his willingness to come from dirty and despised Galilee to powerful and self-impressed Judea, and there to suffer the indignity of participation in a popular religious revival with all its self aware and proud humility. This is our sin: our self-satisfied religion, our self-importance, our self-regard and smirking derision toward those over whom we feel superior.

Who gives God pleasure? This Christ who, though superior over all, makes himself inferior to all. Wet as a newborn child, he is the Father’s delight, the salvation of the whole world, the new creation. Baptized into his death and resurrection, bound to him in baptismal promise, even in death, we share the Father’s pleasure.

Epiphany (Jan 6)

Category: Sermon Tags: January 6, 2015 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Isaiah 60:1-6, 26
Matthew 2:1-12

Text

“…the wealth of the nations shall come to you.”
“And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the wise men] went home to their own country by another road.”

Epiphany proclaims the manifestation of Christ to the nations.  “Wise men” seek the one born “king of the Jews,” because they had seen “his star in the east” and had come “to worship him.”  Having apparently followed that star all the way from the east, they came to Judea and the region of Jerusalem whereupon they stopped to inquire concerning where exactly they might locate the “one born king of the Jews.”  But this question raised alarm among the local population and not least at court, and in the heart of Herod himself who was, at that time, “king of the Jews,” albeit a murderous tyrant under the thumb of Imperial Rome.

Be that as it may, King Herod was in no mood to tolerate a pretender to the royal throne, and not least an infant born under the aegis of a heavenly sign.  Having heard the wise men, and apparently unlearned in the scriptures, Herod inquired of his priests and scribes in order to learn where the prophets said such a king should be born.  Quoting from the Prophet, Micah, they answered “in Bethlehem of Judea.”

Feigning a desire to worship the infant king, Herod commands the wise men to go, locate the child, and then report back to him, that he too might offer obeisance.  But after finding the child and presenting him gifts, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men returned to their own country by another road.

Thus is Christ revealed to the nations, to the Gentiles—to people like us, non-Jews, whose ancestors like ours dwelt in foreign lands, spoke unknown languages, worshipped exotic gods, sacrificed in alien temples, listened to tales of magic, wonder, and mystery: stories of Thor, Woden, Marduk, Pan, Isis, Hera, Aphrodite, and all the myriad rest.

We hear of Herod’s anguish, observe his terrified ignorance, and his vicious deceit.  We smile derisively at Herod’s vain efforts to out-maneuver God.  We hear of Herod and we think: that murderous cad!  That blood-thirsty despot!  That criminal mind!  A damned soul lost in the paranoia of darkness and unbelief.

But, is Herod really that different from us?  True, we don’t live in a palace as he did, and we don’t command scribes and priests, and we don’t exercise authority over armies of soldiers who slaughter infants and children.  Or do we?  Who pays for the drones to slaughter people in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan?  But we live in a democracy!  Our leaders are not despots kept in power by Imperial decree!  True, but who elects our leaders?  Who pays them?  Who enjoys the security their violent acts purchase?  Who chooses a safer road for themselves?

Are we not in jeopardy as great or greater than benighted Herod?  He didn’t know.  But we do. We know where the Christ was born, who he is, and what he has said.  Moreover, we know what he did; that he gave his life for us and for the life of the world. We know that he was crucified for us and for our salvation; we know that on the third day he was raised, that he ascended into heaven; that he sits at the right hand of the Father, and there intercedes for us.  We know that he will come again to be our judge.

We know all this, and yet, like Herod, we still sponsor state murder; like the wise men, we go our own way and leave others to suffer.  Notice: they were warned not to return to Herod.  But they could have returned to Christ.  They could have stuck by him.  But they didn’t.  They went own cozy way by another (safer) road, and so do we.

Christ’s manifestation to the nations, his Epiphany, reveals more than murderous Herod and fickle wise men; it reveals us as violent and fickle as they.  In the end, we’re all the same—sinners redeemed by the One born king of the Jews; the very One who dies on a cross, is buried, and raised.  The star points to HIM, God’s luminous grace for benighted sinners—whether Jews like Herod, or Gentiles like the wise men and us.  The star shines mercy, light in darkness, grace and peace for all.  O come, let us adore him.

Holy Innocents, Martyrs (Dec 28)

Category: Sermon Tags: December 28, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Jeremiah 31:15-17
Psalm 124
1 Peter 4:12-19
Matthew 2:13-18

Text

“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”

Listen

Even at Christmas, we grieve.  We grieve deeply the death of a child, and perhaps most deeply the senseless deaths of children murdered—as in Pakistan a few weeks ago, or at Sandy Hook, or a thousand other places named “holocaust.”  Flannery O’Conner, the novelist and short story writer, died in 1964 at the age of 39.  Though not as well known then, as she is now, O’Connor was known in the American South, and especially among Catholics, as she herself was a trenchant defender of the Catholic faith.

A few years before her death, O’Connor was contacted by the Sister Superior of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home,” a convent in her native Georgia dedicated to caring for persons dying of cancer.  Mary Ann, a girl given into the care of the monastic community from age three, had lived a beatific life and died a saintly death.  According to the nuns, the remarkable thing about MaryAnn was her serene acceptance of the entire ordeal.  In her tortured living and dying, Mary Ann never expressed anything but joy and thanksgiving at the generous goodness of God.

As members of the Convent had admired Flannery’s writing, and since the author was a Georgia Catholic, they wanted her to write an account of Mary Ann’s life and death, a testament to the miracle of faith in the midst of horrific events.

But O’Connor demurred.  Known as a writer whose stories relied on the grotesque, crude, and violent in order to communicate the deeper truths of life and faith, she felt herself inappropriate for the task.  The last thing she wanted was to be associated with a tawdry religious tale, a story of edifying faith prettied up for popular consumption.  She suggested that, as the sisters had cared for Mary Ann, they should also write her story.  But Sister Evangelist, the Mother Superior, prevailed, and O’Connor reluctantly agreed to write an introduction. O’Connor’s preface is a splendid assault on anti-religious sentiment that attacks God in the name of tenderness on account of suffering and dying children.  In the process, she reconnects human suffering to the suffering of God.  A portion runs as follows:

“One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited His goodness, you are done with Him..… Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents.  In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision.  If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith.  In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.  It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory.  When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.  It ends in the forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

O’Connor advances faith devoid of tender theory.  She refuses to gloss our human horrors with saccharine sweetness.  For her, suffering and death, and especially the suffering/death of children, invite God’s love in its terrible and mysterious power.  St. Matthew’s Slaughter of the Innocents is such a story.  Matthew’s account bears deepest meaning in relation to two other narratives, both in connection with the Christ.  In the first, God’s angel intervenes to warn both the wise men and the Holy Family of Herod’s wicked intent.  But, when the wise men go home by another road, the deceived Herod orders the little children killed, and the Christ Child escapes by night into Egypt.  The little children are slain, but the Christ Child escapes.  Yet Christ’s escape is temporary—a preparation for a second (and more crucial) story:  his betrayal, suffering, and death.  The Son of God does not flee in order to “live happily ever after.”  He escapes to die for the sins of the whole world.  He escapes to die, and (on the third day) be raised.

Christ’s death and resurrection form the denouement of his incarnation and flight into Egypt.  Why else would God be born in a barn?  Why else should the Son of God be threatened by a tyrant’s sword and be forced to live as a refugee?  It’s either a sick joke, or the first act in a story whose terrible beauty informs all our sorrow which, if detached from the death of God’s Son, becomes unbearable.

“Joy to the world,” and “Rachel weeping for her children.”  Christmas encompasses both—both the glorious wonder of the Word made flesh, and the bitter sorrow of human suffering, pain, and death.

O’Connor concludes her introduction to A Memoir for Mary Ann with these words, “This action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead, is called by the Church the Communion of Saints.  It is a communion created upon human imperfection, created from what we make of our grotesque state.”  Something similar may be said of Matthew’s account: the Holy Innocents/Martyrs draw us more deeply into the depth of divine charity and human pathos, culminating in the cross of Christ, the death of God’s own Son, for us and for our salvation.  Even as we weep with Rachel (and with all grieving mothers), we also sing with the angels.  All glory be to God on high: Christ has died, Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Christmas Eve (Dec 24)

Category: Sermon Tags: December 24, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-20

Text

“For to us a child is born, a son give to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Luke reports the birth of Jesus.  In familiar words, we hear of Mary and Joseph; Mary with child, her time fulfilled, no room for them, she gave birth to her first born son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.  We hear of angels, shepherds, and sheep in the fields by night.  We hear good news: in the city of Bethlehem, a savior is born who is Christ the Lord.  Shepherds make haste and visit the holy family:  Mary, Joseph, and the child lying in a manger.  They find it all as they’d been told, and report what they had seen and heard.  All who heard them were amazed.  Then, very near the end, Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  How odd.  Of course, by tradition, St. Luke was a physician.  Too bad he wasn’t a midwife.  I doubt a midwife would have written this way. Whether attending such a birth or having heard of it, a midwife wouldn’t have written, “The mother treasured all these words….”  Mothers don’t treasure words; they treasure babies.

I’ve only witnessed three human births first-hand.  But, beyond such limited qualifications, I have visited countless parents in close proximity to the birth of a child.  On that basis, I think I can safely say that in no case have I ever experienced a new mother—and especially a first-time mother following the birth of her child—say anything even remotely close to “I’ll treasure all these words and ponder them in my heart.”  Mother’s don’t ponder words, they ponder children.  Generally speaking, mothers treasure children.

Why, then, does Luke put it this way?  Why does Luke conclude his birth narrative with “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”?  But, of course, Luke doesn’t conclude his story with this sentence. He finishes with another:  “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” As it had been told them.  In other words, both Mary and the shepherds respond to words. Christmas lives in the telling, in the words.  Without words, everything devolves into mere sentiment, a kind of virtual surreality.  This is especially true of the Child in the manger—who is anything but virtual and surreal.  Christmas sentiment! Who can resist cooing into the ear of a soft newborn?  We can’t resist aestheticizing a birth wracked with the ragged pain of inhospitality, lonely dislocation, and crude circumstance.  Amid all the cute, cozy, comfy, pretty, romantic, hygienic, bucolic, pastoral, and painless images of our Lord’s ragged birth, a few words escape gravitational sentiment—words treasured and pondered by Mary; the shepherds rejoicing in all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Christmas wrapped in words.  Christ bundled in the telling.  Treasure the words—and especially the painful ones.  Ponder the telling!  The Child abides in weak words for weary people: no room for them; manger, shepherds, sheep, Savior.  “You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  There’s nothing pretty in that.  Treasure it. Ponder the words.  Good news in the telling—Christ is born for you.  Blessed Feast for hungry souls: Christ is born of Mary, wrapped in rags, lying in a feedbox, all that we might eat him.  Glory be to God on high!


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