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Ordinary Time
aka the Long Green Season
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Recent Sermons/Homilies from St Michael's
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Proper 24, Year A
22 October, AD 2017
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Well, as you all know by now, this is stewardship season in the Episcopal Church. And today’s gospel is most definitely a lesson in stewardship from the Lord himself. I’ll get to that in due course.

In Toronto and Montreal there are all kinds of synagogues– Jewish houses of worship. And it’s no wonder, because the largest concentration of Jews in Canada is in Toronto and Montreal. It’s also why the best bagels and smoked meat come from Montreal. When you pass by any one of those synagogues, you’ll notice a number of signs on the grounds along the sidewalks, the size of real estate signs. I don’t know if those same signs appear outside synagogues in this country, because I haven’t spent much time in any big cities here. They usually feature a menorah or a star of David, both prominent Jewish symbols, and in big letters on all of them is the slogan, “Buy State of Israel Bonds.” It’s a familiar concept north of the border since every fall the federal government runs its Canada Savings Bonds campaign, except that the signs on the synagogue lawns are there year round. And they’re well maintained, you won’t see one that’s been faded by the weather because as soon as it’s damaged, it gets replaced with a fresh new one. And as the snow piles up, the signs get moved up higher on the snowbanks. This is big business for the government of Israel.

It works pretty much the same as government savings bonds here: You pay so much for a bond, the money goes to the Israeli government, and on the maturity date you get back what you originally paid plus interest– not a lot, but it’s guaranteed. Now the difference is in the motivation. Most citizens here probably aren’t too concerned with the main purpose of savings bonds, i.e. that the money is used by the government for whatever reason, but that they’re a safe way to make a bit of extra money. On the other hand, most of the people who invest in State of Israel Bonds are Jewish, and the reason they invest is not so much that they can make money, as to support the Jewish state. And they usually plow the money they earn back into more bonds.

Now this may seem an odd thing to us when we consider that most Jews in North America were born either here or in Europe, not Israel; together with the fact that most North American Jews have never even been to Israel. Besides, savings bonds are far from being the most profitable form of investment. It’s all about religion more than anything else. The land of Israel was given by God himself to Abraham, the common ancestor of all the Jewish people. They see Israel, therefore, as their true home, their spiritual home, the Promised Land. So they see investing money in Israel as in some way honoring the Lord and preserving the gift he gave to them. It’s sort of like the tax that all ancient Jews were expected to pay to support the temple in Jerusalem, only now they are supporting the entire Jewish homeland.

Building on God’s revelation to the Jewish people in the Old Testament, the New Testament teaches that our true home is not in this fallen world– in whatever country we live– but in the kingdom of heaven. We are strangers in a strange land, even though it may be the land where we were born and raised. But Scripture assures us that our true home is not somewhere off in the distant future, and that has no bearing on us right now, but is very near to us, that we possess our true citizenship in God’s kingdom right now. And it shows in how we live, and in what we do and say. We are different because we have complete confidence in that homeland since, as our King and Savior has said, he has gone there to prepare a place for us, and intends to come again to take us to himself (Jn 14:3). And that changes the way we look at the world.

In today’s gospel Jesus shows how our citizenship in heaven is related to our citizenship on earth. We Christians have a duty to the world in which we live simply because we live in it. It’s God’s creation, therefore it belongs to God and, as St Paul says, it continues to groan under the burden of human sin until the day when Christ returns to redeem it and make it all new again  (Rom 8:18-23). So as the Body of Christ, our duty toward the world is primarily to be stewards of creation, “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), and to love and care for one another the way God loves us.

You may remember Jesus’ parable of the tenants that we read a couple of weeks ago, the story of the owner who set up his vineyard and put tenants in charge of it while he went away. It’s rooted in the creation story in which God creates everything else, then he creates humans in his own image and puts them in charge. But they messed it up. And we, their descendants, have been messing it up ever since. That’s why there was a succession of oppressive foreign regimes that conquered God’s people and demanded taxes from them, like Caesar. And that’s why every other bad thing has happened in the world, because of human sin.

But God sent his Son into the world, Jesus said, not to condemn it because of the mess we’ve made of it, but to redeem it (Jn 3:17). And the first step in redeeming it is to restore God’s image in his human creatures, who tarnished that image, along with everything else we’ve touched, by our sin. And he accomplishes that by the death and resurrection of his Son, and by joining everyone who believes to his Son in baptism. Then he sets us on a lifelong course of discipleship, through which his image is polished and enhanced, not by the good that we do, but by the good that he does through us. That’s why we owe our first allegiance to God, because we are his. “You are not your own,” St Paul says, “for you were bought with a price” (1Cor 6:19-20), and that price is the life of Jesus offered up on the cross, and then raised up on the third day.

As I said, today’s gospel is most definitely a lesson in stewardship, the way in which we ought to use the things we’ve been given. The old saying goes, You don’t get something for nothing. And Americans, of all people, should understand the meaning of that, given all the great things this country has achieved, and the high cost of achieving them, as well as the high taxes we pay to maintain our high standards. In a similar way, but far more important, everything we have is from God, and we didn’t earn any of it. So in return we should offer him nothing less than our entire selves, not just a tenth of our income or whatever amount of money we’ve determined to give to the Church.

While the tithe, a ten percent offering, is the biblical ideal, it’s only one indicator of where our true allegiance is, where our hearts are– in much the same way that the Jews’ financial support of the Israeli state is a sign of where their hearts are. So when Jesus tells the Pharisees to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s,” he’s talking about much more than money. What he is saying is that since all things come from God, all things can only be used appropriately when the use of them in some way glorifies God.

This incident takes place in the temple just a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion. He had just said some pretty harsh, but true, things to the religious leaders who had been dogging him. They’d been trying hard to trap him by his own words, but their plans backfired every time. So this time they came up with what they thought was a foolproof plan to get him into deep trouble with either the imperial or the religious authorities. In answer to whether it was right to pay taxes to Rome, if he said yes, then they’d have proof positive that he’s a false teacher and a blasphemer, and the chief priests could shame him and run him out of town once and for all. And if he said no, then they could turn him in to the Roman authorities on the charge of treason and get him crucified. They couldn’t envision a possible third way to answer their question.

But he fooled them yet again. If something bears the image of Caesar, he said, it must belong to Caesar, so give Caesar his due. But if it bears the image of God, then it belongs to God. Therefore give God his due. What he was unmistakably indicating by that reply is that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), so that what we owe to God is far greater than anything we can possibly owe to any human ruler. And because of what Jesus was about to accomplish in the next few days– his death and resurrection for the sins of the whole world– then nothing short of our whole selves is what is owed to God by everyone who has been redeemed by his sacrifice.

And that’s where we’re at, folks. In the eucharistic prayer in Rite One it says, “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee” (BCP 336). In fact our whole life is the only reasonable offering we can make to the Lord, given the offering he made of himself on the cross. It’s a holy sacrifice because in giving his life for ours, and making us members of his Body, Jesus makes us holy and therefore presentable to God. And it’s a living sacrifice that we offer because God doesn’t want our death. The death of his Son has already undone our death. He wants us to devote our lives to him by devoting ourselves in love to all his creatures, to loving them the way he loves them, to telling the world about the immensity of his love for us all which he declared from the cross, to welcoming them into his kingdom.

That’s the mission of his Church. And it requires the stewardship of all our resources– our time, our abilities, and our money. But that doesn’t mean giving it all directly to the Church, not to St Michael’s, or to the Diocese of Springfield, or whatever. Everything you do as a disciple of Jesus, you do out of love for him and for your neighbor, whether it’s raising your children; volunteering to work in disaster relief or giving money for it; doing nice things for your friends; being that loving, caring employee at the hospital. Everything a Christian does is in service to God. It’s still pretty important to give directly to the Church though, because it’s the institution that Jesus himself founded in order to worship God and to bear witness to him in the world.

So even though the tithe– ten percent of our income– is the biblical standard of giving, it’s not a hard and fast rule. It would be really odd and out of step with the rest of the New Testament if it were, since Jesus tended to brush off hard numbers, like when he said don’t just forgive your neighbor seven times, but seventy times seven, by which he meant that you’re supposed to forgive your neighbor every time he sins against you, because God is more that happy to forgive you every time you sin and repent. And he’ll never stop forgiving you unless you stop repenting. So it seems to me that if the question about tithing were put to Jesus the way the question about forgiveness was, he probably would have said don’t just give ten percent, but ten times ten. If you’re a stickler for math– and Jesus was not– that amounts to a hundred percent. And that adds up to exactly the same as what my old friend Fr Mercer says: “God doesn’t want you to stop at ten percent. He wants it all because it all belongs to him in the first place.” You’re his, and whatever you possess is his. So “whatever you do,” St Paul says, “do it all to the glory of God” (1Cor 10:31). In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 23, Year A
15 October, AD 2017
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I sometimes wonder, when I’m going out somewhere, whether I’m dressed properly for the thing I’m going to. I’ve shown up at casual functions in jacket and tie; and I’ve shown up at more formal do’s in jeans and a casual shirt. And I’d bet that I’m not the only here, am I? It can be embarrassing. And I imagine you all can see the connection between that kind of situation and the parable in today’s gospel.

Jesus used parables because they’re such great teaching tools. Quite often you can pack a pretty substantial lesson into a short story, and make the connection between the story and the subject of your teaching quite clear in a very few words. Parable comes from a Greek word meaning comparison. And Jesus most often began his parables by saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like...,” or, “... may be compared with...” The comparison is usually so obvious that it doesn’t need much explanation. So I’m sure the Pharisees and others who were listening to Jesus that day had a pretty good idea what message he was trying to get across. But being two thousand years removed from that day, most of us need a little help. So here we go.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” The characters are all thinly veiled. Bishop Hugh Latimer (16th c.) says that “this marriage-maker, or feast-maker, is Almighty God.” Then he asks who the bridegroom was, “Who was he now that was married? ... that was our Saviour Jesus Christ, the second person in the Deity; the eternal Son of God” (from Sermons on the Card and Other Discourses). We know from the imagery used by several of the Old Testament prophets that the invited guests are the people of God– Israel. So Jesus was criticizing the failure of his people generally, not universally, to respond to the invitation to his wedding feast. That invitation was delivered first by the prophets. From Isaiah to John the Baptist the call was to “prepare the way of the Lord” by repentance, for the Lord/ Bridegroom is coming to reconcile  God’s people to their Maker. “But they would not come.”

So the message went out again, this time from Jesus and the Apostles: “Everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” Some ignored the call, others attacked and killed the messengers. “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” This is actually a bit of prophecy, which was fulfilled when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem several decades later (AD 70). Then the king sent the servants into the streets to bring in any who would come. These would be the Gentiles, all the non-Jewish people of the world. This too was prophesied in the Old Testament as, for instance, in a beautiful passage in Zechariah who said,“Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (8.23). This is what Jesus was saying to God’s people in the first century: Come join us; God is with us.

And the message to God’s people in the 21st century is similar. And with that in mind we need to pay particular attention to the reaction of the invited guests. Canon Frank Colquhoun points out four different reactions. The first is one of casual indifference. Other things were given a higher priority: one had a farm, another had a business to attend to. The message is that so many people who have heard the Gospel at one time or another in their lives fail to see its relevance to them. It hasn’t made the desired impression on them. We’ve got everything we need; what more can the Church give us? Moses’ warning several thousand years ago still applies: “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God... lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them,” you begin to think you’ve done it all on your own (Deut 8.11-20).

The second reaction in the parable is one of open and active hostility. The Word of the Lord always has enemies. Some ignored the invite. They couldn’t be bothered even to find out whether or not it’s true. But others are not content until they’ve done all they can silence the Church once and for all– everybody from ISIS to our neighbors here at home who are committed to silencing the Gospel and pushing the Church completely out of the public eye and ear.

The third reaction to the invitation as it applies to our time is one of grateful acceptance. The king sent his servants into the streets to round up everybody they could find, both bad and good, and bring them to the feast. This illustrates the essential nature of the Gospel, that it offers something good, something free, something undeserved. It’s an extravagant gesture by the king. If we were talking about an earthly king, we’d use words like generosity and altruism. But with God, the King of all creation, the word is grace. None of the guests who accepted the invitation had any claims on the king. They did nothing to deserve his generosity– Jesus says they brought in everybody, both bad and good– yet the gift was theirs for the taking. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” St Paul says, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9). The grace of God is completely undeserved, unearned. We have no right to it, but he gives it anyway, because we’re all his creatures and he loves us.

The last reaction we have to consider is from the one guest who was not appropriately dressed for a wedding. This is the religious hypocrite, says Canon Colquhoun. He calls this one a parable within the parable, the message being that there are some who falsely profess the Gospel. Two questions come up here: 1. What is the wedding garment that Jesus is talking about? And 2. How is it that this one person isn’t wearing one? The best way to answer is to ask how all the other guests came to be wearing theirs. A careful reading between the lines shows that since they were all pulled in off the street unprepared, the king himself must have given them the proper clothing, which is the robe of righteousness that’s worn by all who respond to God’s grace. We get it through pleading the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins and receiving God’s pardon through the cross of Jesus. He doesn’t withhold it from any who ask for it. So obviously this one man refused to accept it. What had been freely offered to everyone was turned down by this particular person, which is why he was speechless when the king asked him about it. He figured he had dressed himself well enough. After all, his own clothes may have been good enough to get him into other parties, so why not this one? I know some of you this past week saw Bishop Daniel’s facebook comment about his spellchecker trying to change Pelagianism to plagiarism. Plagiarism is stealing somebody else’s work. Pelagianism is a major heresy. This improperly dressed wedding guest was a Pelagian– he thought he could get into the kingdom of heaven by his own efforts rather than by relying completely on the grace of God.

The demand of the kingdom of heaven is extremely high, but it’s not unattainable for anybody. In fact it’s a much easier demand to meet than an outsider might think– than many both inside and outside the Church actually do think. There are a lot of people out there who think they’re not welcome in here unless they can somehow make themselves better people. Too often when I’ve asked this or that person why they don’t receive Holy Communion, or even come to church, the reply has been, “I’m not good enough,” or “I can’t live up to it.” And they’re exactly right– none of us is good enough, none of us can “live up to it.” It’s exactly the wrong answer to why some don’t go to church or receive Holy Communion. But it’s the right answer to the question of how to get our hands on the proper wedding garment. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

This is all beautifully illustrated every time the Church baptizes a baby or a small child. Critics of infant baptism will say, “How can babies be baptized? They’ve got to come to the age of understanding, and then decide for themselves.” But what’s happening in that moment is that the Church is enacting the biblical theology of grace. The Church is saying with St Paul, “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” because other than obeying the command of Jesus to baptize and make disciples, we’re not doing anything. It’s all God’s doing. An old friend, Archbishop Harold Nutter, who died recently, used to stand at the baptismal font and say to parents and godparents, “You didn’t bring yourselves and your baby here. You wouldn’t have come under your own steam. God drew you here by the gift of his grace.” God invites us, and he also puts it in our hearts to accept the invitation.

Part of this beautiful illustration of grace is that parents will usually dress the baby for the event. They know it’s a big deal, even though they may not get how really big a deal it is. So they buy the baby a special outfit, or they may have access to a traditional family christening gown. I wore the same gown at my baptism in 1962 that my grandmother wore in 1890, and my father wore in 1927. I didn’t pick it out, and neither did my parents. It was handed to them and they put on me. That symbolizes the garment that God offers to each person he invites to the wedding feast. Put this on, he says, it’s the garment of salvation, washed in the blood of my Son on the cross. All that’s required of you to wear it is a humble and obedient heart. Just repent and believe the Gospel. The prophet Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (61:10). I’m sure Jesus had that in mind as he told this parable.

Austin Farrer says that “The parable of the wedding garment has a cruel sound. How could the poor man, dragged in from the highway or the hedge to fill a place at the king’s table, provide himself a wedding garment?” That’s how we tend to see it at first because, the way Jesus tells the story, that man appears to have been singled out by the king for not a very good reason. And maybe we feel sorry for him because we’ve turned up at something underdressed before. But, Farrer says, “The cruelty disappears if we turn from the parable to the thing signified in it. We are the men whom God’s mercy has brought to his table, and the garment of glory is bestowed on us by his royal hand...” (The Crown of the Year, Trinity XX). We come to the altar, the Lord’s banquet table, week after week as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, to feast on his Body in the sacrament. “In making us his members,” Farrer says, “Christ spreads the garment of his own sanctity upon us.” And if we confess our sins on the way to the altar, which is the condition for being able to put on that garment, then “God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to receive us as though we were Christ himself.” So it doesn’t matter what kind of clothes we wear to church. What really matters is whether we’ve humbled ourselves enough by the help of God’s grace to fit into the garment that he wants to put on us. And now that we’re all just about ready, y’all come to the wedding feast. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 22, Year A
8 October AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus is really giving the Pharisees the gears in today’s gospel. As I’ve pointed out before, whenever Jesus taught publicly some Pharisees and other religious leaders were usually hovering in the background, because he was quickly gaining a reputation as a teacher and a healer. The Pharisees were a class of religious leaders whose job was to teach and enforce the law of God. So, like the KGB, they kept an eye on Jesus to make sure he wasn’t teaching anything subversive. The big problem they had with that was that as Jesus became more and more popular, and was drawing larger crowds, they realized they needed to build a really strong case against him so that the people wouldn’t turn on them. Like it says at the end of today’s gospel, they wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid to since the crowds held him to be a prophet.

What the Pharisees didn’t like about Jesus was that he wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He openly criticized the religious establishment for the ways it had distorted, or misapplied, or unevenly applied the law of God in order to maintain their authority and safeguard their status, and also to insulate God’s people from the rest of the world. Sometimes he would call them out directly, and not be very nice about it. His most scathing criticism of them happened not long after what we read today, and has come to be known as the seven woes. Seven times Jesus says, “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” The Scribes were another class of religious leaders, sometimes known as lawyers or doctors of the law, because they were the ones who copied the law by hand (no photocopiers back then), and so they knew the law back to front. “Woe to you,” Jesus said to them all, “For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You don’t go in yourselves, and when others try to go in, you stop them” (Mt 23:13). That was the first, and the worst, charge he levelled against them, and the one that pretty much covers the other six. Well, they didn’t much like all those unkind things he said about them, even though they were all true, and it strengthened their resolve to get rid of him. So then they sent some of their disciples to try to trap Jesus by asking him a trick question, which backfired. Later on they got together in the palace of the high priest, Caiaphas, and plotted to arrest Jesus quietly and kill him (Mt 26:3-4). This is all comes later in St Matthew’s gospel (ch 26).

Getting back to today’s reading, the scene is the temple during Holy Week. Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by large crowds of people as the Son of David. He headed straight to the temple and made a mess of the Court of the Gentiles by wrecking the stalls of the vendors and turning over the tables of the currency exchangers, and driving them all out, because it was meant by God to be the place where Gentiles could come to worship him. But the religious leaders had pushed them out and turned it into commercial space. Then Jesus sat down and began to teach. This is the second of three parables that he told to the crowds before the disciples of the Pharisees came to try to trick him. We would have read the first one last week, except that we celebrated Michaelmas instead; and we will read the third one next week.

So he tells this story about the owner of a vineyard, which echoes what we read from Isaiah in the first lesson. The owner, or in Isaiah the Beloved, has set everything up in good shape and leased it out to a number of tenants– sharecroppers. In Jesus’ parables the master usually represents God, and so it is this time. God sets his people up in a fertile country, and gives them everything they need to thrive and grow. In his last speech to the people just before they entered into that country, Moses sternly warned them not to forget the Lord their God by ignoring his commandments and neglecting the covenant that he made with them. For it was God and not themselves who freed them from slavery and brought them in to the Promised Land (Dt 8:11-18). But they did forget God and ignore the covenant. And when he sent prophets to call them back, they mistreated them.

This is what Jesus is describing by way of this parable. At harvest time the owner sent slaves– the translation we read says servants, but it’s really slaves in Greek, and that’s important to the story. He sent slaves to collect his share of the produce. The sharecroppers turned on the slaves because they wanted it all to themselves. The Israelites rejected the prophets because they wanted to push God out of their lives and forget all about him. So the owner sent a larger number of slaves, and the tenants did the same to them. So the third time the owner decides to send his own son. “Surely they won’t mistreat my son,” he thought. Slaves are expendable, you see, not nearly as dear to you as your own children. That’s why Jesus included slaves in this parable. But they took the son out of the vineyard and killed him too.

Jesus is telling his audience what’s about to happen to himself in the next few days. The people that his Father put in charge of the nation are going to take him outside the city and kill him on a cross. And that’s going to demonstrate how great their rejection of God really is– not the people of God, but the leaders. So many of them, but not all (remember Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) had become complacent, self-satisfied, extremely protective of their own high dignity, so that everything they did and said in the Name of God they did with an eye toward preserving their own status. You’ll find an element of that in all sorts of big organizations– churches, governments, maybe even in political parties. The status and the agenda of the ruling classes must be preserved at all costs. That’s precisely what Jesus was attacking with this parable. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard it, Matthew says, “they realized that he was speaking about them.”

Okay, let’s have a look at the second lesson for a minute. St Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, which was the very first church in Europe, planted by Paul himself. This letter is kind of a thank-you note combined with a word of encouragement and a warning about a problem that they might have to face sooner or later. The Philippian Christians were mostly Gentile converts, devout believers in Jesus, and highly committed to the mission of the Church. They gave lots of money for the spread of the Gospel and planting new congregations. So when they learned that Paul was imprisoned in Rome, they sent one of their members with a purse full of money for him, and with orders to stay and look after him. So Paul wrote, first of all to thank them for their care, and to pray for their continual growth in the faith and love of God.

Then he warns them about people who spread the Gospel from bad motives. Some were doing it for money and fame. But the ones Paul was really concerned about at the time were a few Jewish converts who couldn’t understand why Gentile converts didn’t have to undergo Jewish initiation on the way to becoming Christians. We modern Christians all have our blindspots too. We think that because we do something in our own church, or don’t do something, then it’s wrong that other churches do it differently. Well those guys were visiting a lot of the churches in Asia and telling the people there that they had to satisfy the requirements of Jewish law, including circumcision, or else they wouldn’t be legitimate Christians. Paul had already been busy putting out fires over that issue in Corinth and Galatia. In fact, Paul got so worked up about it that he said he wished those guys would make a major slip of the knife on their own anatomy (Gal 5:12). So here he is, warning the Philippians to be on the lookout for that same kind of false teaching.

Those guys will try to establish their credentials, he said, by demonstrating what good Jews they are, and by telling people that the only way for non-Jewish followers of Jesus to have a right relationship with God was through the covenant he established with Moses, including all the ritual and dietary laws of the Old Testament. Not so, Paul said. Baptism brings us into a far deeper relationship with God than circumcision did, because whereas circumcision makes Jewish men sons of the covenant, baptism makes both men and women sons of God. In Paul’s teaching, divine sonship is not at all a matter of physical or biological distinction, but of legal standing. In the legal world that Paul lived in, sons inherited everything from their fathers, and the best that daughters could hope for was to get a good husband or to have a loving brother to look after her the rest of her life. Women in just about every culture back then were second-class. But in the kingdom of God, there is no such distinction, “for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28), therefore all inherit the kingdom equally. Or to put it Paul’s way, everybody is a son of God. There are no daughters in the legal sense, for there is no second class in God’s kingdom.

Well, Paul goes on to tell the Philippians that if any of them really needs to see his credentials in order to trust him, he’s definitely way more qualified than just about every other proclaimer of the Gospel. “Circumcised at eight days old, according to the law of Moses, a member of God’s chosen people, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews,”–  which is sort of like saying “a man among men.”– “as to the law, a Pharisee.” Paul, you see, belonged to that group of religious leaders that was always trying to trap Jesus. Paul wasn’t one of those guys himself, because he lived in far-away Tarsus. But he held the same ideology and attitude, as he implies in the very next line when he says, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” He was every bit as zealous as the Pharisees that hounded Jesus, if not more so, as he tracked down Jewish Christians in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus. He looked on approvingly at the stoning of St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, and even held the coats of the men who threw the stones. He was every bit as determined as his colleagues to stamp out the Jesus movement in order to preserve the status quo. In other words, he was just like the ones Jesus was attacking by telling the parable we just read.

And St Luke describes Paul as “still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord” while on his way to Damascus to arrest a group of converts (Acts 9:1). And that trip is where it all changed for Paul, and for the Church, because that’s when God knocked him to the ground and struck him blind in order to get his attention. Then the risen and ascended Jesus spoke to him, and converted him, and gave him into the care of the Christians of Damascus that Paul had intended to persecute.

Having undergone so great a conversion, from being the most zealous persecutor of Christians to being the most zealous proclaimer of Christ and the most energetic church planter, he can say to the Philippians, “whatever gain I had”– whatever standing, authority, dignity as a righteous Jew and a Pharisee– “I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And I love the next line because of one Greek word that Paul uses that is almost never accurately translated into English. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Rubbish is the word that we read today. But the word Paul uses is actually translated as dung, manure, sewage, or a four-letter word that we don’t say in church. Everything he was and had before his conversion, he doesn’t give a poop about. And that’s his valuation of just about everything else in relation to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.” 

That’s not where the religious leaders’ hearts were, the ones who engineered Jesus’ suffering and death. But their time in charge was running out anyway, since Jesus had already recruited, and was grooming the new leaders of God’s people, “other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season,” the apostles. And as Paul was an exemplary Pharisee, much more was he an exemplary apostle.

The ministry of the Pharisees ran its course long ago. But the pharisaic attitude is still around. It’s what tries to prevent the Church, the people of God, from moving forward in the will of God. There’s the petty stuff, like trying to move a piece of furniture or changing the format of an event, and being told, “We’ve never done it that way before.” But of far greater importance is the stuff that has to do with how we relate to people both within and without the Church, how we deal with new realities in church and society, how we respond to recent tragic events, how we care for the victims, how we relate to those on all sides of the debates that follow, and how we engage in all those actions and discussions in the Name and the love of Jesus.

The stereotypical Pharisees of old, and the pharisaic Christians among us now are set in their ways. Their knee-jerk response, “This is how we’ve always done things,” is usually not true. It’s how things have been done for as long as they can remember. But their memory only goes back several decades at most. How we ought to do things, requires us looking back farther than that, and also looking into eternity. What is the will of God for his creation? What is his desire for his creatures, especially his human creatures all of whom he wants to gather into his family by joining us all to his Son whom we killed and he raised up. As Paul teaches in today’s reading, none of the worldly things we value– position, wealth, tradition– compare to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.” We should count it all as dung, as stuff that, if we don’t get rid of it as quickly as possible, is going to stink up our lives and put a lot of distance between us and our Lord. And I’m going to leave you right there with that nasty thought! In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 20, Year A
24 September AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Jonah 3:10–4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Since the subject of death and getting ready to die figures in the collect and the first two lessons today– both Jonah and Paul express their wish to die– I’m going to do a little shameless commercial promotion with regard to funerals here at the start. On Labor Day weekend I went to New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Dubuque, Iowa. The Trappists are a particular order of monks in the Roman Catholic Church, who have several abbeys around North America. They’re not very worldly– they don’t leave the abbey grounds very much at all, and they don’t talk any more than they have to. The most talking that they do is when they sing God’s praises in the chapel seven times a day. And most of their waking hours, apart from chapel time and lectio divina (sacred reading), is devoted to work. And since they follow pretty strictly the Benedictine rule of ora et labora, prayer and work, they’re completely self-supporting. Each abbey specializes in a certain product, e.g. in New Brunswick at the one I’m most familiar with, they have about 750 acres of forest and a couple hundred dairy cows; in Quebec they produce maple syrup; in South Carolina it’s shiitake and oyster mushrooms; and in Iowa it’s caskets, and that was the big draw for me.

The brothers make the most beautiful, and simple, caskets and urns. They’re quite a bit cheaper than the ones available from the funeral home. But if you ask your local undertaker nicely, they’ll get one for you from the monks. All the time they’re making a particular casket or urn, the brothers pray for the person whose remains will be placed in it, even though they don’t know who that may be– but that doesn’t matter, God knows– and for the people who will mourn that person’s death. And a lot of the wood they use comes from their own land, so every time they finish a casket, they plant a tree in memory of that person. It’s a wonderful ministry of caring for people in a way that can only be done by people of faith, because the brothers believe very strongly in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed). I have brochures, if you’re interested.

Alright. Now I want to talk about what we prayed for and read today. In the collect we prayed that God would grant us

not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things which are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure...

As some of you know, my mother is 91, and her health has started declining fairly quickly this year. When I was with her a couple of weeks ago, after sitting quietly for a bit she said, “I don’t know how much longer this is going to go on.” She didn’t say it with a tone of despair or sadness in her voice. It came out as a kind of matter-of-fact observation. She prays for the things we prayed for in today’s collect, and has done for as long as I can remember. She’s not anxious about earthly things. She loves the heavenly things and looks forward more and more to the day when she’ll be able to see them more clearly. It’s going to be a sad day for us, but a great day for her. And that’s the best any of us can hope for. People of faith who knowingly face the end of life, who are “waiting for God,” as the English like to say, usually think along those lines. And that’s a good thing.

Okay, here’s another story: Most of you knew Dennis, who died a little over a year ago. Then we said goodbye to Julie and Ezra this spring when they moved to Oklahoma. Dennis was a great guy, and a good friend. And it’s no secret that he was an agnostic, but I’m pretty sure he’s not any more. Agnostics are different from atheists. An atheist will positively declare that there is no God. But an agnostic just isn’t sure. Dennis was an honest agnostic. He couldn’t say for sure one way or the other if he believed in God. But he was sure he wanted his son to be baptized and brought up as a Christian. In fact, when Ezra was baptized, Dennis said he would stand up with him and undertake all the vows that he felt he could, given his uncertainty. And he did.

Well, some weeks before he died when I went to visit him in hospital, he asked me whether I’d be comfortable taking his funeral. “Why wouldn’t I be?” I said. “Because of where I am in terms of believing,” he said.  So I asked him, “You were baptized once upon a time, weren’t you?” “Yes,” he said, “as a baby in the Lutheran Church.” So then here’s the deal, I said,  when you were baptized– and it doesn’t matter what you think or feel about it now– it wasn’t just a bunch of people standing around praying while the pastor poured water over you in an empty ritual. When the Church prays and pours water over someone in the Name of God, whether it’s a newborn baby or a grown person with a PhD, God does some things in that person’s life. And based on the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, the Church believes that. That’s our faith in action, responding to God’s promises. And what he did to you– in you– that day was to set his love on you and to mark you as his very own child forever. So you’re a son of God, and your heavenly Father isn’t going to let you go very easily. You’ve got to really, forcefully, consciously reject him before he’ll let you go. And even then, he’ll wait for you. That’s exactly what the parable of the prodigal son is all about (Lk 15).

That’s how the Church sees it, I said to Dennis, and so that’s the way I come at it. He said, “That sounds pretty reasonable.” So I told him that the only problem I had in doing his funeral was that he was way too young. By that time he was pretty much resigned to the fact that he was going to die soon. And in terms of today’s collect, he didn’t really appear to be anxious about earthly things. He had done all he could to make sure his family would be secure.

Okay, now I’m going to shift gears. But please bear with me; I promise I’ll try to tie it all together in the end. This is also a good time to be reading today’s first lesson in light of the rise of nationalism in this country and in Europe, and the increasing violence that goes along with it.

Jonah was definitely a nationalist. God sent him to call the pagan people of Nineveh to repentance. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire then; now it’s a suburb of Mosul, Iraq. Jonah refused to go because he didn’t think Israel’s God had any business dealing with foreigners. People in those days, in that part of the world generally believed that each nation had its own gods, who didn’t bother with the people of other nations. So the story of Jonah was meant initially to be a lesson to God’s chosen people who, even though they believed their God is the only God, they wanted to keep him all to themselves. This was in spite of the fact that God had repeatedly told them from the start that he intended to make them “as a light for the nations, that [his] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

Nevertheless, Jonah protested. “If you, the God of all creation, the only, living, and true God, call them to repent,” he said, “then they’re going to repent. But I don’t want them to repent  because they’re not your chosen people, and they don’t worship you.” “Do it anyway,” God told him. So he hopped a boat headed in a different direction. That’s when God arranged to have him thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish (whale, whatever), and then spit him out on land headed in the direction of Nineveh. Jonah knew by then that there’s no use trying to do an end run around the will of God, so he went to Nineveh and preached; the people repented; and Jonah got even more upset. “Didn’t I tell you this is what would happen?” he complained to God. “Those people don’t worship you. They don’t even know you. So why would you want to be merciful to them? They don’t deserve anything from you.” And then as his ultimate expression of disgust over what God had done, Jonah said, “Why don’t you just kill me now? You’ve turned my world upside down, and I don’t want to live in the world you’ve shown me. So just kill me.” And God said, “You think it’s okay for you to be angry over this?”

Jonah had a very nationalistic attitude with a thin coat of godliness over it to try to make it look acceptable. And it’s just a reflection of the general attitude among God’s chosen people at that time. So God’s purpose in sending Jonah on that mission is to teach his people that it’s not acceptable, not back then, and certainly not now, not since Jesus died and rose again and commissioned his Church to reconcile the whole world to himself. The lesson still holds true for us and for the nationalists of whatever country in our day, and especially to nationalists who are worshippers of God, because they really ought to know what our God is like. Yet they persist in hating people who aren’t like us. Every Christian should know that our God is a God of mercy and reconciliation, and not of hatred and destruction, and that the purpose of his Son being lifted up on the cross is to draw all people to himself (12:32).

So Jonah goes off in a huff. And God causes a plant to grow up over him for shade, and he feels better. But the next day God sent a worm to destroy the plant, then a burning wind and the hot sun. Jonah said, “Just let me die, alright?”  God said, “Do you think it’s okay for you to be angry over the plant?” “Yes I do,” Jonah said, “angry enough to die.” “You pity the plant that you have no claim over whatsoever,” God says, “Well, shouldn’t I pity Nineveh and the 120,000 people that I do have a claim over? Sure, they don’t know their right hand from their left, or who their real God is. That’s why I send prophets and preachers to people in that kind of spiritual darkness.” What God is essentially saying to Jonah is, “Don’t hate the people I love. Every life on earth belongs to me, and is loved by me. And every last one needs my love and mercy. Therefore I want to reconcile all of you to myself so that you may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). God has every right to show mercy to whomever he chooses. And every worshipper of God bears the responsibility to act as the agent of his mercy, but not to demand that he favor us over others. Jonah’s big problem was that he was so “anxious about earthly things” that he couldn’t envision the heavenly things.

OK. Let’s have a quick look at the second lesson. This is the apostle formerly know as Saul the Pharisee. In his old life he had been a certain kind of nationalist himself, like Jonah. As a Pharisee, he worked hard to defend the religious life of the Jewish nation as the way of preserving God’s people. But now as an apostle, he’s working hard to spread the Gospel and to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). So he’s ventured far beyond the land of Israel. For the mission of God’s Old Testament people was to be the seedbed of his New Testament people, the Church, whose mission is to reach all people with the Good News of about Jesus.

Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians during his imprisonment in Rome. And he indicates earlier in the letter that his trial is about to begin. So we know it was written shortly before his death, and he was ready for that. In his conversion he gave up his worldly nationalism in favor of the eternal kingdom, the kingdom that “is not of this world” (Jn 18:36), the kingdom that encompasses all creation. In being joined to Jesus in a death like his (Rom 6:5) Paul sacrificed his old pharisaic and nationalistic attitudes and values on the cross of Christ. He’s been rightly called the Apostle to the Nations ever since. He abandoned all that was provincial and narrow-minded in his old life and baptized everything that was good, so that his vision is firmly fixed on heavenly things, and his whole life’s work is devoted to sharing that vision with the whole world and drawing all people to the crucified and risen Christ.

And that’s the big difference between Paul and Jonah, and between all those who reject and who embrace God’s will, which Paul describes as “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). We have no idea whether Jonah ever repented of his attitude. The story ends with us thinking that he stayed mad at God for bringing the Ninevites to repentance, and  that he refused to bring his own will into line with God’s will. He clung to his love of earthly things, worldly values, rather than wholeheartedly embracing a love of things heavenly. As he said to God, he’d rather have died than get on board with God’s plan. And that one statement demonstrates that Jonah wasn’t really ready to die just yet, for he wasn’t ready to be reconciled to God. It’s the same with the workers in Jesus’ parable who complained that the vineyard owner was unfair. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” he said to them. And since the owner represents God, of course he’s allowed to do what he chooses, because his choices are unquestionably “good and acceptable and perfect.” The denarius that the owner gives to every worker at the end of the day represents eternal life. It’s the one gift God has to give to his people. So what more does anyone think he can expect from God?

On the other hand, Paul’s conversion brought about a major change of attitude, so that God’s will became Paul’s will also. He understood that God’s love is infinite and that he’s merciful to all people, even before they call upon him, as in the case of the Ninevites. And as Paul himself says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners [i.e. before we knew we even needed to be saved], Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Jonah couldn’t accept that– he’d sooner die than accept it. But not only did Paul accept it, he was ready to die for it, and he did die for it. As he says in today’s reading, “I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it’s better that I continue to live” (NLT). He’s all set to go, because his eyes are firmly fixed on heavenly things. But as long as he remains alive, as long as he’s “placed among things which are passing away,” as today’s collect says, he’s determined to “to hold fast to those [things] that shall endure,” the Word of God and the people of God, because those are the earthly gateway to the heavenly kingdom.

So let it be our hope and our prayer that every worshipper of God possess that same attitude, so that by the end of life, whether it comes at old age or sooner, we will all so “love things heavenly,” and be firmly grounded in the “things that shall endure,” the things of God, that we’ll be ready to enter into them in all their fullness. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 19, Year A
17 September AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my preaching professors in seminary, Archdeacon Hilchey, once warned us, “Do not attempt to preach on all the readings. You just can’t do it because they don’t have any connection to one another.” Well, that might have been true back then, but a few years after that the lectionary was revised so that the readings actually do have some connection. It’s more obvious on some Sundays than on others, but the connection is there. And today the connection between the first lesson and the gospel is pretty obvious.

The second lesson, not so much. St Paul is teaching there about how to relate to people who are, as he says, “weak in faith,” not very well grounded in the teaching of the Church. They want to nitpick over secondary issues, like the fact that some Christians avoid certain kinds of food, or that they don’t observe all the high holy days, or they fast when everybody else in the church is feasting, or vice versa. Today the conflicts are things like how some Christians drink alcohol while others are teetotalers; some mow their lawns on Sunday afternoon, and other’s don’t do anything but pray and eat; some get their foreheads smudged with the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday, and others criticize them for “disfiguring their faces like the hypocrites” (Mt 6:16). There’s a lot more important stuff to think about, St Paul says, really serious things like how to love and care for one another, and how to reach the world with the Good News of Jesus. So respect the various expressions of piety among your brothers and sisters, Paul urges, insofar as those things are helpful in building up their faith. And come alongside them to look at the bigger picture, and to work together in building up the Body of Christ.

Now back to the first lesson. The opening line says, “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’” That statement implies a couple of pretty important bits of information that we need to recall in order to get the magnitude of the sin that Joseph’s brothers had committed against him years before, and therefore how magnanimous Joseph was in forgiving them. Joseph was the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the second son by Jacob’s favorite wife. He had two wives, Leah and Rachel; and he also fathered children by his wives’ personal handmaids. If you’ve read or seen The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the biblical background for that story. Polygamy was okay for those who could afford it back then, as well as making babies with slaves and concubines. Joseph was also his father’s favorite, and he knew how to rub it in on his brothers. When Jacob made him the fabled coat of many colors, Joseph couldn’t wait to show it off to his brothers. And when he had a dream in which all his brothers bowed down to him, he couldn’t wait to tell them all about it. And so the author of Genesis says that “when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him (Gen 37:4).

Eventually, they’d had enough of Joseph and his attitude. So they sold him to some traders who took him to Egypt and sold him as a slave. Meanwhile, the brothers covered Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and took it to their father, who concluded that he’d been devoured by a wild animal. A high mucky-muck in the Egyptian court named Potiphar bought Joseph to be his household slave. And after years of ups and downs, losing his spoiled-child attitude and becoming very wise, and having received the gift of prophetic dreams from God, Joseph eventually rose to become Pharaoh’s prime minister. Then came a seven-year famine in that part of the world, which Joseph had prophesied. So Pharaoh put him in charge of managing the food supply. When Jacob’s family ran low on food, he sent his sons to Egypt to see if they could get some help, and they came face to face with Joseph, although they didn’t recognize him. And after playing some cat-and-mouse games with them, designed to make them really terrified of their little brother, he revealed his true identity. They all cried and hugged each other, but because of their guilt over what they had done to him years before, they didn’t trust him. Then they went home to tell their father, and to bring him back to see his long-lost son. And Joseph set them all up on a nice estate in Egypt where they could all live happily ever after. But when Jacob eventually died, the brothers worried that Joseph would finally vent his wrath on them. And that’s where today’s reading begins.

A lot of people have a sort of black-and-white understanding of characters in the Bible, so that the ones God favors must be total good guys in spite of the seemingly bad things they do. And the bad things they do must somehow not really be all that bad. David, for example, was called the man after God’s own heart (1Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). Yet he had his general, Uriah, killed so that he could have the widow Bathsheba for himself, who at the time was pregnant with David’s child. (2Sam 11). And that black-and-white understanding of biblical characters has led some to conclude that killing Uriah really wasn’t all that bad, since David and Bathsheba’s second child was Solomon, who grew up to be a wise and peace-loving king, and who built the temple in Jerusalem. But later on he started dabbling in the many religions of his many wives. Yet, following that black-and-white line of thinking, the good that people like David and Solomon do cancels out the bad. But that’s not really how it works.

And you can see this applied to modern-day politics. The president of a major university on the religious right, for example, refers to the President of the United States as the “dream president,” not because he thinks Mr Trump is completely above reproach, but because he believes Mr Trump is the man of God’s choosing. And therefore whatever bad things he may do aren’t really all that bad since he’s the one who has pledged to further the cause of the religious right. I’m not saying anything good or bad about the President of the United States here. And I’m certainly not preaching politics. As I said last week, the pulpit is supposed to stand above politics, and preachers are to call the people of God to view politics through the lens of the Gospel, which is what I’m attempting to do right now. I’m simply trying to explain where the understanding of the religious far-right comes from, and how it enables them to wholeheartedly embrace a leader who’s never given any indication that he wholeheartedly embraces the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

All those biblical characters were infected by sin. And even though most of the time they wanted to do the right thing and to please God, they still sinned. But their sinfulness wasn’t in any way cancelled out by the good they did. There’s no balance sheet in God’s economy. The only way to get free of sin is to repent. No amount of good deeds will ever remove the guilt of unrepented sin.

So just because the sons of Jacob were the fathers of God’s chosen people doesn’t mean they were shining examples of moral rectitude. After all those years their unrepented sin was still causing them to see corruption in everybody else. And that’s the thing about sin. If you don’t deal with it, it’s going to work on your soul like a cancer. It will distort the way you see yourself and other people; it will breed distrust, and possibly hatred; it will damage, or even destroy relationships; and it will increasingly put distance between yourself and your God.

Joseph’s brothers cooked up a scheme to try to protect themselves, which involved both deception and confession. They sent a message to Joseph saying that it was their father’s dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers who had sinned against him. The lie is that they said Jacob had commanded his sons to ask Joseph to forgive them. But they packaged their actual confession in that lie. They were confessing their sin in an indirect way. We might call it a white lie, because they intended it for good. And since they’d spent all those years living a lie, from the time they sold Joseph into slavery until they were reunited in Egypt, maybe they felt justified in using a measure of deceit this one last time to lay the whole matter to rest. Whatever the case, he forgave them. And in that ultimate act of forgiveness Joseph showed the wisdom and the depth of faith that had grown in him through all his ups and downs. “Am I in the place of God?” he said to them, meaning “do I have the power to forgive or to withhold forgiveness?” “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,” in order to save his people from extinction. His brothers had originally planned to kill him, but instead sold him as a slave. But through it all God was working out his plan to keep the promise he had made to their great-grandfather Abraham to make a great nation of his children. So of course Joseph had to forgive his brothers no matter what, as a reflection of the goodness of God.

And that’s the lesson Jesus teaches in response to Peter’s question in today’s gospel, “Do I have to forgive my brother every time he sins against me? Or do I stop at seven?” Now I’ve explained this before, but it’s a fairly important bit of Bible trivia: the number seven represents completion/perfection. The seven golden lampstands and the seven spirits mentioned by St John in Revelation stand for the whole Church. The seven “I am” sayings of Jesus in St John’s gospel– “I am the Bread of life”; “I am the good shepherd”; “I am the way, the truth, and the life”; “I am the door”; “I am the light of the world”; “I am the true vine”; “I am the resurrection and the life”– those are the fullness of Jesus’ teaching about himself as the Son of God. There are seven sacraments, the seven chief means by which God ministers his grace through his Church. Seven is the perfect number. “So am I off the hook after forgiving my brother that many times?” Peter wants to know. “No you’re not,” says Jesus, “not after seven times, not even after seventy times seven,” or seventy-seven times, depending on which translation of the Bible you read. Either way, it’s a figure of speech, like when St John says that he heard “the voice of many angels... and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand” (Rev 5:11 AV). It was a countless throng of angels. And Jesus is counselling Peter to be infinitely merciful in forgiving his brother. In other words, forgive him every time he repents, no matter how often he sins against you, no matter how grievous the sin. And that’s all good news for us.

In our Rite 2 liturgy, the priest invites the people to confess their sins by saying, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” But in the Canadian version, the priest says, “Dear friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy; he welcomes sinners and invites them to his table. Let us confess our sins, confident in God’s forgiveness” (BAS 190). That’s based on Jesus’ teaching in this gospel reading among others. This is how generously you should be willing to forgive, Jesus says to Peter and the other disciples. Every time anyone comes, cap in hand, asking for forgiveness you forgive them. Even when they don’t ask for it, you forgive them anyway. Because like the slave in the parable, if you’re not willing to forgive anybody else, don’t expect God or anybody else to forgive you. “Forgive us our trespasses,” Jesus taught us, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “For with the judgment you pronounce,” he says elsewhere, “you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Mt 7:2). The long and short of it is, don’t expect God to cut you any more slack than you’re willing to cut other people. And so, as the invitation says, “Let us confess our sins, confident in God’s forgiveness,” because he won’t go back on his promise to forgive anybody who sincerely repents, no matter how many times they fall back. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 18, Year A
10 September AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you’re tracking the Sunday readings, you know that during most of the summer and fall we’ve been reading pretty much straight through the gospel of St Matthew. But every so often we skip over some things. From last week to this week we skipped over all of chapter 17 and about half of chapter 18. And then after next Sunday we’re going to skip chapter 19. Now you may think this is just trivial information regarding the way we read the Bible in church, but it helps to understand how we do that, especially since we claim to read all of the gospels and most of the rest of the Bible every three years. The thing is that there are some things in each of the four gospels that aren’t found in the others. But Matthew, Mark and Luke also record a lot of the same things. That’s why we call those three the synoptic gospels (synoptic = seen together). John’s gospel is very different from the rest. The two main things that are found in all four gospels are the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish, and his death and resurrection.
Now I know you’re all just dying to find out how they’re all divided up to be read on Sundays... aren’t you? Well, you’ve most likely noticed that at the top of the readings insert and the bulletin it says Year A. In December they’ll start saying Year B. We read mostly from Matthew’s gospel in Year A, Mark in Year B, Luke in Year C. And we read from John’s gospel on all the high holy days and at other points over the three-year cycle, and for several weeks of Year B because Mark is so much shorter than the others. And since Matthew is longer than the rest, we skip over a number of passages, because we can read the parallel versions that are found in Mark and Luke. So we do read the substance of the four gospels  every three years, even though we don’t read each one of them word for word.
What we skipped between last Sunday and today is Matthew’s telling of the Transfiguration of Jesus, because we already read it on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. And what we’re going to skip over in a couple of weeks is Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage, not because we want to avoid what he has to say on that subject, but because we’re going to read it from Mark’s gospel just over a year from now. The other really important thing about how we read the Bible in church is that the majority of Christians in the Western world, i.e. all Roman Catholics and Lutherans, most Anglicans, and most of the other mainline churches, are reading this same gospel on this same day. The other two readings may vary from one church to the next, but we all read the same gospel just about every Sunday and holy day.
So let’s have a look at today’s gospel. Even though it’s only found in Matthew, it’s really important, because it has to do with church discipline. You may recall that I pointed out last week we occasionally hear criticisms of “organized religion.” “I don’t need to go to Church to be a good Christian,” some like to say, “I just need Jesus. Organized religion is what’s wrong with the Church.” I’ve heard that last line more times than I can count! Back in 1969 Tom T. Hall sang, “Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’... We don't need anybody to tell us what it's all about.” That’s actually very bad theology, because in light of everything Jesus and the apostles have to say, it’s totally absurd. You do need to go to church to be a good Christian, because that’s where the Lord encounters his people, where he nourishes us with word and sacrament, and builds up our fellowship in him. We really do need people to tell us what it’s all about. We need the teaching of the apostles, and of the Church which they organized at the command of Jesus. We also need the sacraments which only the Church can minister. And we need one another to love and care for, and to work closely with, as difficult as that may be sometimes.
What Jesus is doing in today’s gospel is organizing his religion. And that fact squarely addresses the criticism I mentioned: How can “organized religion” be what’s wrong with the Church when it was Jesus himself who organized it? On the faith of Peter and the rest of the apostles, Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). A disorganized church can’t smash the gates of hell. Only one that is organized under the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God can do that. One of St Paul’s favorite names for the Church is the Body of Christ. We touched on it a couple of weeks ago when we heard Paul say that all baptized Christians, though there are a lot of us– presently a third of the world’s population plus all those who have gone before us– we all are formed into “one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom 12:5). Paul goes into that more deeply in 1 Corinthians, which we’ll be reading on Sundays in January, following the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Do you see that connection? Because Jesus went into the water first, the rest of us are joined to him when we are baptized, we become members (μἐλη = body parts, e.g. kidneys, teeth, toenails) of his body. And that also makes us members of one another. Paul says that the eye can’t say to the hand, or the head to the feet, “I have no need or you,” because all the parts of the body need each other to function properly (1Cor 12:21). We are intimately bound together in Christ.
But unlike parts of the human body, each of us has a mind of our own. So some of us clash now and then, which frustrates the proper working of the Body of Christ at some level. And if it’s not dealt with right away it can disrupt or even disorganize the good order of the Church. It can tear apart congregations and even whole branches of the Body. And that’s what Jesus intends to prevent by his teaching in today’s gospel. “If your brother [or sister] sins against you, go and rebuke that person in private. If he listens to you, then you’ve gained your brother.” You’ve patched up your personal relationship, and prevented further disorder in the Church. “But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two others along with you,” who can verify that the accusation is well-founded. “And if the person still refuses to listen, take it to the whole congregation. And if in the presence of the whole Body of Christ he refuses to repent, let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Now bear in mind that by that last statement, Jesus is not advocating the bad treatment of Gentiles and tax collectors. The Jewish people were already doing that. And Jesus actually worked against it in his teaching and in the way he treated “those people.” After all, he recruited one of those nasty tax collectors, who later became the author of this gospel, and he had a lot of time for every Gentile who approached him. So clearly what he’s saying in today’s gospel is that the only people that his Church should regard as outcasts are those among their own membership who refuse to live by the Gospel, who don’t really love their neighbors as themselves, and who refuse to repent of their sinful actions.
This is a private teaching session, by the way. He’s only talking to the core group of disciples whom he intends to be the leaders of the Church– the apostles. That becomes obvious by the very next thing that he says: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” He said pretty much the same thing to them again just after he had risen from the dead. On that day, St John says, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). That’s the apostolic authority to bind and to loose, to forgive and to withhold forgiveness. Jesus gave it to the apostles, they gave it to the bishops who succeeded them, and the bishops continue to give it to the priests they ordain to assist them.
But it’s not a matter of private judgment on the part of any ordained person. When a sinner truly and earnestly repents, God forgives. When a penitent clearly expresses repentance in a private confession, the confessor takes that person at his word and pronounces God’s absolution. We’re sternly warned in confession class– yes, there’s a seminary course  on hearing confessions!– we are warned never to say to somebody, “I don’t think you really mean it.” That’s not our call to make. Our call is to take people at their word. And if they say they’re sorry, then we tell them God forgives them. For “God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy,” and he dearly wants to pardon every sinner and invite them to his table (Book of Aternative Services, Canada: 191). But if they’re steadfast in refusing to repent, then God can’t pardon or welcome them. They’ve made that choice themselves. We’re also instructed, based on this teaching of Jesus, that if there are any who, as the Prayer Book says, “have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation,” or “when the priests sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation,” we are to bar them from receiving Holy Communion until such time as they’ve made things right (Disciplinary Rubrics, BCP 409).
“Again, I say to you,” Jesus says, “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” This is a pretty serious responsibility that he has laid on the leaders of the Church, so it’s no wonder that he requires at least two of them agreeing on a disciplinary action to legitimize it. So if a priest is forced to excommunicate a parishioner, he has notify the bishop immediately, because the action of one minister isn’t enough to make it stick. That authority is given for the sake of saving souls, however, and not of arbitrarily deciding who’s in and who’s out. It’s not an action we should ever want to take against anyone, but that we should do only as a last resort, and with great fear and trembling.
If two ministers agree on earth about such an action, Jesus says, it will also stand in heaven– “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” St John Chrysostom says that the sinner, “seeing that he is not only cast out of the Church, but that the bond of his sin will remain in heaven, he may turn and become gentle” (OSB nn). At least that’s the hope we should all have– that the person would come to understand that his bad behavior in this life will have eternal consequences, and be moved to repentance. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” says Jesus, “there am I among them.” Where two or three gather to decide on the discipline of a brother or sister, couching it all in prayer and approaching the whole matter in deepest humility, and repentance of their own sin, Jesus is with them.
So you see, even though the Lord intends his Church to be a place of unconditional love, it can’t be a place of unconditional welcome, a place where no one gets disciplined for sinful behavior, or where they’re allowed to remain no matter how badly they treat others or how disruptive they are of the good order of the Body of Christ. The cardinal rule in fostering and maintaining Christian community is to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the heading that this teaching of Jesus comes under. I can be a pillar of the church, reading the lessons, singing in the choir, whatever else, but if I don’t have that kind of love, St Paul says– agape-love, the love of God that moves me to see my neighbor the way God sees my neighbor, and to treat him accordingly– then I’m just “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1Cor 13:1). And whoever closes his heart against his brother, St John says, “how does God's love abide in that person?” It obviously doesn’t. Don’t just say you love your neighbor, John says, but actually do it (1Jn 3:17-18). The bottom line of all this is that the Church, the Body of Christ is nothing if it’s not the community of God’s love in action, loving one another and the world with the same love that took Jesus to the cross and brought him up out of the grave “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 17, Year A
3 September AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

While I was in my previous two parishes, I was involved with the pro-life movement, to the point of standing on the sidewalk outside the local abortion clinic holding a placard and praying for everybody connected with it. I felt quite strongly that abortion is utterly evil. I still feel that way. But I’ve had a change of heart with regard to joining public protests, mainly for pastoral reasons. If I were a layperson, I think I’d gladly still participate in the March for Life and 40 Days for Life, walk up and down the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood, and throw holy water on the building like one little old Roman Catholic lady I saw once. But living in a sharply divided political climate over the past five years has led me to the conclusion that my presence on the sidewalk, whether in uniform or out of it, can be divisive within the Church, and repellent to those who maybe outside the Church wondering about coming in.

At one point Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Mt 10:34-35). And ten years ago I would have said, “Yeah, and as his priest I’m participating in that ministry.” But what I’ve since come to realize is that that’s not really a part of my ministry, or anyone else’s who is ordained. I’m ordained to be a pastor, not a protester. My ministry, as the bishop says to those about to be ordained, is “to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come” (BCP 1979, 531). I don’t think putting on a clerical collar and hold up a sign that says, “Abortion is murder!” in front of a young woman on her way into the clinic meets those criteria. Neither does being politically active on any side, or even being politically vocal from the pulpit. Why? Because it can be terribly divisive. By all accounts of the Old Testament, and of John the Baptist, prophets are the ones who have license to offend and to divide. They’re the ones God sent to call his people out for their unfaithfulness. But pastors are sent to welcome people in and care for them, to minister the grace of God to people who are hurting.

I was reminded of all this by images that I saw of clergy wearing their vestments marching with the counter-protesters in Charlottesville last month. Now I’m not taking sides on that issue. I know lots of good people who can make a reasonable case for keeping the Confederate monuments in place, and lots who can make a reasonable case for removing them. But it was inevitable that that kind of protest was going to draw lots of racists and white-nationalists. The thing about clergy conspicuously joining the other side is that at the time, well-intentioned as they were, none of those clergy really knew about everybody they were marching with. Sure, most of the counter-protesters had the best of intentions. But there were some there, like Antifa, the growing anti-fascist group, who are committed to using the same tactics as fascists to further their cause, in other words, to borrow St Paul’s phrase from today’s lesson, they’re ready to “repay evil for evil.”

That’s where the Charlottesville counter-protest is markedly different from the march on Selma in 1965, for example. It was right and proper to see all those clergy leading that march, because civil rights is very clearly a Gospel issue, being tied up with our Lord’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and non-violent protest is a very Christian way of opposing injustice. So the clergy in Charlottesville should instead have stood on the sidelines as a visible, praying presence. And when it became apparent that physical conflict was about to erupt, they should have willing to step in between the opposing sides, the way those Ukrainian priests stepped in between police and protesters in Kiev three years ago. Remember those famous images of them wearing their sacramental stoles and holding up crosses to show who they were and in whose Name they were stepping in?

People in my line of work are called to stand above worldly politics, and instead to advance the agenda of the kingdom that is, as Jesus himself described it, “not of this world.” “If my kingdom were of this world,” he said at his own trial, “my servants would fight... But my kingdom is not from here” (Jn 18:36). It’s why military chaplains don’t engage in combat. We’re agents of peace and reconciliation. In fact, my job description can be nicely summed up by what we pray for in today’s collect: “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” Now of course, I can’t do those things for anybody, not even myself– only God can. I’m just part of his support staff. The ordained ministry of the Church is an extension of the ministry of Jesus, but not the part about setting children against their parents, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. Jesus already accomplished that by becoming one of us and revealing himself as God, and declaring the truth of God in such a way that everybody has to react to it. And the fallen world has been reacting against it ever since. Our job as the Church is to gather, not to scatter, to bless, not to curse.

And all the members of the Church need to have a good understanding that that’s their ministry in the world, and how to go about it. As St Paul says earlier in Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” and before that he says, “how are they to hear without someone to proclaim” Christ to them? (10:17, 14). Well that’s my job. “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name,” we prayed today, “increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” As I said I can’t do that, only God can. But as his priest my role is to stand in the middle, interceding with the Lord for the people he has given into my care, and ministering his word and sacraments to his people. And it’s through that ministry of word and sacrament that true religion is increased, goodness is nourished and the fruit of good works is produced.

Now I need to say a word about that phrase, “true religion,” because some people lately have taken to speaking of religion as if it were different from Christianity, and somehow opposed to it. But it’s not. You hear things like, “Religion is bad, but Jesus is good,” or, “Organized religion is what keeps people away from Jesus.” That last one is sometimes used as an excuse for not going to church. And I can guarantee you that whenever someone says that, it’s not the real reason they don’t go to church. Anyway, the trouble is that the word ‘religion’ gets defined as something that it doesn’t really mean. So here’s your language lesson for today: Religion comes from the Latin word, religare = to reconnect. The root is ligare = to tie, bind, connect. Think of ligaments, the tissues that hold everything inside your body together. So ‘religion’ really means to reconnect. And the Christian faith and the Church are all about reconnecting people with the God who made them, who loves them, and who wants to redeem them so much that he sent his Son into the world to make that happen, to die for our sins and to rise again, opening the way for us to new life in him. Did you get all that? Religion is good, as long as it’s true religion.

And so we pray, “increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” Once when someone addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Jesus said, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:17-18). That’s why we address God in the beginning of today’s collect as “the author and giver of all good things.” So we ask him to nourish us with all goodness, a gift that only he can give, and to “bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” The good that he nourishes us with is meant to bear fruit– good actions, good works. And the primary sources of good nourishment are God’s word and sacraments– proclamation, preaching, teaching the word, giving new life in the sacrament of baptism, and renewing that new life in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. In the first lesson today Jeremiah says, “I ate your words, and they became to me a joy and the delight of my heart,  for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.” Every worship service, and every celebration of the Holy Eucharist in particular, is a feast of God’s Word. Word and sacrament are the primary diet of the Church. And that’s the work of the ordained ministry, to provide all that in the Name of the Lord.

Then we send you all out into the world to bear fruit. Well, first we send you out to the parish hall for coffee, and to share the goodness of God with each other. Then you go out and share it with everybody else. And that’s where St Paul comes in. I’m going to paraphrase what he says in today’s lesson about how Christians are to live in the world: Abhor evil, cling to the good. Love one another as brothers and sisters. Put everybody else ahead of yourself. Don’t be spiritually lazy, but serve the Lord eagerly. Rejoice in the hope of eternity; be patient in your suffering; never stop praying. Don’t be stingy toward your fellow Christians in need. Bless everybody who thinks or does ill toward you, and don’t ever curse them. Stand by your brothers and sister in good times and bad. Don’t allow any bad blood in the church, over the biggest or the smallest issue. Don’t be snooty, but treat everyone as equal. Never retaliate, but always do the right thing. And do everything in your power to keep the peace of the Lord within the Church, and to share it with everyone outside it. Since vengeance as a perfect and righteous judgment can only be carried out by God, don’t even think about it. But instead, overcome evil with good by loving and caring for your enemy, no matter who that is or how hateful they seem to be toward you or anyone else.

Those are just a few of the fruits of good works that can only be nourished in us by a steady diet of word and sacrament. And the bottom line is that our vocation as Christians, what God calls us to do in his Name, empowers us in baptism, ordains us in confirmation, and nourishes us in Holy Communion to do is to be reconcilers, reconnectors, religious people in the world, reaching out to everybody with the love of God, caring for them even when it’s clear they don’t care for him, or for one another. The main thing is that we keep extending that love, regardless of how anyone may respond or react. The worst that could happen is that they could beat us mercilessly and nail us to a cross. But then we’d be in good company, right? Enough said. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 14, Year A
13 August AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: 1Kings 19:9-18: Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I bet most folks don’t give too much thought to the collects that we pray before the readings, other than praying them and maybe meditating on what they say. Otherwise they’re just something we pray before we can sit down, and that may have some connection to the Bible readings we’re about to hear. We call them collects, btw, because they collect (gather up) the themes of the readings that follow. And some of them have a pretty interesting background. Very few of them date back only to the 1970s when our present Book of Common Prayer was published. Several of them date back to the publication of the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. But most of them date back to the 6th century (over 1400 years ago!), and were composed by Pope Gregory the Great when he organized the first set of collects and Bible readings to be used throughout the Church in the Western world. But some date back even further, to Pope Leo the Great in the 4th century.

Well, we know that the collect we prayed today is at least as old as St Gregory, maybe older, and that Archbishop Cranmer made a pretty faithful translation of it into English in 1549. But whoever updated it in the 1970s really did some damage to the original meaning. The opening line is still bang on. It says, “Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right...” That’s pretty close to the Latin original. Then, in its present form it says, “that we, who cannot exist without you...” That’s pretty different from Cranmer’s translation, which says, “that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without you...” That’s much closer to the original Latin, which translates as something like “we cannot manage our lives without you.”

It’s quite clear to liturgy nerds like me that the people who revised the liturgies of the various churches in the 1970s-80s weren’t as careful, or as eloquent, as they were in the 1500s, or even in the early 1900s. More recent translations (e.g. the Church of England’s Common Worship, 2000; Roman Rite, 2011) are much better, and much more accurate. But even by the looser standards of the 1970s, it’s a pretty big leap from “we... cannot do any thing that is good without you” to “we cannot exist without you.” The fact that we cannot exist without God is so basic to the faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims, that it’s hardly worth repeating. The fact that we can’t manage our lives, or can’t do any good thing without God is also fundamental. But it’s something that we all need to hear over and over, simply because most of us spend a good bit of time and energy on trying to do just the opposite. We’re constantly trying to get along without God, trying to manage our lives, trying to do every good thing without his help, without first committing it to God in prayer, without asking for, and relying on, his grace to make it happen, and to make it bear fruit for his kingdom. Whether it was St Leo or St Gregory who wrote that prayer, they both knew how critical it is to ask God for the spirit to always think and do the right thing, precisely because we can’t manage our lives well, we can’t “do any thing that is good” apart from God’s help.  And all of today’s readings underscore that.

Elijah is considered the greatest of the prophets of Israel. Remember in last week’s gospel that when Jesus was transfigured, the two people who stood with him were Moses and Elijah. Moses was the lawgiver, the one who freed God’s people from slavery and interpreted God’s law for them to live by. Elijah was the fearless prophet, the one who stood up to the enemies of God’s people, and therefore represents all the prophets of the Old Testament. That’s why it was those two who appeared with Jesus during his transfiguration to affirm that he really is God’s chosen.

The back story to today’s first lesson (1Kgs 18) is that Elijah was on the run from Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab was the wimpy king of Israel, and the very henpecked husband of Jezebel, who was a very nasty piece of work. As a Canaanite, Jezebel was a worshipper of Ba’al, the fertility god, and saw it as her mission to lure God’s people away from worshipping him, and to worship Ba’al instead. And some of her missionary tactics proved to be pretty ruthless. So the people of Israel were torn between Ba’al and their own God.

The big showdown between Jezebel and Elijah came when Elijah challenged four hundred prophets of Ba’al to a contest that would prove whether God or Ba’al was more powerful. King Ahab invited all the people of Israel to come to Mt Carmel and see. There the prophets of Ba’al built an altar early in the morning, laid wood all around it, butchered a bull and laid it on top, and proceeded to call on their god to send fire down to consume it. “O Ba’al, answer us!” they said over and over, but nothing happened. Then at noon Elijah started mocking them. “Louder!” he said, “for he’s a god. Either he’s deep in thought, or he’s relieving himself, or he’s on a journey, or maybe he’s asleep and needs you to wake him up.” So they started crying louder and also cutting themselves so that there was blood everywhere. They kept it up until late afternoon, but still nothing happened.

Then Elijah built an altar with twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, dug a trench all around it, butchered his bull and laid it on top of the wood on the altar, and had his helpers pour something like twenty gallons of water on it, which ran down and filled the trench. Then he prayed to God: “let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Show yourself to your people and turn their hearts back to you.” Then fire came down and burned up the offering, the wood, the stones and all the water in the trench. And all the Israelites fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God!” So they rounded up all the prophets of Ba’al, and Elijah killed them. When Ahab reported back to Jezebel she sent a message to Elijah saying, “May the gods do worse to me if I don’t kill you by this time tomorrow!” So he ran for his life to Mt Horeb, aka Mt Sinai where God gave the law to Moses, and hid in a cave there. That’s where we find Elijah at the beginning of today’s reading.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God says to him. And Elijah complains about how badly he’s been treated. “All your people have turned their back on you,” he says, “They’ve torn down your altars and killed your prophets. I’m the only one left, and they want to kill me too.” God tells him to go out and stand on the mountain, where Moses stood centuries before to receive the Law. God sent a mighty wind, an earthquake and fire. But he didn’t speak out of any of those. You can’t hear God speaking in all the chaos and confusion of the world. He’ll use those to get our attention. But to actually listen to what he has to say, you can only hear him when your heart and your soul are tuned in to his presence, ready to listen. Then he spoke in a low whisper, “a still small voice” (KJV).  “What are you doing here, Elijah?” he says again. And Elijah repeats what he said before.

Then God gives Elijah his marching orders: “Go anoint Hazael to be king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha to succeed you as prophet. Whoever Hazael doesn’t kill, Jehu will; and whoever escapes Jehu, Elisha will kill.”  He’s talking about killing whoever tries to convert his people to the worship of Ba’al, namely Jezebel and her henchmen. And he promises to spare all the people who have kept the faith, which amounts to around 7,000. If you’re wondering what happened to Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab repented shortly afterward, and the Lord spared his life. But Jezebel– and this part gets a PG-17 rating– she was eventually thrown out a window by some of Jehu’s men, trampled by horses and eaten by dogs, as Elijah had prophesied. All that was left of her were her skull, hands and feet (2Kgs 9:30-37). Pretty gruesome, right?

Now don’t let yourselves get hung up on all the violence and bloodshed here. From our point of view it’s hard to see how the righteousness of God is at work in it at all. And I can’t explain it very well. But I do know that in our culture, in which we’re so jaded by the violence we see on the news every day, whether it’s in Virginia or Syria, we’re not as abhorred by it as we ought to be. And yet we’re super-vigilant with regard to violence against animals, and hypercritical of violence in the Bible. Our thinking is all messed up by the noise and the chaos that surrounds us. So we should really just take a step back and try to see it all from a better point of vew, accept what we read in the Bible as a past event that we have no control over, and get more actively concerned about Virginia and Syria, trusting that God is just, and relying on him to help us think and do what’s right.

Even by Old Testament standards, though, this is all pretty gory stuff. And of course you’re all wondering how today’s collect applies to Elijah. Well, after all that’s gone on in Israel, what with Jezebel trying to stamp out the worship of God, and after God’s triumph over Ba’al on Mt Carmel, Elijah has a moment of weakness. After standing up to Jezebel and Ahab, he’s suddenly become afraid of her. He’s been fearless and faithful, as he protested to God. But God’s fearless prophet is suddenly worried about his own safety. So God comes to the rescue. He needed to go out into the quiet of the desert, and up on God’s holy mountain in order to be reassured by God, to have his faith affirmed and his resolve strengthened, before joining the fray again and carrying out the prophetic ministry for which God anointed him. He needed that grace that would enable him to do the good things God had planned for him, and to live according to God’s will.

It’s much the same with Peter and the others in the boat, except that they weren’t on the run from a monstrous queen. What happened just before what we read in today’s gospel was the feeding of the five thousand. After witnessing that miracle, the crowds wanted to see Jesus do more spectacular things. As Jesus explains later (John 6), they had missed the whole point of it, which was that similar to how he fed that large crowd with a small amount of natural food, once he had risen from the dead he would feed a far greater number with a small amount of supernatural food, i.e. his own Body and Blood. But they just wanted to see more magic, and they wouldn’t leave Jesus and his disciples alone. So he sent the disciples off in a boat, and he went up on the mountain for some peace and quiet and to spend some quality time with his Father.

Then a storm arises, and in the midst of it, Jesus comes walking on the water toward the boat. Have you noticed how some sort of natural disturbance usually precedes the appearance of God? And people are usually afraid. With Elijah it was the wind, the earthquake and the fire, on top of his fear of Jezebel. In the Transfiguration gospel that we read last week, and in the case of Moses on Mt Sinai, a cloud descends on the mountain. Well, this time it’s a storm on the water, and the disciples are afraid for their safety. And when they see Jesus out there walking they think it’s a ghost because, who can walk on water? So they’re even more afraid. Then he speaks. And what he says to them is much more significant than how it reads in English. What we hear is “Don’t be afraid. It’s me.” But what he actually said is “Don’t be afraid. I Am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). I Am is how God identifies himself, as in when he was sending Moses to free his people. Moses said, “If they ask me your name, what do I tell them?” And God said, “Tell them this, ‘I Am has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:13-14).

Jesus said “I Am” to his disciples quite a lot, and they understood that he was identifying himself with God. So this time, when he says, “Don’t be afraid. I Am,” they’re somewhat relieved, but not totally. So Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to walk on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter steps out and walks up to him. But then fear gets the better of him and he begins to sink. He’s momentarily distracted by the danger around him, and loses confidence in the power of God. But as he’s sinking, he knows enough to cry out to Jesus, who grabs him and says, “Such little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they all knew for sure that it was Jesus, and to confess that he truly is the Son of God.

That’s how it is with us, isn’t it? I know it is with me. We have faith. We believe in God, and worship Jesus as Lord. And every time we say the Creed, we declare our belief that God is almighty, and that in his good time he’s going to sort out all our messes. And we know that in the mean time we need to commit everything to him in prayer, lifting up to him the whole world that he created, and asking him to redeem it. But then comes the moment when we feel like we’re being buried under all our problems and cares, and all the problems and cares of the world. And we’re tempted to despair and to lose faith. That’s the time to cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!”

That’s essentially what Elijah was saying to God on the mountain: “Lord, save me!” And as St Paul says in today’s second lesson, quoting the prophet Joel, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32). But he qualifies that. He says that it’s by embracing “the word of faith,” which is another way of saying the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised him from the dead– by embracing that word of faith so that it becomes embedded deep in our hearts and is ready to fall from our lips whenever anyone wants to know the reason for our hope (1Pet 3:15)– by embracing the word of faith in that way, we are saved. And when we embrace the word of faith, we embrace “the spirit to think and do always those things that are right,” which is a gift of God’s grace.

Confessing with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in our heart that God raised him from the dead is at the center of the Christian life. And it helps us all to know that neither Elijah nor Peter and the other disciples had a perfect, and a perfectly unshakeable, faith in God. They all had their weak moments. And they all knew enough to cry out in their weakness, “Lord, save me!” And the Lord did rescue them from their momentary troubles. But what’s more important, for them and for us, is to have that deep assurance that whether we overcome our troubles or they overcome us, as long as we keep on calling out to him, we will be his and his life in us will be secure. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

The Transfiguration
6 August AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You all see that great big brass thing behind the altar every time you come here. You can’t miss it. And you see me get something out of it while we’re singing Lamb of God, and putting it back after Communion and pulling the veil over it. But I’m pretty sure some of you don’t know what it’s called or where it came from. Am I right? That is the tabernacle, the place
where we keep the reserved Sacrament– the leftovers from Communion– in case we need to take it to the sick, the housebound, or the dying. This one is particularly beautiful. There’s a descending dove on top of it, which represents the Holy Spirit, and on the door there are two angels bowing in adoration, because what’s inside it is the Blessed Sacrament, the Body of Christ, the means by which he feeds us from his own substance.

You can embrace any doctrine of the Eucharist that you want, whether it’s that the bread and wine are completely changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, like the Roman Catholic Church teaches; or that we receive the Body and Blood in some intangible, spiritual way at the same time that we consume the bread and wine, which is what some of the Protestant reformers taught; or like the Orthodox and most Anglicans, that in some mysterious way, well beyond our ability to comprehend, the Lord is truly present in the Sacrament to nourish us for life in his kingdom. “This is my body... This is my blood,” Jesus said. And whatever that makes it, Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “that I believe and take it.” Whatever you believe happens to the bread and wine when the Church offers them up at the altar, there’s no denying that they’ve become truly holy, and that we need to treat them with deepest reverence– the same way you treat a Bible. You don’t pile other things on top of it or toss it in the garbage, or stick it under the short leg of a table, not because of what it’s made of, but because of what it contains. The presence of a tabernacle, particularly one like ours, in a church is a clear statement of our belief that Jesus is truly present in the Sacrament.

This tabernacle, by the way, originally came from St Paul’s Church in East St Louis, and was given to the glory of God, as it says on the memorial plaque, and in memory of Fr Raymond Gunn, who was a much-loved priest at St Paul’s (1940s-50s?). The usual way of phrasing memorial plaques is to say, “Given to the glory of God and in memory of __.” And when you understand the purpose of a tabernacle, and appreciate the beauty of ours in particular, you can see that it really does glorify God by drawing attention to itself and telling worshippers that what’s inside it is the most precious thing on earth– the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus. That’s your lesson in eucharistic theology and holy hardware for the day.

So what does our tabernacle have to do with anything we’re supposed to be thinking about today, the feast of the Transfiguration? Two things: first is the word itself, tabernacle; and second, like the mount of transfiguration on that day, the tabernacle in a church is a place where the glory of the Lord is revealed and enshrined. Bear in mind that this isn’t all just Bible trivia that doesn’t really mean much in the big picture. All the writers of Scripture were quite deliberate in their choice of words. And since they were divinely inspired, you can see God’s hand on every page making connections all over the Bible, because everything in the Bible is connected. And at the center of it all is Jesus.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using that word, tabernacle, even though it doesn’t appear in any of today’s readings, at least not in the translation we’re reading from. In the gospel, Peter says, “Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Some other modern English translations say, “Let us make three shelters/booths.” But in the earliest English translations it’s “Let us make three tabernacles.” Taberna is the Latin word for a temporary dwelling, which is where the English word tavern comes from, a place where you can lodge for the night (think Holiday Inn, Travelodge). Tabernaculum means something like a smaller temporary dwelling, so that’s the Latin word for tent. And in today’s gospel, the word that Luke actually uses is the Greek word for tent– σκηνός– which is also a word that Peter uses in today’s second lesson.

Now if you look at that lesson in your insert, Peter starts out by saying, “I think it right, as long as I am in this body...” But when Peter wrote that letter– in Greek– he didn’t say body (σωμα), he said tent (σκηνός). He uses that word to indicate that this mortal body which is going to wear out and die is our soul’s temporary dwelling. But he doesn’t mean it in the same way as the gnostic heretics, who believed that the body was evil, and that the soul would eventually be freed from it for all eternity. The dead in Christ are going to be raised up on the last day, Paul says (1Thes 4:16), soul and body will be put back together, new and improved. The perishable body will put on the imperishable, the mortal will put on immortality (1Cor 15:53). And it’s going to look something like what Peter, James and John saw happen to Jesus when he was transfigured.

Now jumping back to the first lesson, there’s no mention there at all of tents or tabernacles, but it’s implied. It begins by saying that Moses came down the mountain carrying the two tablets of the testimony. Those are the stone tablets on which he carved the Ten Commandments– a copy of the first set. You’ll remember that when he came down the first time, he was carrying the original stones on which God had written the commandments– with his own fiery finger, according to Cecil B. DeMille. And when Moses saw what the people down below had gotten up to during the forty days he was up on the mountain with God, he got pretty upset and smashed the tablets on the ground. So he went back up the mountain to plead with God to spare his people, and this time God had Moses make new tablets himself.

Anyway, whenever Moses spent time in the presence of God, the divine glory somehow irradiated his face so that it had a supernatural glow for a long time afterward. The first time that happened was on this occasion that we read about, when he came down the mountain. And it frightened the people because they’d never seen anything like it before– no one ever had. St John Chrysostom said that the problem was not so much the divine glory reflected in Moses’ face, but that it made the people fully aware of their sinfulness. And since, as God had told Moses on the mountain, “no one can see me and live” (Ex 33:20), it’s no wonder they recoiled in fear. But Moses called them closer, and began to give them the whole law as God had just given it to him. And when he finished speaking, he veiled his face so that the people wouldn’t be so afraid of him. Then it says that whenever Moses went in before the Lord he took the veil off, and put it back on when he went out. What he was going in and out of was the tent of meeting, aka the tabernacle, which the Lord had commanded Moses to set up. That was God’s temporary dwelling among his people during the forty years he led them around the wilderness, and for several centuries afterward, until Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem.

So it became the practice after that among God’s people, whenever they encountered any manifestations of God’s holiness, to want to put up a tent or a booth, to enshrine it– not to try to box God in, but to capture the moment and to linger in it as long as possible, as a reassuring token of God’s presence and care for his people. And the Church has carried on that tradition. Next time you’re in an older Catholic or Episcopal church, look at the windows to see if there are any saints depicted as if they were posing for a portrait. Chances are that there’s something that looks like a little roof or a tent over their heads. Statues of saints inside churches also will sometimes have a little tent over their heads. Outdoors they’re sometimes housed in a booth like the guards outside Buckingham Palace.

So it was quite natural for Peter, when he saw that Moses and Elijah were about to disappear, to want to capture the moment by pitching tents over the three holy men. Maybe Peter thought that would be the proper thing to do, since God had commanded Moses to pitch a special tent where they could have their conversations. And here was Moses, along with Elijah, the greats of the Old Testament prophets, caught up in this supernatural glow in conversation with Jesus about “his departure,” as Luke calls it, his coming death and resurrection. Then at that moment a cloud moved in and obscured their view. And God the Father spoke out of the cloud, like how he spoke to Moses out of the fire and the cloud on Mt Sinai, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then it was all over, and the three disciples found themselves alone with Jesus. They went down the mountain and never said a thing about any of it until after Jesus had died and risen again.

So, why did the Transfiguration happen in the first place? Just a week or so before this, a couple of really important things had happened. First, Jesus asked the disciples who people thought he was. So they told him what they’d been hearing: “Some say you’re John the Baptist, others say Elijah... or one of the other prophets”. “But what about you guys?” he said, “Who do you say I am?” Peter said, “You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter because he said this thing that only God could have revealed to him. And he told all the disciples that on that confession of faith he was going to build his Church, and that on the strength of that apostolic faith, his Church would smash the gates of hell and empty it out. Then Jesus told his disciples for the very first time that they were about to go up to Jerusalem where he would be arrested by the religious leaders, and be tortured and killed, and then rise from the dead on the third day– his departure. Peter rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing. Then Jesus rebuked Peter for rebuking him. And then Jesus began to teach them about the need to take up their own crosses to follow in the way Jesus was about to lead with his cross, i.e. that they should be willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of saving the world  (Mt 16:13-228). All that is what happened in the immediate run-up to the Transfiguration.

So in the wake of giving this scary news to the twelve disciples, Jesus takes the inner circle of three– Peter, James and John– up the mountain with him to give them a glimpse of who he truly is. It’s a way of confirming the faith that they had confessed earlier, of grounding their belief that he’s really the Christ, the Son of God, in preparation for what they’re all about to face when they get to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He pulled back the veil of his human flesh, the tent of his body as Peter says, to reveal the hidden divinity underneath, and let the brilliance of it shine out far brighter than it did in the face of Moses. Moses was just a mirror that reflected the glory of God. But Jesus is the glory of God. In causing the eternal Word to become flesh and dwell among us, St John says, we have seen the glory of God not simply reflected in the face of Jesus, but in all its fullness, “glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

The Transfiguration of Jesus was a brief moment of clarity for Peter, James and John. It was a brief, but astonishingly brilliant glimpse into the true nature of Jesus– the two natures of Jesus, in fact, since being both the Son of God and the son of Mary he possesses both divine and human natures. He is both fully God and fully human, which is what Peter blurted out by way of divine revelation a week earlier, and which he continued to proclaim until the end of his life, on a cross, just like Jesus. “I think it right, as long as I am in this body,” he says in his letter to the Church, “to stir you up by reminding you of everything I’ve seen. And I’ll make every effort so that after I’m gone you won’t forget any of it.” And what he saw on the mountain that day was that God himself had come down to his people in Person in order to take us back to himself. The three of them didn’t say anything about what they saw that day until after Jesus had risen from the dead. And then on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled them, they started telling the whole world. And they didn’t stop until the day they died, because they realized that they were “eyewitnesses of his majesty,” just like Moses was whenever he went out of the tent of meeting, and just like we’re called to be whenever we leave this place. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 12, Year A
30 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Twice in today’s second lesson St Paul uses a word that makes a lot of Christians uncomfortable, and yet gives a measure of satisfaction to some others. The word is predestination. First comes that line that has brought so much comfort to so many Christians: Paul says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” meaning that no matter what may happen, the goodness of God and the kingdom of God keep on advancing, and that the faithful will ultimately be fully taken up into his goodness and into his kingdom. Forget whatever Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and Kenneth Copeland might say. It’s not a promise of our material prosperity or of living Your Best Life Now (Osteen’s book). It’s about the final triumph of God and the complete eradication of sin, suffering and misery according to the plan which he formulated before the foundation of the world. “...all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” Paul says. We who love God and who put our whole faith and trust in his crucified and risen Son know this. It’s written on our hearts in the Blood of Jesus.

Then Paul says,

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

There are four significant theological words in that statement– foreknew, predestined, justified, glorified. And the Church has had a lot to say over 2,000 years about each of them. But don’t worry, I’m not going to say it all right now! I’m just going to pick out a few threads.

Before getting into the theological tangles of predestination, let’s break the word itself down to understand its basic meaning. It’s really pretty simple. To say that something is predestined is to say that its end, its destiny, has been determined beforehand. This is where something is supposed to end up, not where it’s going to end up no matter what, but where it’s supposed to end up. Everybody got that? Now let’s look at it in practical terms.

My lovely wife, as many of you know, is a lovely cook. She especially loves making sweet things. In fact, an old friend of ours dubbed her “the dessert queen.” You all get to see and enjoy the nice things that she brings to coffee hours and shared meals. But on rare occasions, when she’s in the kitchen and I’m somewhere else in the house, I can hear the oven door open followed by a cry of “Oh no! My cheesecake fell!” or “My banana bread’s all gooey in the middle!” But that doesn’t happen very often at our house. She starts out with a plan of what she’s going to do and how it’s going to turn out. And even though she follows the recipe, does all the right things, puts in all the right ingredients at the right stages, there are some variables that are beyond her control that sometimes make things not turn out they way they’re supposed to. That’s how divine predestination works. She also makes excellent lasagna. But for a long time it turned out rather more juicy than she intended.  And whenever she took a pan of it to a parish function back in the day, one lady would look at it and say, “Jumpins, it’s some runny? Who made that?” I know you’ve all, at some point in your lives, met that one church lady in the kitchen who’s hyper-critical of what everybody else does.

Now the reason why that word, predestination, disturbs a lot of Christians, and scares away some potential Christians, yet comforts some other Christians, is that they think it means something that it doesn’t really mean. Remember Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride?– “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means” (“Inconthseivable!” “Predethstination!”). The popular misunderstanding of predestination is that before the creation of the world God, from his eternal vantage point, looked at all his human creatures from first to last and chose which ones he would save, and left others. (Those are the Left Behind.) A number of theologians throughout the history of the Church have taught this doctrine. St Augustine believed it at one point in his spiritual development, but rejected it later.

Then there’s the even scarier idea of double predestination, as taught by the Protestant reformer John Calvin and others, including some Anglicans like J.I. Packer, one of the leading theologians alive today. Nevertheless, God has used Calvin and Packer to bring a lot of people into the kingdom. That just goes to show that preachers and teachers of the Gospel aren’t saved by their theological accuracy, but by their faithfulness. Double predestination is the notion that not only did God choose specific persons to be saved, but that he also deliberately singled out certain persons to be eternally condemned.

Now this is a really appropriate time for you all to ask, “How could a good and loving God do such a thing?” Well, apart from a relatively small number of theologians, the Church has consistently taught that God has not done such a thing, nor will he. This subject is a very good illustration of why no individual can seriously think that we can each read and interpret the Bible on our own. We all read Scripture, like we read everything else, through the lens of our own worldview, and our own limited understanding. That’s why C.S. Lewis said that for every new book we read, we should also read at least two old books. Because a new book that’s been written in our own time and culture will reinforce the views and values of our time and culture, whereas books written in earlier times and different cultures will challenge our own views and values, make us look at them more critically, and broaden our understanding considerably (from Lewis’s intro to St Athanasius, On the Incarnation).

We read the Bible in the company of the whole Church in every age, and we interpret it through the collective teaching of the whole Church in every age. So it can’t mean one thing for 21st-century Christians, and something entirely different for 1st- or 3rd- or 16th- century Christians. As both Isaiah and St Peter have said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40:8; 1Pt 1:24-25). That’s not to say it can’t be consistently misinterpreted from one age to the next. That has happened. Double predestination is based on a 16th-century reading of Scripture by people who were reacting against equally bad teaching coming from the Church’s ruling establishment in Rome. If you want to see an example of what I’m talking about, just watch and hour of CNN and an hour of Fox News, and pick out the extremes from both sides, and then try to figure out what the truth is that they’re both distorting. A later pope initiated what became known as the Counter-Reformation which corrected a lot of Church teaching and practices. But by then Calvin’s followers had dug in their heels and wouldn’t budge on their reactionary teaching.

So what’s the real deal with predestination? I can see that you’re all sitting on the edge of your pews right now itching to find out. So let’s think about my wife’s cooking, and take it to the heavenly level, although lots of people, myself included, would say that it’s already up there. And let’s get back to St Paul. We’ll combine the two and call it culinary theology. In today’s reading St Paul says that “those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”– those whom God foreknew.

The idea of God’s foreknowledge is something that can really challenge our thinking– it did mine for a long time. We’ve all been taught since Sunday school that God created everything out of nothing. Yet lots of us still want to say, “Yeah, but what did he start with? He must have had some building materials.” But at the beginning of the biblical creation story it says, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (1:2). That means that there was absolutely nothing there– no atoms, no particles, no angels, nothing– only God, until he spoke. Then things began to exist. And one of the first things God created is time. That fact is threaded all through the creation story: “there was evening and there was morning, the first day... the second day... the third day...” (Gen 1:5ff). I’ve explained this before, but it bears repeating since it’s a really rich thing for us to think about. What that all means is that as the Creator of time, God stands outside of it. He dwells in eternity, the ticking of the clock means nothing to him. And the whole material creation is wrapped up in time, and floats like a little bubble inside eternity. The kingdom of God is all around us, kind of like how a submarine is enveloped in the ocean. And most of the crew can’t see what’s going on just oustide the boat. Technology tells them what’s out there, but they can’t see it with their own eyes. In a similar way, the revealed Word of God tells us what’s out there because we can’t see it with our own eyes. “For we walk by faith, not by sight,” Paul says (2Cor 5:7).

So God, standing outside of time, can see the whole creation from start to finish. He knows every one of his creatures from all eternity, and he knows exactly what we do at any moment, what choices we make, what messes we get into, whether and how much we reach out to him for help, or reject him entirely. He knows it all. And so Paul says in today’s reading, “those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined.” That begs the question, Whom did God not foreknow? Which of his own creatures was he ever not able to look at and see how their lives were going to unfold? Answer: None! “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined.” So it’s reasonable to say that that includes every person whom God has created. 

Now going back to what I said earlier, predestination is about where something or somebody is supposed to end up, and not about where they’re going to end up no matter what. Calvin’s reading, and others’, is that we have no choice, that God has already decided that we’re either going to shine or burn, and that nothing we do can change that. It’s as if we’ve been programmed either to succeed or to fail, and the program can’t be changed. But that’s a very bad reading of Scripture.

Scripture is very clear that God created every one of us out of love, and that his great desire is that we should all repent and return to him, and that the thrust of everything he did throughout biblical history was to enable that to happen. And so he has predestined all of us to a blessed eternity with him. But he hasn’t decided that we’re all going to end up there no matter what. Scripture is also clear that God has given us the choice. St Augustine said that “God orders all things while preserving human freedom,” while preserving our freedom to choose. He gives us all the grace we need to lead us in his direction– the grace of the sacraments to nourish us in the life of the kingdom, and other means of grace to guide us along the way. But he doesn’t force his gifts on anybody who doesn’t want them, and he doesn’t withhold them from anybody who really wants them. But he has planted in every one of us the impulse to respond to his call.

“And those whom he predestined,” Paul says, “he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Those are the steps of salvation that Paul lays out there. God has a wonderful plan for us all, and he calls us, he invites us to be part of it. Those who accept the invitation he justifies, he makes right, he forgives sin and restores the image of himself that he created us all to be, but which we have tarnished by our sin. And when his Son returns in glory to finally eradicate all sin and evil, and fully establish his kingdom on earth and open it up to eternity, then will he glorify all his people with the glory that he first revealed in his crucified and risen Son.

God doesn’t want anybody to miss out on that. Origen, the great biblical teacher of the 3rd century, said that “God’s providence extends to every individual,” not just a chosen few. And Pope John Paul II said, “Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” That’s exactly what God did when he sent his Son into the world, because his great desire, as Paul tells Timothy, is for “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim 2:4).  

The really egregious problem with Calvin’s kind of predestination is that as Calvin himself said, “all are not created in equal condition” (Institutes III.21.v), meaning that God created some of us for eternity and others for damnation, which flies in the face of everything Jesus said and taught. The horrible outworking of that has been the human tendency to classify our neighbors, to segregate them based on our own ideas of worthiness and unworthiness, whether because they look different, or don’t behave according to our standard, or don’t believe what we believe. Thinking about Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds that we read last week, it gives a self-appointed group of people the right to determine who’s in and who’s out. It can also drive individuals crazy wondering whether they themselves are saved or damned, which was what happened among the Puritans in New England, and led to a number of suicides.

So the take-away from all this is that when you see the word predestination in the Bible, don’t let it scare you. What it means very simply is that in God’s plan of redemption there’s a place reserved for every last person. But he doesn’t draft us; he invites us to be part of it. He demonstrated that when his Son stretched out his arms on the cross to embrace the whole world, and to die for the sins of the whole world, and again when the risen Son sent the apostles to evangelize the whole world. All through the gospels we see Jesus fighting against the tendency of the religious leaders to be selective. And in a lot of instances of division in the Church since then, especially among us Protestants, that tendency has been a major factor. The message of the cross is that eternal life in Christ is available to all people, and that the Church is the place where God gathers in all the people who respond to his call, to give them new life and to nourish them for that life in his eternal kingdom. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 11, Year A
23 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m not a very patient person when it comes to self-discipline. I have a really hard time keeping focussed on something if the goal seems a long way off. For example, my clothes keep shrinking, and I haven’t been able to summon up the determination to make them stop! But since I really don’t want to have to buy a bigger set of clothes, I’m going to have to do something about it soon. Lots of us are impatient and undisciplined that way, and increasingly so in part because of technology. The more technological advances come into our lives, the fewer chances we have to practice patience. Just about every kitchen has a microwave oven, so we don’t need to wait too long for things to cook. We email, text, snapchat and tweet, and what we say can go the far side of the world in a split second. Who corresponds by mail anymore? We order stuff from Amazon and have it in two days. When I was growing up, it seems like the last thing they said on every mail-order ad on TV was, “Allow six weeks for delivery.” Who waits that long for anything?

I’ve never seen the remake of The Karate Kid, but in the original movie, the main character is beaten up by some thugs, and then decides that the way to get revenge is by learning karate. He finds an old Japanese master and begs to be taken on as his student. But to the kid’s disappointment, the master doesn’t put him in a white uniform and begin teaching him karate right away. Instead, he puts him to work doing menial tasks– waxing cars, scrubbing things- but not just any old way. He makes the kid use his hands in certain ways that don’t at first make sense. Remember “wax on, wax off”? The kid is impatient. He can’t see the point of all this. He wants to get right to the good stuff. But Mr Miyagi is persistent. And when he thinks the kid is ready and, just as important, willing to learn more, he teaches him. By the end of the movie, the kid has learned that karate not about revenge at all, but is primarily about self-discipline. He’s also learned that, in order to do something right, and to have a full appreciation of it, you have to be patient, you have to be willing to learn, and open to guidance. He’s learned that the way to perfection doesn’t come easily or quickly.

This is what St Paul teaches in today’s epistle. The way to Christian perfection does’t come easily or quickly. In fact, we won’t attain perfection in this life at all. We spend all our lives striving towards it, and we stumble way more than we care to admit. But with God’s help we get back on track, and by his grace we do our best not to fall off again, even though we know it’s going to happen, because we’re not there yet, we haven’t yet been fully remade in the image of God. He’s working on it, though. But we keep putting up obstacles in our own way. We still want to hold on to our old nature, we want to do things our way, and we’re unwilling to wait. That’s how I was at the beginning of my discernment process. I wanted to skip the bachelor’s degree requirement and go right to seminary. But the bishop told me I needed to be patient and get that undergrad degree first, because there was a lot of stuff I needed to learn before I would even be ready to begin studying Scripture and theology. I didn’t like what he said, but I had to do it, because he was the bishop. And in the end he was right.

St Paul knows this about our human nature probably better than most, because he himself was pretty impatient. He knows this about himself, and so he encourages us on our way to perfection. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” he says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” What he’s saying is that what we are waiting for, if we can be patient, is far better than anything we’ve ever experienced, or ever will experience in this life. The whole creation has been groaning under the weight of its sufferings, he says, because of sin, especially us. We “who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” He means all those who have been reborn by water and the Spirit, who believe in the risen Son of God, and who put their “whole trust in his grace and love” (BCP 302). We groan within ourselves because we see everything through the lens of God’s love, and we want so badly for him to make it all better, to redeem it.

“We who have the first fruits of the Spirit” are all those who, by faith in Christ, have been given a foretaste– “the first fruits,” Paul says– of the life of the world to come. Paul encourages us to listen to that Spirit who, through baptism, has come to dwell in us– in the Church and in each baptized person– to allow that Spirit within us to hold before our eyes continually that hope that has been restored to us by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In every Eastern Orthodox church, there’s an icon of Mary holding the infant Jesus. And it represents the fact that God took flesh and was born of a woman. It’s always placed on the left side of the altar, and the icon of Christ enthroned in glory is placed on the right side. What this teaches is that we are now living in a tension between our present and our future experiences of the kingdom of God. In this present life, the Holy Spirit has given us the first fruits of the kingdom, he has given us a foretaste of our future glory in God’s eternal presence, enough to encourage us, to lead us on, until at last we come that eternal glory. We live in it now, but not yet in the fullness of it.

And church is the chief place where we find this encouragement. This is the other part of what the icons on the altar teach: That in church, and especially at the altar where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, is where this life and the future glory meet. We gather on the Lord’s Day to hear his written Word proclaimed and taught. And then we approach the altar to receive his sacramental Word– the Body and Blood of his Son– which gives us life, and hope, and encouragement and patience to wait and to pray, and to get us back on that path to perfection that we keep straying from.

This present life, with all its troubles and all its suffering, is not a dead end. It’s the way we have to travel toward the goal of ultimate glory. There may be times when it seems like our troubles will be the end of us. But we need always to remember St Paul’s teaching that they’re not to be compared with the glory that will one day be fully revealed to us in Christ Jesus, and made available to us through the suffering that he endured for our sake. Elsewhere Paul, who gets the last word today, says this:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are everlasting (2Corinthians 4:17-18).   
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 10, Year A
16 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:9-14; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In St Mary’s Church in the last parish I served, there was a very nice window in the church depicting the parable of the sower that we read in today’s gospel. It shows Jesus holding a basket of seeds and strewing them on the ground, and underneath are the first words of Jesus in that reading, “A sower went out to sow.” What that window illustrates is that the seed that Jesus sows is actually himself. He is “the word of the kingdom” which, as he says in explaining the parable, is what the seed is. Since he is the incarnate Word of God, that makes him the preeminent teacher of the written word of God. In other words, he’s spreading himself around. It sounds a little odd at first, but it’s not really. It’s much the same as when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist: no matter who the priest is standing at the altar, it’s really Jesus himself who feeds us, and it’s really Jesus himself that we’re consuming. He is both the priest and the sacrifice. He’s both the one who feeds and the food. Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed, no matter who the proclaimer is, it’s actually Jesus sowing the seeds of his own resurrected life in the hearts of those who hear, so long as the proclaimer is faithful. For the faithful proclaimer of God’s word is one who puts his own self-interest, his own agenda, and every worldly agenda aside, and thinks only of the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

He can add some fertilizer to the mix though. And if you’re a gardener you know that certain fertilizers will promote growth in certain kinds of plants and hinder growth in others. So if the proclaimer of God’s word is concerned with the truth of the Gospel above all else, then that will encourage the growth of the good seed that he sows. But if he is preoccupied with worldly things, then he will pollute the ground he sows on with weak interpretations and maybe even false teaching, or simply a lack of solid teaching. And by the same token, if the listener is preoccupied with worldly things, then the soil– the heart of that person– isn’t going to be all that receptive to the seeds of the kingdom.

For example, a few years ago someone told me about a Lenten study in her church that was a discussion of heaven. They looked at a number of books by a number of best-selling authors who speculated on what they thought heaven might be like. Maybe it’s a huge eternal party, or a great banquet hall with every kind of delight you ever wanted in this life but couldn’t have. Maybe it’s a place where you’ll be reunited with all your loved ones happily ever after. This person came away with the notion that heaven will be whatever the individual wants it to be– one thing for one person, a different thing for somebody else. You hear this sort of thing all the time. People love to speculate, and they don’t like to be contradicted, not even by the Word of the Lord. “I think this,” or “I think that.” “But what does the Gospel say? How does it shape what you think?” “I think you’ll find that it supports what I think.” “Ah. So have you found that the Gospel actually does support what you think?” Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

So after all that, I said, “then you looked at what the Bible says about heaven, right?” “Well, why would we do that?” she said. “Because,” I said, “that’s where you’ll find what God has revealed about heaven. And what the Bible says about it is what it’s really like.” “Well, how do you know that?” she said. “Because we’re Christians,” I said, “and we believe that the Bible contains the inspired word of God, so that whatever it says about heaven is the way it really is. You can imagine all you want; but as a Christian you’re bound to measure your imaginings against the revealed Word of God. And if they don’t measure up, then which one do you think is probably going to turn out to be wrong?” Well, then came a really puzzled look, so I dropped it.

My first thought was to wonder why a Lenten study group was looking only at non-biblical readings, without any reference to Scripture. But on second thought, I suspect that the priest in that parish had done his best to show his people the differences between all those imaginative ideas about heaven, and what God has revealed through the writers of Scripture. But this person, for one, wasn’t getting it, or at least wasn’t willing to allow Scripture to inform her understanding. To apply today’s parable, the seeds were being sown, but they weren’t falling in good soil.

In our everyday life we hear so many different ideas about spiritual things, most of them very different from what  Scripture says. Some of those are actually put forth by people who claim to speak in the Name of the Lord, but who are really speaking in the name of their own bank accounts. Others may just not very competent teachers of the Word. In either case they’re not sowing the right seed, the seed of the kingdom. Or else the soil has been made unreceptive by worldly priorities.

So in the parable that Jesus tells here, he is the sower of the seed. In using that image, he is reminding people of the passage we read today in Isaiah where God says,

as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,  giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55.10-11)

The word Jesus Christ himself, the Word made flesh which God sent down from heaven, and which will not return without a great harvest of souls. The abundance of the harvest depends on the growing conditions wherever the seed is sown. The different kinds of ground that the seed falls on reflects people’s different attitudes to Jesus and his teaching. And the condition of the soil in each case determines a persons reaction to the call of Jesus. So the different places where the seed falls describe the various conditions of the hearts of people and how receptive they are to what he has to say.

Some of the seed, he says, fell along the path, where the soil was packed down really hard so that the seed couldn’t penetrate it, but got trampled instead. And it wasn’t long before birds carried the seed away. The path, St Bede says, “is the heart, which is trodden on by the frequent traffic of evil thoughts, and cannot take in the seed and let it germinate because it is so dried up.” It’s not hard for the devil to snatch the word from a hard-hearted person before it has a chance to sink in and work on his soul. But we have to bear in mind that souls that are hardened by sin can always be softened by God’s grace, and become good soil that bears loads of fruit for the kingdom. In the history of the Church, lots of hardened sinners have become fervent saints, St Paul being the most notable.

The rocky ground represents the hearts of people who at first were happy to hear the Good News of Jesus, and who initially had every intention of leading “a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” (BCP 330). But as soon as they encounter any opposition or experience any difficulty, they give it up. They’re like trees that grow on an outcropping of rock– there’s enough soil for them to grow a little bit. But they never get very big or look very healthy. The same can be said for people who don’t want too much religion– just enough to stay connected for whatever reason. Rather than look down on such people, God’s call on us is to shower them with his love and try to draw them in a little more.

Some of the seed fell among thorns, which choked the good plants as they grew. People in this condition get off to a good start. The seeds of eternal life begin to grow and thrive in them. But somewhere along the way they get caught up in the distractions and concerns of the world– a family situation or a demanding workload, etc. And maybe because they think they’re secure in their faith, it’s okay to slip a little bit. Then a little more, and a little more, so that their faith cools off, and before they realize it, they’re serving two masters. St Josemaria Escriva says, “It is wrong to have two candles lighted– one to St Michael and another to the devil. We must snuff out the devil’s candle: we must spend our lives completely in the service of the Lord” (The Navarre Bible).

Now a little bit of confusion crops up here between the thorns in this parable and the weeds in the one we’re going to read next week (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43). In that one, a farmer sowed good seed in his field, and then his enemy came that night and sowed weeds in it. His workers offered to pull the weeds as they grew up, but the farmer said to leave them for fear of tearing out the wheat as well. The two main points of this parable are to show that heresy will grow up side by side with the Gospel, no matter what, and also that we have no business trying to separate what any of us might think are the ‘righteous’ members of the Church from the ‘unrighteous.’ The result will be that the ones who choose to do the sorting turn out to be self-righteous, and hard-hearted toward those who don’t measure up, while a lot of good, decent people will become so turned off by it all that they’ll go away. There’s always the hope of conversion for the self-righteous as well as the unrighteous, and everybody in between. Our job is simply to love everybody unconditionally and leave the judging to God. So the wheat and the weeds in that parable are the people themselves; whereas in the parable we read today, the seed and the thorns are not people. Instead they are the things that either give us life or choke us to death.

Jesus uses some vivid imagery to describe what happened to the seed– it was devoured, it withered, or it was choked. And it underscores the various degrees of opposition to the Gospel and the determination of its enemies. They can be straightforward and aggressive, like the so-called New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.), or people we know personally who ridicule our faith. Or it can be subtle and incremental, like the way some governments and powerful organizations discriminate against religious groups and individuals. And it can even be insidious and heretical, like the way some clergy and theologians lead people away from the truth by undermining their confidence in the revealed Word of God. But to those who “hear the word and understand it,” it will result in what St Bonaventure calls “a fulness of eternal happiness,” which includes an ever-growing love for God and our neighbor, and an ever-growing desire to share that fulness with our neighbor.

After telling this parable Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” by which he means listen closely to what God has to say. That means not just reading bits of his Word in church on Sunday, but actually engaging it, seriously studying it, and asking God to shed his heavenly light on our study, and his grace on us in order to build our understanding and shape our lives in the image of his Son. Fr Austin Farrer said, “We cannot hear the voice of God in Christ’s words, let alone in St Paul’s or Isaiah’s, unless we have an ear attuned. After we have done our best to understand the words by the aid of honest scholarship, there is still something to be done, and that is the most important thing of all: to use our spiritual ears” (Interpretation and Belief, 10-11).

That’s what Jesus means when he says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Hear the Word of God– the teaching, the imagery, the poetry, the prophecy, the history, all of it–  hear it, listen to it in such a way that it reshapes us into the creatures he intended us to be from the beginning– creatures filled to overflowing with the love and mercy of God, who are eager to let that love and mercy spill over onto the whole world. That’s what happens when the seed is sown in good soil. It “bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 9, Year A
9 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:8-15; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bill Cosby told the story about one of his children who, when she was a toddler, kept trying to drink from his bottle of Coke. And since he didn’t want to end up with slobber and snot on it, he drilled her on not drinking from it. Then he put it down on the table to go do something, and when he came back, lo and behold, she was drinking his Coke. “What did I tell you?” he asked her. “You said not to drink your drink,” she answered. By this time he’s getting angry, and she’s getting scared. And he said, “Then why did you do it?” Half crying, she said, “I don’t knoooowwww!” (Bill Cosby, Himself, 1983).
Well that seems to be St Paul’s conundrum at the start of today’s second lesson. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he says, “I just don’t get it. Instead of doing what I want to do, I do the very thing I hate, the thing I don’t want to do.” And then he talks about sin as if it’s something like a brain tumor, or an evil alien inside his head, that forces his body to do things against his will, like how Lord Voldemort got inside Professor Quirrel (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). And that’s actually kind of what sin is.

There’s a school of thought among some Christians that teaches something called “the total depravity of man.” It says that human nature is thoroughly corrupt and sinful ever since Adam and Eve committed the first sin. But that idea is in serious disagreement with what the Church has taught from the beginning. In the very first chapter of the Bible, it says that God looked on all that he had made, including humans, and saw that it was all very good (Gen 1:31). So it’s really quite wrong to say that human nature is totally depraved, sinful to the core, for God is not the creator of evil. Simply put, evil is rebellion against God, freely chosen and engaged in by his creatures. Now I realize that that last statement seems contradictory to what St Paul is saying in today’s reading, and especially to what we heard from him last week about how we’re all the slaves of sin before being redeemed by the blood of Christ, and becoming slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:15-23).

In today’s reading he says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” And there’s the qualifier– “ the flesh.” We’re not just flesh-and-blood beings, though; we’re spiritual too. And those two sides of us are equal parts of one whole person. And Paul seems to imply that if there weren’t that spiritual side to us, or more to the point, when our spiritual side is not nurtured in the right way, and nourished on the right things, our physical side can become totally consumed by base desires, what he and St John both call “the desires/lusts of the flesh” (e.g. Eph 2:3, 1Jn 2:16).

At every baptism, the celebrant asks that set of six questions of the candidates, the first three of which are called the Renunciations. Historically, they face the door of the church, symbolizing the spiritual darkness from which they’ve come– their separation from God, their rebellion against God, which they’re now turning away from. Then the baptist (= the one doing the baptizing) says,

       Question  Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
       Answer    I renounce them.
       Question  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
                  which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
       Answer    I renounce them.
       Question  Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
       Answer    I renounce them.

And then turning toward the front of the church where Christ is waiting to fill them with his life at the altar, they answer the second set of three questions called the Promises: 

        Question   Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
       Answer    I do.
       Question  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
       Answer  I do.
       Question  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
       Answer  I do. 
(BCP 302)

What St Paul is saying is that there is an ongoing struggle within every one of us between our innate goodness, the goodness that God built into us when he created us, and that deeply ingrained sinfulness, that original sin with which the human race has been infected ever since Adam and Eve. That struggle is ramped up every time we begin to move toward God. And so what the person being baptized is doing in answering those questions is committing himself to the struggle.
Paul puts it this way, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil is close by.” And Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, puts it this way: “Wherever God erects a house of prayer, the devil always builds a chapel there.” Noting, as St Paul does, that more people will give up the struggle than stick with it, that whole verse of Defoe’s poem reads like this:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there;
And ‘twill be found, upon examination,
The Latter [the devil] has the largest congregation.
The True-Born Englishman, 1701
So it stands to reason that every follower of Jesus is always going to be confronted by the temptation to sin, and is always going to experience that internal spiritual struggle between good and evil. And the more active God is in a person’s life, the busier the devil will be trying to undo the good that God is doing. And often there’s that lurking temptation to despair, to want to give up, because the struggle seems unwinnable. “For I have the desire to do what’s right,” Paul says, “but not the ability to carry it out”– I want to do it, but I can’t. Or as Jesus said on Maundy Thursday night as he waited to be arrested, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).
But here’s the good news– the struggle is not yours alone, or mine! Near the end of today’s reading Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” this corrupt human condition. He’s not wondering whether he’s really going to be delivered, or having a momentary doubt about his salvation. He knows the answer, which is why in the very next sentence he declares, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” or as he puts it in 1 Corinthians, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1Cor 15:57). It’s by Christ’s victory over death on the cross that Paul and the rest of us are delivered from the corruption of sin. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re immune or impervious to sin. It means that by the grace of God, first given in baptism, and then renewed every trip to the communion rail, we’re able to rise above it. “This is not your own doing,” Paul says in Ephesians, “it’s the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). It’s not something we can possibly earn by doing all the right things, which is a common trap that a lot of Christians fall into. It’s pure gift. And all we have to do to receive it is to accept it in humility and repentance. You should all read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, if you haven’t already. It’s not a very long read, and it’s a lot of fun. And it deals directly with this issue of the internal struggle against sin that we’re all engaged in. And it comes at it from the devil’s perspective, which is what makes it a fun read.
The Holy Spirit who makes his dwelling in us when we’re baptized is the One who takes up that internal struggle against sin. If we’re serious about being followers of Jesus, he leads us every day in renouncing evil, and in turning to Christ our Savior, in putting our whole trust in his grace and love, in following and obeying him as our Lord. It’s not our own doing. So when we find that we’re confronted with the temptation to do the thing we know we ought not to do, or the temptation not to do what we know we ought to be doing (like dragging our butts out of bed on a beautiful summer Sunday morning), the thing to do is not to try to power through it on our own, come what may, but simply to turn to God and ask for help. And the simple, three-word prayer for help that Christians have always prayed is Κυριε ελεισον, “Lord, have mercy.”
That’s where the notion of the total depravity of man falls apart. It insists that we’re so far gone that we’re totally incapable of crying out to the Lord for mercy. But in fact there will always be enough of that impulse toward goodness in us that God built into us at creation, along with all the other gifts of his grace, that we’ll always be able to call out to him in time of need. And even if we’re sunk so deeply in sin that we’re not inclined to cry out, he’s still going to surround us with his grace. He’s still going put reminders in our way. He’s still going to throw countless lifelines out for us to grab onto. That’s precisely what he did in sending his Son into the world. “God shows his love for us,” Paul says, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Before we even knew that we needed saving, God sent his Son to be our Savior. So don’t ever think that you struggle against sin all on your own. God is your champion, the cross is his weapon, and the Church is your support group. And that’s the good news from St Paul today.  In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 8, Year A
2 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some of you know about a Christian satire blog called the Babylon Bee. It posts fake news reports that spoof all sorts of things that Christians believe and do, whether mega-churches, Baptists, Episcopalians, whatever. As one of my Pentecostal colleagues says, it’s an equal-opportunity offender. And most of the time it’s pretty funny. I post one of their articles to the church Facebook page every now and then, not because of who it makes fun of, but because it’s just funny.

One of the Bee’s favorite targets is people who believe the King James Version is the only accurate English translation of the Bible. In fact there are some who believe that the translators who produced it way back in 1611 worked infallibly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And some of them believe that any later translations that differ in any way from the King James are the subtle work of the devil to mislead God’s people and rob us of our salvation. There are even a few who, not having any knowledge of languages and how they developed, or of the history of Bible translation, think that the King James Version is as old as the Church herself. Well all that is the background to the Babylon Bee item I posted on the church’s page a couple of weeks ago. The headline read, “Apostle Paul’s King James Bible Up For Auction,” and the opening line of the article said that St Paul’s very own leather-bound copy of the King James Bible– “the only translation he was known to use”– had been listed on eBay, and that some blessed person could have the opportunity to read the Word of the Lord from the same 17th-century English edition that St Paul and the other Apostles used to found the Church... sixteen centuries earlier. Now in case you’re having a hard time keeping up, the Church was founded by Jesus several decades before the first book of the New Testament had been written, and about 1600 years before the King James Bible was produced. Are you with me?

Well, the King James Version is a magnificent piece of work, both for the beauty of its language and the accuracy of the translation. The scholars who translated it had access to the largest and oldest known collections of Greek and Hebrew scriptures at that time. But the thing is that lots of older and even more reliable copies of Greek and Hebrew texts have been discovered since then, and are still being discovered deep in vaults and libraries and caves all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Also– and most King-James-only people don’t know this either– the King James Version was revised less than two hundred years after it was first published in order to update a lot of words and expressions which no longer carried the same meanings, or which people no longer understood.

One very good example of that is in today’s second lesson. In just about the middle of the passage St Paul says, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” It’s a very strange thing that Paul says here– that we used to be slaves of sin, but are now slaves of righteousness. His letter to the Romans is full of stuff like that, stuff that we’ve got to read more than once, and do some digging in order to understand. Slavery to sin makes sense to us– being so mired in it that we can’t get free, like some kind of addiction. But slaves of righteousness? That’s a very strange turn of phrase.

In the King James Version you won’t find the word ‘slaves’ in that passage. It says, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” That’s quite a bit softer language to our ears, and not nearly as troublesome. But the question remains, how could one translation say servants, and another slaves?

In the Greek-speaking world in which Paul lived and wrote, there was a big difference between slaves and servants. But in England in the early 1600s, slavery was not a very familiar concept, although the first slaves arrived in Virginia just eight years after the King James Bible was published. Up until then, the English knew firsthand about servants, and forms of servitude that were difficult to escape from, including indentured servitude, which is how a lot of people paid their way to the New World. But they didn’t know so much the outright ownership of individuals. So ‘servant’ was most likely a much more suitable word to use back then. And if slavery had never been introduced in America, servant might still have been a more comprehensible word for us to use. But since the institution of slavery is a major blemish on both American and British history, that word suits us better than servant does.

The books of the New Testament were all originally written in Greek (not 17th-century English). And the Greek word for servant is διακονος (diakonos), and the word for slave is δουλος (doulos). By the time Paul wrote to the church at Rome, his brother apostles had already created the distinct order of ordained servant ministry in the Church which they called διακονοι– deacons, whose primary work was hands-on pastoral care, serving the poor, the elderly, the hungry, prisoners and others, not as slaves, but as loving, caring fellow Christians. So with deacons ministering in every local church, there was all the more reason that Paul should avoid using the word διακονοι, servants, to describe the dramatic change of circumstances that new converts undergo at baptism.

Paul actually drops a strong hint in the direction of this teaching at the very beginning of Romans. Introducing himself in the first sentence, he says, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1). It’s interesting that most modern English translations of the Bible say ‘servant’ in that verse, even though the Greek word is very clearly δουλος / slave. Why do they do that? I have no idea, but it doesn’t seem right. Anyway, after making that dramatic statement that we read today, about having been freed from sin and becoming slaves of righteousness, Paul explains, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.” The people he first wrote to, just as people today, didn’t get how utterly serious the problem of sin really is. So he presents it in rather jarring terms that they do get.

He is describing what we are before we belong to God and what we become afterward. The relationship of the slave to his master  is something that people in first-century Rome understood very well because, among the congregation that he was writing to, many were slave-owners, many were slaves, and many had been slaves but were now free. It's even possible that there were Christians in Rome who had once been slaves, but had risen to a position in which they could afford to own slaves themselves. Philemon was one such slave-owner. He was a Christian who owned a Christian named Onesimus. Paul wrote a letter to him in which he reminded him that even though Onesimus was his slave, he was also his brother in Christ, and he should treat him accordingly.

Paul wrote to people in terms that they could readily understand, like in today’s reading where he says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” In that statement Paul is alluding to one particular way that a person could become a slave back then. For any number of reasons, usually having to do with poverty or debt, a person could willingly become a slave in exchange for food and shelter or to clear a debt, sort of like indentured servitude, but maybe a bit more permanent.

Paul is saying that in a similar way we enslave ourselves to sin by willingly embracing it, by presenting ourselves to it. You don’t necessarily set out with that intention, but little by little you get sucked into it to the point of being unable to free yourself. Think of the heroin addict who will trade everything he’s got in order to feed his addiction. And he’ll do whatever it takes, sell or steal whatever it takes, to get the next fix. “You once presented your members,” you dedicated/devoted yourselves, which is what the Greek word means, “as slaves to impurity.” “Don’t you know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” The more a person engages in sin– presents, devotes, dedicates himself to it– the deeper he sinks himself in it, and the more solidly he gets stuck in it. And the deeper he goes, the less able he is to free himself.

Now here’s the good news: there’s another word associated with slavery which, in English, is redemption. One of the titles given to Jesus is Redeemer. But a lot of folks don’t really know the origin of that word in relation to God. When I was a kid, we’d mail in so many cereal boxtops to redeem the cool toy pictured on the box. Where I come from the redemption centre is where you take your empty beer bottles to get the deposit back. In this country there are lots of churches called the Redemption Center, which brings us closer to the point. The word means to take/buy back. And that’s where St Paul is going with his teaching about being slaves to sin/ righteousness, although he doesn’t get there in today’s reading. Redemption in his day was the key that freed slaves. Some slaves back then were allowed to take jobs on the side to earn money so that they could redeem themselves. But that usually took a very long time. Sometimes a generous master would free a slave after years of faithful service. And sometimes a third party would buy the slave and set him free. And that’s the transaction that has taken place in order to free us from sin.

Jesus alone is that generous third party who is able to redeem us, to pay the price. St Paul teaches that the Son of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:7), in order to present himself to our slavemaster as the price of our redemption. On the cross he absorbed into himself the sin of the world. But because he is God, it’s impossible for sin to destroy him like it would have destroyed us. Instead he destroyed the power of sin and took back what belongs to him, namely all those whom he created in his own image– us! He has redeemed us and set us free.

In the ancient world, rather than redeeming a slave and setting him free, it was more often the case that the redeemer bought the slave to use for his own purposes. But Jesus didn’t do that. Like the nine lepers that he healed, who went away and didn’t come back to worship him (Lk 17:11-19), he lets us do as we please. But St Paul urges us to present our members to Jesus as slaves of righteousness, which is what will sanctify us, what will make us holy. After all, Paul says to the Corinthian church, “You’re not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Cor 6:19-20). And St Peter says that we were redeemed, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pet 1:18-19), which is of more value than every precious thing on earth.  And the reason Jesus redeemed us is because, as Jesus himself said, we are more precious than everything else on earth (Mt 6:26).

The bottom line is that we humans have to have a master to serve, of one sort or another. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re the masters of our own fates and the captains of our own souls (W.E. Henley, Invictus). But that’s just not true. In fact that was the prize the serpent promised in persuading our first ancestors to commit the first sin. We’re really incapable of being our own masters. And every time we try, it turns out badly, because we invariably end up placing ourselves under the mastery of sin. And as St Paul says at the end of today’s reading, the reward, the wages, of sin is death. Sin unrepented of always leads to death. But the gift that God offers in its place, and it truly is a gift that’s just waiting for us to accept, and nothing that we could ever earn, is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. We’re not our own, Paul says, and we can never be our own. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re surrounded on every side by the grace of God. And all he asks of us is to open up and let him fill us with it. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 7, Year A
25 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:8-11, 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I had this classmate in seminary who was a bit, what we might call, motivationally challenged. He had a hard time to get to class. And more than once during exams, I looked out my third-floor window and saw him sneaking in the basement door of the college with a box of beer in one hand and a stack of Blockbuster movies in the other. Then after grades were posted, it wasn’t unusual to see him going about dressed in a suit and tie, making every class on time, asking the professors all sorts of questions and participating fully in the discussions. He’d made his mind up that he was turning over a new leaf. But after a week or so, he slipped back into his old rut. Amazingly, he didn’t flunk out of school, but his sponsoring bishop (also my bishop) on the east coast dumped him. So he went to work in a shoe store in his hometown on Lake Erie. But before long, the Bishop of Saskatchewan took him under his wing and ordained him. And he became a very good parish priest, now serving on the west coast. It’s nice little story of redemption– and transcontinental migration.

To be fair, there were lots of disincentives in the Toronto School of Theology in those days, lots of things going on in the classrooms and the chapels and elsewhere that could easily discourage students of a traditional Anglican outlook from wanting to get involved. This in addition to the way those kinds of Anglicans were viewed by the rest. But as we all got into parish ministry, and diocesan and national church affairs, we encountered bigger issues and lots of bitterness on all sides. And sometimes we just wanted to retreat back into our little country parishes and stay there. But since the Lord won’t allow any of us to suffer more than we can handle without also giving us a way out (1Cor 10:13), we learned more and more, with the help of God’s grace, when to stand our ground and when to shake the dust off our feet and walk away. And if we’ve been attentive to Jesus and the teaching of his Apostles and prophets, we’ve learned that whether we engage or walk away, we should do it with a blessing on our lips and a prayer for God to bring glory out of the messes that we create.

Well, turning over a new leaf is what St Paul is talking about in today’s second lesson. Only in his distinctly Christian way of putting it, he calls it “walking in newness of life.” And that, of course, means that what he’s talking about is a whole lot bigger, and way more important, than just trying to get back on track after you’ve bombed an exam, or a job, or a relationship, or whatever.

We hear this expression of Paul’s whenever we use Rite One which, for us, is during Advent and Lent. When we’re getting ready to confess our sins the priest says,

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith... (BCP 330)

In other words, if you’re serious about honestly repenting of your sins, about loving your neighbors better, which includes not just everybody you like, but also every person you can’t stand to be around, as well as every other person on earth; and if you fully intend to obey God’s commandments and to walk the way of holiness– all of that is how you begin to lead the new life. And if that’s what you really want to do, then you need to bow down before the Lord and ask him to free you from your sins. Then, in the full confidence that he’ll help you do all those things, come to the altar to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood, which is the way he fills you with the life of his Son, and “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done” (Garrison Keillor). That’s my paraphrase of the Prayer Book’s Invitation to Confession. But now and then we need to unpack  what it means to “lead a new life” a bit more.

What does it mean when St Paul urges us to “walk in newness of life”? He pretty much spells it out in the opening lines of today’s reading. “Don’t you know,” he says, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” That’s a really strange expression– that we were baptized into Christ Jesus. Lots of people tend to say, “I was baptized Catholic/ Lutheran/ Baptist/ Episcopalian,” which isn’t really true at all. You might have been baptized in one of those churches, but that didn’t make you Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist or Episcopalian. It made you a Christian, because when you went into the water, whichever way you went into it, and however old you were at the time, you were joined to Jesus in his death. You died to sin.  He died on the cross for our sins, and according to him the first step in the Christian life is to join him there in his death, in some mysterious way that we can’t fully understand in this life, in order to be freed from sin and to become inheritors with him of his eternal kingdom. And when we come up out of the water, we’re reborn to the new life of the redeemed. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” St Paul says, so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” We are now somehow sharing his divine, risen life, even while we finish out our mortal days. And sometime after our bodies have given up the ghost, they’ll be pulled back together and raised up in a glorified way, just like our Lord was on Easter morning, so that we can live that new life to perfection.

Meanwhile, our main concern is to live that new life as best we can in this life as witnesses to the risen Lord and to his promise of resurrection for all of us. By the grace of baptism we’ve been set up to live the rest of this life as if he were living his life in us, which indeed he is, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. When we went down into the water, St Paul teaches, “our old man” as he calls it, the old sinful person that we were before baptism, innocent little babies that we were, yet still infected by sin, were crucified with Christ, joined with him on the cross in a wonderful mystery in order to destroy that old sinfulness and to free us from it, so that from then on we could live like Jesus, love like Jesus, forgive like Jesus and most important of all, worship like Jesus, offering the whole of our life up to the Father as a living sacrifice. Our worship of God doesn’t begin and end in the hour or so that we’re here. True worship of the Father begins at the baptismal font and never ends.

Fr Austin Farrer says that when we come together at the altar like we’re doing here this morning, and offer the bread and wine and money, those are just tokens of our total offering of ourselves to God. The real offering, he says, “is you yourselves who are laid on the altar to be consecrated, and to be made the body of Christ.” And at the moment that the priest breaks the bread on the altar, “we are all sacrificed to God in Christ’s death, dying in him to our own will, and receiving Christ our true life in communion” (The Crown of the Year, Trinity vi). Then, as we walk out of here after having received Holy Communion, each of us walks with Christ in us in a renewed way.

That’s what it means to “walk in newness of life,” as St Paul puts it in today’s reading, or to “lead a new life... walking from henceforth in [God’s] holy ways,” as the Prayer Book says. It is to go through life with the full awareness that we never walk by ourselves, knowing that wherever we go and whatever we do, Christ is with us, because he is in us through the indwelling power of his Holy Spirit. We carry him wherever we go. And when we interact with other people, Christ interacts with them through us. So every encounter we have with another person is a holy conversation, and an invitation to that other person to walk with us in newness of life, in Christ Jesus. So think about that when you’re about to yell at someone for cutting you off in traffic, or to treat a telemarketer badly, or speak rudely to a fellow parishioner. That’s not how you behave when Christ dwells in you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Proper 6, Year A
18 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35–10:8
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Whenever I preach at funerals I keep it fairly short, mainly because  grieving loved ones aren’t in a frame of mind such that they can take in very much. Also, one of the things I was taught about preaching at funerals is that the sermon is not to be a eulogy. Eulogy comes from a Greek word meaning to speak well of someone. In the Anglican tradition, as in the wider Catholic tradition, there’s no place for extolling the praises of the person we’re burying. As Marc Antony said at Julius Caesar’s funeral, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” (Act 3, scene II). That’s because a Christian funeral is above all a worship service. So the sermon has to be a proclamation of the Gospel, just like every other sermon. It’s quite alright, however, to talk about ways the departed may have served and glorified the Lord in their earthly life, and stood as a witness to Christ crucified and risen. So it’s okay to speak well of someone in that way, as long as the central focus is God.

Well I’m going to be fairly brief today since I had very little down time during St Michael’s Youth Conference to work on a sermon.  And this is also going to be a little bit of a eulogy. I found out last Monday that a very dear friend of mine had died two days before. His name is Fr Lyman Harding, and he was the priest who presented me for ordination. (It was his 80th birthday celebration that I went to a couple of months ago in Canada.) When I moved to Saint John, NB, in 1989, I lived a block from Trinity Church. By then I had not been a regular church attender for nearly ten years– that’s another story. I walked by that church quite a lot, and I noticed his name on the sign and remembered the he was the priest in my grandmother’s parish years before, and that he had officiated at her funeral. I was curious, so eventually I decided to go to church there one week; and from that point on I never missed a Sunday, because from that first day, I knew beyond all doubt that I was home, a prodigal son back where he belonged in the bosom of the Church.

The vocation to ordained ministry that I had begun to sense as a teenager began to resurface soon afterward, and became louder and louder. So Fr Harding and I talked about it. Eventually he called me into his office and said that by working full time and going to school part time it would take years for me to get my bachelor’s degree, plus three years of seminary after that. “So here’s what you’re going to do,” he said, “You’re going to quit your job and move into the rectory, and go to university full time.” And since the only household expenses he and Margaret had were groceries and cable, I was going to pay $25 per week for room and board. Then I would go to seminary if the bishop agreed to sponsor me. I got my degree in three years. During one summer he got funding to hire me to catalog the parish archives, which was a pretty big collection of all kinds of stuff. And the summer after my first year of seminary he hired me as his student pastoral assistant, and persuaded a parishioner to lend me her car for the job. So as you can well imagine, I became pretty close to the Harding family. Ever since, I’ve referred to them as my godparents– I had been baptized as a baby in a church that didn’t do the godparent thing. And their daughters and I still call each other pseudo-sis and pseudo-bro.

There are actually four of us priests in whose lives Margaret and Lyman have had a strong formative influence. One of them is now an archdeacon, like Lyman was before he retired; one is a college principal; one is the Dean of the Diocese of Fredericton, where we were all ordained; and I’m the last, and the least. He always called us his “boys,” and they both treated us as if we were their own sons. Margaret and Lyman are both faithful servants of the Lord, and Lyman was a good and faithful priest. They saw what they did for us four “boys” as part of their service to the Lord and to his Church– not as an onerous duty, but as a real act of Christian love.

Lyman, by the way, is the one who taught me that there is no place for eulogies at a funeral. He also taught me how to pick hymns. He was adamant that you pick them randomly, but ones that support the readings of the day. He also insisted that you never, ever sing slow, draggy hymns at the beginning or the end of a service, and that communion hymns ought to be somewhat quiet and meditative. I learned lots of other things from him, but those seem to be the ones that some people want to argue about.

So here’s the gospel proclamation: Two verses from today’s readings really stood out in light of my godfather’s death. The first is in the gospel. As Jesus was preparing to send the disciples out as his student assistants, he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Fr Harding saw it as a huge blessing in his life to be able to present four young parishioners to the bishop that he could send out into the harvest.

The other verse is from today’s second lesson: Paul says that through Jesus “we have... obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” It’s lovely poetic language, but more than that, it’s a pretty significant expression that Paul uses– “this grace in which we stand.” It’s the grace of God that makes every good thing happen. We heard a great sermon from Mother Ann Tofani here on Friday in which she talked about the various kinds of grace that God gives. Prevenient grace goes before us to prepare the way– first of all to predispose us to receive the Good News and to believe the Gospel, and then to prepare God’s people to receive all the gifts he has to give. Then there’s justifying grace, by which he reconciles us to himself, through baptism, forgiveness, Holy Communion and so forth. And sanctifying grace makes us holy. God’s chief means of doing that is through the sacraments, not just baptism and the Holy Eucharist, but all seven, depending on which of the others we’re called to receive or that we’re in need of. These are particular forms of grace, but really grace is one gift that God gives in countless ways. So when St Paul speaks of “this grace in which we stand,” he’s talking about the expressions of God’s love that have come to us from every direction, whether straight from him or through other people ministering to us.

That’s what I saw God doing powerfully for me through Lyman and Margaret Harding as his faithful servants who saw it as their ministry to further the ministry of the Church. And that’s what I saw again this past week at St Michael’s Youth Conference. Those eight kids went home yesterday so much richer in the gifts of God’s grace than when they came last Sunday. And I saw God pouring out his grace on them– and on us adults– in so many ways, including the way so many of our parishioners gave so much to support the cause, whether it was by serving meals, donating the cots they all slept on, making sure the air conditioning got fixed, at least temporarily to make sure we didn’t swelter in last week’s heat, and not to forget Tiffany who took lots of pictures to post on Facebook every day, and Jack who helped out the bishop in teaching music and playing for Mass every day. For my part, it was just paying forward what I’ve received in my life through other followers of Jesus. And all those gifts from our people was just some of the grace in which we stood over the past week. It was all given to build up the faith of the people who participated, the love that we have for one another, and to prepare laborers to go out into the harvest of God’s eternal kingdom.

So deepest thanks to you all for that, and prayers for rest eternal for Fr Lyman Harding. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ian C. Wetmore+

Trinity Sunday, Year A
11 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Genesis 1:1–2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the day that preachers like to joke about– or grumble about:  Oh no! I’ve got to preach on the Trinity this week! I have to try to teach something that nobody’s going to  understand. Why don’t we just skip the sermon and have a little hymn-sing instead? One of my mentors used to say, “Oh Father, the Trinity’s the simplest thing in the world to explain, because God is utterly simple.” Then he would go to the pulpit to explain it, but it didn’t come off sounding all that simple. He’s a philosophy professor as well, which may explain some things. The thing is, as the theologians say, God is utterly simple, which makes him not that simple to understand.
Shortly after the Reformation the bishops of the Church of England formulated a document that’s best known as the Thirty-nine Articles as a way of teaching the Christian faith to ordinary people in the pews. It’s in our Prayer Book beginning on page 867. The very first thing it talks about is the Trinity. Article 1 says this:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (BCP 867)
Dead simple, isn’t it!?– just like Fr Mercer used to tell me. Let’s unpack it:

“There is but one living and true God, everlasting...” We all get that, right?– because we’re all devout monotheists. We believe that there can only be one God who, as St Paul says, “is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). Or to put it more simply, “He’s got the whole world in his hand.” We get him, because he’s got us. And he is eternal, everlasting. He has no beginning and no end. That’s because he is the creator of time itself, so naturally he must be outside of time, eternal. We humans like to build things way bigger than ourselves, sometimes to the point that we can’t contain or control them. But not so with God. Nothing in all creation is beyond his ability to contain or to control, including time. He’s outside of it all, yet he permeates all of it.

This one God is “without body, parts, or passions...” He has no physical body– he’s pure spirit. He has no parts, no divisions. If you can remember biology class, think about the cell, the basic life form– the egg is the one that’s most familiar to us. It has three main parts, the membrane, the cytoplasm and the nucleus– shell, white, yolk, and each part is made up of millions of even tinier parts. Well God is even simpler than that. He can’t be divided into parts. He just is. When Moses asked God to identify himself, God said, “I am” (Ex 3:14). It can’t get any simpler than that.

None of us can say that about ourselves. We can say, “I am this or that,” but none of us can say simply, “I am.” Jesus said it about himself several times, which made the Pharisees draw back in fear, because they knew that by saying such a thing, he could only be one of two things, either crazy or God. And they knew that God doesn’t have a body– not before Jesus anyway. Yet in saying, “I am,” Jesus identified himself as God. And we worship him as God. So what’s the deal with that? Hold that thought.

God is also without passions, the article says, meaning that he’s incapable of suffering, or of having emotional ups and downs like we have. Nothing can injure God or hurt his feelings, because nothing in all creation has any power over him. And there’s nothing in creation that he doesn’t know about from the beginning to the end of time. He created everything that exists, and from where he sits in eternity, he sees it all in one perfect view. So nothing can surprise him. Once in a while somebody will say, “How could God know this or that?” or “How could Jesus know what was about to happen to him, or know what was wrong with somebody before he even met them?” Well, as Jesus said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “How foolish and slow you are not to believe everything the prophets have said!” To God all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from him no secrets are hid (BCP 323, 355). He’s God who created everything, so he knows everything.

God possesses “infinite power, wisdom, and goodness,” the article says. This stands in pretty stark contrast to the creation myths of the ancient world. Most of those stories describe the physical creation as a sort of corrupt byproduct of violent cosmic struggles among various gods, and therefore not a good thing. In contrast, the one true God inspired the writer of Genesis to describe a benevolent Creator who intentionally created a good world, which he populated with creatures that he loves and cares for. And not only the physical world, but the spiritual realm as well. He is, as the article says, the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. That’s what we read in the first lesson today. And as if to underscore the difference between the biblical creation story and the others, seven times the writer says, “And God saw that it was good.” Unlike the gods in those pagan myths, God’s power is infinite, it’s unlimited and absolute, as are his wisdom and goodness, which are quite clearly displayed in the biblical creation story.

That’s the hard lesson God’s Old Testament people had to learn, since early in their existence they had become enslaved by a pagan nation for several centuries. When he led them to freedom in the Sinai wilderness he began re-educating them (to use an old Soviet term). Over the next forty years he gave them a crash course in monotheism, teaching them to worship only him and to rely solely on him for everything, right down to what he gave them to eat every morning and evening. Then he drove out all the pagan nations that had occupied their promised homeland, where they settled and were surrounded by pagan cultures.

Because of all that, the first and great commandment God gave them was, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And to impress on his people how supremely important it is to believe that he is the one living and true God, and that they should love and worship him and no other, he followed that up by saying,

these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-9)

In other words, wherever you go don’t ever forget that there is only one God. Worship him alone, and love him above all else because he loves you more than you’ll ever be able to imagine. From that came the practice of wearing phylacteries. Jewish men wrote the great commandment on pieces of parchment and put them in little leather boxes which they tied on their arms and foreheads. And they still put the commandment in a little container called a mezuzah and fasten it to the doorposts of their homes.

The oneness and the infinite power, wisdom and goodness of God was a vitally important lesson for his people to learn and to believe, because they were surrounded by pagans, and were in constant danger of syncretism, of worshipping pagan gods alongside the living God. Psalm 135 says, “The idols of the nations are... the work of human hands. They have mouths, but don’t speak; eyes, but don’t see, ears, but don’t hear, and there’s no breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them [i.e. dumb], and so do all who trust in them!” (vv 15-18). By contrast, the God who chose to reveal himself to Abraham and his descendants is real, and powerful, and actively cares for his creatures, which he demonstrated over and over throughout their history. And then, at a time when his people were fully convinced of the oneness of God, he chose to reveal his threeness to them, his tri-unity, his Trinity.

The last statement of Article 1 introduces the Trinity. This God of ours, who is described as the only God, living and true, without body, parts and passions, the Maker and Preserver of everything, he is one, he is utterly simple. And whereas every created thing exists in relation to something or someone else– she’s a daughter, a lawyer, an airman; he’s a son, a soldier, a brother– God just exists, he just is; I Am is his Name. “And in unity of this Godhead” [in the oneness of God],  Article 1 says, “there are three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” That’s the really hard part for us to get our minds around.

The Trinity really is utterly simple but, as I said, not in a way that’s easily understood. There is only one living and true God– that’s the easy part. But then he goes and reveals this new dimension. And we have to be careful how we talk about it since that’s where the major heresies all stem from. That fact alone is proof that understanding the Trinity is not all that simple. We speak of Jesus as God’s only-begotten Son, “begotten, not made.” “Begotten” is a word that has to do with reproduction. Babies are begotten, conceived by their parents. And that has led some people to wonder whether the language of the Bible and the Creed is little more than imagery, that the Church is imposing a human image on God to help us understand him more easily. The argument that that gives rise to is that Jesus isn’t really a son in the way we understand sons and daughters. But that leads down a rabbit hole that’s full of biblical and theological problems.

The big problem with that train of thought is that it runs backwards, from us to God. The thing is that Jesus is God’s begotten Son in the most real way, and that we with our sons and daughters are the images of the real thing. It’s kind of like how marriage in the Christian understanding is an image of the heavenly marriage of Christ to his Bride the Church. So when you think of your relation to your children being like God the Father’s relation to God the Son, and of your faithfulness to your spouse as like the faithfulness Christ to his Church, instead of theirs being like yours, that puts it all in a different light, a brighter, clearer light. We are created in God’s image, as we read in today’s first lesson, not the other way round.

Then there’s God the Holy Spirit. He’s not another son of God. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, as Jesus said (Jn 14:16-17, 26), and as we say in the Creed. He is the Love that the Father and the Son have for each other, that fills the worship of God’s people, and that God pours out through the Church in order to draw people in to the community of divine love, which is what the Trinity is. St Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). He is the power of God that drives the Church out into the world to share God’s love with everybody, and that gives us patience and comfort on those occasions when that love is rejected.

Now the reason we read that long passage from Genesis today is because it’s the very first revelation of the Trinity in the Bible. And it comes right at the beginning of the Bible– in the first three verses, in fact. “In the beginning, God created,” it says. That’s “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In verse 2 it says that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. He’s on standby, waiting to bring everything to life as soon as God gives the Word. Then God spoke: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The Word that he spoke and the Light that he called up are one and the same, his eternal Son. Remember what St John says at the beginning of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1"1). And a few verses on John identifies that Word as “the true Light, which enlightens everyone” (1:9). Then he says that this Word/Light “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14).

So the Trinity is all there, present and involved in creation. It’s plain for us to see because we look at it through the lens of the Gospel. Before Jesus, God’s people weren’t able to see it. The Father revealed it all when he revealed his Son by sending him into the world to die and rise again, and then sending the Holy Spirit into the Church at Pentecost to lead her into all truth, as Jesus promised (Jn 16:12-15).

Also through the events of Easter and Pentecost, God shows that the Trinity is present and active in the new creation, the redemption of the world. Each Person has his part to play. By sin we have alienated ourselves from God. So the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit is to reconcile us to the Father. Jesus atoned for our sin on the cross, and by joining us to himself in baptism he makes us the children of God, the prodigals who have returned cap in hand. And the Holy Spirit fills us with the divine life by drawing us into the community of divine love, where he enables us to reach out to God as Abba, our Father (Gal 4:6).

And that’s why we celebrate the Holy Trinity on this Sunday after Pentecost. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. And the greatest revelation of truth is that the one living and true God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons all of one indivisible substance. And as the Creed of St Athanasius says (the one in the back of the Prayer Book that’s printed so small that we can’t read it in church, p864), the whole thing is incomprehensible. Yet this incomprehensible, loving God comes to us in majesty and mercy every time we meet at the altar, to take away our sin, and to renew the divine life in us by filling us with the life that was poured out on the cross for our redemption and reconciliation. It’s a great and strange mystery that, on the intellectual level, is inaccessible to us, but by faith it absorbs us into the life of God. O come, let us worship! In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.   
Ian C. Wetmore+

Pentecost, Year A
4 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I love the story of Eldad and Medad, the two guys who stayed behind in the camp and prophesied. The first thing it reminds me of is all the control freaks in the Church, and all those people who say, “You can’t do that!” or “That’s not how we do things!” or “That’s Baptist/ Catholic/ Pentecostal. We don’t believe that.” And even though I’ve been frustrated, and  at times even angered, by some of those people, whenever I think about them I have to smile, because I know that they’re always going to be fighting a losing battle. It’s like when the Pharisees were trying to figure out how to wipe out the young Church. Gamaliel, the most highly respected elder on the council and, as it turns out, the one who trained St Paul as a Pharisee, he cautioned his colleagues against doing anything. Leave them alone, he said. If it’s bogus it will fail; but if it really is from God, you won’t be able to stop them. You might even find that you’re working against God! (Acts 5:38-39).

Well, that’s where Joshua found himself in today’s first reading. Moses was swamped with work as the leader of God’s people, so he prayed for help. God told him to pick seventy elders to assist him, gather them outside the camp at the tent of meeting. All but two showed up. And as we read today, that was the first great outpouring of the Holy Spirit among God’s people when he caused all those elders to start prophesying. Eldad and Medad were the two who didn’t show up. But God filled them with the Holy Spirit just the same, right where they were at, in the midst of the camp, and they prophesied too. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, was young and green, but extremely loyal; so he ran to Moses and pleaded with him to stop those two. But Moses said, “Don’t be jealous on my account. I wish God would inspire all his people like that.” Something similar happened during Jesus’ ministry. John said to him, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t one of us.” Jesus said, “Don’t stop him; whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:38-40; Lk 9:49-50). In other words, if they’re doing the right thing for the right reason, don’t get in their way– support them. Joshua learned his lesson, and eventually turned out to be the great leader who succeeded Moses and led Israel into the Promised Land.

Now I’m sure all this was in the back of Gamaliel’s mind as he advised the council to leave the Apostles alone. It’s certainly what I think of whenever I encounter that “Can’t-do” attitude in the Church– “They can’t do that. Make them stop.” And what I really want to say at that moment is, “No, you stop, and be quiet, watch and learn, and see what God may be doing there. Good things may be happening. And if it’s really a movement of the Holy Spirit, then you need to seriously question whether you’re working against God.”

By the day of Pentecost, ten days had passed since Jesus ascended into heaven. While he was still with them he had laid all the groundwork to prepare them for this day. “I won’t leave you like helpless orphans,” he told them on Maundy Thursday, “I will come to you” (Jn 14:8). And right before he ascended he said, “Sit tight and wait for what God has promised. John baptized with water, but pretty soon you’re going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” I’m sure at least a few of them must have wondered if that was going to be anything like what happened to the seventy elders of Israel. They had ten days to think about it anyway.

And then it happened, on a Sunday morning while they were worshipping together in a house in Jerusalem. As we heard at Bible study the other night, a lot of houses back then were built around a central courtyard, which is where the early Christians often met for worship. First came the sound of a mighty wind. Has any of you ever sat through a tornado? It’s pretty loud, isn’t it? That’s what I think of. Then came the divided tongues like flames that rested on their heads. That’s what the mitres that bishops wear are meant to look like, because they’re the successors to the Apostles. That was all visual and audible imagery provided by God to show that he was fulfilling his promise to send the Holy Spirit. And the first thing the Spirit must have done was to send them all out of the house, because Luke says they began speaking in the languages of all the foreigners who were in Jerusalem that day. These were Jews from all over the Roman Empire who had made their pilgrimage to celebrate Pentecost, the day when Moses gave the law to God’s people, and also the day when the first fruits of the early harvest were offered to God in the temple. (I wonder if there were any strawberries. That’s what’s in season here around this time of year.)

Then Peter began to preach, and that was the very first public proclamation of the Gospel. We only got the start of his sermon today. But we’ve already read the rest of it earlier in the Easter season. Peter used the prophecies of the Old Testament to explain how God had prepared his people for this day, how he had sent his eternal Son into the world in the Person of Jesus, who died on the cross for the sin of the whole world, and rose again, and returned to heaven. All that has opened the way for all people everywhere to be reconciled to God through repentance and baptism. By the end of the day around 3,000 people had responded to Peter’s proclamation and were baptized. And within a very short time, the number grew to over 5,000. And it kept on growing to the point that, within three hundred years, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. And it all happened because ordinary people responded to the Good News about Jesus, and allowed the Holy Spirit to lead them in doing the work of God’s kingdom, loving every person they met unconditionally, and sharing the Gospel with everyone who would listen.

If God is doing a good thing through any of you, or through our little congregation, or through the Lutherans or the Methodists down the road, then what choice do the rest of us have but to support it, to get behind it, and to pour all the love into it that God has poured into us? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus said, “and you will be my witnesses... to the end of the earth ” (Acts 1:8). In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ian C. Wetmore+