Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon: Christ Became A Curse For Us

“CHRIST BECAME A CURSE FOR US”                                                                                                  Sunday of the Passion:  Palm Sunday
Luke 22:14—23:56                                                                                                                                    March 20, 2016 [revised and expanded May 2016]

This present service is among the longest and most demanding in the entire worship year.  The whole course of our Lenten journey so far is meant to bring us to a place where we may attend today with spiritual endurance; with focus of mind and heart.

We’ve just been propelled, uncomfortably and with great spiritual force, into Holy Week.

We began this morning with such joyful acclamation:  Jesus is our true and rightful King.  Then suddenly:  the Psalm; the Passion narrative.  The acclamations fade—so quickly; the voices of rejection prevail.  It’s a difficult shift to hear—and it’s on purpose.

We all want to feel that had we been there, then, our responses would have been so different.  If we had, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten so scared like the brash Peter and denied his Lord in a moment of panic.  If we had, surely we wouldn’t have decided that Jesus was just too dangerous to keep around.

And certainly had we been there, back then, we wouldn’t have said “Away with him!”.

Surely not we.  “Surely not I, Lord.” (Matthew 26:22)

But we were there.  That “then” holds and confronts all our “nows.”  We are implicated in that “then”—even in our respectability and highest aspirations.  At the least, we like to think that we maintained our pious neutrality; that we didn’t “take sides.”  But “not choosing,” is usually, in fact, making a choice—just not admitted, to ourselves or others.  In our sinful humanness we did choose, a choice that we have recapitulated in different forms, both personal and corporate, many times, over and over again.  The Cross of Christ is itself the revelation of God’s perfect, holy, entirely just, and final judgement.  We don’t need to wait until the end of time to hear the Word that is impossible for us to bear.

This is not all that we can say today (thanks be), but it is part of what we must say.

Even those who have come to faith in our Savior—and rightly acclaim and receive him—now live in a presently mixed reality.  There are parts in us; still all-too deep-rooted—where we’re not yet responding in faith.  We too—often before we know it—get afraid at the risks of sticking with Christ; we panic, we deny, or maybe even say some new, subtle version of “Away with him; away with him!”

All of us, including the human Jesus, have some essential needs, which we look to our community of fellow humans to fulfil:  Basic safety, purpose, and perhaps most of all, a sense of real belonging.  These are deep-seated, “hard-wired” needs.  And yet, Jesus, as he went to the cross, was stripped of all of them.

Well, it certainly wasn’t safe going to Golgotha.  It was the ultimate un-safety.

As far as purpose, to all earthly appearances, including those closest to him, Jesus would have ended his life as a failure.  And we remember his own personal cry of abandonment on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So:  the deepest core human need—belonging; this, too, was stripped away from the Crucified.

Nevertheless, Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.” (John 12:32)

From the place of the Cross, and to this place, Christ calls us.  What’s going on here that could possibly be “Good”?

A difficult verse from Paul’s Letter to Galatians comes to mind, and to it, I invite us to draw our attention.  Galatians, chapter 3, verse 13:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.  For it is written, cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”

That verse contains a citation from Deuteronomy, which says that someone executed by hanging was considered cursed and had to be buried quickly—so as not to defile the holy dwelling of God’s people.

But what can it mean that Christ became a curse for us?

Well, what do we do when we curse somebody?  We cast them out from our hearts, into the realm of our ill will.  We do this, so sadly, far too casually, and far too frequently.  Perhaps we try to take it back later, but at the time, but what’s going on when we curse—either in words or attitude—is that we eject someone from the sphere of our positive regard.  At least temporarily, they become for us an outsider.  Someone who doesn’t matter. 

The Roman technique of capital punishment that we call “crucifixion” was designed to strip away everything from the condemned person—and do so permanently.  It was the most degrading form of capital punishment that the Romans used; meant not only to torture and kill, but to dehumanize.

Victims of crucifixion would become an object of horror, even to those who loved them—and certainly also to themselves.  Ejected from belonging.  Ejected from recognizable humanness.

It’s said that Jesus was executed “outside the city wall”; outside the holy place of God’s dwelling.  Utterly rejected.  Cast out; beyond the bounds of the safe, the pious, the lovely, the respectable.  You don’t belong, and you don’t count.  Jesus died as the ultimate outsider.

But precisely “out there,” God acted, to turn things upside down, and inside out.  “Christ redeemed us…by becoming a curse for us.”  The place of utter desolation—a “no-where,” on the fringe of nothingness—becomes the new Center of all things.  The unpayable debt is paid; the unforgivable, forgiven.  The impossible to bear, borne on our behalf, by the only One who could do so.  The unbridgeable gap is now spanned.  And Jesus calls us to himself, right where he made it so.  Who will trust him, and heed his call?  Will you?

Jesus speaks to all and each of us:  “Come unto me all you who labor and our heavily burdened and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)

Jesus said that he would draw all the world to himself.  The new place of that holy drawing, the place to which we are summoned, is Calvary.  So, we can’t get to the Jesus by staying inside our present, comfortable insider-zones; with the hedged bets, with the not fully given new loyalty, with all our evasions and the equivocations.  If we’re going to respond to the call—if we’re going to get to the One who is calling, we go to the Cross.  No other way.  No “at a distance” option.

He offers rest, not evasion.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told:

“Jesus suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.  Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured for here we have no lasting city but we are looking for the city that is to come.”  (13:12-13)

Let us then go to him, outside the bounds, and find the new center; a new belonging, a new loyalty, that wells up—in him—to eternal life, starting right now.

With the eyes of faith, we see that the Cross was not a defeat but the Victory of God.  There’s more of that Victory to come—to be sure—but on Calvary, it’s already begun.  God restored our own humanness through the One from whom everything was taken.  Jesus gave it away so we could get it back.

In him, we now belong.  We have a reason to be here, and we are held in perfect care.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.  Of course, it won’t be.  This present life is often difficult:  unsafe, uncertain; alienating.  The fact is that the sinful human condition, as it is, cannot provide what we need; not ultimately, and most deeply.  And we will likely be especially disappointed if we look at “systems and structures” (even the most pious) to provide us what can only come from above.  But through the Crucified, we have something new and indestructible in our hearts.  We know, through him, that we have a belonging, a purpose and a care that nothing can destroy, no matter what.  No matter what!  And in him, in spite of all else, we are being drawn to a more perfect love and faith.

Jesus had to walk his lonesome journey:  Utterly alone, so that none of the rest of us would ever have to be.  In the Passion Narrative we heard today, as the rejection of Christ overwhelmed everything else, there’s the line “and their voices prevailed.”  (Luke 23:23)   A very telling phrase.

So:  Which voices will prevail?  We think about the state of this world.  We think about the state of our country, right now in this election cycle.  We think about our contradictory lives.  We think of all the complicated stuff that’s going on inside of us.  Before the face of Christ, and him crucified, which voices will prevail?

But the seeming silence of God, at Calvary, speaks more effectively than all else.

More deeply, more truly, more terribly, more wonderfully:  Whose Voice has prevailed?

 

 

 

* “ ’Twas I, Lord Jesus,” verse 2, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” Johann Heerman, trans. Robert Bridges; Hymn 158 in The Hymnnal 1982

Love Bears All Things

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:22-30
January 31, 2016
[revised and expanded, February 2016]
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

The Gospel reading that we just heard contains such a shocking, indeed disturbing, shift in the attitude of the people to Jesus.  They started off very pleased, but didn’t stay that way for very long.  All spoke well of him,” but only a little later, “all…were filled with rage.  29They got up, [and] drove him out of the town.”  (Luke 4:22,28-29a)

Among the many lessons we might draw from this is the clarity that not even Jesus made everybody happy.   If the sign of our authentic faith, if the sign of our real spirituality, is that we “make” everybody happy, we have to ask, hearing today’s Gospel passage:  What about Jesus?  If that was the enterprise, he certainly was a spectacular failure.

So, at the least:  If the Son of God doesn’t “make” everybody happy, it’s unlikely that God expects us to try to “make” everybody happy—nor should we have that expectation of others.  The truth is, we cannot make anybody happy, except ourselves, and that’s a project that we can undertake only with God’s help.

This leads to our principle focus this morning.  I would invite us to draw our attention to today’s second scripture lesson, from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:  Chapter Thirteen—the Love Chapter.  Even people who have characteristically a problem with Paul often are able easily to delight in First Corinthians Thirteen.  It’s not for nothing that this wonderful passage is often chosen to be read at weddings.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  (13:1-3)

So, once again; I’m going to invite us to lean in.

Nevertheless, there may be one element—so obvious that we may miss it—that we must consider if we’re to understand this passage, so that we may truly take it to heart.  Paul—or the Spirit of God through Paul—is saying a lot of things here about love.  But what, in the first place, do we mean by the word “love”?  More importantly, what might the Holy Spirit mean by it in this great and so well-known chapter?

Fact is, in this human condition of ours, we’re often rather confused about what love really is—and about what love isn’t.  And I don’t think the church is immune from this confusion.  Not by a long shot.  To the point, I believe that there’s a particular confusion about this—what love is, and what love isn’t—which is one of the greatest threats in the contemporary church to the vitality of our future mission.   This is the confusion of codependency for love.

Now, this is going to take some unpacking—and will engage us in some difficult work.

“Codependency” is a term that often comes up in contexts of addiction or abuse.  Given what are lives are, I’m fully aware that we likely have many gathered here this morning who have dealt with abusive or addictive situations—and maybe both.  So this is risky territory; a topic that may have a good deal more immediate relevance to our personal lives then we may be comfortable acknowledging.  And I’ll have challenges to our thinking that I’ll be inviting us to consider—all of us.

So, calling on God’s leading; God’s strength, God’s truth, God’s mercy, let’s lean in.

Codependency is a learned behavior; actually a survival mechanism in seriously compromised environments.  Furthermore:  It’s much easier to learn where it’s already taken root.  It’s catching; in fact, highly infectious.  Having said this, it’s important to underscore that people often first learn codependency when they’re in positions of great vulnerability—trying to do the best they can at the time in dangerous, high stakes settings.  This needs to be acknowledged with great compassion.  The problem is that this survival mechanism, as understandable as it may have been at the time, is one that cannot serve people well as they go forward.  It can become a habitual, even predominant life-disposition that can inflict its own considerable injury—on others and on our own selves.

Codependency doesn’t only operate in family systems.  It can take root, as well, in cultures, in organizations—and most certainly, I would stress, in the church.

So, before we go on, what are we talking about here?  I’ve put together a working definition, for our purposes this morning, especially as significant for church relational systems.  There’s a lot in it, to be sure; perhaps much, that we’ll need to continue to think about in the time to come.

Here it is…

Codependency; a working definition:  Codependency is a minimizing, enabling response to chronically abusive/boundary-violating behavior.  Although frequently cloaked in the language of love, codependency is in fact profoundly self-centered.  It procures “benefits” (of various sorts) for the codependent, usually at the greater expense of others, and is counter to the actual better interests of the person caught in the abusive pattern of behavior.    

Now this topic, the confusion of codependency for love, is one that I preach about this morning with some considerable trepidation.  Certainly with much thought and self-question.  Once again:  This is risky territory.  But I am convinced that it is my obligation as your preacher to do so.

If we are to hear First Corinthians Thirteen as the Living Word of God that it is, we must have the right idea about what love is—and isn’t.  If were confused about what “love” means, this beautiful chapter might not only lose its meaning.  Its meaning might get corrupted to something rather ungodly; twisted to say something it never could say—and never meant to say.

Before we go on though, let’s highlight a critically important qualifier.  When we are speaking of “codependency,” we are speaking of an unhealthy response to chronically abusive, boundary violating, and seriously disruptive behavior.  We are not talking about the everyday quandaries; the natural frustrations of knowing how to deal with ourselves and one another, sinners that we are.  Codependency, rather, is a particular response to specific acute situations.   

We are, all of us, from time to time at least, both difficult and disappointing.   I’m sure many people have experienced me, personally, as both!  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  In response to the inevitable disagreeability we experience in one another from time to time, we are, indeed, as Paul puts it in the Letter to the Galatians, to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way…fulfil* the law of Christ.”  (6:2)

On the other hand, the specific confusion we’re considering—codependency for love—is a response to chronically abusive or boundary-violating behavior that is unhealthy, and actually unloving.  And it procures “benefits.”  Yes, it does.  We get something unholy out of the codependent deal.  I know that this is can be a very hard truth to face—and at least to some degree, we all deal with it.  Realizing that codependency is not altruism can be one of the hardest, but still necessary, steps that we have to take in our spiritual growth.

Well; what might some ungodly benefits of codependency be?

Here’s one:  We get to avoid the hot seat—or at least the hotter seat.  Put more simply; conflict avoidance.  We keep ourselves in a position of comparative safety.  The greater price of the situation gets passed on to someone else.

Here’s another:  We get to keep thinking of ourselves as the “nice” ones; the “kind” ones.  Someone else will have to be the heavy.  And it can be made to sound very devout, as well.  Lots of pious stuff has been quoted to injured people, from positions of relative advantage.

Yet another common benefit of codependency is that we get to preserve the circumstances of our life the way we like them; not too disrupted.

None of these sound like truly loving behavior, do they?

Codependency is, in fact, profoundly self-centered.  (Remember, it starts off as a personal survival mechanism.)  It does not serve the better interests of others, including the person with the identified troubles.  (Truth is, it doesn’t even address our own best interests, either, but the point at hand is getting past the habit of confusing it for love.)

And love, the real thing—Love, capital L; the Love we hear about in First Corinthians Thirteen—is  other directed.  True love is directed toward the actual wellbeing of the other.   

This is true not only for individuals—but also for persons in community.  Nowhere more so than the community of faith.  I’m convinced that systemic, habitualized codependency is one of the greatest threats—and perhaps even the greatest threat—to the church’s future.  For examples one doesn’t have to look far.  Many of us in recent weeks have seen the movie Spotlight—a powerful, very difficult to watch portrayal of the cover-up of the sexual abuse of children, on a huge scale, in the Boston Archdiocese.  Other expressions of codependent culture in the church—much more subtle, nowhere near as horrific, but still widespread and destructive—abound.  In congregation after congregation, enabling, minimizing responses to acting-out, bullying behavior cause real injury, not to mention colossal waste of the church’s life-energy.   

We were sent into the world as bearers of God’s love in Christ—Holy Love; not to be serving ourselves in the phony gospel of niceness:  the real thing, not the counterfeit.  If all this sounds discouraging, it certainly is.  But we must remember that God’s great work of regeneration, only later to be recognized for what it was, often begins in us with our sense of discouragement; our sense of conviction and burden.

The old song says:

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,
You’ve got to go by yourself.
Nobody else going to go there for you;
You’ve got to go there by yourself.

That’s what it feels like; that’s what it must feel like, at a critical point.  We’ve got to get going, and we don’t know how.  However, thanks be:  Later down the road, we make the retroactive discovery of Grace:  We were never really alone; we were never traveling by our own strength.  There’s only One who took that journey by himself.  He did, so we wouldn’t have to.

All this business with which we’ve been wrestling; it’s hard stuff.  We think about our personal stories—the relationships and communities we’re involved in, and on which we depend.  The questions and answers here are seldom simple.  We can’t always count on ready to go scripts that can easily or quickly tell us just how much is codependency and how much is real love in the complicated, often contradictory mix of our blended lives.  And even when we begin to come to some hard won-clarities, there usually aren’t ready to go scripts or simple answers for what to do about it.  This is hard stuff.  Nevertheless, engaging it is a part of living into the healing and recovery that God has in store for all of us.

We won’t get it completely right, all at once.  The point is doing the work God is giving us to do:  keeping at it; relying on God’s grace every step of the way, bearing with the challenges of a long process—and often walking in uncertainty.  That sounds pretty loving to me, doesn’t it?  A loving born of God’s love, the real thing.

I’ll share a key distinction that may be of substantial ongoing help as we sort things out—if we consider it deeply and well.  Let’s go again to First Corinthians Thirteen:  “[Love] bears all things…endures all things.”  (13:7)  That’s what it says.  Indeed so.  However, the text does not say, “love has other people bear all things; love has other people endure all things.”  That’s a critical difference, isn’t it?

“BEARING ALL THINGS,” ourselves, might include such things as accepting the fact that we can’t “make” everyone happy.  It might involve confronting our own addiction to  approval; or acknowledging our deep seated tendencies to play it safe—evade risk—when others are counting on us; when coming through for them would put us out of our comfort zone.

“Bearing all things” may mean taking a painful look at the benefits or “cuts” we may be getting from the codependent deal, when so much in us, instead, just wants to keep telling ourselves how “nice” or “friendly” we are.

Finally, “bearing all things” sometimes will require naming boundaries with those who don’t want to hear them named—and then accepting the consequences of having done so.

In other words, real love puts itself on the hot seat.

The Godly love we hear about in First Corinthians Thirteen builds up our soul (both personal and corporate); it bears us more and more surely in the river of eternal life.  The phony substitutes corrode us from the inside—and end in death.

Pretty heavy stuff.  Yes, it is.  We may well ask:  Where’s the Good News?  Where’s the Gospel? Where’s the word from heaven?

Here it is:  God has not been “codependent” with us—even though we once thought that’s what we wanted. Our agenda was non-disruption.  We may have wanted blessings, of sorts, but certainly not interference.  Instead, God has given us what we needed.  God has been truly loving; “for God is love” (1 John 4:8b)—righteous, compassionate, transformative, other-directed, “for us and for our salvation.”  Good News:  God was willing to put God’s own Self right on the ultimately costly hot seat to do so.

That’s what—and that’s Who—we meet in Jesus, who bore the full cost of dealing with the likes of us, in love.  The real thing.  In him, we will know, at long last, what it is.

For those in Christ, it is no more a lonesome passage; but it may be a long one.  It’ll be OK.  To be sure, our motives—even our best intentions—are never absolutely “pure.”  Not at this present stage of the journey.  We are now, all of us, still sinners in a sinful world.  We aren’t to drive ourselves to distraction with the anxious perfectionism, which is just another form of self-centeredness.  The critical matter is not our scrupulosity, but rather, this:  God’s great work of salvation.  Are we living into it?  Is it becoming more and more characteristic of us?  Are we growing up in Christ; growing into his Love?  (Ephesians 4:13)  The point isn’t shortcut answers, but New Creation!  (Galatians 5:15b)

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 1but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these…

…is love.”  (13:9-13)

Amen.

No Cross Is So Extreme As To Have None

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 19)
Mark 8:27-38
September 13, 2015
[Revised and adapted, November 2015]
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

Yesterday morning, at about one in the morning, Lori and I returned from our three weeks in the Montana mountains—but it’s good to be back here in this place, to see all your faces; good to be back as we gather in the Lord’s service.

The doctrine of the Cross is right at the heart of Christian faith. Yet we hear voices these days saying it’s too difficult; too offensive. Maybe we need to move on. But we can’t “move on” from the Cross and remain who and what we are in Jesus. In response to such voices, I’m inclined to ask: Is it only now we discover that the doctrine of the Cross is difficult? This shouldn’t have been a surprise; it’s been clear from the very beginning. Didn’t Paul underscore that the Cross is foolishness and scandal? Jesus himself made clear from the beginning both the centrality and difficulty of the Cross. We hear about that in today’s gospel.

Right in the middle of Mark’s gospel, right at the pivot of the narrative, Jesus led his disciples to take the next step of knowing who he is and what he is doing.   He opened up a conversation:   “Those folks out there, who do they say that I am?” They gave various answers; then Jesus asked, pointedly,

“But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him “You are the Messiah”, and he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

A rather surprising instruction, isn’t it?, but critical, because without understanding the Cross, neither the people “out there” nor the disciples themselves will be able to understand Jesus means, what he intends, as Messiah.

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again”.

Peter hit the panic button—and took Jesus aside. “No! Absolutely not! Things have been going so well. Why mess it up?” Jesus rebuked Peter, strongly; telling him and the rest of the disciples (including us) that he was going to the Cross on purpose, and of necessity. This is where everything up until now had been pointing—all along.

Jesus was going to the Cross to embrace the full extent of our vulnerability, of our pain: to experience the worst of injustice; to take upon himself the full crisis of the human condition—and the full measure of our culpability. And there—in his utterly apparent defeat, he accomplished the victory of God—the instrument of our salvation; yours and mine—our liberation.   There’s no other way.   There’s no detour. There’s no cheaper option.

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and said to them:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their Cross and follow me. For those who want to save their live will lose it and those who lose their live for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”

When Jesus tells us that if any wish to become his followers they must take up their Cross and follow him, he’s not referring to merely putting up with life’s frustrations. Nor can it be reduced to a challenge to some “percentage” (in which we ourselves aren’t included), who really have it coming.

“If any.” That’s a 100% proposition. Our Lord’s saying is a summons—to all and to each, no matter what our condition—to be bound up with him on the Cross and in the sacrificial way of the Cross.

In our baptism we are united with the death of Christ.   And every Sunday, when we gather in Eucharist, when we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So, even if we are far too forgetful of it, we are now bound up with the crucified Jesus—bound up with his Cross, and the terrible, wonderful victory he accomplished there.

How could we ever expect that things thereafter would be “the same”? A new way of being; a different kind of life: We are to live, we are to think, relate, and we are to act—in a Cross shaped manner. Our lives, our action, our thinking, are to be cruciform. The words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians come to mind.

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me… May I never boast of anything else except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (2:20; 6:14)

Christians, by definition then, aren’t a people who just fit into the stuff that’s going on around us: different on the inside, and different on the outside.

So, how do we live more fully into the cruciform life in the here and now? I’m thinking a lot about that as we are head into yet another national election cycle—with the “big day” a year and a couple of months from now. I almost don’t know anybody—except political or media professionals—who’s getting a charge from this process. Yes, when the time comes, I’ll probably do my civic duty and vote, but I’m weary of the business already, and don’t expect it to get better. How about you? It’s my own considered sense that this coming election cycle could be among the most polarizing and toxic of all national elections in United States history, and I know that’s saying a lot.

What are we to do, then—and be—as Christ’s people in this context?

You know how it is when I go to the woods; the poetry starts to percolate up.   Even more than usual. Well, there’s one poem, of late, that’s been speaking to me of our current condition—although it’s the better part of a century old. W. B. Yeats. Here’s the just the first stanza of his poem “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Very telling; isn’t it?

Now, in such a context, it can be very tempting for churches just to get along and go along: Do business the way business is done. The various political partisanships divide up the American denominational spoils. Why not accept the assignment of being cheerleaders to one institutionally preferred ideological team or another?

But this surely doesn’t sound like what Jesus had in mind! To fold in words of another poet, how could Jesus have been satisfied with his people serving as cheerleaders—really, superfluous cheerleaders—to the “ignorant armies clashing by night”? (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”)

We are to be exemplars of a different way of living; a different way of being. Maybe what would be of some real benefit to this present world would be more folks who had a keener sense of their heavenly citizenship. Maybe it would be for the actual betterment of our society—our deeply divided, polarized society—if we had a few more people who could lay their passions, political and otherwise, down before the Passion of Christ.

I’m not saying that we ought to be apathetic, disengaged people; but we are to be transformed. The church needs to very clear about this, I believe, lest we be co-opted. And I don’t believe Jesus sent us into the world to be co-opted: to give insipid versions of what can already be readily obtained elsewhere. The issues of the day have their importance, full of social and moral significance. We will certainly hear about them, out there, unendingly, in huge doses.

We’ve heard the old complaint about those who are “so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good.” There was something to that, of course. Yet I sense, in our own context, that the more active risk is that we’re of so little earthly good precisely because we’re too exclusively earthly minded! The solution to the world’s crisis is not that the world acquire more of itself. (If that’s really possible!) We need something Else.

Here, in the ministry of Christian preaching, we have ten minutes a week.   (Well, sometimes in my own case, maybe a little more than ten minutes!) I have, more and more, a keen sense of the urgency—the urgency and the very present relevance—of eternity. For anyone here, right now, this might be our last Sunday; this might be the last sermon. For any of us, the question posed by poet and preacher, John Donne, is both pointed and apt: “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

“What the world needs now” is not sentimentalism, but the capacity of perceiving the real; specifically, under the aspect of eternity. The Gospel proclamation is this: We only get to such perception—such an illumination—through the darkness of the Cross.

Different clergy have different approaches. Blessings be.   It’s not that I’m unaware of other options. My own is deliberate, well-considered, proceeds out of conviction—and is bound up with my own particular sense of call.

For example: If I say nothing about “climate change” in my preaching time—absolutely nothing—for the next year, I’m still fully confident that you will hear of it—and in great measure. However, I have little confidence that the world “out there” will proclaim the Gospel to you in my stead.

We are to be the bearers, in Christ and by Christ, of an eternal way of being. It has broken through to us, by the Cross. So, how do we get our minds and our hearts, and our spirits, more Cross-shaped—more cruciform? After all, this could be much more the way to effect real change in our broken world than we ever suspected. Why then this confidence in loading ourselves up with that which the world is already stuffed?

I’m not saying that in preaching we never address a contemporary issue. We may, and indeed, sometimes we must—in obedience to the Word of God. But please be aware, when we think we want the preacher to “speak out” on this or that or the other: After the fact, if the preacher did so, we might be end up wishing we hadn’t gotten our desires granted!   Frankly, some of the time, I wonder if the call for “prophetic preaching” is actually a desire to be congratulated for our very fine socio-political sensibilities!

The Eternal—revealed under the aspect of the Cross—is always a good deal more contemporary than we think. And a people formed therein is the instrument God is using to “make all things new.”

So: In my own ministry, I am less interested in telling people what to think, about this or that or the other, but rather much more concerned with how we think, from the core, from the heart; as Christians. Because wherever we come down on our individual politics, and however we might line up on this or that cluster of issues; our mission, our purpose—the reason we’re here—why we’re taking up a bit of the earth—is that we are a people claimed, and now being transformed, specifically through the Cross of Jesus. Hearts have to die with Christ and live with him again. Everything flows from there. No other way.

Will we lay our passions down before the Passion of Christ?

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their Cross and follow me. For those who want to save their live will lose it and those who lose their live for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”

Jesus must go to the Cross; his journey must go there; so must we. But the Journey doesn’t end there; neither his, nor ours. Because this indispensable Cross, around which there is no faithful detour, is the gate to Resurrection. Praise be.

To conclude, it seems apt to return—again—to poetry; once more from John Donne:

SINCE Christ embraced the cross itself, dare I
His image, th’ image of His cross, deny?
Would I have profit by the sacrifice,
And dare the chosen altar to despise?
It bore all other sins, but is it fit
That it should bear the sin of scorning it? […]

From me no pulpit, nor misgrounded law,
Nor scandal taken, shall this cross withdraw,
It shall not, for it cannot; for the loss
Of this cross were to me another cross.
Better were worse, for no affliction,
No cross is so extreme, as to have none.

Amen.

Still Seeing Jesus

 

Mark 10:2-16 (Hebrews 2:9)
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22 (Year B)
October 4, 2015
[revised and adapted, November 2015]
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

On this exact date, the fourth of October, six years ago, we heard these same scripture lessons. And on that date, your very new and somewhat nervous rector preached his first sermon in this place. Those of you who were here may remember that after hearing that gospel passage, especially the first section dealing with divorce, I remarked that it seemed an especially unapt selection with which to begin a new ministry!

And so I preached on the epistle lection, the reading from Hebrews. By now, you know that preaching on the Epistles isn’t unusual for me. On that Sunday in 2009, it may have just seemed a smart move—which it probably was, as well.

In the course of getting ready for today, I took a look at that sermon—to get a sense of how things have gone since then: How have we grown together, in shared ministry and fellowship? Just in case anyone else wants to check that out, we did print copies of that first sermon. They’re available at the entrances, if you want to take a look. It’s titled, “But We See Jesus.”

But I could not possibly preach that sermon today.

Once again, as God’s people drawn by the Spirit on the Lord’s Day—once again—we gather in the wake of an horrific act of violence: the mass shooting at the community college in Roseburg, Oregon. Once again, we gather with wounded spirits, grieving; perhaps angry, too. Yet another horrific episode. We hold in mind, especially, those who lost their loved ones. Who could have thought? Going to class; plans for “later.” We know, in usually distant theory, that any “good-bye” might be the last—but what an excruciating way to lose someone you care about.

Mercy; mercy.

Of course, we are again propelled into the debates that resurface—at least for a little while—after these events: Debates about gun ownership and regulation, also to a lesser extent, about how we as a society we deal with mental health issues. Many of us are thinking about both of these.

In terms of mental health, I do not believe it remotely adequate to have, as the only really operative social value, the concern for individual civil liberties. While these—individual civil liberties, that is—are certainly an important civic concern, by themselves, enshrined in isolation, they become the “ethic” of the comfortable and the healthy: the “ethic” of those who think they have a better than average chance of insulating themselves from risk. Surely, we must be concerned, as a national community, with a good deal more.

And wherever we personally come down on the issues around guns, we must also—at the very least—profoundly question if it is remotely within the bounds of responsible gun ownership to provide a deeply disturbed young man—a young man severely compromised, both emotionally and mentally—with a cache of firearms.

But I’m also thinking even more about our call, as Christians, in this particular society.

Yes, as we read in Genesis, violence has been a part of the human condition ever since the Fall. We know the story: The first episode, after the primeval humans opt to be their own gods, is murder among their offspring. We can’t merely “will” ourselves back into the Garden. Paradise is beyond our simple choosing, now—and when we try to pretend it isn’t, what we manage to “create” can be pretty horrific.

Simple appeals to “End All Violence” in the human condition “as is” are not just sentimental but are potentially destructive. The quest for utopia can only be pursued by force—and because such infatuated quests are, by nature, unselfcritical—they use force, at first not knowing it, and then brutally, without restraint. Because the “bad people”—never we ourselves—are the only ones we deem capable of our selectively re-defined violence.

Despite its use in a popular hymn, I always found the call, “Arise! And make a paradise!” to have an almost sinister feel to it. (“Now quit your care,” Hymnal 1982, 145)

And yet; and yet:

After events like that at Umpqua Community College—precisely as people of faith—we must know and feel: It’s got to be better than this. Much better. For Paradise, we must wait—on God—for the next phase of things. But even now, here and now; it’s got to be better than this. Even within the limitations of this present, suffering, and imperfect world, we must admit that the direction that we’re going in is horrific and unsustainable. We aren’t to be utopianists—but neither are we to be passive fatalists. We are to be difference-making bearers of Christ. Even now. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) What is to be our call, yours and mine, as the people of Jesus Christ in the midst of a world so desperately adrift?

We are to be Christ-bearers. In his own words:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.14 You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:13-15)

Salt and light: Jesus used these images to show that the presence of God’s people in the broader world is to be a means of preservation, healing, and greater insight—all of which are much needed. Yes, of course and absolutely, we are to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ—explicitly named—and to invite others into his fellowship, but in the greater human community we are also to be instruments of God’s active care.

Yes: The Great Commission, from Christ to his people, is: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a) Make disciples, baptize, teach. Not only, “Go, and be helpful.” The concern for the Gospel conversion of souls remains essential for the Church.

And yet: Our call can’t be reduced to “convert some, and forget the rest,” either. We are to be “the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.” And I wonder if we are not, to a large extent, abdicating that role.

If one believes the surveys, the overwhelming majority of Americans still identify as Christians. And yet the surveys also seem to show that we have a dramatically decreasing percentage of those who identify as Christians who really make a commitment to fellowship, to become active in churches—to live into their faith, purposefully and deeply. More and more, it’s the “spiritual, but not religious” approach: faith reduced to a self-indulgent, optional commodity.

I know: It’s a very distracting world. There are all sorts of “reasons.” We end up pulled away from active Christian fellowship and practice. Maybe it’s forgetfulness; maybe indulgence of rival priorities. All of us—we’re just very busy. It’s so easy to fill in the “blank” of Sunday morning with something else. It’s not my wish to make anyone feel guilty in the midst of complicated circumstances. However, I would set before us the remembrance that Sunday wasn’t really a “blank,” to begin with! And in the rest of the week, as well, it’s increasingly easy to put our Christian calling not only on a back burner, but off the stove entirely.

The call to be light and salt won’t be fulfilled within an “I’ll fit it in when I can” kind of spirituality. No, we’re not going to be able to “make a paradise,” and eliminate all heartache. But as Christians withdraw from our calling, and live as though we did not believe, there is less and less of what’s needed to have a humane society. The “best” will be not nearly as good; the worst will magnified in both extent and degree. And in a world such as this, it will always be the more vulnerable who bear the greater liabilities.

We’ve heard the reports from Roseberg. While they’re somewhat conflicting, one of the elements of the story seems especially chilling. The killer quizzed his victims on their religion, and some have said that as he was quizzing them, those who identified as Christian were shot in the head—executed on the spot—and those who did not so identify, or didn’t answer the question, were shot in the leg. I have to ask myself, had I been there, and I saw what was going on, what would I have said? Now, I know what I hope I would have said—but it’s worth pondering. I invite us all to ponder that difficult question. And you don’t have to tell me, personally, the answer you might give. But I do invite all of us to think about it.

Whatever our circumstances, and no matter how high the stakes, or how every-day the stakes, are we living in such a way that we are readily identifiable as the servants, the disciples—and friends of the Lord Jesus? Are we bearers of his presence? Are we salt and light?

We’re living in a society in which—more and more and more—the only functional ultimate “truth” is individual feeling. No greater reality, no greater truth, no greater justice, no greater beauty; a world which tells our young people, “What you see is what you get, when you’re dead you’re gone—and we slog it out, the best we can, on our own.”

We are to be the bearers of witness to a greater Truth; greater Beauty. What we now see is not all that we get. In the midst of all the feelings and complexities of life, there is the ultimate reality of God; our loving, righteous Creator God—Savior and Sustainer. We are not living an arbitrary existence. We are not our own. Other people are not merely projections of our own fears and desires—but fellow creatures made in in God’s image and likeness. Are we living our faith; living as though this is really so?

The immediate connection of what we’ve been considering so far with today’s gospel reading may not be that evident. Nevertheless, it is there, much so, and worth taking to heart. As we heard, the passage addresses divorce. However, we need to be very clear about the context—which is everything in biblical interpretation! What we heard is not, and cannot be, a simple, ready-to-go script, in all possible circumstances, about the question of divorce and remarriage.

Jesus was speaking in a very specific context. This is it: a profoundly patriarchal society. A women might ask for a divorce, but it was the men—only men—who did the divorcing. The only question at hand was under which circumstances they might exercise this unilateral private right of theirs.   It was simply “understood” that men could dismiss their women; husbands their wives. It’s how it was.   Jesus was being asked a trick question in a particular theological debate. Well, he stayed off that ideological dance floor and, instead, radically reframed the issue, reminding his hearers about some deeper realities—realities deeper than individual “rights,” as these were then playing out.

The trick question was based on the notion that women were projections of men’s stuff: Men living as though their individual pursuit of power or pleasure was the governing reality. Jesus said, in effect, “You have missed the point.” To paraphrase and expand: He told these men debating about when and how they could dismiss their wives, “This is not a matter of your ‘property.’ Marriage is a covenantal reality. God is involved. God says; I’m in on this deal. I called it into being. Your wife is not an extension of yourself, but Another—through whom you are accountable to me. The desperate pursuit of living at the top of the heap is a concern inappropriate to my People.”

Jesus is summoning us to—and empowering us in—God’s arrangement for human community, and “heap” is not the word to describe it. We relate to one another out of covenantal faithfulness—faithful to one another as we live out God’s faithfulness to us.  No one is property, to be used and dismissed.

If we understand that context, the surprising shift to the discussion of children makes vivid sense. The disciples were nervous because people were bringing little children to be with Jesus, and—of course—it seemed essential for those they thought were the important people, the “top-of-their-heap-people,” to have priority access. The disciples didn’t want that disturbed, so, “Let’s keep it under control, folks.” Jesus had none of it. He called the “unimportant” ones to him—saying:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This is so contrary to our usual present inclinations: to make sure that we get our nice big slice of power and initiative, to get what we think is coming to us; to be the important people, who know it all—and have seen through everything.

Well, here’s the problem: The people who “see through everything” are the people who see nothing. I’m not advocating that we leave our brains at the door of the church. But we need to let go of the need to be sophisticated know-it-alls. Jesus, as we grow in his friendship and service, is giving us undefended hearts; which are able—more and more—to receive him and to delight in him. It will not fit into the world’s notions of power and importance, but it is how our Lord is making all things new; starting now. Not through yet merely another run of the old, tired script that has been—that the world is all-too-good at marketing as the latest thing.

God, in Jesus, through the Spirit, is telling the New Story, written before the foundation of the world.

As we read in the Letter to the Romans, Chapter Eight, verse nineteen: “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”—the Children through whom God will renew and restore all things. A great mission; a wonderful treasure. So: Hold on to the treasure; don’t abdicate the mission. Be present, even in this broken world, as dear children who are wise enough to be foolish, strong enough to be weak, and loving enough to be vulnerable.

There will certainly be terrible things to face in this present world, much that will grieve; much to break hearts—but for God’s People, not broken to despair. We have a gift, a calling; an indestructible hope. Hold fast! For a time, we will see much that is horrific. But—additionally, essentially, wonderfully, savingly—we see Something Else. We also see Jesus.

On This Day The Lord Has Acted

Easter Sunday Morning
April 5, 2015
The Rev. Adam S. Linton  

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Every Easter I like to underscore just what it is that gathers the Church together on this beautiful day. What draws us to this celebration?

Maybe I need to begin by saying what doesn’t gather us here. We’re not here merely because we have certain ideas about Jesus. We’re not here only because we tell stories about Jesus.

We are here because Jesus—who was crucified and died—was raised from death. We are here because Jesus is alive. That’s why we think about him—and why we tell the Great Story. Resurrection, itself, is not a matter of our ideas, our story telling, our agendas. Resurrection is not merely a matter of legacy; memories among those who are left behind. Resurrection is also not an overwrought metaphor for Spring coming every year; the return of green. Lilies and Daffodils and such don’t need to be symbolized by something else. They speak adequately enough on their own behalf; in their beauty and fragrance—and the abundance of their pollen!

Resurrection is new and indestructible Life raised from death. Christ is risen. And he is the enduring Subject of the theological sentence. He is alive; he is acting. I can’t prove that to you. (That’s not my job.) But I can bid you to open hearts. Even more, I can pray the Spirit of God to open all our hearts that we may receive this wonderful and great truth.

Jesus is not the metaphor. He’s the reality. And his Resurrection is the in-breaking of the most real—the most real that ever could or ever will be. Jesus isn’t the metaphor—we are. And Jesus is drawing us ever more perfectly into his new and indestructible reality. It goes beyond death but it starts right here, right now and it makes the essential difference. Everything else; all our symbols, all our metaphors—and our own selves—make sense when drawn into his Reality; the new grounding of our life: Jesus is alive.

This year, in the Gospel reading, we hear Mark’s account of the Resurrection.

“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (16:1-8)*

That’s it. As odd as it may seem, that’s most likely how Mark’s Gospel originally ended. Strange; abrupt. Not much of an ending at all—but that’s the point. Maybe Mark is saying, “Now it all begins.”

O.K. But it still seems somewhat disquieting, doesn’t it? “Amazement had seized them.” I think that I get that. Of course they would be amazed. Who wouldn’t be? But the part about being afraid; perhaps—at least initially—that may be harder to get our minds around. But this isn’t a mere “happy ending” before the credits roll. Fear isn’t only a response to bad things; the destructive and the injurious. We can have a holy and wondrous fear in the face of an overwhelming good.

Perhaps some more everyday examples might help us with the concept:

Suppose there is an eight year old girl who’s deeply drawn to music. Suppose it’s her birthday—and her parents give her, at long last, the violin for which she’s been pleading. She opens up the case and sees it in its beauty. She delights in it; but maybe also she’s a little afraid because it’s suddenly also become serious. This is going to change who she is and what she does.

Now suppose there is a young man who has his life’s plans all figured out—on his own—who then faces the possibility that he just might be falling in love. That’s going to stir things up isn’t it? Wonderful, but maybe also a little fearful.

A more difficult example: Suppose there’s someone who comes to realize that his life has been filled with anger and resentment, and dominated by the delusional pursuit of control. He knows that all this is a dead end road—and has recognized it for the addiction that it is. He’s even stepping into a recovery journey, relying on Grace, day by day, and doing the work that Grace then gives him to do. But he’s afraid, sometimes, even overwhelmed, about the long process of rebuilding his way of relating to the world.

So fearful things don’t have to be bad. Maybe we do understand why the women who heard the first Resurrection message were afraid. Maybe we’d be more afraid, too, if we really heard that message more deeply.

But the text also says that the women at the tomb were terrified.

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.”

This is even harder to get our minds around than fear. The word “terror,” in our modern setting, brings images of the intentionally destructive, the intentionally brutal, to mind. All that which is terrifying disrupts a life that we had known before. And if it’s intentional terrifying, harder yet to bear. We don’t like our lives messed with. We don’t like our sense of stability compromised.

But—again—we’re not only “threatened” by the evil and the brutal and the destructive. The in-breaking of life—new life, redefining life; the in-breaking of truth, the in-breaking of justice, the in-breaking of ultimate beauty—this also threatens the life that we had known before. But God does not disrupt our prior existence, the status quo to which we had grown to accustomed, merely to make us feel bad. God breaks in because God wishes to share himself in abundance. We’re not talking about a “pat on the back.” We’re talking about life from death, beginning right now in the crucified and risen Jesus. Beginning right now—and welling up to eternity.

“On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24, BCP)

The believing life is risky business. It’s certainly a life in which we have to relinquish our notions of control. We will feel overwhelmed and maybe even threatened, sometimes, by the in-breaking of indestructible Life and ultimate beauty and truth in Jesus. But to the extent that we have begun to know him—to the extent that we are beginning to love and cherish our Risen Christ—we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

 

 

 

 

The Merchant and the Pearl

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 12)
July 27, 2014
The Church of the Holy Spirit, Massachusetts
The Rev. Adam S. Linton 

From the very rich gospel reading that we just heard, I would invite us to direct our attention to two of its verses. These two verses contain one of the short, amazing parables of Jesus. So here they are, once more:

“Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

A merchant in search of fine pearls who finds one and gives all to acquire it: For some time, I have eagerly desired to open this parable with you, and seek to hear what God—our good God—has to say to us in it and through it.

Let’s start by recollecting the teaching of A. J. Levine who was with us just a few weeks ago at the Church of the Holy Spirit. Amy Jill Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar, teaching at Vanderbilt University. She has done remarkable work in particular on the parables.

I’m going to begin by noting for us some of the observations and insight she brings to bear on this very one. After that—I should hope with the Spirit’s help—I’m going to invite us to take an additional step.

Dr. Levine reminded us that the parables of Jesus are not innocuous.   They don’t simply restate the obvious. They’re often highly subversive.   So the Parable of the Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls tells us a good deal more than merely saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is valuable. Well yes, of course; this we should know already. Jesus didn’t need to say a parable to say only that. The Kingdom of Heaven is certainly valuable and worth desiring, but Jesus is saying more. So let’s bring the story back to mind.

There’s this pearl merchant. He already has many pearls; lots of them. They’re his business. He buys and sells them. But he finds one; one that he sells everything else to acquire. Now, what is he going to do with that one pearl? He can’t make much of a meal of it, and as Dr. Levine said, if he’d try to wear it, it wouldn’t cover very much at all, either. But he stakes everything—everything he has—to get it.

As we live ever more deeply into the reality of God’s Kingdom, we are summoned—we are empowered—to ponder how we actually order our lives: How we value things. We’re invited to notice in ways that maybe we never noticed before, just what is it upon which we are staking everything else. Sometimes we do so wisely, and sometimes—as we all know too well—we do so foolishly. There are times when we stake everything on something that isn’t worth it; that is not, in fact, our true hearts’ desire.   Life in God’s Kingdom calls us to ponder such realities. What is it upon which we’re staking everything? Really? That can be either a hard or an enlivening question to face. Maybe both. Maybe we’re afraid that we couldn’t stand the answers. But this is an “enabled-in-the Kingdom” kind of question, from which we no longer need to pull back.

Now, I’ll invite us to take the additional step:

The seed of the Kingdom is the Good News. And the Good News given to us in this teaching story, as all Good News is, is a matter of who God is—and what God is doing. The Gospel is not a matter of mere human moralizing. The Gospel is not a message which says, simply, “Try harder.” Or somehow conjure up within ourselves more appropriate feelings. That leads nowhere. The human project, by itself, and in itself, does not lead to life.

Now, as I think many of you know, Lori and I just got back from our three weeks in Northwestern Montana, Glacier National Park, early yesterday morning; and it’s good to be back. Yet as we emerged from our three weeks in the Montana woods, where we didn’t have TV and didn’t listen to radio and didn’t have access to email or internet, we again heard the news of the nation and the world. And as we hear that news, it is evident that not much has changed.   More violence. More heartbreak. More manifest and injurious human failure.   It seems as though this world-community of ours is broken up into competing utopianisms, each so self-righteously and imperviously infatuated with its own sense of right. It doesn’t lead anywhere very good, does it?

So we should know, at these deepest levels, that the Good News has to be much more, and the Good News has to be radically different, than merely more of our human “stuff.” So as we hear this little parable, let’s ask how we learn of the Good News in a fresh and powerful way. In it, let’s look first for the indications of who God is and what God is doing.

In fact, in this little teaching story, the parable of the Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls, Jesus is telling us something he considers essential that we know about the God’s character.

Where is God in this remarkable story?

Suppose that it’s not just another bit of pious moralizing. Suppose in this story, that it is God who is the reckless merchant in search of fine pearls. Suppose it is God who is willing to make a reckless acquisition.

And if it is God who is the merchant in search of fine pearls, what then is the pearl of great price?

Well, dear ones; that would be you.

It is you, in the story, who are the pearl of great price—that God is willing to stake everything to call us to life, to call us back to fellowship.

God’s love may indeed be foolish by the world’s standards. It may be reckless. But God’s love is not unmindful, because God knows the cost of this enterprise.

So this story that we may have thought was innocuous, in fact points with sure indication to the utterly sacrificial love of the God we meet in Jesus. This little parable points to the chasm of love found before the Cross of Christ. So, it is we who are the pearl of great price.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear that message, when I try and take it into my spirit, there’s a big part of me that says “You’ve got to be kidding Lord. Am I worth that? In my fallibility, in my inconstancy, in the smallness of my life?”

The word of grace that we meet in Jesus says, “Yes. I meant what I said, and I mean what I am doing.” And if we can come to see ourselves in this new and astounding light—everything changes. Maybe suddenly. More often incrementally. But we can no longer see ourselves, or anybody else, in the same light. Because the others, too, are also Pearl of God’s Great Price.

This isn’t mere niceness. It’s the remaking of the universe.

“Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

As I was pondering this message—Yes—the words of a poem came to my mind.   And I was drawn specifically to a poem of George Herbert the great English priest and poet. Some of us know it, I’m sure. But it’s worth hearing again. The title of the poem is “Love” and it’s the third poem of Herbert’s so titled, and I’ll conclude by sharing it:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

Ash Wednesday: A Teaching on Sin

A Teaching on Sin, With the Help of Holy Scripture, Julian of Norwich, and C.S. Lewis
February 18, 2015
Ash Wednesday
The Church of the Holy Spirit
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

In Christian faith we use a number of Big Words; not big in the sense of length, but that they’re meant to carry significant meaning. The problem, often through their frequent yet unexamined use, is that they can get reduced to being code words. They convey more context rather than content.

This can even be the case with the word “God”—as well as just about everything else in the vocabulary of theology. What do we mean when we say the word “God,” or “salvation,” or—since it’s Ash Wednesday—what do we mean when we say the word “sin”?

I propose that the last of these—sin—be the focus of our teaching today. Most of the time, if it means anything to us, “sin” is a violation of a rule: some infringement on this or that discreet ordinance. Surely this is part of what sin is, but when we get to this point, we’re dealing more with symptoms than with the sickness itself.

Instead: To go to the heart of the matter, we could say that sin—in all its forms or degrees—is the rejection of reality; specifically, the Reality of God, and the Reality with God. If this is so, sin is what pulls us (even subtly) away from Being. There’s always something self-annihilating in sin’s intent.

That’s a strong claim, I know, but I’ll invite you to ponder it with me.

Let’s continue by considering the following Scripture; from the eighth chapter of Proverbs—a hymn of the Divine Wisdom, which the early Church perceived as a hymn of Christ:

“Now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
33Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
34Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
35For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
36but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.” (Proverbs 8:32-36)

We can say that all sin is, in some sense, saying “No” to God’s sufficiency for us. Sin is moving away from trust, based on the notion that—after all—God does not have matters adequately in hand. That’s delusional, of course. So, by definition, such a disposition moves us away from Reality and Being—to nothing!

Julian of Norwich has some striking words to offer:

“Ah, wretched sin! What are you? You are nothing. When I saw that God has made all things, I saw nothing of you; and when I saw that God is in all things, I saw nothing of you; and when I saw that God does all things that are done, greater and lesser, I saw nothing of you. And when I saw our Lord Jesus sitting so gloriously in our souls, and loving and liking and ruling and guiding all that he has made, I saw nothing of you. And so I am certain that you are nothing. And all those who love you, and like you, and follow you, and choose you at the end, I am certain that they shall be brought to nothing with you, and endlessly overthrown. God protect us all from you. Amen, for the love of God.”

“During the time that men or women love sin, if there are any who do, their suffering is beyond all suffering. And when they do not love sin, but hate it and love God, all is well. And they who truly do this, though they may sometimes sin through frailty or inexperience, they do not fall, for they will strongly rise again.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text, 23)

Sin is “nothing”—a black hole of non-being; or perhaps better put, anti-being. It can certainly masquerade as the seizing of life, by manipulating the strength of our feelings. But it is not so. At the heart of it, sin is always the refusal of “the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)

One of the Collects of our Church Year begins, “O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy.” (Proper 12, Book of Common Prayer, page 231) The Screwtape Letters is C. S. Lewis’ stunning account of a spiritual journey, told inversely through a series of letters from a senior devil to a junior tempter in the field, trying to impede progress on that journey. In it, Lewis makes a play on the words of this very Collect. Here it is; and remember that “the Enemy” referenced, is the Devil’s enemy, not ours!

“The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong.’ And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years…in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them.”

“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.” (Screwtape Letters, XII)

The eighth chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is one of the greatest chapters in all of Holy Scripture. Near the chapter’s conclusion, Paul offers the assurance that nothing shall separate us from the love of God. (8:36ff) Without question, this is meant to be a great encouragement for us—and so it is. But following the line suggested in Screwtape we might also read it in a second sense, inversely, as a serious warning: Infatuation with “nothing”—as we’ve been describing it in this teaching—shall indeed, terribly separate us from the love of God. Not God’s love for us, to be sure; but so sadly, our love for God.

Did not Jesus tell us that one of the signs of the End, with its impending Judgment, is that “the love of many will grow cold”? (Matthew 24:12)

We might then adopt the following as a working definition of Sin: A refusal to trust God’s provision in the circumstances to which God’s providence has brought us. God isn’t meeting our “needs,” so we assume control, and secure them on our own terms. Now, that last statement is disconnected from Reality at all levels—but I think it a fair summary of the fallen human disposition. In any case, we can say that all sin, “large” and “small,” obvious or subtle, is in some sense a denial of either God’s good-will or God’s competence—or both.

We may have heard of the distinction between sins of commission (the bad that we do) and the sins of omission (the good we fail to do). As one of the classic Confessions of Sin puts it, “We have left undone which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 41-42) Yet perhaps, at the heart of it, all sins are sins of omission: our failure to trust the God who is so faithful with us. Since God “isn’t up to the job,” we give up, in defiance or despair, and drift away—to “nothingness”—forgetting that God must always be greater than our present distress, whatever that may be.

I will suggest that in Lent 2015, we ponder how this working definition might be playing out in all the “Seven Deadly Sins,” or for that matter, any others we might name: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.

The purpose of this exercise is not to feel miserable about ourselves—let alone judge others. The purpose is to foster the awareness and insight in which we take hold of the better thing that the Lord has in store for us; as we take the next step in our spiritual formation that the Lord intends.

As a test case, to get us started, let’s take a brief look at “wrath.” We are mistaken if we think that this only applies to volcanic expressions of rage. Wrath is uncontrolled anger—or anger that controls us. This may be a matter of degree (how obviously angry we get on this or that occasion), or it may be a matter of extent (how much anger, of whatever degree, pervades our existence). Life lived at a constant angry low simmer still adds up to a wrathful life. And at its core, habitual irritation rests on the false—yet indulged—premise that God is letting us down.

This Lent, I invite us to continue to think all this through in greater depth, and to ponder the dynamic in its other forms, not just only wrath. We shouldn’t feel overwhelmed, though. We can take reasonable time. After all, it’s only Ash Wednesday; Day One. Nevertheless, with God’s help, let’s make a serious beginning.

On the constructive side of things, let’s name the virtues. By these I don’t mean our anxious attempts somehow to do “better” on our own, but rather the natural fruits of a converted—or perhaps, re-converted—life. They are the outflow of a life graciously redeemed. Virtues are those characteristics in which we live out our risky, faithful “Yes” in response to the God who so wonderfully said “Yes” to us in Jesus Christ—“who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Romans 8:25)

For the God who has acted to save in Christ, there is no such thing as too hard, or too far gone. Whatever our condition, we may surely take hold—and may we do so without delay. Returning to the Lady Julian, only slightly paraphrasing: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this? Know it well: Love is his meaning.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text, 86)

So, in joy, may we launch into all that flows from our “Yes” to the One who said “Yes” to us in such great love. The “Cardinal Virtues” more than counterbalance that other seven that we mentioned before. Growing in these, we pass from shades to substance in the character of our lives: Chastity, Temperance, Generosity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility.

How do we get there? Surely, we know: In Him Who is both the Way and the Destination.

I’ll conclude with a short set from Paul, which sets forth, once again, the progress of this teaching—and the heart of our message:

“Wretched that we are! Who will rescue us from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24)

“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

“Therefore, beloved, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)