In the late 1700s, when William Wilberforce was a teenager, English traders raided the African coast on the Gulf of Guinea, captured between 35,000 and 50,000 Africans a year, shipped them across the Atlantic, and sold them into slavery. It was a profitable business that many powerful people had become dependent upon. One publicist for the West Indies trade wrote, “The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies will always prevent this traffic being dropped. The necessity, the absolute necessity, then, of carrying it on, must, since there is no other, be its excuse.”
By the late 1700s, the economics of slavery were so entrenched that only a handful of people thought anything could be done about it. That handful included William Wilberforce.
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, enkindle in your Church the never-failing gift of love, that, following the example of your servant William Wilberforce, we may have grace to defend the children of the poor, and maintain the cause of those who have no helper; for the sake of him who gave his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Our [Christians'] task is not one of producing persuasive propaganda; Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world.
–Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, and Martyr (ca. 115), To the Romans 3
Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 8B, July 29, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 11.1-27; Psalm 14.1-7; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s OT lesson, we find one of the most shocking stories in all the Bible, the story of David and Bathsheba. Here we see the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13.14; cf. Acts 13.22)—the man, whom, as we saw last week, God promised to bless with an everlasting house, a promise that was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus—commit adultery and resort to murder to cover up his dirty deeds and save his own skin because being caught in adultery was a capital offense in ancient Israel. If this kind of stuff could happen to David, it can (and probably has) happened to us. Our baggage may not be so spectacular, but surely if we are old enough, each one of us has been confronted with some kind of catastrophic moral failure in our own lives. And so we as Christians need to ask how this moral failure can (and did) happen to David and then see if Scripture gives us any guidance regarding what we can do about it to help prevent future failures in our own lives. That is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
As we look at this tragic story of David and Bathsheba, the first question that comes to mind is why is this story included in the OT in the first place? For example, if we were to read about David in Chronicles, we would discover that this story is omitted entirely because the Chronicler had a different purpose for writing his material and had a different audience to consider. So what purpose does this story serve beyond providing us with some potential titillation? We will come back to this question shortly.
But for now, let us unpack the dynamics of the story. We are told that this affair took place in the spring when kings go off to war. So we wonder why King David is home in Jerusalem rather than with his troops. The writer of Samuel tells us later that David’s advisors had urged him to stay in Jerusalem for a variety of reasons and so we can understand why he might have been there instead of with his troops. But this creates an unholy opportunity for David because he apparently has too much time on his hands, and when he wakes up from his late afternoon nap, he spies Bathsheba bathing nearby.
Now there is nothing wrong with an attractive woman catching a man’s eye. It happens all the time. But there is more going on here than a woman catching David’s eye. First, she’s naked and second, David didn’t do what he needed to do to prevent the situation from escalating. He didn’t turn away and occupy his mind with something (or someone) else. Instead, he asked a servant about Bathsheba and then sent one of his lackeys to go fetch her for some illicit activities. This, of course is how temptation turns to sin. Hear the apostle James:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1.13-15).
And of course today’s story is a classic example of what James is talking about. David called for Bathsheba because he allowed his sexual desire for her to grow to the point where he could no longer overcome it by his own power (cf. Jesus’ reaction to his wilderness temptations, Matthew 4.1-11; Luke 4.1-13). Augustine surely would have understood what’s going on here because he prayed this famous line, “Lord, make me sexually pure but not yet!” (Confessions 12.7.17). If this weren’t bad enough, Bathsheba’s father was part of David’s personal bodyguard and her husband was one of David’s generals who was out fighting for the king when this all took place. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. Whether it was a one-night stand or an extended affair, the result was that Bathsheba became pregnant and this put both of their lives in mortal danger because as we have already noted, adultery was a capital offense in Israel.
What to do? David, being the clever fellow he is, seizes on a brilliant plan. He’ll call Uriah back home from the front, give him a quick furlough so that he has time to sleep with his wife, and no one other than the palace staff will be any the wiser to the whole sordid affair. But unfortunately for David, Uriah will not cooperate, even after David gets him all liquored up. How can he possibly eat, drink, and have sex with his wife when the ark of God and David’s troops are up on the front, fighting the king’s war? And so David, who let his own desire entice him into committing adultery instead of turning away from it, conceives another, even more diabolical, plan to get rid of Uriah so that David can take Bathsheba as his wife before the conception to birth timeline gets too out of whack and people get suspicious. If that weren’t enough, David gives Uriah his own death warrant for Uriah to deliver unawares to his commander Joab. And after the murderous deed is done against the righteous Uriah (yet another example of bad things happening to good people—this time committed by the Lord’s anointed king no less!), David tries to convince Joab that Uriah’s death is nothing more than another casualty of war.
We would expect this kind of behavior from some mafia thug but instead we are seeing David, God’s anointed king and a man after God’s own heart, commit these terrible acts and think so callously about it all. If you are like me, it leaves you stunned. Throughout it all, David has broken the last five commandments. He coveted his friend’s wife and committed adultery. David then commits murder to cover that up and steals Uriah’s wife from him. Did I mention he lied multiple times? Who needs reality TV when you can read stuff like this in the Bible?
So why did the writer of Samuel include this story? We have seen how this happened to David. He really wasn’t where he was supposed to be, he let sexual temptation entice him rather than flee from it, and in doing so he allowed his desire for Bathsheba to grow until he had to act on it. We can understand this dynamic because we all have succumbed to something like this in our own lives and it demonstrates just how broken we are as God’s image-bearers. But that’s not the reason the writer includes this sad story. He shares it with us as a warning and reminder to us. David, while being God’s anointed, is not God. He is human and fallible, just like we are. This reminds us that while human role models are needed and good, we must keep them in proper perspective and see them for the good they do but also remember they are not perfect. In other words, the writer is reminding us that there is only one person in whom we can put our whole hope and trust, and that is God himself, the God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because even the best of humans are bound to fail and let us down at some point. But God never lets us down or fails us, and this is the consistent witness of Scripture.
So what are we to do with this? Throw our hands up in the air and resign ourselves to the fact that we are consigned to sin boldly and hope that God really does forgive us our sins? Not really. It is indeed true that our sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb and God’s gift of forgiveness is a free gift to us because none of us deserve or merit God’s forgiveness. But as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, we do not have to allow sin to conquer us because God will empower us to be more than conquerors. To be sure, we have to put in our sweat equity. We have to learn what to do so that temptations do not entice us to sin. But we do not have to do this by ourselves because we have the power of God himself living in us through the presence of his Holy Spirit. And as we can see from Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus (the pronouns and verbs in Greek are plural, which indicates Paul is talking to the Ephesians primarily as a group), the power of God to help us be his holy people is available to us through prayer and mutual Christian support through Christ’s body, the Church.
As Paul reminded us last week, we are to make Jesus our very foundation for living. In other words, we are to grow in our relationship with him so that we seek his guidance and approval for everything we do. That’s not easy because we are like David in that regard. We tend to love ourselves and our desires more than God and his desires for us. But Paul insists here that through perseverance and prayer, we can grow to be like Christ and that will only make his presence in our lives stronger and more reliable, which in turn makes us better able to conquer sin. Sometimes we do not know how to pray as we ought. But the more firmly rooted we become in Christ so that we recognize his active presence in our lives, the more confidence we have that our prayers will be answered, and in spades, even when we ask for the wrong things. We see this principle illustrated in today’s gospel lesson. The people wanted food to eat and when Jesus produced in spectacular fashion, they wanted to make him king on their terms. But Jesus knew there was a better way and as he told the crowds later in the chapter, he was there to offer them himself, but on his terms, not theirs.
Likewise with the storm that threatened to drown Jesus’ disciples. Surely they were terrified and praying not to die. But our Lord gave them something even better. Not only did he answer their prayers by calming the storm and walking on the water to be with them. He also demonstrated to them a power that was God’s alone, so that they could trust that he was the very embodiment of God and follow him with confidence. But their eyes couldn’t see, at least at that moment–it would take the resurrection to accomplish hat–and so they missed this deeper lesson Jesus was showing them. Will not Jesus do the same for us when we cry out to him as we are wracked by the storms of life? But first we must have eyes of faith to see!
So let me ask you this. Are you spending the necessary time and effort on your prayer life so that you begin to have this kind of power to overcome sin in your life? Are you praying boldly for those things that God knows you need (as opposed to what you think you need) to make you his holy one who will serve him faithfully in the living of your days? If not, what is stopping you? Why would you not want to live your life in God’s power rather than your own, which is bound to fail you? And if you are praying boldly, are you expecting God to do greater things for you than you dare ask or imagine because you know God is God and you are not?
The second thing we can learn from Paul and our OT story is the need for us to surround ourselves with faithful friends who love us enough to dare speak the truth in love to us and tell us we are going astray. Think of the difference it would have made for David had he had a companion with him who could have distracted him and warned him of the dire consequences of his desire. But David didn’t have that kind of friend available and it helped cause his undoing. This should make perfect sense to us because as we have seen many times before, God typically uses human agency to accomplish his will and to work out his redemptive plan. That is why we should never hesitate to augment our prayers by seeking help from those we trust, whether it be the wise counsel of a trusted friend or seeking medical or psychological help to bring about God’s healing. If we really understand that God’s typical and preferred way of doing business with his fallen world is working through human beings, we should never think that we lack faith and trust in God when we seek help and healing from others in answer to our prayers.
I used to not get this at all. At one point I suffered from great anxiety and prayed to God to take it from me, but nothing seemed to happen. It never occurred to me to ask God to show me human agents whom he would use to help me. But once, by God’s grace, I realized this was God’s modus operandi, I sought help and voila! Prayers answered. Some problems like pornography and other kinds of addictions take both prayer and the human touch to conquer. That is why need each other as Christ’s body, the Church, and the only way we can develop the kind of mutual trust needed is to develop real friendships in the context of small groups. Who do you have in your life who loves you enough to speak the truth in love to you or to point you to those whom God can use to heal you when you are struggling? If you don’t have someone like that, you are setting yourself up for disaster, just the way David did and countless others have.
That is why it is such a wise and godly thing for us to receive formally Mark and Elizabeth into our fellowship this morning. In joining our congregation, they are joining the larger church of which we are part. They are promising, in part, to let God use them to help us in our lives and be open to our help in theirs when they need it. Again, we don’t do any of this on our own but in and through the power of the Spirit. So the next time we are tossed about by the dark and stormy waves of life and are threatened to be engulfed by them, we just may discover that as we cry out to the Lord in fear and desperation, often he will answer us far beyond our ability to ask, and in many cases use one of his people as part of his answer so that we will fall on our knees in wonder and praise. And when by God’s grace we experience this so that we really do believe it, we will know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
From Stand Firm in Faith.
Thus, before the 77th General Convention, there were eleven versions of the Holy Bible authorized for use in worship services in the Episcopal Church (USA). And at the 77th Convention, a total of five new versions were proposed to be added to those, and were approved in the House of Deputies.
Or, that is, until a Deputy brought to the floor, at the last minute before adjournment on the fifth day (July 7), a motion to reconsider the Resolution in the form that had passed the HoD just twenty minutes or so earlier (the form with the five new translations listed above). Specifically, the Deputy announced that he was making the motion because he had “discovered”—in just the time since the Resolution had passed—that the English Standard Version used the word “homosexuality” in translating chapter 6, verse 9 of First Corinthians.
He announced that he was “shocked”, and felt “betrayed”, that the House would propose to use such an anachronistic translation in today’s Church. Didn’t everyone know that St. Paul, who lived two thousand years ago, could have known nothing about the “long-term commitments” and deep, mutual love which characterize today’s same-sex relationships? And that to ascribe a modern, only recently developed word like “homosexuality” to the sins of temple prostitution which he was denouncing was a complete case of category mistake? [N.B.: I have paraphrased the Deputy’s remarks from the various accounts on the blogs. If anyone who was there has a more accurate transcription, I will be happy to post it.]
To rectify this horrendous error, the House quickly voted to “reconsider” the Resolution, which meant that it would be considered again, de novo, on the next day, and in the form as proposed by the Standing Committee (i.e., with the two proposed originally, plus the two Contemporary English versions, but without the ESV language). In just a matter of minutes, it was as though “l’affaire E.S.V.” had never happened.
My purpose for citing this article is not quite the same as Haley’s. I’ll let his purpose stand on its own without further comment. What I want to point out from the excerpt above is this. Throughout the long, tortuous debate over homosexuality in many of the Christian mainline churches, opponents of same-sex blessing and marriage have consistently pointed out that homosexuality is only the presenting issue, i.e., it is only the tip of the iceberg that indicates a problem that is much deeper and more serious (the tip of the iceberg didn’t sink RMS Titanic; what lay hidden beneath the surface did and the Church catholic needs to pay attention to this, especially those in the Church catholic who try to use Scripture in support of blessing homosexual partnerships). For folks like me, the issue has always been the authority of Scripture. That is, do we accept Scripture as God’s word to humans or don’t we? The debacle that Haley points out above represents this issue perfectly.
If you are going to accept Scripture as God’s authoritative word to humans, you really do not have the freedom or leeway to change its original languages (Hebrew and Greek) so that you translate them into something they don’t mean (or, as in the case above, to advocate banning the use of a particular translation because you find some of its particular translations offensive). So rather than dealing with the implications of what Paul writes as well as grappling with the context in which he wrote it, what do we do? Give the original language a different meaning or ban those translations we find offensive!
Sorry, folks. No can do if you believe the Bible to be God’s authoritative word. You can say that you do not accept Scripture as God’s authoritative word and I can accept that. You can even say that Paul didn’t really understand the issues around homosexuality and I can accept that, even while thinking that you really need to take something to help cure your delusional thinking. These arguments (and a host of others) all indicate that you do not accept Scripture as God’s authoritative word and we can agree to disagree on that subject.
But it is duplicitous and weasely to say that you do accept Scripture as God’s authoritative word and then try to give it a meaning that simply is not congruent with the original text (or ban those translations that try to render a faithful translation of the original language). And frankly, if you have to resort to trickeration to make your point and support your agenda, your agenda is likely rotten to the core. That includes, BTW, rotten agendas advanced by folks who call themselves orthodox and/or evangelical Christians. Our Lord said that we should be honest and transparent in our speaking (cf. Matthew 5.33-37). In other words, don’t be a dishonest weasel when dealing with others. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
That is why I am opposed to those who advocate same-sex blessings, etc. in the name of Scripture. They have no leg to stand on and so are forced to try to make the text say something it doesn’t by using all kinds of convoluted thinking, including advancing the tired old canard that blessing gay partners is the “loving” thing to do, which is consistent with God’s will for homosexuals because God is love. Anyone who has taken the time to grapple with Scripture knows there is absolutely nothing “loving” about this position. In fact, quite the opposite is true. God created humans male and female and calls them to come together in one union in the context of marriage (see Genesis 1.26-27; 2.20b-24). Our Lord himself endorsed God’s creative intent contained in the Genesis narratives and so for me that puts an end to any of the discussion about whether the Church can bless homosexual partnerships. It simply can’t.
In the final analysis, we have a choice to make. Are we going to try to conform ourselves and our lives to God’s word or make God’s word conform to our agendas? No one who consistently pursues the latter course can legitimately claim to believe in Scripture as the authoritative word of God. No one. That’s their choice, of course, but that also excludes them from trying to foist something ungodly on us in the name of God.
Yesterday I preached on what God is doing about evil, using the context of the Aurora, CO. shootings. Here is an interesting piece from Mark Galli. See what you think.
Our reactions cultural and personal are interesting to behold.
Take mine: my first thought as a devout follower of the Prince of Peace was to think, Maybe I should start packing a gun. We live in a broken society in which the police can no longer protect me and my family. It’s probably up to me to do that now.
My sarcasm does not signal that I’m for or against gun control. We may be at a cultural moment when more self-defense is called for. Or maybe such a solution would just lead to more useless violence. I’ll let political and social scientists sort that out. I’m more interested at this point in my reaction as a disciple of Jesus: it began with fear and self-protection.
It then moved on to vainglory, as I imagined how I would want to act in such a horrific situation. I had images of myself tackling the shooter or throwing my body over helpless victims, taking the bullet for others. This is adolescent, I know, but it’s actually what went through my mind. For all I know, at such a moment, I may just as easily pee in my pants. But my pride says I’d play the hero.
At some point, my thoughts finally got around to thinking about others, to those who actually took a bullet, the wounded and dead, and the loved ones left grieving. But then another uncharitable thought immediately rose to the surface: I’d happily kill the s.o.b. who did the shooting.
I suspect my selfish, prideful, and revengeful reactions are not unusual, and that for most of us, they are checked by higher ideals. But there they are, mixed in with compassion, reason, and hope.
Lord, have mercy.
Sermon preached on Sunday, Trinity 7B, July 22, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 7.1-14a; Psalm 89.20-37; Ephesians 2.11-22; Mark 6.30-34, 53-56.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On early Friday morning when James Holmes walked into a movie theater and began shooting people, we were reminded once again that evil is alive and well in God’s good but fallen world. It is a stark reminder of the human condition, of what happens to us when we shut God completely out of our lives so that we lose his image and cease to be human, at least temporarily. It is an awful example of what Paul talks about in this morning’s epistle lesson when he tells us that before God became human in Jesus, we Gentiles were without God and without hope because we stood under God’s just condemnation and wrath. As both John and Paul (but not George or Ringo) sternly warn us, murderers and all who remain hostile to God will not enter the Kingdom (see, e.g., 1 John 3.14-16; 1 Corinthians 6.9-11; cf. Revelation 21.7-8; 22.14-16).
And Friday’s shootings—not to mention the homicide bombings that killed five Israelis in Bulgaria and nine people, including children, in Pakistan—remind us that despite the myth of human progress that so many of us like to embrace, the truth is that the human condition has not changed much, if at all, since the Fall. In fact, as traditional Judeo-Christian values continue to be challenged and undermined, and as the current cultural trends continue to emphasize hyper-individualism and “freedom” at any cost, we can only expect to see more horrific kinds of these behaviors because the technology for killing is getting more efficient and is easily available to those who would eagerly use it. We can now use our cell phones to talk to each other and blow each other up.
All this reminds us that despite all of our scientific and material advancements, we still do not know what to do with evil when it confronts us like it did in spades this past week. Some will inevitably ask questions like, “Where is God in all this? Doesn’t God care about us? Why does God allow this madness to continue?” As Christians we had better be prepared to give a biblical answer to these real and urgent questions, not only for others but for ourselves. If we don’t (or can’t) we can surely expect to lose heart and hope, especially in an age of instant communication that magnifies all that can and does go wrong with the human heart (cf. Mark 7.20-22). And so this morning I want to look briefly at what our texts have to say about what God is doing about the problem of evil because it just so happens that they offer us a partial biblical response to these questions.
In this morning’s epistle lesson, Paul lays out for us a grand vision for the gospel—God’s peace for his broken and hurting world in and through Jesus, the Messiah. In the preceding section, Paul has explained how God has brought healing and reconciliation between himself and humans through the cross of Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ’s blood shed for us, Paul says, and are raised to new life with Christ in his mighty resurrection and ascension because of God’s great love for us and his mercy toward us. Since our relationship with God is foundational for any of our human relationships, and since we are God’s image-bearers, our relationship with God had to be restored first before we could become the people God created us to be.
But now that our relationship with God is restored in and through Christ, Paul is telling us why it God has done this for us—so that in Jesus the Messiah, Gentiles could be reconciled with God’s holy people the Jews so that God could use those whom he has called in Christ to bring his healing love to his broken and hurting world and its people. In other words, our restored relationship with God and the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile that results is a logical outworking of the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to David in this morning’s OT lesson to provide David with an everlasting throne or dynasty. God would achieve this through the Messiah so that Israel, here meaning those who are in Jesus, would finally be a blessing to the world, just as God called her to be through Abraham (cf. Genesis 12.1-3).
“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but what does any of it have to do with last week’s murders and the greater problem of evil they represent?” Excellent question! This has everything to do with the problem of evil because we as God’s people and followers of Jesus are part of God’s plan of redemption. From the very beginning Christians have always believed that God has defeated evil on the cross of Jesus (cf. Colossians 2.15), even if evil has not yet been fully vanquished, as the events of last week sadly demonstrate. Christians have always believed this because of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of God’s new creation that it announced. Evil may still rear its ugly head but its day is almost done and a new and better day is coming.
This, of course, gives us a future hope but I am not primarily concerned with that here, important as that hope is for us. What Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit all point to is this. Until our Lord returns in great power and glory to implement fully his promised new creation and vanquish evil forever, God calls and equips those of us who are in Christ to be signs and symbols of his healing love and new creation so that he can use us to combat and thwart evil. We don’t just do this individually. We do it together as Christ’s body the Church. That is what Paul is talking about in today’s lesson and it is consistent with God’s call to Abraham and his descendants to be God’s blessing to others. There is a great mystery in all this because from our vantage point it is really hard to see how God can ever hope to succeed in using us to bring healing and signs of new creation to others when we are all so badly flawed ourselves. But call us in Christ God does, and it is through his reconstituted people in Jesus, i.e., the Church, that God promises to implement Jesus’ victory over evil won on the cross.
To recapitulate, this is the biblical answer to what God is doing about the problem of evil. God has defeated evil on the cross and calls his people in Christ to help bring healing and hope to the world as we await our final redemption in Christ’s Second Coming. This explanation of what God is doing about evil may prove to be less than satisfying to some of you because it doesn’t offer unambiguous answers or mighty acts of power and the zapping of evil and evildoers in the manner most of us want from God. But this is where faith and humility come in. We have to be humble enough to know that God has an eternal perspective and is all-knowing, so that we can trust his unfolding plan of redemption and the role we who follow Jesus are called to play in it. Our role is not to save the world but to follow the One who has, and to grow to be like him in the power of the Spirit so that our Lord can use us as his agents of healing and reconciliation. And of course, as we grow in our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge of him, so will our faith be increased so that we can have renewed confidence in God’s plan of redemption through Jesus and his people, even if we do not fully (or even mostly) comprehend it.
So what are the implications of all this? First, let’s start with the obvious. If Jesus calls his body, the Church to be peace-makers, healers, and visible signs of new creation, it is critical that we treat each other in a fundamentally different way from how the world treats its own. It means, for example, that we will not insist on having our own way when we disagree with each other. It means that we will be patient with each other and put up with each other’s foibles and weaknesses, even when they irritate us like fingernails on a chalkboard. Otherwise, people will look at us and see nothing but business as usual, which will result in them roundly ignoring us. We cannot tell others about transformed living if we are not transformed by the power of the Spirit ourselves. The good news for St. Augustine’s is that we do a pretty good job of loving each other, and that is a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence in and among us.
Second, if we are going to be peace-makers and visible signs of God’s love and healing to others, we have to be willing to risk engaging them in conversation about Jesus. This, of course, is anathema these days because we are beaten down (and sometimes up) about “tolerance” and being “open-minded.” But remember that no one other than Jesus promises resurrection and new creation. And so it seems to me that if the promises of the NT are true, it is an exceedingly unloving thing on our part to keep quiet about the only way that leads to real hope and life. I don’t know if James Holmes was exposed to the Christian faith or whether he embraced it at one point in his life. But it is impossible to do what he did for anyone who really is a follower of Jesus. How many people might God use you to help stop from doing something terrible like that by exposing you to others? None of us will ever know the answer to this question but it is the consistent biblical witness that God does indeed use us for those kinds of purposes. And I suspect each of us here can tell a story of how God used others to bring healing and hope to us when we needed it the most. When we are ready to let God use us this way, we really are the kind of “living stones” in Christ God created us to be.
Last, and on a more personal note, there may be someone here who is still laboring under the crushing burden of some guilt or sorrow or sin that you perceive to be unforgivable. If you are that person, I encourage you to hear Paul’s breathtaking proclamation again this morning and to believe his promises that God loves you and has created you for life, not death. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. Nothing is beyond the great love and mercy of Christ and you need look no further than the Table this morning to find proof of that because every time you eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood, you receive a real and tangible sign of God’s love poured out for you. And if that isn’t enough to help you, consider carefully Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. Are you really any different from the folks upon whom Jesus looked and had compassion because he saw they were harried and hurting and broken (and yes, sinners just like all of us are) who were without a Shepherd? Unless you consciously reject the love and forgiveness offered you by insisting on doing things your way instead of God’s, no one is outside of God’s great love and tender mercy, not even James Holmes. And if by God’s grace you really do believe this (and begin to act like you do), you will discover what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 6B, July 15, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24.1-10; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29.
First, I want to thank Eric for coming and sharing his story with us today. If you are worried that I am going to preach a regular sermon—you know, the kind that goes on for 2-3 hours—breathe a big sigh of relief because that’s not going to happen. I’m only going to speak 50 minutes or so. But since no self-respecting preacher can give up an opportunity to talk to a nice crowd of folks like we have here today, I would like to briefly point out how Eric’s story ties in with today’s Scripture readings, especially Paul’s doxology, or song of praise, in today’s epistle lesson.
If you want a real-life application of Paul’s prayer and St. Augustine’s mission statement, look no further than Eric and his story because here is one example of what holiness looks like in the real world. More about that in a moment. First some background. In today’s passage, which is one sentence in the original Greek, Paul lays out the overall Big Picture of God’s plan to heal and restore his good but broken world undone by human folly and sin. As Paul tells us, it has been God’s eternal plan to rescue his people and creation in and through Jesus the Messiah, God become human, and the people God calls to help him in this task. This, of course, is always what God intended for his human creatures, to be his wise stewards to watch over God’s good creation and reflect God’s glory out into his world. We see this thread begin in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, and run all the way through to the very last book of the Bible, Revelation.
But of course the problem has always been that we humans didn’t get the memo. We wanted to play by our own rules where we call the shots and play God rather than be his humble, obedient, and wise stewards. It got us kicked out of paradise and cut us off from God, our very life support system. And when the patient is disconnected from his life support system, you don’t have to be a doctor to know the inevitable outcome—death. Human pride, folly, stubbornness, and rebellion, better known as the human condition, has changed very little over the years. Whether the human condition shows its ugly head in the form of Herod Antipas abusing his political power egregiously by promising his step-daughter to have John the Baptist beheaded in a moment of drunken lust as she danced for him seductively (who needs reality TV?), or whether it was Eric in his youth flirting with a culture of death to prove his manhood to himself and others, or any of us in our less than stellar moments, humans have demonstrated consistently that we think we know better than God concerning matters of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and more often than not, the results are disastrous.
Think about your own job and/or life situation for a moment if you don’t believe me. The things that aggravate and frustrate us and beat us down and wear us out are never a result of others behaving nobly or selflessly or graciously or generously. No, it’s just the opposite. When people act foolishly or selfishly or out of pride or greed, those are things that make us want to scream and pull our hair out (or just punch them in the mouth)! Given all this, no one who cares about people or this world can be happy with our collective plight.
And of course Paul is reminding us that the human condition grieves God as well because God created us for relationship with him, not destruction. And so God has acted decisively in Christ on our behalf to reconcile us to himself by taking on his just wrath for human sin, folly, and rebellion himself so that we would not have to bear it. None of us deserve this but we are offered it anyhow because God loves us wildly and wants us to have life. This is called grace and we see it reflected all over Eric’s testimony and life. It is by God’s grace that Eric is where he is today and likewise for anyone who is in Christ. As Paul reminded the Colossians, in Christ, God has transferred us from the dominion of darkness and death and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1.13) If Paul were here today with us, he would surely say to us, “Yes indeed! That’s what I’m talking about. Here is yet another testimony of how the love of God can reach down and change a life and redeem what seemed so hopelessly lost!”
But we miss a critical point Paul is making if we just stop there and say something like, “Isn’t it nice that in Jesus God has saved Eric so that he can go to heaven and enjoy eternity there.” Instead, Paul would invite us to look closer at what he just said because heaven is not the end game but rather God’s promised new creation, the new heavens and the new earth. God does not redeem us to pull us out of the world. Just the opposite. God saves us so that he can use us as Jesus’ people to help him redeem his broken and fallen world. For you see, if we are saved only so that we can go to heaven and enjoy an eternity of bliss, it is easy for us to separate God and theology from this world and all its problems. But when we understand that God saves us to use us as his agents of new creation, then suddenly our relationship with God takes on a new and urgent meaning. It means we have work to do starting right here and now. It means that God’s world and its people are hugely important to God and that in Jesus, we are called to be agents of God’s healing love to a world that desperately needs it.
That’s what Paul was talking about when he tells us God chose us from all eternity to be a holy and blameless people and that’s what Eric’s new life in Christ represents. Being holy does not mean being some hyper-religious fanatic who engages in navel-gazing most of the day and who never speaks of anything but religion. Being holy means we dedicate ourselves to God to be the humans he created us to be, and being “in Christ” means that we do that by obeying Jesus’ command to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Once again, we see this illustrated in Eric’s story. Being holy doesn’t mean Eric is perfect. It means he has followed God’s call to abandon a lifestyle that leads to death and to eventually engage in the noble profession of law enforcement. It is not the job that counts, however. It is a life given to God following the way of Jesus so that God can use us as agents of his healing love.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not talking about saving the world. None of us has that in our power. And besides, God has already done that in Jesus. What I am talking about is bringing Christ’s love to bear on others in the context of our daily lives so that we resist the temptations to act selfishly or greedily or ambitiously or proudly or myopically. The way of the cross is never easy but it is the only way that leads to real life, both in this world and in the new creation. And it is the only way we can ever hope to live our lives with meaning, purpose, and power.
And if you are tempted to call Paul a dreamer (or worse), I would remind you that Paul wrote these soaring words while languishing in prison. Paul knew the score and was a realist. He understood sin, evil, and death had been defeated on the cross of Christ but not fully vanquished. The latter would only come with Jesus’ return and the inauguration of the new creation. But that’s a different sermon for a different day.
So what do we do with all of this? Suffice it to say that if you have reached the end of your rope and are searching for something more in life, here is the ticket. As we’ve seen, following Jesus is never easy and as both our OT and gospel lessons remind us, the powers of darkness and evil are relentless in their opposition. But all our readings this morning also remind us that God has always promised to equip those he calls and to be with us, even in the darkest hours. We see it in the OT lesson with its emphasis on the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence among his people and the successor to the pillars of cloud and fire as God led his stubborn and rebellious people out of slavery and through the wilderness. And as Paul reminds us we are guaranteed that God continues to be with us through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in and among God’s people. That doesn’t make God’s people immune to evil and disaster. Mark makes that very clear in today’s gospel lesson. That’s why following Jesus requires faith and the presence of God’s people so that we can be sustained and nourished in Spirit and by the human touch we all need as Eric reminded us so powerfully in his story. There is no such thing as an isolate Christian!
Heartache, suffering, and setbacks there will be because we live in a good but broken world and life is messy. So are we humans. But the message Paul and the other writers of Scripture is this. Don’t be afraid. God calls you and equips you to do his work. So accept God’s gracious invitation to be his and then prepare to be changed just like Eric and countless other Christians have. And of course when you take the plunge and say yes to God’s gracious invitation to be one of his people, you will discover that you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I recently posted a piece from Dr. Rob Gagnon regarding his perceived shift in Exodus’ stance on reparative therapy for gays. Today Dr. Ben Witherington chimes in on the underlying theology behind the shift. Drs. Gagnon and Witherington both make the point that it is entirely an unloving thing for Christians to encourage folks to remain in their sin, whatever the sin is, under the guise of God’s grace. I would wholeheartedly agree.
Robert Gagnon has a right to be disturbed about Mr. Chambers’s recent pronouncements. It is not an act of compassion to encourage people to embrace a view of salvation or sexual behavior that requires less in regard to holiness than both Jesus and Paul required of us. Indeed, it is recipe for disaster.
The Episcopal Church approved church-wide blessings of same-sex unions, stopping short of approving rites for same-sex marriage but approving liturgy for official rites for same-sex couples. Bishops can begin using “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” on December 2, when same-sex couples can exchange vows and rings. Each bishop will decide whether to allow the rite within each local diocese, and a conscience clause bars penalties for bishops who oppose the rite.
…On Monday, the Episcopal Church approved new anti-discrimination language for transgendered clergy candidates and church members. Some Episcopal dioceses already ordain transgendered people or elect them to positions of parish leadership.