Faith In Action

Audio of this sermon will be available on the Christ Church website.


One of the things that drew my family to Bowling Green was the romantic ideal of four honest-to-goodness seasons, with real springs, falls, and winters.  In lower Alabama, it was said that there were really six seasons, each lasting two months.  Three of them were summer.[1]  Currently, they are suffering through “Hurricane Summer,” which I remember as the season in which you began to forget what outside looks like as you move from building to car and back again as quickly as possible.  In Bowling Green, the summer of 2018 has felt a bit like a lower Alabama summer, but even if it is raining, today shows us the promise of more fall-like temperatures on the horizon.

The church has its own equivalent of a six-month Gulf Coast Summer, which is commonly called Ordinary Time.  The Season after Pentecost usually runs from May or June all the way to December, and can feel like an interminable stretch of green.

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During the dog days of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary does us a favor by occasionally taking long walks in a particular portion of the Scriptures.  You might remember our five-week visit in the Bread of Life Discourse last month.  For the month of September, we’ll spend five weeks bouncing around the Letter of James, which holds a special place in my heart.  James is an often-misunderstood letter, that has become the scorn of Protestants ever since Martin Luther called it an epistle of straw.  Luther’s main objection was with the final three verses of today’s passage, which seem to undermine the Protestant overemphasis on St. Paul’s thesis of justification by grace through faith by suggesting that works are required to get into heaven.  I don’t think that’s a fair reading of James, but we’ll have to come back to that in a minute.

What I so appreciate about James is how straight-forward it is.  Unlike Paul’s sometimes serpentine-like run-on sentences about lofty ethics and big theological constructs, James was written, as Mother Becca told us last week, to be a letter of universal appeal.  James wrote about real things that congregations were struggling with in the first century.  These same things happen to be real things that congregations are still struggling with in the twenty-first century.  The not-really-hypothetical example that opens our text this morning shows that not much has really changed in the church in the last two-thousand years.  Human beings are still human beings, whether they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, or not.  We are pre-disposed to play favorites, to defer to the rich and the powerful, and to look down on those who are living on the margins.

It is in this not-really-hypothetical example, that I think we really come to understand why James makes so many people uncomfortable.  He isn’t afraid to go from preaching to meddling – naming the evil he sees in the church, namely the rich getting preferential treatment over the poor – as sinful.  Here, James is in total agreement with Saint Paul in suggesting that the chief sin of most Christians is idolatry.  By judging our neighbors, we put ourselves in the place of God, and directly violate both the first and second Commandments.  “So, you didn’t murder anyone or commit adultery this week,” James says somewhat sarcastically in my imagination, “Congratulations!  But. If you judged your neighbor because of his disheveled appearance, you have still fallen short of the glory of God.”

“So, what are we to do then?” we might rightfully ask.  Christianity according to James is downright difficult.  If the standard for faithfulness to the Gospel is not killing anyone, we are all in pretty good shape, but when the bar gets raised up to “don’t make distinctions among yourselves,” we are all in a heap to trouble.  Here’s where we circle back around to that stuff that made Martin Luther so uncomfortable.  What if, when James writes that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” he is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Instead of reading James 2:17 as saying, “if you don’t do good works, God isn’t going to give you entrance into heaven when you die,” perhaps we should read this as saying that the only way we know that God is at work in our lives is through our good deeds.  This isn’t James undercutting salvation by grace through faith, but rather James’ honest assessment, based on his experience in the church that only when it walks like a Christian, talks like a Christian, and acts like a Christian, is it really a follower of Jesus Christ.  Or, as Saint Paul might have described it, if you can see the fruit of the Spirit at work in someone’s life, even when they occasionally fall short, you can be sure that God is there.

Over the last month, Christ Church has received an additional gift in the midst of the dog days of Ordinary time thanks to three baptism Sundays in four weeks.  Today, [at 10 o’clock] we welcome into the Household of God two people who are, in many ways, strangers to most of us.  Lindsay and Evelyn are here from Central America, where Lindsay’s husband, Ryan, serves in the Marine Corps.  Lindsay is a life-long friend of the Mitchell family, and so, we join with them in celebrating this momentous event for the Swoboda family.  Even more, our Prayer Book teaches that Holy Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” which means that today we act on behalf of the Church Universal to welcome Lindsay and Evelyn into the community of those who are on a daily basis striving to follow Jesus.  As we do at every baptismal service, [at 10 o’clock] we will reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that summarize for us what it means to be a Christian.

Like it was for James, for the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, it was important that the life of a Christian be summarized not just in a series of theological concepts which must be believed in order to be saved, but that being a disciple of Jesus requires us to act as well.  We will affirm our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the words of our most ancient statement of faith, the Apostle’s Creed, but if we stop there, James would warn us, then our faith, by itself, is dead.  We must go on to seek God’s help in living that faith daily by way of engaging in the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers, by working hard to resist the temptation to judge our neighbors, among other things, and when we fall short, returning to God’s grace, by proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, by loving our neighbor, and by respecting the dignity of every human being.

Being a Christian is hard.  If it were just an exercise of the mind, merely a system of belief that required no action on our part, it would be so easy, but the rubber meets the road, as we learn from James and from our Baptismal Covenant, when our faith comes alive and we put our belief in God to work.  As the dog days of Ordinary Time roll on, may the Lord who has given Lindsay, Evelyn, and all of us the will to do the good, hard work of Kingdom living, continually give us the grace and power to perform them.  Amen.

[1] https://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/10/finding_our_own_seasons.html

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The Way of Life

If John 3:16 is the most popular passage in the New Testament, I would guess that Ephesians 2:8 is probably in the top ten.  At least, this is true for those of us who spent any time in more evangelical circles.

For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God…

For those who didn’t have Ephesians 2:8 drilled into their hearts and minds at one form of church camp or another, it is probably easier to read the entirety Ephesians passage as a whole.  Those who accomplish such a task, are blessed when they reach the final verse of Sunday’s Epistle Lesson and read, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  In the NRSV, unlike some other translations, the passage ends with a delightful idiomatic double entendre.  By choosing to translate a Greek phrase that essentially means “for us to walk in” as “our way of life,” the authors of the NRSV have invited us to see God’s creation of us through Christ for good works in two distinct ways.

First, and most obviously in the English, this phrase plays on the idiomatic expression of ones way of life as a typical pattern of behavior.  That is, those who follow Christ will, by their very nature, be driven to good works, toward charity, toward acts of mercy, and toward being ministers of compassion.  That this is not the case is a testimony of our sinfulness and our predisposition toward selfishness.  Or, as John puts it, our love of darkness.

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in search of a way

It is with John’s Prologue as well as Sunday’s Gospel passage in mind that I find myself reading the end of the Ephesians lesson not descriptively, but prescriptively.  That is, what if the translation way of life isn’t so much about our normal patterns of behavior, but an actual way?  As in, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  The good works, which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus are the way of life, the path of life, the road map we should follow toward eternal life.  This reading, I think, follows more closely the Greek, which suggests that God has created good works for us to walk in.  As disciples, then, our task is to have our eyes open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us, looking for opportunities for good works as pathway markers, like a cairn in the woods, toward the Kingdom of God.  In spite of our way of life being aimed towards selfish desires, in Christ Jesus, God offers us a path to follow that is the way of life.

What goes in

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In the realm of “there’s nothing new under the sun,” middle-class America has become obsessed with what they put in the body of late.  There was time when it was just about whether or not one could eat eggs and maintain basic health,

but now a days, there are open, ongoing, and often long-winded conversations about the merits of gluten, meat, lactose, soy, paleo, and Whole30 related dietary needs, just to name a few.  We are, of course, not the first generation of human beings to worry about such things, though ours probably stems more from luxury than it did in bygone eras.

One such time when the conversation about what one ate raged loudly was in and around the time of Jesus and the rise of the Pharisaical sect of Jewish priests.  Their main theological goal was to return Judaism to ritual purity as described in the Torah.  As such, they placed a high value on the purity code that included avoiding certain foods, cooked in certain way, in certain pots, and, given their Roman occupied context, offered as sacrifice to certain gods.  While today they are an easy punching bag, especially in interpreting Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees had good intentions at heart.  In their promised land, occupied by a foreign, pagan, empire, the only way that the Jews could really maintain their identity was to live by the strict code that God had given them through the 10 Commandments and the Levitical law.

Whether it is to the privileged white dude ordering his non-fat, half-caf, organic, soy, three-pump, sugar free, locally-sourced vanilla, latte or the Pharisee who might be overly concerned with whether or not one’s mixing spoon was used in two different pots, Jesus offers a counter-point in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Not as a matter of health or even as a point in the conversation about the ethics of food sourcing, but rather as part of the ongoing human question about what does or does not make someone clean in the eyes of God, Jesus offers this advice, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  In modern idiom, it might be, it’s not how fair trade your coffee is, but how you treat your barista.

Jesus is much more concerned with our relationships with other human beings than he is with how fussy we are about the rules.  This isn’t to say that buying coffee from responsible growers isn’t a good thing, but that even there, it is about concentric circles of relationships.  How we treat one another, whether it is face-to-face or three thousand miles apart, is what matters in the Kingdom, and how we treat each other comes forth from the heart rather than the other way ’round.  So, the next time you feel like patting yourself on the back for that organic head of lettuce, stop and give thanks for the growers who have chosen to use earth friendly farming techniques, pray for the laborers who do the hard work of harvesting, the scientists who are making trucks more eco-friendly through the discover of DEF, and the grocer, who, one hopes, has paid a just sum for the product.  And, as always, don’t forget to smile at your cashier, tip your waiter, and thank your barista.  These are the things that come from the heart.

Given to Good Works

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. – Collect for Proper 23

Several years ago, there was a viral story making its way around the intertubes about Pastor Jeremiah Steepek who supposedly dressed himself up as a homeless man in front of the megachurch to which he had been recently called, to see if anyone would stop to care for him.  As the story goes, “He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food… NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.”

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Much righteous indignation followed this post around the internet, especially among Mainliners who were certain that their church would have been better to Pastor Steepek’s alter ego than those feel good evangelicals.  For those who were intent on thumbing their nose at evangelicalism, Christianity, or organized religion in general, it didn’t much matter that the story wasn’t actually true, it proved the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

This Sunday, Episcopalians around the world will pray that we might be “given to good works,” a phrase that feels unnecessarily archaic, but means that through God’s grace, we hope to be predisposed to helping our neighbor.  This prayer is absolutely lovely in theory, but like the members of the fake Pastor Steepek’s church, I wonder if we really want to deal with what it means.  Because what Sunday’s Gospel lesson tells us we are praying for is the ability to see the people that we would rather not see.  We are praying to see the injustices that we would rather ignore.  We are praying to see the works of the Devil that we would rather explain away.  We are praying to see things that will break our hearts and motivate us to act in ways that will take us far from our comfort zones.

Being “given to good works” sounds nice, but when it comes right down to it, good works aren’t always easy, fun, or even, safe.  Still, let us pray for the grace to see the world in all its brokenness, to be moved to action, and be given to good works.

Horse Hockey!

Back before I went to seminary, I served as a part-time, co-youth minister at the Episcopal church in which I grew up.  As is common, there was a non-stipendiary, retired priest who hung around the parish.  He would fill in on the occasional Sunday, maybe teach a Sunday school class, and sometimes visit the sick.  One day, as I was checking my mail, Father S approached me with an offer to teach a short course for our youth group kids on swear words in the Bible.  “When Paul talks about garbage in Philippians, he actually uses the common Greek word for sh*t,” he explained, “the kids will most certainly find that interesting.”

Indeed they would, but so would their parents.  My partner in youth ministry and I agreed to decline the invitation, but I often wish I would have asked him to teach that class just to me.  As Christians, we often get all uppity around words that have come to be known as “curse words,” not thinking that even in our scriptures, we have examples of impassioned authors using harsh words to get their point across.

This Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson is just such an occasion.  While Ecclesiastes is probably best known for its third chapter’s prominent place in The Byrds’ classic “Turn, Turn, Turn,” there is opportunity for bits and pieces of chapters one and two to be read in the duldrums of mid-to-late summer, and the brave preacher will delve into this text and its famous euphemism of “vanity,” which scholars suggest is more accurately translated as “bullsh*t,” or as my favorite Army Colonel would say

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Not unlike the point of Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the author of Ecclesiastes is very clear that when we trust only in ourselves, the result is nothing but calamity, horse hockey, bullsh*t.  We can toil all we want to, but until we invite God’s will into our work, it will amount to nothing more than chasing wind.  We can build bigger barns, but until we follow God’s lead, they will collapse into ruin.  As the Psalmist writes, “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”

Less controversial than suggesting all our work is useless crap, the Collect for Sunday turns this idea into is positive by asking God to be present in our work.

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Pentecostal Mandate

Even if their congregation doesn’t do footwashing on the Thursday before Easter, the average Episcopalian is at the very least familiar with the themes of Maundy Thursday.  If you’ve read this blog for long enough, you’ve learned that the word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get the word “mandate.”  The mandate of Maundy Thursday is Jesus’ New Commandment, that we love one another.  Two weeks ago, we heard that mandate echoed as Jesus continued to give his disciples their final instructions, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  On Sunday, as the Church gathers to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day, we’ll hear yet another mandate, this time not from the lips of Jesus, but from the authors of the 1979 Prayer Book (who, according to Marion Hatchett, borrowed heavily from the Gelasian sacramentary of c. 7th or 8th century).

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This prayer might be asking God to help the Holy Spirit move her way across the globe, but the onus sits squarely on our shoulders.  The Holy Spirit will be spread, at least according to this Collect, by the preaching of the Gospel.  The mandate is clear, we must preach the Gospel.  The problem is that we’ve so compartmentalized the Gospel that the average church-goer either has no idea what it looks like or has an insanely specific understanding of it.  You’ll hear, for example, that Saint Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” so good works are all we really have to do.  Some will argue that marriage equality is the Gospel, while others will argue that feeding the poor is the Gospel, and still others will say that amendment of life is the Gospel.  Each of these are a part of what the Gospel message calls us toward, but none are, in and of themselves, the Gospel that the Collect for Pentecost Day would have us preach.

The full Gospel can be summed up in several different ways, but I find it helpful to go back to an earlier teaching from Jesus in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever puts their trust in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  The Gospel is the story of God’s love made flesh in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That love changed the world by changing the hearts of human beings.  That love will compel us to do good works, to seek justice for all people, and when we sin to repent and return to the Lord, but the first step, the Gospel that will set the Spirit free, is to recognize and put our trust in God’s unending love.

The “So What?” Question

I love parable season.  I really do.  But this week isn’t working out quite the way I had imagined.  It has been a busy week, which, when dealing with spiritual hand grenades, isn’t ideal.  So here I am, at 10 to 2 on Thursday afternoon, my usual sermon writing time, and I’m still struggling around this question of “So What?”  I was supposed to have lunch with my friend and fellow Bible blogger, Evan, and per his post this morning, we were supposed to talk about this very issue, “So What?”, but that didn’t happen, so now my poor readers will have to read as I struggle through it in print.

The problem Evan raises in the post linked above is the crux of the issue.  If I am soil and there is nothing soil can do in and of itself to change from path to good stuff and if this story is really about God’s prodigal grace, then what is the preacher to do other than tell the parable for a third or fourth time after the people have already heard it twice in the Gospel lesson?  If I can’t draw a flow chart like this one:

The Parable of the Sower

Then what the heck do I preach?

Thankfully, yesterday I sat in on TKT’s Bible Study on the Parables of Jesus. Conveniently, the topic at hand was very parable.  As I sat and listened to it, rather than reading it, I realized that Jesus describes three action steps in his interpretation of the Parable of the Sower.  First, the word of the kingdom is heard.  Hearing is a totally passive activity.  Sound waves travel all around and when they happen to enter the ear canal and vibrate the ear drum, hearing happens whether or not I’m paying attention.  In the context of the parable, this is the work of the sower, seed is cast no matter the type of soil.

Secondly, Jesus says that some hearers will understand to word of the kingdom.  This is, I believe, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  The Holy Spirit is constantly tending the soil of our hearts.  Some of us are 90% good soil and others are 90% path, but no matter the make up of our hearts, the Spirit is at work with tiller, water, and fertilizer, working to create as receptive as possible a place in our hearts.  The Spirit attempts to soften up the path, to break up the rocky under layment, to pull up the weeds, and to continuously nurture the good soil of our hearts.  We can’t do anything to make ourselves receptive to the word or to better understand it when it comes, that is a gift of grace.

Finally, the seeds that fall on good soil produce fruit with varying degrees of effectiveness: some 100, some 60, some 30 fold.  This is where we get to help out.  When we recognize the kingdom of God at work in our lives, then we are seemingly compelled to respond by helping it grow.  Thanks to the gift of seed from the Sower God, and the tending of the soil by the Farmer Spirit, and through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are able to respond to God’s work in our lives by sharing it with those around it through evangelism, giving, outreach, care, and love.  Children of the Kingdom are known by their works.  Their works don’t get them in, as this parable makes clear, but the sign and symbol of the grace of God at work in their lives is the fruit of good works.

So there, I guess I’ve worked out my issues here on WordPress.  Still, I wish I could have had lunch with Evan.