Swedish Death Cleaning

Friday, 27 November 2020

(Sirach 7)

For we brought nothing into the world,

and it is certain we carry nothing out.

The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away;

blessed be the name of the LORD (BCP 2019, p. 250).

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I may have mentioned before that I love books.  So does my wife, which is one of the reasons I love her so much.  Our marriage of forty-three years is secured not only by the vows we made before God, but by the horrible thought of having to fight for custody of communal books:  better to stay together for the sake of the library.

I haven’t purchased or read it yet, but one of my favorite book titles of the last couple of years comes from Margareta Magnusson:  The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.  This is the way Amazon describes the book:

In Sweden there is a kind of decluttering called döstädning, meaning “death” and städning meaning “cleaning.” This surprising and invigorating process of clearing out unnecessary belongings can be undertaken at any age or life stage but should be done sooner than later, before others have to do it for you. In The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, artist Margareta Magnusson, with Scandinavian humor and wisdom, instructs readers to embrace minimalism. Her radical and joyous method for putting things in order helps families broach sensitive conversations, and makes the process uplifting rather than overwhelming.

The basic idea behind the book is simple enough:  no one wants to dispose of your stuff when you die.  So, you do your family a great service by “death cleaning” while you are still alive:  by giving away what you no longer need or use, by accumulating less, by eliminating the stuff that clutters your life and the space in which you live it.  I really need this book.  I need to read it and then give it away, so that it doesn’t become an ironic example.

I look around the room from which I’m speaking to you, my study at Apostles.  As relatively minimal as it is, it is still chocked with stuff that means a great deal to me and which will become nothing but a burden to those who will come after me.  On the wall behind my desk are my framed, ordination certificates.  Where will these end up when I’m gone?  Who could possibly want them?  There is a marble topped table behind me which serves as an altar.  It was first used in the Oak Ridge National Labs, then donated to the Oak Ridge School System, then re-purposed as a demonstration table by my wife who taught there.  It was to be thrown away when she retired, so she was allowed to take it.  It is now an altar and it means a great deal to me.  When I’m gone, it will be a burden to the one who inherits this study:  a back breakingly heavy burden to the one who has to move it.  There are icons and pictures and books and coffee cups — lots of coffee cups.  If I embraced death cleaning in my study, what would be left?  Who would want my stuff when I’m gone?

Our morning reading from Sirach brings all this to mind.  This book, The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, is one of the apocryphal books that we read, not to establish doctrine, but “for example of life and instruction of manners” (Article VI).  It is also called Ecclesiasticus which I’ve heard translated as the Church Book, so named because the early church put so much stock in its wisdom.  If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in awhile, I commend it to you.

So, what in Sirach reminded me of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning?  

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

This is a Swedish death cleaning of the whole of your life, not for the sake of those who come after you and must deal with the stuff you’ve left behind — though that’s important, too — but for your own sake, for the sake of your soul.  It is a guard against spiritual clutter.

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

Döstädning, the Swedes call it:  death cleaning.  Memento mori the early Latin-speaking Christians called it:  remembrance of death.  Regardless of the language you choose, the same pastoral theology lies at the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy.  You know the words and the action I mean:

Then ashes are imposed with the following words

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return (BCP 2019, p. 545).

The idea has even entered the popular, self-help culture.  Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identified it as the second of his seven habits:  Begin with the end in mind.  Now, granted, he did not have death as the end in mind, but it is the natural extension of his principle, his idea writ large and ultimate.  

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

This takes on special significance for those who follow Christ, because we know the end of our life is not really the end of our life.

2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV): 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 

So, from a Christian perspective, we might amend Sirach a bit:

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

So, let me get practical — pastoral — for a moment.  How can we use this notion of death cleaning or remembrance of death as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling?

Have you ever struggled with a decision?  Have you ever faced a choice and felt the need for some key to discernment, a key that seemed just beyond reach?  Try this:

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

Ask yourself this question:  Which decision, which choice would I want to present and defend to Christ when I appear before his great judgment seat?  Because your life will end and you will appear before Christ and you will give account on that day for what you’ve done, even for the idle words you have spoken.  And so will I; so will we all.

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

Here’s another good exercise, another good question to ask in the vein of döstädning and memento mori:  What kind of person do I want to be when I die and stand before the judgment seat of Christ?  Keep asking follow up questions.  What must I do, or refrain from doing now, in the present moment, to become that kind of person?  What should fill my mind?  What should occupy my hands, my work?  What relationships should I pursue and what relationships should I relinquish?

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

And in keeping with the notion of death cleaning, of giving away in the present what you can’t hold onto after death, try this question:

What of my time, talent, and treasure am I hoarding now that I should be giving away?

That one pinches a bit, doesn’t it?  Henry David Thoreau insisted that we cannot kill time without wounding eternity.  I might add that we cannot hoard time for our own without robbing eternity.  And how often do we deny a talent — a God-given gift — not out of genuine humility but simply because we don’t want to be bothered to share it, to do the hard and time-consuming work of exercising the gift that God has given us for the benefit of his Kingdom.  And treasure:  hoarding treasure?  Me?  The second coat in my closet cries out against me when my brother or sister who has none shivers in the cold.  And to think that, at my death, someone will have to figure out what to do with that coat, when I could spare them that trouble right now.

Please understand, beloved, that I am not trying to make you feel guilty:  far from it!  These words of Sirach and these words are mine are not intended to look backward in judgment, but to point the way forward in hope.

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

This isn’t guilt inducing, but life giving.  That’s what we long for, isn’t it?  To remember the end of our life now so that we will not sin in the time of our mortal life, so that we will be pleasing to our Lord when we stand before his judgment seat, so that we will hear his glorious words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

This kind of death cleaning is really life cleaning.

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

Amen.

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Thanksgiving in a Plague Year

(Deut 8 / Psalm 65 / James 1:17-27 / Matthew 6:25-33)

Collect

Most merciful Father, we humbly thank you for all your gifts so freely bestowed upon us:  for life and health and safety, for strength to work and leisure to rest, for all that is beautiful in creation and in human life; but above all we thank you for our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Here’s a question for you:  Is it possible to preach a Thanksgiving sermon in the midst of a pandemic?  That’s the question I’ve been grappling with as this day has approached.  It must be; priests and pastors around the world are doing it today.  So, the real issue apparently is not whether it’s possible to preach a Thanksgiving sermon, but rather what kind of Thanksgiving sermon it’s proper to preach in this plague year of 2020.

I looked backwards to the Thanksgiving sermons I preached in 2018 and 2019.  They are quite serviceable, true to Scripture, at least adequate if not inspiring.  But, I couldn’t recycle either one of them and preach it today, not that I would.  The “tone” would be off and I would appear a bit tone deaf myself — perhaps like Polyanna — or, worse still, insensitive to the real pain — physical, mental, and spiritual — this pandemic has caused and is causing.  The sermons are true, but they are not timely for our present circumstance.

I started one sermon and wrote for two, two and a half hours, knowing full well that it would not be the one I preached.  I wrote it to exorcise certain thoughts and words from my heart and mind — to exorcise my words so I might have some hope of hearing God’s words.  Then I worked an hour or so on a second attempt.  No good:  it preached “around” the given texts and not from them — a bit cowardly.  It’s a strange business, this writing of sermons, even in the best of times.  And these aren’t the best of times.

Well, if it must be done, best to grasp the nettle and get on with it.  Listen again to Jesus’ words from our Gospel lesson; his words are the nettle we must grasp:

Matthew 6:25–34 (ESV): 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. 

Do not be anxious about your life.  How does that sound to you right now?  We are as awash in anxiety as a fish is in water.  We can’t escape it.  It’s in every masked face we see, and in the eyes above the mask.  It’s in the distance between people and in the isolation that imprisons us in our homes.  It’s in the absence of family gatherings today or in the empty chairs around the table.  It’s in every media outlet we read or watch or hear; it overwhelms social media.  It’s in the graphs of Covid cases, Covid hospitalizations, and Covid deaths.  It’s the unspoken context of every conversation, the largest data point in every decision made.  “Do not be anxious about your life,” Jesus says, and we puzzle now, perhaps more than ever, over that seemingly impossible command — not a friendly suggestion, not merely an encouraging word, but a command:  Do not be anxious about your life.

I wish I could honestly tell you that I have banished anxiety from my life, but I can’t because I haven’t.  But, I’m working on it as a spiritual discipline, because I want to be faithful to our Lord and because I want my relationship with the Father to be like His relationship with the Father, the essence of which is love and trust:  God’s love for us, and our trust in Him.  God loves his creation, right down to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  They are care free in the care of God.  God has not forgotten them, has not abandoned them for even a moment; He feeds them freely and clothes them with splendor.  Given that, Jesus asks this rhetorical question:  “Are you not of more value than they?”  And, if you are of more value that they — as of course you are — then how much more God will do for you than merely feed you or clothe you.  So, why are you anxious?  Why are we anxious?

Perhaps we don’t like the way God cares for us.  Even the Israelites grew tired of manna and quail:

Numbers 21:4–5 (ESV): 4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”

Are we perhaps anxious because we want something more or different than God provides — something beyond manna each morning, something beyond our daily bread?  Are we perhaps anxious because we want something more or different than the kingdom of God, when God has nothing more or different — and certainly nothing more glorious — to offer us than himself and his kingdom?  May I adapt the words of James, the brother of our Lord?

You desire and do not have, so you are anxious.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you worry.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your comfort and security (James 4:2-3, adapted).

God has given us himself this day, and has given us the day itself.  Do we want more?  Do we need more?  Are we anxious for more?

Are we perhaps anxious because we don’t know what tomorrow holds or because we are fearful that God might run out of provisions or might forget us?  Jesus’ words about that can sound a bit depressing on the surface, but there is great comfort there when read in light of the whole Sermon on the Mount.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. 

It sounds as if Jesus is saying, “You don’t have time to worry about tomorrow.  You’ll be too busy dealing with today’s troubles.”  I don’t think that quite captures his meaning.  Sure, we may have trouble today.  We do; we are in the midst of a plague.  But, we also have grace for today, grace that abounds freely from God, grace sufficient for this day’s trouble.  It’s not mainly about trouble; it’s mainly about grace.  And the same will be true tomorrow, when tomorrow comes.  What I do not have, what God does not necessarily give me, is tomorrow’s grace today.  Just as the Israelites had to gather manna each morning — daily bread provided by God — so I have to wait on God to provide each day’s grace, day by day, not in advance.  But, I know this:  just as God was faithful to provide manna in the wilderness day by day for forty years, so he has always been faithful to provide grace in my wilderness day by day for sixty-three years.  He has not failed me yet and I have no reason to believe he will fail me tomorrow.  I am as certain of tomorrow’s grace as if I already had it.  So we need not be anxious about tomorrow just because we don’t know what it holds or even if we are fairly certain that it holds trouble.  God will give us tomorrow’s grace tomorrow, and that is enough.  It has always been more than enough.

Perhaps we are anxious for our very lives or for the lives of those we love?  Rising infection and hospitalization rates throughout most of the country would seem to be cause for anxiety.  Hospital ICUs nearing maximum capacity and exceeding that in some places would seem to be cause for anxiety.  Over a quarter of a million deaths would seem to be cause for anxiety.  Now, I don’t want to minimize the devastating toll of this pandemic on human life, and I don’t want to be flippant about any of this.  But, here’s the truth.  I am going to die, and so are you, if the Lord tarries.  It seems this pandemic has caused many people to confront — to personally confront, to really confront — that difficult truth for perhaps the first time.  And that is a great, though perhaps hidden, grace.  To them, perhaps even to us, Jesus’ words initially may provide only cold comfort, if any comfort at all:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?

Is this just some kind of Jewish fatalism?  If it’s your time, it’s your time; no need to worry about it.  I don’t think so, because that’s not the Gospel.  Jesus tells us not to be anxious for our lives because they are in God’s hands.  Jesus tells us not to be anxious for our lives because, soon for him and long ago for us, death was defeated and no longer exercises any real power over us.  One day death will beckon us into its dark prison, and we will enter that cold door.  But, it will open not onto the grave but into paradise and the presence of God.  Our death is not a problem to be solved; that problem was solved on Calvary and in the Garden when Jesus died our death and rose again for our eternal life.  So, we need not be anxious for our lives.  I will die.  I may die in this pandemic, though I will take every reasonable and faithful precaution to prevent that.  But, when I die, by the grace of God, even at the grave I will make my song, Alleluia, Alleluia!

So, here’s a question for you:  Is it possible to preach a Thanksgiving sermon in the midst of a pandemic?  I think so, and it starts with these words:  Do not be anxious.  Not about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.  God knows, God cares, God’s grace abounds.  And that is reason enough, and more than enough, for Thanksgiving today, tomorrow, and every day unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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Apollos and the Twelve: Acts 18:24-19:7

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,

     Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,

     Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,

     Have mercy upon us.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God,

     Have mercy upon us.

I can cook a meal — when I have to — and you could eat it — if you had to.  But no one will ever confuse me with a chef.  A cook can slavishly follow a recipe and produce edible fare; that’s me.  But a chef?  A chef can open the pantry, look inside to see what’s available, and produce a gourmet meal from seemingly random ingredients, with no recipe needed.  There’s training involved there, but there is gift, too, I think.

I like to watch chefs at work; my whole family does.  We enjoy several cooking shows; the Great British Baking Show and Chopped are favorites.  Chopped is a competition in three rounds.  In the first round, four chefs are given the same mystery basket of four ingredients and given thirty minutes to prepare an appetizer which must include all the ingredients.  Easy enough, right?  Well, not so much if you receive a basket containing blood orange syrup, the African spice blend ras el hanout (whatever that is), hot cross buns, and lamb testicles.  And yes, that was an actual basket on the show; I couldn’t make that up!  There are two more thirty minute rounds — entree and dessert — each with equally difficult baskets.

At the end of thirty minutes each chef presents his or her dish to a panel of three judges, themselves respected, celebrity chefs.  I love the comments of the panel; some have even become running jokes in my family.  One, in particular goes something like this.

Well, all of the components of the dish are there.  But they seem to stand alone; there’s nothing there to pull them together into one, cohesive dish.  It lacks a unifying element.  You know what it’s missing?  Something unctuous like a fried egg on top.  The yoke running throughout the dish would just elevate everything.

It sounds a little pretentious, doesn’t it?  But you know what it means.  You’ve had a good meal, a good meal that could have been great but for one missing thing:  a little salt, more cheese, a touch of vinaigrette — something to pull it all together.

And this brings us to Apollos.  Listen to the way Luke describes him:

Acts 18:24–25 (ESV): 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus….

I’m sure you can say all that about your clergy:  eloquent, well versed in Scripture, knowledgeable in the way of the Lord, fervent in spirit, able to teach accurately.  Would that Apostles’ parishioners could say even part of that about me!

And yet, while all the components of a good “dish” are there, they seem to stand alone.  They lack a unifying element to pull them all together into one, perfect whole:  something unctuous — and yes, the pun is intended — something unctuous on top to run throughout the dish, to bind everything together, to elevate everything.

We are given a pointer in the text about the missing “ingredient:”  he [Apollos] knew only the baptism of John.  Luke probably assumes we have read his first volume, the Gospel, and that we know what this is pointing toward.  But, perhaps a reminder is in order:

Luke 3:15–16 (ESV): 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John baptized in water for — as an act of — repentance, in preparation for the baptism yet to come:  the baptism in the name of Jesus, for forgiveness of sins, for new birth, and for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  As eloquent, well versed, knowledgeable, and fervent as he was, Apollos lacked this one crucial, unifying element:  baptism in the name of Jesus, which I think we can assume to mean baptism as Jesus commanded his disciples — in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  It is the next story which tells us why such baptism was, and still is, absolutely crucial.

Paul comes to Ephesus and there meets some twelve disciples — true believers.  But, again, there is something missing, and Paul asks them about it:

Acts 19:2–6 (ESV): 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 

You see what’s missing here, right?  The Holy Spirit.  There are disciples, there are teachers who are eloquent and versed, knowledgeable and fervent and yet…and yet there is something missing:  the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  Oh, I’d like to be thought of as Apollos was described:  eloquent, well versed, knowledgeable, fervent.  I’d like to be recognized as a disciple as these twelve were.  But above all that, I’d like to be known as one filled with the Holy Spirit, as one baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Presumably, Priscilla and Aquila baptized Apollos as well as expounding to him the way of God more accurately; we are not given that detail, but the story of the twelve renders that deduction almost inescapable.  We don’t know how Apollos responded to his baptism though I think his response likely followed the pattern of the twelve:  the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.  In the first century, in that moment, that is how the Holy Spirit often manifested his presence.  Please understand, I am not saying that one must speak in tongues as evidence of the indwelling Holy Spirit; far from it!  Some of my brothers and sisters have this gift and many others do not.  Speaking in tongues is merely one gift of the Holy Spirit, and a lesser one at that.  Here’s the evidence Paul gives of the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit:

Galatians 5:22–26 (ESV): 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. 

This is the fried egg on top of eloquence, knowledge, fervor, discipleship.  This is what binds them all together into a unified whole.  This — the Holy Spirit and the fruit he bears in the lives of the faithful — is the crucial, unctuous ingredient that elevates the dish.

The ACNA often describes itself as consisting of three streams:  Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, and Charismatic.  This approach is heralded and derided in about equal measures, from what I can see.  When I explain this to newcomers to our parish, I like to describe these streams as differing emphases.  Evangelical Anglicans emphasis the Word; Anglo-Catholics, the Sacraments; and Charismatics, the Spirit.  Word, Sacrament, Spirit.  We don’t say, “Pick any two.”  None of the three is optional.  No stream is sufficient alone, apart from the great river.  Each is but a tributary of the whole.  Apollos was Evangelical, clearly gifted in and devoted to the Word.  But that was not enough.  He lacked the Spirit which came through the Sacrament of baptism.  When these three streams finally converged into one raging river in him, he became a powerful force for the Gospel.  It is no different today:  Word, Sacrament, Spirit — that’s a dish worthy of the Master Chef, the only dish worthy of the Master Chef.

So, how is it with you?  Is your faith wholly devoted to the Word, but perhaps lacking a bit in appreciation of the Sacraments and the sacramental way of living?  Is your faith centered around the Eucharist, but perhaps not fully attentive to the movement of the Spirit in your own life?  Is your faith on fire with the Spirit, but perhaps lacking a bit of grounding in the Scriptures?  Christ came that you might have life, and might have it abundantly.  Such abundance requires Word, Sacrament, and Spirit — these three, all three.

May I close with a prayer from the BCP 2019?  For your reference, it is collect 91, page 673.  While it is written in the first person, I pray it on behalf of us all.

O Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul, I adore you.  Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me.  Tell me what I should do; give me your orders.  I promise to submit myself to all that you desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me.  Let me only know your will.  Amen.

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Egypt: A Reflection on Isaiah 31

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is a genre of fiction literature called Alternate History.  Have you heard of it?  Its authors speculate on how the world would be different if some pivotal moment in history had not happened or had happened differently.  Suppose the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria had gone down in a storm with all hands lost just before Columbus “discovered” America.  What then?  What if Ulysses Grant had gotten drunk the night before Gettysburg and had been too hung over to lead his troops?  Suppose Abraham Lincoln had lost his bid for re-election?  What if the assassination plot against John Kennedy had been foiled before the fatal shot was fired?  You see how this works.  It’s all speculative, all imagination.

Well, I’m going to ask you to think about such an alternate reality for a bit, and I promise there is method to my madness.  Imagine that both Canada and Mexico are superpowers and that what remains of the United States is militarily weak, economically impoverished, and isolated from any allies.  Canada has already invaded from the north and has taken the northern tier of states:  New England, the rust belt, the mid-west, Washington D. C. — all gone, all territories of Canada.  And now, Canada has its eye on the southern and southwestern states that remain, states that have formed a new government — the Southern States of America — with Atlanta as its capital.  Imagine you are the president of the Southern States and you know that Canadian troops are on the move, coming for you next.  What do you do?

There are not many good options.  You could sue for terms of surrender, I suppose, and hope that Canada might leave you a bit of autonomy.  But, those Canadians have a reputation for being brutal — eh? — so you dare not entrust your hopes, or your territory, to them.  So, you seize on a desperate plan.  You appeal to Mexico, the only other superpower that might hold Canada at bay.  You promise Mexico tribute, say access to the grain fields of Kansas and Iowa and perhaps the oil fields of Texas, if they will ally with you against Canada.  After all, you do have some history with Mexico, even though most of it is bad.  Can they be trusted?  Are they powerful enough to rout Canada’s military?  Are there any other options?

Now, back to the real world and real history.  Replace Canada with Assyria, the northern states with Israel/Samaria, the Southern States with Judah, and Mexico with Egypt and you have the setting for Isaiah 31.  A much weakened Judah is sandwiched between the two regional superpowers:  Assyria to the north and east, and Egypt to the south and west.  Assyria has already conquered the ten northern tribes, destroyed Samaria, and taken its people into exile.  Now, Assyria has its eye on Judah and Jerusalem.  Nothing stands in its way, at least humanly speaking.  What is Hezekiah, king over Judah, to do?

Well, you guessed it, or you already knew the history.  Hezekiah turned to Egypt for help.  He bought their military strength with silver and gold and with allegiance to Pharaoh.  And what did God think of that, God who was always the protector of his righteous people?

Isaiah 31:1–3 (ESV): Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

 2  And yet he is wise and brings disaster; 

he does not call back his words, 

  but will arise against the house of the evildoers 

and against the helpers of those who work iniquity. 

 3  The Egyptians are man, and not God, 

and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. 

  When the Lord stretches out his hand, 

the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, 

and they will all perish together. 

And so, Assyria marched against Judah, not at all intimidated by any threat from Egypt.

2 Kings 18:13–21 (ESV): 13 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. 14 And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me. Whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. 15 And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house. 16 At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts that Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria. 17 And the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Washer’s Field. 18 And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder. 

19 And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? 20 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? 21 Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. 

So much for Egypt; Assyria holds them in scorn.  But now — get this! — Assyria goes too far.  Listen to the rest of the Rabshakeh’s speech.

2 Kings 18:28–35 (ESV): 28 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! 29 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. 30 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 31 Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” 33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’ ” 

It is one thing to hold Egypt in derision; it is quite another to scorn the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  When these words were reported to King Hezekiah, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD.  He repented of his foolishness in trusting Egypt, he prayed, and God heard his prayer.  God sent Isaiah to the king’s counselors:

2 Kings 19:6–8 (ESV): 6 Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.’ ” 

And so it happened.  God — not Egypt — rescued Jerusalem from the hand of the great king, the king of Assyria:

2 Kings 19:35–37 (ESV): 35 And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 36 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh. 37 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place. 

Is all this just history, recorded in Scripture simply because it happened?  Or is there in this history a word for us?

I am drawn to this prophetic proclamation in our reading from Isaiah 31, and I offer it as God’s word to us today, a word ancient but ever new:

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

We have Egypts aplenty in our world today, and we are wont to turn to them for deliverance — to rely on their horses and chariots and horsemen — instead of looking to the Holy One of Israel, instead of consulting the Lord.  Just a few examples.

Let me be absolutely clear about this:  I don’t care how you voted in the presidential election; I really don’t care.  That is between you and God and is none of my business.  But my spirit was deeply troubled when I watched the victory speeches by Kamala Harris and Joe Biden — not troubled so much by what they said as by what I saw in the crowd:  hands raised, faces uplifted toward the victorious politicians, tears streaming, shouts of joy and victory.  That was church, and that was a worship service.  It was a people going down to Egypt for help.  And it would have been no different at a Trump-Pence victory rally.  For many today, on both ends of the political spectrum, politics is their Egypt, and a candidate is their Pharaoh.

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

Brothers and sisters, it must not be so among us.  We must not look to Egypt for our salvation and forsake the Lord our God.

For many today, science is their Egypt.  In the last half-century I do not recall a time when science has been so hailed as our hope for salvation.  “Follow the science,” we are told, and we are expected to forget that science and technology created many of the very problems we now look to science and technology to save us from.  I’m no Luddite or skeptic:  science is a tool — and a good one when used properly and in its place.  But the tool of science can be used to fashion an idol in its own image.  It threatens to displace our faith in the Holy One of Israel when it is heralded as our salvation. It becomes Egypt:

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

New sociological and philosophical understandings, new cultural movements appear to many as Egypt:  critical race theory, expanded definitions of gender, Black Lives Matter — the organization, not the principle — and White Supremacy.  All of these are embraced by certain adherents as the salvation for our world:  these and not the Gospel, these and not the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

Now, let’s make this more personal.  Each of us probably has an Egypt — or several Egypts — we tend to turn to in times of trouble.  It might be the Egypt our own competence, trusting in the power of our own might to deliver us.  It might be the Egypt of our wealth — such as it is — in which we put our hope for security instead of looking to God for our daily bread.  It might be the Egypt of pleasure, or perhaps of distraction, by which we anesthetize ourselves to the true danger we are in.  How easy it is to entertain or distract ourselves to death.  You have your Egypt and I have mine.  But the word of the Lord rings out to us as it did to Hezekiah:

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

We cannot go back to Egypt because we have renounced it in our baptismal vows:

Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God?

To each of these questions we responded:  I renounce them.  We have declared before God and the Church that we will not look to Egypt, that we will never return there.  And we must not.  Amen.

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Decisions, Decisions

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When our daughter was still quite young, my wife and I realized that she had the ability to outsmart us and that the price of effective parenting was eternal vigilance.  So, we made a pact:  whenever our daughter asked one of us for something that was the least bit questionable, the one she asked would reply, “What did your mother say?” or “What did your father say?”  That was a simple recognition that kids will play parents off one against the other if the parents aren’t careful.  If the first parent doesn’t give the desired answer, go ask the other.  There is even a more egregious childhood tactic than this:  “Well, dad, or mom, said I could!”  If you are a parent, you know these games.

So, my wife and I agreed to make parenting decisions together.  And, that worked for many years:  two parents “against” one child — decent odds.  Little did I know that my wife and daughter would turn that two against one strategy against me and together decide to bring home a cat they knew I didn’t want.  I know I should, but I haven’t quite forgiven my wife for that act of betrayal.

How do you, and your family, make decisions?  I’m not talking about trivial decisions or decisions that affect only one party.  I’m talking about substantive decisions that have far reaching consequences:  whether to move across the country for a job opportunity, whether to homeschool a child or to enroll him in public or private school, whether to move an aging parent in with you or to provide more skilled care in a residential facility — that sort of thing.  There are some families, I suspect, where the father is the “head of the house” in the sense of unilaterally making all such decisions.  I don’t know how that works because I’ve never been part of such a family.  My wife is smarter than I am in many ways and certainly more gifted is some areas than I am.  We discuss all matters together, but I don’t hesitate to defer to her when she has the expertise that I lack.  And, she does the same with me.  There are other families who are tended by a single parent, eighty percent of them by a single mother (2015 statistic).  What a burden of decision-making that places on the shoulders of one person.  I don’t know how those parents do it.  Going back to the garden, God knew that Adam needed a helpmate.  No parent — male or female — was intended to go it alone.

Think of the first century Church as a family, a growing family at that.  At first, it was close knit, one hundred twenty or so who had been with Jesus throughout his ministry.  When Jesus was among them, he made the decisions:  easy enough.  When he ascended into heaven, Peter assumed leadership as Jesus had indicated he should and as the Holy Spirit led.  His leadership doesn’t seem to have been unilateral or dictatorial; it just seems that the others naturally deferred to him.  They knew him, and they knew of the special relationship he had had with Jesus.

But then the Church grew, unexpectedly — three thousand souls in one day.  And it dispersed with the beginning of the persecution in Jerusalem.  New leaders arose in local congregations and in larger regions.  Charismatic evangelists — not least Paul — took the Gospel into new regions, established new churches among new people groups — Gentiles — and fostered new customs and even a new and broader understanding of the Gospel than that found among the original disciples in Jerusalem.  Was this getting out of hand?  Who was in charge here?  Who was making the decisions on behalf of the Church, or was it churches now instead of Church, with each group making its own decisions?

These are the questions that our text from Acts 15 addresses.  A group of Christians from Judea — read this probably as zealous Jewish Christians from Jerusalem — have heard that Paul is extending the Gospel to the Gentiles without requiring circumcision, Sabbath keeping, dietary restrictions and the like.  Paul seems to be promoting a Gentile Christianity alongside or even apart from a Jewish Christianity.  On whose authority?  Who gave Paul the right to make such decisions?  And so they confront Paul on his home turf in Syrian Antioch, and no small dispute erupted.  And right there a momentous decision was made on behalf of the Church:  a decision this important must be made not by one individual, but by a council of the Church, which, in this case, meant the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

These apostles and elders gathered together to consider the matter.  They debated among themselves.  They listened to Peter recount the troika of visions that led him to the home of Cornelius where he witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles gathered there.  Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul recount the signs and wonders God had done through them on behalf of the Gentiles.  All the while a clear consensus was growing.  The Holy Spirit was speaking to the assembled Church.  When James, the bishop of the Jerusalem church, spoke, he spoke not the mind of one person or even of one faction, but of the assembled Church.  And then when he, or the group, drafted a letter with the results of the council’s deliberations, it contained these two phrases which established precedent — and super-precedent — for the Church moving forward:  “it seemed good to us, having come to one accord” (Acts 15:25a) and “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28a).  Not “me” but “us.”  Not “by our own authority” but by the Holy Spirit.

And that is how the Church makes decisions:  conciliarism — not one man, not one faction, but authorized representatives of the whole body gathered together to consider a matter, to listen to one another, and to submit to the Holy Spirit.  That is how major issues were decided in and by the Church during its first millennium.  Conciliarism gave us the canon of Scripture, the Nicene Creed, and the great ecumenical councils.  Ours is a conciliar faith.  To depart from a conciliar understanding of the faith is to walk the way of heresy and to travel beyond the borders of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.  Heresy almost always starts with, “Well, I know that’s what the Church says, but I believe…” and ends with a denial of the authority of Scripture and the authority of the consensus of the Church.  Who cares if you have concluded the virgin birth is a sacred myth; the Church has spoken to affirm it.    What does it matter — except for your eternal salvation — that you have concluded that it is simply not possible to believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ; the Church is certain of it.  So you no longer believe that no man comes to the Father but through Christ the Son; the Church still believes and insists on it.  Why ask me what I believe about a certain issue when the Church has decided centuries ago.  Ask me what the Church believes; that’s what matters!

This is why it is essential that we read Scripture with the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.  That is why it is essential that pray with the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.  That is why it is essential that we worship, that we preach the word, that we administer the Sacraments with the one, holy catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Now, that raises questions — or should raise questions — in the mind of every good Anglican.  Did we not abandon the conciliar Church when we rejected Rome and the Pope?  The short answer — the long answer would take, well, a long time — the short answer is no.  We rejected Roman practices and doctrines that were not established through conciliarism.  We rejected unilateralism in the Church of Rome, in the Western Church.  We insisted on a final appeal not to one faction of the Church, but to the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church itself.  The Anglican rejection of the authority of Rome was the Anglican affirmation of the authority of the conciliar Church, the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.

In our Province — the ACNA — and in our Diocese — ADOTS — we are clear about this.  Among others, The Fundamental Declarations of our Province (BCP 2019, pp. 766-767) identify these elements as “characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership:”

1. We confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, containing all things necessary for salvation, and to be the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.

4. We confess as proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture the historic faith of the undivided church as declared in the three Catholic Creeds:  the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian.

5. Concerning the seven Councils of the undivided Church, we affirm the teaching of the first four Councils and the Christological clarifications of the fifth, sixth, and seventh Councils, in so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures.

All of these are statements of conciliarity, an embrace of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church over one man or one faction.  It all started in Jerusalem with a group of Church representative meeting together to decide what in the world to do about those pesky Gentiles.  It all started in Jerusalem where the groundwork was laid for holy decision-making in the Church.  It is this process, superintended by the Holy Spirit, that even allows us to speak meaningfully of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory now and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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Hezekiah’s Prayer: 2 Kings 20

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The young man, a recent graduate of a noted theological college, was introduced to an Orthodox bishop as a theologian.  “A theologian?” the bishop asked.  He continued, “In the entire history of the Church only three men have been honored as theologians:  John the Apostle and elder who received the Revelation of Jesus Christ; Gregory of Nazianzus; and Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022).  How blessed I am to meet the fourth in my lifetime!”

I feel for that young man.  Of course, he was a theologian in the common way we in the West use the term:  someone who has completed an academic program in theology and who makes a living thinking and writing and teaching about God — an academic theologian.  But the Orthodox Church views matters differently, as the bishop in the story made pointedly clear.  A theologian is one who has seen God — who has experienced the beatific vision — and has been enlightened by being in the presence of God.  Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth century monk, ascetic, and teacher whose life intersected those of such Christian luminaries as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Macarius of Egypt, and John Cassian said it this way:  A theologian is one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian.  Prayer, in this sense, meant true, unmediated communion with God.

I am no theologian in either meaning of word.  I have neither completed a thorough, academic theological program of study, nor have I seen a vision of God, save in the face of Jesus Christ.  That means I cannot speak to the matter at hand this morning as a theologian.  But I must speak to it as a priest and pastor.  Even more importantly, I must speak to it as one who prays, as one who lives and breathes the great mystery of prayer with all others who pray as well.

Mother Teresa said this — among many other things — about prayer:

“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do.  I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength.  I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”

C. S. Lewis wrote:

“I pray because I can’t help myself.  I pray because I’m helpless.  I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping.  It doesn’t change God.  It changes me.”

I want to be fair to these, my betters, my forebears in the faith.  Prayer certainly does change us; it does form the one praying.  In this they were correct.  But, is it true to say that this is all prayer does?  Is it true to say prayer doesn’t change things, doesn’t change God, but only changes me?

Ask these questions to academic theologians and you’ll get a lot of big words thrown in your direction, immutability among them.  In its strongest form, divine immutability insists that God does not, and indeed, cannot, change.  This is from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

God doesn’t change by coming to be or ceasing to be; by gaining or losing qualities; by any quantitative growth or diminishment; by learning or forgetting anything; by starting or stopping willing what he wills; or in any other way that requires going from being one way to being another (https://iep.utm.edu/div-immu/, accessed 10/27/2020).

It is certainly true that God’s nature, God’s character is immutable; God does not change in his essence, in his very being.  God says, through the prophet Malachi:

“For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal 3:6).

And James writes:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).

So, with the theologians and the Fathers of the Church, let me affirm God’s immutability:  the changelessness of his being and character.  And yet.  And yet, within this immutability lies the mystery of prayer, of human intercession, of the human-Divine dialogue.  God does not change in his being.  But what about his immediate plans?  What about his interaction with his creation, with his people?  What does the whole counsel of Scripture say about this?

When God made clear to Abraham his intent to destroy Sodom and the cities of the plain and then Abraham interceded, bargaining on the basis of God’s character — his justice and mercy — to spare the cities if fifty, no forty-five, no forty, no thirty, no twenty, no ten righteous people were there, was this a real, efficacious intercession or not?  Had God planned all along to spare the cities for the sake of ten righteous souls?  Was God just playing along with Abraham, giving him a false sense of influence?  Or, did God in his immutability and his sovereignty, actually respond to Abraham and change the threshold for judgment and destruction?

When the people of Israel sinned a great sin with the golden calf at Sinai, the LORD said to Moses:

Exodus 32:9–10 (ESV): “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” 

Is this for show, just God being dramatic?  Did God intend to destroy the people or not?

Well, here’s the answer that Scripture supplies:

Exodus 32:11–14 (ESV): 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. 

The Lord relented — changed his planned course of action — based on the intercession — the prayer, if you will — of Moses.

Then there is the haunting text in Ezekiel, God speaking plaintively.  After reciting a litany of Israel’s sins, God says:

Ezekiel 22:30–31 (ESV): 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord God.” 

For the lack of a righteous intercessor — a man that God sought after — Israel was consumed by the fire of God’s wrath.  The image here is striking:  God longing to change his mind, seeking to change his plan, in response to the prayer of a righteous man, but finding no such man.

Examples abound, but these few should suffice.

“I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things” (Mother Teresa).

It [prayer] doesn’t change God.  It changes me” (C. S. Lewis).

With apologies to Mother Teresa and C. S. Lewis, that is not the witness of Scripture.  I’ve read their lives and their words, and I don’t think either Mother Teresa or Lewis really believed that prayer only changes the one praying either.  Scripture is clear:  within his divine immutability, as an expression of his divine sovereignty there lies this great mystery of prayer — that God allows his plans to be influenced, his mind to be changed, by human prayer and action.  There are subtleties and complexities to prayer that I will never understand — I’m no theologian, remember? — but that our prayers and our actions can and do change things and even alter the stated plans of God, I have no doubt because Scripture is clear on the matter.

Why am I even talking about this?  Because the Daily Office reading from 2 Kings 20 talks about it.  Through the prophet Isaiah, the LORD announces the impending death of King Hezekiah:

2 Kings 20:1 (ESV): In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’ ” 

There is no wiggle room in this declaration, no conditions given for recovery, no “unless you do this you will die.”  It is a straightforward declaration from the LORD — “you shall die; you shall not recover” — a declaration we do best to take on face value.

But.  But Hezekiah prayed and the LORD changed his mind:

2 Kings 20:1–6 (ESV):  2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, 3 “Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: 5 “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord, 6 and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” 

God changed his mind:  I don’t know of any other reasonable way to read this.  God announced Hezekiah’s certain death.  Hezekiah prayed.  The LORD heard the king’s prayer and saw his tears, and the LORD changed the course of Hezekiah’s life:  not death, but healing and fifteen additional years.

I know this notion is controversial in many quarters; some are uncomfortable with a God who can change — not change his nature which is immutable, not change his character which is immutable, but change his plans, his direction.  And yet, what meaning has intercession, what value has petition if such human influence on the divine will is not possible?  What an exalted view of God springs from this!  Our immutable God who is humble and loving and sovereign enough to draw mere creatures into the divine life and make them his fellow workers.  Our God who asks, “What do you think?” and listens and takes account of what we say.  And what an exalted view of prayer springs from this!  Prayer is never Plan B, used only after we have exhausted our own resources.  Prayer is always Plan A because it draws on the unlimited resources of God, because it changes things, because it redeems otherwise lost causes and lost people, because God is searching for people who will stand in the breach and dare to change his plans.

It is no wonder that Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow (cf Lk 18) to the effect that [his disciples] ought always to pray and not lose heart.  It is no wonder that Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to pray without ceasing.  It is no wonder that James rehearsed the example of Elijah:

James 5:16–18 (ESV): 16b The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 

Yes, prayer changes the one praying.  But prayer also changes the world.  And — Dare I say, because Scripture does? — prayer sometimes changes the mind and plan of our immutable God.  Great is this mystery of prayer.  Amen.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Following are words of some Church Fathers on the power of prayer to change the plans of God.

2 Kings 20:1–6 (ACCS 1 Ki-Es): In His Infinite Mercy, God Remains Free to Revise His Judgments. John Cassian: Now let us rise to still higher instances. When king Hezekiah was lying on his bed and afflicted with grievous sickness, the prophet Isaiah addressed him in the person of God, and said: “Thus says the Lord: set your house in order for will die and not live. And Hezekiah,” it says, “turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord and said: I beseech you, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in truth and with a perfect heart, and how I have done what was right in your sight. And Hezekiah wept much.” After which it was again said to Isaiah: “Go, return, and speak to Hezekiah king of Judah, saying: Thus says the Lord God of David your father: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add to your life fifteen years, and I will deliver you out of the hand of the king of the Assyrians, and I will defend this city for your sake and for my servant David’s sake.” What can be clearer than this proof that out of consideration for mercy and goodness the Lord would rather break his word and instead of the appointed sentence of death extend the life of him who prayed for fifteen years, rather than be found inexorable because of an unchangeable decree? Conference 17.25.

2 Kings 20:1–6 (ACCS 1 Ki-Es): Hezekiah Is Saved by the Power of His Repentance. Cyril of Jerusalem: Would you know the power of repentance? Would you understand this strong weapon of salvation and the might of confession? By confession Hezekiah routed 185,000 of the enemy. That was important, but it was little compared with what shall be told. The same king’s repentance won the repeal of the sentence God had passed on him. For when he was sick, Isaiah said to him, “Give charge concerning your house, for you shall die and not live.” What expectation was left? What hope of recovery was there, when the prophet said, “For you shall die”? But Hezekiah did not cease from penitence, for he remembered what was written: “In the hour that you turn and lament, you shall be saved.” He turned his face to the wall, and from his bed of pain his mind soared up to heaven—for no wall is so thick as to stifle reverent prayer—“Lord,” he said, “remember me. You are not subject to circumstance, but are yourself the legislator of life. For not on birth and conjunction of stars, as some vainly say, does our life depend. No, you are the arbiter, according to your will, of life and the duration of life.” He whom the prophet’s sentence had forbidden to hope was granted fifteen further years of life, the sun turning back its course in witness thereof. Now while the sun retraced its course for Hezekiah, for Christ it was eclipsed, the distinction marking the difference between the two, I mean Hezekiah and Jesus. Now if even Hezekiah could revoke God’s decree, shall not Jesus grant the remission of sins? Turn and lament, shut your door, and beg for pardon, that God may remove from the scorching flames. For confession has the power to quench even fire; it can tame even lions. Catechetical Lectures 2.15.

Exodus 32:10 (ACCS Ex-De): God Invites Us to Prayer. Jerome: On another occasion God said to Moses, “Let me alone … that I may consume this people,” showing by the words “let me alone” that he can be withheld from doing what he threatens. The prayers of his servant hindered his power. Who, think you, is there now under heaven able to stay God’s wrath, to face the flame of his judgment and to say with the apostle, “I could wish that I myself were accursed for my brethren”? Letter 128.4.

Persistence in Prayer. Jerome: Moses resisted God and prevented him from destroying his people when God said to him: “Let me alone, that I may strike this people.” Just see the power of Moses! What does God say to him? Let me alone; you are compelling me, your prayers, as it were, restrain me; your prayers hold back my hand. I shoot an arrow; I hurl a javelin; and your prayers are the shield of the people. Let me alone that I might strike down this people. Along with this, consider the compassionate kindness of God. When he says, “Let me alone,” he shows that if Moses will continue to importune him, he will not strike. If you, too, will not let me alone, I shall not strike; let me alone, and I shall strike. In other words, what does he say? Do not cease your persistent entreaty, and I shall not strike. Homilies on the Psalms 26.

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Zechariah and Elizabeth, Parents of John the Baptist

Commemoration of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Parents of John the Baptist

(1 Samuel 1:1-20 / Benedictus / Romans 4:13-25 / Luke 1:1-7)

Collect

O God, who alone knits all infants in the womb:  You chose improbable servants – old and childless – to conceive and parent the forerunner of Christ and, in so doing, demonstrated again Your strength in weakness.  Grant us, who are as unlikely and unworthy as Zechariah and Elizabeth, the opportunity to love and serve You according to Your good and gracious will; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We have a surfeit of priests at Apostles:  not too many, of course, but certainly an embarrassment of clerical riches.  Jack, Thomas, Laird, David, Rob, me:  six priests for a parish the size of ours is unusual to the point of being unheard of; we are something of a clerical unicorn in our diocese.  

The division of labor among so many priests is an interesting dilemma.  Each priest wants to serve, but there are only so many liturgical opportunities available:  preaching, celebrating the Eucharist, baptizing, marrying, burying, and the like.  Each month, Fr. Jack prepares and distributes a liturgical leadership schedule showing the priestly assignments for that month.  I don’t know exactly how he makes these assignments, though certainly prayer is involved, as are other practical matters like travel or priestly obligations during the week.  When the schedule comes by email, I open it expectantly to see when and how I am blessed to serve that month.  I suspect all the other priests do likewise.

In the days of Herod, king of Judea the clerical situation in the second Temple was not so different.  Historians estimate that there were some eight thousand priests in Israel at the time, far too many for each to serve full time at the temple.  Instead, the priests were divided into divisions — twenty four in total — of roughly three hundred thirty priests per division.  Each division served a week at a time, twice each year:  fourteen days each year in which to exercise one’s priestly duties.

How were these duties assigned?  By casting lots:  rolling dice, drawing straws — I don’t know exactly what the process looked like, but there was an assumption underlying it; God, and not chance, was in control.  Casting lots was not a flippant way to decide important matters; it was a holy means of discernment given by God and superintended by him.

It is one of the two weeks for the division of Abijah to serve in the Temple.  There is an old priest in that division — probably several old priests, but one who captures our attention — Zechariah.  What do we know about him, beyond his advanced age?  He was married to an old woman, Elizabeth, who was also of the priestly line.

Luke 1:5–6 (ESV):  6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

And they are disappointed.  They want a child but have none; and now, the time for that is well past.  For a Jew — for a priest, at that — to fail to fulfill God’s first commandment to man — be fruitful and multiply — was a tragedy bordering on a curse.

Well, Zechariah is on duty this week, as he had been twice a year for many years.  And, by lot, he is selected to enter the Holy Place at the time of prayer and offer incense before God on the altar.  This is a big deal.  Zechariah might well have gone his whole life and never had this honor before.  The process was highly organized and streamlined.  One priest had prepared the altar with coals.  Another had readied the incense.  All Zechariah has to do is enter the Holy Place, scoop some incense, place it on the coals and leave.  But things don’t go as smoothly as planned.

You know the story.  An angel — we soon find that it was Gabriel who stands in the very presence of God — appears to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar.  And the angel speaks to Zechariah, saying:

Luke 1:13–17 (ESV): “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 

I read this and I smile.  I want to say to Zechariah, “You old dog, you!  You finally get to go into the Temple to offer incense and prayer on behalf of the people, and what do you do?  You remind God that you don’t yet have a child, and that you really want one.”  Or, maybe that’s not it at all.  Maybe Zechariah had given up praying for this years ago, so long ago that he had even forgotten the prayer.  Either way, right here Zechariah becomes the patron saint of skeptics everywhere.

Luke 1:18 (ESV): 18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Gabriel sounds a bit peeved in his answer:  “Do you know who you’re talking to, old man, and who sent me to you?”  Well, that’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty close.  And then Gabriel causes Zechariah to become mute, and apparently deaf, for the next nine months.  I like to think that this is not punishment, but confirmation:  an ongoing sign of God’s power in the midst of human frailty.  It’s all very strange and the people are very confused when Zechariah stumbles out of the Temple.  They reckon he has seen a vision, but he can’t verify that for them.  Good on the old priest, though.  Given all he’s been through, he still finishes out his week of service before he goes home to Elizabeth.

How does he tell her?  Does he write everything out or play charades?  And, not to be crude at all, but John was not divinely conceived.  His birth was a miracle, but not that kind of miracle.  The old man and the old woman are intimate in the way of husband and wife; they know one another in the biblical sense.  I wonder — not pruriently — but I wonder what that moment was like, a union filled with rekindled hope and wonder and possibility all of which had died years ago.  I’ll bet there was never another moment like that before or after for those two, and that moment also was a gift from God.

Luke 1:24–25 (ESV): 24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” 

Here is the first glimpse into Elizabeth’s heart.  She has lived for years as a failure, as a wife unable to carry on her husband’s line, a tragedy in Israel.  And she has keenly felt the reproach of that failure.  But, no more.  The Lord has looked on her, has acted with favor toward her.

Here, Luke interrupts this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth to tell us of Mary, the mother of our Lord.  But, for us, that is for another day.  We pick up the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth four months later, just in time for the birth of a baby.

Luke 1:57–66 (ESV): 57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. 

Joy, wonder, relief:  how can we describe the mix of emotions swirling in Zechariah and Elizabeth and among all their neighbors and relatives?  God has clearly done something here, something out of the ordinary, though none of them know exactly what yet.  It’s all a bit much, and the crowd seeks some solace in the ordinary, in the expected.  “Surely, you will name the baby Zechariah after his father?”  That’s customary.  But this old woman and new mother is adamant:  “No, he shall be called John.”  That’s what the angel had commanded, and she was not about to fight him over this.  When a final appeal for reason is made to Zechariah, he confirms it in writing, “His name is John.”  And then the dam breaks and Zechariah can hear and speak again and praise gushes forth like a pent up reservoir set free to flood the land once again:  “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,” he begins, and we have echoed the rest this day.

And, as we Anglicans are wont say:  here endeth the lesson; Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in obscurity, burst forth into the redemptive story of God for one shining moment, and then slipped back into obscurity.

What are we to take away from this story, though we really need nothing more than the sheer wonder of it?  I hope you will ponder it yourself, far beyond these few comments I’ll make.

I am drawn to this first description of Zechariah and Elizabeth:

Luke 1:6–7 (ESV): 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 

We see glimpses of great sadness and disappointment in their story; their life hasn’t worked out as they had planned when they were young and just getting started on their life together:  big family, son to carry on Zechariah’s name and his priestly vocation, daughters to help Elizabeth around the house.  No, just a certain shame and reproach now, a barrenness not only for Elizabeth but for Zechariah, as well.  And yet…and yet “they were righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”  That is not easy to do when you are disappointed in the Lord.  Have you ever been there?  Holding on can be hard when things are not going to happen like you thought they would happen (adapted from Cave of Adullam, Sara Groves), when you don’t understand what God is up to or if he’s even there at all.  Zechariah and Elizabeth are patron saints for all of us who are, from time to time, tempted to give up.  And all of us are, from time to time, tempted to give up, I reckon.  They are there beckoning to us:  walk in the ways of righteousness — just one foot in front of the other, that’s right — holding on to the commandments and statues of the Lord.  They are reminders that God is faithful — always faithful — but not always as we expect and not always on our timeframe.  They are exemplars of patient faith and holiness:  we want a microwave faith — hot in an instant — but they remind us of a campfire faith — life wrapped in foil and tossed among the embers of the fire of God’s love, ready when it’s ready and not a moment before, all in God’s good time.

Perhaps I can draw this final lesson from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  It is never too late to be blessed and used by God.  Even more, it’s never too late to realize that God has been blessing us and using us all along while we were perhaps waiting and hoping for something else.  Amen.

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Bible and Newspapers: 2 Kings 17

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer, 30 Oct 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” is an axiom attributed to theologian Karl Barth.  I don’t know that he said exactly that, but he did say something like it:

“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.  But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

That sounds good and reasonable and faithful, and it is; but what it’s not is easy.  It is a theological and homiletical tightrope, greased at that.  Only those whose balance is unshakable, whose instincts are honed and sure, whose wisdom matches their knowledge should risk stepping out on that wire.  Which means that I shouldn’t.  Which means that I’m getting ready to anyway.

Here are the twin problems, the equal and opposite dangers, that a preacher faces when holding Bible and newspaper together.  Either he reads the Scripture through the lens of what is most culturally current and pressing, which is, to some extent almost unavoidable, or else he imports and applies ancient words and norms to a modern circumstance that is not equivalent and to which they may not apply directly.  One error  uses the newspaper to misinterpret Scripture, and the other error falsely uses Scripture to bludgeon the newspaper.  I’ll probably commit both errors in what follows.

Samaria, the northern kingdom, has fallen.  Its sins were many:

2 Kings 17:14–18 (ESV): 14 But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. 15 They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. 16 And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. 17 And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. 18 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. 

Here, I’m tempted to pick up the newspaper and make comparisons with Scripture,  Samaria to the United States:  both stubborn, both wayward and unbelieving, both disobedient to God’s statutes, both pluralistic, both idol worshippers, both sacrificing children to false gods.  Then, I would be almost forced to conclude that the Lord is very angry with the United States and is poised to remove this nation out of his sight.  And that may be, but the truth is that the United States is not Samaria.  God has neither called the United States as he called Israel, nor made covenant with this nation as he did with Israel.  God has not explicitly given the United States the same vocation as he did Israel:  to be a holy people, a kingdom of priests, and to be the instrument through whom God would redeem the world and make his blessing redound to all nations.  The United States in not Israel, which means the United States is not Samaria.  These words in 2 Kings were not written about the United States, though certainly they were written for it and for all other nations:  cautionary tales to which this nation should pay attention.  If Israel was to be a light to the nations, then we should see ourselves by that light and avoid the same dark places that made Samaria stumble and fall.

Here’s where I begin to see more direct comparisons between our newspaper and this biblical text:

2 Kings 17:24–26 (ESV): 24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 

The United States is not Samaria, and our citizens are not, by ethnicity, God’s covenant people.  We are much more like this ragtag band from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sephar, brought in to populate and tend a land not our own.  And, we’ve brought with us, or in many cases together we’ve created, our own gods.

2 Kings 17:30–32 (ESV): The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places.

These are strange names and strange gods.  Ours are much more familiar, with common names, but no less idolatrous for all that:  Power, Wealth, Pleasure, Freedom, Tolerance, Race, Party, and a host of gods to whom we sacrifice our children — Choice, Debt, Busy-ness, Irreconcilable Differences.  And, each of these gods has its priests and priestesses, its temple prostitutes, its high places and shrines.  God sent lions among the new inhabitants of Samaria to kill some as a warning to all.  Have we no lions, no warning signs ravaging our land?  What of divisions along racial, economic, and party lines; violence in our streets;  economic collapse; plague; natural disasters?  I don’t know if any of these are from God; I’m no prophet.  More likely they are from the false gods that we worship:  spiritual and natural consequences for our rebellion against the God who created us, the Saviour who redeemed us, and the Advocate who would sanctify us, if we but let him.  The false gods are not impotent; first they deceive, then they destroy.

When the king of Assyria heard about the lions he perceived that the god of the land — he presumed that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was merely a localized deity over geographic Israel — he perceived that the god of the land was punishing the people for not including him in their pantheon.  

2 Kings 17:27–28 (ESV): 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord. 

So, let’s pull this together and wrap it up.  We are that priest — we, the Church — sent to our land, sent among the worshippers of the gods we see on every page of the newspapers, in every CNN and FOX News broadcast, sent to dwell among all the peoples brought hither to populate and tend this land.  We are that priest sent to dwell among this people to teach them the law — the Gospel — of the God of this and every land:  the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the ruler of all creation, and the head of the Church, to whom be glory now and unto the ages of ages.  We are that priest sent to tell them not of another god to add to their pantheon alongside their idols, but to call them to renounce their idols and embrace the one God, living and true, from before time and for ever.  We are that priest sent to proclaim that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  We are that priest sent here to cast down every idol, to root out even the mention and memory of their names, to destroy every pagan altar — first in our lives, in the lives of our families, and then, please God, in our communities and towns, our states and our nation.  This will not happen in my lifetime.  It will not happen in yours.  My daughter will not see the work complete.  It is the ongoing work of every generation until Jesus comes again on the last great day to judge the living and the dead.  But it must be done, and done by each us.  That is the priesthood of all believers.

Bible and newspapers:  that’s the story they tell.  Amen.

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Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles

Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles of the Lord

(Deut 32:1-4 / Ps 119:89-96 / Eph 2:13-22 / John 15:17-27)

Collect

Grant, O God, that as your apostles Simon and Jude were faithful and zealous in their mission, so we may with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today, I feel a special affinity for St. Andrew, first called of the Apostles of our Lord.  It’s all about Jesus’ feeding of the multitude.  On the hillside before him sit five thousand men, maybe upwards of ten thousand people when women and children are numbered, too.  Jesus tells the Apostles to give the people something to eat (Lk 9:13).  Andrew, at a loss for how to do this, looks around and finds a young boy with five loaves and two fish.  He takes this lunch, a pitiful little offering but all that he has, to Jesus and asks, even as he presents it, “What is this among so many?”

You know the rest.  Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and has the Apostles give it away.  Of course, this is an image of the Eucharist and of the Gospel, in which bread, and the Bread of Life, is taken, blessed, broken, and given away for the life of the world.  Then Jesus does the same with the fish.  Everyone eats.  Everyone is satisfied.  There are even twelve baskets full left over.

So, back to my affinity with St. Andrew.  I am presented with the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude today in the Church calendar and asked to give the people — you — something to eat, some word and wisdom to feast on.  And, I’ve got nothing.  So I look around for a kid with five loaves and two fish, and this is all I find:  Simon was known as the Zealot and Jude may also have been named Thaddeus.  Some think that Jude/Thaddeus also wrote the Epistle of Jude, but that’s highly questionable and disputed among scholars.  So, that’s it; that’s about all we know about these two:  their names and that they were Apostles.  I’m supposed to feed you on that pitiful fare.  Well, not unless Jesus takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it away.

Let’s pray that he does just that.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, who turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana and who fed the multitudes with fives loaves and two fish:  where you are present, there is abundance.  Take, bless, break, and give back to your people the small offering we have this day, that all may be filled and may take that which is left over into the world to feed others; to the glory of your name.  Amen.

Some of the Apostles did great things.  Peter first confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He was given the keys to the kingdom and was made the chief shepherd of the Twelve.  John was the disciple whom Jesus loved.  He authored the most theologically rich and reflective of the Gospels, and he received his great Revelation while in exile on Patmos.  John’s brother James was the first of the Apostles martyred for the faith.  Matthew composed a record of Jesus’ life and teachings especially for the Jewish people, to present Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophets and as Israel’s messiah.  Great things, all.

But Simon and Jude — what did they do?  No one knows.  Oh, there are a few pious legends, but those are sketchy and highly uncertain.  So we are left with a blank, not even five loaves and two fish to work with.  What we do know — and really all we know with certainty beyond their names — is that these men were Apostles:

Luke 6:12–16 (ESV): 12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. 

Matthew adds that Jesus gave these twelve “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Mt 10:1b), and that Jesus sent them out, first instructing them:

Matthew 10:5–15 (ESV): , “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

Jesus also warned them:

Matthew 10:16–23 (ESV): 16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” 

Simon and Jude took their part in this ministry and shared these hardships no less than Peter, James, and John.  They were not in the “inner three” but there is no reason to believe they were “inferior,” second-rate Apostles.  They were with Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan until his ascension and were witnesses of his resurrection (cf Acts 1:21 ff).  They were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and, so we suppose, they went and made disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus had commanded them (cf Mt 28:19 ff).  

That’s what we really know about Simon and Jude:  that Jesus wanted them and chose them, that Jesus empowered them to act with his authority and in his name, that Jesus commissioned them and sent them out to proclaim the Gospel, and that they were faithful in their day.  The Church confesses that these two laid hands on faithful men consecrating them as bishops in Apostolic succession empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the apostolic work in the next generation, and in the next, down to our own generation.  Simon and Jude were crucial links in the chain of faith and played their part in preserving it and passing it along unbroken and undefiled.  And that’s no small thing.  They did faithfully what Jesus asked of them, though no one remembers the details of what that was.

These are the Apostles for the rest of us, for ordinary people like me, and perhaps like you.  I’m no Peter, James, or John, no Matthew.  I’m just an ordinary follower of Christ trying to be faithful in my day.  No one will ever hear of me.  I’ll likely leave no record behind.  Years from now someone may well come across my name in the church records or see my name plaque on the columbarium and wonder why it’s there, what this person did or why he was important enough to even name.  And then they’ll get on about more important business.  But the fact is, like Simon and Jude, Jesus wanted me, want each of us and chose each of us.  He filled us with his Spirit and empowered us to act with his authority and in his name.  He commissioned us to go out into the world to do the work he has given us to do, to love and serve him as faithful witnesses, to pass on the Gospel whole and true to the next generation.  And that’s no small thing.

There is a passage in the apocryphal book of Sirach that means a lot to me and is fitting on this day, I think:

Sirach 44:1–10 (NRSVCE): Let us now sing the praises of famous men,

our ancestors in their generations.

2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory,

his majesty from the beginning.

3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,

and made a name for themselves by their valor;

those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;

those who spoke in prophetic oracles;

4 those who led the people by their counsels

and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;

they were wise in their words of instruction;

5 those who composed musical tunes,

or put verses in writing;

6 rich men endowed with resources,

living peacefully in their homes—

7 all these were honored in their generations,

and were the pride of their times.

8 Some of them have left behind a name,

so that others declare their praise.

9 But of others there is no memory;

they have perished as though they had never existed;

they have become as though they had never been born,

they and their children after them.

10 But these also were godly men,

whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten…

Of others there is no memory…but these also were godly men.  This is true of Simon and Jude:  of these two there is little human memory, but they were also godly men.  And, most importantly, they are not forgotten by God.  When we read the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, we find:

Revelation 21:12–14 (ESV): 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 

Simon’s name is there, and Jude’s, carved into the very foundation stones of the heavenly city.  While our names likely adorn no heavenly cornerstones, no pillars or posts in New Jerusalem, they are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  And that’s enough and more than enough.  Amen.

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James the Just, Bishop of Jerusalem, Brother of our Lord

Collect

Grant, O God, that, following the example of your apostle James the Just, kinsman of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Can you imagine growing up as Jesus’ brother?  Just picture an adolescent James with some sibling jealousy shooting off his mouth to Mary.  “Yeah, right Mom, Jesus can do no wrong.  I’ll bet he walks on water.  You treat him like he’s God’s gift to humanity!”  I don’t know about first century Jewish teenagers – whether they would have talked like that or not – but you could imagine that today, couldn’t you?  And, if James had the good sense not to speak up, I’ll bet he still thought it.

Now, I mean this humorously, but not flippantly.  The truth is that James – and the rest of the family – had some concerns that Jesus might not be in his right mind all the time.  On at least one occasion, the family attempted an intervention to bring Jesus home, fearing that he was “beside himself.”  James certainly didn’t believe in Jesus’ messianic pretensions, nor did the rest of Jesus’ siblings.  They even taunted Jesus to provoke him to go to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, knowing full well that the Jewish authorities wanted to arrest him there.  There was a certain level of animosity in the household.

I suspect it got worse as tension escalated between Jesus and the rulers of the Jews.  If Jesus was slightly unorthodox, perhaps even radical, by established religious standards – he did play fast and loose with the Sabbath and associate with sinners – James did just the opposite; James was a Jew’s Jew who earned the nickname The Just by observing the letter of the Law, by praying for hours on end and by living as a devout and holy Israelite in whom there was no guile.  Having Jesus as a brother might well have sullied that reputation.

And then Jesus finally took things too far with his kingly procession into Jerusalem and that spectacle in the Temple.  He publicly, symbolically, challenged both Rome and the Sanhedrin; did he expect them to sit back and do nothing?  Was it really a surprise when he was arrested?  I wonder how James felt about all this.  Angry at the insult of Rome once again imposing its will on Israel?  Vindicated by the Jewish authorities’ rejection of Jesus?  Worried that the rest of the family might be drawn into this trouble?  Perhaps secretly glad that Jesus would be taught a lesson – until he learned the severity of that lesson, of course?

But crucifixion:  that almost certainly changed things.  Crucifixion was intentionally the most brutal, degrading, and humiliating form of punishment the Romans had devised.   And, in Judaism, anyone hung on a tree – and crucifixion is surely the most extreme example of that – was considered cursed by God.  Regardless of what James thought and felt about Jesus, the shame of crucifixion would redound to the whole family.  Could they even have returned home after that?

And, there must have been other worries.  Jesus wasn’t the first Messianic claimant in those days, nor the last.  When one of these died – was killed – the mantle of group leadership typically fell to the eldest sibling.  Was that James?  In the list of brothers – James, Joses, Jude, and Simon – James is listed first; he was probably the eldest.  Was he worried Rome would come for him next?

It could not have been easy being Jesus’ brother, either during Jesus’ life or at his death.

But, if James thought the story was over – that the cross ended things once for all – he was mistaken.  We have this from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Cor 15:3-7, ESV).

And there you have it.  Jesus appeared alive again to James, and that changed everything.  Can you imagine James talking to his mother Mary after this?  “Jesus could do no wrong.  He did walk on water, didn’t he?  And he is God’s gift to humanity.”  This is a family whose dynamic was forever changed — changed by the resurrection.

So what became of James now that he had seen the resurrected Lord Jesus, now that he was forced to believe?  We next encounter James in Jerusalem, in the church, where he is the presiding elder – what we would call the bishop of the Jerusalem Church:  not one of the inner three – not Peter, James or John the sons of Zebedee – but James, the brother of Jesus.  Why James?  His choice as bishop may have been, in part, familial honor; Jesus is gone, so his next-of-kin is chosen to assume leadership of the group.  It may have been because of James’ good reputation and connections in the upper levels of Jewish hierarchy.  At this early point in its development, the church was sect of Judaism; certainly the Jerusalem Church was Jewish in ethnicity and character.  James might have been the perfect choice to induce other Jews to recognize Jesus as Messiah.

Because the Jerusalem Church was seen as the mother Church of the faith, it had influence far beyond the city.  When a controversy arose about Paul preaching to Gentiles and telling them the Gospel of Jesus was as much for them as for Jews, and that they need not keep the Jewish Law to be followers of Jesus, the opposing parties appealed to the Jerusalem Church to sort out the mess.  It fell to James to speak on behalf of the Church – not just the Jerusalem Church, but from the Jerusalem Church on behalf of the whole Church.  It was James who authored the letter to the Church in Antioch – which would be read throughout all the evangelized regions – expressing the will of the Spirit and the mind of the Church.  Gentiles need not keep the Mosaic Law in its entirety, but they do need to avoid sexual immorality, refrain from eating strangled animals, and remember the poor.  So, James the Just, the faithful and righteous Jew, sided with the Gentiles while still recognizing Jewish morality and culture.

But, it is in the epistle bearing his name that we best encounter James, I think:  his understanding of the faith, what was important to him.  His letter also provides a window into the early Church while it still bore its Jewish imprint, and yet it is as current as today.

In his greeting, James identifies himself not as “the Just,” nor as the bishop of the Jerusalem church, nor even as the brother of Jesus, but rather as “James a servant [slave] of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1a).  A slave of Jesus:  what a turnaround that is, and what humility it shows.

There are many important themes in James; a good homily might be simply to read the entire letter without comment.  It wouldn’t take long, and I certainly commend that to you on this feast day of St. James.  But, I’ll focus briefly on three major themes in the epistle, themes that the church needs to grapple with in every generation, not least in our own:  (1) the sin of partiality and the disparity between rich and poor, (2) the fallacy of faith alone, and (3) the destructive nature of human speech.

We have an ever widening gap between rich and poor in our world, in our country, and perhaps even in our churches.  It was the same in James’ experience, and he challenged the churches on this issue.  Are the poor welcome in our churches – really welcomed, not just as objects of pity and opportunities to show mercy, but also as equal brothers and sisters in Christ?  Is there any partiality shown to the rich, any favoritism?  Are the rich guilty – either actively or passively – in the oppression or neglect of the poor?  Do we exercise a preferential option for the rich, when God exercises a preferential option for the poor?  Listen to James.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.  For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?  Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:1-9).

In the church, we are called to impartiality, or perhaps even preference for the poor, whom God has chosen to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.  Poor lives matter:  not just because all lives matter, but because poor lives are especially tenuous.

James was also concerned about the relationship between faith and works, as was Paul, as were the Reformers, though all of them were probably talking past each other about slightly different things.  Faith is essential – make no mistake about that – and James agreed.  But he also distinguished between living faith and dead faith, about faith which accomplishes something and faith which is empty and powerless.  Let’s hear James speak again.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17). 

So where the Reformers say that we are saved by faith alone, James offers a firm corrective:  we are saved by living faith alone which shows its vitality in the work it does.  It is work that reveals the genuineness and living nature of one’s faith.  Notice again the particular example of faithful work that James uses:  feeding and clothing the poor Christian brother or sister.

Lastly, as if James were reading our newspapers, watching our television, and monitoring our social media, he condemns abuses of speech.  Beware the evil of the tongue.  James writes:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:3-10).

This is enough to give you a sense of James and of his approach to the faith:  very down to earth, very pragmatic, and, might I say, very Jewish in its emphasis on mitzvot (righteous deeds).  We can get too abstract.  We can center the faith too much in our heads and maybe even in our hearts.  James reminds us that our resources, our hands, and our mouths are important too.

So, what became of James?  I’ll answer from the book Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2000):

James’ success in converting many to Christ greatly perturbed some factions in Jerusalem.  According to Hegesippus [2nd century Christian historian], they begged him to “restrain the people, for they have gone astray to Jesus, thinking him to be the Messiah … we bear you witness that you are just … Persuade the people that they do not go astray … we put our trust in you.”  They then set James on the pinnacle of the temple, bidding him to preach to the multitude and turn them from Jesus.  James, however, testified for the Lord.  Thereupon, they hurled him from the roof to the pavement, and cudgeled him to death.

James had a remarkable, cruciform life:  from disbelieving brother of Jesus to faithful slave of Christ and bishop of the Church; from staunchly Orthodox Jew to advocate for Gentiles; from taunting Jesus to risk death to his own martyrdom for the Lord Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God for the witness of his life and death.  Amen.

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