Monday, June 29, 2009

faith or intellectual assent?

Our readings this week were certainly timely. Often, as people deal with "end of life" issues, one of the big questions that get asked of the pastor is "Do I have enough faith?" Sometimes, people's unbelief causes them to question their faith; at other times, they wonder how they might respond to the situation similar to the one being confronted by a loved one. "Will He let me in?" "If I knew I was dying, could I face death with the same grace?" "Have I done enough?" I say our readings are timely because they address questions like this, but, for those who like specific answers, the readings might not seem as helpful as they are.

All of our readings this week point to the difference between faith and belief. Belief is that intellectual assent to something, in this case the existence and providence of God. Belief is that nearly agnostic response of "yeah, I think there is a God. I am just not sure what we know about Him." Faith, as we learned this weekend, is entirely different. In fact, I would argue that we get at least four lessons about faith from our readings this week.

First, faith is what opens us to the power of God and allows us to become a channel for His grace. Can God act whenever and however He wants? Of course, He is God. But consider our readings. David, anointed king of Israel, has had a hot and cold relationship with Saul, to say the least, for many years. Both men knew that David was to be king; yet only one trusted in God and His plan. Saul took matters into his own hands. He made sacrifices against the express commands of God, he withheld his daughter from David despite his oath (this led to the covenanted relationship with Jonathon), he repeatedly tried to kill his anointed successor, and he was jealous of the honor given his successor (Saul has killed his thousands but David his ten thousands). David, by contrast, puts God first. Whenever he has the opportunity to kill Saul, he refrains. When opportunities to divide the kingdom arise, David reminds others that Saul is the current rightful leader. When others are anxious about moving God's plan along a bit faster, David patiently waits on the Lord. The same is true in our Gospel lesson. Both the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus receive an amazing, miraculous healing. Both those around them, those that scorn, laugh, or think Jesus merely a teacher, are denied even to witness His saving power. They are led outside His presence and not allowed to see His power at work. Only the believers get to experience and see God's hand at work in the world and know it for what it is.

Second, faith is persistent in the face of many obstacles. David had every reason to think that God had forgotten about His promise to David; yet David trusted the Lord. The hemorrhaging woman had tried for twelve years and her life savings to be healed. If anyone had any reason to feel abandoned by God, it was her. But, despite all evidence to the contrary, she held firm in her faith that God could heal her. Even Jairus, whose friends reminded him that Jesus was only a teacher and whose coworkers were most threatened by Jesus (and therefore opposed to His ministry), had faith that Jesus could somehow overcome the death of his twelve-year-old daughter. And each is rewarded for their persistent faith!

Thirdly, faith requires action. Unlike that lukewarm "intellectual assent" that so many want to be enough, faith requires transformed living and action. We have highlighted David and the hemorrhaging woman's actions, so little more needs to be said about them, but think on the church at Corinth. This is the same church that was so divided that that the rich would gather for agape meals and eat and drink themselves until the puked (that was a sign of wealth and power), while others among them starved. Yet, here is Paul challenging and praising them for their transformed lives. Yes, Paul strokes their egos a bit, but he reminds them that they should "excel in this generous undertaking" and "finish doing it so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means." The church at Corinth is exhorted to live out their faith by Paul. The church at Corinth is encouraged live as if their Lord was the God who became man and gave up Himself on the cross for their sakes!

Finally, faith clings to the hope that God is the answer, no matter the problem. Even when we do not know our real need, God still does and is the answer. In the Old Testament, God credits such faith as righteousness. David does not understand God's plan. David often questions God and the events of his life; but he trusts in God's goodness and promise True, David will make horrible choices from time to time, but what ultimately separates him from his predecessor Saul is his willingness to repent rather than offer justifications. Ultimately, David remembers that God is in control and that He will not be thwarted.

In the New Testament, of course, the reminder of God's ultimate grace and power is the work and person of Jesus Christ. What was hidden from David and the rest of the Old Testament heroes and heroines is fully revealed to us. In the case of the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus, the cross is not yet before them. Nevertheless, both cling to the faith that Jesus is the answer to their problems. In the case of the woman, Jesus gives her healing that we might forget. She wanted to be healed of her bleeding. For twelve years she has been a leper in her community. She could not worship with her community; no one could sit with her without becoming defiled themselves. All she wants is to stop bleeding. But Jesus stops when she touches him. Knowing that he might be furious for having been defiled, knowing that the crowd might turn on her in a mob rage for what she just did, she confesses that she touched Him. And Jesus tells her to "go in peace for your faith has made you well." Jesus knew, better than her or we, the true healing that she needed. She had been publicly cut off from her community for twelve years. In a simple, public pronouncement, Jesus tells her and the crowd that she is healed and that she is restored to the community of faith. The pariah has been welcomed by God's prophet.

We might feel uncomfortable with her faith. It smacks a bit of magic -- "if I but touch His cloak, I will be healed." It does not seem noble; it does not seem "systematically" correct. All she knows, all she clings to in faith is that Jesus is somehow the answer to her problem. And, thankfully and mercifully, Jesus agrees. And her demonstration of faith becomes a wonderful lesson for the leader of the synagogue. When his friends come and tell him to trouble the teacher no more, Jesus reminds him not to doubt. Her faith leads Jairus to faith; the formerly excluded woman points the way for the leader of the synagogue. And the little girl is raised from the dead. Jairus does not know what to make of Jesus. He only knows that Jesus can heal. And so he trusts, he has faith; and his need is met in ways the world does not think possible.

Our readings this week should serve as a wonderful reminder to each of us as we confront life's problems. We need only to cling to the faith that Jesus is sufficient to meet our needs. The world may tease us, the world may scorn us, the world may even take advantage of us -- for a time. But ultimately, we serve the One with power over life and death. And He has promised each of us with persistent, active, child-like faith that He will vindicate us. Our lives, our honor, and our salvation are ultimately in His hands. We will make terrible mistakes like David; we might be determined but fearful like the woman; we might simply be confused like Jairus. But thankfully, mercifully, the one who died for us is the one who judges whether our faith is sufficient. Theologians and pastors may demand certain behavior of us, Jesus reminds us simply "do not doubt, only have faith in Me." He may not act miraculously in many situations in our lives now -- children may die, diseases may not be cured, seeming material needs may not be met. But He has promised that when we meet Him face to face, when we who now live by faith behold with joy His face, He will act once and for all to restore all that was broken in our lives and to wipe away all our tears.

By laying down His life and taking it up again, He has proved He is sufficient for whatever need we have. Will we have faith in Him and find life? Or will we side with the scoffers and find ourselves out of His sight when He heals for all eternity?


The Feast of St. Alban

I was asked a few times after Sunday worship and then early this morning about the failure of St. Alban from a worldly perspective. If there are lots of churches named after him and we celebrate his day in many different liturgical churches, how can his witness have been a failure by worldly standards? It dawned on me that a number of people may have missed previous celebrations of the martyrdom of St. Alban, and I do not think that I have written much about it in the Bulletin in previous years. So, of what failures am I speaking?

Alban is generally thought to have been a Roman officer of some sort in the Roman town of Verulanium, a town NW of present day London. One day, an itinerant monk passed through the town and witnessed the Gospel of Christ to Alban. As the events were prior to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, monk was sought by the local authorities in one of the many persecutions of Christians. Alban, so moved by the Gospel of Christ, traded clothes with the monk and sent him on his way.

Alban was captured and brought before the Roman governor who demanded that Alban turn over the monk and renounce God. Alban, despite being tortured and despite only recently coming to the faith, refused. He was sentenced to be executed.

As word spread that a Roman officer was trying to save a monk, more and more people turned out to see what was happening. When Alban left the governor’s quarters to head for the hill where he was to be killed, far too many people were there to watch. In fact, Alban and his guard could not cross the bridge of the river Ver because of the multitude. So, Alban headed to the banks of the Ver, lifted his hands to the heavens, and asked God to stop the waters as He had the river Jordan when He led His people from slavery to the Promised Land. In what was the second miracle in most peoples’ minds (the first was that a Roman officer would try and save a Christian monk), the waters stopped, the riverbed dried up, and Alban and his escort crossed the river Ver on dry ground.

As Alban climbed the hill, he noticed he was a bit grubby from the recent beatings. So, once again he lifted his hands to heaven and prayed that God would allow him to wash himself before he met His Father in Heaven. Miraculous, a spring well up, and Alban was allowed to wash himself prior to his execution.

These miracles were apparently enough for the executioner who declined the job of executing Alban on the pain of death. A second executioner was selected, and Alban was martyred on the hill where the cathedral in his name now stands. In what was perceived to be another miracle, the second executioner also died as he was martyring Alban.

Why would the world consider the story of Alban to be a failure? It certainly is no fairy tale. There is no happy ending, save that God’s grace abounded. The itinerant monk, upon hearing of Alban’s torture and impending death, struggled to return to save his benefactor. Despite turning himself in, he was unable to rescue Alban from his fate. And, in a sadder ending, was himself killed a few days later. Likewise, the first executioner was also killed. There is no story of wonderful conversions to the faith. All the major participants were killed, despite the obvious miracles.

Of course, the fact that we attend a church in Iowa named after Alban testifies to the fact that the throng of witnesses never forgot the story. A Roman officer laid down his life for a nameless monk. Because of the willing sacrifice of Alban, that mirrored the work and person of Jesus Christ, Christianity had the hearts of many commoners in Britain. Later missionaries would pick up on the seeds planted by the story, and the rest, as they say, is history, or rather His story!

We might wish that armies of Angels had risen up to save Alban or that the governor had been so moved by the miracles that he would have converted; yet such is not the case. Death and failure seemingly abounded; yet the redeeming God was at work in the midst! And so, this week, we celebrate that seeming failure of 1700 years ago and give thanks to God for the witness of our patron, Alban, who died and found eternal life and glory in the living, redeeming God.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Whither the Trinity . . .

     Pick up your pens and answer the question in less than twenty minutes: Explain the significance of the Trinity to the everyday life of the Christian. Once a year, those churches who follow a lectionary set aside the day, the first Sunday after Pentecost, to remind ourselves of the significance of the Trinity. It is a challenging day for most of us in the clergy. How do we talk about the Trinity without putting our congregations to sleep and without slipping into heresy? It is, after all, one of the mysteries of the church, and it is difficult to talk about in a short time without focusing too much on the three persons to the exclusion of the one substance. Similarly, if we spend too much time on the one substance, we might tend to ignore the three persons. Then, of course, even if we have walked the theological tightrope explaining the Trinity, what good have we truly accomplished? How does our understanding of the Trinity impact our daily life and work?

     I must confess that the answer I gave to this question this weekend is not one that I had consciously put together beforehand. Usually, I am blessed by the Thursday morning group and their conversations. The 8 - 14 who attend that study each week have been together for many years. Consequently, they feel free to share their questions, their doubts, their fears, and their frustrations. This week, they were exploring issues from The Shack and refused all my gentle prodding’s to help me compose a sermon. I can test answers and solutions with them, and they can tell me whether something is biblical, makes sense, or is simply wrong. But this week, no one wanted to spend much time on the Trinity.

     So, as I was reading an article on Deuteronomy, it dawned on me: the Trinity allows you and me and all other baptized Christians to fulfill the purpose of God. What do I mean by that statement? In simplest terms, according to Genesis, you and I were created in the image of God. The imago dei has, itself, been the subject of tomes of written material, but I will for a brief space pretend that we all agree on its definition. You and I are simply called to live as images of God. How does the Trinity make this possible?

     Well, it is only through the grace, love, faithfulness, and working of the Trinity that it can even happen. God the Father has a plan of salvation. He sends His Son to live as us, to die for us, to be raised for us, so that we who accept His offer of salvation, can receive His righteousness and be raised to eternal life with Him. Then, after the Son has ascended, He sends the Holy Spirit to empower those who believe to accomplish His will on earth.

     Those baptized into the faith recognize that this is not the way creation was intended. We were intended to seek His will in all things. Creation was intended to be a garden, not a place full of tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, or even straight line winds that can knock airplanes out of the sky. But we also recognize that we are called to proclaim, by word and deed, that God loves us, that God wants to save us, and that God has already acted to make that salvation possible through the work and person of His Son. That is the message of the Gospel. God loves us. He has acted to save us. And He wants to save everyone. And, He has chosen His believers to be the heralds of His grace!

     This week, in our passage from John, Jesus has a long conversation with Nicodemus. Much of their discussion centers around the verb “born.” Specifically, Jesus talks of being born from above and born of the Spirit, and Nicodemus is confused and mocks Jesus for expecting him to climb back up into his mother’s womb to be born again. Significantly, the verb is passive. Being born from above is something that is done to people, not something that they do to or for themselves. And this, brothers and sisters, is where the rubber meets the road when we talk of the impact of the Trinity on our daily life and work.

     Through our faith and through our acceptance of God’s offer of salvation, we begin to be re-molded and re-formed into the purpose that God had for us in His creation of us. Amazing change seems to come over us. Many of us pay great attention to the former murderer who converts or the drug dealer who finds God or the abuser who is broken by God’s love; but even in the most average of us, we, too, are transformed into that image of God. Where our co-workers struggle with financial concerns and job-loss fears, we remember that He has promised to provide. Where our families, friends and neighbors hold on to grudges like Linus hold on to his blanket when Snoopy is on the prowl, we remember the forgiveness and grace first offered us and do our best (and pray to God for the grace) to forgive others. Where people stand at the grave and mourn the loss of a loved one thinking that death is the end, we stand at the grave making our alleluias knowing that God has already acted to conquer death and make eternal life possible for all who call on His name. And slowly, surely, the world around us begins to notice our seemingly strange behavior. Just as the world feels and sees the effects of the wind, it notices the change in us. And over time, as we live according to the grace given us, we begin to field questions. Don’t you miss your loved ones who have died? Don’t you worry that you might lose your job? Aren’t you worried about retirement? Aren’t you afraid people might try and take advantage of you?

     Brothers and sisters, the importance of the Trinity in our lives is that it enables you and me and everyone who accepts God’s offer of salvation to begin to live as God intended. The economy of the Trinity, if you will, enables and empowers us to begin to live as His image here on earth. The functioning of the Trinity saves, redeems, and empowers individuals, fallen and as imperfect as they are until His coming again, to be that barest reflection, that briefest of glimpses, that barest hint of the glorious life that God planned for each of us when He formed us! In short, the Trinity births us again into that image of God and sends us into the world to draw others to Him.



Just what is the Spirit doing?

     The Feast of Pentecost is generally one of those anticipated days by many in the church. Of course, unlike Christmas (the warmth of silent night) and Easter (the promise of the Resurrection and the end of the Lenten fasts), Pentecost seems more valuable as it marks the beginning of vacation time, particularly in the Episcopal Church. It makes sense. Schools are letting out around the time of Pentecost. Sunday Schools and choirs generally break for the summer. And it is not as if most of us in the clergy are unhappy to see the season come. People have worked hard and need a bit of time to relax. Unfortunately, that relaxing does not often include spiritual refreshment. Far too often, we take a break from the very One who refreshes us, who prepares us and molds us, who empowers us, and who commands us. For some strange reason, we feel it ok to take a break from God, and, as a consequence, much of what He has to say to us during this time is never really considered.

     In the wonderful exhortations that usually come with the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, one of those important teachings of the Church is often glossed over or ignored. Who is the Holy Spirit? How do we identify the presence of the Holy Spirit? What is the purpose of the Holy Spirit? I sometimes wonder that our uncomfortableness about the Holy Spirit often comes from the fact that much of the important teaching is read on Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. And, since we tend to struggle mightily with the latter and concentrate on the birth of the Church in the former, we spend little time considering what our Lord says about the Holy Spirit. So, when people ask us about our understanding of the Holy Spirit, we fumble around a bit. We give mumbled, nebulous answers that generally involve the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, but little else. Yet, Jesus tells us that there is no reason to grasp for meanings about the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus asserts in our reading from John this week that the Holy Spirit has a job to do and that the Spirit is quite easy to discern. What is the Holy Spirit about? What is the Spirit doing? Jesus gives us three answers in John’s Gospel lesson. The Spirit is convicting the world of guilt with respect to sin, to righteousness, and to judgment. What does Jesus mean? Consider . . .

     First, The Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong with respect to sin (v 9). What is sin? Well, the Bible teaches us that sin is putting our desires, our ambitions, our “wants” before the torah (instruction, commandments, etc) of God and before the needs of our neighbors. The Bible also reveals to us that Christ is the perfect and final revelation of God to humanity. He is the only begotten Son. For us to reject Him is the ultimate rejection of God and the ultimate sin. We might tend to think that such a description of sin is simplistic, but consider John 1:1-18 or Romans 1-3 or even the very beginning of Hebrews. And, given the pluralistic age in which we live, we might even want to argue that the exclusive emphasis that Christians are called to place upon Christ is too narrow-minded and not generous enough. Yet the very One who died for us is the one making the claim about the guilt of the world with respect to sin.

     Second, Jesus goes on to tell us that the Spirit will convict the world of its guilt with respect to righteousness. So much of our Easter Season reminds of that ultimate proof of His righteousness, His glorious Resurrection and Ascension to the Father, but also of our own unrighteousness (think John 2:18-22 or Acts 2:22-24 or 3:13-18 or 10:39-43). Like the Jews who tried to justify the crucifixion of Jesus because He was convicted of being a sinner and a blasphemer, we try to justify ourselves and our behaviors through our judgments of the behaviors of others. We begin to be beguiled by the notion that we are not so bad, and we delude ourselves into thinking that we are righteous. Yet only Jesus lived a righteous life. As hard as we might try not sin, we do. And it is the Holy Spirit’s job to help us discern our own unrighteousness and guide us to the Son, who alone saves and redeems us.

     Finally, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of its guilt with respect to judgment. So often, we think of judgment in negative terms. For those who reject God and His offer of salvation, such a view of judgment is rightly feared and horrific beyond all our understandings--after all, it leads to death (think John 5:21-30 or Acts 24:24-25). But for those who believe in Jesus Christ, the judgment of God is a wonderful, amazing, eternal-life-giving event! Those individuals who are part of His body through adoption are vindicated by His saving work on the cross. The righteousness of our Lord is imputed to all believers, and they are admitted into the everlasting life and glory promised through Christ. And the One who does the judging is the very One who died for us! The Holy Spirit reminds His people of the glory and vindication promised to His people on that Day of Judgment, and it also reminds them of one of the impetuses of their call to go and proclaim the saving work of Christ.

     No doubt some will remark that I have, for the first time, quoted some Scripture other than the week’s readings for my message and that my message was radically different from each sermon this weekend. Why? These are questions that you and I are called to ponder, to consider, and to question in our community of faith. They are not easy questions given to 10 - 20 minute blurbs in a sermon, but rather questions that must be considered over time. What better time to consider them than on the day that we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of His Church?