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Sermon, September 10, 2017

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

Sermon.09.10.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20

 

The past few Sundays we have been focusing on Paul’s advice to the Roman Church for practical Christian living. Given what God has done through the gospel, Paul encouraged the Roman Church (and us) us to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice as an act of worship. As such, we are not to be conformed to this world and its values, but are to be transformed through the renewing of our minds such that we may discern the good and perfect will of God. Our chief task, or expression of faith, in all of this is to love one another. Last week we noted Paul’s emphasis on letting our love for one another be genuine, and we examined what that might look like in Christian community – to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep, to live in harmony, to not seek vengeance, etc.

This week Paul exhorts us, “Owe no man anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13.8; NRSV). Paul makes it clear that he is referring to the Mosaic Law, for he immediately follows this admonition with the words, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13.9-10; NRSV).

Paul next draws upon the analogy of moving from sleep to wakefulness: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13.11-12a; NRSV). The dead of night is over, but the sun has not yet risen. It is time for us to become fully awake. Paul reminds us that our salvation, our transformation, is nearer to us than when we first believed – we have been growing in the Spirit. A new day is dawning!

Hence, it is time for us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;” it is time for us to “live honorably as in the day,” in the brightness of God’s light; it is time for us to forsake “reveling and drunkenness, … debauchery and licentiousness, … quarreling and jealousy.” As the new day is dawning, it is time for us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13. 12b-14; NRSV).

If we truly understand the implications of love, what is involved in loving God and others, we need no other law than the law of love. As you may recall, Paul dealt with various aspects of living under the law in Romans 7. Paul reminded us that the law is spiritual while we are of the flesh. Paul shared his own inner conflict: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7.15, 20; NRSV). Paul further reasons,

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7.21-25; NRSV).

 

With our spirit, our mind, we can delight in God’s law, in the law of love, and yet find ourselves unable to live accordingly. Thus, we suffer, for we are divided.

As Christians, we often aspire to act differently than we do. We may strive to be more loving and patient with others only to find by the end of the day that our patience has worn thin and we snap at someone. Then we proceed to beat ourselves up for our failure. I encourage you to listen to your self-talk. “You could have done better than that! See, there is no way you can live a Christian life. Admit your failure, and stop expecting more than you can deliver!” At times like this, we need to say with Jesus, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” We need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to remember that our salvation comes through the transforming work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Of our own volition, we may not be able to affect this transformation, but with the gift of God’s grace, we can ultimately live into the life of the spirit while leaving more of the life of the flesh behind. As we act in the power of God’s love, we fulfill the law – we build God’s kingdom.    Amen

Sermon, September 3, 2017

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

Sermon.09.03.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 3.1-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12.9-21; Matthew 16.21-28

 

Last Sunday we noted Paul’s exhortation to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12.1; NRSV). We are to do this through, and in response to, the mercy of God; this, Paul says, is our spiritual worship. We are not to be “conformed to this world” but are rather to “be transformed by the renewing” of our minds so that we “may discern what is the will of God — what is good, and acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12.2; NRSV). In response to God’s love for us, we are to embrace God’s love, allow it to fully transform our lives, and live our lives fully in God’s love.

In today’s reading, Paul begins with, “Let love be genuine” (Romans 12.9a; NRSV). Paul then sets forth a rather extensive list of behaviors characteristic of genuine love. Before we examine this list, let’s review the list of behaviors found among the godless which Paul set forth in the first chapter. Notice how these behaviors are grounded in selfishness, how they foment discord, how they are destructive of community:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them (Romans 1.29-32; NRSV).

 

That’s a description of life lived in the absence of love. As one descends more deeply into this life, life becomes brutish, hellish. It leads us to despair. This is not the life for which God created us.

“Let love be genuine.” In John 4.8 (NRSV), we read: Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” How does St. Paul depict the love of God? He wrote: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly . . . But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8; NRSV). Paul has also given us believers the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.39b; NRSV).

In a moment, we will consider the characteristic activities Paul sets forth which reflect a life of genuine love. Note how these actions invite us to live in harmony and community – how they work to create God’s kingdom on earth. As we look at this list, I invite you to engage in an examination of conscience, a bit of assessment on the status of your spiritual life. What speaks to you? Where would God have you grow? Bearing in mind we will soon say the communal prayer of confession, what would God have you confess? I will slowly read these characteristics to allow for meditation and reflection. Feel free to close your eyes if you so desire.

  • Let love be genuine.
  • Hate what is evil.
  • Hold fast to what is good.
  • Love one another with mutual affection.
  • Outdo one another in showing honor.
  • Do not lag in zeal.
  • Be ardent in spirit.
  • Serve the Lord.
  • Rejoice in hope.
  • Be patient in suffering.
  • Persevere in prayer.
  • Contribute to the needs of the saints.
  • Extend hospitality to strangers.
  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Rejoice with those who rejoice.
  • Weep with those who weep.
  • Live in harmony with one another.
  • Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.
  • Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
  • If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  • Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
  • No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12.9-21; NRSV).

Many of us are troubled by current events. We just witnessed Hurricane Harvey inundate areas of Texas with 51.8 inches of rain over four days (August 26-29) yet many still believe climate change is a hoax. Similar flooding from other tropical storm is simultaneously taking place in parts of Asia. At the same time, parts of Africa are suffering from drought and famine.

Due to war and civil strife in Yemen, over 320,000 people are currently suffering from cholera. This is the largest cholera outbreak in modern history, and it is not yet contained. The people are also suffering from malnutrition.

President Trump is currently threatening to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which may lead to the deportation of 800,000 people who entered our country unlawfully as children. This is the only country they have ever known; they have built productive lives.

We live in a political climate conducive to, and supportive of, racism.

These are but a few of the pressing issues which weigh upon us. We Christians have our work cut out for us. Our world needs examples of genuine love. As I read this list, I confess my need to rejoice more in hope if I am to show others that I truly believe in the promises of God; I confess my need to persevere in prayer; I confess my need to extend even more hospitality to strangers; I confess my need to weep more with those who weep. With God’s help, and with each other’s encouragement, we can be transformed into lives which reflect genuine love. We can more fully experience the grace that God extends to us.

We often think God will love and accept us if we do certain things. The good news is – God already loves and accepts us. And as we accept and embrace God’s love, we are transformed.

May we share our burdens, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and encourage one another to live more fully into the family of God.

Amen

 

Sermon, August 27, 2017

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Sermon.08.27.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 1.8 – 2.10; Psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20

 

For ease of division, scholars often break Romans into two parts: Chapters 1-11 set forth the theology behind the gospel while Chapters 12-16 deal with the practical implications of living out the gospel. Let’s recap a few of the major points from Romans 1-11.

  • After the introduction, Paul tells us that he is “not ashamed of the gospel;” the gospel “is the power of salvation to the Jew and to the Greek … in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (Romans 1.16-17; NRSV).

 

  • Paul then sets forth the lack of righteousness among the gentiles and the Jews, noting all “are under the power of sin … ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3.9-10; NRSV).

 

  • We are unable to attain righteousness through the law; we are justified (made right with God) only through faith; “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1; NRSV.

 

  • Though once slaves to sin, as people of faith, we are to be “slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6.19; NRSV). We are to be set apart and transformed that we might grow deeper and deeper into the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

  • Paul says there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1; NRSV), for the Spirit of God indwells them. We no longer live in the flesh; we live in the Spirit (Romans 8.9).

 

  • Those led by the Spirit of God are children and heirs of God who have been given a spirit of adoption; when we “cry, ‘Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8.15-17; NRSV). Paul tells us “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8.28; NRSV); nothing can separate us from the love of God.

 

  • God has not given up on his people, the Israelites. Though many of them have stumbled and rejected Christ, “through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Romans 11.13; NRSV).

 

  • Although many among the Israelites are enemies of God when it comes to the Gospel, when it comes to election, “they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors” (the recipients of the promise); “the gifts of God and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11.28-29; NRSV).

 

  • This view of the gospel, of the availability of God’s righteousness through grace, leads Paul to exclaim, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! … For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11.33, 36; NRSV).

The gospel is cause for celebration. Paul has outlined how God’s promise and plan come to fruition in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we are made righteous through faith in Christ, Paul now directs our attention to the difference this faith should make in the way we live. It is as though Paul asks, “Since we are justified through faith and have been given the spirit of adoption, how should we live? What should our relationship with God look like?”

Paul pleads with the Roman Christians, and with us, as follows: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12.1; NRSV).

It helps to remember the prevalence and role of sacrifice in ancient worship practices. The first several chapters of Leviticus set forth the requirements associated with various types of sacrifices. Sin offerings and guilt offerings were for expiation or atonement; burnt offerings and grain offerings were for consecration, i.e., devotion, commitment, and complete surrender to God; and a fellowship offering was an expression of thanksgiving and communion with God. If more than one form of sacrifice were presented, they would begin with sacrifices for atonement, followed by sacrifices for consecration, and ultimately, by sacrifices for fellowship. This practice represents a logical spiritual progression. The guilt offering for atonement) required the sacrifice of a male ram from the flock without blemish or defect; if the people were poor and could not afford a ram, two turtledoves or two pigeons could be substituted; and if too poor for turtledoves or pigeons, a tenth of an ephah choice flour. The system of sacrifices symbolized the mercy of God.

Hence, by the mercy of God, and in response to the mercy of God, we are to present our lives as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (without blemish or defect), as our spiritual worship to God. In the sacrificial system, the animal was first killed before being placed on the altar. If the sacrificial animal were living, it would be able to crawl off the altar. As living sacrifices, we can crawl off the altar. In the process or sanctification, of transformation, we learn how to remain on the altar as a living sacrifice – remaining on the altar, giving our whole life, is the deepest expression of our love for God just as the giving of Jesus’ life was the deepest expression of God’s love for us. “All that we have, O Lord, is a gift from thee, and of thine own we have given thee.”

I believe Paul recognized our propensity to crawl off the altar, for he said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12.2; NRSV). Whenever I read this verse, I chuckle, for it reminds me of one of Garrison Keillor’s stories about a young girl who was celebrating her confirmation. This was the verse on the cake. After he quoted the verse, there was a pregnant pause, then he said, “It was a very large cake!” We all want a very large cake!

In our materiality, we desire the things of this world – the gold and the glitz; the affirmation, approbation, and applause; the means and the meanness to accomplish our own ends. Things of the world appeal to our senses. When we come to know Christ, we continue to be tempted by the things of the world, so Paul cautions, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” As we are transformed, we come to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect – it is rarely what we previously thought!

Recognizing that we continue to be tempted by egoistic impulses, Paul further tells us, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12.3; NRSV). I like Paul’s lead in to this sentence – “For by the grace given to me…” I suspect Paul fought his own demons associated with pride. He might have been the Mac Davis of the Apostles:

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cause I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can

(http://www.metrolyrics.com/its-hard-to-be-humble-lyrics-mac-davis.html)

 

In this case, our best is not good enough. God wants to take our best and transform it into something better for the good of the community. Pride in spiritual things can wreak so much havoc in a Christian community; it undermines and erodes true community. The prideful set themselves apart from and above others; they insist on their own way, and in doing so, they get in God’s way.

For this reason, Paul continues, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (Romans 12.4-8; NRSV). Our gifts are given, not for our own aggrandizement, but for the good of the community. We are called to recognize and rejoice in the gifts of others.

In conclusion, Paul reminds us, as living sacrifices, we leave the things of this world behind, we think properly of ourselves and of others, and we dedicate the use of our gifts for the good of the community. When we do these things with the grace of God, as the psalmist says, we “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29.2; KJV).

Amen

 

Sermon, August 20, 2017

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Sermon.08.20.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.10-28

 

Last Sunday we considered Paul’s sorrow and anguish over the plight of his own people, the Israelites, through whom we received “the adoption, the glory, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;” to whom “belong the patriarchs;” and from whom “comes the Messiah” (Romans 9.4-5; NRSV). We considered their unenlightened zeal for God, their attempts to attain righteousness through the law. Paul noted that our salvation comes through our confession of Jesus as Lord and our trust (belief) that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Paul notes “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” but then asks, “how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed … to believe in one of whom they have never heard … to hear without someone to proclaim him … to proclaim him unless they are sent” (Romans 10.15; NRSV). We ended by noting “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (Romans 10.15; NRSV).

Paul then asks, “Have they not heard” (Romans 10.18; NRSV)? Yes, they have heard. As evidence, Paul quotes Psalm 19.4: “Yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (NRSV). Whose voice, whose words? We must remember this Psalm begins as follows: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19.1; NRSV). Paul is acknowledging God’s natural revelation which should elicit acknowledgment and praise.

Since they have heard, Paul asks, “did Israel not understand” (Romans 10.19; NRSV)? Paul responds by quoting Moses and Isaiah. In Deuteronomy 32.21, Moses has God say: “They made me jealous with what is no god, provoked me with their idols. So I will make them jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation” (NRSV). Paul renders the second part of this verse as follows: “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry” (Romans 10.19; NRSV). Here Paul is arguing the righteousness of the Gentiles which comes through God’s love and grace alone will cause jealousy among the Israelites – they will long for the same relationship with God. In further support, Paul, quoting Isaiah 65.1, says, “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me’” (Romans 10.20; NRSV). Paul then points to God’s characterization of the obstinacy of the Israelites by quoting Isaiah 65.2, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10.21; NRSV).

Given this line of thought, Paul next asks, “Has God rejected his people” (Romans 11. A; NRSV)? Again, we encounter his familiar response, “By no means!” Paul then cites himself as an example that God has not abandoned the Israelites: “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11.1b-2a; NRSV).

Paul reminds them of God’s response to Elijah’s lament (found in I Kings 19) that the Israelites had killed all of God’s prophets and destroyed all God’s altars. In his despair, Elijah cried out, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life,” but God responded, “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11.4; NRSV). Paul says, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11.5-6; NRSV).

As Paul continues, he points out that much of Israel has stumbled, but not so as to fall: “through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Romans 11.11; NRSV). To explain the nature of the relationship between the Israelites and the Gentiles, Paul employs the allegorical image of an olive tree. As Paul observes, “If the root is holy, then the branches are also holy” (Romans 11.16; NRSV). In the event some of the branches are broken off because of unbelief, and a wild olive shoot (the Gentiles) is grafted in, it has no cause to boast over the other branches; the wild olive branch should not become proud but should rather stand in awe (Romans 11.20). After all, Paul warns, if God did not spare the natural branches, God may not spare the wild olive branch. Paul says,

Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.  And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree (Romans 11.22-24; NRSV).

 

Lest the Gentiles think they are wiser than they are, Paul says he wants them “to understand this mystery: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11.25-26; NRSV).

When viewed from the perspective of the gospel, Paul says, the unfaithful of Israel may be considered as “enemies of God for your sake” (the Gentiles). Yet when viewed from the standpoint of election (of God’s promise to Abraham), they are “beloved, for the sake of their ancestors” (Romans 11.28; NRSV).

What we have covered is the fuller context of the closing words from the reading of the Epistle: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Romans 11.29-32; NRSV).

What are we to make of this? What lessons can we draw from this lesson?

First, despite our differences, and our feelings of moral superiority, we all participate in brokenness. If you are like I am, the images from Charlottesville evoked a mixture of feelings ranging from anger to disappointment and disgust. I found myself thinking, I am glad I am not filled with the hatred displayed by members of the alt-right. In that respect, I am like the Pharisee who prayed, “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector [or like these alt-righters who are so filled with hate].” I need to be more like the tax collector who stood afar off, would not even look heavenward, beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18.10-13; NRSV). As Paul says, we are all imprisoned in disobedience. We all stand condemned before our God, salvation comes only through the grace of God.

Second, as Christians, we are called to a witness of love and peace. In our disdain for hatred, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia, it is all too easy to meet violence with violence. If we turn to violence, if we meet violence with violence, we act out of our own fear and anger. Born of such feelings, our actions say, “Step aside God; I’ll handle this!” In Romans 12.17-19, Paul says, Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (NRSV). We do need to confront violence and hatred, but we need to confront them with love.

We saw the witness of love and peace in the several hundred Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and other people of faith who gathered in Charlottesville as a witness prior to, during, and after the demonstration. We saw this witness in the Love Over Fear Sunrise Service conducted at 6:00 AM on Saturday in advance of the alt-right rally (https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/14/16140506/congregate-cville-charlottesville-rally-protest-interview). These actions are good, they serve as a witness, but how do we embrace others who are radically different from us and invite them into dialogue? We need to wrestle with this question.

Third, we need to trust God to use adversity and calamity for ultimate good. Our Old Testament reading from Genesis speaks to how Joseph was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt as a part of God’s providential plan. I suspect if we could see Joseph when he was bound, sold, and on his way to Egypt we would have seen a very different Joseph from the one who graciously recognized the work of God and granted his brothers forgiveness.  As Paul notes, God used the pride and the rejection of much of Israel as a means of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. Is God using the events of today as a means of humbling his people? Is God leading us through the wilderness, despite all our cursing and grumbling, into something better? In prayer, humility, and love, can we trust that God’s plan is being fulfilled?

Only by the grace of God can we truly live the life of Christ.      Amen

Sermon, August 13, 2017

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Sermon.08.13.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 9.1-5; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33

 

Last week we interrupted our series on Romans for the Feast of the Transfiguration. If we are to pursue the full set of lectionary readings from Romans, we must include last week’s assigned reading – Romans 9.1-5. Apart from that, today’s reading, Romans 10.5-15, would lack its proper context – part of the picture would be missing.

As you may recall, in Romans 8, we reached the climax of Paul’s letter. If the Spirit of Christ is in us, through God’s grace, we have a spirit of adoption. We belong to the family of God. The Spirit intercedes for us in our sufferings and weakness while we wait for our final adoption. Paul asked, “If God is for us, who is against us” (Romans 8.31b; NRSV)? Can hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword (war) separate us from the love of Christ? He answers, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8.37; NRSV). Paul closes the chapter with a profoundly moving confession of faith: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39; NRSV).

Imagine how Paul must have felt – he had brought his argument to a resounding crescendo. These are words of joy! But immediately thereafter, Paul tells us he speaks the truth, a truth which his conscience confirms by the Holy Spirit, then he confesses, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Romans 9.2; NRSV). From great joy to great sorrow!

Why? Because he recognizes the plight of his own people. Let’s back up for a minute. Acts 9 tells us how Saul breathed “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” how, on his way to Damascus, a light from heaven shone around him, blinded him, and Jesus asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9.4; NRSV). Ananias laid hands on Saul and prayed. Saul’s sight was restored, he received the Holy Spirit, and was then baptized. In his ministry to the Gentiles, Saul assumed his Latin name, “Paul.” God chose Saul to bring his message before Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.

Saul’s observance of the Law was zealous, but it was not enough. His encounter with Christ and his baptism in the Spirit convinced him that observance of the law did not make one righteous before God. Having literally seen the light, Paul had a deep burden for his fellow Israelites. In speaking of his deep sorrow, his unceasing anguish, Paul said, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9.3; NRSV). Paul briefly summarizes God’s special relationship with the Israelites: “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9.4-5; NRSV).

In Romans 9-11, Paul carefully explicates the scriptures to clearly reveal how God’s plan of salvation is accomplished through the Israelites. In doing so, Paul makes several crucial points.

First, Paul observes, “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants.” As support, he quotes Genesis 21.12, “‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you’” (Romans 9.7; NRSV). Paul further notes that the “children of God” are those who are the “children of the promise;” these are the true descendants of Abraham.

Second, in that God selected those who would receive the promise, our salvation does not depend on “human will or exertion,” e.g., striving to keep God’s law, but on God’s mercy (Romans 9. 16; NRSV).

Third, as earlier noted in Romans 3.29, God is also the God of the Gentiles, and per Romans 9. 24 (NRSV), God has also called out some among the Gentiles and grafted them into the covenant. Here Paul cites Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” (Romans 9.25; NRSV; Hosea 2.23).

Fourth, Paul observes, not all the children of Israel will experience salvation, for as Isaiah prophesied, only a remnant would be saved.

Fifth, Gentiles who did not strive for righteousness through the law have attained righteousness through faith, yet Israel, who strove for righteousness through adherence to the law, did not attain righteousness; they stumbled over the stumbling stone, that is, over Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

Again, Paul says his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved” (Romans 10.1; NRSV). Paul acknowledges their zeal for God, but calls it unenlightened, for they are “ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10.3; NRSV). Remember, Paul knows whereof he speaks, for this was precisely his own state of affairs prior to the Damascus Road experience. Paul then writes, “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10.4; NRSV).

And this brings us to today’s epistle. Paul begins by citing Moses’ characterization of righteousness that comes from the law that is found in Leviticus 18.5: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so, one shall live: I am the Lord” (NRSV). In contrast, Paul, quoting and reframing Deuteronomy 30.12-13, says,

The righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10.6-9; NRSV).

 

Here belief is not a matter of intellectual assent to some abstract proposition or doctrine attesting to the divinity of Christ; it is a matter of trusting the risen Christ whom one has encountered on their own Damascus Road experience. When we have encountered Christ, we can confess and profess with the man who was born blind, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9.25; NRSV).

                Paul continues, “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Romans 10.11-13; NRSV). In this brief passage, Paul quotes Isaiah 28.16 and Joel 2.32. Note how Paul is carefully and systematically drawing from numerous Old Testament passages to demonstrate how Christ is the culmination of a process which began with a promise to Abraham. The giving of the law is only part of that process – it was never intended to be the end of the process.

                Again, referring to the Israelites, Paul poses a series of questions: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written [Isaiah 52.7], ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’” (Romans 10.14-15; NRSV). As Christians, we are called to bring the good news – to confess and profess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Let us trust that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead; let us confess that Jesus is Lord; let us love God with all our heart and soul; and let us share the good news!

Amen

Sermon, August 6, 2017

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Sermon.08.06.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry V. Ort

Exodus 34.29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1.13-21; Luke 9.28-36

 

The Feast of the Transfiguration is always celebrated on August 6th; this year, the feast occurs on Sunday, so it takes precedence over the 9th Sunday of Pentecost. Thus, we interrupt our series on Romans for this important celebration.

What should we hope for on this feast day? The Collect addresses that question: “Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world may by faith behold the King in his beauty.” This service affords the opportunity to leave the cares of the world behind for a bit as we focus on worship; in the partaking of communion, may we catch a glimpse of the King in his beauty.

Let’s look at today’s readings in light of the Feast of Transfiguration. When Moses brought the covenant down from Mt. Sinai, he was unaware that “his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34.29; NRSV). The people were afraid to come near Moses; they had apparently run away from him, for the account says Moses called to Aaron and the congregation, and they returned to him.

Moses had been in the presence of God for forty days and forty nights. Exodus 34.5 tells us “The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with Moses there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord’” (NRSV). This settling of the divine presence of God and the manifestation of God’s glory, is referred to as the “Shekinah.” The Shekinah glory of God was manifest in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that preceded the Israelites as they departed Egypt (Exodus 13.21). It was also manifest in the way Moses’ face shone.

The psalmist, having proclaimed, “The Lord is King,” and noted the greatness of the Lord, states, “Let them confess his name, which is great and awesome” (Psalm 99.3). He commands the Israelites to “Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God and fall down before his footstool” (Psalm 99.1a, 5; NRSV). The psalmist then calls to mind Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, points to God’s presence in a pillar of cloud, praises God, and again commands the people, “Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God and worship him upon his holy hill; for the Lord our God is the Holy One” (Psalm 99.9; NRSV). Note the emphasis the psalmist places on confessing God’s name, proclaiming God’s greatness, and worshiping God.

The Gospel of Luke tells us how Jesus took his inner circle, Peter, James, and John, up the mountain with him to pray. While praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9.29; NRSV). Again we see God’s glory made manifest. Peter, James, and John saw Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory, talking to Jesus. The account tells us they were speaking of Jesus’ departure – of forthcoming events in Jerusalem. As Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter exclaimed, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9. 33; NRSV). While saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; they were terrified as the cloud enveloped them. And then they heard a voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9.35; NRSV)! The account closes with these words: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” (Luke 9.36; NRSV). In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, we are told, “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’” (Matthew 17.9; NRSV).

Let’s now look at the Epistle. 1st and 2nd Peter fulfill Jesus’ commission given Peter in response to his avowals of love – “feed my lambs . . . tend my sheep . . . feed my sheep” (cf. John 21.15-19). We see these actions in a beautiful passage which leads into today’s lesson. Closely attend to these words:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us byhis own glory and goodness.  Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.3-4).

 

Once again, the words of the Collect are brought to mind: “Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world may by faith behold the King in his beauty.” When we become participants of God’s nature, when we behold the King in his beauty, God’s glory descends upon us. Peter continues:

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.  For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble.  For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.

                        Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you (2 Peter 1.6-12; NRSV).

It is easy to gloss over this list of goodness, knowledge, self-control, etc., because of the way the passage is written.

The emphasis on making every effort to support these attributes becomes clearer, though a bit more cumbersome, if we rephrase These verses as follows:

You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness.

You must make every effort to support your goodness with knowledge.

You must make every effort to support your knowledge with self-control.

You must make every effort to support your self-control with endurance.

You must make every effort to support your endurance with godliness.

You must make every effort to support your godliness with mutual affection.

You must make every effort to support your mutual affection with love.

 

That is a lot of effort! We are called to be active participants in this process of transformation. Ultimately, these attributes, and all this effort, tie back to love; it is our display of love which makes our life in Christ effective. It is our love which reflects the presence of God’s glory in us.

Given that Peter is about to be executed, he reminds the addressees of some critical things. First, the disciples were not following a set of “cleverly devised myths” when they preached the coming and power of Jesus Christ. To the contrary, they were “eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty” (2 Peter 1.16; NRSV). Second, our Lord Jesus Christ “received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (2 Peter 1.17; NRSV). These words were spoken at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus had not yet called the disciples, but as Peter notes, “We ourselves (i.e., Peter, James, and John) heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1.18; NRSV).

Peter further reasons, in that they were eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty, in that they heard the voice and were with Jesus on the mountain, the prophetic message has been more fully confirmed. For these reasons the Apostles and disciples proclaimed the greatness of the Lord. Peter calls them to be attentive to this fuller confirmation, to look upon it as “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in their own hearts,” that is, to the time of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The prophecy of scripture, Peter points out, is never a matter of one’s own interpretation, for prophecy never comes from the human will, but only as men and women are moved to speak by the Holy Spirit. Peter is feeding the sheep.

May we behold the King in his beauty; may we confess his name; may our lives show forth his glory so others may see and believe; and may we proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God.

Amen

 

Sermon, July 30, 2017

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Sermon.07.30.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 29.15-28; Psalm 105.1-11, 45b; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

 

As noted previously, Romans 8 is the pivotal chapter of Paul’s letter. Having pointed out that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, that our justification is the free gift of God’s grace which comes through belief in Jesus Christ, that we live under the law of the Spirit as opposed to the law of the flesh, Paul begins the chapter with the ringing pronouncement, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Vs. 1; NRSV). Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under the sentence of death. If Christ is in us, if we have the Spirit of Christ in us, Paul tells us the Spirit of God will give life to our mortal bodies. This is the Gospel; the good news.

It gets even better! Paul further tells us “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8.14). As children of God, we have been granted a “spirit of adoption.” God is our Father; Christ is our brother. When we cry out, “Abba! Father!”, the Spirit of God bears witness that we are the very children of God – the heirs of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ, provided that (note this provision), “we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him” (Romans 8.17; NRSV). We are children of God if we suffer with our Lord Jesus Christ. With no apology to those who hold the prosperity gospel, if we do not suffer with Christ, we are not the children of God.

                Paul further tells us that he does not consider his suffering “worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed” (Romans 8. 18; NRSV). As children of God, we are not the only ones who suffer – all of creation suffers with us as it awaits redemption. As Paul notes, “not only the creation, but we ourselves . . .  groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved” (Romans 8.23-24a; NRSV). Not only were we saved in hope – we wait longingly and patiently with hope for the resurrection.

Last Sunday I named a few of the things those in Christ suffer. We suffer from the realization of how far short we fall from fully living into the image of Christ. The more thoroughly one is transformed, the more one is bound to suffer, for one who lives more deeply into the Spirit of Christ comes to see and feel more clearly with the eyes of Christ. One sees and feels the brokenness of individuals and relationships in families and communities. One sees and feels the ravages of poverty, hunger, unemployment, addiction, discrimination, disease, and war. One who sees with the eyes of Christ is likely to experience a cosmic sense of sadness which may lead to despair; hopefully, such a one will also experience a cosmic sense of hope. As Paul earlier noted in Romans 5.3-4, our suffering leads to endurance, endurance builds character, and character produces hope which does not disappoint us, for “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (NRSV).

In today’s reading, Paul continues to build on the good news of our adoption and new life in Christ. Once again, he addresses our weakness and our suffering: “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8.26; NRSV). When we see with the eyes of Christ, how do we pray? Where do we begin? Our efforts and attempts are so weak – so shallow.

Jesus gave us a wonderful prayer – the Lord’s Prayer – but if we pray that prayer to the depths of our being, we realize that even those words, beautiful as they are, fail to fully express our deepest needs and longings. Thanks be to God, for God knows our deepest needs and longings, and the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. As St. Paul tells us, “God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8.27; NRSV). God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ our Lord are present with us; they work on our behalf in accord with God’s plan of salvation.

Thus, Paul assures us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8.28-30).

Unfortunately, this passage has led to a lot of acrimonious theological debate. Two related questions are at issue: 1) Are we to understand this passage from an individual or a communal standpoint? 2) When Paul speaks of God’s foreknowledge, is he thinking in terms of God’s sovereignty over all things, including salvation history, or is he thinking of the philosophical issue of free-will versus determinism?

Given the overall structure of Romans which addresses salvation history, and given Paul’s consideration of those adopted into the family of God, the children of God, of those who live in the Spirit, I favor a communal interpretation. Some theologians, especially John Calvin, interpret this passage from an individual standpoint and introduce the question of free will.

I further believe the two interpretations reflect differing images of God. The communal-sovereign interpretation reflects a God who would make all things new, a God who would restore creation. In contrast, the individual-free will interpretation reflects a God who is far more judgmental and wrathful – a God who would predestine some to eternal damnation and others to eternal life.

Our image of God reflects our understanding of the character of God. If God is characterized by love and justice, God must hold out the free gift of salvation to everyone, and it is up to them to respond as they so choose. Given God’s character of love and justice, could God do otherwise? God desires that we be transformed into the image of God’s Son. God’s love and compassion for us may be deeper than we will ever realize. In Jesus Christ, God has acted, continues to act, and will continue to act for us. And let us not forget the resurrected Jesus ascended to the Father that they might send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Our God is an awesome God of love!

Paul next asks: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8.31b; NRSV) As Paul observes, God’s love for us is so great that he came to live and walk among us through his son, Jesus Christ. Christ died, was raised, now sits at the right hand of God, and intercedes for us. “Who,” Paul asks, “will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8.35; NRSV). Paul affirms that we are more than conquerors in all these things. Paul then reaches the apex of his argument and his testimony: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39; NRSV). Nothing can destroy, or separate us from, the love of God. God’s love is the only thing we can take with us as we depart this world – indeed, it is the only thing worth possessing, and God graciously offers it to us as a free gift.

The love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord resides in every child of God. It is a profoundly spiritual aspect of our being which brings love, joy, peace, and eternal life. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from this love. Let’s live this life, and share it with others!

Amen

Discussion, July 23, 2017

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Living in Tension

Fr. Larry Ort, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

For the past several weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary has included passages from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Church of Rome (Romans). Paul begins Romans 8.12-25 by reminding the Christians of Rome (and us) that “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8.12-13; NRSV). This notion of debt is a bit troublesome. If our salvation is a freely given gift of God’s grace, how can we be in debt?

A better sense of what Paul is saying comes from thinking in terms of obligation. In Romans 8.1-2, Paul tells us those who are in Christ Jesus no longer stand in condemnation for they now live under the “law of the Spirit of life” as opposed to the “law of sin and death.” In that we are “led by the Spirit of God,” we are now “children of God;” we have “received a spirit of adoption” (Romans 8.14-15; NRSV). Paul further notes, when we pray, when we cry out, “Abba! Father!” the Spirit of God is “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” and thus, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8. 15-17). Living in the Spirit, and being a child of God, does present a certain set of obligations. As a child of God, we stand in a special relationship with God; we have an obligation to worship and honor God in all that we say and do. As we live in the Spirit, we cannot do whatever we please.

Paul further tells us he considers our current sufferings as nothing when compared to the glory we will ultimately see and experience. Presently, all of creation suffers and eagerly awaits the revealing of the children of God. In the meantime, “we who have the first fruits of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, etc.], groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8.23; NRSV). Paul closes this passage by noting we patiently hope for this day.

Perhaps you noted a seeming discrepancy in Paul’s account; we have received a Spirit of adoption (Romans 8.15) yet we “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8.23). We live and suffer in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”    Why do we suffer? We suffer from knowing the discrepancy between the person God calls us to be and the persons that we are. Transformation is usually a slow process. As for me, I suffer when I witness the callous disregard that would deny millions adequate health care coverage. I suffer when I witness attempts to remove vast wilderness tracts and national monuments from protection such that a few may become wealthier.  I suffer when I see our country pull out of the Paris climate accord. I suffer when I see the way we worship our false idols and abuse the gifts that God has given us.

Yet with Paul, I can rejoice, for I realize that my suffering leads to endurance, endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope, and hope does not disappoint, for our hope rests in the Spirit of God (Romans 5.3-4). I already am, but I am not yet. We can live and rejoice in the tension.

 

 

Sermon, July 16, 2017

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Sermon.07.16.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 25.19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

 

Last Sunday I emphasized that Romans 7 is an interlude addressed to the Jewish Christians in Rome; it is Paul’s effort to clearly set forth the place of the Law in God’s plan of salvation. We also noted Kierkegaard’s three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. If we were fully capable of living in accord with the law, i.e., in the ethical stage of existence, we would be righteous, but alas, we are unable to do so. We live a divided, broken, fractured existence – individually, socially, nationally, globally! We long for healing and wholeness, and we frenetically search for it in all the wrong places. Is it any wonder that most live lives of despair? Paul captures this sense of despair when he says, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death” (Romans 7.24; NRSV)?

One who has reached this existential crisis is confronted with a fundamental choice – to remain in this state of despair or to make a leap of faith into the religious stage of existence. Kierkegaard further divides the religious stage into Religiousness A (pagan religion) and Religiousness B (Christianity). True salvation comes through the mercy of God; try as we might, we are unable to meet the demands of the Law of God. Our rescue comes through Jesus Christ our Lord! As Paul proclaims, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7.25a; NRSV)!

As mentioned previously, when one moves from the aesthetic stage to the ethical stage, the aesthetic aspect of life is not abandoned. The aesthetic life is transformed and increasingly brought under the influence of the ethical. Likewise, when one moves from the ethical stage to the religious stage, the ethical stage is not abandoned. By the grace of God, the ethical stage is transformed and brought under the realm of the religious. This transformation is a process that takes place with considerable struggle. Paul notes this struggle at the close of chapter 7: “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7.25b; NRSV). But as Paul immediately notes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1; NRSV).

Let’s back up for a moment, and come at this from another direction. In Romans 6, as you may recall, we focused on Paul’s call to holy living, the two types of slavery, and their associated outcomes. We are either slaves to sin, or slaves to God; slavery to sin leads to death while slavery to God leads to sanctification and eternal life.

Sometimes people think that we are born finite (mortal) and we strive to become infinite (immortal). As we are created in the image of God, we are both finite and infinite; we are a strange and glorious admixture of the finite and the infinite. The fundamental choice of life is which we will choose to maximize? Will we choose the finite (enslavement to sin) and suffer death, or will we choose the infinite (enslavement to God) which leads to sanctification and eternal life? Remember Paul’s closing words in Romans 6: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Vs. 23; NRSV). In Galatians 3.10, Paul tells us, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law’” (NRSV). Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 27.26. As you may recall, ancient covenants stipulated blessings and curses.

Now we turn to the pivotal point of Paul’s letter to the Romans – chapter 8. Paul begins with the conclusion to a long argument – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Vs. 1; NRSV). This is the Gospel; the good news. It is cause for rejoicing and celebration! The curse does not apply to those who are in Christ Jesus. Why not? Paul sets forth a few reasons in verses 2 – 8. N. T. Wright (Paul for Everyone: Romans I) compares the structure of Romans 8.1-11 to the slow opening of a beautiful flower; as the flower opens, we see more and more of its intricate detail and beauty. Let’s look at these reasons.

First, there is no condemnation, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8.2; NRSV). In our baptism, we have been born anew into the life of Christ Jesus; we are no longer subject to the law of sin and death.

Second, there is no condemnation, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8.3-4; NRSV). Notice how this further opens the first reason; this tells us how the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free. Christ emptied himself and took on the form of human flesh, and in that flesh fulfilled the demands of the law which we are unable to meet. In so doing, he condemned sin in the flesh and opened the way for those who believe in him to have access to life in the Spirit.

Third, there is no condemnation, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8.5-6; NRSV). If our minds are set on the things of the Spirit, we experience life and peace. As Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/ourheartisrestlessuntilitrestsinyou/). When our flesh is at war with the Spirit, there can be no peace. Paul continues, “For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8.7-8; NRSV).

Paul next reminds the Roman Christians, and by extension, us, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8.9; NRSV). In baptism, we receive the sacrament of new birth, and in the prayers for the candidate, we pray, “Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit” (BCP, p. 305). In 2 Corinthians 5.17 (NRSV), Paul tells us, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” The Spirit of Christ lives in us. As Paul proclaims in Galatians 2.20, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (NRSV). And as Paul notes, “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8.10-11; NRSV).

Of our own power, we are unable to meet the demands of God’s law, to live in righteousness with God and our neighbor. But as we permit the Spirit of God to work in us, as we experience the process of sanctification, we come to know life and peace.  Grant, O Father, “that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them” (Collect).  Amen

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon, July 9, 2017

Monday, July 10th, 2017

Sermon.07.09.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45.11-18; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

 

The Depth of Our Struggles

 

Last Sunday we heard Paul’s Call to Holy Living. He instructed the Roman Church to no longer let sin rule in their mortal bodies; the members of their bodies were no longer to be used as weapons of wickedness but were to, henceforth, be used as the arms of righteousness. He closes his Call to Holy Living by saying, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6.14; NRSV).

We also noted Paul’s assurance that, having been baptized into the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are now dead to sin and are slaves to righteousness. Given our natural limitations, the weakness of our flesh, Paul says we are now to present our members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.  We are to remember our baptism and live into it.

Yet, in today’s reading, Paul begins by saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7.15; NRSV). Say what? What’s going on here? Is Paul confessing his own weaknesses? If honest, we confess our struggle with sin. Don’t many Christians use the expression, “I do not do what I would do,” as a defense of their own failure to fully live a Christian life?

A very thorough and careful study of the structure of Romans chapter 7 reveals it to be an interlude in which Paul is more fully setting forth the nature and the function of the Law handed down at Mt. Sinai. In several instances in the letter, Paul has previously alluded to the Law. In Romans 3.20, Paul points out that no one is justified through obedience to the law; “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (NRSV). In Romans 3.21-27, Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from the works prescribed by the law” (NRSV). In Romans 4.13-15, Paul reminds us that the promise to Abraham came through the righteousness of faith as opposed to the law. In Romans 5.13-14, Paul notes that sin entered the world before the law, that “sin is not reckoned where there is no law” (NRSV). In Romans 5.20, Paul observes that once the law came into force, trespass multiplied, yet “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (NRSV). And last, in Romans 6.14-15, we are told “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law, but under grace” (NRSV).

I previously suggested that Romans 7 is an interlude. Note the opening: “Do you not know brothers and sisters – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime” (Romans 7.1; NRSV). As he is speaking to those who know the law, i.e., the law of Moses, Paul is addressing the Jewish Christians of the Church of Rome.

Having noted the law is binding on a person only during his or her lifetime, Paul reminds the Jewish Christians, “You have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7. 4; NRSV). Paul further notes, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Romans 7.5; NRSV). But, having been baptized, we have died to the old life; as Paul notes, “Now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7.6; NRSV).

Having noted the law serves to arouse our sinful passions, Paul next asks, “What then should we say? That the law is sin” (Romans 7.7; NRSV)? He replies, “By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Paul then provides a concrete illustration: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Romans 7.7-8: NRSV).

We should note two things. First, people certainly experienced covetous desires prior to the commandment but the desires did not then count as sin. With the commandment comes an awareness of sin, and with the awareness of sin, our covetous desires are multiplied. Some of you may have previously thought of the pink elephant present in the nave, but if I give you a moral imperative, “Do not think of the pink elephant in the nave,” you now have an awareness that it is wrong to think of the pink elephant. Second, when an action is prohibited, it becomes even more attractive!

Paul continues, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7.9-12; NRSV).

Wait a minute! Was Paul ever alive apart from the law? No, Paul was born under the Mosaic law. Paul may not literally be referring to himself. The intent of the passage becomes clearer if we think of Paul as setting forth the history of Israel. The “I” may refer to God’s Old Covenant people who once lived apart from the law. They received the law at Mt. Sinai, and as Psalm 119 reveals, the law was cause for rejoicing: “At last, God has told us what we must do if we are to live in right relationship with God.”

But even with the knowledge of the law, they found they could not keep the law. Their mind and their flesh were at war. Listen to the verse preceding today’s reading: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I (the People of the Old Covenant) am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (Romans 714; NRSV).

Listen to this passage again, but think of it as a reflection of the pain of one who would love God, who knows the law (as the Jewish Christians did), and even loves the law, yet cannot meet the demands of the law:

Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

“Wretched man that I am!” reflects the state of one who is suffering an existential crisis. Permit me to analyze this in Kierkegaardian terms.

Kierkegaard holds that there are three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Some never achieve all three stages, and the transition from one stage to another stage always takes place through a crisis of despair. In the aesthetic stage, one searches for meaning through the pleasures of this life – wine, women/men and song in abundance. But alas, as Solomon discovered, this is vanity; such a life leads only to despair. Amidst this despair, one may choose to leap to the ethical stage where one strives to live an ethical existence. As Paul tells us, we have the law, we know the law, even delight in the law, but we find we cannot adhere to the demands of the law. Our inability to live an ethical existence once again leads to despair – “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” If one is to escape this existential crisis, one must make the leap of faith into the religious life. We glimpse this leap of faith in Pauls’ answer to the question, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

It is important to note that one does not entirely abandon the previous stage of existence; the previous stage is transformed in light of one’s new life and experience. For example, when one moves from the aesthetic to the ethical, aesthetic pleasures are still to be enjoyed, but enjoyed ethically, and ultimately, religiously.

Next week, we will move beyond the chapter 7 interlude, into the beauty of chapter 8. We will move more fully into the religious stage of existence and again pick up Paul’s theme of sanctification. Stay tuned for further developments!  Amen!