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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!

Sermon, July 2, 2017

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

Sermon.07.02.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 22.1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42

 

Paul begins the lesson for today with the statement, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Romans 6.12). “Therefore” tells us that Paul continues to set forth his argument. Let’s recap a few key points. First, we are justified by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; when justified, we stand in right relationship with God — we stand in God’s grace. Second, just as sin and death entered the world through one man, Adam, the gift of eternal life comes through Jesus Christ. Third, having been baptized, we were baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection so that “we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.4; NRSV). And fourth, in that we walk in newness of life, we must consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6.11).

If you are looking for a good book, I highly recommend N. T. Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Romans Part I and Part II. I have gained many insights from Wright as I have worked on this series. I especially like his treatment of Romans 6.12-23 which he divides into three sections: The Call for holy Living, the Two Types of Slavery, and Where the Two Roads Lead. Let’s briefly look at each of these.

If we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ,” our lives should reflect that fact.  Hence, Paul issues a “Call to Holy Living:”

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6. 12-14; NRSV).

 

What does Paul mean by “members”? In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (Vs 14; NRSV). He goes on to speak of the hand, the ear, the eye, hearing, sense of smell, the head, the feet, etc. As members, he includes not only parts of the body, but also faculties and functions.

When Paul speaks of “instruments of wickedness” and “instruments of righteousness,” he is employing military terminology – literally meaning “weapons of wickedness” and “arms of righteousness” (Haslam, Chris. http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr13l.shtml). In that we have been redeemed, we are no longer to use the members of our bodies as weapons of wickedness in service to sin, but are to use them as arms of righteousness to promote the kingdom of God. For example, we are not to use our minds to plot revenge or to exercise malice; we are to use our minds to promote peace, goodness, and wholeness. Sin is no longer to exercise dominion over us – as Paul says, and note the future tense, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

To further illustrate the idea that sin will no longer have dominion over one who is baptized, Paul next compares two types of slavery – slavery to sin and disobedience and slavery to obedience. This addresses the fundamental question: What or whom do we serve; who is our lord and master? Slavery was a very common practice when Paul wrote the letter to the Roman church; people would have readily understood his references to slavery. Although slavery is not a part of our society, we can still get an idea of what Paul is driving at if we think in terms of being enslaved to addictions such as drugs, alcohol, sex, tobacco, gossip, fake news, or the meanness, greed, and nastiness we currently see in so much of politics. Our world order reflects our slavery to sin and disobedience.

In a recent “op ed” piece in the Washington Post (June 27, 2017), David Ignatius asked: What happens when the whole world becomes selfish? Ignatius observes, “The politics of national self-interest is on steroids these days. For global leaders, it’s the ‘me’ moment.  . . . Despite body blows to the European Union over the past few years, France and Germany, the two dominant players, retain the conviction that their destinies involve something larger than national self-interest. Fear and nationalism have shaken Europe but not overwhelmed it. An enlightened center is holding at Europe’s core.” One might ask – For how long? Ignatius concludes, “The politics of selfishness may seem inevitable in Trump world. But by definition, it can’t produce a global system. That’s its fatal flaw” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/what-happens-when-the-whole-world-becomes-selfish/2017/06/27/8caae1dc-5b5c-11e7-9fc6-c7ef4bc58d13_story.html?utm_term=.29cbd5828b33).

Addressing the baptized, those who stand in God’s grace, Paul continues: “But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6.17-18; NRSV).

Paul reasons we will serve one of two masters – either sin or righteousness, either Satan or our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps you may be thinking, “But what about freedom?” The issue of freedom enters in to our choice as to which one we will serve, and if we choose righteousness and our Lord Jesus Christ, we can serve only to the extent that we are the willing recipients of God’s grace – as Paul says, “You, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Paul says: “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations (that is, the weakness of the flesh). For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6.19; NRSV).

Where do the two roads lead, the two types of slavery? Paul is very clear – the road of sin leads to death, but the road of obedience to God leads to sanctification and eternal life. At the close of this passage, Paul further addresses the topic of sanctification noting it is an advantage: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6.22-23; NRSV).

What is this advantage of sanctification? How does it take place? Sanctification is “the realization or progressive attainment of likeness to God or to God’s intention . . . It may be regarded both as a status conferred by divine grace and as a goal to be aimed at” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4, p. 210). Some denominations maintain that sanctification is a “second work of grace,” a distinct event, which may at some point follow one’s conversion, the “first work of grace.” I think most who experience sanctification, experience it as a process. Event or process? Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of sanctification as a process punctuated by moments of intensity or greater awareness of the transforming work of the Spirit’s presence.

Sanctification takes place, as Paul notes, by presenting “our members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” The presentation is daily. We might think of the presentation of our members as a daily offering to God.

We need to remember our experience of the love of God, to remember our faith. We need to remember we are baptized in Christ and dead to sin.  We need to remember to choose righteousness. When we hear “remember your baptism,” we are not called to remember the event of our baptism. We are called to remember that we are dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ. When tempted, we need to remember our baptism. Martin Luther once said when he was beset by worry, stress, frustration, and temptation, he would say, “Baptizatus sum!” (“I am baptized!), and he would experience a calming presence. We might do well to practice that!

Sanctification takes place as we respond to God’s love, as we live into God’s love. Sanctification takes place as we remember we are God’s holy dwelling place, and as such, God is to be granted access to every room, even our locked closets.   Amen

Sermon, June 25, 2017

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

Sermon.06.25.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 21.8-21; Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39

 

Let’s review for a moment. When we are justified by faith we stand in a right relationship with God – as Paul says, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5.1b-2; NRSV). We further noted, “In the presence of God’s glory, we begin to understand, to envision, God’s original intent for our life. We catch a glimpse of what, and of who, God would have us become” (Sermon.06.18.17). This is a call to transformation – to transformed living such that we become more like Christ. Our suffering is for a purpose – it produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and, as Paul says, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5.5; NRSV).

In the remainder of chapter 5, Paul reminds us how sin entered the world through one man, Adam, and with sin came death. Just as death came through one man, the free gift of life – eternal life – comes through Jesus Christ. Adam’s sin brought condemnation, but Christ’s act of righteousness, his obedience which led to death and the resurrection, brought justification to all who believe. Paul further stressed that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5.20-21; NRSV). This is truly the good news, the Gospel truth, which is cause for our rejoicing! And this sets the context for today’s lesson.

Remember, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” So, Paul begins by asking, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound” (Romans 6.1; NRSV). If God’s grace always exceeds the effects of sin, and God’s grace is always and everywhere desired, shouldn’t we multiply God’s grace by continuing to sin? Couldn’t we schedule “sin parties” on Saturday night so we can confess and multiply God’s grace on Sunday? We could have sex, drugs, and rock and roll! We could bill it as a Saturday evening service in preparation for Sunday and watch our attendance soar!

Well, lest you get too excited, Paul answers his rhetorical question by saying, “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6.2; NRSV) We are called away from sin into “newness of life.” Listen closely to Paul’s reasoning:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6.3-4); NRSV).

 

When Paul says “buried with him,”, the Greek word employed is synthapein which literally means “co-buried” (Haslam, Chris. http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr12l.shtml). In our baptism, we share Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Colossians 2, Paul tells us that we come to fullness through Jesus Christ: “For in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him” (Colossians 2.9-10; NRSV). Paul further tells us, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2. 12; NRSV). We are not to continue in a life of sin; the glory of God raised Jesus Christ that we might walk in the newness and fullness of life.

In Romans 6, Paul continues to make his point, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.5; NRSV). “United in him” is conveyed by the “Greek synphytoi, literally grown together, as when a young branch is grafted onto a tree, it grows together with the tree and is nourished by it [NJBC]” ((Haslam, Chris. http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr12l.shtml). This image of grafting may call to mind John 15.5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (NRSV).

Let’s look a bit more closely at the idea of being raised with Christ that we might walk in newness of life. Here Paul is employing Old Testament imagery. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Kings, Chronicles, and several other Old Testament books contain references to “walking in his ways.” The ethical connotations of this phrase are evident as one reads a paragraph of Moses’ farewell discourses from Deuteronomy:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your Godthat I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30.15-20; NRSV).

When young, we want to walk in our own way, to fulfill all our dreams and fantasies; we are fully convinced that we are free, that we are really living. When, and if, our ethical reasoning matures, we discover that we are not really free; we come to realize that we are enslaved to sin. We realize we are incapable of truly loving ourselves, let alone our neighbor or God. Our old ego-enslaved self must die that something new may be born. In baptism, we die and are reborn. This is Paul’s message in the closing paragraph of our reading from Romans:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6.5-11; NRSV).

 

The old self has died that something new may be born.

This does not mean that we no longer sin, for we do. A close examination reveals that we sin daily; we are called to daily repentance. In the sorrowing of repentance, we experience God’s grace and receive newness of life.

Amen

Sermon, June 18, 2017

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Sermon.06.18.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 18.1-5, 21.1-7; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35 -10.23

 

On Trinity Sunday, we briefly looked at the mystery of our experience of God as three persons – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – while realizing that God is One, a Unity. We noted Richard Rohr’s idea of the divine dance, a circle dance in which each is part of the other (Rohr, Richard. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation). In concluding, I stressed we should not allow our doctrines to separate us from communally sharing and experiencing the love of God. To quote, “While doctrine is important, we need to remember this doctrine reflects our experience. I believe it is more important for us to celebrate our shared experiences than it is for us to set about correcting each other’s doctrinal position” (Ort, Sermon.06.11.17). Does that mean, when it comes to doctrine, that anything goes, that we are free to believe anything, that doctrine is of no importance? If you left thinking that, let’s back up and dig deeper.

There are basic doctrines that are essential to the Christian faith, e.g., sin, grace, salvation, covenant, righteousness from God, justification, etc. Over the next few Sundays, we will look more closely at Paul’s letter to the Romans and examine how Paul systematically and beautifully presents the basic themes of salvation. At that time, the Church of Rome was very likely a small collection of house churches composed of Gentiles and Jews which often led to some fundamental conflict. From the structure of Paul’s letter, we can conclude they needed a clear exposition of the gospel and the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Our reading from Romans 5 begins: “Since we are justified by faith…” (NRSV); or variously, “The result is this: since we have been declared ‘in the right’ on the basis of faith…” (N. T. Wright’s Translation). The use of “since” should alert us to the fact that some previous action has gone before. Let’s briefly explore what Paul has done in Romans 1 – 4.

After a rather lengthy introduction, Paul tells us righteousness from God is revealed in the gospel. Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ (Romans 1.16-17; NRSV)(Cf. Habbakuk 2.4). Paul then details the lack of righteousness of all humankind – both Gentile and Jew are under sin. Everyone stands under God’s law, yet no one “’will be justified in God’s sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law” (Romans 3.20; NRSV). So, what is the function of the law? As Paul says, “For through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3.20; NRSV).

Having set forth our utter lack of righteousness, our consciousness of sin through the law, and our understanding that we deserve to be declared guilty and to suffer God’s judgment, Paul then shares the good news, the gospel:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3.21-24; NRSV).

 

All who believe and put their trust and faith in Jesus Christ are justified, are made righteous, through the grace of God. As Paul points out, we are “justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3.28; NRSV). Our justification cannot be earned. So, what happens to the law? Is it made null and void? Lest we think that, Paul states, “Do we, then, overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3.31; NIV). The law continues to fulfill its function; it makes us conscious of our sin.

Perhaps you are wondering, if righteousness from God comes through belief in Jesus Christ, what about those who lived before Christ? St. Paul addresses this question in chapter 4 when he asks, “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? . . . For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4. 1, 3; NRSV; Cf. Gen. 15.6, 22). Paul further stresses that the promise of inheriting “the world did not come to Abraham and his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4.13; NRSV).

We can briefly summarize Romans 1-4 as follows: Everyone stands under God’s law; everyone has sinned; no one has been, is, or will be, justified by adherence to the law. The law functions to convict us of our sins. Our justification is a gift of God which comes in response to our faith, our belief, our trust, in the saving works of God, especially through God incarnate in Jesus Christ.

In Romans 5, Paul tells us the significance, the importance, the benefits of justification. Note how he begins this passage: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5.1-2; NRSV). In other words, since we now stand in a righteous relationship with God, we are at peace with God. Our hearts and minds are no longer filled with enmity toward God. As Christians, we understand that this takes place through the atoning work of our Lord Jesus Christ. We come with Christ into the presence of God.

I like the way N. T. Wright (Paul for Everyone: Romans) translates these verses: “The result is this: since we have been declared ‘in the right’ on the basis of faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Through him we have been allowed to approach, by faith, into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate the hope of the glory of God.” As Wright observes, “allowed to approach” is temple language; we are now granted access to the “holy of holies” such that we stand in the presence of God, in the very grace of God. Having experienced the awesomeness of God’s love, Paul says “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” or as Wright puts it, “we celebrate the hope of the glory of God.” A better sense of what is meant by boasting is that we are “basking in glory” (Haslam, Chris. http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/apr11l.shtml). In the presence of God’s glory, we begin to understand, to envision, God’s original intent for our life. We catch a glimpse of what, and of who, God would have us become.

Having a sense of that vision, we are now able to bask in our sufferings. Why? We can trust that through the goodness of God, we are being transformed into Christ’s likeness. Through suffering the pain of loss, we learn endurance. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. The transforming work of God is taking place; the pre-eminent place of self is being eroded, or worn away, that the image of God may show forth more clearly. The process yields a strange admixture of pain and joy. Paul reminds us, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5.5; NRSV). Our existence is being filled with the love of God.

Paul reminds us that Christ died for us, the ungodly, at the right time, in God’s time, when we were still weak and sinful. As Paul says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8; NRSV). Righteousness from God was revealed in Jesus Christ. In response to our faith, our belief, our trust, we receive God’s gift of justification – we can stand in right relationship with God such that the work of transformation can begin.

Amen

 

 

Sermon, June 11, 2017

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Sermon.06.11.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20

 

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. Although an occasional reference to God’s Spirit is found in the Old Testament, New Testament references are numerous, especially after the powerful manifestation of God’s Spirit at Pentecost.

As you may recall, Jesus promised the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter. Let’s briefly look at this promise. In John’s portrayal of Jesus’ farewell message, Jesus said, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14.25-26; NRSV). A bit later, Jesus added, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16.7; NRSV).

Jesus prefaces his final remarks about the coming of the Holy Spirit with these words, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Then Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16. 12-15; NRSV). So, the Holy Spirit teaches, reminds, and guides us as it glorifies Jesus Christ and gives us what belongs to Christ.

I have always liked the phrase, “he will guide you into all truth.” If the disciples had already been living in all truth, there would be no reason for the Spirit to guide them, and us, into further truth. In Hebrews 1.1-3 (NRSV) we read, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his wonderful word.”

Many interpret these verses to mean that Jesus Christ, as the fullness of God’s revelation, closes all further revelation. Perhaps so, if we think of Jesus Christ as revealing the fullness, the completeness, of God’s love, but are we not like the disciples? Can we not also hear Jesus saying to us, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Who among us can say that we model fully the love of God as revealed through Jesus Christ? The Spirit teaches us, reminds us of Jesus words and actions. If we permit, the Spirit guides and prompts us that Jesus Christ may be glorified.

In Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a, the hymn of creation, we sing of the mighty power and acts of God in creation. We see how the Word of God spoke things into being and adjudged them to be good. On the sixth day, God brought forth the living creatures of the earth – the fish, the birds, and living creatures of every kind. Having done that, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1.26; NRSV). Regretfully, we have misused this dominion to rapaciously despoil God’s creation, and in doing so, we have ignored the charge, the responsibility, of tilling and caring for the garden as we were tasked in the second creation account.

In John 1 we read these beautiful words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . All things came into being through him . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Vs. 1-3, 14, 16-17; NRSV).

In Psalm 8 we again encounter the greatness of God whose name is exalted and whose majesty is praised. Then the psalmist acknowledges a moment most of us have experienced as we contemplate the heavens, the vastness of God’s creation displayed in the moon and the stars – who are we that you should be mindful of us, that you should seek us out? Yet you have made us but a little lower than the angels and have given us mastery over the works of your hands.

In the brief closing of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, the troubled community of which we have previously spoken, St. Paul pleads with them: “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and mercy will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13.11; NRSV). Then St. Paul closes with the words many of us now recognize as the Apostolic Benediction: “[May] the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (Vs. 13; NRSV).

This benediction does not convey a doctrine of the Trinity; rather, it is a reflection of Paul’s experience. The grace of Christ sought, found, and forgave him on the road to Damascus. Through the grace of Christ, Paul experienced the love of God, a love so immense that God chose to become incarnate, to live, and walk among us. The communion of the Holy Spirit was experienced in the indwelling Spirit of God which transforms us and empowers us to love in community and fellowship with our brothers and sisters.

And let us not forget Jesus’ words of the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.18-20; NRSV). Again, this should not be taken as the statement of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity is a mystery which we cannot fully comprehend.  In attempting to help us better understand the nature of the Trinity, Richard Rohr uses the image of a divine dance. Think in terms of a group of people dancing in a circle. Rohr says, “In our attempts to explain the Trinitarian Mystery we overemphasized the individual qualities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but not so much the relationships between them. That is where all the power is! That is where all the meaning is!” (Rohr, Richard. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation)

The doctrine of the Trinity arose from St. Paul’s and the early church’s experience and encounter with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine was not fully formulated until the Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E. We should also remember that the formulation was fraught with controversy. While doctrine is important, we need to remember this doctrine reflects our experience. I believe it is more important for us to celebrate our shared experiences than it is for us to set about correcting each other’s doctrinal position. A few weeks ago, a Muslim shared how he senses God’s call to do certain things. We enjoyed sharing our experiences. While knowing that he rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, I found myself thinking that I perceive this as the voice and interaction of the Holy Spirit.

The important thing is that we experience God’s call, act on that call; we can share that experience, and can encourage each other to move more deeply into the experience of God. It is tragic that we so often permit the correctness of the doctrinal interpretation of our experience to come between us rather than display the radical love and hospitality to which Jesus calls us. That statement applies to people of our own faith as well as those outside our faith. I suspect if people could really experience Jesus’ love and acceptance through us, they might begin to wonder about experiencing the fullness of God’s love revealed through Jesus Christ. Yes, they might catch a glimpse of Jesus in us.

Amen

 

 

 

Sermon, June 4, 2017

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Sermon.06.04.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23

 

The Christian Church celebrates Pentecost on the seventh Sunday following Easter – the fiftieth day of Easter. We understand Pentecost in terms of the events of Acts 2 – the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples with the sound of a rushing wind and divided tongues as of fire such that they spoke in other languages. Yet Acts 2.1 begins with the words, “When the day of Pentecost had come…”

“Pentecost” is the old Greek and Latin word for the Jewish Festival of Weeks which came fifty days after Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, festivals which had been observed for centuries.

Pentecost was a celebration of reaping the grain harvest. The smell of freshly baked bread would have permeated the streets of Jerusalem.

As Christians, we tend to think of Pentecost as the birth of the Christian Church. In response to Peter’s bold preaching, we are told about three thousand persons welcomed the message of salvation and were baptized. Thereafter, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42; NRSV). In our baptismal covenant, we commit, among other things, to doing the same.

Pentecost has tremendous spiritual meaning and significance which is more fully grasped when one considers the story of the Tower of Babel found in Genesis 11. The account begins by stating the whole earth had one language. After the people learned to make bricks, they decided to build a city and “a tower with its top in the heavens” that they might make a name for themselves (Gen 11.4; NRSV). The Lord came down from heaven, looked at the progress of the city and the tower, and said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11.6; NRSV). Thus, the Lord came down and confused their language, such that the place was called Babel, and scattered the people across the face of the earth.

In marked contrast, at Pentecost, the people “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2.4; NRSV). Why would God choose to confuse the language at Babel yet promote communication across languages, cultures, and nationalities at Pentecost?

Babel was grounded in human arrogance, pride, and ambition – the people were out to make a name for themselves; confusion resulted. Pentecost was the culmination of the New Covenant of which Jeremiah spoke: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant that they broke” (Jeremiah 31.31-32; NRSV).  Unlike the old covenant which was written on tablets of stone, God, speaking through Jeremiah, proclaims, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31.33; NRSV). Jeremiah further prophesies the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the city of God.

Unlike the worldly kingdom of Babel, Pentecost ushered in a heavenly kingdom as God’s Spirit was poured out on all flesh. In Acts 2.43-47 (NRSV), Luke tells us the attributes of God’s kingdom:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at homeand ate their food with glad and generous  hearts,  praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

These characteristics were radically different from those of Babel.

But some say, “Wait a minute. That was a moment of fervor. Things soon quieted down and returned to normal. It’s unreasonable to expect those conditions today.” I remember the day one of our parishioners said to me, “I do not think we put enough emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit.” This was a very perceptive comment!

I think most of us are more comfortable talking about God and Jesus, but we do not quite know what to do with this “Holy Spirit” stuff. Perhaps that is because we do not fully understand the role of the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at what St. Paul says about this in his letter to the Church of Corinth. The Corinthian Church was suffering from a bad case of spiritual one-upsmanship and lack of discipline. The wealthy could arrive early for the common meal; hence, they ate most of the food before the poor had arrived. Paul admonished them and told them to wait for one another; if they were hungry, they should eat something at home rather than act in ways which would bring condemnation. Paul then turned to the topic of spiritual gifts and noted three things of great importance for the Christian community.

First, Paul says, “I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12.3; NRSV). If we profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we do so through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are unable to profess “Jesus is Lord.” Let’s face it – we more commonly would profess ourselves as Lord; it is more common to worship and praise one’s own self than to worship and praise Jesus Christ. Only as we surrender and permit the Holy Spirit to transform our egoistic impulses are we able to bring ourselves to profess “Jesus is Lord.”

Second, Paul reminds the Corinthian Church that although there are varieties of spiritual gifts, they all come from the same Spirit; though there are varieties of services, all come from the same Lord; and though there are varieties of activities, all are activated by the same God. Rather than focus on one gift, service, or activity and Lord it over others, we are to keep our focus on the Spirit, on the Lord, on God. Paul then reminds the Corinthians, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12.7; NRSV). Whether one’s gift be the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, gifts of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, or interpreting tongues, all are given by the same Spirit for the common good. The spiritual gifts are not given for our own personal benefit – they are given for the common good. This reminds me of a classic illustration of the difference between hell and heaven. When one was shown the horrors of hell, she saw that everyone was seated at a sumptuous banquet, but they all had utensils tied to their hands that were about two feet long. Though they tried, no one could eat! They sat there cursing and howling. When shown the vision of heaven, she saw the same conditions – a sumptuous banquet, with two-foot long utensils tied to their hands. There was one significant difference – they used the utensils to feed the person seated across from them and they engaged in wonderful fellowship and hearty laughter.

Third, and last, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12.13; NRSV).

We cannot say “Jesus is Lord” apart from the Holy Spirit; though there are varieties of spiritual gifts, they all come from the same Spirit and are to be used for the common good; and through the Spirit, we are all baptized into one body. Pentecost revealed the power of God’s Spirit; the Spirit calls us to participate in building God’s Kingdom for the common good. Pentecost reminds us of the birth of Christ’s Church. Where would you rather experience – Babel or Pentecost?

Amen

Sermon, May 21, 2017

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Sermon.05.21.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.7-18; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21

 

It’s TEC Sunday. In a few moments, we will hear from some of last year’s campers and from some “old time campers.” Anyone who has experienced TEC is invited to share.

 

TEC is a good place to remember that God “made the world and everything in it;” a place to call to mind that God is “Lord of heaven and earth” who “does not live in shrines made by human hands” but “gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17.24; NRSV).

 

TEC is where many of our young people hear God speak to them in powerful ways. Consequently, they can say with the psalmist, “Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me” (Psalm 66.14; BCP).

TEC is also where many of our young people learn how to share Christ with others – “to make [their] defense to anyone who demands from [them] an accounting [of] the hope that is in [them]” (! Peter 3.15-16; NRSV).

Let’s listen to what our campers have to share!

Sermon, May 14, 2017

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Sermon.05.14.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-4

 

Last week we noted some of the “I am…” statements of Jesus: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9.5; NRSV); “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10.7; NRSV); and “I am the good shepherd” (John 10.11; NRSV).  In today’s gospel, a part of Jesus’ farewell address, we encounter another of the “I am” statements: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6a; NRSV).

Fully knowing the trauma which lays ahead, not only for himself but also for the disciples, and having just informed Peter that he will deny him three times, Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14.1; NRSV). Emotions are running high. Jesus explains that his Father’s house has many dwelling places. He reasons with them, “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14.2; NRSV)? He assures them, since he is going to prepare a place for them, he will return for them such that they may be with him. And then Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14.4; NRSV).

But Thomas objects, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (John 14.5; NRSV)? Thomas is thinking literally, “Where is this place, and what is the road that will take us there.” He was likely wondering, is anyone else as confused as I am? I rather doubt that Jesus gave him the answer for which he was looking! Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14.6-7; NRSV). Well, that cleared things up!

Now it is Philip’s turn, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied” (John 14.8; NRSV). Jesus admonishes Philip:

Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves (John 14.9-11; NRSV).

In other words, if you cannot accept that my words come from the Father, then rely on your having witnessed the works that I have done. I think most of us would confess that there are times when it is hard to faithfully accept the gospel message. If we have walked in faith, if we have lived it, it is good to recall moments when we have experienced God’s presence in our lives – those times when we have had a quiet assurance when beset by problems, those times when our hearts have been warmed, those times when deep joy has welled up within. These are deeply personal encounters with Christ. We often share these experiences with other Christians as we break bread together. In doing so, our lives are blessed.

Let’s ponder something – what did Jesus mean when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? How are we to understand this? To interpret it?

Many have, and many still do, interpret this in a very exclusionary manner. If you do not know and profess Jesus, the person, as the son of God, you are damned. From this perspective, if you are Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, animist, etc., you do not yet have the way, the truth, and the life. All too often we who know Jesus somewhat smugly look down on those of other faiths. Our arrogance leaves little to commend. This exclusionary position precludes our acceptance of these faiths and blocks our communication and fellowship with others of such faiths. I must confess, as I was raised in a fundamentalist environment, I held this position for many years.

Of course, Christianity is not the only faith to hold an exclusive position. Even before Jesus’ death and resurrection, we read in John 9.22, “For the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (NRSV). We can all point to intolerant practices in other faiths. What gives rise to our exclusivity and intolerance? I suspect we could point to several causes, e.g., the environment in which we were raised, our egoistic impulses, our desire to control the actions and attitudes of others. From a more positive standpoint, our exclusionary tendencies and practices are grounded in purity codes. A careful reading of Leviticus reveals the prominence of purity codes. In matters of belief, purity is concerned with orthodoxy. A belief is orthodox if it conforms to established doctrine. One who fails to conform to established doctrine is a heretic, and we all know what happens to heretics! Historically, they have been excommunicated, shunned, or executed — just like Jesus. Yes, Jesus repeatedly broke the purity laws and his teachings were deemed heretical! From the standpoint of Judaism, Jesus was a heretic.

Let me submit – Jesus was more concerned with orthopraxy, i.e., with how we live out God’s commandment to love. After setting forth the two great commandments, Jesus told the scribe, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.31; NRSV). Mark tells us:

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Vss. 32-34; NRSV).

 

I think this discourse points to a more inclusionary interpretation of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

As we have seen, the exclusionary interpretation focuses on Jesus the person. When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also,” the “I” and the “me” are interpreted literally as “Jesus, the person, God’s son, is the way; Jesus, the person, God’s son, is the truth; Jesus, the person, God’s son, is the life. No one can come to the Father except through Jesus, the person, God’s son.”

What if Jesus had something else in mind? What if Jesus, God’s Son, meant he is the personification, the very Incarnation, of the way, the truth, and the life? What if Jesus’ life epitomizes the way we are to live our lives? Wouldn’t a life lived fully out of love for God and one’s neighbor reveal the truth to us, the way we should live our life, indeed, the ultimate fullness and meaning that life offers? If we live our life as Jesus lived, a life of love, wouldn’t we be in the Father and the Father be in us?

In 1 John 4.7-9 we read: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (NRSV). A bit further on, we read:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (1 John 4.16-21; NRSV).

God calls us to a radical love.

The Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, who has experienced God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, knows the joy which Jesus Christ can bring. It may be argued that he or she possesses a knowledge which those who have not yet encountered Christ do not share. Yet, this knowledge is no cause for exclusion or exclusive claims, for “Lording” it over another. To the contrary, this knowledge places an even greater burden on the Christian to live out of love.

If all love comes from God, aren’t we called to embrace others who love, regardless of their faith, as fellow travelers on God’s way? Aren’t we called to encourage them to walk more deeply into the love they have come to know and experience, and in love, to share the meaning and joy we find in Jesus Christ in ways that are genuine and respectful? Our actions of love and acceptance may ultimately permit others to see that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God’s incarnate love.

Amen

 

 

Sermon, May 7, 2017

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Sermon.05.07.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10

 

I have an idea! Let’s study a hymn with three verses – we will study one verse each year for three years on the fourth Sunday of Easter! What do you think? If you were honest, I suspect I would hear responses of the following kind: “Is he out of his mind?” “What about the continuity?” “There is no way we will ever remember from one year to the next!” “This is crazy!”

And yet, this is the approach the lectionary takes toward John 10.  In Year A, John 10.1-10, Jesus is the sheep-gate; in Year B, John 10.11-21, Jesus is the Good Shepherd; and, in Year C, John 10.22-40, Jesus is rejected by those outside the flock. Furthermore, John 10 is a continuation of the story set forth in John 9 – Jesus’ Sabbath healing of a man born blind. When Jesus encountered the blind man, the disciples asked, “’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world’” (John 9.2-5; NRSV). Jesus then spit on the ground, made mud, spread it on the blind man’s eyes and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. When he did so, he could see. Notice this “I am” statement of Jesus, “I am the light of the world.” “I am” statements are characteristic of the gospel of John.

The blind man’s neighbors were rather perplexed, so they took him to the Pharisees who proceeded to question him. Some argued that Jesus could not be from God, for he did not observe the Sabbath; others asked how a sinner could do such things. In the controversy, they called his parents to verify he had been blind from birth. Yes, he was born blind, but the parents did not know how he had been given his sight, and said, “Ask him, he is of age” (John 9.21; NRSV). Again, the Pharisees called him for questioning, and told him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see . . . if this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9.25,33: NRSV). The Pharisees did not like that answer, so they drove him out. Let’s pick up the story here:

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir?Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9.35-41; NRSV).

Then Jesus continued with the narrative of John 10, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit” (Vs. 1; NRSV).

The communal sheepfold was much like the depiction on the front of today’s bulletin. Once the flocks entered for the night, the shepherds would either stand or sleep in the gate to prevent the sheep from wandering off. In some instances, they must have had an actual gate which the gatekeeper would open, for Jesus said, “The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10.3-5; NRSV).

The Pharisees did not understand what Jesus was saying, so Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you” (that is, “Let me spell this out more clearly”), “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10.7; NRSV). Here we have another of the great “I am” statements from the gospel of John – “I am the light of the world;” “I am the gate for the sheep.” Jesus then said, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them . . . The thief comes only to kill and destroy.” In contrast, Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture . . . I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.7-10; NRSV).

So ends the reading. But the story does not end here, for Jesus continues, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11; NRSV). Unlike the hired hand who runs away when he sees the wolf coming, the good shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep. Although we do not know for certain, scholars believe Jesus’ references to thieves, bandits, and hired hands apply to the religious leaders of the day. John tells us the Jews were divided – some believed Jesus was out of his mind and demon possessed while others asked if a demon could open the eyes of the blind. Again, note the reference to the healing of the man who was born blind – the precipitating event for the Good Shepherd passage.

John tells us that Jesus was later walking in the temple when a some Jews gathered around him and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10.24; NRSV). Jesus answered,

“I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one (John 10.25-30; NRSV).

 

The people considered Jesus’ claim of oneness with the Father to be blasphemous. Remember the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” How could Jesus claim to be one with the Father? John tells us “The Jews took up stones again to stone him” (John 10.31; NRSV). The dialogue continues; they attempt to arrest Jesus, but he escapes from their hands.

There, you have the greater context, and the full thrust John 10. Mark your calendars, and you can skip Easter 4 in years B and C!

What does this mean for us Christians? How does this relate to we Episcopalians? The other assigned readings convey some insights. The reading from Acts tells us how the flock multiplied dramatically following the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost – the newly baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers” (Acts 2.42; NRSV). The many signs and wonders done by the apostles filled them with wonder. The expression of God’s love was so intense that people sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to those who were in need. For a brief time, God’s kingdom was powerfully manifest!

In 1 Peter, we are encouraged to respond to abuse, to pain and suffering, as Jesus did: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Peter 2.23; NRSV).  Peter reminds us that we have been healed by the wounds Jesus suffered, that although we were going astray like sheep, we have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls (Vss. 24-25).

In Psalm 23, we acknowledge the Lord as our shepherd. We praise the goodness of the shepherd – the green pastures, still waters, restoration of soul, absence of fear even in the face of death, God’s bounteous table among those who trouble us, and the way God’s goodness and mercy pursue us throughout our life.

As we prayed in the Collect: “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”

The Book of Common Prayer captures the significance of our life with the Good Shepherd in the commendatory prayer: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant N. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.” I would be most happy if those were the last words heard before my departure from this mortal realm.

Amen

 

 

Sermon, April 10, 2016

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Sermon.04.10.16
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 9.1-6. (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19

Several sermons could be preached from these passages, for they are full of significance and meaning. In what follows, I will attempt to tie several of these passages together. Let’s begin with Psalm 30.7-10 (NRSV):
7 While I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be disturbed.
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.”
8 Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.
9 I cried to you, O Lord; I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
10 “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
In your own experience, how often have you felt comfortably secure only to have some life–changing experience happen? You may suddenly be told you have cancer, you may experience an auto accident, or encounter an experience that totally reorients your life. As I have said before, growth rarely takes place apart from some adversity. Can you imagine raising a mighty oak tree in a hot house? It would probably look wonderful, but if moved outside, it would not be able to withstand the winds of real storms.
In our previous consideration of the Gospel of John, we noted Peter’s denial of Jesus; we further noted virtually all of the disciples, in one way or another, betrayed Jesus when they deserted him at the time of the crucifixion.
But Peter felt he was secure in his faith; after all, he told Jesus that he was willing and ready to lay down his life for Jesus. While the Gospel accounts do not confirm it, we believe it was Peter who drew his sword when they were about to arrest Jesus. Yes, he was so secure he was ready to die, but Jesus responded, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13.37-38; NRSV). Peter betrayed Jesus over a charcoal fire. Luke 22.60-61 tells us when the cock crowed the third time, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Peter went out and wept bitterly. So much for “While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed.’”
Today’s gospel opens with a few of the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. Peter announces that he is going fishing. The others agree to join him. Peter’s conduct is likely a reflection of his insecurity. He still remembers the look in Jesus’ eyes – a look that pierced his very soul and being. He will never forget that look.
When we are insecure, we tend to return to what we know best – we move toward security in an effort to regain our balance. I witnessed this phenomenon on numerous occasions when working in human resource management in a unionized plant. When we would promote a person from the union ranks to foreman, I knew it was only a matter of time before a grievance charging the foreman with doing hourly work would appear on my desk. When the pressure was intense, the foreman would return to some hourly task. Peter was insecure – it was time to go fishing.
Now I might throw out a word of caution here. I can imagine some of you are thinking – yeah, he just bought a new boat. Give him a bit of insecurity and he will be on the water! In my defense, fishing is not what I know best – I am still learning. Nonetheless, it is still a good place to think!
You know the story – over another charcoal fire, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” We suspect that “these” refers to the other disciples, but as the word employed can also be neuter, Jesus may be asking, “Do you love me more than everything else?” As Scott Hoezee (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel) reminds us, Jesus was referring to agape love – the sacrificial depth of love that comes from God. When Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” he did not use the word for agape love; he used phile – the word for brotherly love or friendship. Jesus told Peter to feed his lambs. Jesus asked the question again using agape love, and again Peter answered using phile love. Jesus then told Peter to tend his sheep. Jesus asked the question a third time, but this time he used phile, the word which Peter used. Peter answered, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phile) you.” In response, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. Jesus then told Peter that when he was young, he would fasten his own belt, but when he grew old, someone else would fasten a belt around him and take him where he did not want to go — in other words, to be crucified. Then Jesus issued a command, “Follow me” (John 21.18-19; NRSV). Jesus offered Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love for him three times – once for each denial. This was Peter’s second conversion which led to the command to follow Jesus.
In Acts 9 we have the story of Saul’s conversion. I am sure that Saul also felt secure in his work of rounding up members of The Way. After all, he had men who accompanied him and the requisite letters and the authority of the high priest. Yet Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus and heard a voice which said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and the reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul was struck blind; in a flash of light, he instantaneously went from security to insecurity. God called Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, and told him to meet Saul. Ananias reminded the Lord of what he was asking; “You know, Lord, Saul might kill me.” Ananias obviously felt there were better things for him to do – perhaps to teach Sunday School, run the nursery, or even be junior warden, but God said, “Go, for he is an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9.15; NRSV).
What are some practical applications we can draw from these readings? First, we have already noted the tenuousness of our own security. We tend to take pride in our security, but as these stories show, worldly security can be stripped from us in an instant. Consider Job! He lost everything but his wife, and was then afflicted with loathsome sores. On those occasions when his wife would tell him to curse God and die, I suspect he was wondering why God did not allow Satan to throw her into the bargain.
Second, these stories show us that Jesus meets us where we are at. Peter was fishing, with no luck I might add. Everyone who fishes knows what that is like! Jesus told him and the disciples to cast their net on the other side. Upon doing so, they were overwhelmed with an abundance of fish. And these weren’t little fish, like Lee catches. These were big fish – 153 of them. There was probably some significance to that number, but if so, it’s been lost.  Jesus meets us where we are at. For Peter and the disciples it was literally in fishing and a post-resurrection breakfast over a charcoal fire with some tasty fish. Note how Jesus twice asked Peter if he loved him with God’s sacrificial agape love, but the best Peter could offer was the phile love of friendship. On the third request, Jesus met Peter where he was at, and asked him if he loved him with phile love. With each question, Jesus gave Peter a monumental task – feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I suspect Jesus knew that peter would come to love him with pure agape love, but he met Peter where he was at. Jesus also met Saul where he was at – on the road to Damascus while hunting followers of the way. Hmm – fishing and hunting – how is that for proof texting?!
Third, when Christ meets us where we are at, and we respond to Christ’s call, we experience joy and thankfulness. Life may not be easy – it may lead to a cross, but as long as we are obedient, we will experience joy and thanksgiving. In Psalm 30, the psalmist exalts God for the healing he has experienced: “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave” (Vs. 3). When our illusions are shattered, when our sense of security is demolished, we experience the darkness; we may even weep. The psalmist acknowledges this when he says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Vs. 6). In verses 12 and 13, the psalmist continues, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore, my heart sings to you without ceasing, O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.” That sounds like someone who has experienced the power of resurrection!
The power of the resurrection is available to us. God is willing to meet us where we are. Are we willing to respond to God’s call? If we do, we will ultimately come to experience the joy of worshiping God “with the myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands.” Like them, we will sing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” We shall not only hear the myriads and the thousands – we shall also hear “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev. 5.11-13; NRSV).
Christ meets us where we are at that we might ultimately meet him where he is at. And as the old hymn says, “What a day of rejoicing that will be.”
Amen