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Sermon, October 8, 2017

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

Sermon.10.08.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46

 

In our study of Philippians, we have noted Paul’s exhortation to the Christians of Philippi to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, to stand firm in one spirit and one mind. Paul encouraged them to live in unity with one another. To do that, they were not to act out of selfish ambition or conceit; to the contrary, they were to regard others as better than themselves and were to subordinate their own interests to the interests of others. Noting that Christ emptied himself, and took on human flesh, he encouraged them to “Let the same mind be in [them] that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.5; NRSV). We closed last week by noting that as we act, or strive to live more deeply into Christ, we are acted upon. Paul captured this in his exhortation: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure” (Philippians 2.12-13; NRSV).

We have also noted that a key theme in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is joy and rejoicing. In 1.18, Paul speaks of rejoicing over the proclamation of Christ. In 1.25, Paul speaks of the Philippians joy in their faith. In 2.2, Paul asks that they make his joy complete by being united in one love and one mind. And in 3.1, Paul says, “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord” (NRSV). He next cautions them to “beware of the dogs . . . the evil workers . . . of those who mutilate the flesh,” i.e., beware of those who would lead them astray, of those who insist on circumcision as a rite of entrance to the Christian faith. Paul says, “It is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3.3-4a; NRSV). Paul now directs their attention to what is truly important, to what is truly valuable – the internal affairs of the heart and soul as opposed to external signs of the flesh.

In our reading for today, Paul draws upon his own life and uses it as a negative example: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more” (Philippians 3.4b; NRSV). As Elizabeth Shively notes, Paul then lists seven advantages he can claim: four of which are inherited, three of which are achievements:

1)   He is a full member of God’s covenant people (“circumcised on the eighth day”),

2)   He is an Israelite by birth with all the rights and privileges that adhere (“a member of the people of Israel”),

3)   He hails from one of the two tribes (Benjamin and Joseph) considered to be faithful to the covenant (“of the tribe of Benjamin”),

4)   He is the son of Hebrew parents with no Gentile contamination, that is, he is not a “mud-blood” (“a Hebrew born of Hebrews”).

5)   He practices strict observance of the law (“a Pharisee of Pharisees”)

6)   He exhibits avid devotion to God (“as to zeal, a persecutor of the church”)

7)   He is above reproach according to a Pharisaic interpretation of the law (“as to righteousness under the law, blameless”). (http://www.workingpreacher.org/profile/default.aspx?uid=2-shively)

Many years ago, I worked in human resources. If a resume like Paul’s had crossed my desk, I would have been on the phone. Get that man in here! I want to see if he is a good in person as he is on paper!      To put Paul’s life in modern day terms, think of the televangelist with a multimillion home, a private jet, and the best of everything. From the world’s point of view, this is the pinnacle of success. And this televangelist would convince you that God also wants you to experience this success. But as Paul warned, beware of the evil workers who would lead you astray. We are to pay attention to what is truly important, truly valuable?

What does Paul say about this list of credentials? “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3.7-8a; NRSV). Something powerful happened to Saul on the Road to Damascus – his life was forever changed. All he had inherited and all he had achieved, wonderful things from the standpoint of the world, he now counted as loss. Paul even went so far as to state, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Philippians 3.8b-9; NRSV). “I regard them as rubbish” – literally translated, as “dung,” when viewed sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”). Paul is like the merchant in Jesus’ Parable of the Pearl of Great Price: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13.45-46; NRSV).           What does Paul want? Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3.10-11; NRSV).

I want to know Christ.

I want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.

I want to know the sharing of Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul is selling everything that he might gain the pearl of great price. Paul’s eyes are no longer fixed on the things of this world; he no longer perceives things from the perspective of this world’s values; he now looks at things under the aspect of eternity; he sees things from the standpoint of eternal values.

Paul admits that he is still in the process of selling everything, for he continues, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3.12-14; NRSV).

As Paul moves to the end of this chapter, he encourages the Christians of Philippi to “hold fast to what [they] have already attained,” he reminds then their citizenship is not of this world but is rather in heaven, and assures them Christ will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (Philippians 3.16, 20-21; NRSV).

What do we value? Do we treasure the things of this world? As Paul tells the Christians of Philippi, we need to hold fast to the spiritual maturity that we have attained. We need to view our life and our world from the standpoint of eternity. With Paul, we will hopefully come to that place where we can say,

I want to know Christ.

I want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.

I want to know the sharing of Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Amen.

Sermon, October 1, 2017

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

Sermon.10.01.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

 

Last week we noted Paul’s exhortation to the Christians at Philippi to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, to stand “firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1.27; NRSV).  Paul also pointed to the struggle they share in living for Christ, and reminded them of “the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1.28; NRSV).

In today’s lesson, Paul says, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete” (Philippians 2.1-2a; NRSV). In other words, if this accurately reflects our relationship, then make my joy complete. How? By living in unity with one another, that is, by being “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2.2; NRSV). There is no place here for factions or divisions. Is living this way in community possible?

Paul then spells it out even more clearly: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.3-5; NRSV). This is not the way things usually happen. Our natural tendency is to look out for #1; we have a great deal invested in our ego, and we want to make good on that investment. However, if everyone followed the principle of looking to the interests of others, wouldn’t others satisfy our interests? But fear raises its ugly head – what if no one looks after my interests? If that happens, haven’t I been played for a sucker? But Paul makes it very clear, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Biblical scholars believe verses 6-11 express an ancient hymn written within 10-15 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is very likely one of the earliest well-known hymns in Christian circles. When Paul began reciting it, the recipients of his letter may well have begun to sing it. On Passion Sunday, we lift these verses from their context and sing them as a Christological hymn. The hymn begins by noting Christ’s presence with God the Father, then moves to his Incarnation, death, and ultimately, his exaltation. Notice this sequence as I read it once again:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2.5-11; NRSV).

 

When we remove this hymn from the context of Paul’s remarks to the Christians of Philippi, we lose sight of the fact that it serves to reinforce an ethical exhortation: “Let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” Reginald H. Fuller, the Anglican priest and biblical scholar, notes that biblical exegetes question whether we are to understand Christ as an example which we are to emulate or as a pattern into which God transforms us in a more mystical sense.

The question arises from the fact that the original Greek contains no verb in the final phrase; the literal translation is “Let the same mind be in you which in Christ Jesus.” Hence, when the English verb form is added, it may legitimately be translated as “Let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus” or as “Let the same mind be in you which you have in Christ Jesus.” The latter translation, “which you have in Christ Jesus” lends a more mystical sense associated with Paul’s use of “in Christ” throughout the epistles. Fuller states, “In this [mystical] interpretation the pattern of Christ’s life, namely, the pattern of humiliation-glorification, is not a model for Christians to imitate but a pattern with which Christians are brought into conformity by their incorporation into Christ and their life in him” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/26OrdA100117/theword_indepth.html). The difference is one of acting (imitating or emulating) or being acted upon.

We have been presented with an “either-or.” Perhaps there is a third possibility – that of acting and being acted upon. That is, as we strive to imitate Christ, the Spirit of God works with and empowers our Spirit. We work in partnership! Our transformation into the mind of Christ may look more like act – acted upon – act – acted upon – act, etc. In acting we are acted upon. Our transformation may be more cyclical and expansive in nature.

Don’t the closing verses of our reading address this issue: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2.12-13; NRSV). On a humorous note, I once reminded a friend of mine of this verse; I then looked at him and told him if I were in his shoes, I would be doing a whole lot more trembling. I don’t think that was Paul’s intended use, but we both had a good laugh!

“Work out your own salvation … God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work….” I believe this reading corresponds to Jesus response to the disciples’ question when Jesus said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responded, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19.25-26; NRSV). It also accords with Paul’s words in Romans, “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. And 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 8.26-27; NRSV). What an awesome partner we have! The only fitting response is love, praise, and adoration which leads to living in one mind, one love, and one spirit.

Amen

Sermon, September 24, 2017

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

Sermon.09.24.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16

 

Having considered St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, we now focus on his letter to the Church of Philippi. The city was named after King Philipp II, the father of Alexander the Great. Philippi was located ten miles inland from the coastal city of Neapolis, on the north side of the Aegean Sea. Neapolis is where Paul had landed when he first carried the gospel to Macedonia in response to his vision at Troas of a man from Macedonia who was standing and begging, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16.9; NRSV). Philippi was a prosperous gentile city located on the Via Egnatia, the main route from the eastern provinces to Rome.

Paul had considerable affection for the Church of Philippi as is evident from the early paragraphs of his letter. Paul wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now … It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Philippians 1.3-5, 7; NRSV). Paul further writes that his prayer for them is that their “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help [them] to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ [they] may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1.9-11; NRSV). Paul’s tenderness toward this church is also seen in that he refers to them as “beloved” (Philippians 1.12).

We are not sure exactly where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter. Some believe Ephesus; others Caesarea; still others, Rome. Paul was not woeful about his imprisonment; he recognized that it had “helped to spread the gospel” as it had “become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that [his] imprisonment [was] for Christ,” i.e., for having preached the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1.12-13; NRSV). Furthermore, he was aware that his imprisonment had given others greater confidence – they dared to witness “with greater boldness and without fear” (Philippians 1.14; NRSV).

Paul acknowledged some proclaim Christ out of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition while others proclaim Christ from love and goodwill. He rhetorically asked, “What does it matter?” and replied, “Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1.18; NRSV).

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is also unique in that Paul is not addressing some defect or shortcoming in their community. The tone of joy and rejoicing which pervades this letter is far different from the stern admonishment written to church of Corinth about their incessant quarrelling. It also differs in that Paul shares more about his own existential situation and thought. As noted, Paul was imprisoned; he could have been executed.

Although imprisoned, he rejoiced in the proclamation of Christ. Paul wrote, “I will continue to rejoice for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1.19-20; NRSV).

Noting the uncertainty of his personal situation, Paul wrote, “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1.21; NRSV). Why would dying be gain? Paul is living in Christ; Christ’s spirit is with him in this mortal realm. But if he were to die, he would be in Christ’s physical presence within the heavenly realm. Paul further wrote, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Philippians 1.22; NRSV). Paul’s teaching and preaching, his missionary work was fruitful and rewarding, but Paul admitted, he did not know which he preferred – the fruitful labor of this life or the joy of the heavenly realm. Each was appealing, but if given a choice, he desired “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1.23; NRSV). Yet, Paul noted, remaining in the flesh, in this mortal life, was more necessary for the Church of Philippi. Hence, Paul said, he knows he will remain with them for their “progress and joy in the faith” such that he may share in their celebration in Christ Jesus when he visits again (Philippians 1.25-26; NRSV).

Paul next encouraged them to stand fast in the gospel, to remain firm in their commitment, to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” such that he would know they were “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by [their] opponents” (Philippians 1.27-28; NRSV). In his encouragement, Paul further observed living in this manner would serve as evidence to their opponents of their impending destruction, but of their own salvation. “This,” Paul says, “is God’s doing,” for God “has graciously granted [them] the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1.28-29; NRSV).

So what personal insights into living the Christian life can we gain from this reading? How does it relate to our own existential situation and time?

First, given the current state-of-affairs in our world, I suspect that many of us can identify with Paul’s reflections concerning whether it would be better to live or to die. Amidst global suffering resulting from war, displacement, famine, disease, and natural disasters, and in the face of burgeoning global population and threat of atomic warfare, we pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” Even our youth are suffering more intensely. According to USA Today, “children’s hospital admissions of patients 5 to 17 years old for suicidal thoughts or actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015” (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/05/30/youth-suicide-rates-rising-school-and-internet-may-blame/356539001/ ).

Like Paul, we are called to remain steadfast, to bear witness to the hope that lies within us. As Paul said, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel … in no way intimidated by our opponents.” Last Friday’s demonstration at the Swiftel Center on behalf of the Dream Act witnessed 140 people standing firm in one spirit and one mind for Judeo-Christian values.

Second, we are “called to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What might that look like? We are called to bring a message of hope to the hopeless, to bear witness of Christ’s love for all. We are called to action – to walk alongside those who suffer. We are called to give freely of what we have been given that other’s pain and suffering may be lessened.

Third, we are called not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer with Christ. Believing and living in Christ means our values are counter-cultural – they call to question the prevailing values of our culture. We should expect to encounter opposition. To the extent that our faith community is united in one spirit and one mind, we are better able to stand – to bear witness – in the face of such opposition. We need to remind each other that Christ has graciously granted us the privilege of suffering with him. May Christ be exalted as we bear witness, as we live and speak with boldness.

Amen

 

Sermon, September 17, 2017

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

Sermon.9.17.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35

 

Today concludes our study of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Over the past several weeks we have noted that no one is righteous, neither Jew nor gentile (Romans 3.9-10; NRSV). We are unable to attain righteousness through adherence to the law, yet we can rejoice in “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1; NRSV). While we were formerly slaves to sin, we are now “slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6.19; NRSV). We no longer stand condemned. We no longer live in the flesh; we live in the Spirit. When we cry “Abba! Father!” the Spirit is bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8.15-17; NRSV). We find comfort in the assurance that “All things work together for good for those who love God” and that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In response to the gift of salvation, Paul encourages us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12.1; NRSV). We have considered Paul’s exhortation to let our love for one another be genuine and have noted how that is lived in Christian community. Last Sunday we noted we are to “Owe no man anything, except to love one another” (Romans 13.8; NRSV). In his closing remarks which we consider today, Paul addresses our interaction with those whose faith is weak.

Our reading begins, “Welcome those who are weak in faith (or conviction), but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (Romans 14.1; NRSV). While Paul does not point out that he is addressing differences between Jewish and gentile Christians, this is likely the case. Paul reminds us that our communion with God and one another is far more important than multiplying our differences in convictions.

To make this point, Paul cites differences of conviction concerning what the people ate and what days they observed. Let’s briefly examine the cultural differences which lay behind these practices.

As you may recall, according to the Jewish law, meat is to be prepared in accordance with strict dietary requirements. Many, if not most, Jews practiced the kosher rituals for the preparation of food. In Paul’s time, how was one to know if the meat available in the marketplace had been ritually prepared, or even worse, had not been sacrificed to idols? Yet, as Paul observed, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (Romans 14.2; NRSV).

Similarly, many Jewish Christians continued to observe traditional Jewish festivals and holy days. Such days held no special significance to gentile Christians. Paul wrote, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike” (Romans 14.5; NRSV).

How were people to respond to such differences? Concerning meat, Paul says, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them” (Romans 14.3; NRSV). ‘Them” is undoubtedly a reference to gentile Christians. Concerning the observance of days, Paul says, “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds” (Romans 14.5b; NRSV).

Jewish Christian or gentile Christian, we are all servants of the Lord. Thus, Paul asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another” (Romans 14.4; NRSV). Roman citizens held passing judgment on another’s slave to be a violation of social mores, for passing judgment on the slave was also passing judgment on the master.

Paul further points out, those who eat and those who abstain both do so in honor of the Lord, and both give thanks to the Lord. Likewise, those who observe special days do so in honor of the Lord.

Perhaps you may have wondered about Paul’s statement, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (Romans 14.2). Some might hold that Paul is condemning vegetarians. Since they are weak, they might be poor hunters! This interpretation is one of those instances of lifting things out of context and making the Bible say what you want it to say. Let me assure you, this is not what Paul had in mind!

Paul’s view on differing convictions ties in with his emphasis on our justification by faith as opposed to ritual observance of the law. Paul sees one who recognizes the fuller ramifications of justification by faith as stronger than the one who is still captive to dietary restrictions or the observance of special feast days. Nonetheless, as Paul notes, what we do, we do unto the Lord, so we are not to condemn or chastise the weaker.

Paul reminds his audience, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves” (Romans 14.7.; NRSV). As Christians, we live in community with fellow Christians and with God. Paul continues, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14. 8-9; NRSV). As Christians, we are one in Christ. Hence, Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14. 10; NRSV). Each of us will give an account before God.

Our lectionary reading stops short of Paul’s conclusion. It strikes me that it omits something of great importance. Paul concludes, “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (Romans 14.13; NRSV). And a few verses later, St. Paul writes, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14.17-19; NRSV).

So what lessons can we glean for daily living? First, as Christians, what we do, whether eating, fasting, drinking, observing feast days, etc., is to be done “in honor of the Lord.” Second, we are to bear with one another not only because our actions are meant to bring honor to the Lord, but also because Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And third, God, and God only, is the rightful judge (Mary Hinkle Shore. http://www.workingpreacher.org/profile/default.aspx?uid=c2f385a22d5aae58494f3b4a52e09d9a8de6b353fe9dbbc97b7a6853057691a2 ).

Does this mean that we are to withhold all judgment? Does this mean that X is just as ethical as Y, that nothing really matters? This is hardly the case, and it is certainly not what Paul is saying. We must remember the context. Paul is speaking of our convictions concerning how we live out the Christian faith. We are to avoid scrapping and quarreling over non-essential matters. Our fellowship with one another and with God is far more important than what we eat or what days we choose to worship, whether we intinct or drink from the cup, whether we use wine or grape juice, a paten or a loaf. Of course, he who “roams the world seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5.8; NKJV) would much rather keep us fighting about our petty differences than joining in praising God. With God’s help, we can avoid that trap.

Amen

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