That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Paul

“I choose you!”

raisingthewidowsson

(“Jesus raising the youth of Nain” from the Evangeliar Ottos III, circa 1000 A.D.)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Well the great season of decision is over!

Obviously I’m not talking about the election, which promises to continue to grind away at our faith in American democracy for months to come.

No, the season of decisions and choices that I’m talking about had mostly to do with our graduating high school seniors. After years of work, months of writing applications and compiling resumes, and weeks of waiting for acceptance letters, the time to decide finally came just a few months ago.

Would it be Wofford, Clemson, or Carolina? Sewanee or Stanford? Davidson or “Dubyuhnell”? Harvard or Yale? Of course, in those last two comparisons the correct choices are BEYOND OBVIOUS. But even sure and certain knowledge didn’t lessen the difficulty of deciding!

Now those of us who are of riper years know that the decisions of whether and where to go to college are neither the last nor the most important choices that a person will make. We know well what our young people are just learning: that life is an endless succession of choices. And all of us, young and old together, know from experience the undeniable truth that in our culture, choosing is cherished.

Look at the enormous variety of shops and restaurants in Five Points, or the Vista, or at Sandhills. Consider the bright, gleaming aisles of Whole Foods, or Publix, or Bi-Lo. All the cheerful variety and frenzied advertising of American life serves to prop-up and reinforce the same basic notion: to choose is to have power. To choose is to be in control. To choose is to be free.

This common devotion to choosing and choices was on my mind this week as I reflected on today’s Scripture lessons. I want to focus our attention on two stories. The first is from St Paul’s miniature autobiography found in the first chapter of his Letter to the Galatians. The second is an episode from Jesus’ earthly ministry recorded in the seventh chapter of St Luke’s Gospel.

Both of these stories describe the transformative power of an encounter with Jesus. Both speak of the unexpected, un-hoped for ways that God can change a life, or indeed restore a life. And both of these stories are utterly devoid of any suggestion of choice.

Did you catch that?

Look again at our Gospel passage. Look at who speaks in our lesson. So often, the healing stories of Jesus seem to happen because someone makes a choice. Someone chooses to reach out to touch him. Someone’s friends pull up the roof over Jesus’ head, and lower a sick man down in front of him. Someone in the crowd cries out: “Lord, heal my son!” “Master, save my daughter!” “Teacher, let me see again!”

But in our Gospel this morning, there are no questions. There are no requests. There is no pleading in this brief passage. There are no options here–no choices given.

Jesus, coming up to a city called Nain, looks and sees the suffering of a mother who has lost her only son. Jesus looks and sees the desperation of a widow who has lost her only hope for survival. Jesus looks and see the hopelessness of a woman for whom all choices, all options, all earthly possibilities now point only to degradation, and darkness, and death.

And looking upon her, Jesus has compassion for her. “Do not weep,” he says. He doesn’t ask, “What would have you me do for you?” He doesn’t ask, “Do you wish for me to help you?” He doesn’t even ask, as he does with Mary and Martha when he raises their brother Lazarus, “Do you believe in me?” He says simply, “Do not weep,” and he reaches out to stop the funeral procession. Life Incarnate steps suddenly into the path that leads to the grave, and the son of God commands the widow’s son: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

No questions waiting for an answer. No options to decide between. No choices at all.

Just the power of God to bring hope to the hopeless; to bring wholeness to the broken; to bring life to the dead; to make a way where all human wisdom and every human wish could find no way at all. Just the voice of Jesus saying to the dead man, “I choose you to be a sign of my power over death.” And Luke tells us that the people there present gave glory to God for what Jesus had done.

Now on the surface, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians seems to be all about choices. The Christians of Galatia were believers living in central Turkey. They were Gentiles–folks to whom Paul preached on one of his extensive missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world. From what he writes, it seems that the Galatians received his initial announcement of the Good News with joy and great excitement.

But in Paul’s absence, the Galatian Christians ran into some difficulties. Another group of teachers and preachers cam along, and the began to tweak the terms of Paul’s original message. These new teachers placed before the Galatians a stark choice: either the Gentile believers had to undergo circumcision and accept all the dictates of the Jewish law, or they could no longer claim to be followers of Jesus, the anointed savior of the Jewish people.

The Galatian Christians were distraught and confused. Must they really choose to become Jews before they could become Christians? Must they really first decide to be disciples of Moses before they can decide to be disciples of Jesus?

Paul addresses the Galatians’ difficult choice in an unexpected way. He doesn’t attack the Law of Moses. He doesn’t tear down the Jewish traditions. Instead, he tells them his own story. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Now consider for a moment what the Apostle is saying here. Saul of Tarsus had been a zealot. Saul had been a fanatic. Saul had been a violent persecutor of the Church, and a devout follower of all the traditions of his ancestors. He knows every jot and tittle of the same Law that the Galatians are now being told to obey.

What could so thoroughly transform someone like Paul? What could make him decide to leave all that long legacy behind him? What could make him choose to begin to build up the very thing that he once tried to tear down?

Paul’s answer to that question is simple: he didn’t choose it. God chose him. God, in his providence, set Paul apart “before [he] was born, and called [him] through grace.”

The Risen Jesus, appearing before Saul on the road to Damascus, looked and saw a man made blind by his hatred. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man puffed up by his own zeal. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man consumed by his passions and certain in his own choice–his own decision to destroy the Church of God.

And the Risen Jesus looked and saw beneath and behind and in spite of all that, a vessel God had chosen–a tool God had set apart–for the building up of his Church. And so the Risen Jesus, looking upon Saul, claimed him, called him, chose him.

No questions waiting for Saul’s answer. No options for Saul to decide between. No choices at all.

Just the power of God to bring light into darkness; to bring holiness out of hatred; to give power where once there was only pride; to make a way when all human wisdom and every human wish sought to take another way–to choose a different, darker path. Just the voice of Jesus saying to Saul, “I choose you, to become my servant Paul–a sign of my power to change lives, and a servant of my Gospel.” And Paul tells us that when the churches of Judea heard of his transformation they gave all glory to God for what Jesus had done.

Beloved, today in Scripture we have heard a great and troubling challenge to our culture’s cherished notions of choice. Today, in spite of all the external voices calling us to consume and all the internal anxieties driving us to decide–in spite of all the false gods of commerce and culture commanding us to choose–the Word of God confronts us with a startling paradox: true freedom comes not in choosing, but in being chosen.

That’s the meaning of grace. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of our Scripture today. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of the Gospel at all times. For the Good News is that our God has not abandoned us to an endless array of choices. But he has chosen us.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, God looked upon a lost and broken creation and declared, “I choose you!” In the life and ministry of Jesus our Lord, God walked amidst hopeless, helpless, desperate humanity and announced, “I choose you!” In the death of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, God himself was lifted high in self-giving love over a dead and dying word and proclaimed, “I choose you!” And in the shattered darkness of the empty tomb, standing over the broken gates of Hell, free forever from the bonds of Death, God himself calls a new creation into being and declares again, “I choose you!”

“I choose you!” says the Holy Spirit of God in every baptism and confirmation. “I choose you to be my own forever: washed, renewed, restored, and sealed.”

“I choose you!” says Jesus our great High Priest in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. “I choose you to draw near with you emptiness, to draw near with your hunger, to draw near with your hands and hearts uplifted, and to receive from my fullness, to eat from my table, to be knit to me forever.”

“I choose you!” says God our Father, as we are sent back out into the world. “I choose you to be my adopted daughters and sons; my children of grace and favor; my new creation born of my own perfect will–bought with the blood of my Son, and alive by the breath of my Holy Spirit. I choose you to go into my world as restorers: to rule and serve all my creatures; to raise up the things that have been cast down; to renew the things that have grown old; to proclaim and announce that I am bringing all things to perfection by him through whom all things were made. I choose you!”

No questions. No options. No choices. Just the power of God to make men and women like you and like me into his sons and daughters. Just the voice of Jesus calling to each of us. “I choose you to be mine, forever.” And as it was long ago, so may it be today: that all who hear this word give all glory to God for what Jesus has done.

AMEN.

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“Follow me!”

 

Peter and Paul

(The St Peter and St Paul windows of Trinity Cathedral face each other from the ends of the north and south transepts. The low-quality photos are my own.)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. Amen.

Do you have what it takes to be a disciple? Do you know what it means to be a follower of the Risen Jesus?

Our passages from the Acts of the Apostles and from John’s Gospel today introduce us to two of the greatest disciples of all time: Simon, Son of John, and Saul of Tarsus. We know them better as St Peter and St Paul–the two men God chose especially for the work of establishing, tending, and spreading his Church. We know them from their profound letters, which make up the bulk of the New Testament. We know them from the stories of their powerful words and deeds. We know them from their stained glass portraits here in the Cathedral. And we know them from the long shadow they still cast over Christian life.

Surely Peter and Paul show us the measure of discipleship. Surely their witness and example show us what it takes to follow Jesus. And surely, this should leave us shaking in our pews!

Does a disciple have to have the courage and conviction of Peter: boldly preaching the Good News, performing deeds of power and healing in Jesus’ name, and faithfully tending the flock of Christ until he is crucified—upside down?!

Does a disciple have to have the eloquence and the tenacity of Paul: tirelessly spreading the Gospel everywhere he went, facing hostile crowds and skeptical hearers around the Mediterranean world, braving all the disasters and indignities of first-century travel, and finally going up to Rome itself to proclaim the lordship of Jesus in the courts of the Emperor?

If all this is what it takes to be a disciple—if the trials and triumphs of Peter and Paul provide the template for the Christian life—well then I wouldn’t blame you if you headed for the doors right now. (Please don’t do that.)

But before we let the legacy of Peter and Paul scare us off, I want to call us back to the specific stories we have heard today. I want to look at these two men, not in light of what we know they will become or of what we remember about them from Church history. But I want to look at them just as we find them today, at the beginning of their lives as disciples of the Risen Jesus, and to consider what their stories can teach us about the life of discipleship.

It is not a promising beginning. On the one hand we have Simon Peter, the most eager,  the most outspoken, and the most assertive of Jesus’ inner circle of followers throughout the course of his earthly ministry. Simon is always rushing ahead, making promises we know he can’t keep, offering explanations we know he doesn’t fully understand. Simon is a loudmouth, full of bluster and bravado and false confidence. And Simon is the one who, as Jesus approaches his passion and death, denies ever knowing his Lord just in order to save his own skin.

Our Gospel today tells us that Simon Peter remained the leader of Jesus’ followers event after the Resurrection. In the midst of their joyful confusion and happy bewilderment at meeting their Risen Lord, Simon led them back up to Galilee to return to the life they knew before they ever met Jesus. So it is that this morning we find the disciples right back where they started: fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee in their little, leaky boats, with nothing to show for their work but their empty nets.

On the other hand, we have Saul of Tarsus: the most zealous, the most feared, and the most hate-filled of the persecutors of the early Church. We meet Saul for the very first time as he looks on approvingly at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles we’re told of Saul’s single-minded mission to destroy the Church of God. This morning, we hear that “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” received official sanction for his effort to search out early followers of the Way—women and men who walked in the way of the Risen Christ—and to bring them bound to Jerusalem.

So there we have them: Simon, the rudderless, thoughtless, faithless fisherman; and Saul, the ruthless, pitiless, vicious religious fanatic.

What on earth can these stories teach us about being a follower of the Risen Christ? How in the world do these miserable men become the great disciples we’ve heard about?

When we look at Simon and Saul at the beginning of their ministries, we find that what binds together their lives and stories is one thing–and one thing only: The Call of God. What makes these two men disciples–in spite of their faults and failures, in spite of their hatreds and their hurts–is the Call of the Risen Jesus.

It’s easiest to see in Saul’s case because his transformation is so sudden and stark. Traveling along the Damascus road, doggedly pursuing his goal of total destruction for the Church, the zealous young Pharisee meets the Risen Jesus in a blinding flash of light.

Imagine his bafflement and confusion; imagine his wonder and his fear. Everything Saul knows about himself and his world, everything in which Saul takes pride and to which he has devoted his life, is overthrown in an instant. Darkness descends upon him. Three days Saul spends in blindness and in prayer, fasting from food or drink. And when, on the third day, Ananias comes to him at the Lord’s command and lays his hands upon him, and the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, we see the fruit of his encounter–we see the power of God’s Call. Saul the Pharisee is baptized, and begins to preach the name of Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus. A disciple is born.

But notice that the change in Saul has not been accomplished by Saul’s own decision or choice. The change in Saul has not been accomplished by his days spent in fasting and prayer. The change in Saul has not even been accomplished by the ministry of faithful Ananias.

Saul has been changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. Saul has been transformed because the Lord has chosen him for an instrument “to bring [his] name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel.” The unexpected, unasked for Call of God is the root and source of Saul’s discipleship.

And that Call is the root and source of Simon Peter’s discipleship as well. Imagine Simon’s shame and dejection as he remembers denying that he ever knew his Lord. Imagine his confusion and even his fear as he hears word of the Resurrection and remembers the teaching of Jesus: that “He who denies me before others, him I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Imagine his anxiety and his excitement as he realizes that the man walking along the shore of Galilee is Jesus, and he throws himself into the water, swimming with all his might to meet him. Imagine his anticipation and trepidation as he watches Jesus eat his breakfast by the lakeshore, marveling that this is not a vision, or an apparition, or even a resuscitation, but that the same Jesus who was crucified is now risen to new life.

And imagine, all through this difficult, wonderful morning, how Simon Peter’s dread and joy must’ve grown in equal measure. For after breakfast, Jesus asks him the question that he feared and hoped for: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”

Three times that question comes. Three time it pains Simon Peter to hear it and to answer it. And yet that question works backwards into his soul, undoing the damage of his three-time denial of Christ. And once the memory of his own shame, his own failed expectations, his own self-centered following of Jesus has been conquered by the presence of the Risen Lord, the Call comes also to Simon Peter: “Follow me.” A new disciple of Jesus—a disciple of the Resurrected Jesus—is born.

But note again that this call doesn’t come to Simon through his own decision or choice. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his three years of discipleship during Christ’s earthly ministry. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his eager swimming to Jesus. The change in Simon is not even accomplished by his faithful answer “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” to the painful questions posed by Jesus.

Simon Peter is changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. The Call of God transforms the baffled, bumbling fisherman into the bold, courageous shepherd of God’s flock.

By that Call, Simon the fisherman now truly becomes Peter, the rock on whom Christ’s Church is built. By that Call, Saul the Pharisee becomes Paul the Apostle–the bearer of the message; the one who is sent to proclaim the name of Jesus to the whole world.

Brothers and sisters, I asked at the outset of this sermon, “Do you have what it takes to be a disciple?” See now that a disciple is not measured by his own deeds or disasters! A disciple is not measured by her own faithfulness or failures! The life of discipleship comes from the Call of the Master. To be a disciple is to hear the Call of the One who can and does accomplish what he promises: the One who raises the dead to life, and who calls into existence the things that are not.

And the startling message of our Scripture readings today is that that Call to discipleship can come to anyone, anywhere. The Call came to a fanatic overcome with hatred, consumed by his bitter intention to bind and judge the servants of God, and he became Paul. The Call came to a faithless fisherman, a man of lowly estate who slunk back to his boats in confusion and shame, and he became Peter. The Call came to every kind of unworthy, unlikely, unwelcome and unwanted person in the ancient world, transforming them by its power and giving them grace to become the disciples of Jesus, the mothers and fathers of the Church.

And the Call comes still. The Call has come  even to the poor sinners who stand and minister to this congregation in this place. The Call comes to us, your priests, right in the midst of all our faults and foibles, our intemperance and our incompetence, our silly pride and our stubborn pretension.

And, by our ministry and through the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit of God, the Call comes to you. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be followers of the Risen Jesus. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be empowered to proclaim the Good News of Christ in your every word and deed. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may speak the Name of the Lord before the nations, before rulers and authorities, and before the whole chosen people of God.

The Call of discipleship comes to you: God himself calls to you, dear people, and speaks again those simple, wonderful, costly words: “Follow me.” And it is that Call, and nothing else, that makes you a disciple.

Won’t your rise up out of your blindness and heed that Call? Won’t you swim to shore from those fishing boats—those same old worn and weary fishing boats of routine and habit and inertia and comfort—and fall at the feet of the Risen Lord?

Beloved people of God, hear today the Call of Jesus. Become true disciples of Christ, not through your work and witness, not because of your choice or decision, but by the power of his eternal Call.

Follow him, and learn the power of that Call to claim you, to change you, to use you to his purpose, and to carry you, perhaps, even to places where you do not wish to go.

AMEN.

Jesus is the Answer

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Questions. Our readings this morning are filled with questions. We began with Paul asking the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Do you not know that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? Do you not know that you are not your own?” Then in our Gospel, we heard Nathanael ask Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” just before he asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” And after earnest Nathanael makes his remarkable confession of faith, finally we heard Jesus himself ask, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”

Yes, questions abound in our Scripture today. And when it comes to facing an enormous pile of apparently unrelated questions, I must claim one distinct advantage over my esteemed clergy colleagues: I live in the same house as a four-year-old. Any of you who have spent time with a young child will know what I mean. The questions in our home are constant, and run the gamut from the serious and sacred to the surprising and absurd, often all in the same conversation, sometimes in the same breath! My wife and I frequently find ourselves fielding a question as difficult and important as “Mama, where is heaven?” and then as if attempting a reasonably plausible answer to that question weren’t hard enough, it’s often followed close behind by a question as straightforward and mundane as, “Papa, why is ketchup red?”

Four-year-olds have a special gift and calling to explore the world through their questions, and to help their grown-ups see and think a little differently. But that basic human need to question, to wonder, to seek, never really goes away. Adult men and women may not ask every single question that pops into our heads, and that’s probably for the best. And yet, we still have questions—we still yearn to know.

And so it is that our readings today confront us with some of the most important questions in the Christian faith and life. Now it may not seem that way at first. It may seem to you that our readings this morning are nothing more than St Paul ranting about an uncomfortable topic, and Jesus showing off to Nathanael with a little parlor trick. But let us attend more closely to the questions we hear this morning. Let us listen for the answers that break forth from God’s Word.

It’s Paul’s rhetorical questions in First Corinthians that grab our attention first, not because he seems to be discussing anything profound or spiritual, but because he talks about sex. Nothing like the phrase “Shun fornication!” ringing out through the church to make us sit up and listen. And yet Paul’s intention in this passage was not to shock and startle the good Christian folk of Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina one January morning in 2015. (Or at least, that was not his only intention.) Rather, Paul writes so boldly and bluntly to the Corinthians in order to address a larger question of enormous importance: What part do our bodies play in our spiritual lives?

That’s a more difficult question than it may seem at first. You see,  there were some in Corinth who reasoned that, because God had released and renewed them spiritually, it didn’t matter what they did physically. They took the freedom that Christ had won for them as an opportunity for license, arguing that “All things are lawful for me.” For the Corinthians, this apparently meant approaching meals–even the Eucharist–with a greedy, gluttonous mentality. And it also seems to have resulted in utter lawlessness in sex and sexual relations. “Who cares what I do with my body? All things are lawful for me!”

This tendency to discount or downplay the importance of our physical bodies in our spiritual lives has always been a temptation for Christians. Knowing ourselves to be free from the constraints and demands of the ritual laws of Moses—knowing ourselves free to eat without worrying about kosher laws, free to dress ourselves without worrying about clothing laws, free to pursue our business without worrying about commercial laws, and free to worship without worrying about ceremonial laws—the Church has, in some times and some places, almost forgotten that bodies matter.

The Church, and her members, have almost forgotten that we human beings are incarnate, enfleshed creatures—not simply creatures with bodies, but creatures that are bodies. Neglecting the reality of our physical bodies does not only open us up to all the temptations and tendencies that would dominate and enslave us–the pursuit of wealth, and the pursuit of sex; the tendency to overeat, and the addictive traps of drugs and alcohol. But neglecting the reality of our physical bodies also denies the miracles at the very heart of our faith: the mystery of the Word made flesh and the wonder of Christ’s bodily resurrection.

So what Paul sets out to do in this morning’s passage laden with sharp rhetorical questions is to remind the Corinthians that not only do their bodies matter: their bodies have been purchased, claimed, and consecrated. To belong to the Church—to be a member of Christ’s body—means that they are now free in new and wonderful ways: free from the sins that enslaved them, free from the hurts that haunted them, free from the fear of death itself. But it also means that they are now bound in new and wonderful ways: bound together in the mystical body of Christ, bound in obedience to their Lord, bound by the knowledge that “you are not your own. For you were bought with a price.” And in that announcement, everything changes.

Now if Paul’s questions to the Corinthians tackle the practical problems of living the life of faith in and with our physical bodies, the questions we find in our Gospel lesson appear to swing us in the opposite direction, entirely into the realm of spiritual ponderings. This morning in John’s Gospel we meet Nathanael, “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” earnestly pursuing what we might call his own spiritual journey.

That’s what the first question in our reading reveals. As amusing and surprising as Nathanael’s query may seem—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”—he does not mean it as a put-down of Jesus’ hometown. What that question shows us is that Nathanael is a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that he is eagerly seeking after the Messiah. He knows that no promise of prophecy looks for the anointed Savior of God to rise out of Nazareth. Nevertheless, Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation to “Come and see.”

Faithfully pursuing his spiritual quest, Nathanael is not prepared for what happens next. For just as Nathanael’s first question about Nazareth is not a put-down but a sign of his earnest journey, so too is Jesus’ reply to the question, “Where did you get to know me?” not a parlor trick, but a moment of revelation. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus says.

And after all of his seeking, all of his asking, all of his yearning to know, Nathanael finds himself known in an instant. When his path of wondering leads him into the presence of Jesus, Nathanael suddenly finds himself not the subject of his own sentences, but the object of another’s pronouncement—not the one doing the seeking, but the one being sought. And in that moment, everything changes.

Beloved, I said at the outset of this sermon that the questions that confront us today are some of the most important in the Christian faith and life. And so it is. For still today, we must ask ourselves about the appropriate use of Christian freedom when it comes to our bodies—in what we do, and in how we live. Still today, God claims us wholly, completely, and in every aspect of our lives. And that claim chafes against our own hungers and lusts—our own drives and desires. Still today, we can find ourselves stuck on a pendulum, swinging between the assertion that bodies don’t matter and we can each do whatever we please, and the belief that what we do with and to our bodies can change our relationship with God.

And still today St Paul calls to us, reminding us that our bodies do matter: not because they can become our pathway to God, but because this flesh has already become God’s pathway to us. For what Paul describes and what Jesus reveals today is not a God who sits distant, bidding us each pursue his own path—each follow her own questions—each seek out the truth that fits for each and each alone.

What we see, instead, in our question-colored passages this morning, is a God who steps down into our wondering. What we find among the queries and the quandaries of our Scripture this day is a God who knows us intimately, who cares for us deeply, and who claims us fully.

For the power in our passages today comes not from the force of the questions nor the eagerness of the askers. The power in our passages comes not from the strength of human seeking nor the certainty of human answers. Rather, the power of our passages this morning comes in the resounding response made by God himself.

When Paul asks his biting, incisive rhetorical questions, he asks them in response to the Corinthians’ human ponderings and expectations. But Paul answers them not according to human thought but in light of what God has done. Because Christ Jesus dwelt among us in human flesh, our human flesh now belongs to God. Because Christ Jesus bore a body like ours, the way we use our body reflects on him. Because Christ Jesus gave his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out, our lowly flesh and blood have become the dwelling place for the Holy Spirit of God.

And when Nathanael poses his earnest, practical question to Jesus, he poses it as if he is asking a remarkable human being. But Jesus answers with the knowing, loving voice of Almighty God. To Nathanael’s straightforward, “I’m sorry, have we met?” comes Christ’s cosmic reply, “Dear child, I know you better than you know yourself. I know your sitting down and your rising up. I discern your thoughts from afar. I know that you are fearfully, wonderfully made, for I made you: I knit you together in your mother’s womb, and I hold all the days of your life in the palm of my hand.”

For Jesus is the end and answer of all our questions, because in him, the God whom we seek comes seeking us. Jesus is the answer, and we may say this not with the glib certainty of the fundamentalist nor with the cold caveats of the skeptic, but because in Christ Jesus God grasps us. Jesus is the answer, not because in him we have found our own private, personal path to God, but because through him, God has been pleased to draw near to us.

Jesus is the answer because in him, God cuts through all of our questioning, all of our seeking, all of our searching. In Jesus, God pierces through all of our desires, all of our doubts, all of our hungers, and all of our hopes. In Jesus, God claims us, body and soul. God purchases us—all that we are and all that we have—with the priceless currency of his own blood. God calls us, and sends us to invite others, to “Come and see…the One about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote,” the One who was foretold and who is come at last.

And in Jesus, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves; the God who loves us more than we either desire or deserve; the God who has given himself to be the great answer to all of our questions; the God who uses common water to wash us throughly; the God who makes ordinary bread and wine to nourish our souls: this God promises us that we shall yet see greater things than these.

AMEN.

No Résumé Required

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 5, 2014

Preached by the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

When was the last time you worked on your resume? That may seem a strange and irrelevant question to those of you not actively seeking employment. That may seem a perfectly ridiculous question to those of you who are retired.

But I’d like you to think for a moment of what working on a resume means. Think of that process of distilling the important stuff of your life down to one or two measly pages. Think of the struggle to give a sense for your passion and purpose through a dull litany of old jobs. Think of that effort to prove your present worth and show forth your future values through a mere list of past accomplishments. Most daunting of all: think of that nervous drive to make an argument for your employment–to offer a witness to your worthiness–to set forth a case for your acceptance.

Now resume writing is fresh in my mind because I’m still quite new at this job. Not many months ago, I was busy preparing my application materials, and facing the great challenge of updating my own resume. But the reality is that the anxiety, the worrying, and most of all the yearning for acceptance so central to the resume writing process–these things are not limited to job-seekers only. The truth is that we are people constantly at work on our resumes: constantly engaged in efforts to hone and craft our images–constantly and unceasingly striving for affirmation and acceptance.

Consider our carefully curated online personae on Facebook and Twitter and any of the other dozens of social media resources where modern men and women digitally interact.

Consider the image of family life that we work so hard to present to friends at church and school, or the facade of wealth and worldliness that we struggle to display before business associates and professional colleagues.

Consider what we strive to communicate through our homes and our vehicles, through our wardrobes and our pastimes.

Beloved, we craft our lives like resumes. We build them (or try to) with our wit and with our learning. We build them with our success and with our spouses. We build them with our golf handicaps and our tennis trophies.

We do it before the world, and we do it deep in our own hearts. For all the furious business of resume building that I engage in before other people, I know that the real work of self-justification comes, for me, in the still hours and the silent watches–the late nights of troubled thinking and the early mornings of wakeful worrying: How can I prove that I am good enough? How can I know that I am worthy? How can I ensure that I will be accepted?

Our Epistle this morning reminds us that, while it may be accelerated and enhanced by modern technologies and ways of living, this work of resume building is not unique to our time and place. Today, St Paul sets before the Philippians his own impressive resume. “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

Paul’s resume begins on a solid foundation. You see, Paul comes from the right kind of family and was brought up in the right kind of social circles. Not only was he born into the chosen people of God, he was registered and initiated as a member of the people of Israel through just the right means–circumcision–accomplished at precisely the right time–on the eighth day of his young life. Before he even had a choice in the matter, Paul was set on the path to the success.

From this impressive pedigree, Paul’s resume just keeps on getting better. He went to the right schools, joined the right clubs, and started out on a promising career. He tells the Philippians that, “As to the Law, [I was] a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church; as to righteousness under the Law, blameless.” This statement requires a little unpacking. We know the Pharisees from their constant antagonism towards Jesus in the Gospels. Indeed, that’s the role they play in our Gospel lesson today.

But when Paul mentions his association with the Pharisees, it’s important to remember their positive attributes. The Pharisees were the very cream of ancient Jewish society. They were wealthy and well educated. They held positions of power and prominence. They were faithful to the traditions of their forebears. They were fastidious in keeping the Law of Moses and doing what was right. They were a religious people, an upstanding people–a people to be admired, a people to be respected. Beloved, the Pharisees were the Episcopalians of their day! Training as a Pharisee meant that Paul was embracing the esteemed patrimony that was his birthright.

But Paul was much more than a passive beneficiary of the advantages furnished by his privileged background. Indeed, Paul was still working hard to build up his already stellar resume. For he was showing his zeal, his passion, his commitment, his devotion to the proud heritage of the Hebrews by taking on a difficult and dangerous job–a job into which he was pouring himself heart and soul. That he might set the certainty of his acceptance beyond any doubt, Paul set about busily persecuting the proponents of a pernicious perversion of the faith of his people. Followers of “The Way” were a small but noisy band of preachers who dared to proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth–a man who had been crucified; who had been executed in the shameful method reserved for the lowest criminals–was the Messiah: the promised, long-awaited, God-anointed savior of the Jews. Paul considered it his special task to destroy them.

This was the accolade-accruing work to which Paul applied himself with the blessing and authorization of the high priest and the leaders of his nation. This was the jewel in his already outstanding resume. And even as he undertook that work, Paul kept his hands clean. “As to righteousness under the Law, blameless.” He knew the commandments and customs governing the life of his people, and he followed them. Even in the midst of dangerous, violent work, there was nowhere for Paul’s conscience to cry out against him. Nowhere for the voice of doubt and anxiety to trouble his mind. Paul’s resume was burnished by the admiration of his peers, blessed by the approval of his elders, and buoyed by an inner sense of satisfaction and certainty. He had achieved that after which we all struggle and strain. Paul had earned acceptance. He could point to his value. He could take confidence in his own worthiness.

But then, God intervened. The Risen Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus. The Risen Jesus stepped into the middle of Paul’s zealous, righteous, acceptable and accepted life. The Risen Jesus found Paul who was breathing threats and murder against the Church; Paul who was seeking to destroy the followers of Jesus; Paul was persecuting the Lord himself, and Jesus called him. He called Paul not because of his resume, but in spite of it. Jesus called Paul not because he was impressed by his credentials, but because in mercy he was willing to overlook Paul’s credentials. Jesus called him not because Paul had won the approval of his people or because Paul had impressed his elders or even because Paul had been born to the chosen race. Jesus called Paul according to his own purposes, and for the sake of God’s greater glory.

Speaking to the Philippians of his own sterling resume, Paul says, “Whatever gains I had, I have come to consider them as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” “I regard everything as loss.” The pride of his own pedigree became worthless. The zeal of his persecution was turned to the zeal of proclamation. The righteousness that Paul had so carefully and so confidently built up through his own diligent work and his own assiduous effort and his own upstanding behavior–all this, all this Paul cast aside on the rubbish heap of his own pride. And in its place, Paul received as God’s gift a different righteousness–a better righteousness–a righteousness found only “through faith in Christ: the righteousness from God based in faith.”

Finished and done were the weary days of Paul’s resume building. Over and forgotten were the accomplishments he had piled up for the sake of human acceptance. The Risen Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus and announced that Paul was to be called to new and better work–work carried out, not in order to gain approval, but work made possible because God in his mercy had already granted approval. As Paul himself put it, “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. Not that I have obtained this or have already reached this goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

For the truth of the matter, beloved, is that the Risen Jesus is not fooled by our facades. The Risen Jesus is not impressed by our resumes. The Risen Jesus is not interested in the adulation of our friends or the derision of our enemies. The Risen Jesus does not care whether we have found acceptance with our fellow women and men, or whether we have know the long and lonely existence of an outsider.

But as he did to prideful Paul on the dusty road to Damascus, even so does the Risen Jesus call to his people still. The Risen Jesus calls to you now. He calls to you in the words of the Scriptures and, by grace, through the words of this poor preacher. He calls to you in the prayers we offer and the songs we sing. He calls to you in the gifts we present, and he calls to you, at last, in the inestimable love made manifest in the gift of himself at this altar.

The Risen Jesus stands before you in all the bluster and busy-ness of your resume building and says, as he said once to the tempestuous waves and the high-tossed seas: “Peace. Be still.” The Risen Jesus stands before you in all your work and your worrying–in all your self-justifying, self-doubting, self-loathing, self-centeredness–and says, as he said once to a raggle-taggle band of illiterate fishermen, “Come ye after me.” The Risen Jesus stands before you in all your fear of failure and your jealous lusting after the good given to others and says, as he said once to his foolish, faithless Peter, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me.” This Risen Jesus stands before us, dear people, in all our yearning for acceptance and all our anxiety about rejection and says, as he said once to his astonished disciples, “Lo, I am with you always: even unto the end of the world.”

So bring to this altar today your resume. Bring all your arguments for worthiness, all your explanations of acceptability. Bring the accomplishments of which you are justly proud and the failures of which you are deathly afraid. Bring your images and your facades, bring your trophies and your chains, bring all that you wish others might see in you, and all that you are terrified that others might see in you. Bring them all, dear people of God, to this altar.

And here lay them down. Here let them be crushed under the merciful weight of that stone rejected by the builders, which has become the chief cornerstone. The good and the bad, the proud and the shameful, the resumes and the rap sheets alike. Change them here for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. Yield up what you cannot hope to keep for what you cannot stand to lose. And then, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [let us press on] toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

AMEN.

“I am there among them.”

A Sermon Preached on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 7, 2014

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Our lectionary today puts before us two passages of Scripture that address one of the most difficult tasks of human life: dealing with other people.

St Paul, as he approaches the end of his Epistle to the Romans, spends a few chapters offering advice about how members of the Church should interact with the wider world. He urges the Christians in Rome to live in peace with their pagan neighbors, to obey the local authorities, and to respect the powers that be. “Owe no one anything except to love one another,” says Paul, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.”

Likewise Jesus, as he prepares to begin his long, final journey to Jerusalem, takes time to give his disciples instructions about what to do in case of controversy between brothers and sisters in the Church. “If another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he begins. From that intimate, personal starting point, Jesus gives increasingly public and community-based directions for doggedly pursuing a path of reconciliation.

What could be more purely practical than the passages we have heard this morning? Here we have, from the great Apostle to the Gentiles and from our Lord himself, two texts tailor-made for leading us through the thorny thicket of personal relationships. Paul’s words read like a checklist—Jesus’ words like an instruction manual. They seem to take one of the greatest challenges of life and break it down into something manageable, straightforward—even easy.

Until, that is, we turn to read the record of our own lives in the light of these passages. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but these verse make me quake. “Owe no one anything but to love,” says Paul. Why then is my love so fickle and my heart so faithless? “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” says Jesus. Why then are my efforts at reconciliation so half-hearted and my drive to forgive so anemic?

When I lay them upon my own life, these apparently practical verses suddenly begin to read less like instructions and more like indictments. The command seems so simple. The injunction is so straightforward. And yet history—either the two-thousand years of Church history, or the two hundred years of Trinity’s history, or even the passing years of our own personal histories—show how seldom these words are heeded.

And yet what if the meaning of these passages were to be found in something other than their practical purpose? What if, in order to read Paul’s advice and Jesus’ instructions aright, it is necessary first to set aside our self-centered fretting and our gloomy guilt? What if the words of Scripture that we’ve heard this morning are not simply speaking to us but are, in the first place, speaking about God?

Our first clue comes in the middle of the passage from Romans. After exhorting the Roman Christians to love, Paul suddenly tells them “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.” Paul’s instructions about love—about the fulfilling of God’s law—are rooted not in mere morality, but in eschatology: not in the blind striving to be good people, but in the watchful expectation of Christ’s imminent return.

This is a critical distinction. Paul founds his instructions not in who the Romans are or in what they can do, but in who God is and what he has done already—and is doing still. Paul is not placing before the Romans an impossible goal or urging them to struggle after an unreachable dream. Rather, he is inviting the Romans to become what they already are in Christ.

“The night is far gone, the day is near.” The Roman Christians cannot, by their loving behavior, speed along the coming of Christ any more than you or I can rush the sunrise by sheer force of will. But what Paul wants for them is that they should live consistent with a reality that God has already wrought, and that he is bringing to light according to his own gracious time. God desires it for them—God commands it of them—because God is accomplishing it in them.

“Owe no one anything, but to love one another,” says Paul, because the God of love is at work in and throughthe Roman Christian community. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh,” urges Paul, because the new life of grace has wrapped itself about his companions like a garment. Even now, in the midst of their failures and imperfections, the call comes to dwell within the life of the Lord who will come to drive out their darkness and make whole their brokenness. And not only is that Lord coming: behold, he is already present in their midst.

For this is the astonishing promise we hear at the end of this morning’s Gospel lesson: in the person of Jesus Christ, God continually dwells in the midst of his people. “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them.” This abiding presence is both the rationale behind and the starting point for Jesus’ instructions to his Church in the midst of conflict.

For conflict must needs come. The Church is made up of fallen, broken men and women—people like you and like me, brothers and sisters. We fight. We argue. We gossip. We hurt one another, and we cherish the hurts dealt us by others. This is true of any human community, and in this regard the Church is no different from any gathering of people at any time or place.

But what Jesus reminds his followers today is that the Church is indeed unlike any other human organization in the history of the world. For while it is composed of hapless sinners and halo-less saints, it is a community called and formed by the very will of Almighty God. And what’s more, that same will dwells with and acts through the Church. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

How startling—how offensive—the pronouncement that the works of this assembly will echo through eternity! How fearful—how outrageous—to announce that the Lord of heaven and earth dwells here with us in our midst. But that is precisely the point of the passages we have heard today. Our Scripture this morning is given not simply that we may know what God expects of us, but so that we may see again what God has done for us.

For the same One who calls his Church to seek out and pursue the wayward and the lost member is the very One who came himself to enlighten the Gentiles and to eat with tax collectors and sinners. The same One who calls his people to fulfill the Law through love is the very One who fulfilled the Law through his own person, and who revealed perfect love in the laying down of his life on Calvary. The same One who calls this world out of the darkness and destruction is the very One who has destroyed Death and conquered Sin in the bright light of his Resurrection.

So it is that these passages today are, at last, not our condemnation but our consolation. For in our worship today, the God who sought us while we were yet his enemies comes to seek us again. In our learning and fellowship today, the God who revealed himself to us when our darkened eyes could not behold his shows his glory once more in the life of his people. At this altar this morning, the God who loved us and rushed to hold us while we were yet unlovable comes to embrace us now in the fullness of our humanity in the gifts of bread and wine. Through our Scripture this morning, the God who came to dwell among us and to reveal his glory in our flesh proclaims that he is present here in this congregation and whenever two or three are gathered in his Name.

In this knowledge and confidence, beloved, let us indeed owe no one anything but to love—for God has first loved us. In this sure and certain hope, dear people, let us risk forgiveness and reconciliation—because in Christ Jesus we have been forgiven, and are being reconciled to God the Father.

Thanks be to God. AMEN.