Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Adam Lay Ybounden"

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Advent is about waiting. It is easy to believe that because the promised Day of the Lord, when all things will be set right, hasn’t happened yet, that it will never happen. And yet our Epistle reading exhorts us,

“Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…But the day of the Lord will come…”

The musical text I have chosen to speak on today begins also with waiting,

Adam lay ybounden, Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter thought he not too long.

The first thing many people will notice about this text is its strange English. That is because the text comes from a 15th Century manuscript of unknown authorship. It is believed that the lyrics originated with a wandering minstrel from around Norfolk in England.

Secondly, people may wonder what this rather strange text has to do with Advent or Christmas. The setting our choir just sung is by Boris Ord and is traditionally performed following the First Lesson at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, where Ord was organist from 1929 to 1957.

Its connection to Christmas may be easy to miss, but has to do with the opening words I just read. The author describes the first man, Adam as being bound in a bond. He is a prisoner in chains, waiting for deliverance.

He has been waiting four thousand years. Medieval exegetes of Holy Scripture attempted to determine the age of the world through the use of the various genealogies and dates recorded in the Bible. The accepted period of time from the creation of the world to the birth of Christ was roughly four thousand years.

Adam, as representative of all mankind, is in bondage on account of his sin. The fall of mankind, recorded in Genesis 3, has rendered us all prisoners of sin and death, but Jesus was born to set us free.

In medieval theology and art, the Patriarchs and faithful men and women of the Old Testament were often depicted as waiting in the “Limbo of the Fathers” for the messiah. It was these that Christ visited when he descended to the dead. 1 Peter chapter three describes Christ as going down to the underworld and making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. In iconography he is often shown as leading wasted prisoners out of the jaws of death.

The author of this song says that even “four thousand winter, thought he not too long.” Adam waited with joy because he believed the promise God made that the seed of his wife Eve would crush the head of the serpent by whose malice they were deceived and imprisoned.

In the fullness of time, when time was ripe and ready, God sent his Son to be born of a woman. In the words of another song,

“Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.”

Just as Adam waited with joyful expectation for the coming the savior, Jesus Christ, so we too wait with joy for his second coming even if he should tarry “four thousand winters long.” We regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

There is a note of astonished wonder in the next stanza of Adam lay ybounden.

And all was for an apple, An apple that he took,As clerkes finden written in their book.

There is a certain poetry to the biblical story. One plucked apple shared between a couple doomed the world! All the misery of the world originated in a single act of covetousness.

There are no insignificant sins. Every small act of rebellion and disobedience on our part has dire consequences.

This stanza also reveals something about the speaker. This isn’t a work of high theology and learning. It is a folk song written by a simple, ordinary person. He only knows the story as a kind of rumor. It is the clerks—the priests and monkish scholars—who found the story written in their book.

Remember this is during a time before the printing press made the Bible widely available. It was a time before most the accessibility of translations in the vernacular. Most lay people only knew what they were told, what they learned from songs, from paintings, and architecture.

This folk quality is part of what makes this text so endearing. We get a glimpse into the religious imagination of the common people of 15th century England.

The conclusion of his poem seems foolish and misguided, and yet there is a surprising depth and insight,

Ne had the apple taken been, The apple taken been,Ne had never our lady abeen heaven e queen.Blessed be the time that apple taken was, Therefore we moun singen,
Deo gracias, Deo gracias

People usually scratch their heads at this point. Is he somehow saying that the original sin was a good thing? The author seems to be suggesting that Adam’s sin was good thing because so much good came as a result. As Saint Paul asks, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?”

The fact is that sin, and all its horrible consequences remain damnable and evil. God has a holy sorrow and wrath against sin. In his folksy and somewhat impish way, however, the author of this song is offering a kind of theodicy. A theodicy is an argument for God’s goodness in view of the existence of evil.

Probably the most vexing question a person of faith can wrestle with is, “Why does God allow such suffering and evil in the world? If he is all powerful why doesn’t he stop it all?”

The author suggests that God allowed mankind’s fall, because through their redemption more good will come to the world than if they had remained innocent. Saint Augustine put it this way, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” 

This is the concept of the “Felix Culpa” a Latin expression that means happy or blessed fault. Our wandering minstrel may have known the phrase by way of the Exsultet which is sung at the Easter vigil. The English translation goes, "O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer."

It is also expressed beautifully in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. In that poem Adam says,

“O goodness infinite, Goodness immense!/ That all this good of evil shall produce,/ And evil turn to good; more wonderful/ Than that which creation first brought forth Light out of Darkness!”

As horrible as the suffering and evil in the world is now, it is a slight and momentary thing compared to the immensity of eternity. The misery brought by Adam may go on for thousands of years, but the blessing brought by Christ is everlasting. Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Returning to the song, “Ne had the apple taken been, The apple taken been,
Ne had never our lady abeen heaven e queen.” Why is this the big pay off?

Where in Holy Scripture do we see Our Lady as a Heavenly Queen? It is in the account of Jesus’ birth that often gets overlooked. It is the version we here in Revelation chapter twelve. St John doesn’t tell the story as we are used to hearing it. He shows us behind the curtain to what Jesus’ lowly birth looks like in the spiritual realm.

We see a great lady in heaven crowned with stars, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet. She is about to give birth to a Child, a king in fact, but there is a dragon waiting to devour him. This is the beginning of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will bring salvation to the world, but only after great struggle.

The Child is Christ and that heavenly Queen is our lady, Mary. It is that scene, a great lady in heaven crowned with stars, that Adam in his bonds was waiting to see. The child of that woman will crush the head of the serpent, the dragon, and set the world free.  

Therefore we sing Deo Gratias, Thanks be to God! 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending

Advent is more than just a countdown to Christmas.
The Advent season takes its name from the Latin Adventus Domini, which means “the coming of the Lord.” What is in sight, however, is not just the coming of the Lord to earth born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.  Ultimately, Advent is about the coming of the Lord in Glory at the consummation of salvation history. In Advent our prayers turn to that day when Christ shall return to earth to judge the world and reign forever. 

It is that day for which all of creation groans in eager anticipation. A day unlike any other. A day in which the sun and moon will be darkened and the stars will fall from the heavens. This is poetic and dramatic language meant to evoke the cosmic and earth shattering significance of the coming of the Lord, “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

It is this grand spectacle immortalized in Charles Wesley’s classic Hymn, “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.” The pomp and magnificence of the scene is vividly brought to life through the tune most often associated with its text, Helmsley.
Throughout Advent and Christmas, I am going to be preaching on the words of some of the beloved hymns and anthems of these liturgical seasons. Wesley’s hymn seems like the appropriate place to start.

First, some background. Charles Wesley was an Anglican clergyman from the 18th century. He was educated at Oxford where he founded “the Holy club” out of which the Methodist tradition grew. His brother was the much more well known John Wesley. Although they were close and shared many core convictions, Charles strongly opposed the breach with the Church of England initiated by his brother.

He is the author of some of the most well loved hymns in all of Christendom. Among them, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Christ whose glory fills the skies,” “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings,” “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and another Advent classic, our sequence for today, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Wesley’s text for Lo He comes with clouds descending is actually a reworking of an older hymn by John Cennick called Lo he cometh! Countless trumpets. Wesley took the general narrative and theme of the text but vastly improved its poetry.
Even Wesley’s text varies slightly from hymnal to hymnal but the version in the Hymnal 1982 begins like this:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,Once for our salvation slain;Thousand thousand saints attending,Swell the triumph of His train:Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign!

There are several biblical allusions here. First there is the image of Christ, the son of man, coming in clouds and in glory mentioned in our gospel reading. More specifically the reference is to Revelation 1:7:
“Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”

There are two paradoxical images set side by side. First, Jesus as the suffering servant, the one who was slain for the sins of the world. This is Christ in his brokenness and humiliation. Second, the victorious conqueror returning from battle leading a great army.  Hebrews 9:28 says,
“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
This is the king arriving with glory and honor. Jesus’ first appearance was in humiliation but his return will be in glory. He came first to purchase our salvation. He is coming again to bring that deliverance to completion and reign forever.
The second stanza reads,
Ev'ry eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty
Those who set at nought and sold him
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
 Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall their true Messiah see.

What is asserted here, and in the verse from Revelation on which it is based, is that Christ’s return will be a visible appearance. Jesus said, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” There won’t be any doubt he has arrived. It will be obvious to everyone.
An allusion is also made to the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Do you remember the story? Joseph’s brothers betrayed him. They stripped him of his robe and threw him in a pit. They sold him to slave traders, but in Egypt he was exalted to Pharaoh’s right hand. Years later, they found themselves standing before him, no longer naked and beaten, but clothed in royal authority. He had their lives in his hands and so they were terrified.

Wesley depicts the people of the world as Joseph’s brothers and Christ in his royal appearing like Joseph. We have every reason to be terrified of his wrath and judgment. He holds our life in his hands and yet, like Joseph, he is full of grace and mercy.

Long before the time of Jesus, God spoke through Zechariah the prophet,
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10)

The deep wailing that Wesley writes about is the sorrow of the people of the world, and the people of Israel in particular, when they realize that the one they rejected, the one they set at naught and sold, is actually the true messiah and Lord of creation.

In the third stanza Wesley continues,
Those dear tokens of his Passion                          
Still his dazzling body bears,                                    
 Cause of endless exultation                                                        
 To his ransomed worshipers.                                      
With what rapture, with what rapture  
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
The allusion here is to Jesus’ appearance to Saint Thomas after his resurrection. We who at last behold him will cry out, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
All our doubts will be at an end. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.

Jesus still bears the wounds of his passion as a demonstration that the same one who suffered for the sins of the world is also the victorious Lord. Those wounds are not evidence of his defeat but badges of glory. They are the visible evidence of our salvation and so for us his worshippers, they fill us with exultation. 

Notice how the appearance of the crucified and risen Lord is both a source of terror and remorse, but also rapturous joy. When we sing this hymn we are hung on its paradoxes. How can a hymn that contains the repeated words “deeply wailing” be such a triumphant and uplifting experience?

Contained in this hymn is the promise that the worst of human evil, the horrible reality of suffering, which now seems so meaningless, will at the last day be swallowed up in the victory of Christ and transmuted into glory.

This is why, in Advent, we wait with joy and expectation for that day which is simultaneously dreadful and gloriously joyful.  On that day the world will not be able to help but worship and glorify Jesus Christ, the crucified, risen, and returning king.

Yea, amen! Let all adore Thee high on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the pow'r and glory,
claim the kingdom for Thine own!
Alleluia Alleluia! Thou shalt reign and thou alone!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Day of Judgement

The speaker at our diocesan priest retreat this year, Fleming Rutledge, told a story of a venerable old New England clergyman who had a significantly modernist sensibility. He was asked to officiate at the wedding of his grand daughter and her fiancĂ©. As he was going over the service with them—which was to be celebrated from the 1928 prayer book—he came to the part in the service in which the priest addresses the couple with the words,

“I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.”

He paused and remarked, “Maybe we ought to just leave that part out…”

His granddaughter objected, “Oh but Grand-pa-pa, I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!”

Our gospel lesson this morning, for Christ the King Sunday, is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is all about the Day of Judgment when the Son of Man comes in his glory, with all the angels with him, and when he sits on the throne of his glory while all the nations of the world are gathered before him.

I think that many of us these days are a lot like that old clergyman. When it comes to the Day of Judgment, we prefer to just leave it out. It seems harsh and punitive and we prefer instead to focus on the kindness and love of God. I would like to suggest, however, that the Day of Judgment is an essential element to understanding God’s love and mercy. It may be dreadful, but it is good news for those who love justice and righteousness. There is good reason why we should—like the young bride in the story—love the dreadful Day of Judgment. Allow me to suggest three.

First, on the Day of Judgment Christ will return to reign as the true King of Kings and all tyrants and abusers of power will be dethroned and judged. Our Old Testament reading comes from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel in which the prophet pronounces judgment on the wicked shepherds of Israel, the corrupt rulers who have abused his flock and failed to lead them with justice. Ezekiel promises that God himself will seek out and save his people from the wicked shepherds and that he will set up a true king from the house of David who will be a good shepherd to his people.
Christ is the fulfillment of that promise. He will gather his people who have been scattered throughout the world; he will bind up their wounds, and restore them to health. He will lead them into peaceful, quiet, pastures of plenty.

We should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will at last become king on earth as he is in heaven.

Second, we should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will cast out evil once and for all. As it is, evil exists side by side with the good. The presence of evil is blight on God’s good creation.

On the last day Christ is depicted as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. This is true not only in our Gospel lesson but in the reading from Ezekiel as well which says, “I will judge between sheep and sheep.”

In those days it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the sheep from the goats. Today, after generations of breeding, sheep are easily recognized by their thick fluffy wool but In Biblical times the two would have been nearly identical in appearance. This is still the case in certain parts of Asia and Africa. So what is the difference between them?

Sheep hear and obey the voice of their shepherd, but goats go their own way. They refuse to be led and often disrupt the peace of the flock. They will often push and ram the sheep with their horns.

The comparison is clear. The sheep are those who submit to God’s rule, who hear and obey his voice. The goats are those who refuse the will of God and go their own way. At the last Judgment, God will separate those who are evil from those who are good. The evil will no more trouble the good.

Elsewhere a similar image is used of a harvester who winnows the grain separating the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is swept up and thrown into the fire.

There is a sense, however, in which there is a bit of goat in all of us. Each of us are a mixture of both wheat and chaff. At the last judgment, that which is evil in us will be named and judged. The prospect is indeed dreadful but it is ultimately for our good. We will finally be purged of the sinful propensities that plague us in this life.

Saint Paul puts it this way, “each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done… If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

If we love what is good, we will look with joy for the day when what is evil is separated and destroyed.

Finally, we should love the Day of Judgment because we have confidence in the mercy and goodness of the judge.

Question 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: ‘What comfort is it to you that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

The reply is a beautiful summary of our Christian hope:

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, I, with uplifted head, look for the very One, who will come from heaven as the Judge, the same, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me.

Who would you rather have your judge on the last day? Your peers? The media? Would you stand under that judgement? Could you even stand under the judgement of your own standards? None of these are as merciful a judge as our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Day of Judgment is not terrifying for the Christian because we believe that the one to whom we must give an account is the merciful and gracious savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the very one who loved us while we were yet sinners and who bore the penalty for our sins in his own flesh on the cross.

By faith we know that we are justified before God on account of the merits of Christ. What fear can we have of judgment seeing as there is no condemnation in Christ?

On the last day everyone will be judged according to the deeds done in this life. That should be sobering to us. The basis of our acquittal or rejection however ultimately rests on how we respond to Christ. Have we welcomed him or turned him away?

Jesus Christ died to purchase salvation for every person. The grace of God has appeared to everyone. He comes to every human heart with the opportunity to receive him with joy, to serve him or to reject him.
Notice that God’s judgment is not a theology exam. It is not ultimately about what we know or accept on an intellectual level, but about our openness to divine grace.

In the parable there are some among the righteous who seem unaware that the one they have served is Christ. They say, “When did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you drink?” What they have done for the least of God’s messengers they have done for him. They did not fail to regard him when he came to them unaware.

There is a day that God has appointed in which Christ will judge the world in righteousness, but the judgment begins now. If we open our hearts to receive his grace, confessing our unworthiness, we can be assured of his verdict of mercy. By faith we can stand justified before God today.

Brothers and sisters, “I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What is a Saint?

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 221
John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints but what exactly is a saint anyway?

The word we derive the name “saint” from means, “set apart, sacred, and holy.” The saints are the “holy ones” or those who are set apart or elect from the entire world. In the broadest sense, a saint is anyone who has been set apart and called by God through baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In that sense “saint” is just another name for a Christian. We are all holy and set apart by God, we are all justified and accounted righteous by faith, and we all are sanctified by the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. This is why Paul in his Epistles can address those he is writing to simply as “saints.”

Were they all perfect examples of holiness and piety? No way! Paul and the other Apostles often have to severely admonish them. It is the imputed righteousness of Christ that makes them holy. They are still working out their salvation with fear and trembling, and yet, by faith, they are already justified before God. They are already proclaimed to be what they are in the process of becoming. As our reading from 1 John says,

“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

However, these days, the more common use of the name “saint” refers to an individual who has attained an exceptional level of sanctification, whose life is an example of holiness that we can follow with confidence and who now dwells in the presence of God. These are those the scriptures refer to as, “the saints in light.” We “saints” on earth aspire to their example. We are being strengthened and equipped that we might share in their glorious inheritance. 

These are the ones we read about in our reading from Revelation, standing before the throne of God, robed in white with palm branches in their hands, symbols of victory. They are those who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are the Martyrs who have given their lives for their testimony.

John’s Revelation was given to the church in a time of intense persecution and conflict. This vision was meant to inspire and encourage the saints on earth who were suffering. John is describing for them those who have persevered through the struggle who are now exalted in God’s presence.

Likewise, the author of Hebrews encourages us to endure hardship and to, “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  He tells us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.”

The pursuit of holiness, through which God calls us to be saints, is like a great race or athletic contest. The saints in light, the white robed army of martyrs, are those who have crossed the finish line and are cheering us on from the other side. Their eyes are upon us, they pray and intercede for us as our allies in the struggle for truth and justice.

Someone recently asked me, “If the saints can see us, do they see our pain and hurt? And if so, does that bring pain and suffering to them?”

That is a great question! My first thought is that the saints do indeed grieve over suffering and wrong on Earth. For Instance Rev 6 depicts the martyrs as crying out to God for justice,

They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"

The clear implication from John’s vision is that the saints do indeed see and grieve over our struggles here on earth. In particular they grieve over the delay of justice for the oppressed. Could they be truly good if they didn’t?

It sometimes is suggested that the Saints in heaven are too busy glorifying God and enjoying his presence to be concerned with us or our affairs on earth.  I don’t think this is correct. The heaven they enjoy is not escapism and endless fun. That is Disneyland! We shouldn’t picture the Saints as lounging about in some epicurean paradise far removed from the miseries of the world.

Does our love of God make us more or less concerned about the evils of the world? If in this world holiness means a growing passion to see the righteousness of God established here on earth, how could it be any different for the Saints in light?

Do not the scriptures tell us that God also grieves over the wickedness of the world? That his wrath is kindled against sin? That he mourns with those who mourn? Why should we expect any less of the saints?

And yet they never despair because they are in the presence of God. He is their comfort and endless consolation. He wipes away every tear from their eyes. The saints have an unconquerable hope and joy in God’s final victory. However, they are restless for its fulfillment. Their joy will not be complete until all of us are gathered in, all evil made right, and the New Heavens and the New Earth established.
In Revelation Chapter 19, John describes the fall of Babylon, the overthrow of evil in the world. Where are the Saints? Are they off playing harps on a cloud someplace? No! They are watching and rejoicing because their hopes are being realized. John says,

I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:“Hallelujah!Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,   for true and just are his judgments.He has condemned the great prostitute    who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

What should we conclude from this? True holiness does not take us out from the world, but it turns our hearts to its good and its redemption. The salvation of the world is the passion of the saints because it is the passion of God and his Son Jesus Christ. It should be our passion too.

What is a Saint? A Saint is someone who is called out by God, made holy, and empowered to be an advocate for love and justice in the world, to intercede and pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Assurance of Immortality: A Sermon for All Souls Day

On March 31, 1848 in Hydesville New York,  two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, reported that they had made contact with the spirit of someone long departed. This spirit was said to be able to communicate with the sisters through rapping noises or knocking sounds that were audible to anyone present. The two sisters soon became a sensation, being taken in by a Quaker couple named Amy and IsaacPosts who took the sisters on tour to cities like Rochester, Schenectady, Troy, Albany, and of course New York City.

In 1888 the Fox sisters admitted that their communication with the dead was all a hoax. They later, however, recanted their recantation! Despite this blow to their credibility, the cat was already out of the bag and all over the United States and Europe the curious were attending séances and consulting spirit mediums.

Historians often mark this as the beginning of the modern religious movement called, “Spiritualism” which is characterized by the belief that the spirits of the dead have both the ability and the desire to communicate with the living.

The source of the popularity of such beliefs seems to be an anxiousness about death and an eagerness to confirm, through practical experience, that their really is a life after death. Even in recent times books like, “Heaven is for Real” about a young boy’s near death experience and journey to Heaven, sell millions of copies. We want some assurance that our departed loved ones are in a better place. We want assurance that this world is not all that there is. We want to believe the soul survives death.

It is no accident that Spiritualism began to flourish during a time when confidence in the existence of God and a spiritual dimension to life was being challenged by advances in the natural sciences. Confidence in the established church was also declining and so people began to search desperately for some kind of comfort from other sources.

Christianity has always strongly discouraged the use of mediums or occult techniques to contact the dead, but we have at least this is common with spiritualism: we believe that there is more to life than meets the eye and that there is a life beyond death. A strong attraction for Christianity has always been the hope of eternal life and victory over death through Jesus Christ.

When we commit our loved ones to the grave we do so, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”

We also have this is common with the spiritualist; we believe that human beings, by the grace of God, have been endowed with an immoral soul. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because of the possibility of fellowship with God in eternity, but it also means that our choices have eternal consequences.  C.S. Lewis, as always, puts it very eloquently:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long, we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealing with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

For those of us who are grieving the loss of loved ones, the immortality of the soul has further implications. It means that the core of the person we loved, the part of them that makes them who they are, has survived their death.

As our reading from the Book of Wisdom says,

 “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.  They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction.  But they are in peace.”

But what of the spiritualist notion that spirits continue to evolve and advance beyond death? Does this belief have anything in common with the Christian faith? Many believe that at death the tree lies where it fell as it were. This life is the time God has given for us to know and love him and to advance in his grace.

But how many of us die in a perfect state of sanctification? Surely there is much more we should expect from the grace of God. What also should we make of the church’s long practice of prayers for the departed?

We offer our prayers, and present before God the atoning death of his son Jesus Christ in the holy sacrifice of the mass, that he might receive them more and more into the presence of his light and his love. We ask that everything that is impure or unholy in them might be purged by his fire and washed in the blood of the cross.

We trust that the good work that God began in them in this life might be brought to completion on the Day of Jesus Christ.

There are cultural constraints, physical weaknesses, and psychological temperaments that impede our progress in this life, but at the dividing of soul from body these will be no more. Yet I have little doubt that there will be a moral and spiritual learning process that most of us will undergo when the veil and entanglements of this world are lifted. It stands to reason that we may need to learn to walk in that world just as we needed to learn to walk in this one. Our prayers are meant to assist those we love in that growth.

Even after our death we continue to press forward to the upward call of God in Jesus Christ. It is not merely the immortality of the soul that is the bedrock of Christian hope, but the resurrection of the dead. We long to be further clothed in glory.

Those who are looking for a firm and practical confirmation of the reality of God and the hope of life beyond death should cling to this practical assurance, Christ is risen! His tomb is empty and the stone is rolled away!

The amazing truth of the resurrection as a historical event provides much more solid assurance than any spirit rappings. The testimony of the apostles, saints, and martyrs is more trustworthy than any sisters from New York or any spirit medium. The hope and assurance the spiritualist longs for is found only in Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul declares, 

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”

We can be confident that although we are separated by death, we remain spiritually connected in the undivided body of Christ. The saints on earth and the saints in heaven are one body and one fellowship. We will stand with them in the resurrection of the body on the last day.

I leave you with the beautiful words of the catholic theologian Karl Rahner,

The great and sad mistake of many to imagine that those whom death has taken, leave us.  They do not leave us.  They remain!  Where are they?  In the darkness?  Oh, no!  It is we who are in darkness.  We do not see them, but they see us.  Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes...Oh, infinite consolation!  Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent...They are living near us, transfigured...into light, into power, into love.

May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercies of God, rest in peace. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Saint Paul's Remedies for Anxiety

Philippians 4:1-9

What do you worry about? I’m sure if I took a survey of this congregation, no one would have any difficulty answering that question. We all worry and we all feel anxious for the future at times.

Each of us is touched by the ordinary stresses of life. Work, family, bills to pay, errands to run, health concerns, political concerns, religious and spiritual questions…Everything that makes life worthwhile and rewarding can also be a source of anxiety.

While all of us have anxieties and worries, it is a chronic and even debilitating problem for some us. Whether it is by temperament, biology, or upbringing, some of us suffer from various anxiety disorders. In fact it is pretty common and increasingly more so. Recent statistics suggest that 40 million Americans over the age of 18, or roughly 18% of the population suffer from an anxiety disorder. Many of those who suffer receive no treatment at all.  

It is not God’s will that we should overcome or oppressed by anxiety. Although a certain degree of worry is inevitable, he does not wish us to succumb to our anxieties or be defeated by them. For chronic sufferers of anxiety, therapy and medication can help. They are a good thing and should never be stigmatized or dismissed.  The Wisdom of Sirach says, “Give the doctor his due!” and “The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.”

As Christians we also should gain strength and encouragement from our faith. Saint Paul exhorts those who are anxious, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything!”

He assures us that we are always—even now—under the gentle guidance of our heavenly Father and in the loving presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit. If you could see Jesus walking beside you in your struggles, if you always felt the power of the Holy Spirit, if you had a continual sense of your Father’s watchful gaze and knew that everything he has is yours, wouldn’t you feel you feel less anxious? Yet we walk by faith and not by sight. We don’t always experience these realities in a tangible way but we are asked to trust them by faith.

Paul tells us—he commands us actually—to not be anxious about anything! Now one thing we must not do in response to this commandment is to become anxious about our anxiousness! Some of us worry about our worry. We worry that our worries are some kind indication that our faith is deficient.  The fact is, however, that God does not expect us to free ourselves from anxiety by sheer force of willpower. That is not what Saint Paul is asking us to do here. Instead he gives us practical strategies for combating anxiety on a spiritual level.

Philippians 4 is a treatment plan, and like any treatment plan it is not a magical cure nor should we expect instant and immediate results. It is a plan for the long term. I want to highlight three strategies that Saint Paul believes that we should turn to again and again in our struggle with anxiety.

The first is to rejoice! Saint Paul is emphatic in his commandment, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!”

There is a scene from HBO’s John Adams miniseries that I think of often. Adams faced tremendous challenges in his life. He helped lead the American Revolution for independence, he served the newly formed nation as president during a time of anxiety and uncertainty, he lost his daughter to cancer, and he suffered a strained relationship with his alcoholic son. In the scene he is an old man giving advice to his other son Thomas on an evening stroll. He says, 


“Still, still I am not weary of life. Strangely. I have hope. You take away hope and what remains? What pleasures? I have seen a queen of France with eighteen million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub,” He says pointing with his walking stick to a small white flower in the field. He continues, “Now my mother always said that I never delighted enough in the mundane, but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”

He begins to speak to himself in his revelry, “Rejoice evermore. Rejoice Evermore!” Thomas looks at him puzzled and he snaps back, “It’s a phrase from St. Paul, you fool! REJOICE EVERMORE! I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue. I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees right here in admiration.”

When you look back on your life in your final days, what do you think you will be more likely to regret? Will you regret that you didn’t spend enough time worrying about the future, what people thought of you…or will you regret that you didn’t take enough time to rejoice in the simple pleasures of life?

Neither Saint Paul nor John Adams were strangers to anxiety; they both knew great sorrow and loss, and yet their advice to us is to “Rejoice Evermore!”

The second strategy Saint Paul offers for dealing with anxiety is to in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.

It goes without saying that if we wish to have a more abiding faith in God’s presence with us, that we need to grow and deepen in our prayer life. Do we pour out our grief and care to God in prayer? Are we ever, like John Adams, filled with the irresistible urge to fall on our knees in admiration, or are we contented to have a merely formal relationship with him? We should regularly open our hearts to God like we would a trusted friend or a wise father.

Why should we make our request known to God? Doesn’t he know what we need already? Yes, of course he does, but our supplications are more for our own sake rather than God’s. He wants to bring our concerns to him, and in so doing to trust them to his provision and care. He wants to carry our burdens. If I take a heavy load from my back and hand it to another, it means I am no longer carrying it! I have entrusted it to the strength of another. That is what God wants us to do with our worries and anxieties. He wants us to place them in his hands.

The third strategy for dealing with anxiety that Saint Paul offers us is about thinking about what we think about,   

"whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

In recent years, many people have found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helpful in combating anxiety. The goal here is to help individuals change unhelpful patterns of thinking, behavior, and self-talk and to replace them with healthier patterns. The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think and feel.

Saint Paul wasn’t a cognitive psychologist, but some of the strengths of that approach are reflected in his wisdom here. What could be better than to fill our minds with the beauty, the goodness, the love, and perfection of God? Instead of dwelling on what is wrong with us, we should turn instead to one in whose light we are revealed, because in him is our joy and salvation. Yes, we need to honest about our sin and our need for redemption, but we don’t dwell on our wretchedness or guilt but rather on God’s grace and mercy.

Think about these things Saint Paul says, give your cares to God, rejoice evermore, and the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds from all assaults of anxiety and despair.