Saturday, March 26, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent

Eph. 5:1-14, Luke 11:14-28

He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.

These words of Jesus are the most essential part of today’s readings. Both the Epistle and the Gospel readings appointed for today are summed up in these words. Both of the readings are very much about spiritual warfare. Saint Paul writes to remind us of God’s moral laws, the difference between light and darkness, and that we must live in the light and walk in the Spirit. Jesus spoke about the very real activity of a defeated enemy, but one who is allowed to operate for yet a while longer. At the center are these radical words:

He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.

That is what it all boils down to. That is where it all begins and ends.
          We hear a lot about things that simply do not matter compared to this. If the things we do hear about and think about really stem from the radical commitment to Christ to which he calls us in these words, and lead back to it, then they have a serious claim to our consideration. Otherwise, we need to adjust our priorities.
Christian people may live their faith in Roman Catholic terms, Eastern Orthodox terms, Lutheran terms, Calvinist terms, Baptist terms, etc. For me, the Anglican Catholic Church offers the best way I know of to be committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. It cannot be less than that. I am not here because of anything less than my belief that it is here that I find the best way to be committed to the Lord Himself. For others, it should be no less true.
          Some lay members of the Roman Catholic Church (if you will indulge me for a moment), including my in-laws, have a habit of speaking that really bothers me. Even when they know you are a Christian, they ask, “what religion are you?” They mean what denomination or affiliation. First and foremost, I am a Christian as they also are. Furthermore, not only is that my religion; it is my life. But, among the world’s religions, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and so on, I am a Christian.
          Now, if my commitment is first and foremost to being whatever my family is, whatever my parents and grandparents have been, whatever my ethnicity tends to favor, etc., then today’s readings are practically meaningless. The reality of spiritual warfare and the call to walk in the light as God’s children, is not some formal matter of family heritage and whatever club that places me in. It is not about external things either.
The western culture of today has lost all sight of morality. Many parents today, excluding those present, do not take their children to church. They do not teach them right from wrong by the eternal and unchanging standards of God’s commandments. They do not prepare them for life with the strength and tools it takes to live by the true and unchanging code of genuine morality: The commandments of God. But, is it any better to raise children in a church that never teaches them to follow Christ, or that treats Christian faith as nothing more than merely a social affair?
Forty percent of American children are born out of wedlock, or so reported the Washington Times in July 2009. The whole notion that children should be taught to wait until marriage is laughed at and scorned. A clergyman who makes any mention of God’s moral laws in a sermon might have to contend with the so-called faithful in his own congregation, as I found out years ago in Arizona. Because the times have changed, we are supposed to assume that God Almighty, who has revealed that He never changes, has nonetheless changed with the times. We are supposed to just accept things the way they are.
          I am reminded of other words by St. Paul:

“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” (II Tim. 3:1-5)

A form of godliness that denies the power of its own message and grace, that denies the reality of the power that God imparts by grace, may be somebody’s idea of a religion, or of a church. It may include the best architecture, the most impressive people by worldly standards, good music, fine art, and all those other things. In fact, that is exactly the case in many a church that has turned its back on God.
But, the Scriptures we read today call us to overcome a very real spiritual enemy, a defeated but active foe who has power only to the extent that we believe his lies. For without deception, the devil has no power. The Scriptures we read also call us to overcome the enemy within, the fallen nature that is inclined toward sin, that sympathizes with all that is deadly and destructive. A half-hearted commitment based on one’s own idea of nice religion is not going to provide any genuine motive for engaging in that battle.
For Anglicans, the perfect church according to taste, whether that means just high enough, just low enough, or not too much of either, needs to become a lower priority than it often proves to be (and I am not talking about compromising theological principles, but about less emphasis on personal taste). The simple fact is, right now we need each other’s faith in an ongoing battle to do away with every good thing we have, above all, the call to gather with Christ.

“And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.”

Jesus did not respond this way to the woman as a reproof, and certainly not to dishonor His mother whom she had blessed. He was, rather, drawing the attention from things of this earth to God. He is calling us to “hear the word of God and keep it.”

Now, in the Gospel we preach, God has revealed the commitment He has to us. Jesus bore the cross of suffering and death, and with His own blood redeemed us to God, buying us back from sin and death. The risen Christ commands our commitment both as the God who formed us from the dust of the earth, and as the perfect Man who died for us. As God the Word He commands your commitment by His eternal and infinite power. As the perfect Man, He appeals to your hearts to return the commitment He has demonstrated. As your Creator He requires your commitment by right. As your Redeemer He has purchased it at great cost.

Unless we gather with Christ Himself, the words of St. Paul that urge us to walk as children of God, to live holy lives and to avoid the occasion of sin, might come across as boring clichés. They would fall flat without any power to convict the heart. They would be no more compelling than the saying of Mammy Yokum: “Good is better than bad because it’s nicer.” Who needs it?  Unless we gather with Christ Himself, all His talk about spiritual warfare and driving out the power of evil becomes meaningless to us. For God delivers us from our enemies; but, He does not deliver us from our friends. If we make friends with evil, we will find ourselves destroyed by it.

Walk as children of light: (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.”

St. Paul’s words fall flat unless we are motivated by genuine faith and a radical commitment to the Lord Himself. Otherwise, they are just rules; “and rules” we like to tell ourselves, “are meant to be broken.” But, Paul is not writing this to people who lack the motivation of true faith. It is more than rules for the sake of rules. It is instruction on how to live for those who really are committed to Christ, and who want to know how to live out that commitment.

And, Christ’s words that instruct us to clutter our lives with the glorious clutter of true faith (not having our houses “swept and garnished” for the comfort of unclean spirits), above all to “hear the word of God and keep it,” offer only a passing interest to many people. They do not hold the attention of anyone whose form of godliness denies the power thereof.

He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.


Colin Chattan said...

Well said Father. The theme of your sermon calls to mind for me Chorus VI of T.S. Eliot's "Choruses from "the Rock"". The whole of Eliot's poem is worth reading in Lent. And one of its main motifs, the story of Nehemiah's trials and tribulations in organizing the rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem, could well represent what you and your colleagues are trying to do with this blog:

"So they built as men must build
With the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other."

British North America Freedom said...

God bless you. I just discovered your blog. I look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

This is powerful, in-your-face preaching, Fr. Hart. Thank you so much for that word I needed desperately to hear.

In Christ,
Steven Augustine
ACC Layman

Lucky Dawg said...

Really terrific words to hear. I stumbled upon this site and have been looking for what I am reading. I feel God's calling and want to embrace it.
God Bless and thank you.