Friday, September 27, 2013

St. Michael and all Angels Sept 29

Click on the picture for a link to a sermon and to an essay.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 4:1-6 *  Luke 14:1-11

The Scriptures appointed for this day are about humbling ourselves, the active rather than passive choice of humility as a way of life. It was humility to which Jesus referred when He said that we cannot even enter the kingdom of God unless we become as little children. As St. Matthew recorded it, here is what happened and what the Lord said:

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me (Matt. 18:1-5).

People today love to use the word "spiritual” as a substitute for genuine religion that makes moral demands. Saint Paul uses the word “spiritual” to mean overcoming the temptations of the world, the flesh and the Devil by walking in the Holy Spirit. The most practical thing we see in today’s Gospel and Epistle is that humility is essential for those who want to be spiritual. Also, since humility is necessary in order to be spiritual (as Saint Paul uses that word), it is also the key to peace among believers. Not only that, but it is the key to remaining orthodox. It is the element of character that we must have in order to bend our ears to hear, to be able to learn. For, the Christian must be someone who, as G.K. Chesterton observed, knows that there is in the earth something smarter than himself; and that something is the Church. Frankly, if we ever think that we are smarter than the Church, we will be lost. The Hebrew word for hear, and for obey, is the same word: That word is Sh’mai. It takes humility to hear, and it takes humility to obey.

Long ago in a sermon I told you that I would not feed you my own stupid ideas, but only the word of God. You see, the word “heresy” comes from a root that means “opinion.” Yes, the word “heresy” carries the ideas of false doctrine and of church division. Yet, all of that destructive power, unleashed by a terrible combination of carnal and demonic motivation, comes from the exaltation of one’s own opinion above the revealed truth of Scripture as known by the Church’s Tradition- in fact, its infallible Tradition, built upon the Rock of revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Against that Tradition of revealed truth, you and I can choose our own ideas. But, when we do that, it is pride, both in its base carnality and in demonic motivation. Pride welcomes the spirit of error into the heart and mind. "The works of the flesh" are not only sexual lusts, but also many other things. Even political sins, which include the use of manipulation - even within the Church - are included in Paul's list of "the works of the flesh." Pride is one of those “works of the flesh” that wars against the spirit and the knowledge of God. It desires glory to be given to oneself. It desires power and prestige, position and honor. But, in order to hear and obey God we must be humble. We must take up the cross and follow Jesus Christ.

So, humility is also the key to peace among believers, to peace in the Church. Divisions are not always caused by false doctrines. Many times they are caused by strong and imposing personalities, by uncharitable deeds and words, by politics and gossip. All of these things are works of the flesh, and they are also tools of demons and the lure of the world. When they find their way into the Church, it is, more often than not, due to pride. The words we have read today tell us why we must strive to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is because “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” The Church is one Body with one doctrine and one God. There is only one Body of Christ and One Holy Spirit.

When Christ prayed that “they all might be one” this was one Person of the Trinity speaking to another Person of the Trinity. The Son asked it, not of us, but of the Father. And, as Saint Paul’s words tell us, there is only one Church. But, just as a man and wife are one flesh, and are made one flesh by God Himself, it is no guarantee that they will have the love and humility it takes to get along with each other. Where pride motivates us to seek our own satisfaction in life, love is cast aside. Indeed, whole sects have been built because of doctrinal errors due to the very thing I have mentioned, the exaltation of opinion over the faith that was revealed once for all to the saints. And, we cannot pretend that these things do not matter. But, in addition to the problem of bad theology, we must avoid those other things that divide the Church; politics, gossip, ambition and so forth.

Look at where we came from. Most of us awoke one day to the terrible fact that the official Episcopal Church- the one headquartered in New York- had left us behind. We had not left it; it had left us. It was all because of that terrible combination of carnality and demonic motivation. Because of pride, that very first sin of the Devil that caused his fall, many of the leaders of that once solid denomination, that for many years had upheld the best of the Catholic Tradition and the best of the English Reformation, began teaching their own ideas in an attempt to be chique’, and to be acceptable to a fallen world that hates God. Doctrine became more a matter of being fashionable than of being true and faithful. Many of us held out until we saw that it was a waste of time. For me, the truth hit hard when I came to see that any person that I might evangelize into the faith of Christ, I could not, in good conscience, bring into my own church. Not even the Parish I was in; yes, it was still fighting the good fight (or trying to). But, ultimately, it could not win because of the power of apostate bishops. Our life in the Church should be one of a positive mission to the world around us, not of a negative drain on our energy due to a constant battle against prelates and General Conventions. How could I, in good conscience, bring anyone into that? But, now we have found that, by God’s grace, our faith still lives just as it was taught to us from the beginning; that others can keep the endowments, the real estate and the social position that came with being Episcopalians. We will keep the faith, thank you.

But, let us take heed that we learn a few lessons in light of the scriptures we have read this day. I suggest that we must unlearn some bad lessons that we learned from being in a constant battle (that is, for those of us who were struggling for orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church, before realizing the futility of wasting our allotted time in this world). The first lesson to unlearn is about the whole idea of what a diocese is. In our old days, a diocese was simply a legal entity which gave us a legitimate existence as a local church, and it became for many of us a necessary evil. The reason is obvious. Bishops were the enemy. More often than not, we just did not trust them. As C.S. Lewis said about the clergy and the laity, in the Middle Ages the laity were sure the priests were more orthodox than themselves. But now, they are sure that they are more orthodox than the priests. Well, that applied double for bishops.

But, if we go back to the Bible we see Apostolic ministry as a gift that was appointed by God, the extension in this world of Christ’s own ministry. If we look at Saint Paul’s epistles to Timothy and to Titus, we see that he had laid his hands upon both of those men in order to make them into shepherds of the flock, and to be his successors in the apostolic college with the authority to ordain men for the priestly ministry. The apostolic succession is in scripture, described rather than explained, but clearly in scripture nonetheless. And, we can read about the ministry of the bishops in great detail, in epistles to various churches, by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote in the very early years of the Church.

I remember a very unfortunate and inaccurate TV presentation about Church History in which some scholar, a woman from a University somewhere (oh my, it was Elaine Pagels), was theorizing that Ignatius wrote his epistles in order to add to his own power as a bishop. The truth is, however, that he wrote them after being sentenced to death while on his way to Rome in chains to die in an arena, expecting to be killed within a very short period of time; so I am not sure how his teaching on the subject of the epscopacy, that is the office of bishop, was supposed to increase his power. These letters were his legacy, given to the whole Church out of love. He tells us in those letters that where the bishop is present, there is Christ; and where Christ is present there is the Catholic Church. We need bishops for that reason. That is why we belong to a diocese. It is so we can belong to the Church, and so we can have valid sacraments. The apostolic succession is more than a legal matter of canons, and more than a relay race. It is the continuation of Apostolic ministry; it is not a necessary evil. It is a blessing.

If you want to see chaos it is easy to find. You can find crazy doctrines and personality cults tearing apart churches all around us. We need to be humble if we want to avoid those things; that is, we need the humility of which St. Paul wrote in the Epistle read today.

Of course, the great example of humility is that of Christ Himself. While always being equal to God, He took human nature into his Person, and humbled Himself to be, as the scripture says, obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. He had, as a Man, always an ear to hear the Father’s will. So, He humbled Himself as a servant and took away the sin of the world, and was exalted after His resurrection, revealed to be the Lord of all heaven and earth. That is the most astonishing thing. God the Son had an ear to hear. Humility was good enough for God. How can it be less so for us?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

I hope everyone will understand if I post a link to sermon from 2010.

My father, Robert W. Hart Sr., died on Friday morning at the age of 87.

REMEMBER thy servant, O Lord, according to the favour which thou bearest unto thy people, and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, he may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Gal. 6:11-18  * Matt. 6:24f 

Study of Scripture on the Epistle
Gal. 6:11-18

It may well be that Saint Paul’s words in this Sunday’s portion of his Epistle to the churches of Galatia, sound a bit strange. All of this talk about circumcision contrasted against the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and people “glorying”- that is, in modern English, boasting- about the “flesh” of these Christians, may well confuse a new Bible reader. It can lead to mistaken ideas. The first mistaken idea is that whatever Saint Paul was talking about cannot be relevant to modern people. The second mistaken idea is that this provides a basis for an anti-Semitic interpretation of scripture. Another mistaken idea would be we have no need for the authority and teaching of the Church.

In fact, let me deal with this third mistake. In so doing, I will have already answered the others. Since we speak in the Creeds of the Catholic Church and of the Catholic Faith, which we believe, we are stuck with the Catholic Tradition- and thank God we are. The Nicene (/Constantinopolitan) Creed says, “I believe One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Yes, we do believe in the Church, because Christ Himself founded it and is its Head. But, in this great Creed you say I believe the Church; I believe what it teaches.

The scripture, without solid teaching of what it means, can be taken captive by any kook, fraud or con-man. So, when we speak of the Catholic Tradition we must go back to the ancient times, those early centuries when the Church was under persecution, or just emerging from persecution. We are saying that we believe what Christ promised, namely that the Spirit of Truth would guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13). And, as that promise of Christ applies to this passage from Galatians, the young Church first had to deal with a heresy that came about so early in its history that we see it addressed by St. Paul. When the apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem, they also, with complete unanimity, addressed and refuted it (Acts chapter fifteen). This ancient heresy taught that, in order to be saved, a Gentile who converts to Christianity must be circumcised and live by all of the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses.

Trendy writers have sold the idea that some controversy raged over what to do with Gentiles converts. They sell the notion that this alleged controversy raged for years, even among the Apostles, pitting Paul against James, and maybe against Peter. They insist that we may infer, from this invented story of theirs, that important questions can go unresolved and debated within the Church for extended years before the Spirit leads us to a right conclusion. They use their false and contrived reading of the New Testament to justify new and outrageous ideas (including women's ordination and same sex blessings, etc.).

But, that tale of a raging and prolonged controversy is pure fiction; and so, like the future, it can teach us no lessons. What we really see in the New Testament is that the Proto-Council in Jerusalem was unanimous in its conclusion, without disagreement among the Apostles and the Elders. At the Council they unanimously affirmed the earlier decision recorded in the eleventh chapter of Acts, when they all agreed with Saint Peter that he had been right to baptize the new Gentile converts without circumcising them; because when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles, gathered that day in the house of Cornelius, God made no distinction between Jew and Gentile. The immediate and unanimous Apostolic conclusion had been, at that time, “then hath God granted the Gentiles repentance unto life (Acts 11;18).” So, when a new teaching – a heresy- arose, as Gentile Christians were troubled by unauthorized teachers who wanted them to be circumcised and to keep the Law, Saint Paul was in complete agreement with Saint James, and with Saint Peter, and with all the Apostles, that the Tradition of the Church (new as that Tradition was, but established nonetheless) had to be defended. What Saint Peter had learned years before when Gentiles first converted to Christ, and what his fellow Apostles affirmed without argument (if you simply read the record in the Book of Acts), was the very same teaching proclaimed by Saint Paul, and the same teaching that the Council in Jerusalem upheld for all of the churches everywhere. In short, the New Testament does not show a controversy among the Apostles, but rather that they were in complete unity, agreeing among themselves concerning what it was that the Holy Spirit had revealed. And so, in the New Testament we see the Church teaching the content of Apostolic witness.

What does this mean for you? It means that what the Church has always taught since its earliest days, as recorded in Scripture, is to be believed. In this case, believe and know that you cannot save yourself by your own power. That first heresy, that we are saved by circumcision (of the males) and by keeping the 613 commandments, suggests that we have the power to save ourselves without God’s help--that we can pull ourselves up to Heaven by our own bootstraps. A few centuries later, this same idea would reappear in another form from Britain’s very own heretic, a fellow named Pelagius. Pelagius taught that we can, without God’s grace, live holy lives simply by our own will power; that Christ came merely to be our example. The man who worked hardest to refute the heresy of Pelagianism was Saint Augustine. He picked up the teaching of the Apostles back in the first Century, that we cannot save ourselves by our own power; that we need the grace of God.

Today we can speak of the heresies of the Judaizers and of the Pelagians with ease. But, think of what it meant for people back then to hear such teaching. What if Christ had come only to be the example of perfection? Would not we be without hope? We should all know about the problem of sin and death. What I know about sin I did not need to learn in Seminary. I had the subject pretty well mastered without reading a text book on it. Death is the flip side, a part of the problem of sin; sin and death are two sides of one coin. One thing I do not need is a perfect example to make the sting of my condemnation worse. I need a Savior, both to rescue me from the reality of guilt (whether I have the good sense to feel guilt, or not), and to heal my fallen soul of its waywardness. Jesus the Good Example cannot save me; Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Lord and Savior Who is One with the Father, forever God even as He takes into His own Person our human nature and redeems it, and by grace perfects it, can and does save me. And, no one else can; certainly I cannot save myself. In Christ, however, no longer am I bound for destruction, for an eternity of death without God. Rather, forgiveness is extended, along with grace and power by the Holy Spirit to be transformed, right up until that day when we are made partakers of the Divine Nature (II Pet. 1:4) because the One Who as God was made man, gives us even this very grace.

So, I trust you see that Saint Paul’s words are very relevant to you.