Saturday, February 21, 2009

Homily: Ash Wednesday (25 February 2009)


Ash Wednesday Homily: 25 February 2009
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17/Psalm 51/2Corinthians 5:20b-6:10/Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
Where, O death, is your sting?

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.

I came to liturgical worship in mid-life – not so very long ago – so I well remember kneeling at the altar rail for the first time to receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. My wife was to my right with our daughter between us. As Father John made his way from penitent to penitent he reached them first. As he signed each of them with the cross he intoned the ancient words of scripture and the church: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And for the first time, though I had known death before, I was struck that night in a profound and visceral way by the unique human condition: we alone among all creatures are aware of our mortality. Such is the power of sacramental action, of the signs and symbols, the rites and liturgy of the church. I knew in that moment that everything I cherished most in the world – those two who knelt beside me – were dust and to dust must return. I have not yet recovered from that first Ash Wednesday; pray, God, I never do.

On Ash Wednesday, more than any other day, the church reminds us that we are mortal, that we all must die. Death is our common human inheritance, bequeathed by fallen Adam to all his fallen children. There is a strange, spiritual symmetry here, the church tells us. Adam’s sin brought forth death, and now, death brings forth sin among Adam’s children. The awareness of our mortality – of our impending death – stirs and awakens passions within us. Because we sense we were made for eternity we rebel against mortality. These passions propel us into a quest for power: every act of dominance, from the sarcastic comment to war among nations, is a futile show of power in the face of death. We will conquer; we will survive. These passions propel us into narcissism and self-absorption: every botox injection, every facelift, every overweight middle-aged man who leaves the wife of his youth for the ideal nymph, testifies to man’s vain effort to forestall age and death. We will not go silent into that dark night. These passions propel us into mind and body numbing stupors – anything to ease the aching awareness of mortality: every eating or drinking binge, every abuse of drugs, every sexual hook-up is an injection of existential novacaine that fails to deaden the nerve of our approaching end. Death stirs and awakens our passions and these passions bring forth our sin. “Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul asks. He well knows: “The sting of death is sin,”(1 Cor 15:55-56). Death is the enemy; it destroys us – if it does – through its power of sin.

So the church teaches. We have inherited the fallen human condition – we have inherited death. Awareness of death stirs passions within us, passions that strive toward eternity, quite often in vain and destructive directions. Sin is born of these passions. So, whatever in this world or the next, is the church thinking when she says to us, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” as she confronts and seals us with the sign of our mortality? Why does the church stir up these passions within us? In the wisdom of the Holy Spirit the church knows that these passions must be awakened and confronted through the power of the cross, through the power of the sinless One who conquered death by dying and who rose to life everlasting.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:55-57, NIV).

This is the wisdom and power of God, that when Mother Church traces on our foreheads the sign of our mortality she does so in the form of the death-conquering, life-giving cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

This is the wisdom and power of God, that when Mother Church stirs our passions she arms us for the ensuing struggle: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Eph 6:12-13, NIV).

Yes, Mother Church equips us for battle with the passions – passions St. John describes as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16, NKJV). We battle the lust of the flesh – all our sensual indulgences – through abstinence: prayer and fasting, the church prescribes. For the lust of the eyes – all our selfishness and greed, our compulsive need to acquire – the church prescribes almsgiving, a free gift of the material goods entrusted to us. The pride of life? For this poison of control and domination the church offers as antidote the basin and the towel, the cross, and the way of Jesus – a way of humility and service.

These Lenten disciplines are the church’s way of struggle against the passions which lead to sin and alienation from man and God. But, they are far more: the Lenten disciplines are a way of transformation of these passions into the one, all-consuming and life-giving passion for God. The church is not na├»ve; passions cannot simply be defeated once-for-all or, worse still, repressed. Passions must be transformed by the cross and resurrection of Christ. The season of Lent, which can seem like a via negativa, a negative way of renunciation, must be experienced instead as a via positiva, a positive way of transformation. We fast from food that we might feast on prayer and Scripture and the Eucharist – the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. We give our alms that we might store up treasure in heaven; we sell all lesser pearls that we might buy the one pearl of great price. We serve, we become least of all, recalling Christ’s words that he came to serve to set us an example, and that the one who is least of all is great in the kingdom of heaven. The church, in her Spirit-inspired wisdom, prescribes for us practices to transform our lesser passions into the one passion worthy of those created in the image of God: to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

So, let us fast that we might learn to feast. Let us give, let us empty ourselves, that from God’s abundance we might receive the fullness of the Spirit. Let us serve that we may follow the way of Christ. Let us face our mortality, awaken our passions, and transform them through the cross of Christ. Let us exchange the things of earth for the things of eternity (Laudable Exchange, John Michael Talbot).

Let us pray.

O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,take away from us our sins,and mercifully kindle in us the fire of thy Holy Spirit.Take away from us our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh,hearts to love and adore Thee, hearts to delight in Thee,to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ's sake. AmenSt. Ambrose of Milan, adapted (AD 339-397)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord ( 22 Feb 2009)


Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord (22 February 2009)
(2 Kings 2:1-12/Psalm 50:1-6/2 Corinthians 4:3-6/Mark 9:2-9)
If you will you can become all flame.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
_______________________________
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
[1]
_______________________________

The church tells the story of two and a half men. It is our story, as much for women as for men, though the outward form is sometimes gender specific. And it is – as all true stories are – God’s story. It starts…well, it starts in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, when through the Word all things came into being: light and life and men. ”And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27, NASB). Adam and Eve, scripture names them – our first parents, the exemplars of our race.

Man was, by nature, oriented toward God, in communion with God – a partaker of the divine nature. God’s breath was man’s life. God’s will was man’s desire. God’s love was man’s goal. Man walked a path through the Garden toward God in company with God, progressing from one degree of glory to the next. Man, created in the image of God, would, through obedience and communion, progress ever toward the likeness of God and would be drawn ever more fully into perichoresis, the mutual life of the Trinity. Such was man’s purpose and nature – man’s logos. And so it was until man was deceived by the father of lies, the serpent Satan. Satan offered precisely what man wanted, a fulfillment of man’s God-breathed life and nature – to become like God.

1 Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:1-5, NKJV).

Rightly does scripture call the serpent cunning. Man is created in his very nature to desire God, to move toward God, to become like God – but only through divine grace that comes from obedience to God and communion with God. Satan offers to fulfill man’s greatest desire and rightful purpose through an act of disobedience and rebellion. Perhaps you’ve misunderstood God’s instructions, Satan suggests to Eve. Perhaps God wants you to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, wants you to be like him now. It sounds so right and the fruit looks so appetizing that man – in the person first of Eve then of Adam – through disobedience bows down to worship the creature – the serpent Satan. And all hell breaks loose; sin and death come forth victorious and claim their victims. Man is diminished in body and mind and spirit. Man, the glorious creation of God – the bearer of God’s image and the promise of his likeness – is reduced to half-man. Half-man hides from God, unable to bring his shame into God’s presence. And so, cut off from the source of life, death reigns supreme – not over the first man only, but over all the children of man. Man was made for light and life. Man inherits darkness and death.

Yet, the image of God within half-man has not been completely erased; man’s logos – man’s purpose and nature – compel him forward toward life and meaning. But, apart from God, faced with immanent death, half-man knows not where to turn. He has forgotten God, forgotten the height from which he fell. And so it is that half-man turns toward the creation, desperately rummaging there for the answer, desperately seeking there to stave off death and the fear of death, desperately grasping light and life in a place of darkness and death. And so, half-man spirals downward.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom 1:21-32, NIV).

Such is the state of half-man – not of each individual, of course – but of the race of half-men: distanced from God, unmindful of his glory, obsessed with self and power and pleasure and death, and spiraling ever downward toward corruption.

Then, into this world of half-men, comes the True Man, the new Adam – the One who spoke man into existence and breathed into him the breath of life, now himself incarnate, now in human form.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14, NKJV).

This True Man took half-man to the mountain: Sinai, Carmel, Tabor. Look and remember, he says to half-man. Turn from darkness and death toward light and life. See what God intends.

1 And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”2 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. 4 And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”— 6 because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid. 7 And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” 8 Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves (Mk 9:1-8, NKJV).

“Jesus, as far as we can we obey the Law and the Prophets – Moses and Elijah. We say our prayers a little, we fast a little, we give our alms a little. As far as it is in us so to do, we live at peace with all men. What more can we do?” say the half-men. And his clothes become exceedingly white and his face shines like the sun, and the voice of God speaks, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him.” Jesus answers without saying a word: If you will you can become all flame. This is True Man, man in the image and likeness of God. This is the proclamation that the gospel is about transfiguration, about half-men becoming true men, about darkness dispelled by light, about death swallowed up in the victory of life. It is about half-men receiving by grace through Christ alone what is Christ’s alone by nature. This is the story of two and a half men: of Adam and the fall, of the race of half-men, of Jesus and the transfiguration.

45 And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.”The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. 49 And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man (1 Cor 15:45-49).

The power of the gospel is the power of transfiguration, not for Jesus only but for all the race of half-men. Jesus’ transfiguration points the way to yours and to mine and to all who will come to the light of his dawning.

Athanasius, newly consecrated bishop of Alexandria, determined to visit all the churches in his see, to make certain the orthodox faith was being proclaimed. On his journey he learned of three, old monks who lived alone on an island. Like the devoted bishop he was, Athanasius set sail to the island to shepherd, even if briefly, this small flock. He was greeted with great warmth and reverence by the monks. “Tell me,” Athanasius said to them after awhile, “how it is that you pray.” “Father, we are not learned men,” the monks replied. “We simply lift our hands to God and say, ‘We are three and you are three: Have mercy upon us.’”

“Ah, dear Fathers, this will never do,” said Athanasius. “I must teach you to pray as the church prays.” And for the next several days – the monks were slow learners – the new bishop taught the old monks the Lord’s Prayer. Satisfied at last that the monks knew how to pray properly, Athanasius set sail for Alexandria. That very night aboard his ship he noticed a glow in the distance, a glow getting brighter and rapidly approaching the ship. He looked and saw the three old monks running toward him on the water. When they reached the ship they simply stood on the water as on dry ground with holy light encompassing them. “Father Athansius,” they said, “forgive our slowness, but we have forgotten again the words of the prayer you taught us. Please pray with us again.” “No, my fathers,” Athanasius said. “It is you who must pray for me.”

For all the old monks did not know, they did know this: the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (cf 2 Cor 4:6). And through this glory – a glory seen not on Mount Tabor only, but supremely on Mount Calvary – they were transfigured.


And that is the heart of the gospel, that through Christ half-men become true men; that through Christ darkness and death are conquered by light and life; that through Christ man is reconciled to God, becomes a partaker of the divine nature, moves from glory to glory, from image to likeness.

The promise and the challenge of the gospel are one and the same: If you will, you can become all flame.

Amen.
[1] From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Cistercian Studies Series, number 59. This is saying 7 of Abba Joseph of Panephysis and appears on page 103.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sermon: 6 Epiphany (15 February 2009)


Sermon: 6 Epiphany (15 February 2009)
(2 Kings 5:1-14/Psalm 30/1 Corinthians 9:24-27/Mark 1:40-45)
The Leper and the Kingdom

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When the church is bold to pray as Christ our Savior taught us, we ask God to establish his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. What would it look like? I wonder, if we were truly bold enough to mean the prayer and God knew us ready for him boldly to answer it. Kingdom come: what will it be?

There are hints, of course – poetic descriptions throughout the prophets – incomparably expressed by Isaiah.

For there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, and they shall not remember the former things, nor shall these things come into their heart. But they shall find gladness and exceeding joy in her, for behold, I will make Jerusalem an exceeding joy, and My people gladness. I will rejoice exceedingly in Jerusalem, and I will be glad in My people. There shall no longer be heard in her a voice of weeping, nor a voice of crying. There shall not be the untimely death of a child there, nor shall there be an old man who does not fulfill his time. For a young man shall be a hundred years old, but a sinner who dies at a hundred years old shall be cursed. They shall build houses and dwell in them; and they shall plant vineyards and eat their produce. But they shall not build, and others inhabit; and they shall not plant, and others eat (Is 65:17-22a, NKJV).

The wolf shall feed with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf, the bull, and the lion shall feed together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze together, and their young ones shall lie down together. The lion and the ox shall eat straw together. The nursing child shall play by the hole of asps, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the den of asps. They shall not hurt nor be able to destroy anyone on My holy mountain, for the whole world shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as much water covers the seas (Is 11:6-9, NKJV).

Isaiah, through whom the Spirit uttered these words, viewed the coming kingdom as a renewal of creation and covenant, and as an end of exile for God’s people: the Adamic curse lifted – fruitful earth; harmonious relations between man and beast; long, prosperous lives – the repatriation of Judah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the righteousness of God covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.

Saint John, exiled on Patmos at the close of the first Christian century, had a similar vision, though more universal in scope.

It begins with judgment.

The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10, 14-15, NKJV).

It begins with judgment, but it ends with blessing.

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away (Rev 21:1-4, NKJV).

God with man, man with God, humanity drawn into the divine life, Satan bound eternally, death finally and fully vanquished, sorrow and pain and crying but dim memories: this is kingdom come. This is what it will look like. This is what it will be when God answers our boldest prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is the kingdom of God writ large, fully present, fully realized throughout all new creation – the kingdom of God dawning on the last, great day, as it surely will – the kingdom of God of the prophets and seers. In the Gospels, though, we glimpse another vision of the kingdom – smaller, more localized – a sign pointing toward the fullness of the kingdom to come. This Gospel vision is no less the kingdom for being limited in space and time and scope: God is there with man, and man with God. Humanity is drawn into the divine life. Satan is bound and cast down and cast out. The dead are raised to new life. Sorrow and pain and crying are replaced with joy and health and laughter. And this Gospel kingdom is present wherever we find Jesus. Mark takes great pains to make that clear.

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14-15, NKJV).

The kingdom of God is here: this is the beginning and heart of Jesus’ gospel proclamation. Wherever Jesus is, there, too, is the kingdom of God. So, what does that look like – the kingdom of God writ small in the towns and villages of Galilee, among the Samaritans, in the temple courts, on Calvary? It looks like men called from the ordinariness of life – from the mundane, economic affairs of boats and nets and fish – called from that to the grand adventure of life in the Spirit, to mission, to abundant and eternal life (cf Mk 1:16-20). It looks like authority – authority in the words and prophetic actions of a carpenter turned rabbi, an unlettered, uncultured Nazarene who bests the learned scribes (cf Mk 1:21-22). It looks like demons – Satan’s minions – bound and cast out with just a word (cf Mk 1:23-28). It looks like an entire city gathered at the door of a simple home in Capernaum – a multitude of deaf and blind and lame, leaving that door hearing and seeing and dancing because God-With-Us spoke a word or offered a touch. And it looks like a leper – a lost soul – in desperate hope falling on his knees in the dust before Jesus.

Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If you are willing, You can make me clean” (Mk 1:40, NKJV).

What would the kingdom of God look like to this leper? Make me clean. In the kingdom of God, I will be clean.

As pitiable a cry as any in Israel is the cry of this leper. To the Jew, leprosy was not just a disease of the flesh, a disfigurement of the body; it was a disease of the spirit, a disfigurement of the soul. Leprosy and sin were synonymous. When Aaron and Miriam murmured against their brother Moses, challenging his leadership and his call from God,

The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam – leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; and he said to Moses, “Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away” (Num 12:9-12, NIV).

Moses prayed for her, but the Lord delayed her healing for seven days. For seven days she was unclean, banished from her people, sent outside the camp.

The story of Elisha and Naaman the Leper is cut short in this day’s Old Testament lesson. All faithful Jews knew its end.

15 And he returned to the man of God, he and all his aides, and came and stood before him; and he said, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now therefore, please take a gift from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will receive nothing.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. 17 So Naaman said, “Then, if not, please let your servant be given two mule-loads of earth; for your servant will no longer offer either burnt offering or sacrifice to other gods, but to the LORD. 18 Yet in this thing may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD please pardon your servant in this thing.” 19 Then he said to him, “Go in peace.” So he departed from him a short distance.
20 But Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said, “Look, my master has spared Naaman this Syrian, while not receiving from his hands what he brought; but as the LORD lives, I will run after him and take something from him.” 21 So Gehazi pursued Naaman. When Naaman saw him running after him, he got down from the chariot to meet him, and said, “Is all well?” 22 And he said, “All is well. My master has sent me, saying, ‘Indeed, just now two young men of the sons of the prophets have come to me from the mountains of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of garments.’” 23 So Naaman said, “Please, take two talents.” And he urged him, and bound two talents of silver in two bags, with two changes of garments, and handed them to two of his servants; and they carried them on ahead of him. 24 When he came to the citadel, he took them from their hand, and stored them away in the house; then he let the men go, and they departed. 25 Now he went in and stood before his master. Elisha said to him, “Where did you go, Gehazi?” And he said, “Your servant did not go anywhere.” 26 Then he said to him, “Did not my heart go with you when the man turned back from his chariot to meet you? Is it time to receive money and to receive clothing, olive groves and vineyards, sheep and oxen, male and female servants? 27 Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.” And he went out from his presence leprous, as white as snow (2 Ki 5:15-27, NKJV).

This leper in the dust before Jesus was, to the on-lookers and perhaps even to himself, an unclean sinner like Miriam and Gehazi, justly receiving in his body the judgment of God. And, like Miriam, he was banished from the community, forbidden to enter synagogue and temple, estranged from all human contact and exiled from the presence of God. Make me clean, he cried.

And Jesus did the unthinkable. Filled with compassion he stretched out his hand and touched the leper. How long had it been since the man had known either compassion or a human touch. And Jesus spoke the words – spoke them with authority – spoke the words the man longed to hear, “Be made clean!” And the leprosy left him and he was made clean and in that instant the kingdom of God struck earth like lightning and this once wretched man was made a citizen of that kingdom. His sins were forgiven, his body was healed, his exile was ended, and he was reconciled to man and God. And that is what the kingdom of God looks like writ small in the towns and villages of Galilee, but writ large in the human heart and soul.

The kingdom of God has come, for wherever Jesus is, there, too, is the kingdom of God. And surely we have his promise that he is even now among us, his promise that he will never abandon or forsake us, his promise that where two or more are gathered in his name he is in the midst of them. Jesus is here, and so, too, is the kingdom of God – not fully, not writ large across the new heavens and the new earth, but here nonetheless as a mustard seed planted in the ground, as leaven which a woman hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.

And so the question for us becomes, What does that look like – the kingdom of God writ small in our lives, our families, our businesses, our schools, our communities, our cities?

It looks like you and me in leper’s robes falling down before Christ and pleading “Make me clean.” For we are the lepers in the story – all of us, over and over again, in need of the compassion and healing and forgiveness that only Jesus can offer. The kingdom starts here, with the recognition of our estrangement from God and from one another, and with our repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus said and still says. Only through repentance is that kingdom opened to us.

It looks like you and me with restored limbs and healthy skin accosting everyone we encounter with the good news of our restoration and the hope for their own. Though Jesus told the leper to tell no one, he simply could not keep the news to himself. How could he? Instead, “he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction” (Mk 1:45, NKJV). Would that our churches were so overrun by the lepers of the world that we could no longer hold services or meet in our overcrowded buildings for the sheer press of people seeking Jesus. It will only happen when healed lepers tell other lepers of a Christ who cleanses and makes whole broken men and women. I like to think that, even before returning to his family, the cleansed leper returned to the colony, broke down the gates, and led a crippled, festering, mass of broken humanity straight back to Jesus: Here they are, Jesus. Make them clean, too. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like.

What else does it look like? Well, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with the witness of the Scriptures and the church, we will figure that out as we go. But this we do know: wherever the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven there will be repentance, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation – in the lives of men and women and families and communities and cities and states and nations until one day – on that last great day – the kingdom writ small becomes the kingdom writ large and all creation joins the hymn of praise to him who touched us and made us clean.

Amen.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sermon: 5 Epiphany (8 February 2009)


The sermon posted for 4 Epiphany (1 February 2009) is not the sermon I actually preached last Sunday. During private prayer just moments before the service I clearly understood – the work of the Holy Spirit? – that I had to address a different issue, one very current in our congregation. What developed was an engaging, fruitful, and timely discussion. Changing the direction of the sermon was the right decision.

Since the gospel reading for 5 Epiphany is an extension of the reading for 4 Epiphany, I plan to preach the sermon Demons and Angels on 8 February – God willing.

Peace of Christ,

John