Monday in Holy Week

“And the Fragrance Filled the Whole House”

A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen the Martyr in Stuebenville, Ohio, Five Lent, March 17, 2013

By the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

 

When we gather for the liturgy of the church, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are remembering what God has done in the past. We are remembering the past in a particular sort of way. By the power of the Holy Spirit as we are obedient to the command that He gave us on the night in which He was betrayed, “do this in remembrance of me.” What God has done in the past, the Father’s costly deed of saving love in sending the Son to save us by the Power the Holy Spirit has been made into a present and living reality – transforming our present existence and opening up a new future – whose horizon is heaven and the coming Kingdom of God. Just as the past is made present, the future is made present and we are given a foretaste of the world to come.

 

The future that God has in store for us will, until we die or the Lord returns, be already and not yet. But the glimpse – the taste – the down payment – St. Paul calls it arabon, that we get here in the bread and wine that is both the Last Supper and the feast of heaven, gives us hope that goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

This is the power and purpose of liturgy. There is also a liturgical reading reading of the Scripture. The prophet Isaiah is doing that in this passage that we have just read (Isaiah 43:16 – 21). God has rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He made a way out of no way and led them through the Red Sea dry shod and defeated their enemies. He led them to the mountain where He gave them a holy and righteous way of life. 11 for the desert into a promised land. All with the purpose – so they could live toward God and toward their fellow human beings in such a way that all people would recognize that they knew the true and living God and so God’s wayward children would be brought home and reconciled and say. The world then as now is perishing and needs to be saved – the evidence is no further away than the front page of the newspaper. God’s plan to save the world is the formation of the people to be His witnesses. Such were the people to which the prophet Isaiah spoke. Such are we gathered here today.

 

When the people of God had forgotten their vocation – when they departed from the holy way of life God had given them and had fallen into personal and corporate and social immorality, God sent the prophets to call them back. The prophets warned that if they did not repent disaster would befall them. They didn’t and it did. The nation was conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon, about 600 years before the birth of Christ. The prophet Isaiah, the messenger of God, is telling the people who are defeated – who are captives – who are without hope – the story of the original salvation from Egypt in such a way as to bring the power of this mighty deed of God into the present – changing the meaning of the present and giving hope for the future.

 

In the same way that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt – God is going to rescue the people from bondage in Babylon. They are going home. They’re going to be redeemed and restored. Just as God made a way out of no way before – he’s doing it again – just as he made a way to the desert before – he is doing it again – even the wild animals in the desert cannot fail to see what God is doing – “behold I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it.”

 

They were returned to the holy land. But the promise of Isaiah was not completely fulfilled. There was a partial restoration but not a complete restoration. One was yet to come who would complete the work – the ultimate and final Messiah who would cleanse and re-consecrate the people.

 

When Jesus arrived on the scene the prophecy of Isaiah was being completely fulfilled – but you needed the eyes of faith to see the new thing that God was doing – how once again he was rescuing his people from bondage – this time the bondage of sin and death – cleansing and re-consecrating them as his witness people – as His missionary people.

 

The way He would do this – the way He would reestablish His Lordship over His wayward subjects is with the sacrifice of Love – this sacrificial love that has the power of the Resurrection hidden within it – it is this suffering love which gives new life and which restores us to the dignity of the witness and work God has given us to do.

 

It is through this sacrifice that Jesus is anointed to be our King and ruler in our lives and be our priest and reconcile us to God and consecrate us for lives of service.

 

St. John is showing us how Mary of Bethany’s anointing of the Lord’s feet with costly ointment is the outward sign of the Lord’s anointing as Priest and King in sacrificial Love. She fills the whole house with the odor of a costly devotion. Jesus says she is anointing Him before hand for His burial. Through his death Jesus fills the world with the fragrant odor of His costly sacrifice for the salvation of the world. In and through His death He is anointed our priest and King. Risen from the dead and ascended He reigns from on high.

 

Whenever we gather to hear the Bible read as the Living Word which makes God’s deeds present to us to transform our present and open our future – whenever we obey His command – “do this in remembrance of me” – this whole House of God is full of the fragrance of the costly seeking, searching. Suffering and saving love of God brought to us by Jesus Christ the Lord. When we leave here this fragrance of God’s grace clings to us—the fragrance of sacrificial love. By God’s grace may we preserve the scent of love among us and not let it be drowned out the bitter odors of this world with its hatred and cruelty. Amen.

The Most Important Question

A Sermon Preached on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Catskill, NY, by the Rector, The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

Did God really raise Jesus Christ bodily from the dead? This is the most profound question a person can ask. Answer this question with the yes of faith and it tells us who God is, who Jesus is, who we are and what will become of us and of the whole cosmos, the whole created order. Answer this question with a yes and we know how we should live because we know where we are going and how we are to get there. Answer this question with a yes and we know how we can face the evil without, the sin within and suffering and death because we know definitively that none of these things has the last word.
First, we must be sure we understand what resurrection means. Resurrection is a word from Biblical Judaism and it has a very specific meaning. Resurrection means the restoration of a full human life in such a way that the person raised from the dead can do everything that a currently living person can do and especially that the raised person can enjoy the blessings of living in the blessed community of the Kingdom of God. We say in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the Resurrection of the Body. To believe in the resurrection of the body, first the body of the Lord and then our bodies is a bit redundant. Resurrection means body. God had promised Israel that He would send a Messiah, a saviour who would rescue Israel from its Gentile oppressors and establish God’s Kingdom where the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven. This would be the Kingdom of Shalom, of perfect peace with God and between people and even this Shalom would extend to the natural order and the Lion and Lamb would lie down together.
What about those who died before the Messiah came and the Kingdom was established. Some Jews not all, the Pharisees and not the Sadducees came to believe that the righteous dead would be bodily resurrected so that they could participate in the Kingdom. Would God really be a God of long suffering love and justice otherwise? The Messiah would defeat the enemies of Israel and the dead would be raised. The resurrection was not about the spirit surviving the death of the body but about the souls of the righteous being given a new body and a new life in a new Kingdom. The cultured pagans, the Greeks and the Romans did not believe in resurrection though they had various ideas about life after death which ranged from you die and that is it to the survival of some aspect or dimension of the person such as the soul or the spirit. In some of their literature the spirits of the dead wish they could have a body but know they cannot and in some of their literature the spirits of the dead don’t want a body because they believe the body a burden to the spirit. In all cases this world is a world that is completely and irrevocably condemned to corruption and decay.
The Jews were quite clear in order to be a full member of a perfect community of peace and love you need a body. You need a way to love and to be loved. The body is the way we relate to one another and it is the means by which we express love. The body is the means through which we express adoration and worship of God (this is why churches need to be places of worship and liturgy and not just talking shops) and the body is the means through which we offer each other loving service. A human being without a body is not a full human being. You would be just a shadow of your former self which is what a lot of the ancients called dead people, shades. When the saviour came to establish the Kingdom which would have no end, the righteous would get bodies. Some of them thought of this in a fairly crude way which would have to be corrected in light of the Lord’s risen body but they were very clear that the pagan alternatives were not adequate to the promises that God had made to His people in the scriptures.
To say that Jesus has been raised from the dead is to say that the God who made the world has acted decisively to remake it in the death and resurrection of the Lord and that the new age, the age of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Shalom, the age of the resurrection is appearing, and that death will have no more dominion and that God’s faithful people will be getting new bodies so that they can participate fully in the new creation. St. John in his exile has a vision: one like the Lamb of God sitting on the throne of heaven says, “behold I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) God had said something similar through the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament in a prophecy about the coming salvation of God, “Behold I do a new thing, do you not perceive it.” (Isaiah 43:19)
One of the early Church Fathers, Peter Chrysologus says, “Pray, brothers, that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave.”( Sermons 75.4)
That Jesus Christ has been raised bodily from the dead is exactly what the scriptures do say. The tomb is empty, the rock is rolled away not to let him out but so that we can know that God has raised Jesus and in doing so has revealed him to be Son of God and Saviour of the world, the one through whom God has vanquished all the enemies of our human nature, sin, evil and the last enemy of all is death.
The resurrection of the body challenges our imagination. It challenged the imagination of those in the ancient world as well. The Resurrection is hard to imagine because it is a uniquely, unique event. The only equivalent is the original creation of the world out of nothing by God in the beginning. The scientist can investigate that event and its consequences but cannot get behind it. Similarly, the historian can investigate the event of the Resurrection. What do the stories of the empty tomb and the appearances add up to? How dependable are these witnesses? Why if you were making this up in the ancient world and wanted it to have any kind of chance would you make the original witnesses women unless it happened that way? What is the sort of experience that could turn cowering deserters into these men of whom the Book of Acts says, “these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” But you can’t get behind the event of whom in the nature of the case only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the witness. None of the Gospel writers tell of it. They tell of the empty tomb and the risen Lord with the marks of the crucifixion still upon him, whom they handled and who ate and drank with them and who appeared and disappeared at will. They tell also of His promise that after a while He would appear to them no longer in this way but be with them always through the power of the Spirit until the end of the age. And we proclaim it still that the Lord lives and makes Himself known to us when we gather two or three in His name and in the breaking of the bread. It is the same Lord whom the Father raised from the tomb and who appeared to His disciples.
It is hard to imagine this resurrection body that is as real as the bodies we have now, which takes up space but which also transcends the limits of this mortal body. It is relatively easy to imagine old and familiar things and relatively hard to imagine new things. The resurrection first of Jesus, then of us and then the resurrection and restoration of the whole cosmos is the uniquely new thing that God is doing in Jesus Christ the Lord. Just because it is hard to imagine doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It was notoriously hard to imagine how light could be particle and wave at the same time but it turns out to be true. St. Paul compares the pre-resurrection body to the resurrection body as a seed compares to the fully formed plant. Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption, sown mortal, raised immortal. (1 Cor. 15:42)

The bodily Resurrection of Jesus is the absolute center of the Christian faith. We are not saved by a ghostly saviour for a ghostly future but by a real saviour for a real future. We will not be less than we are now but more and can lean into that more even now in the power of the Spirit.
St. Paul says that if Christ be not raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain and that if Christ is not raised we are still dead in our sins. But if it is true that God has raised Jesus bodily from the dead then God is who He says He is, a God of love and justice and who hates nothing He has made and will not suffer it to see destruction and Jesus is who He says He is, the Son of God who was tempted in every way as we are and did not sin and who having defeated by a sacrifice of love on the cross all the enemies of our human nature offers us a share in His risen life that as He is so we might be also. We know where we are going, we are on our way to be new people in a new community in a new creation. Even now the power of that new creation which is the power of Risen Lord and of His Spirit is at work in us and among us making us fit for the life of the world which is coming. We know how to live. We are to live in this old age as witnesses of the age that is coming. We know what will become of us and of the good creation which St. Irenaeus called the whole handwork of God. We know that if we cling to Him who is the Resurrection and Life that the sin within and the evil without will be finally defeated and have no more room in the new world where there is no more sighing nor death but only life everlasting where the Risen Lord, the lamb who sits upon the throne shall reign forever and ever and of His Kingdom there shall be no end. Amen.

Faith Is The Assurance of Things Hoped For

“Faith Is The Assurance Of Things Hoped For: The Conviction Of Things Not Seen.”

Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach Maine, August 11, 2013

The Rev. Dr. Leander S Harding

 

One of the great biblical questions is – “When the Lord returns will he find faith on the earth?” The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to a congregation composed mostly of Jewish Christians. The old faith, Judaism is on the list of religions officially tolerated by the Empire. The new religion Christianity has made them the target of a vicious imperial persecution and some are going back to the old faith. This letter, which among other things explains the issue of faith, urges the persecuted Christians to keep the Faith.

 

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” In our contemporary parlance faith is belief in something for which there is not overwhelming empirical evidence. Faith for many contemporary people is an inferior form of knowledge. There are things that you can know for a fact and then there are beliefs. With regard to facts, say the number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water, we must all agree. This is the realm of public truth. Beliefs belong to the private world. Perhaps there is a God, perhaps not. Believe what you will as long as you don’t insist on your belief as public truth.

 

This is the worldview of modernity. It is characterized by an overconfidence in scientific knowledge and a complete loss of confidence in the spiritual and moral traditions which gave rise to the scientific method in the first place. Postmodernism is characterized by an even more thoroughgoing pessimism about what can be known with confidence. Even the correlation between scientific knowledge and an objective reality out there beyond human invention is questioned. This creates a spiritual and moral ethos and mood that oscillates between aimless emptiness and nihilistic despair and waves of enthusiasm for the latest and most exotic spiritualities which look suspiciously like crude and ancient superstitions in thin disguise.

 

We are not in this country being persecuted yet for our faith but there is a kind of persecution that exists as the culture minimizes and marginalizes the historic Christian Faith, making foundational truths about who God is and what he is like and what he has done for us and for our sake into things on the same level with belief in astrology or the virtues of rabbits feet.

 

Since the beginning of the 20th century the Christian church, particularly in its Protestant form, has tried to accommodate itself to this worldview which makes of faith an inferior form of knowledge, by soft-pedaling its essential truth claims, that Jesus Christ is the unique and the eternal son of God and represents the creator’s decisive intervention into human affairs, that his sacrifice of love on the cross is a saving death, that he rose from the grave and has opened the way to eternal life, that by the gift of the Holy Spirit this life can begin to grow in us even now.

 

We must simply resist the idea that faith is an inferior form of knowledge, and taking our cue from the great scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, point out that faith is involved in all knowing whatsoever. The scientific method depends on the faith that the universe is a rational universe and that the human mind can grasp that rational order. These are beliefs that come from the Bible and are not shared by the religions of the East. All knowing involves trust and faith to some degree. Rather than faith being an inferior form of knowing – rather than it being believing versus knowing – faith is an element in all knowledge. To know anything we must trust someone or something outside of ourselves. St. Augustine said it very well many centuries ago, “I believe in order to understand.”

 

Traditionally Christian theology has divided faith into two interdependent parts. There is the credo part of faith – the creedal – doctrinal aspect. I believe in God, the Father Almighty and in His Son Jesus Christ. Faith has content and truth claims and with regard to the divinity of Christ, His saving death, His resurrection from the dead, these are not claims of private belief, true for me but not for you, but claims of public truth. The resurrection is the most plausible explanation for the change that came over the apostles and for their motivation to change the world with their teaching and preaching. All other explanations are implausible as history. The truths of the Christian faith are up to scrutiny and challenge. They do not need to be protected by a voluntary self exile to the world of private opinion.

 

Faith also has the aspect of trust. Jesus says that the devils believe in Him but do not trust and obey. To live the life of faith is to trust in the reality of God, and the love of God, in the care and providence of God.

 

Trust and belief are dynamic. As we trust in God, lean on God, we find him trustworthy and find reason to have a growing confidence and growing faith.

 

Faith also has this aspect – it is both something we do and it is a gift from God. God through the Holy Spirit draws us to himself.

 

If you have been reading the daily readings in the Book of Common Prayer this week, you have heard the story of the man who comes to Jesus beseeching healing for his son. No one else has been able to help them. Is it possible? Jesus says, “with faith all things are possible.” The man cries out, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” That is a good prayer. We can all say that prayer; we can all pray that we will grow in trust and confidence in the promises of God and in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. Things such as the love, care and providence of God which are unseen except to the eyes of faith. When two scientists disagree about a scientific theory they don’t say, “you have your truth and I have mine.” They put truth to the test. Christian truth claims are robust enough to stand that kind of challenge. Scientists prove their theories through experiment. Christian truth is confirmed as well through the experiment of trust, prayer, study and service. Trusting in God, obeying by God’s grace, following in the footsteps of Jesus – the reality of the invisible Christ becomes visible.

Faith was the great motto of the Protestant Reformation. We are saved – we are made whole – we are healed – and made right with God not by our own devices but by faith – belief and trust in the unmerited love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord and by letting him so take over our lives that he becomes visible in us. May this be so. Amen

And The Fragrance Filled the Whole House

“And the Fragrance Filled the Whole House”

A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen the Martyr in Stuebenville, Ohio, Fifty Lent, March 17, 2013

By the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

 

When we gather for the liturgy of the church, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are remembering what God has done in the past. We are remembering the in a particular sort of way. By the power of the Holy Spirit as we are obedient to the command that He gave us on the night in which He was betrayed, “do this in remembrance of me” what God has done in the past, the Father’s costly deed of saving love in sending the To Save Us by the Power the Holy Spirit has been made into a present and living reality – transforming our present existence and opening up a new future – whose horizon is heaven and the coming Kingdom of God. Just as the past is made present, the future is made present and we are given a foretaste of the world to come.

 

The future that God has in store for us will, until we die or the Lord returns, be already a not yet. But the glimpse – the taste – the down payment – St. Paul calls it arabon that we get here in the bread and wine that is both the Last Supper and the feast of heaven, gives us hope that goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

This is the power and purpose of liturgy. There is also a liturgical reading – we might even say and Eucharistic reading of the Scripture. The prophet Isaiah is doing that in this passage that we have just read (Isaiah 43:16 – 21). God has rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He made a way out of no way and led them through the Red Sea dry shot and defeated their enemies. He led them to the mountain where He gave them a holy and righteous way of life. 11 for the desert into a promised land. All with the purpose – so they could live toward God and toward their fellow human beings in such a way that all people would recognize that they knew the true and living God and so God’s wayward children would be brought home and reconciled and say. The world then as now is perishing and needs to be saved – the evidence is no further waive the front page of the newspaper. God’s plan to save the world is the formation of the people to be His witnesses. Such were the people to which the prophet Isaiah spoke. Such are we gathered here today.

 

When the people of God had forgotten their vocation – when they departed from the holy way of life God had given them and fell into personal and corporate and social immorality, God sent the prophets to call them back. The prophets warned that if they did not repent disaster would befall them. They didn’t and it did. The nation was conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon, about 600 years before the birth of Christ. The prophet Isaiah, the messenger of God, is telling – a retelling the people who are defeated – who are captives – who are without hope – the story of the original salvation from Egypt in such a way as to bring the power of this mighty deed of God into the present – changing the meaning of the present and giving hope for the future.

 

In the same way that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt – God is going to rescue the people from bondage in Babylon. They are going home. They’re going to be redeemed and restored. Just as God made a way out of no way before – he’s doing it again – just as he made a way to the desert before – he is doing it again – even the wild animals in the desert cannot fail to see what God is doing – “behold I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it.”

 

They were returned to the holy land. But the promise of Isaiah was not completely fulfilled – there was a partial restoration but not a complete restoration. One was yet to come who would complete the work – the ultimate and final Messiah who would cleanse and re-consecrate the people.

 

When Jesus arrived on the scene the prophecy of Isaiah was being completely fulfilled – but you needed the eyes of faith to see the new thing that God was doing – how once again he was rescuing his people from bondage – this time the bondage of sin and death – cleansing and re-consecrating them as his witness people – as His missionary people.

 

The way He would do this – the way He would reestablish His Lordship over His wayward subjects is with the sacrifice of Love – is this sacrificial love that has the power of the Resurrection hidden within it – it is this suffering love which gives new life in which restores us to the dignity of the witness work God has given us to do.

 

It is through this sacrifice that Jesus is anointed to be our King and ruler in our lives and be our priest and reconcile us to God and consecrate us for lives of service.

 

St. John is showing us how Mary of Bethany’s anointing of the Lord’s feet with costly ointment is the outward sign of the Lord’s anointing as Priest and King in sacrificial Love.

 

Whenever we gather to hear the Bible read as the Living Word which makes God’s deeds present to us to transform our present and open our future – whenever we obey His command – “do this in remembrance of me” – this whole House of God is full of the fragrance of the costly seeking, searching. Suffering and saving love of God brought to us by Jesus Christ the Lord. When we leave here this fragrance by God’s grace clings to us—the fragrance of sacrificial love. By God’s grace may we preserve the scent of love among us and not let it be drowned out the bitter odors of this world with its hatred and cruelty.

 

This Love is the Hope of the world and it is our hope – that things could ever be different here – or hereafter.

 

I want to say a final word about Psalm 126 “those who sow the seed with tears will come again rejoicing carrying the sheaves.”

 

The African students at the seminary relate this to a famine, when they must make the choice between eating the seed corn were depriving the family of the last of the food – so that there may be some hope of harvest. With tears in their eyes for their hungry children, they sow the seed, in hope of the harvest.

 

I think this is where we are in the church today – under judgment and in exile – getting to the bottom of our resources – faced with hard choices about gambling it all on the future – God is faithful – we should hold nothing back but bet all on Him – He is doing a new thing – give us grace to perceive it and give us grace to hope. Amen.

On the Newton Killings

On the Newtown Killings
A young man with his school years not that far behind him took his mother’s assault rifle—killed her and then broke into the local elementary school and slaughtered 26 human beings, including himself—twenty of them little children and the rest their teachers and helpers.
We watch the news with a mixture of overwhelming sadness, revulsion and hope that the next story will make sense of something that has a hard core of darkness that can never be wholly explained.
There are legitimate questions that will be raised—should it be so easy to obtain military style weapons—are we doing all we can for those who suffer from diseases of the brain—can the security of our schools and public places be improved? Perhaps if we are really courageous we will ask if our children are really as happy as we pretend they are. All this is as it should be. Though, those who engage in these debates will have a challenge to grant the victims and their families their due dignity and not reduce them to illustrations in some polemical exchange.
This is a very horrible event. It is a lot for one community to suffer. That the local funeral services are overwhelmed is a poignant marker of the magnitude of the suffering. And this suffering full as it is, is but a thimbleful of the suffering of the world—the number 20 only a small portion of the number of children murdered every day—sometimes by deranged individuals and sometimes by deranged states. Each one of these deaths is both a cosmic, world-shattering event, in and of itself and at the same time a cipher in an unimaginably large number.
How are we to face this darkness? Certainly, human effort is required. New thinking and new effort is needed by individuals, communities and authorities. But the recognition that such efforts are needed is the very thing that threatens to push us over the precipice of despair—for we have been trying—men and women have been trying for a very long time to roll back the darkness and still it threatens to overwhelm us. The story of the slaughter of the innocents is a very old story. (The feast of the Holy Innocents is December 28, one of the 12 days of Christmas during which we remember both that the light has come and the darkness is real.)
To look the darkness full in the face as at a time like this we are forced to do—brings us very quickly to the place where the human heart cries out for help. Even in a world that has forgotten the name of God—an inarticulate prayer goes up whose only possible translation is, “Oh, God help us.” The human heart at its most honest and realistic knows that there is no hope save that God is our helper.
We live in a time when many have been taught to suppress that cry and that very natural prayer of the human heart. We live in a time when many of our friends are taught that to be brave means to accept being alone in the dark.
It falls to us who know the name of God and know that He has come among us at great cost to take our darkness and death upon Himself and give us in exchange His light and life, and who know that as St. John saith, “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness overcomes it not,” to say to those who struggle to keep the secret prayer of their heart from escaping to let their cry go free to Him who is our helper, defender and friend. It falls to us to say that we cannot roll back the darkness on our own but that with God all things are possible.
The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D. III Advent, 2012.

Church Decline and Growth

I have been hearing a lot of intelligent reflection lately on the numerical decline of Christian congregations across the theological spectrum. Both the RCs and SBCs are now registering decline. The free fall of the mainline is notorious. I have been nervous about the conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline narrative for a while. The story is more complex and there are examples of very successful “progressive” churches. There is a counter narrative that is emerging that is also too simplistic which is that ala Diane Butler Bass that the new question is not what to believe but how to live. The subtext of this narrative is that issues of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are beside the point. It is the latest incarnation of the Enlightenment critique of religion; the desire to peal away ceremony and dogma and get at the “true moral religion of Jesus.”

To take up these issues is to take up the question of the mission of the church and the mission of the church will always need innovators and pioneers and leaders who by God’s grace become especially effective at reaching new people and new generations. But these innovators are living the missionary life and the missionary life is a life of sacrifice which can only be sustained especially in its try, fail, try again, fail, try again routine by a deep consecration to the Son of God sustained by constant resort to and love for the scriptures and the great teaching tradition of the church, what the church calls her doctrine and dogma. Without a renewal of personal devotion, scriptural knowledge and apostolic doctrine the persevering love which discovers effective missionary strategy cannot be sustained.

Sermon for 9 Pentecost, 2012

“It Is I, Be Not Afraid”

Pentecost 9, July 29, 2012

Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach, Maine

Fr. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D., Vicar

 

John 6: 1-21

 

The primary story about salvation in the Bible is the story of Exodus. The Hebrew people – the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — have gone down to Egypt because of a great famine. God providentially prepared the way for them by sending ahead of them Joseph. His brothers meant to kill him but instead they sold him into slavery and Joseph became the governor over all Egypt – saving both the Egyptians and his own people from starving. God turned an evil deed inside out and brought good from it.

 

And there arose on the throne of Egypt a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and he oppressed the people of Israel – causing them to make bricks without straw and ordering that all the boy babies be put to death. God providentially protected one of those babies and caused him to be saved and brought up in Pharaoh’s house as a prince of Egypt. (If you have children in the house, I heartily recommend the video of Disney’s Prince of Egypt.) This child grows up to be Moses – the prophet of God – the first Messiah and Savior of his people.

 

God says to Moses, “go down Moses, way down to Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.” With a mighty and an outstretched hand God working through Moses delivers the people from their hard bondage and when the army of Pharaoh is on one side and the Red Sea is on the other – God makes a way out of no way and the people pass over from death to life and from slavery to freedom. Then God leads them to Mount Sinai and he gives them a holy and righteous way of life – the 10 Commandments. He leads them towards the promised land. God is present to lead and to guide – to correct and protect.

 

God speaks to them through Moses and he leads them with a column of fire by night and the cloud by day. He instructs them to build a tent of meeting and the glory of God fills the tent and the dwelling place of God is in the midst of his people.

 

Despite all these signs and wonders the people doubt God. They accuse Moses of bringing them out into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. God tells Moses to strike the rock and water pours out, and God sends the manna upon the face of the wilderness. It is something that looks insubstantial like frost but it is their daily bread and sustains them on their way. And don’t try to take more than a day’s worth or it will rot in your hands. So God leads them and guides them and feeds them supernaturally and brings them at last to the promised land. As they approached the promised land, God parts the Jordan for them just like he parted the Red Sea.

 

And when my task on earth is done

when by thy grace the victory’s won,

e’en death’s cold wave I will not flee

for God through Jordan leadeth me

 

Everything that God did through Moses for Israel is done again for us but more profoundly in Jesus Christ. He has come to set us free from slavery to the service of false gods – the idols of this world that promised so much and deliver so little and whose service is a more cruel slavery than that to Pharaoh of old. He has come to rescue us from hatred and sin and evil. He has come to make a way out of no way by a sacrifice of love, and to lead us from slavery to freedom and from death to life. He has come to reassert the holy and righteous way of life given on that mountain, all those years ago, but also to give us grace and a new spirit to live that life.

 

And as he has promised, he has not left us orphans. The promised Spirit has come: the one who is Himself the love that the Father and the Son share with each other. The Spirit leads and guides us, and in and through the power of the Spirit the Lord himself is present in His Word – His sacraments – in our midst when two or three are gathered in his name and when we minister to Him in His distressing disguise amongst the poor and those that suffer.

 

When Jesus feeds the multitudes in the wilderness it is a sign that one more powerful than Moses is here. When He appears to them in the midst of the storm when the rowing is hard, it is a sign that the Savior can be trusted to make a way out of no way and to bring us safely through the waves that threaten to undo us.

 

So the Scripture confronts us with the opportunity and a challenge to say with the crowds, “surely this is the one God has promised to send.”

 

There is something about the human heart. It needs constant reassurance. Though the deliverance at the Red Sea were yesterday, we ask today; “Is God real? Can he feed us in this wilderness? Can he be any practical help in the midst of this storm?”

 

It is natural to look for a sign. There is a wonderful image going around the Internet. It is the picture of the signboard outside of a Baptist church somewhere in the South. It is the kind of signboard with movable letters where the message changes week to week. The sign says, “If you are looking for a sign from God, this is it.”

 

The whole Gospel of John is in fact a series of signs which people mostly don’t perceive. The greatest of all the signs is of course the cross which in the world’s eyes looks like folly and defeat.

 

Here there is a paradox – God provides us with signs of His love and providential care but in such a way that we are not overwhelmed but left free to respond freely in love. Like Moses of old, Christ continues to be present to lead and guide, to correct and protect – to help us live holy and righteous lives that are worthy of the human dignity for which we have been created and to bring us at last to the promised land.

 

If we want the answer to the questions “Is God real? Can God do anything today?”, if we want the reassurance for which the human heart longs, if we want to answer our natural craving for a sign, then we should look in those places where the Lord has promised to meet us and where he hangs out the sign–by Bible reading, by continuing to gather week by week so that he might be made known to us in the breaking of the bread, by seeking him in prayer and in the fellowship of his followers, and in acts of service and charity.

 

This is not always easy. This persistent and consistent life of faith is sometimes hard rowing against the night wind. But we may in good faith expect to hear him say, “Be not afraid; it is I .” Amen.