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.

Seventh Pentecost, 2012

“You Did Not Choose Me, I Chose You”

Seventh Pentecost, July 15, 2012

Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach, Maine

Fr. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.


Last week we looked at the nature of biblical prophecy and what Jesus meant by calling himself a prophet. We saw the prophet is as much a forth-teller as a fore-teller. The prophet confronts us with our sin and warns of disaster, if we do not repent. We looked at some of the very blunt, very judgmental, very condemnatory language of the prophets. Language such as John the Baptist used in his condemnation of King Herod and his incestuous marriage. We saw the fate of the prophets – that they are rejected, persecuted and killed as happens with John the Baptist in the Gospel before us. St. Mark is telling us that everything that happened to the prophets will happen to Jesus the prophet. And we see that the cross is the prophecy in that it is the definitive word of judgment and condemnation on the world’s sin and the human hatred and rejection of God. It is also the ultimate prophecy of mercy and forgiveness. The cross is the answer to the command of God given to the prophet Isaiah, “speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem and tell them her that her warfare is accomplished and her iniquity is pardoned.” The cross is a word which judges and condemns human evil and it is also God’s tender word of forgiveness – the Father pleading in and through the Son that his children should return home – followed up by the power of the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit which so to speak gives the ticket and the traveling money to those who are willing to humble themselves and lay hold of the offer.


There is a great mystery which in theology is called the doctrine of election. That is why some people answer the call of Jesus Christ who says, “come unto me all ye that are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” And why some do not. Some people just grow up with a God orientation. They grow up friends of Jesus. They cannot remember when they were not attentive to this word of love. Some have come to faith late. In my own case I was very receptive, very attentive when a child and then for a while grew deaf and in my college years, my ears and eyes were opened once again. Some people have always been in love with God and others knew him not and fell suddenly in love with him. Still others have had the benefit of the church, the Bible and sacraments, their whole life and though they have been sealed with the promises of God in baptism – yet they seem oddly tone deaf to the things of God and to the call of God.


Why do some respond and some not? This mystery is called the doctrine of election. Election here means being chosen, being singled out, those being called. The word church is from the Greek word ecclesia, which means the assembly that is called out and called together. The church is sometimes called the elect, those who have answered the call. You would not be here today if you were not responding to God’s word of love and his call upon your life.


Why us and not them? This mystery cuts through families. A husband heeds the call but not the wife or vice versa or a parent but not the child though they have been nurtured in the faith. At the school where I teach we have a number of students preparing for Christian ministry who are grieved that they are not able to share the joy of their calling with parents who are indifferent to the call of God.


The full answer to this mystery is hidden in the secret counsels of God. We can say two things about our calling and our election in Jesus Christ. We can know with confidence the basis of our calling and we can know the purpose – the why and what for.


Why have we been chosen and why have we answered – however imperfectly (our answer to God’s call upon our lives is always a work in progress. This is a matter of what in theology is called our sanctification). Our call and even our response to the call are in no way our doing. It is the grace of God through and through. We like Israel of old have been called to be God’s chosen people not because of any merit or good deed or accomplishment of our own but because it is God’s nature to love without recompense. Perhaps a good man will die for his friends but while we were yet God’s enemies he sought us out to befriend us. The son of God goes forth to die for his enemies.


Our calling, our selection, our election is because of grace. The incongruity of those called reveals the character of God and God’s gratuitous and unmerited love and forgiveness. Why do some respond and not others? Because God has granted us the grace to do so. This is hard to understand. Faith is both a gift of God and something which we do. We reach out in faith and make our own what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and yet faith is a gift – God’s grace at work in us. So we could say in one word why we who are here this morning are among the elect. Grace, which is another way of saying, the unearned and superabundant love of God.


But for what purpose? What is the meaning of our election? Election has its meaning in the mission of God. God is on a mission. His mission is, as Ephesians 6:10 says, to gather up all things in Christ. His mission is to gather his warring children into one loving family and to gather together heaven and earth so that the prayer that our Lord taught us, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” will finally come true.


To advance his mission God has called an elect people – an elect family, not because they are better than the other tribes and nations but so they might under the word of crucified love, by the power of the resurrection and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, live toward God and toward their fellow human beings in such a way that God’s plan to turn all his children home might go forward. We have been called by God’s inscrutable will and his gratuitous love that we might be a light to the nations – that we might “live for the praise of his glory” and touch the world with his love. There is a great old song that expresses this well, “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning”.


Brightly beams our Fathers mercy

from his lighthouse evermore,

but to us he gives the keeping

of the lights along the shore.

let the lower lights be burning

send the gleam upon the wave

some poor fainting, struggling sailor

you may rescue, you may save


Let the lower lights be burning

send the gleam upon the wave – Amen.

The Healing Power of Jesus

The Healing Power of Jesus

July 1, 2012, Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach, Maine

The Rev. Dr. Leander S Harding


Last week we heard the question to which the entire Gospel of St. Mark is the answer, “what manner of man is this”? Who is Jesus? Is he a teacher, a prophet or a good and holy man with an especially well-developed God consciousness – an idea very popular in the 19th century and which reappears from time to time as the latest thing – or is he the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed one, the Savior, Christ, the only begotten son of the eternal Father, both Son of Man and son of God, fully human and fully divine?


Throughout these early chapters of the Gospel, St. Mark, writing down and organizing the memories of St. Peter, is recounting Jesus’ deeds of power. Power such as only God has. He casts out evil and pushes back the realm of darkness. He sets people free from the evil forces that oppress them. He has power even over the destructive forces of nature. He can heal. He even raises the dead.


These deeds of power which St. Mark records are testimonies that the man from Nazareth is the Christ of God – the heavenly Savior.


The gospel this morning brings together a story about Jesus raising the dead and a story about miraculous healing, and brings to the fore the Bible’s understanding of sickness and death, and of healing and life.


As the reading from the Apocrypha says this morning (the Apocrypha are books of the Bible that are regarded as sources of wisdom but not considered the revealed word of God in the same way as the canonical books), death and sickness are not by God’s intention. They exist because of the rebellion of sin. The devil was the first rebel. An Angel, he thought it better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Our first parents followed him into this rebellion. When human beings did this they turned away from God, against each other, and in upon themselves. There are many sins but the root of them all is this turning away from God. This is the original sin and it touches us all. To be thus cut off from God is to be cut off from the source of our life. The Father sees his children threatened by evil within and without, threatened by sickness, overwhelmed by suffering and without hope in the face of death, and he sends his son, who though he was rich, as St. Paul says, became poor so that we might become rich and be healed and made whole physically, morally, emotionally and spiritually. This he does by repairing the break with God from God’s side. He turned us back to himself and back to the source of life itself with love. He breaks through the hardness of the human heart with deeds of love culminating in The deed of love – the cross – which looks weak but is the power of God and the wisdom of God, the power of the resurrection, the power that heals and brings the dead to life.


Sin has created a chasm between us and God. We cannot bridge this chasm from our side. The Father in his mercy bridges it from his side. The bridge is the cross of the Savior. It is a bridge of seeking, searching and sacrificial love.


Christ has come to restore all things. In the fullness of all time when he shall be all in all, this means the end of sickness and death. In the meantime we have in the sacraments of the Church a down payment on the kingdom which is coming. Among these is the sacramental rite of healing. In this rite the church on earth prays that God’s will, will be done on earth as it is in heaven especially in the healing of the person for whom we are praying.


In just a few moments when Communion is distributed, I am going to offer an opportunity for those who wish it to receive the sacramental rite of healing. Let me tell you what will happen and what it means.


I will lay my hands on the head of the person desiring healing prayer. You may desire prayer for physical healing or emotional healing or spiritual healing. It is also possible to receive the sacramental rite as a form of intercessory prayer. You may be holding in your heart a friend or a member of your family that particularly needs healing. As I lay my hands on your head as a representative of Christ and of the prayers and his whole church I will say, “I lay my hands upon you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ beseeching him to fill you with his grace that you may know the healing power of his love.” After the laying on of hands I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead with oil that has been blessed by the Bishop for healing prayer. Laying on of hands and anointing with oil for healing are part of the ancient practice of the church according to the letter of St. James. As I make the sign of the cross on your forehead I will say, “as you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit.” The sacrament is an outward and effective sign of an inner and spiritual grace and the grace for which we pray in this sacrament is the grace of healing.


Of course there is no question of any competition between healing prayer and the medical arts. God is the source of all healing. He is the one who has put the healing powers in nature. He is behind all the medicines. He is the giver of the gifts of intelligence and skill to the doctors and nurses and health professionals. He is the source of their knowledge and he calls people to the practice of these vocations. He gives the heart for healing which makes for the true practitioner of medicine.


So there is no competition. The sacrament is another avenue for God to bring us his healing, especially as it flows very directly from the one who has such healing power in him that he could raise the dead and to but touch the hem of his garment was to be made well. When the church prays this prayer, it is not trying to convince God to do something that he does not want to do. God’s desire is for healing and for this reason he has sent his Son. As the prayer says, it is a way for us to know the healing power of his love. This is the power of the cross and the resurrection. This is the power that reconnects us with our Father which art in heaven who is the source of our life and our help and our salvation – our hope in this life and for the life to come.


How are we to understand the role of faith in healing? We should not think healing is a reward for believing. Healing is a form of God’s grace and one of the essential characteristics of God’s grace is that it is always completely undeserved. The grace of God comes not as a result of anything that we do. We do not earn it. We receive it as a gift from the Father of mercies. In the Scripture today, Jesus says to the woman who was cured of the issue of blood, “go your way; your faith has made you well.” He also says to Jairus, “only believe.” Faith has a role but it is not the role of doing something that earns us something.


Faith is what brought these people to Jesus. Faith opened them to him. Faith is the means by which we reach out and make our own what God has done for us in Christ. Faith is always in spite of doubts and reservations. It is following and clinging to God and Jesus Christ nevertheless. You do not know if the life preserver will hold you up but you put your weight upon it nevertheless and find out that you are saved. So it is to lean on Jesus and discover that you are held up by the everlasting arms.


As a result of the church’s sacramental rite of healing, I have seen spectacular miracles and many more very quiet ones. I have seen people cured of serious illness without any further medical treatment. I’ve also seen over and over again the medical treatment go unexpectedly well and the time of recovery shortened. We need to remember that all cures whether they come from medicine or prayer or what is more common the combination, are temporary. We will all die. But the healing of the rift between us and God, that is forever and makes us more and more ready for the day when indeed his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven and he shall wipe away all tears, and sickness and death shall be no more. Let us not miss out on the Father’s desire to give us this day our daily bread and give us this day a taste of the life of the world to come and therefore trust in him. Amen




The Cross and the Flag

The Cross and the Flag: On Religion and Liberty

The Rev. Dr. Leander Harding


    One of the first really spectacular public events to be televised was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Michael Ramsey was the Bishop of Durham at the time of the coronation. By tradition the Bishop of Durham stood by the monarch’s right hand during the coronation. Ultimately Ramsey became the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a great theologian and is thought by many to have been a genuinely holy man. With his massive head, notoriously bushy eyebrows and striking presence in vestments, the cameramen followed him closely. In the video, he can be seen muttering to himself as he crosses in front of the altar on his way from his seat to the throne to take his place by the side of the young queen. Thanks to the new technology, thousands of people saw this and naturally the question came up, “Bishop, what were you saying to yourself?” His answer: “I was keeping my bows and reverences straight — First God, then the Queen. The altar first, then the throne.”


    The 4th of July, is an appropriate moment to speak of the relationship between the altar and the throne, between the Cross and the flag — about an appropriate patriotism and about the appropriate expression of religion in the public square.


    The first principle in working out this relationship is the first commandment. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Michael Ramsey had it right: God first, then the State.


    The fourth Commandment bids us to honor our father and mother, and included in that command is the obligation to respect legitimate authorities. There are versions of the Christian story which are told in this land which get the Cross and the flag mixed up and which do not perceive adequately the place of the flag –precious that it is, and it is precious and stands for something very beautiful in human history. Nonetheless the flag is under the Cross. We honor the flag of our country. But we honor God first and both we as individuals, and our country and any nation or state are accountable to God and are to be judged and critiqued on the basis of God’s standards of righteousness and justice.

    When the state becomes divinized and when the state is made the ultimate authority, and accountable to no other authority, it turns into a savage god with an insatiable thirst for blood. This is what happened in the French Revolution. The French philosophes set up a secular rational state, trying to leave God out. They knew that people cannot do without religion, ritual and ceremony and so they even took a stab at making a pseudo-religion with a cult of ceremonies and holy days revolving around “divine reason”. Soon the heads were piling up at the foot of Dr. Guillotine’s machine, and the streets were literally running with blood.


    When the German people made a god of the German nation’s “blood and soil,” millions of people died. The Bolsheviks in Russia set up their officially atheistic state with the promise that the state would bring in at last human happiness, but the Gulag and millions of deaths were the result.


    If there is no divine and transcendent authority which gives legitimacy to the state and which can call its illegitimate actions to account, then God help us; for it will either be the rule of the mob or rule by the strong man — and probably a history that oscillates between the two.


    Many people believe that the decline in religion in developed countries means a future that promises more personal freedom. If the critical mass of people in this country really do abandon the God of the Bible, do not look for more personal freedom, but for less. Many people in this country think that the threat to personal liberty comes from the religious right. The tendency to confuse the Cross and the flag is to be resisted, and resisted on Christian grounds.

But the real threat to liberty is from those who want what the Roman Catholic theologian John Richard Neuhaus called a “naked public square” — a center to civic life from which religion is excluded.


    Our Constitution provides for the separation of church and state. It prohibits the state from establishing a religion and it protects the free expression of religion. The second part is often forgotten today. This is a hugely important and misunderstood portion of our Constitution. First of all, it protects religion. It says that the state is not supreme, that its reach is limited. The state cannot command conscience and belief; the writ of the state goes only so far and no further. There is a fundamental human right of freedom of worship — to worship God according to our conscience.


    This famous separation clause has a theological basis in the Bible. The God of the Bible wants a people who will freely return His love — not by outward compulsion but by an inward compulsion of thanksgiving, of gratitude welling up for the gift God has given us in sending His Son to free us from the power of evil and death. The separation clause creates what Pope John Paul II called a “zone of personal freedom”. He grew up under Nazi and Communist rule and said that the state intruded into every nook and cranny of life. He sometimes would take young people out into the mountains so they could have an experience of freedom. The “zone of personal freedom” is the civic and political space in which it is possible to freely choose to respond to God’s love and to what Christ has done for us in worship and obedience. For Christians, the clause of the Constitution prohibiting establishment of religion and guaranteeing expression is precious. There is no such zone of personal freedom and no such guarantee of free expression in Islam.


    However, those in our society who are hostile to religion want to use this clause as a rationale to drive all reference to religion from the public sphere. This is a mistake and a threat to liberty.


    Our country is not a “Christian Country”. We have been a multi-faith society from the first and the Founders created a polity that could accommodate multiple faiths from the start. George Washington states this in a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island:


The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was, by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.



    Nevertheless, both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are God-dependent documents and the God invoked is recognizably the God of the Christians and Jews. Our country makes possible the free practice of the Christian faith, and it is a live question whether the country can long endure without the robust participation of religious citizens both privately and corporately in the public debate.


    The Declaration of Independence is based on the state’s dependence for its legitimacy on God-given standards of justice and equity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”. Our rights, our human dignity, standards of fairness, justice, equity, are God-given, not state-given. The state has its legitimacy under these standards. The state does not give these standards and cannot legitimately take them away.


    This is self-evident to Christians and to Jews, and to even the thinned-out Christianity of 18th century Deists. It was not self-evident to the neo-paganism of the Nazis or the statism of Stalin and Pol Pot.


    Our system makes room maximally for the free expression of religion. If our heritage is distorted and religion driven from the public square and if knowledge of the God of the Jews and the Christians, the God revealed in the Bible — becomes rare in our people, then our liberty would hang by the most slender thread.


    Christians need to be robust in our engagement in the political realm, so that a government of, by and for the people shall not perish.

The Gospel According to the Avengers

“Who Is This? Even the Wind and Sea Obey Him?”

The Gospel According to the Avengers

Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach, ME

June 24, 2012, Fr. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.


Recently we went as a family to see the movie The Avengers. It was great fun. I highly recommend it. The Avengers are superheroes who have to put their egos aside so that they can band together as an effective team to save the earth from certain destruction by an alien race that is completely and remorselessly evil. The invaders have advanced technology that far surpasses anything on earth and their soldiers come in swarms with the mindless obedience of the hive. This movie depicts a battle between the power of good and the power of evil. It is a story of which we never tire because it is a story that rings very deep in the human heart because it is a story that we live day in and day out both individually and as a race. To depict the full range of both good and evil power the movie combines spiritual and technological power. The depictions of technological power are very convincing but the script writers understand that to really explore the theme of power the question of supernatural power must be addressed as well. Both sides have amazing technology; it is the spirit that animates those who control the technology that counts.


The depiction of evil is very convincing and the leader of the invaders and his minions evoke in a truly creepy way the devil and his demons. The capacity of the human heart for courage is also convincingly depicted and so is human frailty and betrayal.


No one of the individual super-heroes who make up the Avengers has any chance against this foe but together they might just pull it off. The Avengers are led by the super-hero Captain America. Captain America is very retro. He is a figure from the 1940s and 1950s, a hero of the battle against the Nazis. He represents the values and convictions of another era. Compared to the hip super-hero Iron Man, Captain America is square, even naïve. He even believes in God. One of the great lines in the film occurs when it is pointed out to Captain America that one of the enemy is really the Norse god Loki. Captain America answers, “There is only one God and I don’t think he dresses like that.” Captain America has the most limited power but he has the purest heart and natural leadership ability. If the hip Iron Man doesn’t tame some of his narcissism and cynicism there will never be a team. If Iron Man can’t follow the lead of Captain America and even pick up some of his square values including self-sacrifice there is no hope. In the exchange between Captain America and Iron Man you can hear the generation coming of age now wondering whether their grandparents had beliefs and values discounted by their parents which need now to be redeemed and recovered. But can it happen? Is it possible?


Of course this team must battle not only the enemy at the gate but also the venality and incompetence of political leaders. I won’t spoil the movie but good wins out though it is a near run thing and there well may be rematch.


After the victory there are a series of interviews with political leaders and people on the street. The question: can this group of all powerful super-heroes resist the temptation to use their powers for self-aggrandizement? Doesn’t power corrupt and are not super powers an especial temptation? Can loyalty to the team and the camaraderie of friends prevent this new story from having a very old ending? Can there really be such a thing as trustworthy power?


Here is a version of the great question of our time. Our time is sometimes called post-modernity. The modern age was the time when traditional truth and wisdom including the Christian faith was put to the test and when non-traditional alternatives were proposed such as Freudianism and Marxism and more recently the attempt to stretch evolutionary biology into a whole philosophy of life. All of these proposals about how the power of good can finally overcome the power of evil call themselves scientific and rational. After living with them for a while, it has come to be recognized that though there is some truth in all these grand theories they all fail to bring in the human good and that in different ways their claims to truth are really coded bids for power and domination. This sense of alienation from traditional wisdom, from the faith of our fathers, and a sense of complete disillusionment with all the alternatives is the post-modern mood. Cynicism, despair and ironic detachment are the currency of the intellectual and cultural elites. So the great question of our time of post-modernity is: Is there such a thing as true goodness? We know there is real evil. It takes very little imagination to recognize that. But is there real goodness and can it prevail? Can goodness prevail in our hearts personally and can goodness prevail on the world stage and on the stage of history, or will the forces of evil ultimately consume everything like swarms of locusts? Or to put it another way, is Captain America for real? Can there really be such a thing as a dependable and disinterested and self-sacrificing leader who can lead us to victory over evil? The human heart will never stop hoping that there is, because our hearts have been created to embrace this hope. If the leaders of high culture for the most part peddle despair, the leaders of pop culture know they can touch the hearts of millions with a story of hope.


This story of the battle of good and evil is the story which has ever and will ever interest us. This question: Is Captain America for real? Or put a better way, is the saviour for real? — is the question that interests us above all others. We are always telling ourselves the story to which the story of the saviour is the answer. We may from time to time lose our grip on the answer but the question will not let us go.


To answer this question of questions is the purpose of St. Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel has a very spare account of the teachings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke and John in a different way have much more of the teachings of Jesus. The teachings are there but they are not in the center of the story Mark tells. What interests Mark above all else is the drama of the battle between good and evil. A characteristic phrase of Mark’s Gospel is “and he cast out the demons and cured many that were sick.” When the forces of evil recognize Jesus they know they have met their match. If we were to keep reading in the Gospel of Mark we would come next to the story of the Gadarene swine. A man who is possessed and who has supernatural strength and cannot be restrained and who hurts himself and others sees Jesus coming, “We know who you are, Jesus Christ son of the most high God.” Jesus asks the name of the demon and the reply is “legion because we are many.” Jesus bids the demon to come out.


There is another part of story in the Avengers that is familiar to us. One of the central evil characters has an instrument of immense power. It is kind of a cross between a spear and a magic wand. It can emit energy that can vaporize people but with the right touch it can change a good person into an eager and compliant servant of evil. This happens to one of the Avengers and to a scientist whose help is needed to prevail. As we watch the film, we wonder are they gone forever or can they be turned back? Is there any way back is one of the deepest questions of the human heart.


St. Mark’s answer is yes. Jesus has the power to turn people back. Jesus has the power to defeat and cast out evil, and the demons came out and went into a herd of pigs who stampeded over the cliff and into the sea and were destroyed and the people were filled with awe.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus and the disciples are on the sea and the storm threatens to sink the boat and the disciples are afraid. Though they have seen the power in Jesus they don’t really understand who He is. Jesus awakens and rebukes the storm. It is another demonstration of His ability to vanquish evil, to quell the demonic and destructive forces whether in the human or the natural realm. When they saw the power that was in Him they were frightened. “What manner of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” How will He use that power next? It is this question—Is Captain America for real—Can it last? Is there such a thing as truly good and trustworthy power? Is there such a thing as a truly good and trustworthy leader? Are we always doomed to be betrayed by those in whom we put our trust?


St. Mark has an answer. He recounts story after story of exorcism and healing, story after story of the power of Jesus to prevail over evil and to push back the realm of darkness. As the disciples and the crowds witness these deeds of power, they ask again and again “what manner of man is this?” No one in the entire Gospel gets the answer to this question quite right until the very end. Peter tries to answer it. He says He is the promised saviour, the Christ. Now use your power to vaporize our enemies. “Get behind me Satan.” James and John, the sons of thunder are the post-modern nightmare come true, practitioners of the rhetoric of goodness but really interested in self-aggrandizing power. “Let us sit one on your right hand and one on your left when you come into your Kingdom.” He tries to teach them one last time on the night in which He is betrayed. “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many.” Only one witness gets it completely right. The Centurion standing at the foot of the cross takes it all in and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”


Captain America is a great character. He is a figure of hope but he is not real. But there is a real person who is the answer to the hope that characters like Captain America evoke. He is goodness in person, beauty in person, truth in person, and He can defeat the evil within and without. In the end evil will not be able to stand against Him. His power is awesome, truly awesome but it, unlike any other power we know, is completely trustworthy because it is the power of pure, self-sacrificing love. It is the power of the cross and the power of the resurrection. It is the power of the sacrifice that is made known to us in this service of Holy Communion. This is the power that can humble our egos and make it possible for us to live together as brothers and sisters not seeking to be served but to serve.


In the movie Captain America’s costume is not very hip. It is old fashioned. Someone suggests something more contemporary. “Let it be” is the wise answer, “Before this is over people may really need some old fashioned.” Christian faith is not often thought to be hip. It is often thought to hopelessly old fashioned. Remakes and updates are being constantly proposed. “Before this is over people may need some old fashioned.” Iron Man is very cool but he is not going to make it by being cool, hip and cynical. Somehow he has to find the faith of Captain America or things will not end well. In the movie the other Avengers have things to teach Captain America but he has a lot more to teach them.


We are each one of us something like the characters in the story who have been changed by a strange power. The role we are meant to occupy in the story is the role of super hero but we have been entranced and hijacked into another role altogether. There is one who can turn us back and He reaches out to touch us today with his transforming love in the words of scripture and in the bread and the wine. Let us open wide our hearts to Him. Amen