Friday, January 24, 2014

Christian Unity

Again, this is an "old" sermon -- but I have been having a series of injections into my knee - they seem to be working very well. however.  Think about what it is that we are "in-parished" to do.  Then read this sermon.  Please remember that history and theology are inseparable.  Either without the other will lead -- surely indeed -- in a wrong direction.  This was written in 1998. Comments are always welcomed.  Perren

                              Epiphany 2, Octave of Unity

It is too slight a task for you, as my servant, to restore the tribes of
Jacob, to bring back the survivors of Israel: I shall appoint you a light
to the nations, so that my salvation may reach earth's farthest
bounds.  Isaiah 49:6b

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Confession of St.  Peter, and the
week after that will be the Conversion of St.  Paul.  That
means that Annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins
tomorrow; and so today is my annual sermon on Christian Unity.

An important part of my personal prayer life since I was in High
School has been for the reunion of Christians; and especially during
this specific week, which is now about 100 years old.  If you are not
aware of it, it is the Episcopal Church   in this country   the began
the modern ecumenical movement for Christian Unity.  Its specific
origin is the Chicago Quadrilateral passed by the General Convention
in 1886, and, slightly modified, adopted by the First Lambeth
Conference of Anglican Bishops in 1888.  The American Bishops
wrote: "We do hereby affirm that the Christian unity . . . can be
restored only by the return of all Christian Communions to the
principles of unity exemplified by the undivided Catholic Church
during the first ages of its existence; which principles . . .[are]
incapable of compromise or surrender . . . and [are] essential to the
restoration of unity . . . we count the following: 1.The Holy
Scriptures; 2. The Nicene Creed; 3.  The two Sacraments   Baptism
and the Supper of the Lord; 4.  The Historic Episcopate."  The full
text is in the Book of Common Prayer on page 876,7.  

This  week of prayer grew out of this declaration; and, since the
1890's we have been speaking with the Roman Catholics and the
Orthodox Churches.  We have entered into a common relationship
with the Polish National Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Church,
and a few other very small  independent Catholic Churches.   The
last General Convention, using carefully parsed definitions of key
words, adopted a resolution that would have allowed us to enter into
a long term relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America, during which time, we would be supplying them with
Apostolic Orders.  After 30 years, it would be presumed that all
Lutherans would then be ordained by Bishops whom we recognize as
Bishops of Apostolic Succession.  The Lutherans refused to
participate with us, although they did open lines with some of the
other Protestant Churches..  Thus although we have been successful
in unity movements with Catholics, our first attempt to work also
with Protestants failed   but not because of us!

It might be noted that the changes the Episcopal Church has been
making in Baptism since the 1898 Book of Common Prayer have been
part of our fulfilling of our desire for unity.  The directions of the
General Convention to the Prayer Book Revision Committee as it
made ready the current (1979) Book of Common Prayer are also part
of our work toward unity.  The Committee was directed to go back to
the earliest forms and concepts, forms that existed before disunity
began to appear in the Church.  The Committee succeeded.

For us to understand fully about Christian Unity and our part in it, 
we need to note that the reformation in England, by and large, was
not a matter of religion.  What that means is that what Archbishop
Laud laid down his life for, the certainty that the Church of England
was the exact continuation of the medieval Church, and not a new
creation of the 16th century.  The Reformation and the Churches it
created still suffer from the same set of Medieval issues that set it off
in the first place.  The Reformation Churches   including the modern
Roman Catholic Church   still have the same non-Biblical theology
that infected the Medieval Church: 1. You earn your way into the
Kingdom of God; and, 2.  The Church is an association of individuals.

As long as Christians live and act on these two items, there will never
be Christian Unity, either on the national level or even in local
parishes such as our own.  It was Luther who taught that It is Faith
that makes God accept you, for it is by Faith that you are saved.  Even
the modern Roman Catholic Church adopted that idea.  What this
does is to make us think that we are individually members of the
Church, and further, that it is our faith that makes us members of the
Church.  We then act individually, and privately; we pray alone and
ignore the corporate worship of the Church.  This makes the Church as
the Family of God a fiction that does not exist.  Individualism in its
worst form becomes rampant; and further, we   because we are alone
before God   have no sense of vocation.  Our task is to maintain
ourselves "right" before God.  My friends, Biblical Study and the
history of the early Church, will not allow us to live this way.

Faith is not the cause of our relationship with God: the Cause of our
relationship with God is the Faithful love of God.  Faith is the badge,
the sign, that God gives us to tell us that he has brought us into his
very life in the new family of Christ.  And to that family, which is
found in the Body of Christ the Servant, God gives a vocation, a
burning vocation:  I shall appoint you a light to the nations, so that
my salvation may reach earth's farthest bounds.  Anything less than
that, however nice it may be, is not Christian life.  And if I sound
tough about this, I am.  The Gospel will bring good news and good
relationships in all the world: of Jesus did not rise from the dead.  We
are here because we believe that he did rise from the dead.  No matter
what we may have been taught in the past, it is incomplete  if it does
not bring us to corporate worship not only on Sundays, but also on
such others days as we will make the effort to accept the vocation
God has given to us.  While in the context of the failing Christianity
that has existed since the Reformation it sounds good when it is said
that this little parish has Dail Morning Prayer and Daily Eucharist,
this should not be surprising.  This   like the tithe in pledging   is not
a goal to be attained: it is a point for the beginning of real work.

If you believe the things you promised last week when you renewed
your Baptismal Promises, then praying alone in your room by your self
will not be enough; just as coming here to participate in the corporate
worship of the Church is not enough.  The Gospel expects both, not
either.  And there is no one in this room who cannot do something
positive for Christian unity.  But it will not be in pledges, it will not
be in giving money, it will not in "good works", it will not be in study,
it will not be in prayers or worship:  it certainly will not be in concern
with the petty details of parish administration.

If you believe in Christian Unity   and you shouldn't be here if you
don't   then you will immediately start doing things that will help this
parish become a beacon of light for the Gentiles.  You will go and
bring people to worship who cannot make it on their own; you will fill
this Church with the people who claim they belong here, but do not

We spent much of last years trying to get this parish established on a
framework that will allow it to work for the Gospel.  This year we
need to establish the principle that Worship is the most important
thing a Christian does: that without regular -- week by week --
worship, there is no hope for the success of the Gospel.  What else
you may do, how much money you give, how many hours of volunteer
service here or somewhere else in the name of the parish, how much
study you do: if you do not worship God, all the rest is worthless and
destructive of the mission you have accepted by your Baptismal

My brothers and sisters, I beg you to pray hard for Christian unity this
week.  Not just in your private prayers, but here in the Liturgy, in
your Parish Church.  God gave you your faith   for you all have it  
as a badge of your participation in his task for you as his servant:
Listen again to Isaiah:  It is too slight a task for you, as my servant, to
restore the tribes of Jacob (the parish) , to bring back the survivors of Israel
(other Christians): I shall appoint you a light to the nations, so that my
salvation may reach earth's farthest bounds.  Act like Christians!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

This sermon originated at St. Mary's Convent in Peekskill NY while I was chaplain for them.  This version was a slightly edited version from my early days at St.. Peter's Lewes, DE.   It takes a slightly different venue from what is usually said -- and for that I am indebted to the late Fr. Raymond Brown, the Roman Catholic New Testament Scholar.  I present it to you; maybe it will assist you with this strange story of the Magi/Wise Men that we so often associate either with the giving of gifts or with the killing of the Holy Innocents.



There shall come a man out of Israel’s seed . . . I see him, but not now; I see him, but not close; a star shall rise from Jacob and a man shall come forth from Israel.  Num 24:7,17 LXX

Epiphany doesn’t often come on a Sunday, and I wasn’t the preacher the last time it happened – or at least I have no file sermon!  So when Father Jeff asked me to celebrate the mass for him today, and I could find nothing from the past, I hurried to write a new sermon.  It does, however, follow on the series I wrote on the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke during Advent, Christmass and the two Sundays following.  I preached the Second Sunday after Christmass sermon for you last summer, on the finding of Jesus in the Temple and his going home and being obedient to his parents – even though he was of an age to begin a family.  You may recall I suggested using the word cherish as a substitute for obey wherever it appears in scripture.

Those of you who have been exposed to the Advent sermons have heard me say that it is utterly impossible to integrate the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew.  Each author had his own audience and his own purpose in writing his own story.  And the stories, we must always remember, are not history: they are the presentation of the Gospel to the audience for whom the author was writing.  We might, today, call such writings theological explanations of the Good News.

Matthew’s is a very carefully produced document that relies on the Jewish Scriptures (though not necessarily in Hebrew – the Septuagint was more widely known.)  His gospel begins with the genealogy of Joseph, who is a just man, a term used in Scripture only of Noah – from whom all humans are descended; Noah, the new source of God’s life in God’s world.  Joseph, like an earlier Joseph, learns from God through his dreams. This child that Mary is carrying, conceived through the Holy Spirit, is the Davidic messiah: although this depends on Joseph’s adoption of Jesus as his own child.  And Joseph, like Joseph of old, dreams and learns from הוהי God , and then brings his family into Egypt thus escaping an attempt on his life.

And it is amazing to us to realize that Jesus’ escape from Herod is remarkably similar to the story of Moses’ escape from Pharaoh.  But when we look at the parabiblical documents that existed at the time of the birth of Jesus, we see how they had been expanded to include that Pharaoh had been forewarned that a child was to be born who was a threat to his crown.  So he decided to kill all the male Hebrew children.  At the same time, these same documents show, the father of Moses had a dream that warned him that his already pregnant wife was to bear a child who would save Israel – this child would escape Pharaoh’s massacre.  The parents acted to save the life of Moses – and later on in his life Moses returned to his people from his flight to Sinai when he heard from הוהי God that “All those seeking your life are dead.” – Matthew exactly quotes Exodus so that his readers/hearers will know exactly what he is saying to them.

Then Matthew continues his analogy with the matter of the Magi and the star – a further account of Moses we often fail to associate with the nativity/salvation.  Matthew combines this account about Moses with the picture of a Messiah descended from David– and Matthew had prepared us for this with his very first words:  “The genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David.”

This is the passage in Numbers, involving Balaam.  You remember: Moses was leading the People of God through Transjordan to the Promised Land.  He encountered a wicked king who, like pharaoh was determined to kill him.  It was Balak, the king of Moab – and he summoned a famous seer from the east, a man named Balaam.  Balaam was a practicer of the occult, an enchanter, one who in Jesus time would be called a magus.  Balaam came with his two servants, but refused to curse Moses and Israel.  “There shall come a man out of Israel’s seed . . . I see him, but not now; I see him, but not close; a star shall rise from Jacob and a man shall come forth from Israel.”  At the time of Jesus, the expanded stories indicated that David was the star that would arise.  And arise he did, in the savior, Jesus.  Note that in Matthew’s story that not only did Herod  act like the pharaoh of old by killing all the Hebrew male children, but he tried to do so by using a magus  from the east.  Balaam saw the star of David rise; and so also Matthew’s magi saw the star of the king of the Jews at its rising – a better translation than “in the east.”  In this series of Old Testament allusions, Matthew has proclaimed the entire story of salvation.  The magi and the star tell the story of salvation: a story presented to both Jews and Gentiles; a story with a double response of both acceptance and rejection.  Matthew, after all, knows about the resurrection.

Matthew is writing to a church that is primarily gentile now, even though his special audience is heavily Jewish in their understanding of scripture.  The faith that must be involved comes to all, including the gentiles, through the very fact of nature itself.  (Paul reflects this in Romans.)  And so it is, Matthew shows, that it is the Gentiles (magi) who can interpret the signs of astrology, and respond with faith.  The birth star brings them the good news of salvation; but it is incomplete.  They must go and seek the truth from the source.  The gentiles, says Matthew, can perceive God through nature, but the full meaning comes through the Jewish scriptures.  They can worship, but they need the Scriptures to explain it all to them.  The scriptures give them the answer, as the priests tell them where to find the Messiah.  But, paradoxically as Matthew points out, those who have the benefit of the scriptures and are able to read where the Messiah will be, not only fail to worship – they actually conspire to destroy him, and the wicked king decrees his death.  But God spares his son, and ultimately brings him back from another country.

Now, you see, these Old Testament stories of Joseph, Moses and Balaam have been woven into a new fabric of the passion and resurrection of Jesus.  The same people are present: the secular ruler, the chief priests, scribes – all are aligned against Jesus who has only God on his side.  But God is victorious, because he brings Jesus back.  Note: those who have the scriptures reject Jesus; but the gentiles come, and with the help of scripture, find and adore him.

Matthew is presenting to us the revelation of God.  God has made himself present with us – Emmanuel – and he did so in the life of the one whose story comes next in Matthew’s writings.  Indeed, Matthew says, when you read the story that follows, you will know that God is present in this Jesus; indeed he is so present that Jesus is the Son of God.  This message is offensive to some, but to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, he is salvation in fact.  Thus, you see, the Magi for Matthew, are the forerunners of those who respond to the preaching of the apostles as they proclaim the resurrection of Jesus.

Just as Balaam said “I see him, but not now; . . . a star shall rise from Jacob and a man shall come forth from Israel,” so also the magi in Matthew’s story see the star of the King of the Jews at its rising; they also see, but not now, the Jesus whose kingship will not be visible in history until he hangs on the cross – beneath the title “The King of the Jews.”