Seeding the Feast

Seeding the Feast:

Sexagesima – A Sermon on Luke 8:4

Anthony G. Cirilla

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

My dad was always a jokester, and there was one type of joke he repeated often (as dads do). I would tell him, I’m going to take a shower, and he’d say, “Again? You just showered last week.” He would also use this joke around meals. I’d be making lunch and he’d say, what, you’re eating again? I already fed you last month. I can tell you, very rarely do I actually encounter a meal with that attitude. Often while I’m eating lunch I wonder, what is dinner going to be? Sometimes I’m sad that my dinner will be gone after I’ve eaten it. I look at that beautiful meal Camarie made and think, it’s too bad that soon there won’t be any of this wonderful food left.

Something that can be missed in today’s parable is that when Christ talks about the sower and the different kinds of ground in which he casts his seeds is that he’s really talking about how much nutrition the seeds are able to take in, in order to grow. I went to a church once that had a lot of plants, and every Sunday I noticed the pastor’s wife watering them. Nobody ever asked her, “Why are you watering those plants? You already did that last time you were here.” We understand that the soil needs repeat exposure to the water so that the plants can be fed. Like feeding our appetite, cultivating soil takes more than one round of care.

Some of our fellow Christians who are unfamiliar with liturgical worship might wonder, Why do you Anglicans like to do the same thing every Sunday? Every Sunday, you say the same prayers, and you hear readings in the same order, and you say the same creed. Isn’t it kind of repetitive? The process of answering that question always reminds me of the training montages in those old martial arts shows, you know, Mr Miyagi, Wax on, Wax Off. The repetitive motion trains the martial artist in the basic moves that defends him from danger. That’s true in the Christian life too, because the attacks on our faith will come in similar patterns as the temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil faced by believers indicated in this passage. Christ says, “And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.” An attack on our faith is the world’s distraction, like the thorns that choke out the harvest by keeping our focus elsewhere than the kingdom of God. When we repeat the Nicene Creed, we clear away the thorns to refresh in the soil of our hearts the grip on those basic truths of the faith that keep us grounded in Christ. 

Jesus also says, “some fell by the way-side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.” He explains this as the work of the devil: “Those by the way-side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” This attack on our faith comes in the form of aggressive doubt, from those who would question or attack our beliefs, sometimes inspired by the devil who seeks to take the seed of saving faith away. (Please understand: I am not saying all doubt, from Christians or non-Christians, is from the devil. Quite the contrary – doubt is a normal human experience. I am saying, rather, that Satan wants to prey on that doubt.) By hearing Scriptural sermons, being reminded of the Christian truths in the Articles of Religion, and hearing God’s word read aloud, our faith that Scripture is true is affirmed. 

The temptations of the flesh are also an enemy to the growth of the seed of our faith, for Christ says, “And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture…They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.” Like hardened ground, our hearts have to be softened again to the core concerns that should mark the Christian Life, and so by returning to the same prayers every week we work over fallow ground in our emotions so that we can better fight the sin of our flesh. By praying the prayer for the church militant we are reminded of the comprehensive application of the Gospel to all members of Christ’s Church, and by praying the prayers of general confession and of humble access we are reminded of the Gospel’s urgent application to ourselves.

But there’s something strange about the Gospel we don’t often focus on. Did you notice the explanation Jesus gave for why he speaks in parables? Normally we think of the parables as explanatory tools, metaphors that help us to understand God’s truth. And that is correct, they are that, for in that context Christ says, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” But did you notice that Christ says the opposite, that the reason he taught in parables was so that his listeners wouldn’t understand? He says that he speaks “to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” That’s surprising – it’s not what comes to mind and probably doesn’t fit the nice, people-pleasing image of Jesus many want to promote. But why would Jesus intentionally speak in a way that would stop others from seeing and hearing?

Well, I am not saying this is everything one can say about this passage, but here’s one thing that happens: because Jesus spoke in a parable, it created an opportunity for a distinction to be made among his listeners. Some heard the parable of the sower and didn’t want any further explanation. It’s kind of strange if you think about it. Imagine – you hear Jesus tell a story about a sower who cast seed on different ground. “Huh, weird. I wonder why he told that story. I dunno. Guess I’ll go tend to my sheep or go fix my wagon or something.” Even though they knew he was a miracle worker of great wisdom, they weren’t curious about what he was trying to say. They didn’t ask, they didn’t have hunger for the nutrition that was in those words. But the disciples did. Even though they didn’t get it, they knew there was something spiritually nourishing in that parable, so they asked Jesus to feed them with its truth.

You might compare the crowd who listened to the parable to someone who watches Food Network regularly but only eats fast food. They see this amazing meal that the chef has prepared, and they respond with, wow, that’s amazing, and take a bite out of their greasy burger. They change the channel before they learn how to prepare it, how to make it edible. They’ve seen a display of a magnificent feast, but instead of asking how they might get a plateful or learn to make it for themselves, they go away and get a snack from a vending machine.

As Christians we do this with the magnificent feast of God’s Word all the time. How often do you skip those bits of Scripture that don’t quite make sense? The Book of Revelation, the more confusing books in the Old Testament, or simply those passages that challenge our preferred theology or life opinions. It’s easier to just revisit those passages that are familiar and seem to echo back what we already think. But when we don’t spend time in the Lord’s word because it’s confusing, we’re doing exactly the same thing as the crowd. Christ presents us with a feast, and we change the channel. The thing about food is, you don’t have to understand it to benefit from it. As a child I didn’t understand cooking. I saw adults do mysterious rituals around the kitchen and somehow food came out of that. Weird. But the food they gave me still fed me. Even now, it’s sort of mysterious that food feeds us, just as it’s mysterious that water, sunlight, and soil can nourish a plant, even when you understand botany deeply. 

Maybe you know a lot about nutrition and metabolism and that sort of thing, but even that knowledge can’t get around the fact that your body unlocks the value from your food in secret. You eat that food, and then your body takes over, and in the mysterious places within your body, nutrients are drawn out. A healthy diet comes from understanding what food is good for you, but healthy digestion isn’t something you can give yourself. It’s part of God’s common grace that your body came with the ability to do that. Well, when it comes to the Bible it’s the same in the spiritual dimension. Our souls can digest the Word and derive benefit even when our minds don’t fully understand the content. We know it’s a healthy diet to be in God’s word. So why aren’t we? We’re too busy? Well, are we too busy to eat? We know what happens to our bodies if we don’t eat. We get weak, faint. We’re not up to the task. Life overwhelms us. The same is true if we aren’t nourishing ourselves with the Word. Just like the seeds immersed in thorns, we’ll get choked up on a diet of spiritual junk food.

Reading God’s word to seek understanding is profoundly important, but even when you don’t fully understand it, God’s word still feeds us. Like Christ’s parable, what makes your heart good soil isn’t that you understand God’s word, but that you keep coming back to it, like the disciples asking for more. Recently, Camarie and I read through Ezekiel as our nightly Bible reading through the time of Epiphany. I can tell you, often I had no idea what specifically the prophet was communicating. I was often deeply confused, and so was Camarie (and she is a lot smarter than me, so that really tells you something). But even so, after we read it, somehow we would both have edifying thoughts about how it related to other aspects of the Bible and to our lives as Christians, even though we didn’t fully get every aspect. See, understanding might be another barrier to being in God’s word. Maybe you’re so familiar with it that you think, well, I don’t really need to read it again. I know what it says. I get it. But that’s like someone who reads articles on diet, nutrition, and healthy food, but doesn’t actually eat it. Maybe you do have a lot of good knowledge about the Bible. But knowing the Bible is not the same thing as feasting on God’s word. If I offered you a slice of pizza you probably wouldn’t say, well, I’ve tasted that before – I get it. You’d want to eat it because it’s warm and inviting and it fills you and takes away your hunger. You don’t eat for your mind – you eat for your stomach. And that is the way we should read Scripture – not only to know, but to satisfy the need we have to be fed upon the word of God. Not for our minds only, but for our souls. You know, if the only exposure to the Bible you get every week is when you heard it read in the liturgy, it’s a lot harder to digest that content. Especially with the Old Testament but with other readings too, you hear it and if you haven’t been reminding yourself of the story of God’s revelation, it will be harder to get in the context and make the reading useful to you. Coming to Church Sunday to listen to the Word without having refreshed yourself beforehand could be compared to eating cold pizza – it’ll still feed you, but it’s just not as nice.

The work of frequent Bible reading, and the work of frequent prayer and worship, which may not always feel nourishing at the time, is the work of seeding for the feast. Christ says of the good soil that it will “bare fruit an hundredfold.” We want our appetite for the things of God to grow, and much like any food that seems unappealing at first but is healthy, the more we partake of it, the more we’ll want it, and even come to love the sweet savor. Christ says, “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” And if we’re bearing that fruit a hundredfold, not only will we be more satisfied and more energetic for our own walk with the Lord, but we’ll begin to produce spiritual bounty that can benefit others – a plenty of spiritual joys that we will want to share with people we know who need to be fed too. So every week we come here and we pray again for the same reason we sleep every night – because we need rest in prayer. And we hear sermons every week for the same reason we exercise – the work is good for our health. And we listen to the word of God and eat the Lord’s supper because we really can’t live on bread alone – we need to feed on Christ all the time or we’ll get as sick in the soul as we do when we starve the body. And when we cultivate that desire for God’s word we won’t want to skip church, or prayer, or personal devotion in the Bible any more than we’ll want to skip meals, sleeping, or breathing. After a long week away from the bounty of the feast of worship, we’ll feel eager to come to the Lord’s Table, where even the smallest crumb of Christ’s words are a feast for the soul. When we constantly fix our attention on the treasure of Scripture and read it with the same need with which we seek food and drink, then we can truly taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Amen.

Paradoxology

Paradoxology: A Sermon on Mark 1:1-9

2nd Sunday After Epiphany

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We can’t offer God worthy praise because we’re sinners, but we can’t not offer Him worthy praise because He is perfectly holy and glorious. This is the paradoxology.

To a great extent, Christianity as a religion confronts us with paradoxes. God is one God but three persons. God is infinite, but became a finite man. The Second Person of the Trinity is everlasting, and yet died for us on the cross. Meditating on these paradoxes strains our minds, and yet they are the basis for our hope.

Paradoxes are different from contradictions. Contradictions are two things that simply cannot be true at the same time. For example, a man cannot be six feet tall and also five feet and seven inches tall. A dog cannot have completely white fur and completely brown fur. You can’t have thirty dollars in your wallet and also zero dollars in that same wallet. These are contradictions. Paradoxes are two things, on the other hand, that seem like they cannot possibly both be true, but they are. Paradoxes are two truths that seem to contradict each other, but are actually true because of each other.

As an educator, I am faced with a paradox: my students need to learn from my classroom, but they also need to have learning to succeed in my classroom. Learning is paradoxical because you know that you do not know, so you work to begin to know what you do not know, and then the more you know, the more you really learn that you need to learn a lot more before you learn anything. Paradoxically, one of the wisest humans to have lived was Socrates, who said that the height of wisdom was to know that you do not know. Unlike contradictions, between which we must decide one way or the other, paradoxes stretch the mind to help us to learn how to make two things we know to be true but which strain each other, and so deepen our love of the truth.

There’s a paradox under way right now. It is impossible for me to stand here and preach the Word of God. How dare I? I am not fit to speak of the Most High. He is holy. I am unholy. He is eternal, and I am mortal. His infinitely high ways are infinitely higher than my lowly ways. His words are pure, and mine are corrupt. The very idea is absurd, even blasphemous. How could I possibly speak of this perfect, loving, righteous God when I am an imperfect, unloving, and wicked man?

But then, it is impossible for me not to preach the Word of God. I know that it is true, that it contains the only means of salvation, that I am commanded by God to share the good news of His Son. How can I keep silent when the Lord of language commands me to speak? How dare I, an imperfect, unloving, and wicked man, otherwise dead in my trespasses, refuse the life-giving commands of a perfect, loving, righteous God?

Either way I go, woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips. I am unclean if I dare to speak of God, unclean if I dare not to. It reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem that goes, 

If I eat one more piece of pie, I shall die. If I do not eat one more piece of pie, I shall die. If either way it is decided that I must die, then I shall eat one more piece of pie. 

Paradoxes about pie are silly, but the paradox of my responsibility to share the worth of the Gospel as an unworthy messenger is sobering indeed.

This paradox was the same one that confronted John the Baptist when Jesus approached him to be baptized. John said of Christ in verse 7, “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” John has been called the last of the Old Testament prophets, and as such his sensitivity to the absolute holiness of God was profound, and so by extension John knew his own unworthiness. Indeed, John’s miraculous birth from Elisabeth’s otherwise barren womb seemed impossible, but was arranged by God to prefigure and be superseded by the even more paradoxical and miraculous virgin birth of Christ. John’s birth to Elisabeth in her old age recalls a similar situation with Abraham and Sarah, who likewise had to wait on God’s time to have the promise of Isaac’s birth fulfilled when Sarah was 90 years old, which seemed so impossible to Sarah that she actually laughed about it. Where Isaac’s birth was the initial fruit of God’s promise to Abraham that would lead to the establishment of the Mosaic covenant generations later, John’s birth was the hinge point that signalled a new covenant that would fulfill but even exceed the Abrahamic covenant in its glory. It’s for this reason that we are told that John was, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” A man born to a barren mother, John was himself a walking paradox, yet he still harbored original sin like you and I did. 

This is why John, as the voice of the Old Testament heralding the arrival of the Lord, was living in such a distinctly uncomfortable way. Camel’s hair is rough and coarse, and that John chooses it for his clothing shows his attempt to remove himself from the comforts of the world. Likewise he ate locusts and wild honey not because he had unusual culinary preferences, but because both were inferior forms of food that witnessed John’s penitential posture. John was living a life of intentional self-denial because he saw the same truth that Isaiah was struck with when he saw the glory of the Lord in Isaiah 6:5: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” It seemed paradoxical to Isaiah that his unclean lips could speak of the holiness of the Lord he saw then. But Isaiah’s speech was purified: “6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Like Isaiah, John was faced with an impossible, paradoxical task: he, a sinful man who desperately felt the need for cleansing by baptism, was asked to baptize the Holy One on whose behalf he had been baptizing others!

John was so deeply aware of the holiness of Christ that he felt it even before he was born. Luke 1:41 reads, “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.” Even unborn, John knew his Savior and the delight serving him would bring. So it is no wonder that when Jesus approaches him to be baptized, John is astonished. Matthew 3:13 reads, “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” The whole thing seemed too paradoxical, too impossible. You’re the one who makes us clean – how can I clean you? But of course John could not refuse him, because he could not dishonor his Lord by disobeying him, who said in reply, “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” And John baptized Jesus. Never fall into the trap of disobeying God because you think you are not good enough to obey him.

Instead of relying on the limitations of his own human understanding, John submitted to the paradox. He did what almost seemed blasphemous to his own sensibilities – he applied the symbol of purification to the one who is totally pure and who brings us purification. And when he did, he was given the privilege of witnessing the official miracle that began Christ’s formal ministry: Mark 1:9-11 “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Scripture does not tell us how John the Baptist felt about this, but notice that there is no indication that this was some private vision in Christ head – it was objective, visible. An indescribable vision burst forth, and as that heavenly light cascaded over Christ, the Holy Spirit took a form distinctly visible to humans for the first time in recorded history. Although the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, this is the first time in Scripture that it is distinctly clarified that humans are perceiving the Holy Spirit specifically. And what’s more, John had the privilege of hearing the voice of God the Father himself speak an affirmation that Jesus was the Christ whom John had been called to testify. What an awesome vindication of his own calling, but even more what an incredible privilege – to audibly hear the voice of God the Father, whom John the Evangelist said no man has seen directly at any time!

John was asked to do something paradoxical, but in doing so he had the privilege of touching the Son of God’s body as he covered him with the baptismal waters. He had the blessing of seeing the Holy Spirit’s manifestation before his very eyes and having his ears physically filled with the voice of the Father. All of those days of hardship, preaching to skeptics, living with discomfort as he tried to work out his sins in penance, were met here. The hard-bitten darkness of his trials was rewarded with an intimate witness of the Trinity, the closest to complete experience of the Triune God that any living human has ever experienced here on earth, because he let God handle the paradoxes in his life.

Some of you here today may be living with paradoxes of your own. Maybe aspects of theology and biblical truth are confusing you. Or maybe you are struggling with guilt over sin and you wonder how you could approach this Lord’s Table and partake of the Lord’s Supper when you know you fall short. Because the burden really does seem intolerable. Perhaps you are afraid to witness about Christ because you’re afraid of being asked a question you can’t answer. How can you step into church, knowing what you’ve done? How can you participate in Holy Communion, knowing who you are? How can you have hope in Christ, knowing what is going on in your life, or in your loved one’s life, right now? The fact is that logical explanations of these problems, though possible, don’t get at the real, heart-heavy burden of the paradox of things that just seem impossible. But we worship a God who can turn the paradox into the occasion for the doxology. We look at hard situations pray to God, “Lord, this situation is impossible.” God hears those prayers and he says, “Oh, the situation is impossible? I can work with that.” 

Don’t misunderstand me here. It’s a good and wholesome thing to work to understand Scripture, to read theological books and have Bible studies, to delve into the paradoxes so that we can have our faith strengthened. But at the end of the day we have to submit to paradoxes like John baptizing Christ. We have to stand in the cold waters of discomfort and confusion and let God lead, and sometimes it won’t make sense at first. But into that darkness light can break out. Like the purifying touch of the burning coal on Isaiah’ lips, through the Lord’s Supper we can feel closer to Christ as we submit to the paradox of worship and eat of his blood and drink of his flesh spiritually  even when we don’t understand such things. Like John baptizing Christ in the Jordan, when we submit to the paradox of God calling us to be a testimony even though we know we fall short, we can witness the Holy Spirit transforming our lives and the lives of those we love, giving us the power to rise above our circumstances by God’s grace like a dove in flight. When we come at last before the Throne of the Father and we submit our broken, tear-stained, sin-stumbled lives covered with the Blood of Christ, we will hear from that throne a voice that will say, “You have lived with those painful paradoxes well, my good and faithful servant.” For Christ’s blood has adopted us into brotherhood and sisterhood with him and so into sonship and daughtership with the Most High. So when the Father sees you washed by the Son and lit by the Holy Ghost, He will say, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.

Rejoicing 101

Rejoicing 101

Advent 4 – Philippians iv.4

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Reedemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Christmas time is a time of joy – a time of gift-giving, a time spent with family, a time spent remembering the miracle of the Incarnation of Christ. But for many, Christmas is not simply a time for rejoicing. For many it is a time of great stress, where the pressure to buy expensive presents push people to unwise financial decisions. For many it is a painful time where divisions in the family cut deeper, or where a lost loved one’s absence is so much harder to bear. Even the joyful mood of Christmas itself can be a burden. Have you ever been in a bad mood, and someone else was just too cheerful, and it made you feel worse? The Christmas time expectation of rejoicing may make this even more difficult to endure. Today’s epistle reading, from Paul writing to the Philippians, contains immense wisdom for how we can rejoice in the Lord always, and serves as a fitting perspective to have in mind as we approach Christmas Eve. So let’s take it verse by verse and break down what Paul is telling us here so that we can know how to rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. REJOICE in the Lord alway: 

The first thing you might notice is that this is a command. Paul doesn’t say, Rejoice if you feel like it, or rejoice when you get a chance. He says to rejoice always. It reminds me of something my stepfather would say when we were acting up as kids and heading to the movies or the amusement park. He would say, “Behave yourself, because I have been looking forward to this. You’re going to have a good time whether you like it or not.” This command can be tough to hear because we don’t always feel like rejoicing. So how can we relate properly to a command to rejoice?

I looked up the Greek for the word Rejoice, and it is Chairete – which means be joyful, rejoice, just as translated here. But something interesting I noticed is that it was also  used to say Hello and Goodbye. It’s sort of like how we say, “Take care of yourself,” or “Have a good day.” Sometimes when someone tells me to have a good day I like to jokingly reply, “Don’t tell me what to do.” So the sense in which chairete is a greeting is not a command in the strict sense but rather a well wishing – a hope. When you say, “Have a good day,” you are saying, “I want you to have a good day,” but with more emphasis – it’s like the pronouncement of a blessing. Paul wants us to rejoice in the Lord because it is good for us to rejoice in the Lord.

The tricky part of this statement is the “alway.” Are we really to rejoice in the Lord always? Some pretty hard things happen to us in the world. Are we to rejoice in the face of great tragedy in our own lives or evil transpiring in the world? Such a thing could get irritating very quickly. I recall the autobiography of Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place. In that her sister Betsie would say, no matter what happens, we always have to thank the Lord. As the evils of Nazism swirled around them and they worked as a family to help Jews escape persecution, Betsie continued to maintain: no matter what happens, we have to be thankful to the Lord. Then one day they were put into a Nazi concentration camp, and found themselves tossed into a room that was filled with lice. Itching, scared, exhausted, Corrie Ten Boom heard with frustration her sister say, “We have to be thankful to the Lord.” Corrie admits that her thought was, This time, she was sure that her sister was wrong. But what happened next was they slowly began to realize that the Nazi guards of the prison were leaving them alone, not harassing them like they were doing to the other prisoners. The reason was the guards didn’t want to get the lice, and this made it easier for Corrie and Betsie to minister to the hearts of their fellow inmates. Betsie was right – the lice, of all things, became a reason to rejoice in the Lord. If God in His providence can manage to bring out a cause for rejoicing in a lice-infested Nazi prison cell, then He can bring rejoicing into our hearts in much less dramatic situations. The key part of this phrase is in the Lord. Often we hear commands from God in Scripture and think, okay, here is something I will do. But the source of joy’s power comes from God, and the reason for joy is in God. It doesn’t say to rejoice in our attitude, or rejoice about our circumstances, or rejoice in our theology. It says, Rejoice in the Lord. God is the author of joy, and he is eternal, and in him we can find the eternal rejoicing that never wearies to speak good of His name; we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. and again I say, Rejoice.

Paul repeats himself here as a common example of the Hebrew means of emphasis: repetition is a verbal underline in the Jewish way of talking and drawing special attention to something. According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word for rejoice, chairete, appears 74 times in the New Testament. In Luke chapter 1:14, an angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,” whose central purpose in life was to proclaim the meaning of Christ’s ministry, as we saw in the Gospel reading today. When the Magi were guided by the Star to Christ’s nativity, it says in Mark 2:10 “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Rejoicing marked the beginning of Christ’s life, and it also marked the end.

When Christ was being crucified, the crowd mockingly said, Hail, King of the Jews! The word Hail is Xaire – they meant it sarcastically, but Christ was truthfully worthy of the title, and though they did not know it, their words contained another truth – that Christ’s death on the Cross was a work of his sovereignty and the source of the greatest joy imaginable. This sarcastic expression of joy was made real and sincere when Christ showed himself to the disciples, and in touching his hands and seeing the scars in John 20:20, “And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.”

I mentioned that the Greek word for rejoice can mean hello and goodbye. We see here that Christ’s coming into the world was a cause for rejoicing, and that his death and resurrection was a cause for rejoicing too. Shakespeare wrote that parting is such sweet sorrow, but our hellos and goodbyes can be filled with joy because we are like the man who heard the good news from Phillip in Acts 8:39 who went his way rejoicing. Yes, we will have times of sorrow, grief, anger, and depression. We don’t need to force ourselves to have fake joy, but should instead look into the objective treasure of the revelation of Christ. Whether we are coming or going, whether we are saying hello or goodbye to earthly joys, by always reflecting on the meaning of Christmas Eve, by never ceasing to repeat the sounding joy that comes alive in Emmanuel, we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1.  Let your moderation be known unto all men. 

When I first read this verse I thought it had to do with financial moderation, or maybe regulating how much Christmas ham we eat. But the word translated here as moderation, epieikes, means gentleness – being mild, reasonable, moderate in the sense of attitude. So what this is actually saying is that we need to regulate our emotions, so that we provide a good testimony. But we have already been warned against doing that on our own strength when we have been told to “Rejoice in the Lord.” Christian moderation of emotions, godly self-control comes from knowledge of the truth – that the temporary upsetting circumstance cannot overcome the joy that comes from worshipping in spirit and in truth the Incarnate God. I understand the overpowering experience of negative emotions, having suffered them myself. As Camarie can attest, I do not always let my moderation be known. But we should take care to watch our tongues when we are upset. James 3:6 reads, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” In our personal interactions, including on social media, we have to be careful to guard our testimonies, but if that moderation of attitude is sheerly an effort of self-control it won’t last. It will slip. To really let our moderation be known to all men, to have them see us as gentle and reasonable, then we have to be fully engaged in the cause for our rejoicing, which requires a full and constant participation in the basic elements of Christian life: worship, fellowship, reading the Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments. By doing so, we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. The Lord is at hand.

It’s interesting that this reading is paired with that of John the Baptist. As what could be called the last prophet, John was also the first model of the evangelistic calling of the Christian. Paul has just told us to let our testimony be seen before all men, and then reminds us of something that we should live in accordance with but also be making others aware of: Christ is coming back. Scripture teaches that no one knows the day or the hour when Christ will come again, but we should live in a manner as if he could at any moment. While being responsible in all that we do in business and in our obligations, financial or otherwise, we should also live in a way marked by the knowledge that Christ will come like a thief in the night. We won’t be able to be ready for it ahead of time, so we better be ready for it at any time.

Another point is worth mentioning here. When I looked up the Greek word for “at hand,” I noticed that it’s an adverb that means “near by.” In Acts 17:27, Paul tells the Athenians that God appointed the nations and their histories in such a way “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Something the Anglican philosopher George Berkeley showed was that because all of Creation cannot exist apart from God’s perception of it, that means we have no secrets from God. We might feel like we are concealing things in our hearts, that we can close the door so others cannot see what we are doing. But God sees each word and deed, even each thought. That is frightening, but it also is exciting because it means that God knows exactly what we need, both in terms of eternity but also from one moment to the next. If we live both as if God’s ultimate plan for us is at hand but also that in our everyday needs he is nearby, then we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

When Paul tells us to be careful for nothing, he isn’t saying to be careless, so don’t use this verse as an excuse to drive over the speed limit or eat extra cookies over the holidays. In Elizabethan English, to be careful literally means to be filled with care: so don’t let yourself be so careworn that it fills you up, to where you feel like your worries are washing over you and drowning you. If you are struggling to have joy, it’s probably because you are trying to battle the care on your own strength. Whatever is flooding you with care, empty out your cup of worry before the throne of Grace. Let him know. He wants to hear it. Pray without ceasing, and ask for what you need. And take time to consider the reasons you have to truly be grateful – to be thankful for your salvation and for the immense providence of God’s Word, and to be thankful for every blessing in your life. When we realize that every good thing we have, our jobs, our families, our homes, our food, our Christmas cheer – none of it is owed to us. Cultivating a thankful heart through prayer will help us to see more objectively how serious the causes for our concern are. If we are grateful then maybe we can see that our causes for worry aren’t as big as they seem, but if they really are bigger, then immersing ourselves in heartfelt prayer with God will make it clear to us that he is bigger, that he can fill us with joy instead of care, and then by means of his grace we will be able to rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

What a blessing it is that the peace which God offers us passes understanding. Thank goodness for that. Can we really understand the Incarnation? God, who is eternal, sinless, and all powerful, became a human, a creature which is temporal, beset by a sinful world, and weak. How can the limitless nature of divinity be joined to the limited nature of humanity? How can Christ be the Second Person of the Trinity but not know the day or the hour of His own Second coming? For that matter how can God be three persons but one God, one Lord? How can God be three persons and one Lord, but only the Second Person of the Trinity is incarnated and not all three of them? How can the death of this perfect, sinless, almighty, physically weak and vulnerable man, God who had become a baby, become a sacrifice for my sins? All of this is such a miracle, and all of the brilliant theology of Christian writers throughout the ages can only help us to glimpse understanding of the wonder that it is all really true. We can take comfort in knowing that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and because God made possible the impossibility of joining his eternal, holy, and ancient nature with a mortal, earthly, infant body, then those cares that would hamper our joy are light work for him to overcome. When we fix our minds on the shocking glory of the miracle of the Incarnation this week and all that it means for us and for the world, then we will not be able to help ourselves – we will be compelled by our hearts and minds, filled with the peace that passes all understanding, to rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

A Sermon on Advent 1 in Light of Romans 8:8

Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I want to wish all of you a Happy New Year! No, I am not confused. I know I am a confused person generally, but not this time. Oddly enough, although we don’t celebrate the secular new year until the First of January, in the liturgical calendar the cycle of the year begins on the first Sunday in Advent. Roughly speaking, the liturgical calendar is designed to help us meditate on the shape of Scripture as it applies to our lives. So Christmastide reminds us of the Incarnation, Epiphany of the significance of the Incarnation for Gentiles as well as Jews, Lent of the time Christ fasted in the wilderness and the time leading up to reflection on Christ’s crucifixion. Of course Eastertide focuses on the meaning of the Resurrection, and Pentecost affirms the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the longest cycle in the calendar is Trinity Season – with the fullness of God’s nature having been delivered to the church, we spend most of the year positioned in the post-apostolic age with the Scripture’s complete revelation held before our eyes. 

But if Trinity Season is the fulfillment of the liturgical calendar and so the season we spend the most time in, as it represents the general time of the Church, Advent thus calls to mind the time before Christ’s Incarnation. In other words, Advent reminds us of the time of the Old Covenant, of a world where salvation through the saving grace of Christ’s blood was not yet made fully known and truly available to the world. The Old Testament, ending as it does with the writing of the prophets, ends in a time of expectation – waiting for the Messiah. And so, our imaginations move to the time before the prophets’ expectations were fulfilled and explained. For this reason many of the Old Testament lessons throughout the four weeks of Advent are from Isaiah and Jeremiah: we are reminded that the Incarnation was fulfilling a long-awaited expectation and yet came as something of a surprise. The Jews knew that deliverance was promised, but they had not guessed the full meaning of what that promise would look like. The revelation of the Triune God and the Second Person of the Trinity was present only in a seed form in the Scriptures, waiting to burst forth like new life in the spring season.

That Old Testament atmosphere carried by Advent helps to shed some light on why our epistle reading was chosen to begin the New Year. In fact, you might notice that this same reasoning can be found in the structure of the liturgy we practice every Sunday. Every time we celebrate the Order of Holy Communion, we are reminded of the Old Testament with the reading of the Law or the Summary of the Law, of the promise of mercy found in Christ alone, of the fullness of the Faith in the Nicene Creed which reviews the doctrines of the Trinity and the established Church, and then equips us through teaching, prayer, and hymns to dwell in the Trinity Season of the Life of the Church which each Christian should always strive to inhabit. We remember the Crucifixion and Resurrection in the Prayer of Consecration, immerse ourselves in a tactile reminder of His grace in the Lord’s supper, and show forth the same faith as the Apostles in the singing of the Gloria and the blessing that calls us to live as befits our faith. You could say then that the meaning of the whole liturgical calendar is present every Sunday, but each season in the actual calendar slows that process down so we can take time to meditate on how each season within the Scriptures informs the Christian life now. This is why we begin Advent in an Old Testament register: it’s not enough to remember that Christ was born, Christ was risen, and Christ shall come again, but also to remember that his birth, resurrection, and return were all promised – enshrined in the promises of the Old Testament prophets. So it is fitting that during Advent we do not sing the Gloria: We have to remember that old covenant time of waiting to really feel the gratitude of knowing that Christ finally came as promised on Christmas Day. For that reason I have always loved Thanksgiving as a prelude to Advent.

This is also why Advent is often considered a penitential season. As with Lent before Easter, the coming of Christ was a response to the sin of Man, and so we have to remember the obligations of the Law to refresh our enthusiasm for the liberation of grace. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” says St Paul, and we, if we are being honest, will be sensible of the fact that we are not keepers of the law because we are not naturally people who love. Mind you, this church is a particularly warm and loving place, and I am so thankful for that. But speaking of us all in absolute terms by contrast to God’s perfect love: We criticize, we despise, we argue, we put other people down, we get frustrated too easily. Or we keep at a polite distance so that we won’t see other people’s flaws and they won’t see ours. We don’t help others the way they need or we don’t confess sins we committed against each other and really seek repentance and restitution with that person. We aren’t as thankful as we should be. Often, we don’t love. At any rate, I can say I know I don’t, and the burden of the ways I do not fulfill the law through love is intolerable. I might feel love, and I try to act in love, but in the final analysis, by my own strength I just don’t love to the extent that is really demanded by God’s justice, and my breaking of the commandments confirm that but don’t even themselves fully describe how much I often don’t take the initiative the way I should.  But here I stand, at the beginning of Advent, and the memorial of Christ’s birth in the past becomes fresh news in the present. I know that my Lord is coming. He is going to be born! He’s coming to make me new! He’s coming to remake me in love. So of course I need to get ready. As the collect for purity emphasizes, I need to be prepared for my Lord’s Incarnation, so that my heart is fresh and sensitive to the meaning of the Almighty Creator taking on the body of a helpless little baby, the God who put fire in the sun and smote Pharoah with plagues is going to come to Earth and need his diaper changed and make his mother worry and cook fish for a meal and cry because someone he loves died. 

I need to see it all again, as if it’s happening for the first time. I need to “awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” I need to love to tell the story, the old familiar story, of Jesus and his love, with the same sensitivity and relieving surprise I felt when I first really started to comprehend the Gospel. And that’s hard because I’ve been a part of Christianity my whole life. It’s easy to treat Christian life as a habit – going to church is like reading a familiar book or going to a favorite restaurant. I like it, it’s familiar. But do I shine? Am I wearing the armor of light? Am I casting off my works of darkness? If I’m being honest, I have to say… At best, not completely. There are some parts of my armor that need to be polished. There are some dark spots in my life. I heard a psychologist recommend that we should sit on the edge of our bed in the morning sometimes and ask, “What is something I could do right now to make my life better?” It might be as simple as cleaning my room or taking more regular walks. And those kinds of life improvements are healthy. But we should do the same thing with our spiritual lives. Sit on the edge of your bed and ask, “How specifically am I not casting off the works of darkness? What works are interfering with my armor’s light, stopping me from shining out before men as I am commanded to do?” Don’t think your way into it – just let your conscience search your heart in prayer, and things will come to mind. You’ll notice those dark patches readily through the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

So the first and most important thing to do when that happens is to not rationalize that darkness away. Often I notice that when I see a dark patch on my heart I think, Well it’s not as dark as the patch on some other guy’s. It’s normal to have darkness like that – even among other Christians. Other people don’t have a problem with me, as far as I know. I’m a nice guy! But we all think we’re nice guys, and Paul isn’t telling us to put on the armor of niceness. He’s telling us to put on the armor of light, and bright light is offensive to eyes that are used to the darkness. That might be a reason why we don’t want our armor to be shined up too much – it hurts our own eyes. So we have to identify what darkness is weakening our vision and, through prayer and practical action, strip that darkness off so that the armor of God can shine all around us uninhibited by our sin. That means the second thing we have to do is want to wear the armor of light – desire not only to be free from the darkness but to be bright for God and for others. Then we need to really change. Maybe it’s something small like making sure to read the Bible every day. Or maybe it means confessing that sin that has been on my heart for so long but I just can’t bear to admit it. Or maybe it means realizing that you have been silent in the face of someone doing something really wrong and you have to tell them but you’ve been afraid to do it. Whatever it is, if you look at it honestly, you’ll see the darkness, and you’ll know, with prayer and sincere reflection on Scripture, if you’re doing anything to bring light back into that situation.

I’ve never particularly cared for cynicism about New Year’s Resolutions. I know, they usually don’t stick. January first you swear you’re going to lose weight, and January second you buy that gym membership. January third maybe you even walk into the gym and get a snack out of the vending machine, and tell yourself this is the calorie boost you need to get you on the treadmill. But the next day you realize there’s a vending machine in your office so you don’t need to go out of your way to the gym to get to it, and anyway, you feel a little ashamed of those healthy, athletic people glowing all around you. You know that glow that I mean? The glow of a healthy body of someone who pushes himself or herself physically, eats right, gets enough sleep. You see that glow in their skin and on their faces. Don’t you just hate those people? Me too. Well, if you feel jealous of someone pursuing physical virtue, which Paul says counts for something, imagine how you feel when you see someone pursuing spiritual virtue. You write them off as too Christian, a little too pious, or judgemental. Sometimes that’s true, but often it’s a spiritual version of my stubbornness about exercise. I don’t want to sweat or wheeze. I want to be comfortable. But real spiritual growth, the kind that makes our armor blaze with fiery white light that really catches the eye of others, will cause us to sweat, or to breathe deep sighs, or to weep. Fighting the darkness isn’t easy business. But what Advent does is it punctures the complacency we have fallen into. So look, if all that happens from January 1st resolutions is that you go running a few times, that’s still a few more times than you would have without those resolutions. And that’s good. So you might be weary of the idea of a spiritual resolution for Advent because you think, well, I’ll just go back to not reading my Bible regularly, or I’ll start using too much profanity again, or I’ll just fall back into that same old sin after resisting it for a couple of days. But if you sin a little less on Monday because of Sunday and go back to sinning on Tuesday, at least that’s one day’s fewer guilt you have to deposit into the prayer of humble access. Your burden will be smaller, by the grace of God, and that will be nice – no, it would be good, or at least better. So be bad at trying to be a better Christian. That’s better than just being bad, isn’t it?

One suggestion I might make for an Advent resolution is to read the daily lectionary for either evening or morning. Just do one. Read the three readings – it’s a Psalm, an Old Testament, and a New Testament reading. And you can add to this the collect for the week, which is the Collect we read at church. It only takes a few minutes, and it gets you a nice range of Scripture. You can go to http://www.commonprayer.org, and they lay out for you the readings and the collects right there on the calendar. You can scroll through the reading on your phone right before you go to sleep. If that’s too complicated, maybe just read the Book of Isaiah. There are 66 chapters in Isaiah and 27 days in Advent counting Christmas Eve. So if you read two or three chapters of Isaiah a day starting today, you’ll have read one of the most vivid prophecies in Scripture speaking to the coming of the Messiah, and on Christmas Day your mind will be filled with the longing that Christ’s birth satisfies.

After all, when parents know that a baby is coming, they start making changes. Suddenly you see a stroller, and a crib, and toys, and other things you know you’ll need for when that baby comes. We green the Church, set up the nativity and Advent Wreath before we put Christ on display, and Advent is a time when we work towards setting our spiritual lives right so we can take joy in the Incarnation with cleaner hearts. We practice walking honestly as in the day, so that when the Light of the World is shining before us our eyes won’t be as hurt by the brightness. Use advent as a time to practice killing the desires of the flesh, not making provision for it as Paul warns against in today’s epistle, so that we can renew our faith in the innocence we receive through Christ, who was as sinless the day he died as he was the day he was born. He became as a little child, and through remembering that and getting ready for it we can become little children again too – in the sense that we take Scripture at its word and we strive to live it out that way. The Lord makes all things new, and Advent turns our minds towards the time when he came to secure that recreative power by means of His Incarnation. We’re going into a new year of that old story, with fresh hope that the Incarnation’s meaning for our lives can reawaken.

I want to end by pointing something out that’s sort of strange about today’s Gospel reading. Why is it that we get the reading for Palm Sunday? That reading is about the end of Christ’s life, but Christmas is about the beginning. Well, imagine if I said the first line of a familiar song, and the song got stuck in your head. The beginning of the song would remind you of the end. Or another example, when I say the Lord be with you, you say… Right. So when we say, God came to live with us, we also say that he came to die for us, and he came to rise from the dead for us, and he went up to heaven to prepare a way for us, and he’s coming back to rescue us. Christmas shines out in the liturgical calendar because it’s the backdrop for the first line of a hymn: because Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ shall come again. He couldn’t have died if he hadn’t lived, and his death couldn’t have meant what it did if his life wasn’t what it was: perfect man, fully God and fully human, born of a virgin and attacked with all the temptations of this fallen world. And because he was victorious, because he brought the same innocence of his Incarnated infant body to the Cross as a righteous man, we can have hope. Because there’s a sense in which we are always in Advent, too. We are waiting, waiting for Christ to call us to meet him in the air. We don’t know when those trumpets will sound, but we’ll know when we hear them that he is going to clothe us in light, clothe us in love, clothe us in victory against sin and death. When he comes again, it will be the truest happy new year, the happy new world, the happy new life fully immersed into the joy He has always wanted us to have. In remembering to wait for the birth of Christ we learn how to desire the rebirth of the world that will result from His coming again. Oh, what a new year in Christ that will be! Amen.

Slaying the Dragons

Putting on the Complete Armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-17

Trinity 21 (October 24)

Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. Amen

The dragon had been terrorizing the village for months. Buildings and fields were still burning from the wrath of its fire, leaving some homeless and many hungry. Heroes had attempted to slay the monster but all who tried had perished. The town had taken to sacrificing their livestock to the beast, but its appetite was insatiable. Grimly, they realized that to keep the dragon from killing everyone, a greater sacrifice would have to be made. So the villagers drew lots, and it fell to the daughter of the mayor to be the sacrifice. With heavy hearts they tied her to a post and set her in a high place where the dragon would find her, then they hid out of sight. As if on cue, the shriek of the beast tore the skies, and down it swept, scales buckling as it landed on vicious claws in front of the maiden. Flames darted between the fangs of its open mouth as its yellow, reptilian eyes viewed her with hunger. Closer it approached, and helpless the maiden could only pray.

“Stay back, cursed beast,” commanded a strong voice. Both dragon and maiden looked to see a knight sitting upon a great steed. Sunlight danced on his armor, and the dragon turned and pounced without hesitation. His claws darted out but bounced harmlessly off of the Knight’s breastplate. Not deterred, the dragon opened its mouth wide and a jet of deadly flame spewed out towards the knight. Swiftly he lifted his shield, which was emblazoned with a bright red Cross. The flames broke against the shield, and as soon as the dragon had spent his fire, the knight bolted forward on his steed, and he unsheathed his sword from the girdle at his side. The blade struck true and the fierce dragon was slain. The maiden and her village were saved.

“My thanks to you, dear champion!” she said. “Who are you?”

“I am Sir George,” he replied, “but thank me not, for only by the grace of God can men slay such enemies.”

This is probably not the opening to a sermon that you are used to. Is this preaching or is it a fantasy novel? While the story of St George slaying the dragon is fictional, however, it has been used by writers, such as the great Anglican poet Edmund Spenser in the first book of the Faerie Queene, to dramatize truths of the nature of Christian life as taught by St Paul in Ephesians 6. Why does St Paul use the image of a Roman soldier’s equipment to envision Christian duty? Just to be clear, one thing he is definitely not teaching here is conversion by the sword. The Christian soldier is shod with the Gospel of peace because sharing the good news of salvation through Christ can only ever be authentic when people join the church in a voluntary way. Twisting the passage to say otherwise is not in keeping with Paul’s teachings. So unbelievers are not the enemy – rather, unbelievers are the villagers ravaged by the dragon, and the potentially new Christian is the maiden, someone who might become a Christian soldier herself when she sees the power of Christ to fight what the dragon represents.

So what is the dragon in our story? What are we to expect to fight with this armor of God? We are taught by the Book of Common Prayer of the three adversaries, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Take a look at page 276 in the order of Holy Baptism, which says this: [read from the page]. That we are to be equipped to battle these spiritual enemies is reaffirmed in the Offices of Instruction on page 283, and again in the Catechism on page 577 in the book of Common Prayer. You could say the world, the flesh, and the devil are three dragons which the Christian must face in his walk with the Lord. The metaphor used by Paul here teaches us how to understand the defenses and protection which God offers us from these adversaries, the dragons we must face in the spiritual warfare of Christian life. We will look at each piece of equipment and consider how Paul instructs us to resist these enemies to living in love of God and men.

Girdle of Truth vs Dragon of the Flesh – I should note that when Paul says that our battle is not against flesh and blood, he means that our enemy cannot be faced with literal weapons. But when he tells us to put on the girdle of truth, he is preparing us for battle against flesh in another sense – the sin that is already inside of us. The first murderer Cain found himself overcome by the dragon of the sinful flesh when he was jealous over his brother’s righteousness. God tells him in Genesis 4:7: “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is like a traitor from the enemy camp ready to betray us from within, and Paul recommends that we put on the girdle of truth first to break the hold this enemy has on us. I wear a belt around my waist because I trust that it will keep my pants from falling. If I was worried that this belt I am wearing didn’t work, I would get another belt I was confident in. Cultivating faith in the security of God’s word as true and committing ourselves to God’s commands protects us from our sinful flesh. Remember, the girdle is where the sword sheath hangs from – you can’t effectively wield the sword of the word of God if you don’t believe it really is the word. So put on the girdle of truth, which is the knowledge that God’s promises in Scripture are dependable and your commitment to live a biblical life will empower you, by the grace of God, to slay the dragons of the flesh.

Breastplate of Righteousness vs Dragon of the World – When we are instructed to resist the world, what the Book of Common Prayer means is what the Bible defines as worldliness – in other words, a worldview that is man-centered rather than God centered. The dragon of the world, like the dragon in my story, will go after the heart, but with attractive lies rather than violence. So the world is defined here not as particular people or governments but rather an outlook that is against God. 1 Peter 2:12-15 tells us that worldly thinking tries to “entice unsteady souls.” The world will appeal to our hearts, to our flesh, to try and lead us away from the light of the Father’s love. This is why we need the breastplate of righteousness. Philippians 3:9 tells us that true righteousness comes “through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Christ is our righteousness, and we must seek to encase our hearts in Him, in His Teaching, in the way of thinking he provides in the Gospels and his inspired authors. When we try to be righteous by our own standards or our own strength, our hearts will be vulnerable. When we guard our hearts from worldliness with the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness, we are equipped to fend off the dragon of worldliness that seeks to lead us off the path.

Shield of Faith vs the Dragon Himself – I have been speaking of dragons metaphorically as adversaries, but in Revelation John literally sees Satan as a dragon fighting the archangel Michael. We are told, “12:9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” So let’s make something clear. Satan and his demons are not a fiction or a metaphor. They are real, fallen angels, who hate us, and hate what we are doing here, worshipping and seeking God’s truth. 1 Peter 5:8 depicts Satan as a roaring lion who seeks to devour us. Satan knows about the dragon of the flesh and the dragon of worldliness, and he is prepared to use them both to his full advantage against us, as well as power beyond what is human. He is in fact aiming his burning arrows at us. But the shield of faith is a passive rather than offensive instrument. We are told in the Epistle of St Jude that when having a dispute with Satan, Michael the archangel did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” If a powerful being such as Michael would not try to battle the dragon with his own power, then we mortals cannot fight him with our own strength. Hebrews 12 tells us that Christ is the author and finisher of our faith, not us. If we try to make our own shield rather than take up the shield which Christ has made for us, then the arrows of Satan will burn right through like flaming arrows piercing a wooden pot lid. Faith is a gift from God and to have its protection from the original dragon, then we must ask for the protection that God gives those who serve him.

So the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and the shield of faith all equip us to stand up to the dragons that seek to devour us. But we must still discuss three more pieces of equipment: the Gospel of Peace, the Helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, without which our armor is not complete.

Shod with Gospel of Peace – Why does Paul here depict the Gospel as footwear? Our feet are our foundation – the basis of our every move. Spiritually, this is even more true in the Christian walk, because it is essential to direct our steps according to the accurate teaching of salvation taught by Christ. No accident that this part of the armor is mentioned between the breastplate of righteousness that protects us from the world and the shield of faith which protects us from the evil one: to evangelize the world and protect our hearts from it we need to be rooted in and know the Gospel teaching of the good news. And we will be fast on our feet when we respond to Satan’s assaults. But that good news, the salvation which is from Christ alone, must be brought in peace – we must show respect to our fellow Christians and promote peace between one another and when sharing Jesus with non-believers, a peace that comes from certain belief available only in Christ.

Helmet of Salvation – The most vulnerable and important part of the body, the head, is specifically covered by this helmet, which pairs with the Gospel of peace to teach that we must be shod with the truth of the good news from head to toe. But this helmet, in addition to the Gospel of peace, is only on our heads if we really believe it. It is not enough to know the Good News and be ready to teach it, but hold on to the truth of it in our mind as well as to share it. Our salvation isn’t dependent upon how much theology we know or how well we can debate people who disagree with us. If we think we are earning our salvation, then we have taken the helmet off and we are vulnerable as a result. Ephesians 2:8 tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” If the head isn’t protected none of the other armor will work. If you cared about your physical safety, you wouldn’t make your own helmet for bike riding, or for riding a motorcycle. Even more so if an enemy is aiming weapons at your head. You don’t want to improvise on this one. Christ alone offers this essential protection that you can put on only by the strength of his grace.

Sword of the Spirit – Notice that this is the only offensive weapon in the whole equipment. All of the others are passive – we put them on and depend upon them. Paul tells us what this sword of the spirit is – it is the Word of God, which enables us to participate in spiritual warfare. You’ve heard it said, Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight – well, don’t bring human force to the battle over souls, your soul and the souls of others. Scripture is our weapon – with it we can fight the devil as Christ did. Now imagine that you command a unit of soldiers, and you never see them practice with their weapons. They never polish their swords or exercise how to handle them properly. Will they be ready, when the battle comes? No. They have to know their weapon, how it works, and how to use it. Don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that that’s the job of the people up here in front. You can’t sit far back enough in church, or just not go to church at all, to get out of facing the dragons. You exist in a universe where this spiritual war is going on, and in the final analysis, there will be no neutral territory. The fight is coming to you, to us. It is thus of grave importance that we know our Bibles. This truth underscores the importance of Bible reading. Our Book of Common Prayer offers a wonderful lectionary that can be used to keep us in the word, but have some plan for continuing to practice with the Sword of the Spirit. Even Christ, when He was tempted by Satan in the Wilderness, fought him not by his sheer power as God, which he could have done, but wielded the Sword of the Spirit against Satan’s lies. Significantly, prayer immediately follows Paul’s teaching on the Sword of the Spirit, which shows that studying the Scriptures should naturally lead to prayer. The Book of Common Prayer is also very helpful here too, including a set of prayers for use in the family that can aid you in praying in many different situations when you just can’t find the words.

When the dragons come calling, Paul is telling us here, we can know how to face them. When our sinful desires prey on us and we feel like we’re not masters in our own bodies, the girdle of commitment to Scripture’s certain truth can make us secure again. When we are in despair that the world is set against us and, worse, is trying to weaken our faith, we can protect our hearts in Christ’s righteousness. When the Devil seems to be prowling around us in dark times in our lives, we can protect ourselves from the fires of his malice with the supernatural faith that comes from the holy spirit through prayerful meditation on the Word. With the helmet of Salvation securely placed on our heads by our Lord Jesus, we can wield the sword of Scripture against anything that seeks to defeat us in our walk with Him, and add the force of godly thinking to our prayers. Amen.

Call Your Doctor First

A Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34 (Trinity 15 – September 12th, 2021)

Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.

I thought I was having a heart attack. I had been dozing on the couch when I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest. I could feel every beat, like a hand slamming inside of my rib cage. My hands and feet started to shake and a sense of doom came over me. I got up unsteadily and told my mother, who was now in the kitchen, “I think I am having a heart attack.” She was strangely calm and asked me why, and I told her my symptoms. Then she said, “I think we should call your doctor first.” That seemed odd, but she’s mom, so she knows best. So we called my doctor, and he asked what my symptoms were, and with a fearful voice I explained what was happening. Then he started asking me about my personal life. This frustrated me – I’m having a medical emergency and he wants to hear about what I’ve been up to? But then, out of my mouth came tumbling a fountain of frustrations – things that had gone wrong recently, disappointments about my future and in my personal life that had been piling up. And as I divulged these things and the flood of distress came pouring out, I started to feel better – my heart beat returned to normal and my body calmed down. “You were having a panic attack,” my doctor explained. I was shocked. Me? I’m a calm, confident, steady, hard worker and careful planner. I don’t get panicked. But, you see, that was the problem. I wasn’t facing my emotions, not really. Without intending to, I was just pushing down disappointment after disappointment, and not facing the fact that the negative emotion was building up. It was bound to burst forth eventually, and the panic attack was how it finally manifested when my body realized my mind wouldn’t notice or deal with the stress.

Now imagine if my mother had harshly rebuked me with Matthew 6:25 when I thought I was having a heart attack – “Don’t worry! Jesus said not to worry!” Would that have been helpful in my panic? Now I would not just be filled with anxiety – now I would be anxious that I was anxious, and I would panic over my guilt that I was panicking! This experience raises the question: how are we to take Christ’s teaching when stressful things happen, particularly as regards our finances but about our worries in general? Should we be racked with guilt that we are feeling anxious because our checkbook isn’t looking ideal and we have fears about having enough? Should we think we are disobeying Jesus when we plan financially, for our future and our retirement? No. No. Proverbs 21:5 tells us, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” In 1 Timothy 5:8, the apostle Paul tells us, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Scripture clearly teaches us to be judicious stewards of those obligations and responsibilities that come into our hands, as a part of gratitude towards God and service to our neighbors.

I know someone who says that when she struggled with worry, Christians around her told her that “worry is practical atheism” (thanks a lot!), instead of offering comfort. We may be tempted to hear simply a condemnatory tone in what Christ is saying, and we shouldn’t soften the fact that this is a command. But, you know, the fact that Christ is teaching this shows that he already knows we’re anxious. We need this teaching precisely because life throws us curve balls that catch us off guard, and we’re going to need to be prepared so we aren’t just bowled over by those unforeseen things. The teaching of this passage is not separate from its tone. Scripture makes clear the tone we should hear when we read, “Do not be anxious.” In Matthew 9:36 we read of Christ, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He doesn’t berate them for being anxious, but actively sets them at ease by demonstrating the care he has for them. It is from a place of compassion that Christ tells us not to worry, because he sees our rapidly beating hearts in the midst of trouble and wants to calm us down. So likewise when we see someone else having anxiety, the right response is not to condemn the fellow Christian for lacking faith, but to compassionately remind them of Christ’s teaching, in keeping with Ephesians 4:23, which tells us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…”

When I thought my heart was sick, my mom didn’t dismiss my feelings or tell me to just trust without reason. She told me to call my doctor first, with the belief that in talking to him I would find the help I need. She probably could see what I couldn’t, that it was unspoken and unacknowledged anxiety, but she knew that I needed to hear it from the right person and in the right way for the advice to help and not hurt. Although primarily about finances, I think today’s Gospel can speak to our anxieties in general, which always in some sense come down to fears about whether we’ll be provided for, whether we’ll be okay. So what advice does the true Doctor give in this passage, to help us to obey his command not to worry? I see six pieces of advice here which we can benefit from directly, adjusting our perspectives in practical ways. I won’t go into great detail, but note them quickly.

  1. First, we are told, “NO man can serve two masters… Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” We have to take a spiritual audit of our budgets. As it says in the offertory sentences, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have I given thee.” There’s our financial budget, the main point of the passage – can we see that God, not mammon, is master there? But mammon is not our only idol. What about our time? Does our time budget reflect that Christ, not the clock, is in charge? And what about our emotional budget as regards our relationships? Do we see that our main goal in life is to please Jesus rather than to appease people we think might not like us if we were authentic about our faith? A false master in any domain of life will not give us the comfort we can get only from Christ, and if we are trying to serve two (or more), we’ll have more stress than we need to.
  2. Second, we are told, “Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment?… And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?” In saying that life is worth more than the food that sustains us, I think that Christ is reminding us to more objectively take stock of what we actually need. Often we internalize messages, from our friends, neighbors, family, and the world in general about what we need – what kind of food, or clothes, or other things that, without them, we won’t be satisfied. If we have a clearer picture of what we really need, then we can reduce our stress when our budgets tighten and close out things we think we need but really only want. Demanding more than what we need is compared here to somehow making our lives unnaturally longer, over which we have no power. Realistic awareness of both our needs and limitations will relieve much more stress than we think.
  3. Third, we see Jesus teaches, “Behold the birds of the heaven… your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they?…. Consider the lilies of the field… I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” Something interesting that sticks out to me here is that Christ commands us to observe nature. We are blessed in the Branson area to have beautiful opportunity to do this. If you are not taking the time to let God speak to you through nature, you’re missing out on a wonderful dimension of His providential care. The great Anglican philosopher William Paley was so impressed with the design he saw in creation, that he believed simply studying the natural order was an antidote to atheism, so clear was the hand of Providence. The ducks on the landing have no shopping centers, no restaurants, no social institutions to help them accrue resources, and yet, even with a life-span of only five to ten years they are able to continue their species and even have time to have fun splashing in the water. God designed the ducks to take care of themselves without retirement funds, stocks, or bonds – God loves them, and made them with love. But that same God loves us more.
  4. Fourth, Christ says, “After all these things do the Gentiles seek.” Notice here that Christ points out that anxiety over what we think we need is common to all mankind. We can investigate our own thinking about what we really need by asking, “How does my thinking about what I need to be satisfied differ from someone who isn’t a Christian? Does my sense of what I need to have reflect Christ’s standards or the world’s?” This can help us to dispense with attachments that may look like blessings but are actually burdens.
  5. Fifth, Christ tells us, “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” This command is an extension of our first point, that we can’t serve two masters, but with a switch in emphasis – the first is about who should hold our attention in Heaven, and this one concerns what he is directing our attention towards on Earth. The issue isn’t that pursuing money, or friendship, or love, or a meaningful job, or a promotion, or even our hobbies are wrong. The question is if we can provide an account of how all that we do upholds our kingdom work. If it can’t, if we can’t honestly show that what we’re doing adds to our role in God’s kingdom, then we might consider that it’s actually slowing us down, blunting our consciences, hurting our testimony, and, in a word, making us less effective ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. A confused mission will always increase anxiety. If it edifies, keep it. If it clouds your vision of the master’s kingdom quest, let it go.
  6. Sixth and finally, Christ says, “Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Oddly enough I find this statement deeply comforting. It acknowledges that times will be hard. Being a Christian doesn’t offer exemption from the problems of the fallen world, the ensnaring devil, or the sinful flesh. We’ll still feel anxious over the evil of the day. I have already explained that I don’t think this passage precludes judicious planning, but I think it offers instead a very useful piece of advice: when a problem presents itself, break it down into increments. See what you can meaningfully do today. Don’t let the whole problem swallow you up, but rather use your calendar to schedule your stress. Meet it on the terms you’ve set, based on scriptural advice, instead of letting whatever makes you worried eat up your hours and days and weeks and months and years until the worry has dulled all sense of time. Don’t shoulder the burden of all of your responsibility at once – shoulder the day’s portion, and through prayer and by grace you will see it through. It’s no accident that this is the same chapter where Christ gives us the Lord’s prayer – ask for our daily, not our weekly, bread, because you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.

So maybe even now you are thinking, “But I am still anxious. I don’t know if I’ll have enough, or if my efforts will be enough, or if I’ll be able to get through this situation.” You’re feeling little in your faith. You feel like you’re having a spiritual heart attack. Then you should call your doctor first, and you kneel before him and say, Lord, I am of little faith – I’m anxious for tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll feed and clothe myself or my family, or if my loved one will return to Christ, or if my boss really appreciates the work I do, or if my neighbor will see me differently if I share the Gospel, or if this person who I love so much will ever get better from this sickness. I’m anxious, and my faith is only little. And with compassion, he will say, I know. Tell me everything, and I will unburden your heart, I will give you the peace that passes understanding. Let your anxiety be crucified on the cross with Christ, who himself there asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Our high priest knows our condition – he has felt it, he is tender hearted towards it, and all the anxiety we feel is an opportunity to share it with Him in prayer. He didn’t carry his cross the whole way alone, and we shouldn’t try to bear ours alone either – we should ask for help when we need it. And then we can be ready to help our fellow Christians, when they feel anxious too, to let them know they are not alone, because we’ve been there, and so with sympathy and empathy we can say, “It’s hard to avoid the temptation to serve two masters, to truly seek the kingdom first, to really consider the lilies of the field. But here’s how listening to my doctor helped me not to worry, and how I believe it can help you too.” And in doing so your master’s peace shall be added unto you. Amen.