March 24, 2019

2019 March24

 

Lent 3 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

I was wine tasting the other day. I know – It’s Lent, the season of Fasting, and it was a Friday, the weekly day of Fasting, but we fast from indulgences, not from staples! So, I was in the main tasting room because the members-only room was full. There – there’s my fast: I didn’t get into the members-only room! The couple next to me and I learned that we had both lived in England, and when they discovered I went to England for seminary, they shared that they attended Holy Trinity Brompton – or HTB. I expressed delightful curiosity about the theology and churchmanship of this famous church which is famously evangelical and famously somewhat conservative. If you have ever heard of the Alpha Course, that was born out of HTB. I came out to them as a liberal catholic Anglican, and we discussed some of the good stuff that various parishes do, both in England and here. Guide books for Britain and Ireland state to never talk about religion or politics in pubs, and the conversation about religion went pretty well despite our differing theological and sociopolitical views.

 

I often get asked about religion,
faith, prayer and worship by
people I have only just met and
will likely never see again.

 

The conversations are almost always made more awkward by the other person interjecting that they had a bad experience, that all religions are the same, it’s just about being a good person, or the latest pedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Those are the top 4 Awkwardness Augmenters. Fortunately, the conversation I had at the winery was less awkward. And interestingly, I have rarely had an awkward conversation here in San Luis Obispo. Almost every person I have met who has asked me what I do, or has spoken to me when I’m being Rector-like in public, has been fine with what I do and what I represent – no awkward questions or conversations.

 

Though, as we move toward exercising Episcopal Evangelism more fully, basic questions about religion, faith, prayer and worship are bound to come up. There is no business-card-sized pithy statement that sums up Christianity which would satisfy the curiosities of the un-churched. Some have been tried:

 

  • It’s all about Heaven.
  • I don’t know what I would do without Jesus in my life.
  • Someone’s favorite quote from the Bible, usually in King James language.
  • “There but for the grace of God go I,” which is actually super offensive when you think about it.
  • And then there’s the big John 3:16 banners at every baseball game.

 

What about music? Is there a song we could spout the lyrics to which summarize the Christian faith? We learn a lot from songs, from the ABC song to ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock. So, our hymnody helps us learn more about our faith.


People sometimes wonder why we don’t sing modern praise songs. They may have catchy tunes, and have repetitive lyrics so the message sticks. But the vast majority of them have really, really bad theology. The two most common elements of evangelical praise music are that “I am washed in the blood of the Lamb,” and “Jesus is my boyfriend.” So, for someone not familiar with Christianity, both of those messages need a LOT of unpacking. And furthermore, our worship is not entertainment – it’s an opportunity to intentionally take time to give thanks to God and to feel God’s presence. When you invite someone to church – even if it’s because we have great music – let them know straight up that what we’re doing here is not an alternative form of entertainment; it’s meeting the I Am.


It’s not simple to simplify our faith, and today’s readings illustrate why. Today’s readings show us that

 

the Christian faith and our
prayer and worship is a journey
to:

 

  • Prepare for the future by
  • Learning from the past, and
  • Assessing our present.

 

The future is Eternal Life, and that’s hard to crystalize between sips in a tasting room – those sips…they are pretty small! And Eternal Life and how you get there is pretty big!


Our past as Christians is inextricably linked to our Jewish forerunners. Moses’ moment at the Burning Bush ignites a chain reaction that informs who we are today. The Exodus, with the First Passover, was the beginning of a journey of freedom – freedom for the Israelites, yes – but freedom for us as Christians for whom the Passover Lamb is Jesus Christ – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Being forgiven of our sins opens that door to Eternal Life.


Our present is what Paul is talking about. We, like the Christians in Corinth, get complacent about our relationship with God. “Yep! I go to church – semi-regularly. I give money and time to the church. I’ve got it sorted. My ticket to Heaven is in my inbox!” One commentator wrote about the Christians in Corinth:


“They may have taken particular pride in their baptism as ensuring Salvation and in the Lord’s Supper replenishing their spiritual resources.”


So, Baptized and Sacramented, they were off enjoying life to the full! One must remember that Corinth was full of bad influences. Like then, we must assess how the lives we are living are preparing us for the Heavenly Kingdom. Different people have different assessment criteria. For Roman Catholics, abstaining from meat on Fridays and certainly abstaining from wine tasting during Lent are fairly serious. The Lenten Discipline of Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer is institutionally very important. For those individuals who adhere less strictly than the institution would prefer, the institution has sufficiently imparted guilt, which might be a parallel form of faith practice – do church-y stuff or feel guilty. You may be thinking, “It’s not right for Fr Ian to criticize another denomination.” But I do have many Roman Catholic friends who have not been inside a church in years who still don’t eat meat on Fridays and who feel guilty if they do!


Calvinists – like the Scottish Presbyterians – believe that every day of the year should be like Lent. That was confirmed by one of my Theology professors who preached to the Federation of seminaries in Cambridge on Ash Wednesday. He said, “We in the Reformed traditions don’t understand the Season of Lent. The self-flagellation, self-denial and in general feeling miserable is what we’re supposed to do all year-round!”


As Episcopalians, self-described as “catholic-yet-reformed”, we attempt to observe a Holy Lent, but understand that falling away from our discipline doesn’t mean abandoning it; we can always return to it. But we also have prayers that start out with:


“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”!


We can do the self-flagellation, but thank goodness we don’t do the guilt!


Our faith is a journey which has many twists and turns. And here is where God comes in again: Moving forward on our spiritual journey requires a Divine initiative and our human agency. That is another aspect of our readings today.

 

  • The exchange between God and Moses at the Burning Bush about the Exodus required God’s initiative and the Israelites’ full participation.
  • The Corinthians needed to respond to the initiative that God had already taken in sending them Jesus Christ, and that response was to turn away from idolatry and back toward God.
  • The senseless death of the Galileans wasn’t because God had abandoned them, or because they were bad people; it was because they were unprepared for death. Preparation for death is preparation for Eternal Life.

 

Whether it’s our Lenten Discipline or our church attendance or our prayer life or our feeling the presence of God, it takes two to tango: God and me. We are in a covenant with God, which God has initiated in Jesus Christ, and we must continually respond. The key sentence that brings these 3 readings together is in the words of God:


He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

 

These words express the Divine
initiative and the human agency
that is demanded in
each reading.

 

Each of us is the fig tree. Our future is to bear fruit. Let’s just say for the sake of analogy that bearing fruit is Eternal Life. Our past is bleak – not a piece of fruit in sight. Our present is the gardener who is going to make some changes so that our future is what is expected. Sometimes that requires piles of manure.


So, back to Episcopal Evangelism and the elevator pitch to the non-Christian. The elevator pitch – the explanation short enough to get across in a brief elevator ride – will never tell the whole story of what it means to be a Christian. The conversation will never not be awkward, but that shouldn’t stop any of us from having that conversation. The Christian faith and our prayer and worship is a journey to:

 

  • Prepare for the future by
  • Learning from the past, and
  • Assessing our present.

 

The future is one with Jesus,
wherever that may be, having
been given Eternal Life. Christianity is about the
end game.

 

Because we can’t describe that end game or show photos or videos or post it onto social media, sharing what our faith is comes with conversation, a journey, Relational Courage – it’s not soundbites; it’s not entertainment; it’s not whimsical.


So, when you are on the golf course, at the grocery store, waiting for the kids outside the school, by the water cooler at work, or indeed at a winery, and someone asks about your faith, “Thus you shall say to your friends, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” Then tell them about the future. When they are ready, we can teach them the past, and help them assess their present.

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