St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 11st Sunday after Trinity
September 1, 2019
“O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.”
PEOPLE WILL SPEAK about their “Bucket List” in avid terms with desire and high appraisal of places to see, things to experience, foods to eat and people to meet. There was even a pretty funny movie by that name. By this theory, we are to try and fulfill our own list of desired vacation spots, skydiving or hot air balloons, swallow flaming delicacies, and sitting down in the Kalahari with the bushmen. Or sail the Pacific. Or make a hit record. Or kiss Barbra Streisand’s nose. These are not my bucket list. But the idea is that some things will complete our lives on earth, if we can just check them off as “done” before we kick the bucket, meaning: before we die and can no longer do them. It’s sad to many people that some people never have any fun.
But I’m having fun right now. I’m doing the thing most people have the greatest terror of: public speaking. I like it, actually. You’re all very nice to let me stand up here and talk to you. Thank you.
It is urbane, post-modern, selfish and the height of consumerism for us simply to think of our lives as a walking cafeteria of experiences that we have the right, no, the obligation to seek out and snatch a little piece of every item on the menu. Like being locked in Hometown Buffet all night with endless plates and a mile of hot dishes. C’mon, isn’t life more than stuffing ourselves? I once actually found myself in the Safeway ice cream plant freezer, with miles of ice cream in every flavor, and without a spoon.
People in a simpler, less opulent world were at one time far more concerned with the kind of people they were becoming: for, at the end of their lives here, there was another life, or a second death, and they felt judgment would fall on their failures of character and consequences were coming for their evil choices. People were afraid of death as a beginning of misery and not just an abrupt end of the party. Religion was founded on various sensed revelations that man’s spirit goes on and meets its Maker in some serious reckoning or other. There was a point to existence, a meaning for our lives here: and we’d better find it and serve it, or else. Or else…
Each religion grapples with this question and every religion comes up short, until Christ arrives. He comes with pardons. We struggle to believe our good fortune, or His qualification to make the offer, saying that God (His Father) so loved the world (that’s us) that He gave His only Son for us to the end that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have eternal life. His dying form looked down on us as He said, “Father, forgive them: they don’t know what they’re doing.”
But there are conditions. There is a catch. And religious practitioners always love conditions and catches because that can keep them in office and have people come to them for answers. We can mystify things, create an obscurity here that only we may solve for you. It was just that kind of holy man that Jesus called out and dressed down:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither do you allow them that are entering to go in.” Mat 23:13
Rather than help people to God, some see it their duty to forbid many and discourage the rest. The medieval church made its bones by creating their version of heaven –digging a moat around it and then placing purgatory at the entrance of it, lest we mistakenly think we’d already suffered enough down here. The Church created more and more requirements to achieve eternal grace so that the common person despaired of salvation itself.
Enter the Reformers. Luther challenged the right of the Church to levy such requirements on poor sinners, and even on poorer saints. The joy of Jesus was salvation, and salvation comes free from God by faith in His Son, no other longer road, no more blackmail, no Peter’s Pence, no chantries, indulgences, rich men’s privilege, or prelate’s palaces and thrones. As Jesus attacked the moneychangers in the Temple, Luther attacked the papacy and the corruption of the Catholic Church.
Today, the remnant of that struggle creates language and passions that I often wonder at. I hear impassioned cries that we are saved by grace and not by works. It’s faith alone, by grace alone, the words of scripture only and not vain works that save us. The battle cry of the Reformation rings against… what? I am sure the catholic church no longer demands indulgences, nor has it done so for centuries. Protestants, by the very name, are still fighting the last war.
Scriptures used in this fight are always from St. Paul: “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” Rom 3:20 “for we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Rom 3:28 “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Rom 4:5
Words like salvation and justification need clarifying, I think, today. We speak of them as though we understand, but do we? Webster says that “salvation” is “deliverance from the power and effects of sin, also liberation from ignorance or illusion, preservation from destruction or failure, or deliverance from danger or difficulty.” We tend to load that word up with a legal definition, more suitable perhaps for the word “justification” which is defined as “an acceptable reason for doing something, something that justifies an act or way of behaving, most importantly, the act, process, or state of being justified by God.”
Now, one sin, by definition, makes us sinners, subject to judgment. In fact, St. Augustine’s great thesis against one ancient heresy insists that we are born in sin, original sin, and are not perfect ever in this life. Every human being needs God’s forgiveness, which legally justifies us, and comes to us through Jesus and His death, the death of the righteous for the unrighteous. And we gain access to that by faith in Him and in His saving death. Once we arrive there, our lives are walking in the paths of salvation.
The problem comes when we talk further about this. St. James did go further, that is, he spoke of following faith with works that confirm the faith. “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” James 2:24 “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? … faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." James 2:14-26 By this, James is observing that cheap faith, simply saying a sinner’s prayer and thinking about God in positive ways, proves nothing about the conversion of a sinner to God’s grace and salvation. If we believe in electricity, we trust the light switch and we flip it up. Sitting in darkness and believing God that He will make it lighter is evidence of an absent, useless kind of faith. God gives us life so we might do something about our world. And by loving others through action, show the love we owe God.
A small illustration of this is padded pews. For centuries, people used to stand in church, for hours, on stone floors. Pews are really a modern invention. Padded pews are for those who set their tush down and don’t get up until the end of the service. We receive. When do we give? Your hard-oak pew may give you reason to kneel on our padded kneelers, and look! You’re praying.
A further illustration might be televangelists, pastoral podcasts, YouTube church services and personal jets for religious all-stars. Viewing Christian worship is missing the entire point. Faith without works is dead. Worship without worship is not worship.
So, we get back to the bucket list. These are the last days of planet earth. Don’t call Foxnews: it’s been the last days ever since Jesus was born. This world is temporary. Everything in it will burn. The only things that will survive that holocaust are human souls, and only those that know and love Jesus, the Son of God. Love is an active, not a passive verb. Believe Him, and obey Him. It’s a package. Faith and works are two sides of the same coin. One proves the other. Faith makes our doings worthy of Him.
Why dispute this? We have no time for a religious debate that was over 400 years ago. I hope we are not guilty of claiming anything great ourselves. If I do something good, please do praise God. As St. Paul says it, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." Ephesians 2:8
Poor Paul found himself in no man’s land as an Apostle. The Jewish Christians feared him and distrusted him, and he understood why. So, he went to the Gentiles, not to get them trained in Jewish Law, but to free them from fear, guilt, sin and damnation. And it worked wonderfully. He fulfilled Christ’s command to go into all the world, preaching to all nations. Though he was probably the greatest missionary of all time, he had to call himself “the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” 1 Cor 15 Today, Paul’s words that set aside the vain power of Jewish Law seem to many to despise good works done in faith. He never meant that.
Jesus surely did not speak against good deeds. He did, however, describe hypocrisy well in the parable of a Pharisee and a publican, a tax collector whose humility and self-accusation, with a plea for forgiveness, won God’s approval. It’s truth that gets it, not a pile of accomplishments done for pride’s sake.
Now, please know that your bucket list is a bad joke unless it is topped by coming to know the Son of God. Your faith in His life, death, resurrection and salvation for you is your key into His new world. In that new world, in that new life you have been given for free, you will live a new way for new and honest purposes. Every deed done for Him is worthy of His praise, and brings glory to Him, for our every good deed is His deed done in us.
Salvation is not an event that happened in your past. It is the life you are leading and the way through which you will travel safely in this life and safely through your inevitable exit from it. Salvation is both completely easy – for He has done the heavy lifting for us all – and hard – for you will now present your body to God as a sacrifice, to live, not only die, in His service.
That’s your bucket list. Oh, go to Prague on that Viking cruise if you like. But go to Heaven, by all means. Please, don’t let that slip off your bucket list. And thus, we pray today:
O GOD, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.