St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity, August 29, 2021
“Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises.”
PEOPLE LIVE THEIR LIVES in the present, but with their heads in the past, or the present, or the future. People advise us to live in the present and embrace what we have and who we are. That’s not bad council, as far as it goes. Lack of gratitude for where I am and what I have makes me an unhappy man, no fun to be with. We need to make peace with our lives and with August 29, 2021. Atomically, you have never been this person before, nor will you be this person tomorrow. We are in constant change. The present is all we really have.
But we must also make peace with our past. The past may haunt us, accuse us, even torture us with what makes us afraid or ashamed. PTSD is an involuntary visitation of traumas that happened long ago, but are still knocking on our door at inopportune moments.
Conversely, a disproportionate attachment to things of the past, our golden years, those years when we were happy, sets up a sentimental longing for what is no longer, rejecting ourselves as we are now. We idealize a time that never really was. The past can overrule our current happiness, and must stay in its place. It’s over, already.
Likewise, we may look at the future with either longing or dread. 2020 was so bad that we invented the mess we call 2021 in order not to cheer up too fast and sprain ourselves. If it’s this bad now, just wait. Future shock is only made worse by future fear, a pessimistic orientation that shapes our expectations in dark colors, and greets every dawn with an, Oh No, not another day!
And while there is a foolishness about thinking Every day and every way things are getting better and better, we do need a positive outlook on tomorrow and hope for what is coming. Hope is not a strategy for a world in warfare, I just heard someone say. Yet hope that is founded in true promises sets our hearts right with God, with ourselves and one another. We need the right promises to live on and to trust, because our future is being built right now in the things we live for and long for.
Among the most important promises we make are vows between a bride and groom at the altar. We have heard the vows in our Prayer Book. Modern practices suggest different vows, like these for men… ‘Give me your bad hair days, your long commutes, your burnt coffee, and lost keys. Give me your everyday, and I will give you my love. Today, I promise to be your navigator and sidekick in all of life's adventures. With this ring I promise you that you'll never have to face the world alone. I vow to always put you first, even during football season.’
Our promises state our intentions. Good intentions don’t always play out, not perfectly. We may fail our mates a thousand times, and our promises become ugly lies. We must then confess, ask forgiveness, and try again to fulfill the vows we made that day. It’s worth doing. I plight thee my troth means how we live in light of that pledge is who we are.
But the only being who ever fully lives up to His promises is God. His promises come true. They aren’t silly saccharine ‘everybody gets to heaven’ kinds of promises: heaven’s promises are clear headed, realistic and the kind of promise a good God makes. I just read that there are 8,810 promises in the Bible; 7,487 of those from God to us. We live upon those promises and especially ones that recur many times and that build our hope for now and forever: God is always with me, so I learn not to fear. God is always in control, so despite all that may be done by the world, the flesh and the devil, I hold on to Him. God is always Good, so I trust Him. God is always watching, so I step carefully. And God is always victorious, so I can be assured of His kingdom’s reign.
The Apostle Paul lived out the latter part of his life searching out Gentile people who could grasp the meta-story of what the Jews were seeking and what Christ Jesus fulfilled, not for the Jews only but for all people everywhere. His account lifts the eyes of these Mediterranean dwellers from cruel demigods and titans on a mountain of thunder to a heavenly creator who made all worlds and loves all people enough to come and die for them. It had to confound them, but it reached their hearts all the same. Paul spoke of promises made to early believers, Jews who looked forward to their fulfillment. One way we are convinced in Jesus of Nazareth is how often He perfectly fulfilled the promises, prophecies, and pronouncements of ancient scripture. How perfectly His life matched the pattern, impossible though it seemed, of both a perfect, strong and eternal king who also quietly went to slaughter, and rose again undying to lead us to a better world. It would be a mere children’s story, but Paul said this man appeared to him and taught him all he knew.
The church in Galatia, in the middle of today’s Turkey, believed these things and Paul assured them that, as Gentiles, they were free from the Laws of Moses, rituals meant for the Jews alone, like circumcision or prayer garments. While he traveled elsewhere, Paul heard that new teachers were retraining his Galatians to become Jews, else the promises weren’t for them. He wrote a hot letter to his church with open hostility toward these Judaisers. He had to remind them of the promises made to the fathers of old now fulfilled in Christ. He wrote:
“Christ paid the price to free us from the curse of the laws in Moses’ Teachings… Christ paid the price so that the earlier blessing promised to Abraham would come to all the people of the world through Jesus Christ and we would receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Gal 3:13-14
He goes on with our Epistle reading today:
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed, his descendant. Scripture doesn’t say, “seeds or descendants,” referring to many, but “your seed,” referring to one. That descendant is Christ. The laws given to Moses 430 years after God’s promise to Abraham didn’t cancel the promise to Abraham. If we gain the inheritance by following laws, then it’s no longer a promise. God freely gave the inheritance to Abraham through a promise…
“We were kept under control by Moses’ laws until this faith would be revealed. Before Christ came, Moses’ laws served as our guardian. Christ came so that we could receive God’s approval by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the guardian. You are all God’s children by believing in Christ Jesus. Clearly, all of you who were baptized in Christ’s name have clothed yourselves with Christ. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants and heirs, just as God promised.”
Paul was not saying we are to be lawless. The Jewish law was their glory, their freedom from the darkness of paganism. It corrected their falling into idolatry. It gave them access to God’s presence when His Spirit could not yet be given.
But like the practice of Catholic Fish Fridays, it took new meaning and misled them. Catholics used to encourage members to abstain from red meat on Fridays in order to honor the death of Christ, His shedding blood on that day. A reasonable spiritual practice, yet not one commanded by God. So, they ate fish instead every Friday. In time, it became mandatory to eat fish, and if you weren’t buying fish in the market Friday morning, something was wrong with your religion, and Catholic guilt took over. It was as unthinkable as a Jewish bacon cheeseburger. One may keep a Kosher kitchen if they want, and by that to honor God. But thinking that a dual kitchen, dairy here and meat there, gets you to heaven is a distraction. Kosher food makes you no better than the next goy.
All the holy Jewish priests and prophets, kings and sages together could only look on in hope at the fulfillment of their faith, the coming Messiah, the hope of Israel, God with us, someday, some glorious day. Jesus said, “I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which you see, and yet they haven’t seen them; to hear what you hear, but they never heard them.” The fulness was not given to them, nor could it be. A terrible price still had to be paid. And who could pay it? One of David’s psalms bemoans the fact that one man cannot save another by dying for him, redeeming him by death, because no man is good enough to atone for another. This was true. True about us. And for another thousand years, that would be true of every human being. David also wrote about the solution, his Psalm 22 describes the horrors of God’s abandonment of His servant, pierced through hands and feet, hung up before scorning pagans who gamble over his clothing. David saw this horror, and even finished the psalm with victory and glory, but could he understand it? Could he see the victory of which he sang?
‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see,’ says Jesus. Those are 2,000-year-old words. We see only the world before us with these eyes. I had a parishioner once who had seen Jesus in a vision. Like Fish Fridays, he had turned his experience into a requirement for salvation, that everyone who is saved must first have a vision of Christ. Our 8-year-old son was coloring in the corner of our bible study room, and without turning around he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” I wonder if you know where that’s written? Jesus, the Sunday after Easter, says it to Doubting Thomas, who now sees Jesus, and now believes He is risen. Jesus commends us in that moment, we who have not seen, and yet we believe.
And yet we believe. The key turning the lock of Heaven’s doorway is no password, no secret formula, no magic words, no golden Hebrew letter on a chain. “I believe in the promise that Christ is my Savior and came to earth, God’s only Son, the Virgin Mary’s Son and Savior, who died and rose again to save me from all my sins. And I will live a good life to honor Him and show Him I mean it. That’s His Promise and now this is mine.”