August 22 2021
I want to begin this morning by simply saying “thank you,” and by expressing my and my family’s gratitude for your warm welcome to us. We are so grateful, grateful to finally be here among you all, and for your generosity to us in welcoming us. Thank you for your welcome, and thank you also to Fr. Tom and Dcn. Fawn, and everyone else who helped hold down the fort the past month or so. As I am getting settled over these next few months, please reach out to me so that I can get to know you better, and schedule an appointment to sit down with me. I would love, if it is at all possible, to get breakfast, lunch, a coffee or drink, with each and every one of you, though I know that is not possible with all of our schedules right away. But please reach out to me over email so that we can set something up.
Madeline and I spent some time in Oxford one summer a few years ago, and it probably does not surprise you to hear that we thoroughly enjoyed going to a Choral Evensong service at the end of each day, before crawling into some charming pub for dinner. The Choral Evensong services in a place like Oxford all still use the forms for Worship from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, since that is technically still the Prayer Book for the Church of England, though that is not true in practice. In this liturgy, the response to the conclusion of the Old Testament and New Testament readings is different from our own, and the reader simply concludes the reading by saying, “here endeth the lesson.” You might be familiar with that ending if you were raised on the 1928 Prayer Book as well.
Well, for whatever reason, in spite of knowing the differences in the liturgy and the history behind these responses, whenever the lessons would conclude at Evensong and the reader would say, “here endeth the lesson,” I would respond with “thanks be to God.” In the quiet, beautiful spaces where sound travels so well I felt like I was shouting, and I wish I could say I only made this mistake once, but I did a few times. This is probably the closest I have come to being a real charismatic. Needless to say, this was such an embarrassment for me, people would turn around and stare, and I am almost completely certain that none of these people, who were likely tourists, were in formation to become an Anglican Priest. Yet, here I was, time and time again, making a fool of myself at Evensong.
If I am being honest, there are times when I wish we did not have to say “the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God,” after hearing certain passages, and I wonder if you could honestly say the same thing. There are times when Holy Scripture challenges and confuses us such that we wish it would simply go away. Perhaps this is because a certain passage from Holy Scripture is abused and misinterpreted because it is handled and interpreted by sinful human beings like us, such that they carry painful baggage and weight for those who hear it, or perhaps it comes from such a distant time in Israel’s history that we struggle to connect with its meaning, or perhaps it really is just a hard saying, whatever sense we try to make of it. I find that both our Old and New Testament readings this morning fit this category of hard words from Holy Scripture, for different reasons, but reasons which make them hard readings nonetheless.
In Joshua chapter 24, we hear that great leader of Israel condemning God’s people for their turning to false gods and idols. We probably all know one part of this passage very well, perhaps even by heart, as it can be found as decorations on the walls and hearths of many Christian homes, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I think you can buy a canvas of that verse at Target or Walmart. But you probably do not have this passage from verse 19 on your wall or mantle, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God, he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.” I find myself saying, “I beg your pardon, what?” I have not checked recently, but I do not recall ever seeing this passage at a store.
And we heard yet another hard word from Ephesians this morning, one of the most improperly understood, interpreted, and implemented passages in all of Christian history, from the 5th chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Church in Ephesus. “Wives submit to your husbands, as the church submits to the church, wives submit to your husbands, and husbands, love your wife as Christ loves the Church.”
Now, I would contend that St. Paul’s vision for the covenant bond between a man and a woman in marriage is actually quite beautiful here, but that is because I believe I properly understand it. Even if we do understand this passage rightly, we cannot ignore the ugly fruits of the sinful misinterpretation of this passage which has given men justification to abuse, belittle, manipulate, and harm their wives, and perhaps even harm and abuse other women around them. Recognizing the long history of abuse that comes from this passage is not to condemn the passage itself, but to recognize the incredible capacity of human beings to distort even God’s Word to ungodly purposes, Lord, have mercy upon us.
Now, I draw our attention to the challenges of these passages this morning, not because I want your sympathy for having to preach on hard passages my first Sunday, but because I believe acknowledging the challenges of these readings allows us to gaze more deeply into a central theme and question posed in our lectionary readings this morning; a question that is answered by our Gospel Reading from St. John. What do we do when we encounter hard words from God, even hard words in Holy Scripture? Or to bring it even closer to home, what about hard times in our lives? This is the position that the disciples find themselves in in our Gospel reading from St. John’s Gospel, isn’t it? They are confronted by Jesus’ challenging words about Himself, and find themselves in an awkward circumstance that causes many who follow after Jesus to turn away, but which causes the disciples to utter this beautiful statement of faith, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life. And we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
So, how can we respond when God’s own words, compounded by the realities of life, give us a desire to turn away? We can begin to answer that question by taking a closer look at our Old Testament and New Testament readings. I think the first point to make might obvious, but when it comes to passages which challenge us, like what we have heard this morning, we should begin by examining the passages within their context in history and in Scripture, that is a lot of what responsible, faithful preaching and teaching of Scripture is after all.
Looking closely at Joshua then, we should note that this passage comes in the final chapter of the book of Joshua, as Joshua makes his closing speech to the people of Israel, pleading that they turn away from the destructive patterns of unfaithfulness that ultimately result in their exile from the promised land that God has given them. Joshua begins with the death of Moses, and establishes Joshua as a new Moses, a pattern which plays out through the whole book. Much like Moses, Joshua calls God’s people to a faithful trust in God, reminding them that they will not inherit the promised land they have been given if they use the gift of that land to live like the Canaanites who inherited it before. God does not believe in exceptional nations or exceptional people, and that is even true for Israel. So Joshua tells his people that Israel must not turn to Canaanite gods and Canaanite practices, or else Israel will find herself exiled and judged exactly like the Canaanites themselves who Israel drives out of the promised land in the book of Joshua. And this is, as we all know, exactly where Israel ultimately finds themselves, no different and no better off than the pagan Canaanites who God delivered from the promised land before them, exiled to a far away land.
So this challenging passage comes to Israel as one of two options. If you choose to follow gods apart from the one true God, there is no way that God will save you. He will not forgive your transgressions or your sins, if you do not trust wholly in Him, so trust in Him. Recognizing this context should help us to understand this harsh word, it still sounds so incredibly different from the Scripture which makes up the Words of Comfort after the Confession after all, but it does not really do away with its bitterness, does it?
We have been in St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus for quite some time in our Lectionary, and we are finally approaching the end of this wonderful letter. I will summarize Ephesians very quickly by saying that Paul uses chapters 1-3 to remind the Church in Ephesus what the good news of Jesus Christ, and Paul uses chapter 4-6 to remind them of what this means for how they are to live in light of what Christ has done for them. So chapter 5 finds itself squarely in the middle of this section in which Paul gives instruction on how Christians are to live as people transformed and renewed by Jesus Christ.
But a serious error that we make when we read Ephesians 5 which causes us to miss what St. Paul is really getting at in Ephesians 5, and it is an error that American Christians are especially prone to make because we love “practical applications” from the Bible more than we should, is to approach this passage with our own set of concerns about what practical advice this passage can give us about the relationships between men and women, and our marriages in particular. We should not glance over the fact that near the end of our passage this morning the Apostle Paul says that the joining together of man and woman in the flesh is a profound mystery or sign pointing to something bigger than itself, the bond of Christ and the Church. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”
Throughout the history of the Church, interpreters of this passage have asked whether its significance is primarily that it tells Christians how to be married well and men and women how to live together, or that it points to the love of Christ for the Church. St. Augustine asked in one treatise “whether the greater mystery of which Paul speaks is in fact the bond of husband and wife in marriage, or whether it is the union between Christ and the Church.” In other words, it was an open question for many of the church’s great thinkers whether Paul wrote this passage to give “practical advice,” or to point to the profound love that Christ has for us, his church. I think the answer is both. But even recognizing this tension points us to the shortcomings in our own interpretations of this passage.
When we turn to a passage like this one with our own lenses, and demand that it give us practical advice for the ordering of our households and our society, we miss its purpose, the same purpose for which all of Holy Scripture has been written, to point to Jesus Christ. So as contemporary Western Christians who perhaps open this passage and ask, and this is a very crude way of putting it, “what does Paul say about who should wear the pants in my marriage, or who should lead a Church or Christian organization,” we should recognize that these questions are certainly not the reason the Apostle Paul crafted this beautiful passage about the bond between husband and wife; Christ and the Church. Put another way, we must never interpret Scripture apart from Jesus Christ, whether it challenges us or we believe it says exactly what we wish it would say.
In my final weeks at my previous parish, a parishioner pulled me aside after one Sunday to tell me how disappointed he was that I was leaving since I was, in his own words, “finally becoming a good preacher.” I will let God be the judge of that, but even if I am a so-called “good preacher,” and provide context, reason, sound interpretation, the fact remains that, for many reasons; be it our wounds, our blindness, our sin, we struggle to receive the hard words of Scripture. And even the best preacher cannot make sense of the hard facts of life in a world caught between the perfect life that Christ has promised it, and the horrors that still mark too much of it. We need more than sound preaching, more than sound reasoning, more than human answers to follow after Christ in faith.
All of this is not an academic point, as if what I am saying only applies to how we read, interpret, and apply Scripture, it is so much more than that. St. Peters, there is such good news in the stumbling, imperfect, but beautiful picture of faith in the words of the Disciples to Jesus this morning, “Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” There is such good news for us in this message today, St. Peters, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” Our limited reason and logic, our human struggles for power, our strivings to keep it all together when life is difficult, will never be enough to answer life’s challenges. We ultimately say “yes” to following Jesus because of who He is and not what we are capable of understanding about him.
Even in my short time as a Priest I have seen children die; and I know many of you have known this peculiar cruelty as well. The world around us is in utter chaos all the time it seems. There is so much senseless suffering, both in far away places like Afghanistan, in Haiti, and there is senseless suffering in Larimer County too. So we may understandably be tempted to turn away from Christ like some disciples did in John 6. We may also be tempted to stick it out in the Church by seeking all of the right answers and by trying to make sense of this world, as if finding the right answer has ever fixed any of our problems.
We may be tempted to fix these problems with the powerful temptations which always destroy human beings who try to wield them, power and control: we just need to elect the right politicians to power, get things done the way we want to get things done, take the bull by the horns and beat the world around us into submission, all the while pretending that it is for the sake of Christ. We may try to fool ourselves and those around us into imagining that the life of faith is one in which we have it all together, so that we do not doubt, struggle. Just put on your tie on Sunday, smile, have a stiff upper lip, because people of faith are people who always have their act together.
But all of these answers are just another form of turning away from Christ, just as some disciples did, for our reason, our struggle for power, our illusions of having it all together are not the answer., they are not the anchor of our faith. Jesus Christ alone is, because Jesus Christ alone has the words of eternal life, because Jesus Christ does not only possess words of eternal life, Jesus Christ is God’s Word of eternal life. “Do you also wish to go away? Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Amen