Sermon for October 20, 2013:
Cutting out the Middle Man
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God [and] they shall all know me.” May the words I speak and the meditations we share help us to know you better. AMEN.
I received several interesting emails this week. One of them was an article entitled “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore.” According to the author, one of the reasons that people stay home from organized religious services may be that “people today… are discovering… that there are scores of people who live as much, if not more, like Christ than many of the Christians they used to sit beside in church.” I don’t know about you, but I think the author is missing the point. I don’t want people to come to church so that we can teach them how to behave like Christ. I want them to come to church because church is a place where people can feel and recognize a power of mercy and forgiveness and peace and grace that is far beyond our capacity to understand – in other words, to be touched by the presence of God.
That’s one of the reasons we read from the scriptures – to attempt to understand God’s will for us. Today’s lesson from Jeremiah contains one of those famous expressions that we use without knowing that they are taken from scripture. “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Now, I know that when my mother accused me being “sour grapes,” she meant that I was acting jealously or like a sore loser. But Jeremiah is referring to something much bigger than a little bad attitude here; he is referring to the concept of the “sins of the fathers.” The passage that is quoted in today’s Hebrew scripture is taken from an earlier chapter of Jeremiah – and there is a similar one in the Book of Ezekiel. In those passages the people are told that they are being held responsible for the sins of their ancestors. But in this later passage Jeremiah tells them that they will no longer be responsible for the sins of their forbearers – just their own. That’s a good thing, right? Well, that depends on your view of sin.
The issue of “original sin” – the belief that human beings were created in the image of God but became our imperfect, sinful selves when Eve handed that apple to Adam and he took a bite – is one that has been hugely debated for thousands of years. Many theologians – particularly Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin – believed that because of original sin human beings have no free will and can only achieve salvation through faith. The Episcopal Church is a Protestant denomination, but because of our historical roots – and our happy tendency to debate – the church’s teaching on this topic has been somewhat murky.
Contrary to what you may have seen on PBS or cable television, the Anglican Church did not come about solely because Henry the Eighth wanted a divorce. The movement to reform Christianity had been going on in Europe for several decades before Henry started fighting with the Pope in Rome. Theologians like Martin Luther in Germany were advancing the heretical doctrine that the only way to be saved was through faith in God. Why was this idea so heretical? Because the European Church in the Middle Ages was all about reward and punishment. Salvation had to be earned. If you wanted to get to heaven, you followed the rules of the church and made sure there were plenty of masses said for your soul when you died. Praying to specific saints was thought to be helpful, leading to a healthy market in icons and saintly “relics” like bones, dirt and ashes. But Luther and others like him said that you couldn’t be saved from your sins by asking priests on earth and saints in heaven to intervene on your behalf – and you couldn’t be saved by doing good deeds. Salvation through grace was given by God to those with faith.
That’s a big difference. In the first case, there are authorities and a rulebook for achieving redemption, while in the second there’s nothing but you and Jesus. There’s no middle man. It’s a lot like what Jeremiah tells the people of Judah in the first lesson, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” God says that he will establish a new covenant with them – a covenant that makes them responsible for their own salvation. For the Protestant Reformers, that meant no priests, no bishops, no relics, no masses– just grace.
Here at St. Clement’s we use two Prayer Books – the 1928 Prayer Book at 8 a.m. and the 1979 Prayer Book at 10 a.m. The first Book of Common Prayer was published in in England in 1549. It was largely written by the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and was a something of a compromise between the existing catholic liturgy and Protestant theology. Cranmer authored two revisions – each more Protestant in theology than the last – before being burned at the stake in the Catholic counter-Reformation. After many years of conflict, the Church of England finally published the 1662 Book of Common Prayer – which remains the formal Prayer Book of the Anglican Church today. (Yes, I said 1662). Here in the United States we’ve done a bit more revising. The 1928 is the third, and the1979 Prayer Book is the fourth American version of the Book of Common Prayer. Our Prayer Books – and the changes that have been made in them over the years – are meant to reflect our understanding of our faith, including the big issues of original sin and free will.
Each book has a catechism – a teaching of the faith. In regard to original sin and free will, the 1928 Prayer Book says: “The condition of Man after the fall of
Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ.” To me, that’s bit cloudy, but it seems to take the Protestant view that there is original sin and we can do no good works without the grace of God. It is also almost identical to the theology of the four hundred year-old 1662 Prayer Book. The 1979 Prayer Book gives us a different way of looking at the issue that reflects the church’s changing attitude toward our relationship to God and one another – one that echoes the words of Jeremiah: “No longer shall they teach one another…for they shall all know me” in their hearts. This is why the catechism in the 1979 Prayer Book is formatted as questions and answers rather than statements. It assumes the ability of all Christians to know God in their hearts, if they are willing to ask questions. Here’s what I mean:
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.
Q. Why do we not use our freedom as we should?
A. Because we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God.
Q. What help is there for us?
A. Our help is in God.
“From the beginning humans have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.” We have made wrong choices – -not Adam – not Eve – not our ancestors – we: all human beings. But there is help for us. Our help, says the 1979 Prayer Book, is in God. But what does that help look like and how do we find it? Do we need the right words? Do we need the right robes? Do we need organs, or guitars, or movie screens, or stained glass, or banners? Do we need the middle man? I don’t think so. I think we may want some of those things. I certainly like some of those things. But I don’t think we need them.
The author of the book of second Timothy says, “As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Or, as the 1979 Prayer Book says, God speaks to us through the scriptures. But it is important to note that the author says that we are responsible for finding meaning in them– and there are many ways to do that. Read whatever helps you understand God’s word. Bow to the rebukes of teachers who want you to learn God’s ways. Listen to the preachers whose words touch your heart. For the time is coming, says the writer, when people will not put up with sound doctrine and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. Our faith tells us that by allowing God to speak to us through the scriptures we will know God better.
And we will know God better through one another – because without one another we will wander away to myths. Alone we will begin to doubt, to fear, and to use our free will to make choices that separate us from God – but in the community of faith we experience God’s grace. And we can support one another as we try to live not like Christ, but as he taught us to live. That’s why we come to church.
And we must have faith. We must choose faith. We must choose to believe in a beauty that we cannot yet see – a strength that we will never have alone – and a joy that we can never find by seeking fulfillment of our own selfish desires. It may be hard. It will be hard. We know people like the judge in the parable that Jesus told his disciples that do not fear God. Some of them may be us. We know that there are people who believe that there is no justice in this world – and some of them may be us. We look around and see people who have no respect for anyone – and we want to despair –but, like the widow- we must be persistent. We must wear God out with our cries for justice and, more importantly, for grace. Our help comes from the Lord. God will give us grace – and there will be faith on the earth. Amen.
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