Archive for the ‘personal’ category

No Wall! – a sermon on Ephesians 2:11-18 by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

July 22, 2018

It’s been a little over a week since the General Convention of the Episcopal Church ended. Pretty much all of the delegates, bishops and priests and deacons and lay people, from all of the Dioceses in the United States should be back home by now and getting back to Diocesan business-as-usual. From what I have read and heard, it was kind of a grueling time for all those involved: for the 12 days of the Convention their schedule ran from about 7 in the morning to 9 in the evening. All told, they had more than 400 resolutions to deal with, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you what they were. But the overwhelming takeaway from the 2018 General Convention, in our Diocese and many others, seems to be the fallout from a Resolution cleverly titled “B012” on the issue of same-gender marriage in the Church.

Now, I am not going to say anything at all about the Resolution itself, or about the controversial issue of same-gender relationships. What I want to talk about is the ever-present danger, a danger that has certainly grown in the wake of this year’s General Convention, of constructing dividing walls of hostility between ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree. We know that the Church of Jesus Christ, of which the Episcopal Church is just a small part, is already fractured in so many ways. We Christians have fragmented ourselves by nationality, by language, by worship style, by race, by economic status, by theological interpretations, by moral standards, by gender preferences. And now, as the delegates of our various Dioceses settle back into their home churches and deal with the ramifications of this divisive issue, the Episcopal Church is almost certainly in danger of settling further yet into our preferred side of the liberal/conservative divide. We are almost certain, in our conversations and blog entries and facebook posts in the coming weeks and months, to continue in the process of cementing a few more bricks in the wall that divides us from the “other side” – whichever side that might be.

My brothers and sisters, this is not the will of God for his Church.

In the passage we read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul was writing to Gentile Christians, at a time when the Church was very much in danger of division. The first Christians had nearly all been Jews. Jesus was a Jew, the early Church was established by his Jewish apostles, and for a brief time, the Church itself was seen as just an odd sect of the Jews who followed this man Jesus, who had claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. But then Paul, who was a Pharisee born and bred, was suddenly ordained and instructed by the Holy Spirit to go out and convert Gentiles. And to the amazement of everyone and the consternation of many, his mission was a huge success – so much of a success that it wasn’t very long before there were more Gentiles than Jews in many of the new congregations. It was unavoidable that this would cause some serious problems.

There was a faction at that time within the Church, of Jews who were truly Christians, but who were still dedicated to the faith they had grown up with and loved, to the Law of Moses and to the traditions of their ancestors. One of the most well-known members of that faction was James, the half-brother of Jesus and the author of the book of James. Their position was that all Gentile converts must be required to convert to Judaism as well. The men must be circumcised as God has commanded, and they must all be required to keep the Law with all its dietary regulations, rules about keeping the Sabbath, and all the other rules. The passage in Ephesians that we read today is Paul’s way of confronting that very issue – of confronting those people who were holding on to the centuries-old divisions between the Jews and the surrounding nations: not only walls of difference, but walls of hostility, walls of judgment, walls of non-acceptance.

And what Paul had to say was that those walls were gone. He wasn’t saying that they should be gone. He wasn’t saying that they had better do something about it. He was saying that Jesus ALREADY did something about it. The walls were down.

The Jewish faction of the Church was defining itself by its obedience to the sign of circumcision, and by default the other half must be defined by its lack of obedience, its uncircumcision. No, Paul said, physical circumcision is and always was just a sign of the flesh made by human hands. The Jewish half of the Church still clung to its identity as the holy, Chosen ones of God, the people of the Law, people who were not even allowed to enter the home of a Gentile lest they become unclean by contact. No, Paul says, Jesus Christ abolished the Law with all its commandments and ordinances.

You Gentiles, Paul says, you were far off, but now you have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ. You, Gentiles, and you, Jews, you were made into one single people in the one body of Christ, offered up on the cross to put to death once and for all the hatred and pride and suspicion and lack of understanding that divided Jew from Gentile for so long. Now, no one called into his Church is an alien. Everyone called into his Church is Chosen. All are equally citizens of the same kingdom, heirs of the same promise, living stones together in the one holy Temple of Christ’s Body.

The wall is broken down, like the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. But the challenge, for the Jews and Gentiles of the first century, and for the modern Church in all its fragmented-ness and polarity, the challenge is to live with that truth.

When my grandson Cameron was about 5, he was a quirky little guy, and he had an imaginary car. When they came to our house one day, Nicholas pulled into the driveway and then Cameron pretended to park his car right behind his Dad’s car. And for the rest of that day, if anyone wanted to go out to the car or walk down the sidewalk, we had to be VERY careful to walk way around the place where Cameron had parked his imaginary vehicle, or risk his 5-year-old wrath.

That was cute and funny. But it isn’t cute and funny when God’s people live as if our imaginary walls run through the Temple of God, cutting off those brothers and sisters we disagree with, or feel uncomfortable with, and especially those we think are absolutely wrong. Sometimes we seem to forget, or we never understood, that each and every one of us is reconciled to God purely by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and by no action or righteousness or understanding of our own. By nothing other than the grace and power of our Lord, through his saving blood, we are all members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. But no wall.

There is a story in the book of Joshua that I like very much, and the Daughters of the King will have to excuse me for bringing it up two days in a row. It begins where all the men of Israel have been circumcised in preparation for entering the Promised Land, and Joshua has just led the people of Israel through the Jordan River miraculously, on dry land. But as he goes in, he meets a scary-looking man with a drawn sword barring his way. And Joshua asks the man, “Are you with us, or with our enemies?” It’s a natural question. They are the Chosen people of God, going into the Promised Land, which is inhabited entirely by people hostile to the nation of Israel. So he needs to know about this man, “Are you for us, or are you against us?” And the man, who it turns out is the angel of the Lord, answers him, “No.” In other words, you’re asking the wrong question, Buddy. I am not with you or your enemies. I am the commander of the army of the Lord. I have come.”

And then the angel of the Lord commands Joshua to take off his shoes, as he commanded Moses at the burning bush, because he was standing on holy ground, in the presence of the Almighty God. And Joshua falls on his face and worships the Lord.

It is our human tendency, even in the Church, or maybe especially in the Church, to think that if we are on the right side – of a theological debate or a moral issue or a political viewpoint – that if we are right, then surely God must be on our side. But that isn’t the issue at all. That is never the issue. The issue is, whether we are on his side. And if we are his people then we are brothers and sisters and fellow citizens and co-heirs with all manner of other Christians with whom we possibly have nothing else in common besides the one thing that matters – that we are all sheep of the one good Shepherd, who has set us free by his blood from the sin that enslaved us all, and who has destroyed forever on the cross every hostility, every wall that separates us from one another. And if we are are his people, we are on holy ground.

And all that is not to say that it isn’t important, that it isn’t essential for us to try to understand the Bible to the very best of our ability. It doesn’t mean that the differences and disagreements between Christians are necessarily sinful or trivial. It doesn’t even mean we are not supposed to wrestle with one another about our differing ideas – “iron sharpening iron” as it says in the book of Proverbs. We are to love God with all our mind, as well as our heart and our strength. As long as we are in this world there will always be differences in interpretation, as well as upbringing, and preferences of style, just like there will always be the obvious distinctions between people of language and nationality. But none of those things divides us. None of those things has any effect on our status, on anyone’s status, in the household of God.

It is significant that in the last prayer Jesus prayed for his Church before he died, he prayed that we might all be one, in the same way that he and the Father were one. That was a monumental thing to pray. Because even though he was about to tear down the divisions between us in his body on the cross, he knew that there would always be so many divisions that his people would erect to divide his Church. He prayed, “…for all those who will come to believe in me through the word [of my disciples], I pray that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

And notice that it is in our unity, in our love for one another, that the Church becomes a witness to the rest of the world of the love of God. “All the world will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you love one another.” As far as I know, there is nothing in the Bible that commands us all to be in agreement on every point of doctrine and style of worship. But the Bible is crystal clear on this, that our Lord’s will for us is that we love one another as he has loved us. And that is the one thing on which our witness to the world most clearly depends.

There is an old hymn that we are going to sing at the end of the service today, written by a woman hymn-writer, Frances Havergal, in the 19th century. It asks “Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? Who will be His helpers, other lives to bring? Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe? Who is on the Lord’s side? Who for Him will go?” And the chorus is our answer, “By thy grand redemption, by thy grace divine, we are on the Lord’s side, Savior, we are Thine.”

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God Without Vestments; or, How Do You Wear Your Divinity? – a sermon by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

July 8, 2018

I’ll begin today with a little Show-and-Tell. Since this is an Episcopal Church, when I prepare to celebrate the Mass every week, I put on special clothes for the occasion. I begin with my clerical shirt and collar: by tradition, a black shirt, and a white collar that signifies my ordination. Then, over those clothes, I put on this long white robe. It’s called an “alb” which comes from the Latin word for “white”. Whoever is serving with me on the altar also wears an alb. It’s white, because white is a symbol of purity, but it doesn’t signify our purity. It actually signifies the opposite. We wear the white robe as a sign that we are covered by, that we are dependent on, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It means that we aren’t up here because of any goodness or specialness of our own.

Then I also wear this long beautiful cloth called a stole. I always wear a stole that is the proper color for the Church season that we are in. I put the stole over my shoulders like a yoke that oxen might wear to pull a plow, to signify that I am a servant of Jesus Christ – like the verse where he says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” I bind the stole on with this rope that we call a cincture. And then, when I am ready to come to the table of the Eucharist, I put the big cape-like thing over all. That’s called a chasuble. It also matches the liturgical color for the season. The chasuble is very beautiful and it signifies the holiness and solemnity of the meal we are going to celebrate together.

If anyone visits our church, even if they’ve never been to an Episcopal Church before, they would be able to tell right away, even though I am just a short little old lady, that I am the priest, or pastor, or whatever term they know for the person who leads the service. But on the day that we read about this morning in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus went back to his hometown and went up front to teach in the synagogue – probably the synagogue he had attended many many times in his boyhood – he wasn’t wearing anything special at all. No vestments. If you have been there as a stranger, Jesus would have been indistinguishable from every other Jewish man sitting there in the pews, or whatever kind of seating they had in the synagogue.

But for the people who knew exactly who Jesus was, he was something worse than indistinguishable. To his old neighbors and his family members he was nothing but a local boy. They were pretty sure they knew everything there was to know about him, and they weren’t all that impressed. He was the kid who grew up to be a common laborer like his father before him, before he left town and went God knows where to do God knows what. There were some lingering suspicions about his birth, though it was thirty years before – small town memories are very long, especially when it comes to remembering scandals. And besides, they passed his brothers and sisters on the street every day, and they were nothing particularly special.

To be sure, they had heard rumors about Jesus. People claimed that when Jesus visited other towns and villages, huge crowds of people came flocking to hear him teach. They said Jesus had been known to heal every disease you can imagine, to make lame men walk again and blind men see. Some people said they’d seen him cast out demons. There was even a very recent rumor that Jesus had brought a little girl back to life. The daughter of a very important man, it was said.

But that was clearly ridiculous. It really was all just a little much for them to accept. Jesus was too ordinary, too unimpressive. Too familiar. The whole idea that this bastard offspring of a peasant was claiming to be some kind of miracle-working prophet: well, frankly, they found that offensive. And when Jesus was unable to do more than heal a few sick people, because he found his hometown so utterly and depressingly lacking in faith, they were all the more convinced that all the hype about Mary’s kid was just fake news.

Everywhere else that Jesus went in his journeying from village to village people came out to him, usually in swarms, sometimes so many people that they were in danger of trampling one another. Very rarely were they the rich or the religious elite, people of high reputation, people with credentials and credibility. It was among the poor and the sick, the shunned and the shamed, the desperate and the despised, that Jesus found real faith – and it was among those, the last and the least of his fellow Jews, that his power was most astoundingly revealed. It was among those that his voice rang with true authority. And they kept coming out to him.

But at home, among friends and family and old neighbors, he just seemed to be an ordinary, all-too-familiar human being.

We might think that if God himself walked into St. Philip’s, if Jesus opened those front doors some Sunday morning and came in and sat down in one of our pews, that we would know him right away, that we would fall to our knees in worship and adoration and joy as soon as we saw him. But would we? There would be no halo, no mystical glow around him. We can be pretty sure he wouldn’t be dressed in the robe and sandals of a first-century Jewish peasant. How would we know him?

When Isaiah described the future Messiah about 700 years before Jesus was born, he wrote this: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

In the most non-human way anyone can imagine, God chose to come to us in weakness and unimpressiveness. Paul put it like this: “Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born as a human being” – but not a glorious, superstar kind of human being. He was born as a man who would be snubbed by his own family and friends, a man who would be rejected by the neighbors who watched him grow up as a little boy.

We know all this about Jesus, but I think it is a very hard thing for us to really grasp this concept: that the God we worship chooses to operate in the realm of human weakness. Our weakness.

It’s hard for us to get that, because just like our Lord’s old neighbors in Nazareth, we’re not so crazy about ordinary human weakness ourselves. And the truth is, we can’t know if we would recognize a hypothetical Jesus sitting in our pews. But here’s what we can know: do we recognize God in the familiar people around us? Do you see God in the person you went to school with, the person who lives across the street from you, the person you’re married to, the person whose flaws you know as well as your own? Or better than your own?

What if their sink is always full of dirty dishes; what if their lawn desperately needs mowing?

What if their kid is always getting in trouble of one kind or another?

What if you’ve seen them at the beach in a bathing suit?

What if you’ve seen them drink a few too many beers?

What if they’ve told you the same story a thousand times?

Can you recognize God without the vestments, without the credentials, without the beauty, without the status? Can you recognize God in a plain old unimpressive human being? Because that’s exactly where he chooses to be.

And sometimes it may be just as hard – or maybe harder – to recognize the work of God in ourselves, with our all-too-familiar and much regretted weaknesses and flaws? Do you ever feel like, do you ever believe, that you could be so much more useful and acceptable to God if you were better educated, if you were better at expressing yourself, if you were more organized or more talented or younger – or maybe all of the above?

Sometimes we get offended by our own ordinariness. Like Paul, we get sick and tired of those things we see in ourselves as weaknesses and hindrances to being all that we feel we really ought to be. Paul begged God three times to fix whatever his “thorn in the flesh” was. He begged God to make him what he, Paul, considered to be “whole”. But God wouldn’t do it. Instead, he told Paul, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul, in his characteristically extreme way, cried out, “OK, then I’ll boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” And Paul was right. Because that’s exactly how our God works.

We tend to have high expectations of seeing God at work in people we recognize as Giants of the Faith – Pope Francis, Bishop Love, Nigel Mumford. At Convention I noticed that people actually slipped out of their assigned route at Communion just so they could be in the line that received the bread from Bishop Curry. We are much impressed by great men of the faith. On the other hand, our expectations are not so high when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning, or when we look at the person across from us at the breakfast table, or when we look at the person beside us in the pew. Then all we are able to see is the ordinary, the all-too-familiar, and just like the people of Nazareth, we lack faith and we fail to see that the God of the Universe is at work. Right here.

God could have chosen to be born as the High Priest over Israel, or as the son of a synagogue ruler like Jairus. He could have chosen to be born to be the Pope, or Billy Graham. But he didn’t. He chose to be born a peasant kid. He chose to grow up in a place that was a lot more like Norwood than Jerusalem or Rome, a place utterly ordinary and unimpressive – remember what Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The answer, Nathaniel, is yes, the source of all good came from Nazareth. And his grace is sufficient, his power is perfect, in that one thing we all have in abundance – weakness. He did not despise the womb of a virgin. He does not hate anything he has made. He is not limited by our limitations. Because when we are weak, then he is strong. When we are ordinary, he is extraordinary. When God is familiar, then just think how blessed we are. Do not doubt, only believe.

Lent 5: The Covenant in Bloom – a sermon by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

March 19, 2018

We’ve come to the last of this series of sermons on the covenant, which is how the Bible describes the relationship between God and man. In human terms a covenant is a contract between persons, anything from the mortgage agreement that we made with the bank when we bought our house, to the vows two people make to each other in marriage. In biblical terms, the covenant is way more lop-sided (though not entirely one-sided) founded on and sustained by the commitment of faithful lovingkindness that God made to his creation from the moment he called it into being. And the reason we’ve been spending so much time focusing on this whole covenant thing, is that the whole story of the Bible, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, is the story of the covenant, because it is the story of man’s relationship with God in all its wondeful – and messy – complexity.

But it’s easy to get a little lost following the covenant storyline through the centuries of wars and prophecies and weird visions and laws. So I wanted today to begin with the covenant “greatest hits”, those critical moments in the Bible story when God entered most notably into our human history. And I wanted to picture it sort of organically, so I imagined the covenant like a single plant that grows through many stages.

And it all begins with the seed, which is the Word of God.

In the beginning, there was nothing but God. We tend to think of that pre-Creation time as a time of dark, formless Nothingness, but the truth is that there was always God, and that means there was always love and there was always light and there was always relationship. But out of his perfection, God spoke our world into being, planting the seed of his Word into our creation. “Let’s have some light,” he said. And he spoke the heavenly bodies into being, and he shaped the earth and sky and seas, and he filled it all up with living, breathing creatures. And at the last he formed the man and the woman, and he planted them a garden and he set them in the midst to love and care for it. He took walks in the garden with his creatures. And that was the very beginning of his covenant relationship with us.

We all know what happened next, when the serpent came along and tricked the woman into tasting what God had warned them not to eat. And the man ate his share, too. The goodness of the new creation was spoiled and corrupted. But along with the curses that came with the poisonous fruit, God made his second Covenant promise. From the seed of his creative word grew the taproot of God’s commitment to redeem our creation from its corruption. A taproot is the first, strong root that a seed sends straight down when it germinates. It’s like an anchor that establishes that plant firmly in place, and brings the first nourishment to the living seed. If you’ve ever had to pull up maple saplings, you know how tenacious a taproot can be. So God promised that even though suffering would come because of man’s sin, there would come someone, born of humankind, who would crush the head of that serpent. God committed himself to healing the harm that man’s sin had done to his good creation. And so the Covenant relationship was established.

For our part, that wasn’t the end of sin or corruption, not by a long shot. We read in the first Sunday of Lent how God sent a great flood to wash his creation clean of the filth of man’s violence and injustice. But he preserved a remnant of his creatures, man and animal, and when Noah and company had come through the ordeal of the flood God made another promise. Spreading the roots of his covenant out into the soil of this creation, God committed himself to sustain and uphold his creation, even in its brokenness. Never again would he curse the creation on account of man’s evil. As long as the earth endures, God promised, there will be day and night, and springtime and harvest.

Later, when God called Abraham out of his homeland, to be the father of a new nation, the covenant began to break into the world, like the first green shoot that pushes its way out of the earth into the sunlight. Because Abraham believed the promise that God made to him, that he would have a son – even though it was humanly impossible – God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. So we saw that from the very beginning, our side of the covenant didn’t depend on our righteous, good behavior – because what hope would man ever have then? – but only on our faith in God’s righteousness and God’s goodness.

Then up grew the covenant of Moses that was God’s signpost to the rest of the world. God established the nation of Israel as his unique people with a system of laws that set them apart from every other nation, laws that embodied justice, but were tempered with mercy. Israel grew up like a tall tree among the nations, and reached its fullest glory in the time of King David, and then a strange thing happened.

At Israel’s height, God made a promise to David, a man after his own heart, that he would establish the royal house of King David forever. But within two generations the whole thing fell to pieces. David’s descendants turned away from God and the nation of Israel was torn in half. It was almost as if the covenant, having grown up to its greatest height, humanly speaking, suddenly faltered and began to vine outward, pointing away from Israel, away from the law, and towards something new, something better.

And that brings us to the words of Jeremiah we read today, “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” – speaking of the two halves of David’s fractured kingdom. In proclaiming a new covenant, God wasn’t putting an end to his commitment, or withdrawing his promises, or giving up on his word – the new covenant was THE covenant coming into its full glory at long last – God’s Word bursting into full flower at the coming of Jesus. Malachi wrote, “The Sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings.”And that blossoming, that sunrise, that’s what the whole creation had been waiting for, from the planting of the first seed at creation, century after century after weary century, until finally, that moment when the Covenant between God and man was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote, “In Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” And again, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this isn’t your own doing; it is the gift of God.” And best of all, John wrote, “To all who received Jesus and believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” That is the Covenant in full bloom.

Jeremiah reveals what’s so new about this new covenant. First of all, he tells us, no more stone tablets or long scrolls full of rules and laws, laws that people always ended up breaking, even though God loved them as a husband loves his wife. The law of the new covenant, Jeremiah tells us, is inscribed on our hearts. “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus told us, “that you love one another.” And Paul wrote, “All the commandments are summed up in this one command, Love your neighbor as yourself.” Human beings are very fond of going back to the old slavery of rule and law, but Paul wrote, “It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm therefore, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Don’t let anyone tell you that you are still under the law. Don’t owe anything to anybody, Paul says, except to love. Love fulfills the whole law.

Secondly, the new covenant satisfies our deep need for belonging. There is a part of every person that has been broken, that has been hurt, that remains unsatisfied. The best human relationships that the world has to offer, friendship, family, married love, all promise to give us what we need. But as excellent as they are at their best, it is always true that they fall short of satisfying us fully. In fact, if we demand of any human relationship what we fully need, we only do harm, because we ask what human relationship can’t give. But in Jesus Christ we are reunited with our Father, we are adopted as his beloved children. Jesus also said, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God promises. And out of that belonging, we are able to offer grace because we have received grace. We can love, because he has first loved us.

Thirdly, in the new covenant, Jeremiah tells us, ‘no longer shall they teach one another saying, “Know the Lord.” Because they will all know me’. What that means, in a sense, is that you don’t need me. To explain myself more clearly: you don’t need a priest to stand between you and God. You don’t need anybody to mediate your relationship with God; because in Christ you are, we all are, a kingdom of priests, ordained to serve our God. I serve you, hopefully well, in my sort-of specialized role as priest (lower-case), as teacher or comforter, as celebrant at communion, as cook or dishwasher or whatever I am called to do in service to you, who are my fellow priests. And we all need the special gifts that God has given each one of you to build up the church as well. But when we offer up the Eucharist, we offer it as a kingdom of priests together. When we pray, we stand at the throne of God together as members of the body of Christ. Peter said it gloriously, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

And finally, the joy and freedom of the new covenant is that our sins, which are so very many, are forgiven, and not only forgiven, but forgotten. Our God is not like that parent who rebukes his child, saying, “How many times do I have to tell you?” In Jesus, God removes our sins from us “as far as the East is from the West.” Our Lord, in his suffering on the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Always remember that , because it was your sins and mine, past, present and future, that Jesus bore in his body on the cross. But God keeps no record of our failings.

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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,” says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

When Is a Savior Like a Serpent, Lent 4, a sermon by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

March 12, 2018

In the Second Book of Kings, chapter 18, there is a story about a young king named Hezekiah. Hezekiah was just 25 years old when he became the king of Judah. Hezekiah was that very rare thing, in the ancient world as well as today, a ruler whose heart and actions were dedicated to the One True God. When he became king, it had been seven or eight hundred years since Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. And since then, the Israelites had come a very long way from following the God who had rescued and led them.

The writer of 2 Kings tells us: they “were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah [which was a pole, like a tree, used in the ritual worship of a fertility goddess] and [they] worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and [they] used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord.” Things had gotten bad indeed.

When Hezekiah became king, then, he set himself to turn his people away from their idolatry and back to their God, back into that covenant relationship that God had established with their ancestor Abraham, when he called him out to make of him and of his descendants a great nation. And so, Hezekiah went around destroying all the high places that the people had set up as altars on which they made sacrifices to false gods. He cut down the Asherahs. And he took a serpent made out of bronze, a thing that the people called Nehushtan and made offerings to it; he took that serpent and he smashed it to pieces. But that serpent wasn’t some strange idol that the people of Israel had adopted from their pagan neighbors. It was the very same serpent that we read about this morning, the serpent God had commanded Moses to make out of bronze, and to set up on a pole, so that when any of the people of Israel were bitten by the fiery serpents in the desert, if they would only look up at the bronze serpent on its pole, God would heal them, and they would not die from the serpent’s poison, but live.

When that serpent was forged all those hundreds of years earlier, the people of Israel were still exiles from slavery, wandering homeless in the desert. But God had been with them every step of the way. He had given them the Law to set them apart from the godless nations surrounding them, and he had given them detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, which was a traveling Temple, a glorified and glorious tent, basically, that they carried with them as they wandered, and where they offered their sacrifices and worshiped God. He had established his Presence among them in the heart of the Tabernacle, the most holy place. He protected them from the surrounding nations that threatened this little band of nomads, and he provided for them even when food and water where nowhere to be found. Because the desert is not a very comfortable or hospitable place to visit, let alone to live in for decade after decade.

But when things got hard, the people of Israel acted as people do, grumbling and griping to the Responsible Parties, to Moses, and to God himself. In the hardships of desert life, they forgot the unendurable suffering of their slavery in Egypt, and they forgot God’s faithfulness, and they forgot his miraculous deliverance from Pharoah’s armies. They saw nothing but their own suffering. And they despised God’s kindness. “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness?” they cried. “There is nothing to eat or drink here – and we detest this miserable food.” And by “miserable food” they meant the miraculous bread that God provided every single day of their forty-year sojourn in the desert, the manna that fell like dew every morning, always just exactly enough to feed every man and woman and child, heavenly bread that tasted, Moses tells us, like wafers made with coriander and honey.

It was no wonder, then, that when poisonous snakes came among them, and people began dying from the venomous bites, the people thought at once that God was punishing them. Aware of their guilt, and ashamed of their ingratitude, and terrified of God’s anger, they went to Moses and asked him to intercede for them. “Please,” they begged, “we know we have sinned. But please, ask God to take these serpents away from us.” And God heard the cry of his people and he told Moses to fashion a poisonous serpent from bronze, and to set it up on a pole. “Anyone who is bitten shall look on the serpent,” God told Moses, “and they will live.”

God gave the children of Israel that bronze serpent as a sign, that if only they would look up, away from the serpents that threatened them, away from their guilt and fear, away from their own wounds even, up to the serpent that Moses had set upon the pole, then they would live. Centuries later, when Hezekiah became king of Judah, that very same serpent become an idol and a snare to God’s people. By then, they had forgotten the shame of their ingratitude and they had forgotten their fear of God, and they had forgotten their desperate need. But most importantly, they had forgotten to look up to God.

Martin Luther, the German reformer, wrote this about the bronze serpent, which John tells us was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. “Moses commanded the Israelites who were stung by serpents in the desert, to do nothing else but behold it steadfastly, and not to turn away their eyes.” he wrote. “They that did so, were healed by that constant and steadfast gaze. But they which obeyed not Moses’ command to behold the brazen serpent, but looked elsewhere upon their wounds, died.”

The message of the serpent is that we have to take our eyes off of ourselves. “If I keep on looking at myself,” Luther wrote, “I am gone. If we lose sight of Christ and begin to consider our past – our hurts, or our shame, our resentments, or our failures – then we simply go to pieces. We must turn our eyes to the brazen serpent, Christ crucified, and believe with all our heart that He is our righteousness and our life.” We must look up, and then we will live.

But we might wonder why God chose such an unlikely figure as a symbol of his perfect Son. Ever since the Garden of Eden, the serpent represents everything that is evil, everything that is false, everything that is in rebellion against God and his love for his creatures. When Moses hammered out metal in the shape of a serpent and raised it up for everyone to see, that serpent embodied all the fear and all the guilt and all the pain, and even death itself. Every bit of evil and misery that the living fiery serpents had brought into their midst was represented by that twisted piece of bronze. There was no power in the thing itself. It was just a lifeless hunk of metal that the Israelites later foolishly began to worship. The only power belonged to God himself, as he had Moses raise the evil out of their midst, inviting them to look away from themselves, away from their wounds, away from their fear, and to look up, trusting the promise of God that they would live.

And everyone who looked up, lived.

And just so, Jesus – who as a man of flesh and blood suffered in every way as we have, except that he was entirely without sin – he took upon himself every sting of the Serpent, Satan: he took on our fear and our guilt and our pain, and even our death itself. Because the truth is, we all bear the sting of the serpent, we are all dying here. But taking all our sin and frailty upon himself, our Lord chose to be raised up on the Cross, putting death itself to death. Like the serpent of bronze on its pole, Jesus himself was raised up for us, and we, if we look away from ourselves, and up to him – we will live.

So, if I would find comfort and life,” Luther wrote, “when I am at the point of death, I must do nothing else but apprehend Christ, and look at him, and say: I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me: in whose wounds, and in whose death I see my sin, and in his resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil, also righteousness and eternal life. Besides him I see nothing, I hear nothing.”

Let us pray: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior

Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Freed from Our Old Captivity, a sermon on the Ten Commandments, Lent 3, by Carroll Boswell

March 4, 2018

During Lent our sermon theme is the idea of the covenant. It is important because “covenant” is the word the Bible uses whenever it talks about our relationship with God. You hear a lot about a “personal relationship” with God these days, but the Bible never uses that phrase. It is not a fully biblical way of thinking about God. The idea of a covenant is a bit unfamiliar; it’s not a word we commonly use today, but the idea is a familiar one. There are two easy modern examples of covenants. One is marriage. It is a covenant arrangement between two people who are in love, who make public promises and commitments to each other. Marriage is used through the whole Bible to picture God’s relationship to His people. Another kind of covenant we have today is the business contract. It’s not as exciting as the marriage idea, but it is an image used in the Bible to picture God’s relationship with His people. Some couples nowadays have a written contract of their expectations and their commitments in marriage. That seems kind of weird to me, but it would not have been weird in biblical times; the same word was used for both. Today I want to talk about both pictures, the marriage and the contract.

When we first look at the idea of the covenant in the Bible, it seems very confusing. There are a lot of them and of different kinds. Fortunately, we only need to look at three of them now.

First, the covenant God made with Abraham. It that covenant God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, to make him a blessing to every nation in the world, and to count his faith as righteousness. The second covenant was the one given through Moses when he brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain. We didn’t read the scary part of that story (see Exodus 19): the dark cloud with lightning and thunder, the trumpet blast that seemed to come from nowhere, and the threat of death even to animals that touched the side of the mountain. There’s quite a between the covenants with Abraham and through Moses. With Abraham God had no problem walking right up to him and talking to him, but with Moses and the Ten Commandments there was suddenly a serious problem. There was real danger God might just destroy them all if He did any walking in their camp. What changed? Is God bipolar or something? Had the people become more disgusting than they had been? It is this whole section of the Bible that begins God’s reputation for being wrathful and severe. The reason for it is the subject of a different sermon.

But the third covenant to look at is the one Jesus introduced when he gave the wine to the disciples and said, “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Now if a covenant is like a marriage relationship, why are there three of them? How are they connected? Why are some scary and some amazingly sweet? And especially, now we have a covenant with Jesus, what happened to the covenant Moses brought down from the mountain, the Ten Commandments? What about the covenant God made with Abraham?

To spell out the connection between the covenants, Paul used both pictures, the business contract and the marriage. First he used the business contract idea to explain the connection between Abraham and Moses. You all know how contracts work. Most of you have had a mortgage or bought a car. You make a deal with the bank. They let you use their money and you promise to pay it all back with interest. They do not look kindly on you if you don’t make that payment. You signed on the dotted line, and you can’t change the deal if you lose your job. You may lose your house if you don’t keep the deal.

Paul picks up on this same idea. He says that God made a deal with Abraham; then a long time later He made another deal with the whole nation of Israel. In Galatians 3:15, 17 he says, “To give a human example, brothers, even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. … This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” God had counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness, but the Law said nothing counted as righteousness except obedience, that there is no mercy if you break it. In Galatians Paul points out that the Law could not set aside the deal God had already made. No matter what the Ten Commandments said, God had promised to count faith as righteousness and the Law had no power to change it. The whole law was set aside if it disagreed with what God had already promised. God keeps His promises.

Paul then used the picture of marriage to explain how the new covenant with Jesus is related to the covenant of the Ten Commandments. First understand that the Ten Commandments were only given to Israel. They were not given to the Egyptians, or the Canaanites, or any of us Gentiles so it is a moot point to us. Paul said that the Ten Commandments were like a wedding covenant between Israel and the Law, and the new covenant through Jesus is also like a wedding covenant between the Church and God. That’s why the Church is called the bride of Christ. He loves us like a husband loves his wife. But Israel was already married to the Law. How could Israel be married to both the Law and to God? Notice it is the first husband who is the legal one, in this case, the Law.

Paul answers this in Romans 7:1-4: “Do you not know, brothers – for I am speaking to those who know the Law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive, but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead.” In other words, Israel was married to her first husband, the Law, but by Christ’s death on the cross the Law died and so Israel became free to marry God.

In both cases the Law, the Ten Commandments, are finished, over, done, abolished. How can this be? Jesus Himself said in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” But then Paul says, in Ephesians 2:14,15 “For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances…” Jesus said He didn’t abolish the Law, Paul says He did. What gives? Here is one of those times when knowing Greek really helps. There are two different words for “abolish”. Jesus says He came to complete the Law, not “cancel” it, not “repeal” it. Paul says Jesus “brought it to an end” by completing it. It

is the same as your mortgage. You can’t cancel it, but you can pay it off. You can’t just decide you don’t like your mortgage and quit paying. But you can bring them the rest of the money you owe and then walk away. Jesus didn’t repeal the Law; He paid it off. When He paid it off, the Law could not ask for more. It was over.

Understand we have no obligations under the Law, the Ten Commandments, just like we don’t have to keep paying a loan when it is paid. And no one wishes they had that debt again, they miss it so much. It’s a burden. In Galatians 3:23 Paul says the Law was like a jail-keeper: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” In Galatians 4:1-3 he says the Law was like a guardian: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.” The Law was a guard to our cell, a guardian who ran our lives.

The point is that rules, the Law, was only for criminals, for children, for slaves. But when God counts our faith as righteousness, we are forgiven of our crimes and released from prison. When the date set by the Father comes, we inherit the family business, and the guardian loses his job. When we are adopted as children, we stopped being slaves and we became the master.

The point is that we have been set free from the Ten Commandments. Now wait a minute! We can do anything we want? Well, yes. But before you rush for the door yelling “Let’s party!”, think about it. Stupid is still stupid even without a law. Look at Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom brothers, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” The Ten Commandments have all been replaced, not with some new law, but by an ideal, a goal, to aim at rather than to obey. Paul says it several times to be sure we don’t miss it. Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:8-10: “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments – You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment – are summed up in this word :You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” I Corinthians 10:23,24 “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor.”

It is critical to understand that the Christian life is not about obeying rules. The Christian life is simple: use the astonishing freedom you are given to love others, encourage them, help them become strong and prosperous. That’s the whole thing. It’s a slippery idea so Paul warns us to hold on to it. Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Colossians 2:20-23: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch … according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

Freedom is scary. We are, by nature, slaves. It is such a deep part of us that we don’t know what to do without some rules to keep us in line. No wonder churches set up systems of rules for themselves. Don’t smoke or drink or dance or swear. Some churches get sophisticated and use Paul’s own words against him so they can set up new “Christian” rules: women, obey your husbands even if they are abusive. Evangelize everyone you meet, and it’s OK to be obnoxious. Be sure you give your tithe to the church and make sure it is on your salary before taxes. And we go on inventing new things in and out of the Bible to lay on people.

It is human nature to make rules, especially for other people, and especially when we realize that Jesus isn’t going to do it. But mainly we do it because we are afraid of what we might do without something to stop us. You do not need the Law to show you how to live a righteous life because God has made you righteous already, and He has sent you the Spirit to show you what to do. This is how it is supposed to work, from Romans 7:6 “but now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” You don’t need rules to tell you what to do because the Rule Maker lives in you. The Spirit will show you what to do; just ask and listen. Don’t be afraid. Trust God. Don’t let anyone put you back into slavery, and don’t put anyone else into slavery. Love one another.

The Logic of Faith in the Impossible – Lent 2, Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

February 25, 2018

In the first week of Lent, we read the familiar story of Noah and the Ark. And I talked about the maybe not-so-familiar idea of the Covenant that God made with the whole creation when Noah and his family and all the critters came out of the ark after the Great Flood. Like the vows we make in marriage, God promised at that time that he would be faithful to his creatures for better or for worse, providing for them and being merciful and gracious to them, no matter what, for as long as the creation lasted. That promise was part of God’s whole Covenant relationship to the world he made, and to the creatures he loves, a relationship of unconditional faithfulness and love on God’s part.

But clearly, a relationship has two sides, if it is truly a relationship and not just a kind of controlling ownership. If God is like a husband, as he tells us in Scripture, and not like a corporate CEO or an absolute dictator, or a puppet-master, then the question we ought to ask is, what does our side of the relationship look like? If we are really in a Covenant relationship with God, and if he has vowed to love us unconditionally and to sustain his creation, then what is our part of the “marriage vows”?

I think there is no better place to find the answer to that question than the long relationship between God and Abraham, or Abram as he is first known, that we read about in the book of Genesis. Sarah read today from chapter 17, about how God came to Abram when Abram was 99 years old, and how he made a promise that Abram would surely be the ancestor of a great nation. But it’s important to know that this wasn’t the first time that God had appeared to Abram. And it wasn’t the first time he had made this same promise to Abram.

The first time God came to Abram, Abram was living in the land where he had been born. Abram was 75 years old at that time, and God called him to leave everything behind, his homeland and his heritage, and to come out to a land that God would show him, and he promised then that he would make Abram into a great nation.

About ten years after that, God appeared to Abram again, and he renewed his promise to Abram. He told Abram to look up into the night sky – and you can just imagine how many stars he could see, out in the desert land of that ancient world – and again, God promised Abram that he would be the father of a multitude. That time he even gave Abram a powerful vision as a pledge that he would fulfill his promise to Abram.

Fast-forward, then, almost fifteen more years, to the day we read about today, when God came to Abram a third time, and a third time he promised Abram that he was making him into a great nation, and that his offspring would be kings. Three times, over almost a quarter of a century, God had made this promise to Abram.

But there was one huge problem, and that was that Abram and his wife weren’t able to have children. Abram’s wife, Sarai, was barren, and had been barren throughout the long years of their marriage, and now here they were in their old age. The first time God had come to Abram, Abram pointed out that there was no hope for him to be the father of a nation, because the only heir he had was a slave born in his household. And God had assured him that no, he would have a true heir, a biological son.

Abram and Sarai had waited patiently for a long time after the first promise, and just like the rest of us they weren’t growing any younger year by year, until finally, Sarai, like a good wife, decided that maybe God wanted them to show a little initiative. Sarai had a maidservant, Hagar. It was an acceptable thing at that time and in that culture for husbands to bear children by means of their wife’s maidservant. If Abram slept with Hagar, and if Hagar conceived a son, Sarai reasoned, then God’s promise would be accomplished, because the child would indeed be the biological offspring of Abram. It was logical, and Abram had agreed, and Hagar had borne a son to him, named Ishmael. And Abram loved Ishmael as his own son. Problem solved.

But when Abram was 99 years old, God came to him for the third time, and for the third time he made his promise to Abram that he would be the father of a multitude. That’s when he changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude.” Abraham pointed out to God that he and Sarai had this descendant thing all worked out. Ishmael was a strong 13-year-old boy by then, and he was certainly Abraham’s flesh and blood. But God had no intention of changing his original plan, which had always been that the heir of Abraham, the child of the Covenant promise he had made to them, was going to be the child born of the line of Abraham and Sarah.

When God first appeared to him on that day Abraham had fallen on his face before God in worship. And when God told him that he and Sarah would be the parents of the child of the promise, he fell on his face a second time. Only the second time, Abraham fell on his face laughing, because clearly the situation was impossible. Paul put it pretty plainly in Romans, when he wrote, “Abraham saw that his own body was as good as dead.” He knew that his wife’s womb was barren, there was no doubt about that. The thing was impossible. It was laughable.

Abraham tried to bargain with God about his son Ishmael. As his own flesh and blood, couldn’t Ishmael be the fulfillment of the promise? But God wouldn’t budge. God had chosen the lineage of his saving work; he had chosen the ancestry of his own birth into the world, and although it was physically impossible – in fact, I think because it was physically impossible, he had chosen Abraham, and Sarah his wife as the progenitors of that lineage. And the reason I say because, is that it was the very impossibility of this offspring that was a sign, to Abraham, and to Sarah, and to all of their descendants after them. It was a sign that the promise was being fulfilled by God himself, not by any human reason or cleverness or strength, but purely by God’s ability to create life out of virtually nothing.

But again, a relationship goes both ways, and in the book of Genesis we find that even though God didn’t change his plan to give Abraham and Sarah a child of their own, still, he truly listened to Abraham’s plea for his son Ishmael. In fact, the name Ishmael means “God hears.” Out of his love for Abraham, God blessed his son Ishmael, promising that Ishmael would be the father of 12 tribes, just as Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, would be the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. It turns out that Ishmael is the great-great-great-many-times-grandfather of the prophet Muhammed, and for that reason Abraham is the patriarch of Islam as well as of Judaism. And that means that even though the Covenant promises did come through Isaac, Sarah’s son, as God had planned, still, as spiritual children of Abraham we Christians share a common spiritual ancestry with Muslims. That’s just a little side note, but I think it’s a good thing for us to remember, and to think about.

Because Abraham did have a crucial responsibility in the Covenant promise, and it was just this – in the face of the utter impossibility of the promise, to believe the one who promised. “Abraham believed God,” we are told, “and that was reckoned to him as righteousness.” The Covenant relationship between man and God was established, first and foremost, on God’s faithfulness. But our part of the relationship, the human side of the equation, as it were, is faith.

And for the Church, that means faith in God as he has revealed himself fully, in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who says to us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s a very particular way, not just a matter of trying to be good people in a general way, because we are walking in the very particular footsteps of the one who said, “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” and who told his disciples on his last day with them, “I have given you an example. If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”

On Fridays in Lent we make a practice of imaginatively walking in the footsteps of Jesus as he walked the last steps of his earthly life. We follow the icons around the walls of the sanctuary as we call to mind how he was falsely arrested and condemned to death, how he took up the heavy cross on which die, and how he fell under its weight – not once, but three times. We follow as he humbly accepts the help of Simon of Cyrene, as he offers love to those who wept for him, as he is mocked and abused, as he shows concern for his mother even as he suffers, as he is nailed to the cross and dies at the hands of men, as he is laid in the tomb of a stranger.

Is it any wonder, then, that Peter took Jesus aside and told him that he really needed to come up with a different game plan? People of all religions and no religion find Jesus’ message of peace and love and kindness very appealing, but when it comes to self-denial and service and suffering, those are pretty much non-starters, aren’t they? They just don’t seem to be very effect rallying cries for attracting followers.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: The cross is laid on every Christian… As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Jesus is the one in whom the Covenant promise of God has now finally been fully revealed. And just like Abraham in his old age, we seem to be called to step out into the impossible. Jesus makes the impossible claim to us that the only way to life and joy is the way that leads to suffering and death, and then he bids us to follow him. But what we learn from Abraham is that our faith is not in the possibility of the call, but in the absolute trustworthiness of the one who calls us, and who has walked the way of the Cross every step of the way, in his great love for us.

Till Death Do Us Not Part – a sermon for Lent 1 by Kathryn Boswell

February 18, 2018

As a priest, I have officiated at a handful of weddings. Weddings are joyful occasions on the whole, but I can’t help feeling a deep concern every time for these two people standing their in their wedding finery making enormous promises to one another in the presence of absolutely everyone they know. I always feel a bit like a mother hen must feel when she’s watching her fluffy little chicks emerge in all their utter obliviousness from the safe environs of the egg into the big, scary world of cats and foxes and hawks, not to mention deep fryers and KFC. Because this world of ours is not an easy one in which to maintain the faithful purity and enduring strength of a marriage relationship.

The problem begins right on the big day itself, even as these two very in-love people make their promises to one another. They come to the ceremony in the heady passion of what they fondly imagine is true love, but what is more often a confused brew of love and hormones and the intoxication of having another human being profess their love for you. I am often concerned that what many people are actually professing as they stand before me, or whoever the officiant might be – no matter what they are actually saying with their mouths – is the white-hot intensity of their feelings at this particular moment, for this seemingly perfect person standing across from them.

But the crucial truth is that the promises we make at our wedding aren’t about how we feel about each other on this one much-anticipated day. They actually aren’t about feelings at all, and they aren’t about this one day. The promises of the marriage ceremony are for the next day, and the next month, and the next year, and twenty and thirty and forty and fifty years down the road. The wedding vows are two human beings professing, in the sight of God and their future mother-in-law, that they will be there for each other, no matter what happens. And we all know that a whole heck of a lot happens in this life.

There is a beautiful song about marriage by Andrew Peterson, called “Dancing in the Minefields.” The title gives you some hint that the song is about the incredible difficulty of maintaining our promises to another human being in the course of a marriage. “…we’re dancing in the minefields/We’re sailing in the storms/And this is harder than we dreamed,” the song goes. “But that’s what the promise is for.” The purpose of those promises all we married people make to one another, with half our minds on the words and the other half on the reception plans or the wedding night or the way our shoes are pinching – all those promises about richer or poorer, about sickness or health, about till death do us part – well, somewhere down the road those barely-remembered ideas become realities and marriage becomes hard. And scary. And tedious. And messy. And that’s what the promise is for. Because it’s certainly not our feelings that will keep us going when the going gets rough. It’s the marriage covenant, the keeping of those promises we made to one another, if we hold them fast, that is the bond that brings us safely through the minefields.

And it’s that lasting, unconditional commitment of the marriage covenant that is one of the main pictures God uses to describe his love for us. It’s no coincidence that we find God matchmaking right in the garden at the dawn of time. Marriage, and the whole concept of covenantal love and commitment, that’s been God’s modus operandi, God’s way of doing and being, for as long as there have been creatures for him to love and be committed to (and actually, infinitely long before that, within the loving unity of the Trinity). Marriage on a human level is never perfect, and sometimes marriage promises are broken in ways that are irreparable. But the design of the marriage Covenant is perfect, because our God is a God of steadfast love and grace.

Sometimes we like to say that the Bible is God’s love letter to his people, and that is true. But it’s much more than that, just like the promises we make in marriage are so much more than expressions of our feelings for one another on that one day. In reality, the whole story of the Bible is the story of the God who says to us, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It’s the story of God’s marriage vows to us, the story of his promise to keep faith with us for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to the day of our death – and even beyond death, because we’re talking God here, and his promises are bigger than any human can promise.

Today, in the Old Testament passage from the Book of Genesis, we read about one of God’s Covenant promises to his Creation – one the first marriage vows, you might say, that God made to his creatures in the sight of himself and all the hosts of heavenly beings. Theologians call this the “Noahic Covenant” but it’s important to notice that God didn’t just make this vow to Noah. This Covenant promise was given to Noah, and to everyone who would be born to Noah in the generations to come. And the promise was also to the creatures that God had commanded Noah to take into the ark with him – to the elephants and the bunnies and the lions and the grasshoppers. The promise was to “every living creature of all flesh”. And lest we think that God only made his promise to the “good people”, Peter tells us in the New Testament reading today that when Jesus died he brought the promise of salvation even to those lost souls who had been drowned in the waters of the flood. Christians are frequently in danger of thinking of our relationship with God as a kind of exclusive, “us and God” thing – as if salvation is just a sort of limited-edition spiritual transaction between God and the souls of nice, respectable sinners like us. But God’s Covenant promise is much bigger than that, much messier than that, much harder than that – much, much better than that.

In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul even tells us that God’s Covenant extends to every created thing – not just people and furred and feathered beasts, but trees and rocks and mountains and clouds and tomato plants. “The whole creation,” Paul wrote, “waits with eager longing….to be set free from the bondage of corruption…. to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

When Noah and all the creatures had come out onto solid ground after a whole year in the ark, Noah offered up a burnt offering in thanks to God. And God, smelling the sweet aroma of Noah’s well-meaning offering, made this promise: ““I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” This vow that God made after the flood was more than just a promise that there wouldn’t be another big flood – as if he were announcing that the next time he had to destroy all living things he’d think up something new and different. God was making a promise to the whole creation that he would never again respond to mankind’s sin with wholesale destruction. And the reason for that was not because Noah had proved his righteousness. Not at all. God makes this promise to mankind, and to the whole creation, first and foremost because left to his own devices, man is a hopeless mess. The message of the Covenant is that our hope, and the hope of the whole creation, lies purely and entirely on the grace and faithfulness of God. Even though the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth, God promises, I will remain faithful. For better or for worse.

And God went on to pledge his faithfulness to the creation. “While the earth remains,” he promised, “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Not only was God promising to withhold his well-deserved anger at man’s sinfulness, he was promising to nourish and cherish all of creation, “till death do us part”, so that his creation would continue as he had ordained for all the days and seasons and rhythms of life until the end of time. A lot of times, you hear people claim that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and retribution, but in his Covenant promises we see God’s true nature, which from beginning to end is love – truly he is the God who shows himself to be “gracious and full of mercy, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

It is the custom in marriages for us to exchange rings as a tangible symbol of the promises we make to one another on that day, something we can see and touch as a reminder that goes forward with us into the ups and downs of married life. It’s something we need as creatures of flesh and blood, something to remind us when the going gets tough. And so, as we all learned way back in our Sunday School days, God gave us a tangible sign along with his Covenant promise – he set the rainbow in the heavens, that glowing arc of every color, to remind us that he will certainly keep all of his promises to us. Just as the heavens opened up and the glory of God appeared when Jesus was baptized, and the voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my beloved.” so when we see the arc of the rainbow in the clouds, God is reminding us of his Covenant promise, and renewing his vow to every created thing, “You are my beloved. I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” Even when it seems like we’re dancing in the minefields, surrounded by dangers on every side; even when it seems like we’re sailing through storms, blown off course, knocked down every time we try to get up; even when life seems harder than we dreamed – that’s what the promise is for. Our God is the God of the Covenant, the God who loves us and who will keep his promises to his whole creation – and even death itself is not able to separate us from his love.