"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” That is one of the perennial questions that confront the human race. It is an inescapable fact of life—bad things happen to all of us, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. There is no human life untouched by suffering and loss. We cannot help but ask, “Why?”

Christians, and the people of Israel before us, have pondered that question deeply. We know that when God created the world He pronounced it “very good.” And we know that our Father Creator is good and just. Indeed, He is pure Goodness and Justice. Yet we live in a world that is not always good and where justice does not always prevail. It is a world where things fall apart and we cannot put them back together again, a world of death and decay.

In the Gospel lesson today our Lord Jesus addresses a solution to the problem of evil commonly held in His own day. You see, some first century Jews thought they had found a straight-forward explanation for the troubles of this life. They simply denied that bad things happened to good people. From their point of view, good people are rewarded by God and bad people are punished. If you follow the Law of God, health and wealth and happiness will follow right behind. Sin against God, on the other hand, and His wrath awaits you. If something bad happens to you, it’s because you are a sinner. This is a clear and simple solution, and it is not difficult to find passages in the Old Testament that appear to support it.

Take the case of certain Galileans who had been murdered by the Romans while in the act of sacrificing to God. Now that was very bad. Not only had these people been killed, but their deaths had polluted the temple of God with human blood. A more complete catastrophe could hardly be imagined by faithful Jews. If the “you-sinned-and-you-have-been-punished” explanation is valid, these Galileans must have done something unspeakably wicked. Or what about the eighteen people who were crushed under that tower in Jerusalem when it collapsed? Just imagine what they must have done wrong for God to smite them in such a spectacular way. Thank goodness we are not that bad!

But Jesus will not stand for it. If we look at the context of our Gospel lesson today, we discover that Christ is addressing both his disciples and “the multitudes”. He is speaking to a “mixed bag” of all kinds of Jews, faithful and lax, educated and ignorant, those who have left everything to follow Him and random passers-by. And Jesus tells them that none of them are morally superior to the victims of these disasters. Destruction awaits all those present unless they repent. It seems there may be some truth, after all, in the theory that bad things happen to bad people. The problem is, if we look in the mirror we discover that we all on the road to Perdition! We have all “got it coming”! As St. Paul would tell us, “There is no one righteous. No. Not one.”

So there is no place for spiritual pride or complacency among those who would be saved. As our lesson from First Corinthians reminds us today, even people who have been greatly blessed by God may still be lost if they do not stay close by the Lord and seek to follow His will. God brought the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, revealed to them the perfect Law, and marked them uniquely as His covenant people. He fed Israel with bread from Heaven and let them drink from the spiritual Rock—the pre-existent Christ Himself. Yet they turned away from Him and were struck down in the Wilderness. One cannot simply “coast” into the blessedness of God. He expected love and obedience from them in return, and most did not give it.

The idolatry, immorality, and discontent St. Paul attributes to ancient Israel are, or course, still with us. The human heart has not changed a bit in the last 3,500 years. We are just as much “poor, banished children of Eve” as they were. And we live in the same fallen world they did. It is a world that is perishing, a world where things fall apart—where you and I fall apart. This has been the common lot of the human race since the day our First Parents were driven from the Garden of Eden. Mankind was created by God for permanence. We were meant to eat from the tree of Life and walk and talk with our Creator in blessedness forever. But we have lost that. Now even the ground is cursed because of our pride, and in the sweat of our faces we eat our bread. We bear our children in pain till we return to the earth; for we are people of the dust and to dust we shall return. It is the nature of sin to rob us of the enduring blessings God intended for us. Our rebellious hearts infect everything we touch with decay and death. “Unless you repent,” Christ tells us, “you will all likewise perish.” That is a weighty Lenten message, indeed.

But we are not left in despair, my friends. There are few stories in the Bible more awe-inspiring than our Old Testament lesson today. In it we find Moses, a fugitive from justice wanted for murder. He has been reared as a prince of Egypt, but is now a shepherd in a hard and bitter land. He is an outcast, living in a world of dust where nothing lasts. Everything in the desert falls apart before the heat and the wind, and Moses the sinner has been slowly disintegrating himself for quite some time. But one day on the holy mountain this ghost of a man unexpectedly came upon He who is Real and Permanent. In the bush that burns but is not consumed Moses encounters the One who is the source of all motion yet never changes, He who is boundless energy and rock-solid stability all at once. Moses stands on holy ground before the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, seen and unseen. And to this hollow man the Hidden God reveals His exalted Name, His identity as "I AM WHO I AM." In the Greek version of the Bible known to St. Paul and the four Evangelists fourteen hundred years later God’s sacred Name is rendered in two magnificent Greek words—Ho Wn, “Absolute Being,” the One-who-truly-IS.

Moses stood barefoot before the Absolute that day not only as representative of Israel, but of all sinful men and women everywhere—we who have been robbed of our permanence by sin and are passing away into death. And Moses received the promise of redemption along with the Exalted Name of God. That promise of redemption was not fully realized for the people of Moses’ time. God intended them to drink from the spiritual Rock that sustains all things, the Fountain of Living Water that conveys the permanence of eternal life. But sin barred their way to this life-giving Water, and they perished in the Wilderness. The hold of sin was too strong for them to break free.

But thanks be to God it is not so for you and me. For the Holy One of the burning bush has restored the gift of permanence to our human nature by becoming one of us. Our Lord Jesus Christ, Absolute Being become frail Humanity, took our iniquities to the cross in His own precious Body and suffered Himself to depart from this world under the cloud of death just as you and I will. Then He kicked down the gates of Hades and dealt Satan a grievous blow, trampling down death by His own death.

By His victory over sin and the grave Christ has broken sin’s hold over us, His brothers and sisters. But we can, unfortunately, through carelessness or willing submission allow ourselves to fall back into sin’s clutches. When we do, our access to the River of Life is impeded. We are isolated from the only thing that ultimately matters. And that is tragic. But no one who has faith in Christ Jesus needs to settle for bondage any longer. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength”, St. Paul reminds us. If we repent of our sins and turn back to the One who loves us and gave Himself up for us, Christ graciously allows us to bask in His limitless, divine Being. We will never be without His Living Water welling up in our souls to eternal life. For “He redeems [our] life from the grave and crowns [us] with mercy and loving-kindness.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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