Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, August 4, 2019, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

I had a sermon written and prepared, about wealth, and responsibility, and charity, and using our riches to build up the kingdom of God.

Then El Paso.

Then eighteen, nineteen, twenty killed; then 26 wounded.

I was ready to speak about our personal riches, our societal riches, and how wealth is to be shared, not hoarded.

Then Dayton, Ohio.

At least nine killed, say the earliest reports. At least 16 wounded.

It was the second American mass shooting in less than 24 hours, and the third in a week. Thirty-second this year.

Waking in the still-dark morning hours, I found I have no words.

Following— which shooting, two years ago? I can’t remember— Bishops United Against Gun Violence issued a statement. They said:

“The heart of our nation has been broken yet again by another mass shooting… The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been devalued by politicians whose prayers seem never to move them to act against their self-interests or the interests of the National Rifle Association. Yet, as Christians, we believe deeply in the power of prayer to console, to sustain and to heal, but also to make evident the work that God is calling us to do. We pray that all who have been touched by this violent act receive God’s healing and solace….

“In the wake of this massacre, we believe God is calling us to understand that we must not simply identify the social and political impediments to ending these lethal spasms of violence in our country. We must reflect on and acknowledge our own complicity in the unjust systems that facilitate so many deaths, and repent and make reparations.” [1]

# # #

In February 2018 — let’s see, that was the high school in Parkland, Florida — Fr. Allan Warren, then rector of the Advent, distributed to the congregation and friends of the parish a piece by Jay Parini, teacher at Middlebury College and author of “The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life.” Fr. Warren said to me at the time, “I wish I had read this Sunday morning from the pulpit.” Sadly, tragically, today provides an opportunity to do just that.

The title: “America’s Cult of Guns.” Some excerpts:

It is safe to say that nobody in the cult of guns listens to Jesus.

We’re reminded of the evil at the heart of this every [time] some demented individual gathers a cache of semiautomatic firearms — or even … just one powerful assault rifle — and goes on a rampage.

Parkland will before long drop down the long list of recent school shootings. There is every reason to believe it will be second or third behind some new tragedy, just another name on a long list: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and so forth. Added to these we have the rampages in Las Vegas, Orlando, and countless other places. None of this will stop unless the cult of guns is curbed.

As a Christian, I’m appalled by the hypocrisy I see among others of my faith, particularly those who are our leaders in government and show eagerness to participate in this cult. They worship false idols in the form of weapons, and turn their back on the teachings of Jesus, who did not equivocate when it came to violence. It is safe to say that nobody in the cult of guns listens to Jesus.

Guns are a religion now. And too many of our fellow citizens -including evangelical Christians, of all people — will continue to heedlessly worship at this altar, despite the dead children, the dead teachers, the dead concertgoers and the innocent bystanders who must sacrifice their lives for others’ overriding faith in their weapons.

They will [continue], unless you do something.

They are in something like a cult, and like all cults, difficult to break from, to stop or influence. It’s an American thing, religious – yes — in scope, fundamentalist in its fanaticism and fervor, without precise parallel anywhere else in the world.

This won’t be easy; the cult has a lot of money behind it. The money pours in from the “devout”: small-time contributions to the NRA that amount to hundreds of millions of dollars each year. This money is used, in our skewed version of democracy, to influence politicians, who are only too happy to be bought.

But cults are not subject to reason. They have their fiery preachers, their arcane lore, their faith in Fox News hosts who peddle phony stories, their “churches” — gun shows — and deeply ingrained mythologies. These are all supported strongly by the NRA and the weapons manufacturers.

Hollywood doesn’t help, and never has: The American taste for violence is notorious, and we spread this ghastly predisposition around the world.

What would help? You. Elections. Sensible laws.

But this is going to require mental and spiritual toughness, a genuine resolve to end the killing and persuade those trapped in the cult of guns that it’s in everyone’s best interest for them to step out of that darkness. [2]

I close with these words from the Bishops: “Two years after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that took the life of [six-year-old] Ben Wheeler, an active young member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Connecticut, his father, David, asked parents to look at their children and then ask themselves, ‘Am I doing everything I can to keep them safe? Because the answer to that question, if we all answer honestly, clearly is no.’

“In memory of Ben and all of God’s children lost to senseless gun violence, may God give us grace and fortitude in our witness so that we can, at last, answer yes.”

For the love of God, Yes.


[1] Bishops Against Gun Violence — an ad hoc group of over 80 Episcopal bishops. http://bishopsagainstgunviolence.org/

[2] For an updated version of his piece (Friday, May 31, 2019) see https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/15/opinions/americas-cult-of-guns-parini/index.html

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, July 21, 2019, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The story of Jesus’s visit with Martha and her sister Mary is one with a lesson, about the importance of cutting through distractions and focusing on the essential. Our Lord Jesus uses Martha’s experience as illustrative of this point, because she is the one who seems obviously to be carried away with secondary matters, but if I am right about what is going on in this episode from Luke’s Gospel then Mary has already overcome some potential obstacles standing between her and the Lord Jesus. A few things to notice about the way Luke sets up this story might tell us how that is so.

First of all we are told that Jesus and his disciples have gone on their way. Jesus just sent 70 disciples ahead of him and out to the villages that he himself intends to visit. Those disciples he sent out to households in pairs, yet Jesus is received into a house by himself. And he is received by Martha, who as his host Luke strongly implies is the owner of her own home, which is a bit unusual in this time and place.

The only other person present is not Martha’s husband or some other male relative, which would be customary, but her sister Mary.

Mary’s behavior is a bit unusual too. First, Luke tells us that Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet. This is not a throwaway description of something as trivial as her bodily posture. This is an idiom that means she is his disciple. To “sit at someone’s feet” in the language of the Bible is to be that person’s student and follower.

Second, Luke calls Jesus here not by his name but by his proper title, “the Lord.” Luke is telling us that while perhaps Mary does not fully understand the whole truth of who Jesus is, Luke himself as the narrator does understand this and is suggesting that the Lordship of Christ is the subject of his teaching to his enthusiastic and devoted disciple and student, Mary.

Third, Luke tells us that Mary is listening to what our translation calls the Lord’s “teaching.” That’s a fine translation, nothing wrong with it, but literally what Luke says is Mary is listening to the “word” of the Lord Christ. This too could be read as a hint; Luke is hinting that the substance of what Jesus is telling Mary is not a variety of words on a variety of subjects but the word, the one true word he has to offer about himself, the word of God, the essential message of salvation.

This is also a chance for Jesus to practice what he himself has preached. In this very same chapter he just told the 70 disciples he sent ahead of himself to remain in whatever house receives them, to eat and drink whatever is offered there, and to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand.

So here he is, receiving hospitality from Martha, accepting what he is offered, and proclaiming the truth about himself and the kingdom of God he announces to Mary.

And yet while according to his earlier instructions his disciples should bring peace upon any household that receives them, this household is not entirely at peace.

Martha the householder is carried away with “much serving,” and she is perhaps understandably annoyed that Mary is no help at all.

Hospitality was incredibly important in the ancient Near Eastern world. To receive someone in your home was to owe them a profound service. In Martha’s mind as the home owner she is obligated to her guest and certainly so to a guest who is a religious teacher whose message you are tacitly accepting by welcoming them in to your home.

So all the more is it the case that hospitality is owed to the Lord. Luke even goes so far as to use the Greek word “diakonia” for the “serving” that Martha is busy with; this is the word from which we get our word “deacon,” and Luke certainly knows that a deacon is of course someone specially ordained to serve the body of Christ and particularly to look after the church’s practical needs. So once again we can see here a little hint on Luke’s part that the work Martha is doing is not just ordinary household chores but a form of religiously significant service.

We also know from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is not hesitant to criticize a lack of hospitality when he encounters it. In chapter 7 he reproaches Simon the Pharisee for inviting him to his home but then failing to receive him properly while a woman of ill repute lavishly welcomes him by washing his feet, kissing them, and anointing them with oil.

That incident is quite a scandalous one, because the woman who welcomes Jesus so intimately is a known sinner, and Simon the Pharisee host is grumbling about this much as Martha is grumbling about her sister’s attention to Jesus.

So here’s the one thing missing in most studies of the Martha and Mary episode. To a contemporary reader of Luke’s Gospel, the story of Martha and Mary I suspect is almost as scandalous as the one about the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet.

Because here is the thing: Simply by being present to the Lord Jesus and receiving his teaching Mary is probably courting scandal herself. And this might explain why Martha is upset: not just because she is not being helped but because something a bit upsetting is happening in her home.

Jesus, a rabbi, is alone in a room with Mary, and he is teaching her as if she were his disciple. But no rabbi would take a woman as a disciple because you only take on disciples to make of them teachers in their own right when their discipleship is over, and no woman can be a teacher.

This way of thinking is still with us in some quarters. Just last semester one of my students at Harvard was a gifted and thoughtful young lady who had been reared in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. I was telling her about some of my favorite 20th-century Jewish philosophers, none of whom it turned out she had read. When I asked why she was unfamiliar with these works that belong more to her tradition than mine she complained that her education at home had been deficient in a number of ways, not least in that as a young woman she was not allowed even to study Torah thoroughly. I admit I was surprised to hear this. It’s not my place to pass judgment on other practitioners’ of other religions’ policies. I bring it up just to point out that if a woman can be denied theological education today, imagine how outrageous it is that Jesus is teaching a woman in her home in his day.

This I think is why Jesus gently rebukes Martha and puts her back on the right track. It would be totally inconsistent for Luke to teach that practical service and tangible hospitality is not important. In this very same chapter we just read the story of the Good Samaritan, which obviously teaches that practical help to meet people’s material needs is the work that Jesus Christ would have his followers do.

And yet Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good portion, one that cannot be taken away. Martha is troubled about many things, but only one thing matters. That one thing is attention to Christ himself, listening to his word about himself, devotion to his teaching.

Besides the obligation to serve, there is much else about Mary’s world—with all its social norms and expectations—that stands in the way of her attending to this one thing needful, and yet she overcomes those obstacles for the sake of the essential. And so must we.

Most people hearing me now lead very busy lives. We spend a lot of time and energy on many things. A lot of those things I am sure are good things too, acts of service and valuable contributions to the lives of those we love. All that we need though is to hear what the Lord Jesus is telling us about himself and about his will for us. If we can’t hear this, then we can be as busy as we like, but our actions will lack divine direction.

Service is important, but service must be guided by the one we are to serve.

Hospitality is important, but the point of it is to enjoy the presence of the one we have received.

And there is nothing wrong with being busy with many things, but the one thing we really need is to be still and hear the one word that teaches us the truth of all things. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, July 14, 2019, the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The Good Samaritan

The familiar and beloved story of the Good Samaritan has provided inspiration and identity for charitable institutions for centuries. Take, for example, The Pennsylvania Hospital, founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond. The Hospital was very specific regarding who it would admit: “No patient shall be admitted whose Cases are judged incurable” nor “persons suffering with ‘infectious distempers’…” For the hospital’s official seal, Franklin chose a depiction of the wounded man of the story on a donkey, as he is delivered from the hands of the Samaritan who rescued him to the innkeeper who will care for him. “Take care of him and I will repay thee” is inscribed below the image.

Closer to home, the Boston Dispensary was founded in 1796, with a mission of providing free medical care to the poor. (Bear in mind, this was decades before the existence of any of our now-renowned hospitals.) The Dispensary, also, chose a representation of the tale of the Good Samaritan as its identifying image — one that would surely be understood even by those who could not read. It shows the Samaritan tending to the wounded man while the donkey grazes peacefully to one side. When the original Dispensary moved to a new building in 1883, those who came seeking relief were greeted by a bas-relief over the door, based on the original image, but minus the donkey. It still exists, now part of Tufts Medical Center.

Then there’s the Ether Monument, in the Boston Public Garden. It’s the Garden’s oldest monument, erected in 1868. Perched atop the 40-foot spire, the Good Samaritan tends to the wounded man, his act of mercy being linked to the discovery that “the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain.” By using the Biblical image, the monument cleverly avoids the controversy that marked ether’s introduction, as Dr. William Morton and Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson each claimed to be the originator. Their competing claims resulted in a fight called the Ether Controversy. Oliver Wendell Holmes, also a physician, remarked that the monument was to “ether or either,” alluding to the claimants of the discovery.

The Advent’s early records include many notations of pastoral visits — often made at the request of a Sister of St. Margaret, frequently to administer baptism — to the House of the Good Samaritan, founded in 1861 in what is now known as the Longwood Medical Area. In the early 20th century, Advent parishioners Catherine Codman (1857-1945) and her brother Edmund (1864-1947) were on the board of the House of the Good Samaritan, which later became part of Children’s Hospital.

These vignettes convey the deep resonance this parable has held over the years and continues to hold today.

Yet I cannot acknowledge this resonance without also acknowledging the uncomfortable conundrums and unavoidable conflicts that arise from the question, Who is my neighbor? This is especially apparent in the description of House of the Good Samaritan in their 1917 annual report, “A hospital for white women and children without condition of religion, nationality, or residence.”

This place of discomfort — can we really honestly say that we love our neighbor as ourselves? — allows us to enter into the story in some unusual ways. Let me speak for myself. As much as I’d like to model my life on the compassion and mercy of the Good Samaritan, I know I fall short every time I avoid or ignore someone in need — from the person waiting for response to an email or phone message, to the overlooked woman sitting on the sidewalk asking for spare change, to the unanswered appeal for funds from a worthy organization. And as much as I’d like to slip into the role of the kind and generous innkeeper, I am all too aware of my shortcomings when I make decisions about resources of time or money (for example) that benefit me more than others.

And in the end, I am all too aware that it’s a nearly insurmountable challenge for me to love God with *all* my heart, *all* my soul, *all* my strength, *all* my mind.

# # #

There’s another way in which discomfort plays an important role in this story. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has become so ingrained in our vernacular that it has become, inaccurately, a way of describing pretty much anyone who does pretty much anything kind for a stranger. Sadly, this serves to blunt the impact of the story. To fully appreciate the tale as Jesus told it and his disciples heard it, first consider the present discord that divides this country (and many others). Now: think of a group furthest removed from, or in strongest opposition to, your beliefs and values. Then: imagine a person from that group, a person unknown to you, the least likely person you can imagine, unexpectedly coming to help you in a time of crisis or deepest need — help you without asking anything in return. That approximates the shock value embedded in the story of the Good Samaritan.

This is not simply a tale of the kindness of strangers. The story insists that enemies can prove to be neighbors, that compassion has no boundaries, and that judging people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity (or —- fill in the blank) will leave us dying in a ditch.

The lawyer asks, What shall I do…? And indeed this is one of the enduring questions of faith. The story of the Good Samaritan is a reminder that the quest for eternal life is firmly grounded in the here-and-now. Each moment of this mortal, finite existence is an opportunity to do as Jesus says: “Go and do likewise.”

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

May the Lord who gives us the will to do these things give us the grace and power to perform them. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, July 7, 2019, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen

Having listened with your customary attention to the words of today’s Gospel I am sure that many of you are in consequence — as I speak– wrestling with the question of “snake handling”.My reference is to that closing verse:

“I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions,…
and nothing will hurt you” 

That verse will, in turn, have doubtless called to mind the passage in Mark which reads:

17 And these signs shall follow them that believe;
In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18 They shall take up serpents;
and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them;
                                    Mark 16:17-18 (King James Version, KJV)

Not to mention the record in Acts of what happened when St Paul visited Malta and after he:

3 ….had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
(Acts 28)

It was after all these very verses (especially those in St Mark’s Gospel) that led, round the year 1910, a then well known Church of God preacher named George Went Hensley of Grasshopper Valley in southeastern Tennessee, (to begin)… to embark upon the practice of handling venomous snakes during worship in the mountains of Appalachia.

A rather later account of this tradition from the Appalachian Magazine (which is evidently authoritative in such liturgical matters) records that

Worship services usually include singing, praying, speaking in tongues and preaching. The front of the church, behind the pulpit, is the designated area for handling snakes. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads ….are the most common, but even cobras have been used. During the service, believers may approach the front and pick up the snakes, usually raising them into the air…. The snakes are considered incarnations of demons, and handling the snakes demonstrates one’s power over them. Members are not required to handle the snakes. Some believers will also engage in drinking poison (most commonly strychnine) at this time….

If a handler is bitten, it is generally interpreted as a lack of faith or failure to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Bitten believers usually do not seek medical help, but look to God for their healing. George Went Hensley died in Florida in 1955 from a venomous snakebite.” [1]

By comparison with such excitements the liturgy here today may risk seeming overly sedate – not,  I hasten to add,  that I wish in any way to impugn the skills in the domain of spiritual herpetology of the clergy of the parish –should they wish at some point to demonstrate them

– though in that instance I would seek to observe from a respectful distance (there being no recorded case of an observer coming to harm among snake handling congregations).[2]

All of which brings us to two rather interesting questions that arise as we look at the reading from Galatians,  on the one hand, and the Gospel of Luke on the other.

Here I mean the relation between freedom and the earlier (Mosaic) law on the one hand And on the other: the expansion of the church’s mission (post Pentecost) into an epochal transition — namely to embrace the whole world of the Gentiles.

Though just how these points connect with snake handling, I will leave you to ponder….

Expanding Mission to embrace the Gentiles

If we bring together the testimony of Luke (24. 47-9) and Acts (1. 8)  we have first the promise of the risen Lord to the eleven apostles that they will receive power through the Holy Spirit and that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and ‘to the end of the earth’.[3]  – a phrase which could be taken to mean Rome (though it would still be representing the centre of the Gentile world)  or, as I take to be more probable, the furthest extent of the inhabited world.[4]

What is set out in Acts is — a promise that also contains a revelation:

Namely that what is witnessed to, namely the gospel and the risen Lord,

is for the whole world, Jews and Gentiles.

But an interesting question is to exactly whom was the Commission first given?

To the Twelve alone, the Twelve plus Paul, or to the church as a whole, (Luke taking the twelve as representative of the church)?[5] And indeed what was the role of the 70 spoken of in today’s Gospel? (To which the short answer is that they were sent out to implement the vision of evangelism first seen at Pentecost but they were not the source of that vision).

On the one hand, the Apostles function as an historical and defined group connecting the church to Jesus which as such uniquely received the promise, commission and revelation of Christ as ‘witnesses’ to his life, death, and resurrection. But they are also representative believers implementing the mission of the church, which is to be directed to Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the end of the earth, (and the Twelve are not depicted by Luke as missionaries outside Palestine; while Paul and others are).

But, however we seek to resolve the questions of history – the fact of a hugely important shift from a relatively local initial evangelistic context,  framed by Judaism, to a message of salvation made available to the whole world is one of the most fundamental shifts in the entire history of the early church and indeed our very world itself.

Yet there is a dynamic within and framing that change which I suggest we find embedded in the Epistle to the Galatians – and this  lies in the Christian call to authentic freedom which it contains

II

Tellingly,  in Galatians,  St Paul emphasizes primarily Christ’s Advent rather than his parousia and Second Coming at the end of the world. It is the Advent of Christ that marks the fundamental beginning of the new cosmic era.  Something that is set against a strongly apocalyptic background of expectancy in certain strands of Judaism at the time

Thus, there were many Jews eagerly anticipating an apocalyptic event that would see the demise of their present evil age and the rise of a new age to come, when God would rule supreme and exclusively in their midst.  Yet, as the story of the Passion made clear, some were not at all open to the possibility that this hope was to be found in Christ.

Something parallel to this, is clearly present in some of the language of St Paul,  as when he speaks of the ‘present evil age’ and means by this, the life of the world before and without Christ. A life which he sees as lived according to way of flesh (Gal 4:23, 29) and sin (Gal 3:22).  In saying this,  however, it was not our necessarily incarnate condition –as creatures–  that was the problem[6] but rather man’s choice to live according to the dictates of the corrupted world in opposition to God.[7] Thus the present age is evil for St. Paul (Gal 1,4) owing to man’s natural inclination,  (ever since Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden),  to allow himself to submit to this fallen existence.

St. Paul then further reacts very negatively to something introduced originally as a remedy and response to this condition,  namely the Mosaic law.                                                                                                                                                                  This, he states, was introduced because of man’s transgression (Gal 3:19). Accordingly, Law as such,  was not part of God’s original design, rather it was only introduced  after the promise given to Abraham to equip believers with guidance on his will.

Paul thus – as befits a former Pharisee– is positive about this original role for the Mosaic law which he recognizes as divinely given (Gal 3,19-20) while also being emphatic that this settlement and indeed Covenant, only held until the advent of the Son of God namely Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16).

One way to interpret St Paul’s analysis is to see that for him the prior legalist dispensation could never truly allow man to attain the goal to which it pointed – which was perfect obedience. It thus (paradoxically) resulted in establishing all too clearly the inevitability of man– left to his own resources– sinning — in terms of the law, which only emphasized his plight as never ultimately justified before a God –from whom he must be thus forever alienated. (A theme to recur later in a different way in Luther).

Covenantal remedies, might provide temporary relief through law but could not enable man not to sin and provided no remedy for the effects of that sin. Indeed, the law posed a new danger from distraction,  insofar as mankind became enslaved to the pursuit of the law’s myriad precepts rather than to the life of faith. Viewed In this way, law could be seen as an instrument of sin that merely ensnared those who attempted to follow it.

It was for precisely these reasons, therefore, that St Paul was so hostile to those who wanted to maintain the tradition of circumcision. For him this action was of a piece with all the identity markers, cultic, ceremonial, dietary and calendrical laws that comprised the whole Judaic legal system.

Accordingly, to him,  those who wished the early church to revert to circumcision were simply seeking a reversion to the slavish legalism of the old dispensation. Whereas, Christian freedom by contrast, was utterly and radically different and the result of Christ’s liberating those who believe in him, while also setting out a goal and direction for the life of the Christian (and thus offering an ‘imperative’ content) as well.

The richness of thought here is well captured in the words of one commentator who wrote that:

“Theologically, Paul states that there can be no existence in freedom unless man is first given the opportunity of freedom,

but that the opportunity of freedom is given only as the task for freedom…

This task is then defined as the preservation of freedom”[8]

Life in Christ is a life in freedom by virtue of being the life in which we are enabled to be ourselves most fully, and it has to be preserved from any form of slavery. In the same vein, believers had to put it into practice, as assuredly as Christ had to put into practice,  that which God willed for the purpose of saving us. …. For only by taking up the freedom obtained by Christ and by sharing in his act, could freedom really come to fruition.

But here too is a deep theological answer to the question of why the early church was able to see that the message of salvation in Christ was one for all mankind and not one restricted to his own Jewish people alone.

For the message of Christ was one of access to the true freedom found in the fullness of what it is to be our human selves most fully – and that was a message that by definition stood for all mankind – for whom Christ had died – whereby he alone could make possible our atonement with and before God.

And that is why too – however paradoxical it may at first seem, in the Pauline sense, “‘to be free’ means to participate in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection” too.[9]

For, “True Christian freedom, therefore, is the subjective experience of the restoration of the image of God through union with Christ” [10] and it is through this also that God’s holiness and righteousness can come to expression in ethical conduct that is in conformity with love.   (Gal 5:13-14).[11]

Notable in all this is the implicit challenge that St Paul makes,  by asking ultimately if the most effective God-honouring ethic can truly be the fruit of external laws?

St Paul saw a clear contrast between the notions of works of the flesh (Gal 5:19) and fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) while in Gal 5:14, he also states (As our Eucharistic text reminds us) that the whole law is fulfilled in the love command.  Thus for him, the fruit of the Spirit, starting with love, ends with self-control and other good things all of which is consistent with his view that in those who have been received into the body of Christ, (which is to say those in whom the Spirit of Christ is active and who have a share in the gifts of this living fellowship), the outworking of this – the fruit – appears naturally and is not as it were manufactured from laws on the outside as it were. [12]

Accordingly the authentic ‘pneumatological ethic’ of freedom can yield neither licentiousness nor laissez faire anarchy. But is rather  to be found in a well-ordered life maintained in the absence of law’s dictates, yet in accordance with the divine and loving inner guidance of the Spirit.

Where one is not reduced to being unthinkingly reliant merely upon some form of external code but rather engages responsibly in doing the hard work of figuring out God’s will in a given situation. The believer’s ethical responsibility cannot be abdicated mechanically in favour of a set of external codes (where actions stand merely in relation to adherence or deviation from sets rules or predetermined norms). Rather the believer must seek to do God’s will in every given situation, and thus to love one’s neighbour, in concretely considered ways that manifest this highest goal of actualizing love.

Thus, the believer is called to be responsible so to speak on both a vertical level (which is his relationship with God), while also seeking to live life in the Spirit such that each one of us can truly fulfil our horizontal responsibility to love our neighbour as well. (For the second is entailed by and instantiates the first).

BUT where are the snakes in all this?  You may ask…. Where do they fit?

Well the short answer is that they do not – they are a distraction!

And what matters is to understand why….

For while in one sense,  snake handling might seem an eccentric testimony both to human freedom and trust in God. In fact this phenomenon represents the opposite.

It reflects an underlying legalist and transactional relation to God – who will not –as we have been warned in the Bible,  be thus “put to the test”,  but it also represents a dark misuse of our capacity for freedom as is amply demonstrated by its failure to promote fullness of human flourishing and the sad record of injury and death such conduct left behind it.

By contrast let us remember the words from Isaiah

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass;…

and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants,

AMEN.


[1] “A Glimpse Into the Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia”,  Appalachian Magazine, April 3, 2017.

[2] For a fuller history of this curious religious phenomenon see, David L Kimbrough Taking Up Serpents: A History of Snake Handling,  2002.

[3] Although the promise is given only to the eleven we may assume the Twelve are meant.

[4] The phrase itself is derived from Isa. 49. 6, and is used again in Acts 13. 47 in relation to the Gentile mission.

[5] Since in Acts, Paul is later given an individual commission, the second possibility is unlikely

In the actual mission activity of the church, if we leave aside Paul and his co-workers, the only evangelists Luke presents are Peter and John, Stephen and Philip; the apostles remain in Jerusalem at 7. 1. There is no point in which we are shown the general activity of the church in mission.

[6] Cf. Bultmann’s living “in the flesh”: Theologie des Neuen Testaments. Tübingen: Moore-Siebeck1953, 231-234.

[7] Cf. H.N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids:1975, p. 66; Hans Kung 1968, The Church, 8. 151-3.

[8] H.D. Betz, A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia, Philadelphia, 1979, p 256.

[9] Ibid, p.256.  When the Galatians experienced the Spirit of God in all his wonder (Gal 3:1-5), it was not an experience unrelated to Christ’s work of salvation. The Spirit was presented to them as nothing less than the Spirit of Christ. St Paul depicts their experience of the reception of the Spirit (in Gal 3:1-2) very vividly (“before whose eyes”) as a portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion. It was thus, because of Christ’s Spirit having been sent to them, that they could partake in his redemptive act of liberation; that is, his crucifixion and resurrection.  It was because of the Spirit’s mission to them that they were able to confess what Paul himself does in Gal 2:20 namely – “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Hence St. Paul’s reference to the believer’s new status as, a “new creation” (Gal 6:15) where the believer has been re-oriented to life and can no longer live life merely as before. Through the Spirit’s baptising of the believer into Christ and his salvation, the believer is free from the slavery of the present evil age. And it is because of this freedom the believer can produce the fruit of the Spirit. Hence also the conclusion that: “If you are led by the Spirit you are not under law” (Gal 5:18) – as there is simply no need for it. The new situation is that salvation was brought about by the faithfulness of Christ (Gal 2:16) (Cf. Hays The Faith of Jesus Christ : An Investigation of the Substructure of Paul’s Theology in Galatians 3:1, 1983, 249-50)

and revealed to believers’ hearts by the Spirit (Gal 3:3). Believers are now themselves crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and dead to the world and the world to them (Gal 6:14). This new life has to be lived in the very same faithfulness of Christ (Gal 2:20), and in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25). This reality is characterised by the opposite alignment to that of the old dispensation, namely by the alignment of Spirit, faith, freedom and promise

[10] G.W. Hansen, ‘Resurrection and the Christian Life in Paul’s Letters’, 203-224, in R.N. Longenecker (Ed.), Life in the Face of Death. The Resurrection Message of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, 1999.

[11] Hansen, Ibid, 1999, 212.

[12] Through subsequent history there has been a recurring fear that all this talk of freedom and release from the law might simply result in licentiousness. (And just such a fear that has repeatedly opened the way for some new form of legalism or neo-nomistic ethic with the result that while introduced with the noblest of intentions, most especially when undertaken with the intent to honour God it ends up undermining what it was intended to protect.

Sermon by the Rt. Rev’d Alan M. Gates at the Church of the Advent, July 1, 2019

A sermon given on Monday, July 1, 2019, at The Church of the Advent, Boston,
in observance of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (transferred),
and hosting the Association of Anglican Musicians

Restoring, Transporting, Resounding

The king was out of his mind. King Philippe V, he was, grandson of Louis XIV of France. Philippe sat on the Spanish throne, ruling that country in the early 1700s. The nature of his mental illness is hard to say, from such a distance. He would howl long into the night; lie in bed in his own excrement; play endlessly with clocks; go days – sometimes weeks – without talking. That he was not deposed from his throne was remarkable. That he was able to hold on was thanks, in large measure, to Farinelli.

As this gathering will know more likely than most, Carlo Farinelli was an Italian- born singer in a family of singers. At the age of ten, upon the authority of his parents, Carlo was entered into the ranks of the castrati. That which we gather to have been a pure, genderless, ethereal sound was, of course, a sound born of barbaric cruelty, something that doubtless should never have been heard and should never be heard again.

When he was 32 years old, Farinelli was persuaded by King Philippe’s wife Isabella to come to Spain, to sing for the ailing King. And sing he did. Some of you will have seen Clare van Kampen’s play Farinelli and the King, which ran four months in London in 2015, and three months on Broadway last year. As imagined by van Kampen, Philippe receives Farinelli initially because he senses a certain bond in circumstance. “We were both made [who we are] against our will,”[i] the King tells the castrato: It is no more natural for one to be a king than it is for the other to be what he is. Both have been “robbed of normality.” Both men, concludes the King, have unreasonable, impossible expectations heaped upon them – by their families, by the public, even by God.

Philippe: “You have a world of subjects – as I do. Mine were given to me by God, though. I wish I were a pagan.”

Farinelli: “Why?”

Philippe: “Many gods are fun; one is a nightmare. … He keeps us on a tight rein.”[ii]

If Farinelli was accepted by the King at first for his companionable brokenness, he was kept on for the ethereal beauty of his singing. His music had its way with the mad monarch. Gradually, but inexorably, the king was drawn out of his isolation and darkness by that music. It re-centered him, it re-focused him, it restored him. It reconciled him to the world around him – even to the impossibility of his vocation. That which the King termed the “music of the spheres” evoked truth, love, and beauty. The king was brought back from his dark place of despondency, his loss of purpose, his sense of inadequacy, relieved of his anxiety and his isolation. Farinelli sang him to his senses – at least for a time.

Last year, having just seen the play in New York, I conveyed this story to the clergy of Massachusetts at their Holy Week Chrism Mass with Renewal of Ordination Vows. It is an unwise and unappealing aspect of our vocation that clergy too often talk as though, like the King or the castrati, we were somehow forced into holy orders. We weren’t. We discerned it and we professed a calling to it. However, the isolation, the overwrought expectations, and a sense of inadequacy and discouragement – these things are familiar to those in holy orders.

I believe that church musicians are prone to the same challenges – byproducts of a relentless dedication to excellence, devotion to God, and service to worshipping communities sometimes (shall we say) ‘uneven’ in their appreciation of the gifts and the sacrifice you offer. Many of you are bi-vocational, adding its own features of impossibility and anxiety. As leaders in religious communities, then, clergy and church musicians alike might resonate with Philippe’s evident need for relief from isolation and disquiet.

And if we need such a thing, how much more does the world around us need it: a world marked by unease, isolation, inadequacy – a world, frankly, like Philippe, descending into madness! How else to describe a nation which owes its very existence to immigration yet is determined to turn its back on immigrants? How else to describe a world which seems willing to commit ecological suicide? How else to describe a culture in which the solution to too many guns is thought to be more guns? All of it is madness, surely.

So if we are caught in our own vocational miasmata, and collectively in a cultural and global madness, then I expect we need Farinelli to sing us back to our senses. We need to be inspired again. We need to glimpse a beauty far beyond our mundane, quotidian existence; we need to hear a truth that puts “truthiness” and “alternative facts” to shame; we need to know a love that proves itself by its willingness to lose itself. Beauty, truth, love – this is the song of Farinelli that our world needs to hear.

Musicians here in the Diocese of Massachusetts have often heard me assert my conviction that music is the church’s 8th sacrament. Congregations sometimes claim that coffee hour is the 8th sacrament. Jokingly? Maybe. But I am altogether serious in my conviction that what you administer is the 8th sacrament – maybe even the 3rd. You know that historically the church defines a sacrament as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In other words, something tangible to our senses – seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting – which communicates things that are not tangible to our senses. Big things. True things. Spiritual things. Cosmic things.

Music, I need not tell you, has the power to do exactly that. To move us deeply, from the inside out. To transport us to another place. To make manifest what St Paul calls “sighs too deep for words.”

The joint observance of Peter and Paul in today’s transferred feast is a commemoration of complementarity. The impulsive fisherman and the deliberate scholar; the apostle to the circumcised and the apostle to the Gentiles. Together their witness to the gospel goes far beyond the sum of their individual labors. They complete each other.

As regards Peter and Paul, and complementary vocations, I honestly cannot imagine having lived out the past thirty-two years in holy orders without the collegial companionship, friendship, and profound giftedness of the church musicians alongside whom I have been privileged to serve.[iii] At our best, our witness to the gospel is far beyond the sum of our separate, respective vocations.

Do you understand yourselves as sacramentalists? I hope that you do: stewards of ‘an outward and audible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ The beauty of Farinelli’s song smote the mad king, not just because of the quality of his voice, but because his gift took the monarch somewhere else. Its beauty reminded the king that the anxious, lonely isolation which had become his dwelling place was not that for which he was created. Nor is it for us; nor is it for our world. That song the king heard was a song of restoration, renewal, yea even resurrection.

Martin Luther wrote that the gospel “is not what one finds in books …; it is rather … a living Word, a voice that resounds throughout the world … so that one hears it everywhere.”[iv] The gospel of Christ which you and I have been given to convey; the sacraments with which you and I have been entrusted – each in our own way; the reconciling love and high beauty which you and I have been charged to make manifest – these are the “voice” that we are to cause to “resound throughout the world.”

So, friends, resound away! Make your music. Lead your people. Administer your sacrament in quiet corners, for consolation. Administer it in faithful communities, for inspiration. Administer it to the hurting world, for healing. Sing for us a song of grief. Sing for us a song of hope. Sing for us a song of beauty and truth, for the love of God.


i – Claire van Kampen, Farinelli and the King (London: Oberon Books, 2018), p. 24.

ii – Ibid., p. 24.

iii – Deepest gratitude to James Busby, Patrick Turley, Don Horisberger, Steven Plank, Richard Nelson, and the inimitable Karel Paukert – colleagues extraordinaire.

iv – “Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter” in The Way to Heaven’s Doore: An Introduction to Liturgical Process and Musical Style, Steven Plank (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1994), p. 130.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, June 23, 2019, the Second Sunday after Pentecost

As some of you will know, I just returned from my first trip to Israel; I am glad to back among you, here in my church home.

While I did not travel to the Holy Land primarily for spiritual reasons but mostly for a conference to do with my full-time job in academia, you cannot help but be spiritually touched when you are in the land where our Lord lived his incarnate life. I learned a great deal as a result of being there, and I gained a new perspective on Scripture and our Savior to whom Scripture witnesses.

It’s a cliché to say that the Holy Land is home to the three great monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The truth is the place shelters great variations and divisions within those faiths and more besides.

I spent, for example, three days in Haifa, where one of the primary sights to see is the Bahá’í Gardens. Not many people are familiar with the Bahá’í religion, but Haifa and nearby Acre are its holiest places. The Bahá’í faith took its present shape in 1844 under the leadership of a young Persian who developed a prophetic version of Shia Islam. He called himself the Báb or “Gate,” and he regarded it as his mission to foretell the last and greatest divine prophet, one who would stand in the line of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed but surpass them all. For this heretical view that Mohammed would be superseded he was persecuted and eventually executed. His disciples persisted though, and one of them, who called himself the Bahá’u’lláh, “The Glory of God,” had a vision in prison in 1852 that he was that prophet foretold by the Báb. The Bahá’u’lláh wrote the sacred texts of the Bahá’í faith in a prison in Acre, only a few miles from Haifa, where the Báb’s body was taken and buried in a resplendent garden of 19 levels, one for the Báb himself and one for each of his original 18 followers. His burial place in that garden is a pilgrimage site for the world’s 7 million Bahá’í believers to this day.

Something else you will see a lot of around Israel are posters plastered up at bus stops and on light poles of a famous and important rabbi. Most visitors could be forgiven for not knowing who this rabbi is, but if a rabbi can be a rock star, this is him. The posters depict Menachem Mandel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rabbi who propelled the Chabad Hasidic movement to a global phenomenon. No one disputes that Rabbi Schneerson was a man of impressive learning, enormous personal charisma, and profound piety, but many say he was more. The posters stuck up all over Jerusalem in odd corners and hard-to-reach places are printed on a signature yellow that Rabbi Schneerson’s most enthusiastic followers have chosen as emblematic of their belief that Schneerson is not in fact an ordinary rabbi or even a rock star rabbi but is the long-awaited Messiah himself, and they have slogans in Hebrew declaring him to be so. Believers in the Rabbi as Messiah are routinely discredited by mainstream Judaism, but they are not few in number. Twenty years after his death, 50,000 people visited his grave in Queens, New York, and as I can attest, in Israel enthusiastic belief in his messianic status would appear widespread.

I bring these examples up because they tell us something important about the background of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus has been praying alone, as in Luke’s Gospel he often is, especially right before pivotal events in his ministry.

This is one such pivotal event.

He retires from private communion with God his Father and asks the disciples who the people say he is.

Some say John the Baptist, killed at the hand of King Herod but now returned from the dead.

Some say Elijah, who never actually died but was caught up into heaven by a chariot of fire and thus was widely believed to be bound to return to earth to prophesy the imminent coming of the Messiah.

Some say a prophet arisen to minister again after centuries without any prophet in Israel.

These were all popular ideas.

Even King Herod himself in the exact same chapter of Luke’s Gospel puzzles over the exact same possible explanations of who Jesus is. “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” he asks, and he’s baffled at the rumors he is hearing: about John the Baptist being raised from the dead when he had already beheaded John or about Elijah reappearing or about the arising of a prophet of old.

None of these answers, while popular, is true. This is why Jesus asks those to whom he has revealed himself most plainly, those in whose sight he has performed wondrous miracles, those who are nearer to him than any others:

“Who do you say I am?”

This is not an idle question. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. Thousands of religious leaders, mystics, persons of deep spiritual wisdom by their lives pose this same question. Who do you say I am? The Báb, “The Gate,” the foreteller of the last and greatest prophet, the Bahá’u’lláh, “The Glory of God,” the founder of a new religion, the last Lubavitcher Rabbi.

Peter speaks for Jesus’s disciples when he says you are the Christ of God. The anointed one, God’s Messiah.

This is the true answer. But getting the true answer is not good enough.

We know this because Jesus rushes right into a response of his own to Peter’s truthful declaration. Unlike in Mark and Matthew, where Jesus at least takes a moment to congratulate Peter for getting it right, here Jesus rushes into a sobering warning that the disciples should not tell anyone this truth and furthermore that as Messiah he must, he must, as if by divine imperative: suffer, be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

Why is Jesus in such a rush to make this terrible declaration, something he does for the first time in Luke’s Gospel at this pivotal moment?

I think it’s because he wants to be clear what it means to be the Messiah. We have already seen that there were plenty of popular beliefs about who Jesus could be, and these beliefs were entertained by everyone from the common folk to King Herod himself.

Jesus shushes his disciples about what his Messiahship means because nobody can imagine what kind of Messiah he is. For Luke, it is true that Jesus is the Messiah, but just because Peter and the disciples have figured that out doesn’t mean that they understand what it means for him to be the Messiah, and in fact no one at the time understood what it means.

I would say in fact that even today many do not understand what it means.

For Luke, the meaning of Jesus being the Messiah cannot be understood apart from the reality of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.

This, incidentally, is the primary reason mainstream Jews will say that Rabbi Schneerson cannot be the Messiah. They look to no less an authority than Maimonides, the greatest Jewish thinker of the entire Middle Ages, for support. Maimonides said that the Messiah would be born into an unredeemed world, that he would restore the temple, and then gather all Israel together.

Therefore, according to the great Maimonides, anyone who died in an unredeemed world cannot be the Messiah. Rabbi Schneerson died in an unredeemed world, so he cannot be the Messiah.

By the same logic, Jesus cannot be the Messiah. But it’s worse than it even seems.

Because Jesus did not just die in an unredeemed world. He died at the hands of an unredeemed world.

He died for an unredeemed world.

This is the shocking, even scandalous truth of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.

And no sooner does he make it clear that this what being Messiah means, with the same haste he makes it clear what it means for us to affirm and accept him as Messiah. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This is what it is to be one of Jesus’s disciples.

In Luke chapter 6, Jesus says something about being a disciple. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.”

So if Jesus must die on the cross then so must we.

And yet notice something else unique to Luke’s version of this story. Unlike in Matthew and Mark Jesus does not just say his followers must take up their cross. In Luke, he says we must take up our cross “daily.”

The Christian life is not necessarily one of obvious imitation of Our Lord’s literal martyrdom. But it is a matter of dying daily to self.

Every crucified person was put to the pain and humiliation of carrying their own cross to the place of their final execution. This is a bit like being forced to dig your own grave. It is a terrifying reminder of your own imminent death and a degrading compulsion to participate in your own death. This is what we are told by our Lord it means to follow him.

Did you ever hear somebody refer to some minor problem in their life as “their cross to bear?” This is not what it means. Having a cross to bear is not a matter of putting up with a personal annoyance.

Bearing the cross is the way we follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Discipleship is a daily affair, a matter of day in and day out accepting the burden of living each day as if it were our last, putting our own beloved selves to death.

This sounds a bit grim, and maybe it is. But we lose our lives for his sake in order to save our lives. And remember what Jesus says about a disciple and his teacher. “Every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.”

By taking up the cross daily we are not just putting up with annoyances or building character. We are becoming like our teacher. We are becoming like Christ.

Because it is in the imitation of Christ that we get to know who Christ is, and it is in the imitation of Christ that we become like him.

He accompanies us in our suffering and trials, and it is in that dying to self that we come to know him for who he is.

The question remains: “Who do you say I am?” There is only one way to find out. We can say the true words: “You are the Christ of God.” But to know what it means we must walk in his way. We persevere under the burden of the cross because there under that weight we come to really know the one who carried it first—and carried it for us.

Amen.