Sunday, November 29, 2020
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Fr Ed Bakker
Come and see”
Scripture sounds the notes of an ending and a beginning on this day, the Sunday Next before Advent. This day both concludes the course of the Son’s life in us – “the Lord our Righteousness” - and returns us to the beginning of the course he runs for us – “Behold the Lamb of God”. The righteousness of Christ, the right ordering of our loves and our lives, is what we have sought in the long course of the Trinity season. But the course he runs for us is the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice. It is the way that we travel with him in the pageant of faith from Advent to Trinity.
Such times of transition signal occasions of renewal - a renewal of love, a re-awakening of the soul’s desire for holy things, a divine stirring up of our wills. We come to the Advent of Christ. Advent is the season of God’s revelation, the motion of God’s Word and Son towards us for the sake of our knowing. Our text sounds the measure of the season and beyond the season strikes the note of our soul’s salvation. “Come and see”.
In St. John’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first statement. It comes in response to the disciples’ answer to his very first gospel utterance, a question which he puts to them and to us, “What seek ye?” (What do we want?). They answer with a question that has a twofold significance: “Rabbi (which means Teacher), where are you staying?” Here is no question of idle curiosity, but one which is deep and profound. It speaks about the yearning of our hearts and the desiring of our minds. It speaks about the awakened desire of the soul for God. But how is the question twofold? By its address as well as its request.
"Rabbi – Teacher”. They identify Jesus as a Teacher, one who can instruct them, teach them, enlighten them with an understanding which they seek but do not have. They seek to know. To know what? Is it information? Do they seek to know a host of busy details about a myriad of busy things? “God is in the details”, it is commonly said. To be sure, but he is not the details. God cannot be reduced to a data sheet of statistics or to the memory bank of a computer. “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” T.S. Eliot asks, the knowledge of God lost not found in the details, in the rush and crush of busy and disordered lives.
For in such things there is no satisfaction; no true seeking where there is no desiring for a true finding . No. They seek more than information. And so must we. They seek the understanding upon which all our inquirings and all our doings depend. They seek the reason and cause of all things, the knowledge of what is, what remains, and what ever shall be. And so must we.
They seek an understanding of God’s will and purpose. They seek his abiding Word in the midst of the changing world. Why? Because nothing else is worth living for and they would live with the knowledge of that truth. And so they ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” They would remain with him who would enlighten their minds to their heart’s desire. They seek the Messiah, the promised anointed one of God, yet Christ will be more than the Messiah they seek. For God’s revelation of himself does not so much mean the lowering of God to us, as the raising of us to God, hence “Come and see”. He has come to us in order that we might come to him.
But our seeking is not itself our seeing. Jesus’s question seeks to draw out their proper intention, their true desire and what is truly to be desired. They seek for what they do not have. They seek for what is beyond them. Such a seeking manifests an openness to God’s Word, to the possibilities of divine illumination. As such it belongs to Revelation, to what comes from God to man, what we could in no wise invent. Revelation, not our seeking, is the premiss of our seeing. “In thy light, shall we see light”. We cannot attain to God simply by our seeking. Our seeking cannot make him in the image of our seeking.
No doubt our lives are lives of seeking, of the desiring to know, to have and to enjoy. But according to our own lights, according to the light of our own experiences, we are but darkness. To know that and not to yield to it, but instead to seek for the light which shines in the darkness, is to be open to God’s Revelation.
“Show us the light of thy countenance and we shall be whole”, the Psalmist cries and behold, “Jesus turned and saw them”. Our illumination depends upon God’s Revelation, his turning towards us, his seeing us in the light of his divine knowing. His motion towards us manifests his divine light and makes us partakers of his eternity, now in the illumination by grace and then in the vision of glory.
We are light only in the light of Christ. We are bidden to “come and see” because that light who is Christ comes to us in the darkness of our uncertainties and fears. It is no mere lightning bolt which comes and goes in a flash; it is more like the beacon of a lighthouse constant and secure, at once a warning and a guide. Our faith shall deepen to understanding if we attend to his revelation and let the Teacher teach us about the truth of himself and the truth of ourselves in the light of his grace. He comes to teach us. And so let us indeed cry out, “Rabbi-Teacher”, but even more, let us “come and see”, this Advent and evermore.
“Come and see”
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
"Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way" (Matthew 22:21-22).
The Prayer Book "Offices of Instruction" summarize our duty under the Eighth Commandment ("Thou shalt not steal") in this manner: "To keep my hands from picking and stealing: To be true and just in all my dealings" (BCP 289).
This is wisdom, first of all, because the Church recognizes here in her teaching that there are two kinds of stealing, two ways of depriving someone else of what rightfully belongs to him. The first is "picking and stealing": theft as an act of undisciplined impulse. And this impulse just to grab whatever we desire is very destructive. All loving parents try to teach their children how to fight this temptation and to respect the property of others.
But while the urge to pick and to steal is "childish," it is not "childlike" or innocent in its results. One of the hidden costs of every purchase we make is the storekeeper’s loss through theft, passed on to his customers in higher prices. And it is the weakest and most defenseless members of society who are hurt most by theft-inflated prices: the sick, widows, orphans, the elderly—everyone on a fixed or limited income. In fact, there are entire neighborhoods in our country without a single store because all the stores have been driven out of business by picking and stealing.
And yet, surpassing impulsive theft for sheer destructiveness is the second sort of stealing identified by the Prayer Book: the planned, cold-blooded theft of failing to be true and just in all our dealings. Truth and justice demand effort, but so do their denial. And if picking and stealing can destroy a business or neighborhood, the refusal to be true and just can destroy an entire church, society, or nation.
People make mistakes, of course. But honest people try to learn from their errors. They spend their lives trying to learn truth and justice; while dishonest people actively cultivate their ignorance of what God demands of every human being. Although we can pass a thousand laws to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty (and we have); no human law can succeed where the law of God is despised. The Prayer Book is right. I have no hope of teaching or even forcing you to be honest, until I have worked to keep my own hands from picking and stealing, until I have given my heart to God’s justice and truth in all my dealings.
We are all born into this world as hypocrites, so justice and truth are life-long pursuits of our sanctification in Christ, who even provides for our failures by offering us his Father’s pardon any time we repent our sins. It was this same repentance that Christ sought from the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel, even though they had come to trick him, and not to learn about justice and truth.
Their question about paying taxes to Caesar was a trap. If Christ said to pay the tax, the Pharisees could denounce him to the people as a Roman collaborator. If he spoke against the tax, they could hand him over to the Roman governor as a revolutionary, something they did manage to do on Good Friday.
Yet the Scribes and Pharisees failed, because Christ asked to see their money, which turned out to be Roman coins. Under the Jewish law that the Pharisees claimed to follow, even touching a coin engraved with the image of a man, in this case Caesar, made one unclean and unable to enter the Temple. But they had just come from the Temple with their pouches full of ritually unclean Roman money.
The crowd that had gathered probably burst into laughter at the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, and at Christ’s defeat of their clever plan to best him. All the Pharisees could do was to marvel at their comeuppance, as Christ declared, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."
That word "render" is our key to understanding this teaching of our Lord. It means, "to give someone else what is rightfully his." In this case, the Pharisees had taken Caesar’s money and the other benefits of the Roman political system. In return, they owed Caesar his taxes on that money. The tax wasn’t voluntary. It wasn’t a gift. The tax was a debt, and to fail to pay it would have been theft.
But if Christ has bound us to meet our obligations to our civil governors, we ought not to forget the rest of his teaching that day, by which he bound us to render to God the things that are God’s. It is the Pharisees’ doctrine, and not Christ’s, that we have no king but Caesar (John 19:15). Our Lord Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Whatever lawful authority any king or government may possess can only be given by God. And no state can command our worship, because worship belongs to God alone.
One of the founding principles of the United States, now obscured by secularist propaganda, is that we Americans have no King but Jesus Christ. Our American heritage of national Thanksgiving Days and voluntary annual stewardship drives constitutes our tribute, our custom, our fear, and our honor that are owed to the Sovereign Majesty that rules us and provides for us (compare Romans 13:7, and our duties to earthly rulers). We render unto God what belongs to him by right, our praise and our thanksgiving. We obey his demand for truth and justice in all our doings, even when we deal with him. And, so, what do we owe him?
"Firstfruits" in the Bible are the first, indivisible portion of what we make or do that belongs by right to God, just as "tithes" are God’s first tenth of whatever can be divided. Our lives, therefore, are "firstfruits," because they cannot be divided. They belong to God, or they don’t. In the same way, we pay to God the first, not the last, portion of our income or increase, not as a gift, but as a debt, or we are not giving him what already belongs to him (like a bank that refuses to return our deposits).
But make no mistake about it. God, our King, requires tribute from us, a return on what he has given us. God is the Lord of the visible, as well as the invisible, because he made them both. We owe God our visible tribute for his visible blessings, just as much as we owe him our spiritual worship for his invisible grace.
The Christian Church in modern times has been weakened by the childish myth that we have it harder than the ancients did. We have acted for a century as if we were the first people ever to have the burden of taxes, even though the Lord who taught us to pay firstfruits and tithes was born in Bethlehem because his parents had gone there to pay a tax. We have acted as if money were the issue, and money is always tight. Even billionaires worry that they could use just a few dollars more.
But what matters is truth and justice in all our dealings, even our dealings with God. What matters is, as we say today in our prayers, that "we yield unfeigned thanks" and learn "to ask faithfully [so] that we may obtain effectually." We cannot seriously ask for blessings from a God we disobey. We cannot convert the world to a Faith that we do not practice. We cannot help the poor and the weak if we fail to use the time and the money that God has already given for these purposes.
As we sow, so also shall we reap (Gal. 6:7), and sowing means letting go of something so that God can multiply it and make it great. And if this sounds too direct, consider the bluntness of God in the Holy Scriptures, where he says:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me…in tithes and offerings. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be [food] in my house and prove me…if I will not pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (Malachi 3:8,10).
Truth and justice take courage, and we take courage together because two thousand years ago the Son of God offered everything to save us and to build his Church. We continue to build that Church with him when we do our bounden duty together and render to our Father in heaven the physical worship, our support for his Church, which is his true and most just due. And God will bless our loyalty beyond our reckoning.
But we ought also to remember that whether we render unto Caesar or to God on the basis of our Lord’s teaching, we are not doing something new, but only obeying that ancient commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."
Father Ed Bakker
Sunday, November 8, 2020
The telling of the parable is occasioned by St. Peter’s question: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Peter, sensing that the new law of love which his master had been teaching extended beyond the regulations of the old Law, suggested seven times, rather than the three times laid down in Amos 1.3, and generally accepted by the Jews. No, says Jesus, your brother who offends you is to be forgiven an infinite number of times, seventy times seven, because the mercy and forgiveness extended to us by God is that deep.
Jesus tells the story of a king who decides to call in some of the debts owed him by his subjects. He demands repayment of one who owes him 10,000 talents, which is a great deal of money. The man cannot pay him, and as a result, he threatens to sell him and his family into slavery, which in those days was allowed. (Leviticus 25.39) But the debtor falls down and begs for mercy so convincingly that the king wipes the debt out altogether. The same man, once he was forgiven for his debt, goes out to a fellow-subject of the king and demands of him the tiny sum of 100 pence. In turn the one owing 100 pence asks for time to pay, but the fellow has no mercy and has the debtor thrown into prison. The word gets back to the king, who, like his subjects, is appalled at the unmerciful servant’s behaviour. He throws him into prison, reinstating the original debt of 10,000 talents.
The interpretation of this parable is clear. The king is God. We are his subjects and we are his debtors, because we have sinned against him. It is a large debt indeed that we have incurred, and if God were to call it in, there is no way that we would be able to pay it. But we know that when we in sincerity ask God our Father for forgiveness, we receive forgiveness, not because we deserve it, but because he is a merciful Father. We have no claim, no right to God’s consideration, but he hears us and has pity.
Second, we must forgive our fellows the sins which they commit against us, which are minuscule compared with the sins we have committed against God and yet have been forgiven. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive them who trespass against us.” Another translation which is sometimes used of this model prayer makes the message even more clear: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
If we are not willing to forgive one another, the forgiveness which we seek from God will be of no effect, no benefit whatsoever. Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans says: If we live according to the precepts of the old Law, we will be judged according to the old law. And Jesus himself said:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for any eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5.38-39)Forgive seventy times seven. Because we ourselves have been forgiven, we have no right whatsoever to demand our ‘pound of flesh’ from others.
Think: Whom have you refused forgiveness, either openly, or secretly in your heart? And conversely, whom should you ask for forgiveness that you have offended? With whom should you be reconciled today? This is serious business. Your refusal, your stiff-necked refusal to forgive and really forget may be the stumbling block which prevents you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and may rather be the reason for which you are delivered to the tormentors The American writer Henry Ward Beecher said: “I can forgive but I cannot forget is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note which is torn in two and burned up, so that it never can be shown again.”
It is true that old hurts cut deep. Like a well-travelled road, the longer they are borne, the deeper the ruts become. It is even harder when those who have hurt and betrayed us are dear to us. Someone once said, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than a friend.” Those who are able to wound us most are those that we love. Yet, as George Herbert said, “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven.”
Week by week, day by day, we pray that God will forgive us our sins. Let us make a special point today to ask God for the strength and courage to forgive others, and to ask for forgiveness, knowing that if we ask in faith, God will grant us grace to do both.