A Homily for Lent IV
March 22, 2020
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Romans 8:31-38
My beloved friends – this week has been one of intense emotion, confusion, and uncertainty for many. I have had the privilege of preaching in National Parks, in the basement of buildings, in apartments, in country churches and city churches. I have been given such a gift – but this is the first time that I’ve ever preached to a virtually empty building, and I am unsure how to do this. Today – I will take a more casual approach, and I hope that is okay. If it ends up being weird or awkward, I will adjust next week.
Before I start my sermon I want thank all the people who made today come together – the vestry for their support and hard work in reaching out to all our members, to Ben and Holly Lizak, to Don and Cathy Foster, to Daniel and Ronnie Kohlhauer, to Kristen Kauffman and to Ann Fincke, all of who put many hours in making sure we could still worship, and who at moments put up with me being tired, frazzled, and possibly snippy.
Possible live streaming issue with people not knowing how and, sorry for no music
After the service you will receive an e-mail about daily devotional downloads – one for tonight is available, as well as the one for tomorrow. These include a couple paragraph devotional thought, something to pray about or think through, and the order for Morning and Evening prayer for that day. I want to challenge you all to participate in that.
Please take some time to today to think about all your friends – do you have elder neighbors who may be home alone and scared? What about a neighbor or friend who has to work and is unsure what to do with their children? How about a friend who has been displaced from work? Take some time to call these people and see how you can be of help to them.
Please also say a prayer for me – and all the pastors, deacons, priests, and bishops, and please be gracious to us. We’ve never done this before – it has been exhausting and confusing but at the same time, I have never been more certain of the sovereignty of God.
At the moment I don’t have any more announcements but I will do my best to keep everyone in the parish as informed as possible.
Before we pray, I want to share something our senior warden Ann texted me yesterday with she wrote – “don’t stress about the service tomorrow – God will be glorified.”
My friends – I do believe that He has been and will be.
Let us pray ………….
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Upon the church calendar – this Sunday is commonly called – Laetare Sunday, Celebration Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday. It is marked by the wearing of rose colored vestments, and is a Sunday of taking a deep breath – of knowing that even in the austerity of Lent – God is faithful and good and kind to deliver us.
This morning – in the midst of the confusion of this past week – we need this reminder more than ever. Even in the midst of the austerity of Lent – in the midst of the fear we’ve been facing – God lifts our burden and puts it upon His shoulders, and so let us remember the beckoning of our Lord Jesus Christ – come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.
In the lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer, Anglican priests are given the prerogative that “Upon special occasions the minister may select such Psalms and Lessons as he may think suitable.” This is one such special occasion – and I felt that Romans 8:31-38 fit this week tremendously well.
I noted in my epistle on Friday that I had so hoped to continue to be able to worship with everyone through this period – but by the middle of the week it became clear that such a desire was imprudent and perhaps even uncaring of my neighbors. Some leaders of other churches threw up their hands and stated things like “when we lock the doors of churches the devil wins!”
But more calm minds reminded us that although we have a high view of the physical church – see the gathering of the body of Christ as critical – and even go so far as to view the building as a sacred place set aside for the sole purpose of worshipping God – the building is not the church – nor does our worship make the church – the church is each and every faithful Christian – living out their faith in the world, preaching the gospel of salvation – doing beautiful works that glorify God.
The church – is God’s people learning to love God with every ounce of our being – our body – our soul – and our mind – and learning to love our neighbors as well as we love ourselves. We are no less the church today than we were less week – though we long desperately to be together.
The Eastern Orthodox Church goes so far as to define each household as a church – and so for this time – we have the opportunity to become mini-churches amidst a world that desperately needs the hope that we have in Christ Jesus.
Think about this for a moment friends. The devil has thought “Ah-ha! I have managed to conjure up a way to close all the churches” (though we know God is sovereign over all – he believes satan believes he is sovereign.) And instead – God has created millions of mini-churches – scattered throughout every neighborhood around the world – mini-communities of praise for him in a dark world – millions of lights shattering this present darkness – bound together by the spirit.
This past week – I kept having this recurring vision, not a charismatic type vision – but that of someone who has an overactive imagination – it was of the devil rejoicing – thinking he’d finally won – church doors everywhere being locked!
and yet the church adapted quicker, but the power of the spirit. The church is being called to recapturing a deep sense of prayer – the church is being bound together in a way we haven’t been in decades if not longer – the church is coming through this stronger in prayer – stronger in devotional life – stronger in our intimacy with Christ.
And so these words of St. Paul are profoundly fitting - I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is nothing – not even this present pestilence that can separate us from the love of God – my friends – it is my challenge to you and prayer for you that we do not lose sight of this – even now – even today amidst this strange time – just as we are in Christ – we are in the love of God – and there is nothing that can separate us from that.
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of utmost importance in our understanding of salvation – in fact we have talked about it being our next study for Christian Education – so that we can grow in our understanding of how Christ has rescued us. While we strive to take a holistic view of scripture and do not want to hang all our theological hats on one book – the Epistle does clearly spell out our understanding of salvation through faith alone so very well.
St. Paul starts his letter by comparing the righteousness of God to the unrighteousness of all mankind – regardless of race. He then makes it clear that in Christ – God’s righteousness has been imputed upon us and then one commentary spells out the following benefits of God’s sanctification upon His people in Christ – freedom from sin’s tyranny, freedom from the law’s condemnation, and life in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The first half of chapter 8 the saint is building up to a climax – telling us what life in the spirit looks like – of what it means to be a heir with Christ – and of how he counts our present suffering as paling in comparison to the future glory of life with Christ.
And then the saint says – “what then” these words are a pivot and I think it ends up tying this whole section together, the whole first half of the Epistle to the Romans. We pivot to a great hope – we pivot to this: “what then shall we say to these things?” What then shall we say to the oppressions of the world and the devil? What then say we say to our present suffering?
Is our suffering more than Christ’s grace can handle? Is our sin greater than Christ’s grace? Are our present struggles more than Christ can handle for us?
The grace we find in Christ, the hope we find in Christ, the future glory which we look forward to experiencing with him is far greater than anything we can possibly imagine. It is far greater than this momentary season of affliction.
What are two weeks of time apart from each other in the shadow of eternity? What if it goes longer? What is a month or two of hardship in the light of eternity?
They pail in comparison! This may be a hard season, this may be frustrating and scary – but God is so much greater than this.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, and uncertain. Most weeks I know roughly what needs to be accomplished. I know that there might be a few bumps and jostles in the road ahead of me. This week felt dark – felt so very uncertain, I didn’t know what the next day would hold.
I have told a few of you this – early in the week – several local churches got together in a video conference to discuss how we could provide a unified response to the rising threat of COVID-19. During the meeting – I texted my friend Jon who is the pastor of another church “I feel so small,” I meant in light of what the bigger churches in town could offer, I felt overwhelmed and insignificant.
Jon’s response was perfect – and it pushed me to a deeper truth – he said “we all do.”
This week has presented us with a challenge no one shepherding a church has ever faced before. Perhaps – as some have claimed we have overacted and it’ll end up being no big deal – or perhaps we have underreacted. We may never fully know – but we do know this challenge is bigger than us.
But back to Jon’s response of “we all do” – we all feel small this week – we are all reminded of our fragility and frailty in light of this pandemic – his response pushed me not into a place of despair – but into a place of humility and hope.
My friends – we are all small – and this is huge – but God is much, much bigger. God – the sovereign creator of the universe is bigger than this pandemic – he holds the whole world in his hand – the Psalmist writes: “He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouse.” God is sovereign – over all - what then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
Yesterday – one of you sent our information into one of the news papers so that we would be listed as a church for live streaming today. Twenty some odd years ago – the founders of our church decided to name her “All Saints Anglican Church,” so that we would be first in the phone book. This isn’t a reason I would ever think of and so it still makes me chuckle. So, today, we were listed first. This is fine – I am thoroughly convinced that this is a time for caring for our flock – not for trying to gain more members – so I would be fine if we were listed last – or second or not at all. But I am glad we were there, and that is not the important part of this story.
I have made statements about what we are going to do during this present crisis. However, I felt simply putting the prayer for “In Time of Great Sickness and Mortality” was more fitting for the COVID-19 landing page. The newspaper – not seeing any formal statement from us – then copied and pasted that as “our statement.” This my friends was the sovereignty of God – I can take no credit – but God in his infinite wisdom made it so the very first statement from a Christian church in Prescott – wasn’t a statement but a prayer and a petition for relief from this present pestilence. How good is our God?
If God is for us, who can be against us?
Who can be against us?
This is not meant as a victorious Christian cry for sporting events – or world domination – but a promise for the end – God will be faithful to us to the end. God will guide and shepherd us to the end – God will bring us through and bring us home to the great marriage feast of the lamb.
It is this promise that allowed St. Paul to have so much joy – in beatings, in shipwrecks, in imprisonments. He did not know if he would survive – he did not know if he would be freed from the jailing – but he knew that God would bring Him home. He knew that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Worldly oppressors – or pestilence may very well afflict us – but God will never leave us – God is for us – and God will bring His church through to the final day.
The saint then asks four more questions, the first three leading to the final:
First – He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
How will God not remain faithful in this season – how will God not be with us? I realize a lot of us have unanswered questions – but let us ponder for a moment the Roman Christians St. Paul is writing to. He is not writing to those in the upper echelons of society, he is not writing to the wealthy and the elite – the Christians of Rome were mostly the lower class, they had little – and they were regularly persecuted. Within about seven years of receiving this letter they would be blamed by the emperor for a fire devastating fire, and unleash upon them a severe and horrifying persecution.
He wasn’t trying to tell the Romans – if you’re faithful – you’ll get your BMW – or Lexus. No – he was saying if you’re faithful – you will get intimacy with Christ – if you’re faithful through his present affliction Christ will draw you nearer – if you are faithful – you will experience God’s righteousness – our reward is not an earthly reward – our reward is knowing God.
Second – Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.
Again – this doesn’t mean we can speed – and think we can get away with it – this doesn’t mean we can commit crimes against the state and not be held culpable. It means that in Christ all our sins are forgiven – that in Christ – God has justified us to Himself – and put upon us not our own righteousness – but the righteousness of Christ.
If we have committed a grievous sin – or even a minor sin against another – we are still called to make it right with them. The person who has broken the law – who has caused grievous injury – may still go to jail – but if they come to know Christ – if they truly repent – if they allow Christ to make them new – they are made new in Christ – they are justified by God to Himself.
I hope this distinction makes sense and it is the same for us. We do not owe another a justification of our lives – but rather – we learn to submit ourselves to the spirit – we learn to live in Christ – day by day. And it is Him that sanctifies us – it is Him that is making us knew – it is Him and Him alone that has justified us and called us righteous.
Third – Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
We learn in the scriptures that Christ will be the judge of the world – that Christ will judge every person. Those who are in Him will be found innocent – again as we have said – not because of our works but because of Christ’s work in us. And those who are outside of Christ will have their works counted and be found wanting.
Christ condemns and Christ frees.
The final question that St. Paul poses acts as the pinnacle of this section - Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
We could just as easily add pestilence to the list that St. Paul provides for us – but then he quotes in response to this question from the Psalms:
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
The way of following God – is a way through suffering – this has always been the case for God’s people – he uses suffering to draw his people out of sin and closer to Him – our present age of affliction is an opportunity for us to grow in intimacy with Christ.
I realize that today we are filled with a plethora emotions – fear – disappointment – hurt – sorrow – I told a friend – “my feelings are confusing right now” and she responded “there’s a word for that – confused.” I told her in response “I feel confused.”
The feelings – whatever they are – are okay – reach out to me – reach out to a brother or sister in Christ. One of the ways we’re attempting to continue to foster community is to insure that a vestry member, officer, or spouse of one of these people reaches out to every one who is regularly a part of our Christian community. I hope you take the opportunity to share whatever your feelings are – or just say your confused. In fact you could take the directory yourself – and make a new friend. Let this time of being apart from each other – also be a chance for us to draw nearer to each other in spirit.
I know that we are facing something hard and I do not wish to diminish it that with insensitive optimism – but I think we have a great opportunity.
Monday nights is my Greek class. As much as I joke about it as being a time of suffering – it is one of my favorite classes. This semester, we have been working our way through the sermon on the mount. This past week we got up to the beginning of the Lord’s prayer and Christ says “when you go to pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Our professor’s church had already decided last week that it would be prudent to advise people to worship at home. He is an elder at his church and shared with us something he shared with his people – and that was about the monks of old.
It has long been a Christian tradition that some should live in solitude that they might experience a life of deep intimate prayer – forsaking all the world has to offer to the glory of God. My professor called upon his church, and then his students to seek deep intimacy with Christ in prayer during this time.
God has forced us to go into our room, forced us to have time of quietude and prayer – what a great opportunity we are being offered.
Through this present suffering – I think God is calling us into intimacy with Him. Perhaps it is Him preparing us for His coming, or perhaps it is Him preparing us for a renewal – regardless – we are being called to our knees being called to prayer.
It is for this reason, I and some wonderful volunteer have been scrambling to prepare for whoever may wish to use it easy to follow downloads for Morning and Evening Prayer. I am calling and encouraging each member of All Saints to spend some time in the morning and evening – reading the word of God – and in steadfast prayer through the Order presented to do so in the Book of Common Prayer.
On Thursday of this week – I will ask you all to join me in a day of fasting – and make a habit of doing this until we can come together again. Let us seek that intimacy with Christ – yes we will be faced with surprising challenges, yes – we will be called upon to help our neighbor – yes – we will be called to love well – yes – we will be called to sacrifice the things we hold dear – but in all this let us seek intimacy with Christ.
St. Paul concludes with the words we started with: No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We have been given a great assurance – there is nothing in this life that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. As this time of pestilence causes us to feel a plethora of emotions – let us ever cling tightly to Christ and know that not even this can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I want to end this morning with this thought: a friend asked what the first meal we are looking forward to having after things returned to normal would be?
My answer was Holy Communion – I was sort of being punchy and giving him a hard time – but my friends – more than anything – it breaks my heart that we are not together – that we cannot break the bread of the body of Christ and drink together from the cup of salvation and I am certain – the first thing I will want to do when we are told we can go back to life as normal – is to call a special service of celebration and thanksgiving for deliverance – and that the moment we are able to we can come together as one body yet again for Holy Communion.
That day will be a beautiful and good foretaste of that eternal promise – the eternal promise of the marriage feast of the lamb.
My friends – though we may tremble in the shadow of that darkness – let us with glad hearts look forward to that day.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.