August 17, 2014

A Wedding Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 5:55 pm
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Song of Songs 2:10-13 and 8:6-7
Psalm 127
Revelation 21:1-7
Mark 10:6-9

For Paul Hunter and Christina Vance

angelusI am honored to preach this morning for the wedding of two of my former students, both of whom I am exceptionally fond. Although faculty do not have favorite students, if they did, Christina and Paul would have been two of my favorite students when they were at Trinity School for ministry, where I teach.

I want to make just a few comments about the lectionary readings, beginning with the gospel. The gospel reading points back to the creation narratives of the first two chapters of Genesis, the first book in the Bible. The context is that Jesus is being asked about whether divorce is ever permissible, and he responds by quoting the 2nd chapter of Genesis: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:4-6; Gen. 2:24) The Bible begins with marriage. In Genesis 1 we are told that God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness. . . . So God created the human being in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27) The first chapter of the Bible tells us that to be a human being is to be created in the image of God, and to be created in the image of God is to be male or female. It is only as male and female together that we as humans reflect what it means to be created in God’s image.

In Genesis 2, we are told that God created woman because the first human being was alone, and needed a partner. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human being should be alone.” (Gen. 2:18) In Hebrew, the word for “human being” is ha’adam, which is the same word as the name “Adam.” The English language has historically not made a distinction between human being and male human being. English often uses the word “man” for both. But Hebrew does use different words for generic “human being” and “male human being.” The Hebrew word “ha’adam” does not mean male human being, but simply “human being.” It is only when God brings the woman to the human being – to Adam – that we first find the use of the word for “man” or “male human being” in the Hebrew text: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she called be called woman, because she was taken out of man.” (Gen. 2:24) It is only when the female human being – the woman – comes into the picture that the original human being is recognized as a male human being – a man.

The point is this, both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 make it clear that men and women are made for each other, and what it means to be a human being is defined by our relationship to other human beings. Those of us who are men – male human beings – are human beings only as we are in relation to women – female human beings. Women – female human beings – are human beings only as you are in relation to us – male human beings. God intended us to be with one another, and marriage makes this clear. It is marriage that is the foundation of all other human relationships. As human beings, we are not meant to be alone; we are not human beings alone, but only with one another. So the first thing that marriage teaches us is that human beings need one another. We are made to be together.
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August 4, 2014

If God is for Us: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:12 am
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Psalm 78
Nehemiah 9:16-20
Romans 8:35-39
Matthew 14:13-21

fishI begin my sermon this morning with a question: What’s going on in the lectionary? During the Season after Pentecost, what is sometimes called “ordinary time,” the lectionary practice is to read through one of the synoptic gospels chapter by chapter and an accompanying epistle the same way. Because the New Testament readings are sequential like this, there is not usually any evident connection between the gospel reading and the epistle reading. What Matthew is saying in his gospel may or may not have anything to do with what Paul is saying in the epistle to the Romans.

Whether it was intended by the lectionary compilers or not, I think that there is a parallel between the epistle and the gospel readings this morning. Let’s begin with the epistle. Romans 8:31-39 is the climax of everything Paul has been writing up to this point in the letter. The main theme in the lectionary reading is God’s love, and is a repetition of what Paul had already said in Romans 5:1-11. In Romans 5, Paul wrote, “[W]e rejoice in our sufferings . . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. . . . God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (5:2,5,8) In this morning’s reading, Paul says, “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.” What Paul writes here is a continuation of what we read in last week’s lectionary reading: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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?” (8:31-32)

If God is for us, who can be against us? Paul lists a number of things that might suggest that God is not for us. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword?” (8:35) People often list just the kinds of things that Paul mentions here as proof that there is no God, or if there is a God, he is not for us, but against us. If I am suffering tribulation or distress, perhaps that means that God has abandoned me. If I cannot provide food for my family, perhaps that means that God does not care for me. If the world is full of violence and war, perhaps that means that there is no God, or God would prevent such things. If Christians suffer persecution, perhaps that means that there is no God because if there were a God, certainly he would protect those who claim to believe in him.

Paul has one response to all of this. We know that God is for us because of an event, something that has happened – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know that God is for us because he has given us his Son. In giving us his Son, God has revealed his nature. God has show us in Jesus what he is like. God is love. (more…)

March 28, 2014

Knowing the Light and Walking in the Light: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:02 pm
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1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:(1-7)8-14
John 9:1-13(14-27)28-38
Psalm 23

Plato and AristotleRecently, I have been reading a book about the influence of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the history of Western civilization. It is a fascinating book that shows how these two Greek philosophers who lived approximately four hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ have repeatedly influenced Western thought for over two milennia. The book is entitled The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.1 The title takes its name from Plato’s famous analogy of the cave. You’re familiar with the analogy? In Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, Socrates suggests that the human situation is something like that of a group of people who have been chained in a cave all of their lives facing a blank wall. Behind the people are a group of figures whose shadows are being cast on the wall in front of them by a fire –something like shadow puppets –and the people are trying to make sense of the silhouettes. These shadows are the only reality the people know. Socrates then asks what would happen if someone were to be released from the cave and were to venture out into the world above to see the sun and nature as it really exists. If such a person were then to return to the cave and tell what he or she had seen, the man or woman would not be believed. The people in the cave know what reality is. It is the shadows that they can see on the wall. They cannot imagine anything else.

Arthur Herman, the author of the book, contrasts Plato’s understanding of reality – knowing the unchanging truth that lies behind the illusory shadows – with Aristotle’s. In contrast to Plato’s focus on knowing the permanent and unchangeable, Aristotle insisted that we could find reality in the ordinary day to day world in the midst of which we live our lives. Where Plato wanted to leave the cave, Aristotle insisted that the cave was where we needed to get to work.

Each philosophy has its consequences for how we live. To be simplistic, Plato’s philosophy included an ethic that focused on knowledge, specifically, knowledge of that which is certain and permanent and about which one cannot be mistaken. Aristotle’s ethic focused instead on what he called “practical knowledge,” that is, how to get things done in a world that was not certain or permanent, and which changed constantly. So Plato’s prescription for how we should live focuses on “knowing.” Aristotle’s focuses on “doing.” There’s a silly joke that’s been around for awhile that gets the philosophers wrong, but basically gets the idea right, so I’ll adjust it by providing the correct names. Plato said: “To be is to do.” Aristotle said: “To do is to be.” Frank Sinatra said: “Do be do be do.” And, of course, Fred Flintstone said: “Yabba Dabba Do.” And Scooby Do said “Scooby Dooby Do.”

Both philosophies have their influences, and also their characteristic errors. The characteristic error of Platonism would be the Socratic fallacy. If we only know the right thing, we’ll be sure to do it. Of course, that is not the case. We all do things that we know we should not do. The characteristic heresies associated with Aristotle are perhaps Pelagianism and antinomianism. Although these are opposite heresies, they are both characterized by a focus on action, on what we do rather than on what we know, on, as we say, “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.” So today the descendents of Plato would be the ideologues, the people who spend hours on their computers typing comments on social media because someone on the internet said something that was wrong. The descendents of Aristotle are the activists. They can be do-gooders who try to change the world for the better, but they can also be the busy bodies who make everyone else’s life miserable by trying to straighten them out.

Why bring up Plato and Aristotle in a Lenten sermon? As we look at the lectionary readings these morning, we note that there is a common theme about “seeing” and “light,” especially when we compare the gospel and epistle readings. John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. Before Jesus heals the man, he says: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:6). At the end of the passage, Jesus says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (v. 39). The Ephesians passage contains the statement: “Walk as children of light . . . and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” and concludes, “But when anything is exposed to the light, it becomes visible. . .” (Eph. 5:8,14) The similarities to Plato and Aristotle are certainly intriguing. There is the same imagery of light and darkness. The John passage, like Plato’s analogy of the cave, focuses on “seeing.” To the contrary, while the Ephesians passage uses light imagery with its contrast between light and darkness, the focus is on “doing,” more like Aristotle. John seems to be focusing on knowing the light. Paul focuses on “walking in the light.” (more…)

January 16, 2014

Behold the Lamb of God! A Sermon on Sin and Freedom

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:24 am
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Psalm 40:1-10
Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-41

Lamb of GodIn our gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist announces: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). John’s statement is a brief summary of the heart of the Christian faith. Christian faith is about Jesus. Who is Jesus? He is someone who has a special relationship to God. “He is the Lamb of God.” He is also, according to John’s gospel, “the Word of God,” “the Son of God,” “the Christ,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” the “Bread of life,” “the Water of life,” and a number of other things.

What does Jesus do? He takes away the sin of the world. These are the two central affirmations of Christian faith. Lose either affirmation – who Jesus is and what Jesus does – and you no longer have Christian faith. Yet both of these affirmations have become increasingly problematic in contemporary Western culture, and, significantly enough, I think, the second more than the first.

Let me illustrate what I mean by mentioning two incidents that happened in the last several weeks, one in secular culture and one in the church. The first is the notorious Duck Dynasty incident. Phil Robertson, the star of a reality television series about a family of self-styled backwoods Bible thumpers who became millionaires from making duck calls created a cultural firestorm when he answered a question addressed to him in a magazine interview: “What in your mind is sinful?” I am not going to repeat Robertson’s answer here. You are no doubt familiar with the story.

The second event was the appearance of a new Church of England baptismal rite. Supposedly the rite had been rewritten to put it in the language of East Enders in London, who apparently could not make sense of the current rite of baptism in the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy. What is significant about the new rite is not that the language is simplified so that East Enders can understand it, but that the language changes the actual meaning of the rite. It removes all language of sin, and all references to Jesus as Savior from sin. The baptized no longer “die to sin,” but to “all that destroys.” The baptized do not renounce sin; they renounce evil. Throughout the new liturgy, in every case in which the word “sin” appears in the current rite, the word “evil” is substituted.

What both of these incidents have in common is that they reflect the discomfort our society currently has with the notion of sin. (more…)

October 27, 2013

The Trinitarian Unity of the Church: A Sermon on Ecumenism

Filed under: Ecumenism,Sermons — William Witt @ 6:31 pm
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Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:11-26

TrinityThe epistle reading from Ephesians and the reading from John’s gospel are perhaps the two single most frequently cited biblical passages about the unity of the church. Certainly unity is a central theme in both passages: Ephesians 4 rings the changes one the word “one”: There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). John has what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, where he prays that his followers will be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11,22). And, of course, unity is one of the four classic marks of the church: The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What is the nature of the church’s unity that is such a major theme in these passages? There have been numerous answers to this question given in the history of theology. The 39 Articles and the Lutheran confessions speak of that unity in terms of activities that the church performs: The church is where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church has historically placed that unity institutionally: The church consists of all those who are in communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. Anglo-Catholics have focused on historical continuity. The church is rightly found in those churches who can trace their succession through a series of bishops to the apostles. In the last century or so, many of the Orthodox have focused on Sobornost, a notion of the church as a community or fellowship based in freedom and love. In the last several decades, Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have focused on the understanding of the church as a community of character, of Christian discipleship as a path of virtue whose primary focus is following the way of Jesus in the non-violent way of the cross.

What all of these descriptions have in common is that they are descriptions of the church from our point of view, from the ground up, as it were. Sometimes it helps to look at things from a different point of view. What is different about the way in which Ephesians and the Gospel of John look at the unity of the church is that they look at things from the opposite point of view, not from the ground up, but from the top down, from a God’s-eye point of view, as it were.

Both Ephesians and the Gospel of John point to the unity of the church first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. The church is one because God is one. But God is not simply one as a monad. God is a unity of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). John records Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us . . .” (John 17:21). We might read John’s approach as binitarian rather than trinitarian, except that in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in John, he had already talked at great length about the Comforter, the paraklete, whom Jesus says, he will “send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” (John 15:26). So the church’s unity originates first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. Again, the church is one because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. (more…)

October 5, 2013

The Just Shall Live by Faith: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:40 am
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Habakkuk 1:1-13: 2:1-4
Psalm 37
1 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

agnus deiWhen I was a young man, the philosophy of existentialism was the main competition to Christian faith among secularists. The names of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were considered to offer the biggest challenge for Christians to address. Existentialism was even a theme in popular culture. When he first started out his career, Woody Allen’s movies were an outlet for existentialist themes. Existentialism seems to have fizzled out sometime in the early 1980’s, and in recent years it has been replaced by the New Atheism. Existentialists and the New Atheists have a lot in common, but also some considerable differences. Existentialists tended to be atheists, but they could also be agnostics. They tended to be neurotic. They wondered if life had meaning if there was no God. They tended to be nicer than the New Atheists. The New Atheists have no doubts. They don’t worry about whether life has meaning. They know that there is no God, and they’re angry at him for creating the world.

The single theme that unites the old existentialists and the New Atheists is the conviction that the evil and suffering that exists in the world makes it impossible to believe in a good and omnipotent God. At the end of Woody Allen’s movie Love and Death, his character says, “You know, if it turns out that there IS a God, I don’t think that He’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that, basically, He’s an underachiever.” The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book entitled God is Not Great, but perhaps it really should have been titled God is not Good. Among other things, he writes in that book: “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.”

Woody Allen certainly thought that he was being humorous in his quip about God being an underachiever, and I have no doubt that Christopher Hitchens thought his comments about the Bible and the kinds of people who wrote it was rather clever. If however, they thought that they were being original, that no one had ever expressed concerns about the goodness of God before, they were just a bit naïve, as we can find when we read the passage from this morning’s Old Testament lectionary passage from Habbukuk. Habbukuk looks at the world around him, and, in the light of what he sees expresses just as much concern about the goodness of God as does any twentieth century existentialist or twenty-first century New Atheist.

There is a common theme in Habbukuk and Psalm 37, which is why both are likely included in the readings this morning: Where is God when the unrighteous prosper, and the righteous are oppressed? The Psalm directly answers the question: “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” (v. 1) What we find in the Psalm is a typical example of a pattern we often find in prophetic literature. The righteous can be assured because God’s justice will eventually punish the unrighteous and the righteous will be rewarded. The Psalmist says: “Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.” (v. 9)

Habbukuk is different, however. In Habakkuk, we find the prophet questioning the traditional prophetic pattern. Habakkuk questions God in a way that is paralleled perhaps only by the Book of Job in the Old Testament. In chapter 1, Habakkuk complains to God about the prospering of the wicked: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see inquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? . . . For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.” (v. 2) This is standard prophetic fare.

And the standard prophetic answer comes in the following verses. God is not going to allow the wicked to prosper forever. They will be destroyed. The LORD promises in verse 5: “Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded/ For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” God then tells the prophet about how he will punish injustice: “For behold I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.” This is the traditional prophetic answer, and it sounds much like what we have read in Psalm 37.

But here things turn interesting. Habakkuk has received the standard prophetic answer, but he does not accept it. Habakkuk is actually bold enough to suggest that God does not know what he is doing! The Chaldeans were a notoriously merciless bunch of conquerors. If the leaders of Israel were unjust, the Chaldeans were wicked without qualification. Is not using the Chaldeans to punish the unrighteous in Israel only making a bad situation worse? If the problem is the rule of the unrighteous, the Chaldeans will only bring in a new bunch, even more unrighteous. Habakkuk challenges God: “Are you not from everlasting. O Lord my God, my holy One? We shall not die.” (v. 12) He appeals to God’s own righteousness. “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil, and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (v. 13) Then in a passage that the lectionary leaves out, Habbukuk compares the Chaldeans to a fisherman who casually harvests the innocent in a net: “You make mankind like the fish of the sea . . . He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net. . . . Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (v. 14-17)

When we read this kind of language in the Bible it suggests that the complaints of modern secularists are rather “small potatoes” by comparison. Habakkuk goes a lot further than Woody Allen’s observation in Love and Death that God is an underachiever. He actually has the gall to take God to task and to say “This just won’t do!” And then goes even further. Habakkuk goes on a sit down strike. The prophet says to God: “I’m going to wait here until you give me an acceptable answer!” In chapter 2:1, we read: “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”

The point here is not that Habakkuk questions God’s justice. From the beginning to end, the prophet assumes that God is just. This is what makes Habakkuk more interesting than Woody Allen or Christopher Hitchens. Anybody can look at the world and realize it’s a mess. Anybody can look at the mess and then conclude that no one must be in charge. Habakkuk knows that God is in charge, and he knows that God is righteous. So if there is a mess, he knows that ultimately there has to be an explanation that makes some kind of sense, since he knows that God is in charge, and God is righteous.

And the really interesting thing is that God responds to Habakkuks’ challenge. “And the LORD answered me; Write the vision make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2:2-3) The next line is obscure “Behold the soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,” – Is this referring to the Chaldeans? – but the conclusion contains one of the those greatest hits of Scripture quotations: “the righteous shall live by his faith.” (vs. 4) (more…)

September 4, 2013

What is the Greatest Sin? A Sermon on Pride

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:03 am
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Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8
Luke 14:1,7-14

Lamb of GodA generation ago the Christian essayist Dorothy Sayers wrote a kind of imaginary catechism in which she summarized what she thought people of her time actually believed about Christian faith. It included the question “What does the Church call sin?” And the answer was: “Sex . . . getting drunk; saying ‘damn’; murder’ and cruelty to dumb animals; not going to church; most kinds of amusement. ‘Original sin’ means that anything we enjoy doing is wrong.”1 In another essay, she mentions a young man who once said to her, “I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.”2

I would like to ask the question this morning, “What is the greatest sin?” I think that fifty years after Dorothy Sayers, a lot of people still think that the church believes that sex is the greatest sin. Perhaps the only sin. At least the conservative or orthodox church is thought to believe that. On the other hand, a good argument could be made that the progressive church believes that “lack of inclusiveness” or “intolerance” is the greatest sin.

It might be interesting to ask people to set aside their assumptions about what they think Christians believe is the greatest sin, and answer the question in their own way. What do you think is the greatest sin? Murder? Hatred? Betraying a friend? Certainly these are things that people do that cause real harm, and everyone would agree that they are morally wrong. The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson suggests that all societies endorse the content of the second table of the Ten Commandments – the commandments that prohibit lying, stealing, murder, and so on, because any society that does not prohibit these things will not last long as a society.3

What might surprise people is that historically the Christian church has not specified any of these as the single greatest sin. (more…)

August 20, 2013

Presumption and Despair: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 11:26 pm
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Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 12:1-7, 11-14
Luke 12:49-56

CrossI am going to talk about sin this morning. I am not talking about sin because this is my favorite sermon topic. I am talking about sin because this is the common subject of the lectionary readings. Sin is a difficult topic to preach on for at least two reasons. First, in today’s popular culture, Christians are accused of being obsessed with sin, or, more specifically with other people’s sins. Second, Christians are accused of being judgmental of other people’s sins, and no one likes to be judged.

I do think that there is some truth to these accusations. There are preachers who love to talk about sin, but one gets the impression that too often they mean the sins of the people in their pews that they find most irritating. There are few things that turn people off from the church like a preacher who scolds parishioners from the pulpit, reminding them of just how far they are from living up the pastor’s expectations.

At the same time, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in all of this. The same culture that criticizes Christians for being obsessed with sin is absolutely unforgiving of behaviors that they don’t call sin. They just call these behaviors by different names. Hatred, intolerance, and bigotry, are the three main sins condemned in our culture today. And all you have to do to be guilty of one of these three offenses is to disagree with the current spirit of the age. Again, although no one likes to be judged by others, there is plenty of judgment to go around. The news media loves to tell the stories of the latest celebrity who has, once again, had to check into a rehabilitation program because of a drug or alcohol addiction. You cannot buy groceries without noticing the tabloid newspapers and magazines with the latest shocking headline about which Hollywood actor was caught having an affair, or, an even worse sin, which Hollywood actress has gained too much weight to wear a bikini at the beach. And, of course, there is the world of politics, which has become something of a contact sport in our society. One of the ironies of today is that we live in a culture where no one believes in sin, but everyone blames other people for things we do not call sin, and where no one believes in forgiveness for any of these things. If you’re ever guilty of the kinds of things that one group or the other disapproves of in our culture, God help you, because only God can. (more…)

August 12, 2013

“The Assurance of Things Hoped For”: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 1:16 am
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Genesis 15: 1-6
Psalm 33
Hebrews 11: 1-16
Luke 12: 32-40

ship

The common theme in the lectionary readings today is that of hope. This is a topic that one usually associates with Advent, but it never hurts to be reminded from time to time of things we need to hear. Think of the sermon this morning as a little bit of Advent in the summer.

The Old Testament passage focuses on Abraham, and his hope for a son. In this morning’s passage, God appears to Abraham, and promises him, “Fear not, Abram. I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1) Abraham is now an old man, and his response is perhaps understandable. Basically, he asks God, how can my reward be great? I will not be around much longer, and I do not have any children to give any reward to when I die. God’s response is one of the key passages in the Bible. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . So shall your offspring be.” (v. 5) This seems to be a highly unlikely promise to make to an old man beyond the prime of life, but we know something Abraham did not. We know how the story turned out. We know that Abraham’s descendants would become the nation of Israel, and Jews who read this passage in their Scriptures would have realized that their very existence was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. If we include Christians, who also understand ourselves to be descendants of Abraham by faith, the promise to Abraham was fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams. According to the experts [Wikipedia], there are somewhere between 13 and 15 million Jews in the world today. There are something like 2.2 billion people who could be considered Christian in at least some sense living in the world today. So that’s a lot of descendants for Abraham.

Verse 6 reads: “And [Abraham] believed the Lord, and [the Lord] counted it to him as righteousness.” This is a key verse for later Christian theology. In both Paul and the book of James, the passage is crucial for the discussion of justification, how it is that we are considered righteous by God. That, however, is not the focus in today’s reading. The author of Hebrews talks about faith in a slightly different way. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) Referring to Abraham, the writer of Hebrews says “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” (v. 8) And, of Abraham’s wife Sarah, the writer says, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (v. 12)

So Hebrews focuses on “faith” not as touching on the question of righteousness, but on faith as trusting in God’s providence, that God will provide despite evidence to the contrary. Abraham obeys God “by faith,” and leaves his home and family to go to a new land, a land which will become the home of his descendants, the nation of Israel. Although Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children, they trust God who gives them Isaac as their son.

This sense of faith as “hope”for that which is not seen, is a necessity of human life – which leads to my first point: Hope is basic. (more…)

June 5, 2013

Taste and See that the Lord is Good! A Sermon on Doubt

Filed under: Sermons,Theodicy — William Witt @ 4:21 am
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Psalm 138
Hebrews 10: 32-39
Matt. 24:9-14

chaliceToday’s lectionary readings are for the feast day of the Martyrs of Uganda. These were a group of Roman Catholic and Anglican men who were killed by King Mwanga on June 3, 1886 for their refusal to renounce their Christian faith. The martyrs went to their deaths singing hymns, and praying for their enemies. The bravery of these young men so impressed the bystanders that many converted to Christianity, and the deaths of the martyrs of Uganda is considered the real beginning of the spread of Christianity in Uganda. There are today around nine million Anglicans in Uganda, and Trinity School for Ministry has close relations with them, especially with Uganda Christian University, and also with their Archbishop, Stanley Ntagali.

Given that today’s lectionary readings are for the feast day of martyrs, it is not surprising that the focus of the readings is on holding on to faith in the midst of doubt. The Matthew and Hebrews passages specifically mention persecution. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” (Matt. 24:9). Hebrews speaks of “the former days,” when the hearers were “publicly exposed to reproach and affliction.” Some were imprisoned, and some were “plundered” of their property. (Heb. 10:33-34). The Psalmist mentions another kind of threat to faith: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.” (Ps. 138:7). Jesus’ Parable of the Sower mentions a third threat to faith: those who are distracted by the “cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and desires for other things.” (Mark 4:18).

These passages might be discouraging. They indicate that it is a normal part of the Christian life to experience doubt, to be tempted to abandon one’s faith, to just give up on being a Christian. I would suggest that these passages are actually cause for encouragement. They give us advance warning that being a disciple of Jesus is not all picnics in May, or singing “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul” when we’re at summer camp, or the first day of June Term at seminary. They tell us that if you are a Christian, and you take the thing seriously, there is going to come a time when you are going to wonder, “What was I thinking?” And, “Is it too late to get out of this?” They also tell us that when it comes to reasons for doubting your faith, there is nothing new under the sun. (more…)

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