Living Baptismally, pt 17: On Christian Stewardship

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 25), 2020.

In reflecting in our parish today on the theme of Christian stewardship in the sense of nurturing, as in Saint Paul’s phrase “like a nurse taking care of her children.” I am drawn to two passages from our lessons today. The first that I am drawn to is the summary of the Law recorded by Saint Matthew, and the second is from Saint Paul’s first Epistle to the church at Thessalonica when he wrote, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” It is important that we understand stewardship rooted in the holy Scriptures, whether these passages or others—that our understanding of stewardship is indeed fed by the Scriptures, nourished by the Scriptures because Christ as revealed by the scriptures opened to us is our daily Bread. All of which is to say that while our theme today is two words—Christian stewardship—the most important of them is the first: “Christian.” Christian stewardship rightly understood is not merely one form of stewardship among many, one way of offering of which there are other alternatives more or less equal to one another, offering to the Church as one choice but there are others. We give to our local schools, or causes within the school; we give to local charitable organizations; we give to the local scout organizations—giving to the Church we might often think of as one such giving among many, but that is not what Christian stewardship means, that is not what Christian nurturing means, and our scripture passages help to reveal that to us.

The first is what the Church has come to call the “Summary of the Law.” A Pharisee asks Our Lord, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Although Saint Matthew tells us this is a question to test Jesus, it also reflects a real debate among the Pharisees as to which of the many, many commandments found in the Law is the most important. Some scholars have counted over 600 commandments recorded in the books of the Old Testament, and the debate as to which was the most important was carried on within Jewish life and especially in the preaching of the rabbis; and there was no clear sense as to which is most important. The answer of Our Lord Jesus was clear and decisive: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus adds, “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

This teaches us about Christian stewardship because it emphasizes the first word: “Christian.” Our stewardship, our nurturing, is Christian because it is always rooted in this Summary of the Law. It is always rooted in loving God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind. It is rooted in offering our selves to God, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Him. Our aspiration as Christians is always to give to God our selves in their entirety; to give ourselves to God totally, wholly, and completely; and growing in our ability to give our selves to God as a living sacrifice is precisely what the baptismal life is, and how it is understood. This is why Christian stewardship is not merely giving to one cause (the parish) among many. Christian stewardship is our baptism lived out, and is defined by the doctrine of baptism, such as when Saint Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” And so Christian stewardship is tied up the offering of our selves to God that only comes from our baptism into Christ’s death—so that we might be united with Christ in His resurrection, and no longer being enslaved to sin, we are able to freely offer ourselves to God, and to God in our neighbor.

This is what Saint Paul is getting at when he speaks of sharing of our own selves to others, and his image of doing that is perfect: as a nurse taking care of her children, that is, as a mother. Christian stewardship is a mothering activity, whether done by male or female. As a great voice of the church has taught, Saint Gregory the Great, whoever begets the love of the Lord in the heart of the neighbor, engages in this very motherly, nurturing activity spoken of by Saint Paul. That is, whoever nurtures, supports, and helps grow the love of God in the heart of another person, that is, our neighbor, is being a nurturing mother of the love of God, like Saint Paul and his fellow apostles. Christian stewardship, then, is being a mother—not only with a motherly voice of love, but with a motherly giving of oneself totally and completely to God, and to God of whom all human beings are made in the image. The time, talent, and treasure we tithe to the Church is nothing more than being a mother who loves, nurtures, and supports her children. Christian stewardship is as we sing during Christmastide: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”

Living Baptismally, pt 16: “On Rendering to God”

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 24), 2020.

“Render therefore,” Our Lord Jesus teaches us, “to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The meaning of this teaching, and how the meaning guides how we live as followers of Christ, is the subject of our eucharistic fellowship this day. We do well to begin this reflection by noting how the Pharisees are described by Saint Matthew as interpreting and responding to the teaching. For when they heard Our Lord’s teaching, they marveled; and they left Him and went away. They crossed swords, and Jesus was the victor.

Now, I am so often to point out how important awe and wonder are to the Christian life—how “fear” in the Scriptures usually means awe and wonder, so that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” means “awe and wonder in the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—I do that so often that I feel a responsibility to point out that this is not one of those moments. The marveling of the Pharisees is not them thrown into religious awe of the God Who is the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. Their marveling is rather the feeling of being bested in a duel of wits. They, S. Matthew reminds us, were trying to entangle Jesus in His talk, so that they would have grounds to arrest Him. Jesus did not give them any kind of incriminating testimony. What He said violated no Jewish law or religious custom, or sounded seditious towards the Romans. The Pharisees marveled that Jesus was able to outwit them once again.

But if that is all this episode means, then S. Matthew would not have included it in his account of the Gospel. All details included in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, along with that of Mark, Luke and John’s accounts of the Gospel, not to tell a biographical documentary of the life of Jesus, but rather to provide the food which if properly received reveals Jesus the Son of Mary as also the Son of God the Father Almighty. Being a sharp thinker that wins a dual of wits hardly shows this man to be raised up by God, having loosed the pains of death. Showing Himself to teach the virtue of paying your taxes says absolutely nothing about how God has made this Jesus, whom we crucify, both Lord and Christ. These are pedestrian interpretations. The words of Saint John in chapter 20 of his Gospel account speak for all the evangelists: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His Name.” It is for that purpose that Matthew tells us of Jesus saying, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”—that by eating this bread in prayer, Christ the eternal Word of God may be revealed to us in our very presence.

Saint Paul helps us to see past the pedestrian interpretations. This is not surprising because Paul is a great teacher of the Christian faith. Paul praises the church in Thessalonica by relaying to them the report he had heard from others about them, how they “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, Whom He raised from the dead, Jesus Who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Paul here teaches nothing but what the Lord Jesus taught in His life, even about the coin with the face of Caesar. The Pharisees, who are described in the Gospel accounts as “lovers of money,” are made an example by Jesus to His disciples of idolaters. Looking at money with the eyes of the flesh makes us greedy and makes money into an idol. Looking at money with the eyes of Christ, on the other hand, reveals money has being made by God and therefore to be offered to God, despite whatever surface images may be on the money’s outward design.

All things are made by Christ; without Christ is not anything made. Christians know this as a pillar of the Faith. We know we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. We are to love Him with all we have, for all we have has been given to us by Him, without Whom we can do nothing that is good. We know our offerings to God are to be the offerings not of Cain (who merely offered some of his fruits and vegetables) but of Abel—the firstborn of our flock and of their fat; our offering is that of Saint Mary Magdalene expensive jar and still more expensive spikenard. And our offering is the offering of Saint Paul—for we offer and present unto God our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Christ—that we may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and being thereby in Him, may be Him to the world around us, carrying the peace of Christ and offering it to all we meet.

Living Baptismally, pt 15: On Wearing the Wedding Garment

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23), 2020.

The Lord of Hosts has made a feast for us, and for all peoples. Our Lord Jesus teaches us this today that we would know that the peace which passes all understanding is available to us in the feast of the heavenly banquet prepared for us. This is a feast described by the prophet Isaiah as a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. For wine to be “on the lees” means it is protected from spoiling. Fat and marrow refers to nutrients the body needs to be healthy. A robust and nutritious meal is prepared for us, prepared by God for His people. God has spread a table before us that our cups might run over.

The feast God has made for us is a feast of Himself. God has made all things, and He has made all things through His Son that in receiving His Son we receive God. The feast of God is a feast of receiving Him—that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. And He gives Himself to be received. “Take, eat,” Jesus says. “This is my Body, which is given for you.” And He says, “Drink ye all of this, for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which his shed for you.” We His servants are called to the marriage feast to receive His Body and to receive His Blood, to receive what God has made everything ready so as to give and be received. He has taught us how to pray, so as to make us ready to receive. He has taught us how to find Him in Scripture, so as to make us ready to receive. He has engrafted us in His Body in Baptism and given us His Holy Spirit, so as to make us ready to receive what the Father has prepared for us. He has made all things so that as our mind learns to see, as our mind learns to hear, we might behold the Light who is the expression of God—that we might behold the holy Face of Christ, Who already knows all our desires, our thoughts, our actions, and our sins.

Brothers and sisters, we must always seek to wear the wedding garment, our Lord Jesus teaches. It is the wedding garment that allows us to discern Our Lord’s Body present among us. Saint Paul taught the Corinthian church on this when he wrote, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body east and drinks judgment upon himself.” The person who eats and drinks without discernment is a person whose mind does not see, a person whose mind does not hear. We are all made blind and we are all made deaf by our sins—this is why we must repent in prayer, why we must turn to God in humility saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This prayer—the prayer not of the Pharisee but of the tax collector—is the prayer of a heart that yearns for God.

A heart that desires God. The yearning for God and the desiring of God is the very fabric of which the wedding garment is woven. How often we are tempted away from wearing the wedding garment! How often we are tempted, in the words of loving Jesus, to make light of the Gospel through our disbelief; how often we are tempted not to go the Altar in prayer, but one to his farm, another to his business—that is, to allow other activities to take priority over the holy Mass, to allow other activities to take priority over receiving the daily Bread given to us from heaven through the Scriptures. How often we are tempted to ignore the voice of Moses, to ignore the voice of the prophets, to ignore the words of God’s Mother—for Moses, the Prophets, and Mary all teach us about Jesus, all teach us about the heavenly realities beyond time and space, all teach us true meaning obedience, which is having a listening silence of wonder at the feet of God Who is always on His heavenly throne and closer to us than our own breathing.

As Saint Paul teaches us, “The Lord is at hand.” And because He is at hand, let us give our anxiety and worry to Him, let all our requests be told by us to God, that we might have no anxiety about anything. Let us put on the wedding garments of humility, that Paul’s words may ever be our own: “I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me,” and thereby be continually given to all good works through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Living Baptismally, pt 14: On the Upward Call of God in Christ

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 22), 2020.

Flowing out of our liturgical life—the Liturgy of daily Office and Mass Sunday by Sunday and the appointed Holy Days—is our Personal Devotion: our loving of God and neighbor in our day to day, and in our neighbor loving God; seeking and serving Him in all people and doing so according to the Crucified and Risen Christ revealed in Scripture. Personal Devotion is anything we do that is done for the greater glory of God, and for greater intimacy with Him. Studying Scripture and giving to the poor are the classic expressions of personal devotion, but it also includes an innumerable spectrum of activities that bring beauty and goodness into the world: a spectrum ranging from tending a garden and arranging flowers to being a responsible citizen to private prayer and meditation, to reading about the lives of the Saints, to donate time, talent and treasure to a charitable organization, to serving the lonely, to being a good listener, a good husband, a good wife, a good parent, a good teacher, a good person when that adjective “good” always means “loves God” before it means anything else.

“Personal devotion” is described in the New Testament, in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, as “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship”—the activity of studying the apostolic proclamation of Christ which is captured in Scripture, and living out that proclamation in Christian community where love for all abounds, and hospitality our primary characteristic. In the overall Christian life, personal devotion flows out of the Liturgy of Office and Mass, and is anything we do in this world and in our lives out of a desire to love God and love neighbor.

This is what Saint Paul is teaching us today, when he says “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s guidance is to seek a robust personal devotion based on how the Holy Spirit calls each of us personally—that is, according to our personal characteristics, temperament, life situation, background, gifts; in short, according to our personality. We are all members of Christ’s Body, members one of another in Him, but we never lose our personality, our uniqueness, our story—we do not lose our identity, but what is transformed is the horizon of our identity. In our baptism, our commonwealth, our citizenship, is stretched to heaven. This is a citizenship that begins in the Cross, and all of reality becomes cross-shaped. Reality is cruciform, that is, of the form of the Cross.

This is why when we confess our sins in the Liturgy we express our desire for mercy and forgiveness, that we may delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. We must be accustomed to reality which is cruciform, reality in the form of the Cross. This is why we receive Eucharist, why we receive Holy Communion—for we must be accustomed to reality which is cruciform. This is why we celebrate the Liturgy of Office and Mass according to the Kalendar—for doing so accustoms us to the Cross. All temptation we face is ultimately a temptation away from the Cross, and turned away from the Cross, we are enemies of the Cross in Paul’s guidance. To be an enemy of the Cross is to live in purely worldly ways, to live as if our only citizenship is this world, and to order our lives around the values of this world—of wealth, of power, of possession.

True Christian spirituality, as Saint Paul teaches along with all of the other Saints, is based on our heavenly citizenship through Baptism—and indeed as Paul teaches to the Corinthians, in being a steward of the sacramental mysteries of Christ. When we live that way—summarized as Liturgy with personal devotion—we are living in the vineyard of God prepared for us. When our devotion to God flows forth from liturgical prayer, we are living in the Kingdom of God given to us—given to us to be stewards of the Sacraments, stewards of sacramental mysteries, stewards of God’s vineyard the bears the fruit of eternal and everlasting life; fruit that come of our hands, God ever working through our hands, through our words, through our deeds—fruit of beauty and goodness, that others may taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ that in our personal devotion, we bear such fruit.

On the Angels

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Michaelmas (observed), 2020.

Before we say anything more about angels, let the simplest and most fundamental thing about the angels be said and understood by us all. And the simplest and most fundamental thing about angels to understand is this: angels serve God in heaven and defend us on earth. This is what our Collect affirms. It is also affirmed in the Doxology we sing at the Offertory of the Eucharist: “praise Him above, ye heavenly Host”—affirms the first part, that angels serve God in heaven. An affirmation of the angels in our life is found affirmed in the Sanctus prayer we say as the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins: “therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious Name; evermore praising Thee, and saying, “Holy, holy, holy”—angels join us in praise at the Altar in the Eucharist to defend us, that is, support us, as we face the heavenly Light of lights Who is transfigured before our faces on the Altar.

Likewise, their role of defender is affirmed in the Burial liturgy at a funeral, even in the last words said over the body of the deceased in the Commendation as the body leaves the Church for the cemetery or final resting place: “Into paradise may the angels lead you.” Angels defend the soul of the faithful departed against the temptations of the devil. The simplest and most fundamental thing about angels to understand is this: angels serve God in heaven and defend us on earth.

There are two more specific aspects of angels described in Scripture for our reflection on this our observance of the Feast of Michaelmas, itself on our Kalendar for this Tuesday. The first is the war in heaven described in the Revelation to S. John, chap. 12; and the second is the ascending and descending of angels upon the Son of Man described by Jesus according to S. John in his Gospel account. So let us reflect on both of these.

John describes a war that arose in heaven. Michael, one of the archangels and whose name means “Who is like God?” fought with his angels against the dragon and his angels; that is, against the Devil who is also called Satan, who accuses God and deceives the world. The battle happened, and the holy Angels of light defeated the unholy angels of darkness. It is important to see this as light verses dark, day verses night. And the reason it is important because to the Church is was revealed early that John’s description expounds upon the mystery of the first day of creation described in the opening verses of Genesis, chapter 1. These verses: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw the light: it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day; the darkness He called Night; and there was evening and morning, one day.” This is all about the angelic war in heaven described by John in the Revelation; this is not about the creation of perceivable light and darkness as we might think, because light perceivable by the eyes was not created until the fourth day: “Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven for illumination to divine day and from night.” Greater light (the sun), lesser light (the moon), the stars—all this is the fourth day, and not the first.

What is described in Genesis as created on the first day is invisible light, not perceivable to the eyes, but only available to us as revelation. Hence John’s description of the war in heaven is one of the keys pieces of scripture that in fact point us to when angels were created. They were created at the very beginning of God’s creation—indeed, the angels are the Light. And the war in heaven was a battle between humility and pride: the holy angels in their humility overpowered the unholy angels burdened by the weight of their pride. Indeed, when we are humble before God, God shines through us as well; and when we are full of pride, we are heavy and weighed down with the darkness of death.

What, then, is meant by Jesus revealing at angels will be seen to be ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? To speak of angels as “ascending then descending” is rather curious, is it not? Usually we might think of it the other way round: that angels first descend to us and then ascend to heaven. But in speaking of angels being seen by the disciples as ascending and then descending upon the Son of Man echoes firstly the vision of Jacob in Genesis chapter 28. For Jacob “dreamed that were was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” And so angels reveal to us Christ lifted up, reveal to us Jesus ascending, and themselves ascend to send to us the good news of His ascension on the Cross, which is the ascension into the heavenly reality.

Jacob goes on to say: “And behold, the Lord stood above the ladder and said, “I am the Lord.” And so Jesus is directly us straightforwardly to regard Him as the ladder: Jesus is the ladder to heaven; and the top of the ladder which is Him is Him, for the voice speaks to Jacob and says, “I am the Lord.” All throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus uses that phrase: “I am”— in John 6, He says, “I am the bread of life.” In John 8, He says, “I am the light of the world.” In John 10, He says, “I am the door.” In John 11, He tells us that He is “the resurrection and the life.” In John 14, He says He is the “the way and the truth and the life,” and in John 15, He says He is “the true vine.” Even in John 8, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Each of these I Am statements in John echoes the I am statement of the Lord to Jacob. And so, angels reveal to us the “I Am-ness” of Jesus: reveal to us His living presence, as Peter proclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Angels ascend to reveal to us Christ ascended and lifted up upon the heavenly cross, and angels descend to reveal to us the real living presence of Christ, His I Am-ness, even to reveal to us the Word made flesh of the Eucharist, dwelling among us—revealing His glory for us to behold, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Thanks be to God.

Living Baptismally, pt 14: To Die is Gain

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 20), 2020.

We prayed in our Psalm these words: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; Your dominion endures throughout all ages.” And also these words we prayed: “The Lord preserves all those who love Him.” It is the Kingdom of God that baptized Christians seek, and are taught to seek; and it is in the Kingdom of Heaven that will behold the true face of Christ: face to face. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus directs us unmistakably in this regard: “See first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” And, He in effect goes on to direct, everything else important and necessary will be given to us as we need them. As the Upper Room Church, having been taught to see and find Jesus in the Scriptures—that is, taught to see and find Him in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets—they remembered Jesus directing them—their attention, their aspiration for their lives, their ultimate end—directing them toward the Kingdom of God. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, Jesus taught.

And remembering this bit of spiritual direction, when we encountered these verses in Psalm 145, the fire of love in their hearts undoubtedly grew. Jesus directed our hearts, minds, and bodies to seek the Kingdom of God, they thought to themselves perhaps, and the kingdom He is speaking of is an everlasting kingdom, ruled by Him throughout all ages, they thought to themselves perhaps; and, He preserves all those who love Him—so, their desire to love Him was catalyzed all the more. Because, as the simple logic shows, if we love Him, He will preserve us; and if He preserves us, we will be with Him in His Kingdom; and because His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, we will have everlasting life in Him, beholding His Face.

It is simple logic, but it is transformative logic. It was so transformative that it led Saint Paul to teach that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Such a haunting teaching, especially the last four words: “to die is gain.” But of course death in the Lord is gain. As our funeral liturgy proclaims at its beginning: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors.” When we die in Christ, we begin to enter the seventh day, the day of rest, the Lord’s Sabbath, for we are always restless until we find our rest in God. In our physiological death, the end of the course of our mortal life, we begin to enter into God’s rest, begin to enter into the nearer presence of God, begin to enter into His kingdom—and of course this is gain. What else could it be but gain?

This has led many Christians to ask the very logical next question: why, then, should we live in this life? Why not enter into the nearer presence of God sooner rather than later? Why live in this world, if the next is gain? We see Paul wrestling with this question, and it is indeed a worthy question to wrestle with, and to do so is a sign of growing spiritual maturity. Where Paul comes down on this question is that it is all God’s will: it is all up to God. If to die is gain, yet if all is also in the hands of God, in the hands of Providence, then God wants him still to be in his mortal body, to do good in the world, which is to proclaim the Gospel that people progress in the joy of the faith. Our purpose as Christians really is to serve the lonely, because it is the Christian belief that all persons are lonely for the Gospel, and all persons desire to enter into the Kingdom of God. So God keeps us alive for this purpose, and He knows that each of us has it in us to be the Gospel in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces.

And our loving Jesus, as recorded by Saint Matthew, affirms that there is no loss of the ultimate treasure if we, as it were, come late to the party. In His parable, Jesus tells of a vineyard where laborers are hired. The first laborers hired were the holy Martyrs of the Church—our first Saints, even John the Baptist and the deacon Stephen and others, including 11 of the 12 Apostles. They were the first into the vineyard. They have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, and they did so for God, and also for us, on our behalf, that we could learn from the stories of their saintly lives: knowing that because their manner of life was worthy of the Gospel of Christ, and therefore was a manner of life worthy of entering into the Kingdom of God, we ought imitate the Martyrs and imitate the Saints.

And as we do so as baptized Christians, as we order our lives by the Gospel, to be the Gospel to others around us, we make ourselves available to God to be hired by Him: hired to enter into the kingdom of God in our death, we being at rest and God working through us completely unhindered because we are at rest. Entering into the Kingdom of God offers the same reward no matter the timing of it: a denarius, a silver coin, but a coin on which is the Face of Christ.

Living Baptismally, pt 13: On Sin and Forgiveness

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 19), 2020.

There can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to the Christian life. Plenty of passages of scripture show that—obviously our passage today from Matthew 18; but also in the only prayer taught by Jesus to His disciples (the Our Father) forgiveness is key; and even more so with the Eucharist, when in the Upper Room with the Twelve on the night when He voluntarily gave Himself up to be betrayed, He said, “Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins.” Jesus gives us Himself in His Body and Blood, and His giving of Himself is for the remission of sins, the forgiveness of sins. Given that the Eucharist is the summit of Christian experience, and forgiveness of sins is central to its purpose according to Our loving Jesus, there can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to Christian life.

Saint Peter’s question to Jesus echoes this. He says, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” The practicalities of following in the footsteps of Jesus for Saint Peter and the disciples already we bound up in the seemingly unresolvable problem that sin abounds all around them. And that should no surprise us in the least, not if we pay attention to our daily human life, and know anything at all about the human condition. We live in a fallen world, and all of us sin against our sisters and against our brothers. And likewise, our brothers and sisters sin against us. But let us be clear about what the Church means by “sin.” We often might think, because wider society thinks this way, that the word “sin” is simply a Christian term for “wrong-doing,” and basically synonymous with it.

We see this demonstrated in what used to be called “sin taxes,” that is, taxes government would place upon the purchase of, say, cigarettes or alcohol—taxes on things society preferred people not so (at least publicly) and saw as wrong behavior. But the Christian meaning of sin has nothing to do with this. The Christian theology of sin begins in the recognition of the absolute necessity of the Cross to salvation. Or put more simply: sin in its primary sense is the condition of being in need of a Savior. Every human being is born in sin, because every human being is born in need of a Savior from the first breaths and cries of life. Adam and Eve were always in need of a Savior, therefore from their creation, and even the creation of Adam which preceded the creation of Even, Adam was never not in need of a Savior. Adam was born in sin, prior to any specific act of sin. Adam and Eve were in sin, in other words, before they choose to go against the will of God and eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Yet this specific act of sin, or occasion of sin—the choice to eat the forbidden fruit, and then the eating itself, for that is two sins, the choice and then the eating, with other sins to immediately follow—springs from the human condition of always, from birth, being in need of a Savior, being in need of Christ. It was because Adam and Eve were in need of a Savior—were in the condition of needing a Savior—that their act of sin occurred. And it is important to notice as well, that according to the economy of salvation which is God’s overall plan for His creation, through their act of sin, grace abounded, and they began on the hard road of living consciously within the condition of sin, the condition of needing a Savior. And, for themselves, we can reasonably speculate that they committed more acts of sin before they ran the full course of their mortal life—each and every time of committing an act of sin tied irrevocably into the prior reality of their sin, the condition of always needing a Savior. This is a condition that no one can avoid—we are never not in need of a Savior, and we can do nothing to escape that fact. All specific acts of sin by our brothers and sisters against us (and all acts of sin we commit against others) are anchored in the condition of sin we all find ourselves in, as Paul did at his conversion—prior to which he regarded himself blameless with respect to the law; after which and after being convicted by the Cross which is the glory of God, he regarded himself as the greatest of sinners, able to do good thing despite wanting to.

This is why forgiveness is central to Christian life; this is why forgiveness is central to Christ’s voluntary self-offering of Himself, His precious and holy Body and Blood, to us for the remission of sins. He gives us the heavenly reality of Himself to ever wake us up to the deepest reality of sin and the deeper reality of salvation only through Him. Knowing that we are filled with Him through the Eucharist, we are Him, for He is in our bodies. And our minds are transformed into the Gospel: that where sin abounds, which is everywhere and in all persons, grace abounds much, much more.

Living Baptismally, pt 12: Being a Living Sacrifice

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 18), 2020.

The previous two Sundays’ Gospel lections, being the dramatic telling of Saint Matthew’s of Peter’s confession of Christ’s full nature through heavenly grace given to him by the Father, which was followed immediately by Peter trying to put himself between Christ and the Cross, and thereby being called “Satan” just after being called the “rock” upon whom Jesus would build His Church—all within but a few verses—these lections being so central to the faith left little room to reflect upon the guidance given to us by Saint Paul the Apostle last Sunday, as we heard, in the Epistle to the Romans, the beginning of chapter twelve. Last Sunday, in the beginning of Romans twelve, we heard guidance from Saint Paul which began with the famous words, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” All told we heard last Sunday the first eight verses from Romans twelve, and today we hear the next batch of verses, from verse 9 through verses 21, which likewise continue valuable guidance to Christians, who, in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, should be continually responding to the fact of our Baptism.

And it is likewise important specifically for us Anglicans to reflect upon Saint Paul’s guidance on being a living sacrifice, because this whole theology gets taken up in our Eucharistic Canon from its beginning in 1549 and the first Book of Common Prayer—words that Anglicans indeed treasure: “And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee.” It is hard, I think, not to be caught up in those words during the Eucharistic Canon, and even be confronted by them. “Am I prepared to truly offer myself, my soul and body, as a living sacrifice?” we might ask ourselves. “Am I truly signing on to this? Because it sounds like a real commitment” we might further wonder. And make no mistake, brothers and sisters, what Paul is directing, and what we as a Body are doing during the Eucharistic Canon, is a real commitment, and it has everything to do with being baptized. There can be no doubt about this. Receiving the nourishment of God’s grace for mature Christian living demands we offer and present our bodies unto God, just as the bread and wine are offered and presented on the Altar. We are offering our selves likewise on the Altar. Doing so is our response of cooperation with the grace given beforehand by God in baptism—for God always, always, acts first. Yet if we desire and yearn to grow in the faith—in Saint Paul’s language, if we want to move from mother’s milk to beefsteak, from liquid food to solid food, we have to respond to the grace gifted to us in Baptism, which grows into Michael Ramsey’s “continual response to the fact of our baptism.” And the primary way we do so is to take up Paul’s direction, indeed Paul’s spiritual direction, and desire to present our body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which, as Paul says, is our spiritual worship.

This is not one of the things we do as Christians. It is the thing we do, and everything else flows from it. Loving our neighbor, whether we think of it as serving the lonely or as anything else, only becomes Christian loving when what comes prior to it is offering and presenting our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. To do so is simply to love God, as we hear in our Liturgy, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. That kind of loving is what living sacrifice means. And it is from that first offering, and only from and after it, that we can take up the second commandment, to love thy neighbor as thyself, as a truly Christian offering of our body to another through our love for them. There are plenty of people in this world who love and take care of others without first making this prior offering of self to God as a living sacrifice; and there is nothing wrong with that, nor should they cease doing so. But it must be clearly seen that despite outward appearances, their service is not properly named Christian service. It can be good, and helpful and consequential, but it is not Christian, and this is because Christian service to the world (the second commandment) derives its Christian identity by the prior offering of our heart, soul, and mind to God as a living sacrifice.

When we do that, and make it around which our lives are ordered, then not only is loving our neighbor Christian activity, but so is everything else we do—our day to day duties, raising our family, doing our mundane work, reading, walking, smelling the flowers: all of it is truly Christian activity when what comes before is our willing self-sacrifice to God, Who loved us long before we loved Him. Because when we love God, when we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to Him, in response He begins to transform our whole way of thinking and being. In Saint Paul’s words, we are no longer conformed to this world but allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewal of our mind. This is the transformation into the likeness of Christ that is the fundamental purpose of Christian religion. Being transformed, as Saint Paul’s directs, allows our love to be truly genuine, to love one another with brotherly affection. Because, as Christians, we regard all people as made in the image of Christ. When we practice hospitality as Christian, when we welcome another person no matter who they are or from where they originate, we are welcoming Christ Himself. When we rejoice with those who rejoice, we rejoice with Christ; when we weep with those who weep, we weep with Christ. And when we are confronted with evil, Saint Paul directs us to overcome evil with good—for this is precisely what Jesus Christ does on the Cross: the evil of the world forever blinded by the Cross’s transfiguring Light.

Living Baptismally, pt 11: Being Open to God’s Correction

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17), 2020.

Last Sunday our Gospel passage from Saint Matthew was the first half of a momentous episode in Scripture. Today’s passage completes the moment. Recall that, after Our Lord’s second, more provocative question to the Twelve, “But who do you say that I am?”, and Peter’s proclamation that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven.” And so as I observed last Sunday, it was not seeing Jesus—what He looked like, what He sounded like, what He said and taught, none of this—it was not seeing Jesus that gave Peter this deep insight into Jesus’s divinity, the insight that He is God. It was only a revelation from the Father, given to Peter from heaven that, at this for this moment, opened the eyes of Peter to reveal Christ transfigured in some sense so as to cause Peter to proclaim Him the Son of the living God.

All of which makes what comes next, the second half of this momentous episode, all the more intriguing. Because it was from this time that Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Note that it was from this time—and not before. In Saint Matthew’s version of the Gospel, the teaching to the Twelve by Jesus of the Passion that is necessary begins here—begins in the transfiguring revelation given to Peter from heaven, and the response by Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (words, as I said last Sunday, that are a summary of the whole Nicene Creed). Coming to some kind of sense of what the death of Jesus truly means is tied up into a sense of the divinity of Jesus, and even beginning to grapple with this Truth is itself a gift from the Almighty Father in heaven. Christian worship begins in this, what Jesus calls this rock.

But, Saint Peter did not like Our Lord’s teaching about the Passion. (And I added here his title “Saint” to remind us that Peter, in his error, is still a profound example to us about discipleship; more on that in a moment.) He did not like this teaching, and said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Notice the words of Our Lord. Peter is not condemned because he said words “like Satan”; not condemned because his words could remind people of Satan”; what’s more, Jesus does not say, “Get behind me, person who is like Satan,” as if the problem is that Peter’s ideology is simply too close for comfort to that of Satan. No! Jesus clearly says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter is not like Satan; here, he is Satan. The very man on whom, but a few verses prior, was proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the Church is to be built. What is going on here? Is this Jesus making a joke, an example of His divine sense of humor?

I do not think so. Jesus does have a divine sense of humor, and we always do well to remember that as we reflect on His words and actions that might trouble us or seem contrary to the nature of He Whose nature is love. But here, Jesus has for His Church fundamental doctrine. And that doctrine is seen when we remember that Peter, in objecting to Our Lord’s showing the Twelve that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised, Peter said “This shall never happen to you,” meaning Peter would not let it happen. In other words, Peter put himself between Our Lord and the Cross. And because of it, he was called Satan by Jesus. So who is Satan? Satan is anyone who gets between the Cross and Jesus. That’s who Satan is, that is, the primary characteristic of Satan, no matter the outward form Satan might take; the thing underneath the outward appearance is getting between Jesus and the Cross, or between us and the Cross—for the Cross is where Jesus is, and always has been the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

So how, then is Peter a profound example to us about discipleship? Peter is an example to us because despite his erroneous understanding, Peter remained an agent through whom Jesus extends His Incarnation in the world. Peter was vocal about his view, but he also left himself open to being corrected by Jesus, which Our Lord did over the course between this moment and the Upper Room when Peter’s leadership truly became the solid rock foundation of the Church at Pentecost. Having erroneous views is, therefore, not itself any kind of disqualification from membership in the Body of Christ. As disciples who are, in the words of Saint Paul, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling—grappling with the paradoxes of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ—we are allowed to get things wrong, as long as are not rigid in such views, but allow them to be corrected by the Holy Ghost as He sees fit, and in the way He sees fit. Peter went on to deny Jesus three times on the very night of His voluntary entering into His Passion. But, after the Resurrection, Peter allowed himself to be corrected by Our Lord in His glorious Body, saying three times to Peter: “Feed my sheep,” then “Tend My sheep,” and again “Feed My sheep”—three teachings to correct Peter’s three denials. It is in this way that Our Lord’s teaching and direction to us happens on the course of our life in Him, that He might graft in our hearts the love of His Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us, as He did Saint Peter, the fruit of good works.

Living Baptismally, pt 10: Living with God’s Revelation to us through Christ

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Proper 16), 2020.

The young Church that began in the Upper Room in Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus were people that knew Scripture (here of course I refer to what is called now the Old Testament). Within this first parish Church (with, as Saint Luke tells us, an average Sunday attendance of one hundred and twenty, souls, all of whom were apostles, both men and women alike), were people whose whole lives had been lived within the profoundly pervasive influence of religious life according to the Scriptures. Certainly not all or even many were Scripture experts—for being expert in the Sacred Page has always been a calling for a very few; important, but numerically small. I mean rather that the Upper Room apostles had heard the stories of Moses, of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob their whole lives; and likewise their parents and relatives, and all of their parents and relatives, as far back as anyone knew, potentially thousands of years. God, through Moses, parted the Red Sea—“heard it, maybe a thousand times!” they might have said if asked. The flood of Noah and the ark, same thing. And so many others stories in Scripture. These stories made up their imagination, made up their way of life, made up how they understand reality. It is impossible to overstate the deep-rooted effects of these stories every which way.

Another of these stories was water out of the rock, another of the stories of Moses. The people of Israel, having escaped debilitating slavery by extraordinary actions by God culminating with the Red Sea event, were thirsty, murmured against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” So, we are told, Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And, we are told, Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah (which means “proof”) and Mer′ibah (which means “contention”, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the Lord to the proof by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” It is a remarkable story, easy to remember, and inexhaustible for preaching and reflecting upon. And we see this reflected in the Psalms, which were the hymns of Jewish religion. Psalm 18 says, “My God, my rock in whom I put my trust.” God not only bring water out of the rock, but the rock is Him, and out of Him comes water. This is rich and formative of worldview. And that is precisely what happened century after century in Jewish religious life. And this formed the minds of the 120 Upper Room apostles like the story of the American revolution forms ours. Only much more so.

This is important to know as one considers the account of Saint Matthew of Jesus asking the disciples (and it appears here to be just the Twelve), “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Clear proof that these disciples knew Scripture!) Then then, masterfully, Jesus refines the question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter famously responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter recognizes, for this moment at least, not the humanity of Jesus (for everyone saw that, obviously); rather, in this moment Peter recognizes the divinity of Jesus. He, Peter proclaims, is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He is the anointed and chosen one (spoken of throughout the Scriptures) and the Son of the living God (the Son of the God of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets). In other words, Peter sees, at least enough to proclaim it, that in some sense, Jesus is the Rock. And if this is true, then it was Jesus speaking to Moses, Jesus commanding Moses to strike the Rock (which is Jesus), and water for the Jews coming out of Him. Truly, Peter can easily intimate, out of Jesus comes living water—He is the Messiah.

So Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven.” It was not seeing Jesus—what He looked like, what He sounded like, what He said and taught, none of this—it was not seeing Jesus that gave Peter this deep insight. It was only a revelation from the Father, given to Peter. It was only an apocalypse (for apocalypse is what “revelation” translates) from heaven that, at this for this moment, opened the eyes of Peter to reveal Christ transfigured in some sense so as to cause Peter to proclaim Him the Son of the living God.

And so we easily proclaim with Paul, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways!” And then, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” And let us, brothers and sisters, in celebrating with Paul our God and His gloriously profound mystery revealed only through Jesus Christ, be likewise thankful. Because seeing Jesus in person during His life provided no advantage to the Twelve and the 120 apostles, and seeing as we share with them the stories they knew and told themselves and proclaimed to the Church, about the words and deeds of Jesus, they (the young Church) are our contemporaries, the communion of the Saints means that living relationship with them, and together we are learning how to emulate the words of Peter given Him only by grace: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God: learning how to emulate them, and day by day, how to order our lives by them. Learning, with Peter and the apostles, how to live with the glorious revelation given unto us.