Note to readers: Liturgical entries on this blog are based on the traditional calendar of the Books of Common Prayer and the traditional one-year Eucharistic lectionary. If you follow a newer calendar or three-year lectionary, there are variations in names for some Sundays and in the readings.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Trinity XI- Ways to Pray

Trinity XI                    St. Luke 18:9-14                     12 August 2018
                   Sermon Notes by   the Rev. Dennis Washburn, Ph.D                         
The parable of the Pharisee and tax-collector is about two men praying. Much can be said about Christian prayer. The main emphasis today is on the mental and spiritual attitudes for prayer- and by extension, about attitudes for all of life. Like the two sons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son two weeks ago, here we have two contrasting characters- a self-righteous person and a humble repentant one.

According to St. Luke, our Lord told this parable to some respectable religious people. And for such people in Palestine, starting with a Pharisee going to the Temple to pray seemed positive. Many Pharisees took their religious obligations seriously; they tried to do those things that they thought God wanted. In our parable, the Pharisee seems doing a good thing- he’s praying and thanking God.
The original hearers may have had a slight surprise at the mention of a tax collector going to the Temple to pray. Tax collectors were not noted for being pious, but this one seemed to be making an effort. He seemed humble and repentant.

Up to this point, many hearers were probably comfortable with the parable. Yet, we know that Jesus wanted people to move beyond their comfort zone in religious matters. His main point came in the shocking ending of the parable. He stressed, “I tell you, this man [that is, the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other [that is, the Pharisee]; for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

Jesus was implying that there were no really “good people.” In reality, there were only different kinds of sinners. And sinners are not distinguished as much by their deeds as they are by their attitudes.

Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are sinners. The Pharisee has done many good deeds, but he has failed to realize that he is still a sinner. He manifests spiritual pride before God. He ignores that any good thing in his life comes from God and forgets that God still holds him accountable. So the Pharisee is really a terrible kind of sinner- a proud and unrepentant sinner.

The tax collector, on the other hand, has probably done many bad things. His life is far from pure and respectable. Yet, from a spiritual point of view, he is on the right track. He acknowledges his sinful condition and knows that he must depend upon divine grace and mercy. He prays with a better attitude. This humble and repentant sinner is justified- set right- because he trusts in God rather than in himself.

As church-going Christians, we are probably aware of the teaching of this parable. We know that God humbles the self-righteous and lifts up the humbled sinner. Yet, although we know this, sometimes it doesn’t sink in. One mistake we make is to ignore our own self-righteous tendencies. It is easy for Christians to start thinking like the Pharisee. We can easily become caught up in simple outward performance. Our actions may be appropriate while our thoughts and attitudes are bad. Such attitudes are spiritually dangerous. They damage our souls and people around us.

What all human beings need is true repentance before God. All of us need to stop trusting in ourselves. All of us need to stop excusing ourselves by comparing ourselves to the failings of others. To be right with God, each person must truly regret his/her failings, realize his/her need for divine mercy, and trust in God alone to take away our sins.

Although today's Gospel is mainly about spiritual attitudes in prayer, there is a subtheme. There are hints about some postures or mechanics of prayer. Over the last 150 years, some Anglicans have come to assume that one always has to stand for praise and hymns, sit for instruction and kneel for confession and intercession. That is an interesting summary, but worship hasn’t always been that way. In the Bible and Jewish tradition, people sometimes knelt for prayer, more rarely prostrated themselves, and rarely sat. But most often, they stood for prayer, as both men do in our Gospel.

Standing has some practical advantages. Most people can stand longer than they can kneel. It takes less space and was certainly more practical in the days before pews and cushions. Standing is certainly better on our knees, especially past age 50. Furthermore, some ancient church fathers even said kneeling in church should be limited to penitential days such as Fridays or Lenten weekdays, but not on Sundays, Easter or other feast days.

And if we look at the instructions in the Prayer Book, they tell us when Cranmer and his comtempraries thought it was important to kneel. For example, in the Communion services of the 1500’s, the instruction for the congregation to kneel only occurs for the Ten Commandments and responses, the General Confession-Absolution, the Prayer of Humble Access and the Reception of Communion.

By these historical observations, I’m not saying that Anglicans should not kneel when we are able, but I am saying that we should not be legalistic or judgmental about it. Kneeling can be a fitting and meaningful way to pray, but it does not in itself make a person more holy.

Another posture implied by our parable concerns the head and the eyes. Despite a bad attitude, the Pharisee starts by praise, and presumably he follows common Jewish practice and prays with head and eyes slightly lifted.  We know that Jesus and the early Christians often prayed this way.  The tax collector, on the other hand, is emphasizing confession of sin, and so it was fitting that his head and eyes be downcast. Again we must be open to liturgical context and to personal needs in prayer.

Now to a third matter- the position of our hands in prayer. In Jewish and Christian tradition, there have been two common but different traditions about hands in prayer. One is with the fingers and palms of both hands joined in some way. This posture stresses quietness, introspection and meditation. The other is with hands and arms slightly extended and lifted near shoulder level. This posture emphasizes praise and openness to God. In Scripture, it is referred to as lifting up of hands. It was common among clergy and laity in the early church, and still expected of priests in parts of the liturgy. However, even in the ancient church, there were problems with lifting hands. The church father Tertullian (about 200 AD) warns, “We more commend our prayers to God with modesty and humility- with not even our hands too loftily elevated…” Unfortunately, in our time, some people who raise their hands seem more extravagant and less modest or humble.

In conclusion, Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican points us toward proper worship of God.  Every human being needs to turn aside from daily activities on a regular basis in order worship and pray. Prayer involves both our inner attitudes and our external postures and gestures.
Let us pray for and pray in humble faith. And whatever our postures and gestures- standing, kneeling or sitting, eyes up or down, hands joined or lifted- they should reflect both our praise of God and our humble dependence on divine mercy and grace.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Trinity IX- Two Sons and a Gracious Father

The familiar Gospel from St. Luke 15 has been known to generations of English-speaking Christians as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Some contemporary readers or hearers may think the "prodigal" is an old word for "sinful" or perhaps "ungrateful." Now certainly the younger son in the story was both sinful and ungrateful, but  prodigal really means "wasteful" or "irresponsible" (especially financially). Many sermons (including some of mine) have focused on this son. And his story is dramatic. He is self-centered and selfish. He doesn't appreciate the grace of his father. He is determined to have his inheritance and do his own thing. In the process, he sinks about as low as a respectable Jew could imagine- in a pagan land, hungry, broke, dirty, in a pg pen, envying pig food. Then he remembers all the love, care and grace of his father. So he repents and heads home, trusting in the mercy of the father.

There is also another son who has stayed home and done his duty. Yet, he hasn't really appreciated the graciousness of his father. He has taken the good things for granted. And he resents his father forgiving his prodigal brother. He thinks that he has earned more consideration from the father.He is self-righteous, and in a different way, the responsible but resentful son is as self-centered and selfish as his brother. He too is a sinner who needs to repent and learn to be grateful for his father's unmerited love and grace.

This parable is really teaching us about what St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:5, " grace ye are saved."  Almost every human being has had times when we have been irresponsible prodigals who have wasted our heavenly Father's gifts and fallen into bad ways of living.  In such circumstances, we need to come to ourselves, repent, return to our Father and depend on His loving grace.
However, sometimes we may have avoided the most obvious forms of sin. We may have tried to be good and responsible sons and daughters of God. We have done our duties. We may have been outwardly obedient in most moral and spiritual matters. Yet, we still have a natural tendency as fallen beings to trust in our merits rather than God's grace. So we too need to repent, be more thankful  and learn to depend upon divine grace. No matter what sort of son or daughter of God we may be, we must realize that it is only by grace that we are saved.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Trinity VIII- Beware

Trinity VIII                  Matthew 7:15, 21                  22 July 2018
                Sermon Notes by the Rev. Dennis Washburn, Ph.D.

How do you react when religion, faith or beliefs are mentioned- especially outside a church building? There are two common responses. Some people become nervous or uncomfortable because they don’t like religious discussion. Other people of differing persuasions are well disposed to discussions of religion. They assume that professing some faith, especially a Judeo-Christian one, is basically good.
In fact, there are drawbacks to each of these responses to religion. Those who are skeptical about all religion ignore the spiritual dimensions of the universe and misunderstand some basic human traits. The opposite response is also has problematic. Assuming that all or most religion is good also ignores biblical truth. For while the religious impulse is natural, not all religion is the same. There is bad religion as well as good.

In today’s gospel, Christ warns us about bad religion. In St. Matthew 7:15, He begins, “Beware of false prophets…” Then in Matt. 7:21 He concludes, “not everyone who saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven….:
During His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ exposed a great deal of bad religion. Some religious people opposed Him strongly. Some others claimed to support Him at times, but they were not really committed to Jesus.

The false prophets purported to be religious leaders. They claimed to serve goodness, and they would often appear harmless (they were in sheep’s clothing). But inwardly, they were like hungry wolves in the midst of a flock of sheep. They were really selfish, out for themselves, and destructive.
False disciples honored Jesus and used some religious words without meaning anything. They might give lip service to high principles, but they did not really care about God’s will. Their hearts, minds and souls were not really committed to Christ’s Gospel, and they would not produce good fruit.
The problems caused by false prophets and false disciples have not been confined to New Testament times. Bad religion has been a recurring danger in church history, and it is a serious problem for Christianity in our day.

One might argue that false prophets and false disciples are the most serious threat to Christianity in our time. Of course, the challenges of Islam, neo-Marxism and atheism are significant and endanger many Christians, body and soul. But fake Christians do great damage to Christian faith, community and witness- from within.
There is still a lot of bad religion making a false show of piety. And it can come from any branch of Christianity. There are people who call themselves charismatic, evangelical and catholic or Anglo-Catholic who are selfish and insincere and use Christian labels for their  own bad purposes.
There is also a lot of contemporary churchmanship that is more concerned with secular standards and political correctness than with eternal Christian truth. There are false Christians who are more interested in organization or denomination than in Biblical Faith. There are people more dedicated to social respectability or worldly acceptance than to Christian morality.

Such false Christianity sometimes manages to appear good for a while, but in the long run, this kind of religion does not produce the lasting good fruit. Such false Christianity actually tends to hinder the true spread of the Gospel and give all religion a bad reputation.

 So what do Christ’s warnings about bad religion mean for us?  This is a deep and complicated issue, but today I would briefly suggest two points. First, we need to take Christ’s warnings seriously. We must remain aware that all religion is not good. We should not become complacent or gullible in religious matters. Some things wrapped in a Christian label do not deserve our acceptance. Thus, we must be on our guard against false prophets and false disciples. We must make practical judgments based on our loyalty to the Scriptures, the Creeds and the basic commandments.
Secondly, besides warning about bad religion, our Gospel today encourages us to grow deeper in our commitments to Jesus Christ. Pious words can be a start, but our Lord asks for more than a few pious words. He asks His followers for a living and true faith in Him and His message. He wants His Gospel to permeate our whole approach to life. He asks us to care for and cultivate the tree of faith so that it can produce much good fruit. So let us sincerely profess and live out our loyalty to Christ and keep Him at the center of all that we say and do.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Trinity V- Holy Fear

In the gospel for Trinity V from St. Luke 5, Simon Peter reacts to Jesus' miracle of the great catch with fear. His fear is two-sided. Peter recognizes his own sinfulness before Jesus. Peter also recognizes the overwhelming power of God at work in Jesus. Such fear is both a natural reaction and a religious virtue.
Unfortunately, many well-intentioned modern Christians do not see the value of such fear. In several different Bible studies over the years, I have had pious church-goers argue against the value of holy fear. They claim that fear is just a hold-over from what they view as primitive Old Testament religion. They maintain that believers should always function at higher levels with values such as love, mercy, hope, confidence, peace, etc.

Such claims are based on high ideals, but they are not the whole truth. Although Christians know to look beyond Old Testament law, the Hebrew Scriptures still contain the same basic message as the New Testament. The fear of the Lord is still the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10). As a human being, even the Messiah has an appropriate spirit of fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:2). The fear of the Lord is one of the seven traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such fear is reverence and awe, but it is more basic than some polite reverence or aesthetic awe. It is the natural and primal reaction of the fallen and finite human being before the righteous and infinite God.

Thus, Peter is right to have a holy fear of divine power at work in Jesus. And so should we. Holy fear is not the whole story. Hopefully, in our spiritual journey, we move into other reactions such as faith, hope and love. Yet, if an element of fear is not present in us, then we do not truly appreciate our own frailty and propensity toward sin or God's almighty and infinite holiness.

Friday, June 29, 2018

St. Peter the Apostle- June 29

The Apostle Peter is an important figure in Christian history and an interesting personality. Much has been said and written about him over the centuries, often in the course of theological and jurisdictional disputes between the church of Rome and other parts of the Church. Although this post will not go into all the issues, a key passage is the Gospel from St. Matthew 16: 13-19. Here Simon Peter confesses his faith that Jesus is the Christ and Son of God. Because of this faith, our Lord calls Peter the rock of the Church, the new community of faith. Peter is the first minister of the church, but similar commissions will soon be given to other Apostles. Furthermore, despite his important confession, Peter is far from infallible, even in matters of faith. Within a few verses of his confession of faith, St. Matthew points out that Peter resists Christ's teachings about the way of the cross and serves the cause of Satan.

So let us honor St. Peter, his faith, his leadership, his service, his courage (most of the time) and his eventual martyrdom. However, let us not make the mistake of thinking that he or any other mere human being can be infallible for even a short period. May we have the grace to follow his good points and to avoid his errors.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Trinity III- Christian Individualism

One can hear all sorts of things about the individual human being. Some people stress the individual in all areas of life. Some others react by down-playing the importance of the individual; they may stress the human group- family, community, society, nation, humanity. Depending on the circumstances, both emphases can be appropriate.

However, in light of today's Gospel from the beginning of St. Luke 15, let us think a bit about the spiritual value of the human individual. One lost sheep is important enough to leave the rest of the flock to find. One soul that repents leads to heavenly rejoicing. This passage points to a general teaching of Scripture: the supreme human value of the individual soul and its relationship to God. This is the basis of any true Christian individualism. While this value may have an impact in all areas of human life, Christian individualism is not about philosophy, politics, economics, psychology, or societal building blocks. True individualism is spiritual; it is about God the Father reaching out in grace through Christ and the Holy Spirit to save individual souls.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Trinity II- Excuses

It has been a while since I commented on this Sunday's Gospel ( As I looked over the readings this week, I was truck by the theme of excuses. Lately, I have been noticing how often I hear excuses on all sorts of subjects. Maybe that is partly because I am a clergyman. People often seem to feel the need to make excuses to religious leaders- maybe seeking some sort of "absolution lite."  We also seem to live in an age of excuses. People make all sorts of excuses, great and small. They always seem to have extenuating circumstances for every major or minor failing.

Such human behavior seems to have been around since the Garden of Eden, and we certainly see it in our Gospel from St. Luke 14:16ff. Using the comparison of an ordinary feast, our Lord points to God's gracious invitation and the human tendency to make excuses. Such excuses really harm the one making the excuse, not the divine host. God asks for our fellowship. If we turn from His grace, we deprive ourselves. He may be offended, but He can always find other guests who will be grateful.

Weekly and daily, God invites us to spend time with Him. He asks us to read His Word and pray, publicly and privately. He offers to feed us in the Lord's Supper. And He hopes that we will accept His hospitality and fellowship with other guests. So any hesitations or excuses should be few and based on very serious circumstances. Rather than looking for excuses, let us accept the grace that God offers.