Friday, November 2, 2018

2 November 2018 - All Souls Day

All Souls Day  — 2 November 2018
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Wisdom 3:1-9  |  Psalm 116:10-17  |  1 Corinthians 15:50-58  |  John 5:24-27

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” [Wisdom 3:1]

All Souls Day – or “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed,” to give its full name – and All Saints Day, which we celebrated yesterday, go very much together.  Sometimes we pretty much merge them, and that may be all right – after all, in the New Testament the “saints” – the holy ones, the holy people of God – are all the faithful.  But it came to pass that there were special celebrations to remember the martyrs, those who had died as witnesses to their faith in Christ, and then, especially after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, when thank God there were no longer as many martyrs, the celebrations were extended to all those who were notable for their holiness and for their mission and service for the Kingdom of God.

But what about the rest of us?

Yeah, well…

And so in the Middle Ages there developed another observance, on the day following All Saints Day, for the remembrance of the rest of us, those of us who have gone before us out of this world, and with special focus on our own family and friends who have departed this life.  And this led to a very clear distinction between All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  All Saints is a festival, a solemn feast day, with the best white or gold vestments, and flowers, and glorious music, and for those of us who are into that kind of thing, clouds of incense.  It’s all very grand!  But then after everyone has gone home, the decorations are all put away and for All Souls Day the altar and the ministers were dressed in funeral black.  (I remember when we still wore black for All Souls Day; perhaps some of you do too.  For others of you, that sounds like Ancient Times!)  Well, we’ve mitigated that gloom a little bit; we’re wearing a simple white now. 

See, here’s the thing:  On All Saints Day we are rejoicing with all the Holy Ones who are with God in heaven, but we are all sinners, and so things are pretty dicey for us.  All Souls Day became a pretty grim business.  “Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeculum in favilla…”  It got to the point where we thought that if we didn’t get down to some really serious praying and pleading, poor Grandpa might be in serious doodoo.  (Sometimes folks were even encouraged to bribe God for Grandpa’s salvation by donating money, for example for the St. Peter’s Basilica Construction Fund, which is one reason why we got the Protestant Reformation.)

That isn’t what we want to do, is it?  No!

A little transparency would help.  The saints whom we celebrated yesterday were perhaps not so very different from us after all.  St. Jerome, one of the Latin Doctors (that is, Teachers) of the Church, the translator of the Latin Bible and an important theologian, was also a notorious grouch.  St. John Chrysostom, the great “golden-mouthed” preacher and one of the Greek Doctors of the Church, was notably anti-Semitic.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a great monastic reformer and spiritual leader in medieval Europe, preached the Second Crusade.  (Good move, Bernie.)  These folks all loved God, tried very hard to follow Jesus, but they weren’t perfect.  We also aren’t perfect, but I hope we all love God and try very hard to follow Jesus.  And so maybe All Saints and All Souls aren’t all that much different.  As Lesbia Scott told us in her hymn last night, “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”  [Hymn 293] 

Okay, so what are we to say about the saints – both the capital-S Saints from yesterday and the small-s saints we remember today?  Where are they?

I don’t know.

Mind you, I am not saying, “Gee, I dunno!”

I’m saying, I don’t know.  We don’t know.

Part of what we don’t know is the relationship between our death and departure from this life, and the General Resurrection at the Coming Again of Jesus Christ.  In New Testament times, and actually for many hundreds of years thereafter, people had a relatively simple understanding of the world.  For many this could be characterized as a three-storied universe.  Heaven is up there, earth is here in the middle, and hell is down below.  That makes Jesus’ coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the resurrection of the dead, fairly easy to imagine.  We see that, for instance, in the Epistle today, from First Corinthians 15, or in First Thessalonians 4 (which is not about the “Rapture,” about which St. Paul would have said “The what?” but about the general resurrection of the dead at Jesus’ coming again, which Paul thought would happen in the near future, even within his own lifetime).  But we understand – not because we are smarter or holier, but because we have more experience – we understand that the universe is an immensely larger and more complicated creation by God than we can even imagine, and so we don’t know how all this works out.  (Nor do we need to.  We’ll find out when we get there!  Jesus calls us to live in and proclaim the Kingdom now and not worry about the whenever.)  “Do not worry about tomorrow.…Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  [Matt. 7:34]

But although we cannot know, we can trust and believe with confidence this:  Jesus on the cross tells the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  [Luke 23:43]  St. Paul, writing to the Philippians probably from prison in Ephesus, where he knew each day might be his last, says, “My desire is to depart and to be with Christ.”  [Phil 1:23]  And to the Corinthians he writes, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”  [2 Cor 5:8]  And in St. John’s Gospel Jesus himself prays, “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.” [John 17:24] 

So I have confidence, and you may have confidence, that the Great Saints are, and our own saints are, and in due course you and I will be, with the Lord.  And that’s enough.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

16 September 2018 - Proper 19/17th Pentecost

Proper 19 / 17th after Pentecost  — 16 September 2018
St. Peter’s, Bettendorf – 8:00 & 10:00 am

I:  Proverbs 1:20-33  |  Psalm 19  |  James 3:1-12  |  Mark 8:27-38

[Jesus] asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

I’m assuming that you here at St. Peter’s have heard this story before.  Obviously we hear it every three years on this Sunday, and we also hear St. Matthew’s slight padding of it every three years in August in the “A” cycle (last year, and two years from now).  St. Luke also tells this story (again, borrowing from St. Mark), but we never hear that version on Sundays, though we do read it every year in the Daily Office.  In addition, as you all are aware, we also read St. Matthew’s version of this story every year on January 18, the Holy Day called “The Confession of St. Peter.”

But “The Confession of St. Peter” is something of a misnomer.  Because Peter was wrong, in confessing Jesus to be the Messiah.  Well, yes, of course in retrospect we know that Peter was right, but at the time Peter did not understand how and why he was right.  And that is why Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”  In short, when Peter says, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus retorts, “Shut up!”

In recent generations of New Testament studies, scholars often talked about what was usually called “the Messianic secret,” particularly in St. Mark’s Gospel.  (More recently, many scholars have walked that idea back; but that doesn’t mean that they are right or that the earlier scholars were wrong!  Nowadays there’s a lot of “walking back” earlier statements.  But I digress.)  The idea was that although Jesus was indeed the Messiah (Hebrew for “The Anointed One”), at least from our perspective now, or the Christ (Greek), he tried to keep it quiet, with mixed success, because everyone would misunderstand.  Which was certainly true.  Including Peter.  And actually even including us today to a great extent.

(Another digression:  Doesn’t Jesus in St. John’s Gospel go around all the time telling everyone that he is indeed the Messiah?  Yes, he does.  And I would share with you my own reflections about St. John’s Gospel and what I think the Fourth Evangelist is up to in the way he narrates this, but then we’d have to send out for lunch.  And maybe even for supper.  So I’m not going there today!)  (Whew!)

It may well be that “The Messianic Secret” is more a plot device of St. Mark the Evangelist than a reflection of Jesus’ own self-understanding (about which we can know very little!), but what it points to is true enough.  There were lots of theories floating around in second-Temple Judaism as to who or what the Messiah might be.  Some were very political and even revolutionary (kind of like our George Washington), a Messiah who would drive out the British – no, I’m sorry, I mean the Romans – and lead the nation to independence and liberty, like Judas the Maccabee had done two centuries earlier, only with more long-term success.  Or perhaps the Messiah would be the “prophet like Moses,” [Deuteronomy 18:15-19] who would restore the nation to full observance of God’s Law.  Or a supernatural figure, like the Son of Man in the book of Daniel [7:13-14], who would come on the clouds of heaven and become Ruler of the Universe.  (I don’t think there was a Ring involved in that version.)  There were lots of variants on all these ideas.  But basically they were about a Messianic figure who would lead Israel to victory through power.

But you recall the words of Lord Acton a century and a half ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  (There are those who quibble with this saying.  They are usually those with power who feel a need to defend it.)  Or, as Jesus says in the Gospel today, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  And elsewhere Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  [Mark10:42-45; my italics]  And in the hymn which St. Paul writes or quotes to the Philippians:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.’”  [Philippians 2:5-11]

So we must realize why Jesus sternly tells his disciples not to say anything about his being the Messiah.  They may not tell who the Messiah is until they understand what the Messiah is.  And they don’t yet.  No one in that world did.  The disciples didn’t.  Peter didn’t.  We still don’t, a lot of the time.  And when Jesus explains that when he goes to Jerusalem it is not to take power, it is to be crucified by power.

And Peter says, “No!  That can’t be!  That mustn’t be.”  And Jesus rebukes him:  “Get behind me, Satan!”

Well, that seems a little harsh!  But we should note that Jesus uses the very same word to Peter that he used in the wilderness to the Devil in rejecting his temptations – the very same temptations, by the way, that Peter now reflects:  the temptiation to be a Messiah of Power.  Both to the Devil and to Peter, Jesus says – the Greek word is hypage – “Go!  Get out!”

God is love.  Well, we already knew that.  We’ve heard it countless times.  The problem is that we’ve heard it so much that it may have become sentimental and trivial, a religious Hallmark card.  But it’s a fundamental theological statement:  God’s very nature is self-giving love.  That’s who God is.  The divine nature is not only to be but precisely to share being. That’s what creation is.  The universe exists, and everything in it, including us, because it is God’s loving will to share being, as gift.  Creation is not a loan.  Creation is not conditional.  To create is to let be.

The Deists of the European Enlightenment weren’t completely wrong.  (They were largely wrong, but not completely!)  God did create the universe with autonomy – God does not fiddle with the laws of physics – but God did not walk away from the world.  God is not a retired clockmaker. 

God created us with autonomy and freedom also, but God works in us by grace, with love, not by compulsion.  God created us to share in God’s love, with God and with one another.  Well, we screwed that up pretty badly, so God chose to come among us as God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, to save us and heal us.  But not by power – what we usually call power – but by God’s own power, which is the power of love.

Eventually St. Peter did get it.  Eventually maybe we will too.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Sunday, August 12, 2018

12 August 2018 - Proper 14/12th Pentecost

Proper 14 / 12th Pentecost  — 12 August 2018
Trinity – 7:45 & 10:00 am

1 Kings 19:4-8  |  Psalm 34:1-8  |  Ephesians 4:25-5:2  |  John 6:35, 41-51

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”   [John 6:41]  

As you are probably aware, the Old Testament reading at the Sunday Eucharist is generally chosen because it bears some thematic relation to the Gospel reading.  (At least, with the Revised Common Lectionary, when you are following Track Two, as we are doing.  I would explain about Track One, but that would be boring.)  Today we hear a snippet from the Elijah saga, which is found in the 1st (and a bit of the 2nd) Book of Kings.  A wonderful story, Elijah.  And this really is just a snippet without any context, unless you already know the full story, which I’m sure some of you do.  Elijah is fleeing for his life into the desert, escaping Jezebel (the queen of the Israelite king Ahab), who is really really mad at him because he killed all her pagan priests at Mount Carmel (well…!), and he will encounter the Lord God at Mount Horeb.  But you already know that.  In this snippet the angel of the Lord is feeding Elijah for his wilderness journey.  And we read this today because in the Gospels we read a couple of weeks ago about Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, and since then John’s Gospel has been following up with a long discourse about Jesus as the Bread of Life.  (And we still have a couple of weeks to go!)  And so today we are reminded that God feeds us, just as God fed Elijah in the wilderness.

And last week, as you recall, the Old Testament reading was about the Israelites in the Sinai desert, just liberated from their Egyptian slavery, receiving bread from heaven.  About which they said, “What’s this?”  Or, in Hebrew, “manna.”

So, for a few weeks this summer, we are reading from the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel about Jesus as the Bread of Life, beginning with the story shared by all the Gospels about the feeding of the multitude, a sign of who Jesus really is.  And the related Hebrew stories of God feeding God’s people.

“God will provide.”  Right at the heart of our faith, we assume.  Or presume.  And it may well be presumptuous!  I often wonder if the God of popular culture isn’t very much like a vending machine:  If we insert the coins of faith and push the button, down will come the Snickers bar or the potato chips or the Diet Coke or new job or the peace of mind or the answers to our questions or whatever it is we want.  If you do right by God, God will do right by you.  A lot of that going around.

But what will God – the real God, the God of the Bible – actually provide?  You may recall the episode in the wilderness, when the Israelites come to Moses and whine (as they so often did), “Hey, back in Egypt, we could catch fish in the river for free and the gardens were full of veggies, but out here all we’ve got to eat is this whatsis!”  [I.e., manna.  Numbers 11:4-6]  Yes, God provided, but they didn’t like it.  God did not provide what the people thought they needed, certainly not what they wanted, but because it was God’s purpose to make of the Israelites a new people, living a new life in a new land, and the only way to get there from the fleshpots of Egypt was through the desert.  (This is not a particularly subtle story.)  

And today with Elijah, who is on the lam from the powers-that-be.  And he’s tired.  He’s sick of the whole business.  He has just killed 450 of the prophets of the pagan god Baal, and what thanks did he get?  (By the way, I would not draw any moral theology from the Mount Carmel episode!)  But the angel of the Lord comes and feeds and refreshes him, but not so that he can just go back home now, but so that he can go on more deeply into the wilderness (yep, same wilderness) to encounter God.  Where God commissions Elijah to go back and do some more mostly subversive stuff and get into trouble again.  God will provide.  Oh, good.

Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life.”  It starts out, of course, as we heard a couple of weeks ago, with Jesus providing actual bread to a crowd of people who had followed him out into the boondocks.  And at the most basic level, they seem to have gotten it.  First, Jesus can feed us (literally), and second, that’s like what God did for our ancestors in the desert; so this Jesus must be the coming prophet who will liberate Israel and drive the Romans out so let’s make him king!  Jesus slips away, but they chase him down. But he tells them, “You didn’t really get it.  The real point is the nourishing of your hearts and souls and minds and lives, not just feeding your bellies.  If you want really to be fed, you must come to me and follow me and believe in me.”

Believe in Jesus.  I’m inclined to think that “believing in Jesus” may be one of the most misunderstood notions in the Bible.  “Believing in Jesus” is not the same thing as assenting to certain doctrines about Jesus.  I don’t mean that doctrines about Jesus aren’t important, or that what the Church teaches about Jesus isn’t true, or that we shouldn’t assent to it.  But when John or the other Gospels, or Paul in his letters, talks about “belief” or “faith,” they almost always use a Greek word that connotes not so much intellectual compliance but personal trust and commitment.  Believing in Jesus, faith in Jesus, is not as much a matter of the head as of the heart.  Now, granted, if you are going to commit yourself and put your trust in someone, you’d better run that past your brain at some point.  (You may have noticed that our world today is full of a whole lot of people who have obviously not done that.)  

When Jesus says, “Believe in me,” “Have faith in me,” he is saying, “Commit your life to the Kingdom of God which I am proclaiming and enacting among you.  Trust in me as the one who embodies God’s Reign.”  To believe that Jesus is the true bread which gives life to the world is to commit ourselves to his pattern of life as true human life, to commit ourselves to his values, to his cause, to his vision, as the values and cause and vision of God, to commit ourselves to Jesus precisely as the Way and the Truth and the Life.

A digression:  Many, though not all, of the theologians and scholars over the centuries have seen in the John 6 discourse on the Bread of Life a reference to the Eucharist, emerging particularly as the chapter goes on.  I myself think that multiple levels of meaning in St. John’s Gospel are just what the evangelist intends!  And that’s one of the levels of meaning.  But I’m not going there today.  Perhaps Marc will have something to say about that next Sunday.  (No pressure, Marc!)

God will provide.  And the real nourishment is Jesus.  But there’s nothing cheap or easy or simple about that.  We need to question any assumptions we may make that self-servingly try to turn God into the provider for our own wants.  When God is really providing for us, God does not leave us with our comfortable pots of stew in our old Egypts, but leads us out into the challenges and the mysteries and the dangers of the world’s desert.