Friday, April 14, 2017

14 April 2017 - Good Friday

Good Friday  — 14 April 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Isaiah 52:13-53:12  |  Psalm 22  |  Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9  |  John 18:1-19:42
“So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’”  [John 19:5]
Pilate said far more than he knew.  For Jesus is indeed “The Man” – the Human Being.  Ecce homo; idou ho anthropos. Despised, mocked, beaten, bound, powerless, helpless, condemned to die – everything which our values tell us to avoid being.  And yet in this little vignette – so pitifully typical of so much of human life in all times and all places – it is Jesus, rather than Pilate, who is “The Man.”

We talk a lot, within Christian faith, of things like salvation and redemption, and I sometimes wonder if all we mean by that is just getting whisked out of a world of pain and sorrow off to a magic never-never land in the sky.  Well, there’s a bit of truth to that, in amongst the simplistic caricature of the reality of the thing.  But what God is really up to in God’s loving tireless quest for our salvation is not just to make sure we get tickets for heaven instead of hell, but to restore us to the fullness of humanity as God’s sons and daughters, to make it possible for us to become, finally, who we really are, who we are really meant to be, as human persons created in a finite world yet called to citizenship in an eternal kingdom and destined for everlasting glory.  God wants us to be fully, truly, human – each of us a full, true human person – not the poor bent twisted shadow of the real thing that the world seems to take for granted as ‘being human.”  The model, the example, the herald, the pioneer, the enabler of that new, restored, fulfilled humanity is Jesus, The Man, The Human Being.  Look.  Here’s the Real Thing.  Real humanity does not consist in getting power, but in giving love.  Jesus is it.  Pilate isn’t.

It’s not a part of God’s plan – not directly – that being a real human being must necessarily involve pain and suffering and death.  These are not good things; they are not, really, authentically human things.  But if we are to live in a world in which most people are capable of looking at The Man himself and crying “Crucify him, crucify him!” then the pain and suffering and death will go with the territory for those who are authentically human.

We look at Pilate, robed in all the pride and power of Imperial Rome; and we look at Jesus, robed in mockery and crowned with thorns.  Which one is really The Man, The Human Person? 

But of course, we know how the story turns out in the end.

But do we always remember?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

1 March 2017 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 1 March 2017

Trinity – 12:15 pm

Isaiah 58:1-12  |  Psalm 103:8-14  |  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”  [Matthew 6:16]

So, what are you giving up for Lent?

It’s funny how quickly this question arises for us, and among us, as we begin the season of Lent.  Or at least it does, and always has, for me.  Lent has always been, from my early childhood, about “giving up” something.  Or so it seems, and so I remember, although it’s probably not completely true!

The traditional themes of Lent are reflected in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about almsgiving, prayer and fasting.  Likewise, as we will hear in a few minutes, the Prayer Book expresses the Church’s tradition about the observance of Lent, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  [BCP p 265] 

But what I remember most clearly from when I was growing up was especially the self-denial part.  Lent was for giving up stuff.  If it was something I enjoyed, I had to give it up.  (Incidentally, this is not an accusation of my priests or Sunday School teachers, it’s a statement about me and what I was hearing!)  We had to give up chocolate.  (Well, that’s probably not a bad thing!)  We had to give up desserts at dinner.  (Also probably not a bad thing!)  We had to give up going to the movies.  And at least in some years we had to give up television.  Or reading books that were purely entertainment or recreational.  Lent was really pretty miserable!  And you could tell how miserable it was by how disfigured our faces were so much of the time!  (Even without ashes!)

Perhaps you get my point.  And, I think, Jesus’ point.

This is not to say that any or all of these self-denials may not be appropriate parts of your Lenten observance.  That’s between you and God, and perhaps your spiritual director if you have one.  But to the extent that we assume Lent is a time to make ourselves miserable and not have any fun, we probably need to take a better look at what we think we’re about in our Lenten observance.

In these more recent times, as I suspect you know, we have tended to put more emphasis on what we were taking on for Lent rather than what we were giving up.  And generally, I think, that’s good.  Prayer, for instance, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Yes, by all means.  Perhaps participation in some additional service activity.  And let us not forget the words of the prophet Isaiah:  “Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  [Isaiah 58:6-7]

But if we are honest with ourselves, we understand that if we are going to take on something for Lent, this may well, and perhaps should, involve giving up something else.  Not because there is any merit in being dismal, but because it’s good to remind ourselves that we can’t have it all.  And, frankly, in this modern world, particularly in our own society, we come perilously close to assuming that we can have whatever we want.  Most of us have too much stuff – physical, psychological, emotional – in our lives.  And just like our basement or our attic, sometimes we need to clean it out.

The season of Lent exists not for its own sake, not primarily at least, but because it is a time of spiritual preparation for Easter.  And Easter is not just the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, although it is certainly that.  But not only that.  It’s not “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia, How Nice For Him!”  The Risen Christ is the promise and the guarantee of our own eternal destiny; Jesus is what St. Paul calls “the first fruits.”  [1Cor 15:20]  I think we ought not to worry overmuch about the specifics of what that will be like.  We simply don’t know.  And that’s then, and this is now.  But we do believe, and have confidence, and trust, that this is not all there is.  And if we are wise, and faithful, we will prepare ourselves to be ready for then..  May God grant us all the grace of a blessed Lent!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

21 August 2016 -- Proper 16 / 14 Pentecost

Proper 16 /  14 Pentecost — 21 August 2016
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant – 10:00 am

 [Track 1]  Jeremiah 1:1-10  |  Psalm 71:1-6  |  Hebrews 12:18-29  |  Luke 13:10-17

The leader of the synagogue [was] indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath.  [Luke 13:14a]

The Gospel this morning, the healing of a crippled woman in a synagogue on a Sabbath day, sounds like it should be a very familiar story, and if you read the Gospels with any frequency, it probably is to you.  There are actually a number of stories of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath and then getting grief from the Establishment for it.  Mark tells a story of a man with a withered hand being healed on the Sabbath in the Capernaum synagogue, and Matthew and Luke both repeat that story [Mark 3:1-6; Matt 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11].  In addition to today’s story, Luke also tells about the Sabbath healing of a man with dropsy (a form of edema, often a symptom of a serious disorder such as heart failure) [Luke 14:1-6]; and John tells the story of the lame man healed on the Sabbath at the Beth-zatha Pool in Jerusalem [John 5:1-18].  What amazed me when I actually checked is that apparently, with the exception of this one, we have almost never told any of these Sabbath-healing stories in the Gospel at the Sunday Eucharist!  (We do tell the story of the healing on the Sabbath of the man born blind in Lent in Year A, and Mark’s story occasionally but not often gets told in the early summer of Year B.)  The other stories don’t get told on Sundays.  But these are important stories, and it is a mistake to overlook them.

It’s pretty straightforward:  Jesus goes to synagogue on the Sabbath and sees this crippled woman, all bent over, and he heals her.  He sets her free, as Jesus says and the Gospel recounts.  Well, the leader of the synagogue – in Greek he is called the archisynagogos, perhaps we might say the president of the synagogue, not a teaching rabbi, but something like the senior warden – anyway, this guy goes all bananas because technically it’s against the Law of Moses to “work” on the Sabbath.  “You broke the rules!” he accuses Jesus.  Jesus of course has little patience with that kind of nonsense, tells him so, and the crowd cheers.  (Yay!)

But this brings up a very fundamental issue in what we call moral theology, one which the Church has often dodged, as have other people trying to live in faith.  What is the place of “the rules” in determining moral behavior?

One way in which this question is sometimes phrased is:  “Is a certain act wrong because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because it is wrong?”

(Are there any of you who when you are reading a book turn straight to the last page to see how it comes out?  To you let me say that on this particular last page these two questions converge; but I think it matters how we get there.  Which is why even if you have peeked at the last page of your book, you probably still read it anyway to see how it gets there!)

Some folks have traditionally opted for the first understanding, that a certain act is wrong because God forbids it.  Typically, the source for the understanding that God does forbid a certain act is the Scriptures.  This certain act is wrong because “it says so in the Bible.”  This approach may be, and indeed often is, hard to follow in practice, but, as the old cell-phone commercial puts it, “It’s not complicated.”  Here are the rules:  obey them.  On the surface this seems to be what Jesus is telling the lawyer (an expert in the rules!) in the Gospel a few weeks ago – love God, love your neighbor.  But the lawyer is a good enough lawyer that he sees where this needs to go:  “Yes, but who is my neighbor?”  [Luke 10:29]  Maybe it is a little complicated!  “It says so in the Bible” is a lot like the old maps of the world that noted around the edges, “Here there be dragons.”  The moral guidance may seem simple and straightforward, but be careful!  There have been those who have argued, “God says, ‘You shall not murder,’ but if God had commanded instead, ‘Off anybody who seriously annoys you,’ then that would be right.”  And I think some folks have thought that.  And in fact in some places in the Bible God does command that!  (Jihad justifies all.  And let us not think that so-called “radical Islamists” are the only people who have operated on this basis.  So have we.   But I digress.)  “It is wrong simply because God forbids it” can lead to a very arbitrary reading of moral obligation. 

Behind this is a very strong belief in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, a doctrine particularly important in Calvinism and other what we might call “conservative evangelical” communities.  As well it should be.  Except that we need to understand that God is sovereign as God defines sovereignty, not as we would define sovereignty if we were sovereign.  The “sovereignty of God” has been used, and is still being used, to justify a lot of Bad Stuff.

On the other hand, to say that God forbids a certain act because it is wrong (rather than the other way around) is not to constrain God within a moral reality that is larger than God.  God is not bound by moral rules.  God is bound only by God’s faithfulness to God’s own nature.  To the extent that moral rules reflect God’s own being – which of course is Love, as revealed preeminently in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – then what those rules express is valid and binding upon us.  God calls us, and commands us if you will, to live and act in accordance with God’s own nature, which is Love:  to live, as we say and as Jesus said, in God’s Kingdom.  

There is of course the danger that we will use “Love” as an excuse to run amuck over the moral tradition.  The moral rules, at least most of them, exist for a reason.  They reflect the moral experience and wisdom of millennia of human community life.  Any exceptions should be made with great hesitation and trepidation.  But the rules themselves are not their own justification, and even as they are ultimately rooted in the being and nature of God, the rules are in themselves still human constructs.  And part of our moral obligation is to seek to perceive the divine reality that underlies them.  Whatever the Fourth Commandment says about the Sabbath, the primary moral obligation in this case is to heal the crippled.  As Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”  [Mark 2:27]

Monday, June 27, 2016

26 June 2016 -- Proper 8 / 6th Pentecost

Proper 8 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost  — 26 June 2016
Christ Church, Burlington – 10:00 am

BCP:  1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21  |  Psalm 16:5-11  |  Galatians 5:1,13-25  |  Luke 9:51-62

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them.

I am not a biblical literalist.  I hope that doesn’t offend any of you.  If any of you are offended that I am not a biblical literalist, then let’s get a cup at coffee hour and talk.

But what I’m getting at by that, at least in regard to the Gospels, is just that I recognize that CNN was not following Jesus around with their cameras.  Nor was any journalist following him around with a notebook.  Nobody was taking cell phone videos.  Jesus had followers – a lot of followers, not just the twelve – and they remembered stuff.  (In those days you had to remember stuff, and so they did.  We don’t have to so much any more because we have paper and computer files, and so we don’t have to remember anything!)  (Anyway, that’s my excuse!)  Well, at some point, many years later, it occurred to various of Jesus’ followers that they probably ought to write some of this stuff down.  And so they did.

I will forbear going into a detailed history of the formation of the Gospel tradition (you will be relieved to hear!) – four single authors (mostly), each with a distinct character, but drawing on the Jesus tradition through their faith communities.  There are some folks who apparently want to disparage Christianity and claim that we know nothing about Jesus of Nazareth and later generations just made all this stuff up.  Well, you can believe that if you want.  (You can also believe that climate change is just made up by The Liberals.  But I digress.)  On the other hand, one of the things about the Gospels that I find remarkable is that some of the traditional Jesus stories are actually quite embarrassing.  If you’re going to just make up stories about your Lord and Master, and about the founding leaders of your Church, why would you make up embarrassing stories like this?

For example, in the Gospel today:  Jesus and his followers are on their way up to Jerusalem.  They are cutting through Samaritan territory (the hill country between Galilee and Judea), which is a little odd; the usual route was through the Jordan Valley – easier walking, and you avoided the Samaritans.  Be that as it may:  as you know, the Samaritans were sort of renegade heretical schismatic Israelites, and they and mainline Jews did not get along at all well.  (Gee, that would never happen in our Church, would it?)  Long story, for another time.  Anyway, Jesus and his followers try to stop over in a Samaritan village, and when the folks there find that they are on their way to Jerusalem, they throw them out.  In response to which James and John (the “sons of thunder,” you recall) say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  And Jesus says, “Really?  Really?  (Actually the Gospel just says that Jesus rebuked them.)

It’s interesting how often the Gospels portray the leading disciples, particularly Peter, James, and John, as utter doofuses.  I mean, by the time the Gospels are written, these guys are the great heroes, the saints, of the first generation!  Simon Peter, for instance:  the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, but also clueless about what “Messiah” really means, as seen in his protest about Jesus’ foreseeing of his own suffering and death.  And it is Peter who pledges to Jesus that he will be faithful unto death, and then within hours he chickens out and denies his Lord.  It was James and John who came to Jesus and asked for the highest seats in the Kingdom.  (Matthew says it was their mother, but I think that’s just a cover-up; Mark lets the full embarrassment stand.  [Mark 10:35-37; Matt 20:20-21])  And Jesus’ response – I think one of the most important things Jesus said, and yet for two thousand years mostly ignored by the Church:  “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them.. It shall not be so among you.”  [Matt 20:25-26; Mark 10:42-43; cf. Luke 22:25-26.]  (“Authority” – katexousia – power.)

“It shall not be so among you.”  Except that for most of the past two thousand years, it pretty much has been so among us.  Especially since Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, and subsequently established as the state religion.  A really mixed bag, that.  I mean, it was nice that they weren’t going to burn us at the stake or throw us to the lions any more, but the price was pretty high.  (And we took up our own burning at the stake when we had the chance.)
Human beings have a thing about power.  We just can’t let it go.  And by “power” here I don’t mean just the ability to do stuff that needs to be done, I mean our need to control.  I think perhaps the thirst for power is the original sin.  (No, the original sin was not about sex, no matter what the nuns said, and even the Christian tradition that the sin was Pride I think is a little weasely.  In the Genesis story, what the serpent tempted Eve with was power – “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” – that is, having control of all things.)  

Many in the Church seem to think their faith entitles them to power, and specifically political power.  And here by “the Church” I mean Christian communities in the broadest sense, and especially their, our, leadership.  Yes, I do have some specific groups in mind, and if you’ve been paying attention to recent American politics you may be able to guess who I mean and what some of the issues are, but I’m not going there today.  It’s actually a pretty inclusive list, and sometimes we’re on it.  (The main reason why our own church may not have tried to wield political power as much as some others is that it turns out we’ve just not been very good at it!)  I don’t mean that we should sit quietly by in the face of the evils in the world and in our society, of which there are a great many.  Absolutely quite the contrary!  We are called to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, and must do so vigorously and faithfully.  But bearing witness is not the same as exercising political power.  And in the past – at least 1700 years, if not more, and continuing today, Christians, and other religious groups, have tried to enforce their beliefs, with the civil law or court rulings, sometimes with the sword (or perhaps fire from heaven!).  Funny how that always ends up being not about God’s Kingdom but about our own power.

Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you!”  And he goes on, “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.”  [Mark 10:43-45; Matt 20:26-28; cf. Luke 22:26-27]