Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sermon -- 31 December 2006

1st Sunday after Christmas — 31 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 11:00 a.m.
RCL: Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 147:13-21 Gal 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1:1-18

(c) 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

At Christmas the passages of the Gospel of which we are most fond, I suspect, are the narratives of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus — St. Luke’s story of the Holy Family’s refuge in the stable of the inn in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds; and St. Matthew’s account of the visit of the mysterious Wise Men from the East and their extravagant and portentous gifts.

For many of us these are our favorite stories to tell, at least at this time of year; we love them, we know them, in fact we know more than is actually in the Scriptures themselves!

But also prominent among the Gospel passages for this season is another one, of a rather different character; one that is read on Christmas morning, and also on this following Sunday (this year coming a full six days later); one that also is familiar, and beloved of most of us I think; yet not exactly a narrative story of the birth of Jesus but more like the foundational presuppositions of the birth of Jesus: what we call the Prologue of the Gospel according to St. John. And I think it is crucial that as we celebrate God’s coming into the world in Jesus of Nazareth we hear, and read and mark and learn and inwardly digest these distinct, not to say different, “takes” on the incarnation of Christ.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.…”

“The Word.” “The Word of God.” Not just “a word,” or a set of words, but something far profounder, God’s own self-expression, God’s own creativity, the self-giving in which God spoke the universe into being. And this Word became flesh — God became a human being.

Granted, this from St. John’s Gospel is pretty heady stuff (not just the prologue, but throughout the Gospel!). And so it’s important that as well as having the theoretical foundations, we also have the stories (though we do tend to pretty them up) — Jesus was really born, as a real human being. In fact, he was born in a barn, and almost immediately he became a political refugee. His childhood and young adulthood was obscure and mostly unknown; his public career was relatively short and came to a bad end.

And why should this have been? We know the story of Jesus well enough, and we read it and tell it over and over, together in church, in our families, in our own meditations. The question that I’m not sure we ask very often is, Why would God do such a thing?

Here’s the deal: God created the universe. By and by we came along in our own corner of the world, and, to put it bluntly, we screwed up. And we can’t fix ourselves by ourselves. God isn’t willing to abandon his creation project and throw us in the trash, so God will have to do the fixing.

Okay. So why doesn’t God just do it?

Why this incredibly convoluted plot? What’s all this about coming and being born in an obscure backwater and growing up as a nobody and having a brief flash of fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view), and then being gotten rid of, crucified by the local imperial authorities? How does this constitute “fixing” humankind’s problems? This isn’t very efficient! What’s the point of “the Word becoming flesh” at all? Why doesn’t God just appear in the clouds of glory and shout to the world, “You people just behave yourselves!” That’s what we’d do!


God created us human beings in the divine image and likeness, in order that we might respond to God’s love and to share God’s love with one another. The necessary condition of our being able to love is that we are free — free to love but also free to refuse to love. God always offers us the divine grace to enable us to love, but God does not force grace upon us. To reconcile wayward and perverse humankind to God’s love requires that God win us, not command us.

Well, that sounds just fine, but the fact is that we would rapidly run out of patience. God does not run out of patience. And we get very impatient that God does not run out of patience. But God will not reduce us to puppets, God will not make us robots, God will preserve our freedom even as we use our freedom to destroy ourselves.

So God does not appear in the clouds of glory and shout to the world, “You people start behaving yourselves!” God came to be one of us. Really. Not just looking like one of us. Being one of us. The Word became flesh, and lived among us.

And so Jesus was born in a barn. He grew up in obscurity and relative poverty. And when the time came he began to teach about the Kingdom of God, to proclaim God’s Kingdom, to enact God’s Kingdom, to challenge all the forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers that corrupt and destroy God’s children, the selfishness and greed that draw us from God’s love. And so they killed him.

But that wasn’t the end of it. It still isn’t the end of it. It’s just the beginning.

"The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sermon -- 24 December 2006

4th Sunday of Advent — 24 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:30 & 10:00 am
RCL: Micah 2–5a Canticle 15 Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45

(c) 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Despite the radio stations and the shopping malls and the office parties for the last few weeks, here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we are finally actually getting around to close-to-Christmas. This year, really close-to-Christmas: hardly are we done this morning than we start getting ready to start the Christmas celebration itself this afternoon. And we need to get with it: a little later (in a little bit) we will proceed to the Hanging of the Greens. (I’m not sure we really ought to use that phrase — when a parish has a family named “Green,” and a great many do, they get a little fidgety when we announce the Hanging of the.…)

Anyway: on the Fourth Sunday of Advent our theme is the Annunciation of the coming birth of the Messiah Jesus: In the first year, St. Matthew’s story of the angel’s announcement to Joseph; in the second year, the story from Luke about the angel’s prior announcement to Mary; and in this third year, the story, also from Luke, about Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. (“Cousin” perhaps loosely; they may not have been first cousins, but some degree of relative. Bear in mind that Elizabeth was probably old enough to be Mary’s grandmother, and since Mary may have been like fifteen, Elizabeth may have been as ancient as, oh, perhaps even fifty.)

So anyway, what’s this trip up from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea all about? Why does Mary want to go up there? (Well, of course, we who are in on the bigger story, and read the previous page, know that Elizabeth is carrying the soon-to-be-born John who will grow up to be called The Baptist.)

Think about the just-previous story, after Elizabeth conceives her son — the story we heard last year, the familiar story of the Annunciation to Mary. The angel Gabriel comes and tells Mary that she is going to bear a son who will be the Son of the Most High and will be given the throne of his ancestor David, and furthermore her old Aunt Elizabeth is six months pregnant, ha ha, that’s the same trick God played on Sarah and Abraham two thousand years ago. And Mary says, in Latin translation, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” or in the original Aramaic, “O‑kay…” And the Gospel goes on to say, “Then the angel departed from her.” Leaving Mary saying, “Uh, excuse me.…”

Now what? What does poor little Mary do now? “What’s this about Aunt Elizabeth? And what am I going to tell Mom?”

Well, we are obviously wandering off into the range of the amiably fantastic here, but, oh well! Mary goes back into the house and says, “What do I say now? That I’ve seen the angel Gabriel? And that he told me that I’m going to…that I’m having…I don’t think so!” So she says, “Mom? Can I go visit Aunt Elizabeth?” And St. Anne, being a good mother who fears the Lord, says, “Yes, dear.” Mary says to herself, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on around here, but it sounds like Aunt Elizabeth may be in on it, and besides, she’s a priest’s wife and she’ll know what this is all about! (No point in asking Uncle Zechariah, he never says anything.)”

So Mary goes up to the Judean hills to visit Elizabeth. And when Mary walked in Elizabeth said, “My goodness, this kid just gave me a kick! Blessed are you — and blessed is your child, the Lord whom you carry!” Mary said, “You do know what’s going on here, don’t you?” And Elizabeth said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And Mary began to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant!”

I think there are a couple of things to be drawn from this story, things which I’m not sure we usually notice given the relative familiarity of the narrative. First of all, this was not a solitary experience for Mary. We don’t know what she told her parents — presumably at some point she did tell them! But we don’t know what she told them. In fact, in the Gospels there is nothing whatever about Mary’s parents. All we traditionally say about them, including even their names (Joachim and Anne), comes from a legend, an apocryphal gospel, dating from the second century. And we need to understand, despite our neatly melded account of the events surrounding our Lord’s Nativity, that the authors of the birth narratives in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke do not know each other. (They share the common core traditional material, of course, but Matthew has never read Luke nor has Luke read Matthew.) Thus we do need to be careful about trying to sequence Joseph into the Lukan story. Nevertheless on its face it seems to be the case that Mary never told Joseph, at least not directly; in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph only finds out what’s going on from an angel in a dream. But Mary did not keep it all secret. all by herself: she went to a person whom she knew she could trust and from whom she could seek counsel, her older relative Elizabeth, who herself was also evidently a player in God’s plan of intervention in the world for its redemption. God does not work through lone rangers, God works through the community of God’s people. (Even when God starts with just two or three.)

And secondly, once Mary has confirmed with Elizabeth that she is not having pious delusions but that God really is at work in the world in her, she immediately recognized God for what God was doing: namely, God is overturning the very order of the world, as indeed the prophets of Israel had said for centuries (including such faithful women as Hannah, the mother of Samuel and the model for Mary’s song). God is overthrowing the powerful and raising the lowly; God is feeding the hungry and sending away the rich.

Christmas has become, as well all know and as we all say probably ad nauseum, a commercial glorification of greed. More dangerous is the deformation of Christmas into a simply a pious religious festival. What we must see, and live out, is that the Incarnation of the Word of God, of which Christmas is a central moment of celebration, is no less than the revolution, the utter overturning, of the human world. And at the center of it are a young Jewish girl and her old aunt.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Sermon (Evensong) -- 3 December 2006

1st Sunday of Advent — 3 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 5:00 p.m. Evensong
Psalm 18 Amos 1:1-5,13–2:8 Luke 21:5-9

For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statues, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked.

And a Merry Christmas to you, too, ho ho ho!

One of the things that we all have begun fussing about in recent years is the growing custom on the local radio stations of playing Christmas music starting immediately after Halloween. Not just us stuffy old Anglicans, but even regular people were shaking their heads a month ago: “Can you believe they’re playing Christmas music already — 24/7?!” Although I noticed, on those rare occasions when I wasn’t listening to KSUI, that these stations were actually playing “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” and I don’t consider that those count as Christmas carols. And if they have to be played at all, I suppose November is as good a time as any.

But this brings us around to a time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas; and as a run-up, on the meaning of Advent. As I suggested a moment ago, in the Anglican tradition we make rather a Big Deal of observing Advent, and not keeping Christmas until Christmas, and everyone else thinks we’re a little loony, we and the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans. Ironically, there was a time when we got it from the other direction: the Puritans got after us for celebrating Christmas at all; they considered it a Papist and pagan festival, not fit for Bible-believing Christians. Oh well.

I am inclined to think that we ought to keep Advent with a little more intentionality than we usually do. We understand Advent as a preparation for Christmas, and it is. But we understand Christmas as a warm and fuzzy festival, and so Advent also becomes warm and fuzzy, and we get a bit off track. Christmas certainly has its moments of profound joy, but it really isn’t warm and fuzzy. (I am reminded of the race car driver Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights, who when he says grace before dinner always prays to the Baby Jesus; he doesn’t care very much for the adult Christ Crucified.) Christmas, despite its genuine joy, also has its dark side. And part of the Advent preparation is to call our attention to the dark side of Christmas. We say, or at least we have taken to saying, that “Advent isn’t like Lent.” Well, in a sense that’s so; but in a sense Advent is like Lent. At least one stream of the origin of Advent was to be a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for the Epiphany baptisms. And one of the major themes of Advent, especially this first week, is judgment.

In the first reading we hear from the prophet Amos, who was active in Israel and Judah in the middle of the eighth century bce. He begins by denouncing the surrounding pagan nations for their sins and proclaiming God’s condemnation: Damascus, and then the selection tonight leaves out Gaza and Tyre and Edom to reduce the tedium a little, and then the Ammonites and Moab. That pretty well boxes the compass: Syria, the Philistines on the Mediterranean coast, what is now Lebanon, what is now Jordan. (“For three transgressions and for four” is a Hebrew rhetorical figure that means “for a whole lot of transgressions.”) So much for all those sinful Gentiles! But then Amos turns his sights on Judah and on Israel. Oops. Being the chosen people is no assurance against coming under judgment.

Jesus is with his disciples in Jerusalem, after his prophecy-fulfilling entrance into the city, driving the moneychangers out of the temple, and tangling verbally with the religious establishment. The disciples are rubbernecking at the Big City, and the Temple — a magnificent structure built by Herod to try to curry favor with the Jews — most of them are Galileans and some of them may never have been to Jerusalem before — and they are terribly impressed. Jesus quickly deflates their balloon and warns them that although “Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth, is the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of the great King,” [Psalm 48] it is still not immune to judgment, any more in the first century AD than it was in the eighth century BC.

And neither are we. Advent, and the initial Advent theme of judgment, reminds up how utterly serious the whole enterprise of the Incarnation of God the Word in Jesus of Nazareth really is, and at what cost comes the redemption that we shall in three more weeks celebrate with such joy.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sermon -- 10 September 2006

Proper 18 / 14th Pentecost — 10 September 2006
40th Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood
Trinity, Iowa City — 7;45, 8:45, 11:00

Prov 22:1-2,8-9,22-23 Ps 125 James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Actually, I have a supplementary text for this morning also, and it comes from a few verses earlier, from last Sunday’s Gospel, if you may remember;

“Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

Well, actually, you probably don’t remember, because as it happens this verse was excised out of the passage appointed for the Gospel last week, and we didn’t hear it. It turns out that the Episcopal Lectionary Gnomes who appointed the Prayer Book readings are close cousins of the Ecumenical Lectionary Gnomes who appointed the Revised Common Lectionary; they both leave this verse out. You may have noticed in the lessons insert last week that there were a couple of elisions (…) in the printed text. Well, one of them was this. At least the RCL admits that we weren’t getting our full money’s worth.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that I picked this point up this week from SimonSurmises,[1] a blog by Fr. Simon Mein, retired chaplain of St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware: a very good piece entitled “Whatever Happened to Mark 7:19?” But I digress.)

As some of you may be aware, this Sunday is the 40th Anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. (How time flies when you’re having fun!) It’s not my plan to recite a retrospective of my life in ordained ministry; in any case a lot of it would be reminiscent of some of the points Fr. Hulme made in his sermon last Sunday, and the rest of it would be kind of boring. On the other hand, I have been around the Episcopal Church for a long time. Not as long as some of you, but longer than a lot of you; I was raised in the Episcopal Church in an active church family; was an acolyte from a young age, at the age of ten I used to stand in the narthex after Mass selling copies of The Living Church, I regularly participated in youth events, and I was generally pretty savvy about what was going on in the Church. Those were the good old days of the High-Church/Low-Church wars, and my view of the Episcopal Church was definitely not through rose-colored glasses. Throughout my ordained ministry, and throughout all the years leading up to my ministry, this ol’ Episcopal Church has been through a lot, and a lot of it not very pretty, a lot of it mistaken, a lot of it infuriating. Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But I said I wasn’t going to get just into a retrospective of my own ministry. By instinct and temperament (possibly by talent, but I’ll let others make that judgment!) I am a historian, with some focus on historical theology. So my retrospective tends to go back a bit more like two thousand years. (Or even four thousand, if we want to go back to Abraham.) And one of the things I have known for a very long time — and I think we’ve tried to tell you, though I’m not sure we’ve been very successful, because a lot of people seem not to know it and to be greatly dismayed when they find it out — is that this whole ol’ Church has been through a lot for two thousand years (and the People of God for two thousand before that), and a lot of it not very pretty, a lot of it mistaken, a lot of it infuriating, a lot of it profoundly corrupt, a lot of it simply evil. Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There’s a myth — no, not a myth, because I prefer to reserve the word “myth” for a more technical and more positive meaning — a delusion that the Church of Christ has been this shining, pristine religious institution throughout the ages, up until about a week ago last Thursday, when all of a sudden it went to hell in a handbasket. Folks who subscribe to this delusion often appeal to “Catholic Tradition.” This of course is utter nonsense. (There are some more self-proclaimed-evangelical folks who prefer not to appeal to Catholic Tradition but to “Biblical Christianity.” This also is utter nonsense.) Oh, I think there is such a thing as Catholic Tradition, and such a thing as Biblical Christianity, but I have my doubts as to whether the folks who like to use these phrases really understand what they mean. An awful lot of what we regard as “traditional” (as in, “we’ve always done it that way before”) is profoundly faithless to the Gospel. Those who view with such alarm the current consternations of the Church seem not to be aware of past, to say nothing of current, corruptions of power, racism, sexism, oppression, justification of abusiveness, complicity in war, exploitation of the poor, persecutions, crusades — these folks need to chill out!

Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by, and being delivered by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Last week in the Gospel reading Jesus was running afoul of the Pharisees over the food laws (and the Lectionary Gnomes allowed us to dodge Mark’s narrative sledgehammer in 7:19, “Thus he declared all foods clean”). In today’s reading we get the ethnic and religious purity issue. (Ew! Syrophoenician!) (I trust you do realize that at the beginning of this episode Jesus has his tongue stuck very firmly in his cheek, Irony Mode On, as is clear from the way he plays it out.)

About the time I was being ordained forty years ago a lot of us were just discovering the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhöffer, and something he wrote in one of his letters from the Tegel prison in Berlin has stuck with me ever since, at least in my better moments: “Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something completely different, truly the Lord of the world.”

The Church has done some dreadful things in the past; whatever the infallibility or indefectibility of the Church might mean, we can’t deny the truth about our past. We don’t know what great mistakes we may (or may not) be making in the present, or what new follies we may commit in the future. Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by, and being delivered by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not say, “I have come that you may have religion, and have it more abundantly.” When they said of Jesus, “He has done everything well,” it wasn’t because he increased their piety. It was because “he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” the lame to walk, the hungry to be fed, the grieving to rejoice, the dead to live.

[2] “Christus ist dann nicht mehr Gegenstand der Religion, sondern etwas ganz anderes, wirklich Herr der Welt.” 30 April 1944.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sermon -- 13 August 2006

PROPER 14 / 10th after Pentecost—13 August 2006
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00
Deut 8:1-10 Ps 34:1-8 Eph 4:25-5:2 John 6:37-51

This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.

There’s a song of John Lennon’s — the chief wordsmith of the Beatles (back lo these many years ago now) that has always kind of hooked me, despite my distinctly ambivalent feelings about what it says. Part of the lyric goes:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky.…
Nothing to kill or die for
and no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Now it’s very easy for religious folk — especially the conventionally religious — to get all tied up in knots about this. And, frankly, there’s a good bit of simplistic sentimental superficiality in this lyric. But let’s not write it off too easily. As a critique of much of Christian religiosity, it’s a damning enough indictment, and not altogether off-target. It expresses a widespread perception in the world, unfortunately one that is all too often in fact the case, that religion serves to divide people one from another, to exclude Them from Us, to exalt to arrogant heights Us who are In and to cast down to contempt and condemnation Them who are Out. I drop a couple of words into the pot: “Crusade.” “Jihad.” And if the pot looks like it is full of blood, that’s not wrong. “We have the light of truth, you are stumbling in the darkness of error. We are saved, you are damned. We’re OK, you’re pond scum.” Imagine no religion — all the people living life in peace! (Yeah, right.)

The Gospel today, from the 6th chapter of St. John, is very familiar to the clergy and perhaps to many of you; perhaps not quite as familiar to others of you. The reason it’s so familiar to the clergy is that it’s one of the Gospel readings appointed by the Prayer Book for funerals, as it has been since 1549: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away. . . . This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” A fairly obvious text for a funeral service, full of consolation, assuring all the family that probably Grandpa isn’t going to hell after all.

(I suspect that going to hell is harder than we usually assume. And easier. It is possible to go to hell; and if anyone actually does it, there are probably more than a few very religious folks among them. Hell is what we get when we persist to the end in choosing ourselves instead of God. This is probably good news for a lot of people who may not have been too “religious” but who cared a lot about truth and justice and other people. It may not be such good news for a lot of us who are real pious and respectable and put our trust in our own piety and respectability. But I digress.)

The larger context of the Gospel reading today, I hope you still recall, is the Feeding of the Five Thousand. In Year B of the Lectionary cycle, we spend six weeks on this: two weeks (three Sundays ago and two Sundays ago) reading the story of the Feeding and its follow-up (Jesus walking on the water), from St Mark’s Gospel (where we’ve been spending most of this year). Then follow four weeks of readings from the Discourse on the Bread of Life, which follows the feeding of the multitude in the sixth chapter of John. We would have started this last week, except it was the Feast of the Transfiguration, which took precedence over the usual Sunday readings. Today we’re back to it, and have a couple more weeks to go with the Bread of Life theme.

And all of this should inform our understanding of God’s purpose for the creation. It has to do with God’s fundamental attitude toward God’s people.

A colleague many years ago once gave me a little card which read, “The Lord is coming soon—and he’s really ticked off!” (Actually, that’s not exactly what the card said!) There are people, including Christians, who seem to have the notion that God is real real mad and is just looking for some excuse, any excuse, to cast us all into the flames. Very few folks will be saved, according to this scenario, so if you want to be one of them you’d better get your ducks in a row. “Oh, well, yes, God loves everybody—but…!”

This plays out in a couple of ways. One has to do with righteousness. “Have I done enough good? I’ve tried the best I could all my life, I haven’t really done too many bad things...” This is the notion that we overcome God’s fundamental dislike of us and earn God’s favor by our good works. St. Paul tried to drum this notion out of our heads; the Reformation tried to drum this notion out of our heads. It didn’t work; it still hasn’t worked. We still can’t let go of it. And it’s still false. First, none of us has done enough good. And second, that doesn’t matter.

The other way this plays out has to do with faith. We aren’t saved by our works, it goes, we’re saved by our faith. So I’ve got to have enough faith (as if “faith” were some sort of supercharged emotional experience that I’ve got to conjure up “enough” of). Or I’ve got to be sufficiently religious. (This is not what St. Paul, or Martin Luther, meant by “justification by faith.”) Or, I’ve got to have the right kind of faith. This fairly easily translates into: I have to believe the right things, my theology has to be orthodox. (And thereupon often morphs into “You have to believe the right things; your theology has to be orthodox, that is, just like mine.”) Christological error eventuates in eschatological catastrophe! (“If you say the creed wrong you’ll go to hell.”) None of this has anything really to do with faith—it’s all still works righteousness in sheep’s clothing. “Am I saved?” is just a way of contemplating my own navel. It’s the wrong question.

“This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” God’s will is that we, and all humankind, should have life, and have it to the full, eternally. It is God’s will that we be saved, now, and forever. We need to accept that and get on with it—to trust God and live in the power of God’s love, come what may (that’s what faith is really about). That doesn’t mean we can be smug—it is possible to choose damnation—to choose our own self-sufficiency over God’s love—but that’s not God’s problem, that’s ours. God doesn’t have to be wheedled into accepting us. Our concern should not be with getting “saved” (that’s God’s doing; let God do it!) but with responding to God’s love and carrying out the mission and ministry which God gives us through Christ for the reconciling and healing of the world.

"This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day."

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Sermon -- 6 August 2006

Transfiguration DNJC—6 August 2006
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00
Ex 34:29-35 Ps 99 2Peter 1:13-21 Luke 9:28-36

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory. . .

One of the symptoms of increasing age, I notice, is that our eyes no longer work as well as they once did. Mine never did work worth a hoot. I’ve worn glasses since I was seven. Even so, I began to notice many years ago now that my arms were getting shorter and shorter. (Some of you nod your heads, “Yes, yes, we’ve been there too!”) So I went to the eye doctor, and he said, you’re getting presbyopia, which is a nice way of saying Your Eyes Are Going Bad You Old Coot, and the management for presbyopia is bifocals. No, no! I railed. Not bifocals! I can’t do bifocals! (I thought I didn’t have many petty vanities, but apparently this was one of them.) So I didn’t get bifocals that time. But I did get a pair of reading glasses. I didn’t need them for routine stuff, but when I was doing serious reading, typically close-up, they helped a lot. But after a while I began to find myself whipping pairs of glasses on and off more and more frequently. So, after a couple of years, I finally broke down and went for the bifocals. And I really didn’t have too much trouble getting used to them, the dividing line and all that. Except that there was about a six-inch range out there that was too far for the lower half and too close for the top half. And that six-inch range was right where two things normally sat. One, my computer monitor; and two, the service book on the altar. Well, that won’t do at all, I said. So on the next round I bypassed trifocals and went straight for these progressive lenses, the “no line” kind. The neat thing about progressive lenses is that no matter how close or far away something is, it’s in focus if you just look through the right area of the lens. The not-neat thing is that “the right area of the lens” never allows you to hold your head at a normal angle for looking at that thing. Especially the service book on the altar. Or even reading, unless you hold your book clear down here. And you spend an awful lot of time rotating your head trying to sharpen your sight on something. One of these days I may have to go back to reading glasses. The interesting thing about reading glasses (as some of you know) is that they are very good for close-up stuff, but no good at all for far away, even more than three or four feet away. When you try to look away at distant things through reading glasses you want to quick look back at something close. It’s distressing to look at far off things with your reading glasses on. Makes your head spin. Makes your tummy feel funny.

Most of us go through life with our reading glasses on. We’re pretty good about seeing what’s close up, what’s right at-hand. We don’t see far-off stuff very well. We don’t see long-range. And we don’t even want to look. It scrambles our brains, it makes our stomach queasy, we quickly look away. We will not see long range. We refuse to do it. It’s upsetting. So we don’t look.

And yet, if we don’t look long range, we’re not going to have a very good handle on where we’re going. We all remember being told when we learned to drive a car (or else we discovered it for ourselves) that if we watch the road right in front of the car, we’ll wobble back and forth and be constantly correcting the steering. But if we watch down the road fifty yards or so, we automatically put the car in the right track to stay in our lane on the road.

What I’m talking about is vision. Most of us, most of the time, don’t have very much of it. Furthermore, we prefer it that way. It saves us a lot of trouble.

The feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we celebrate today, is also about vision. It starts off being about a vision, but what it ends up being about is vision.

Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain with him while he prays, and as Jesus is praying Peter and James and John start dozing off. They’ve been with Jesus for some time now; they know him, they are familiar with his work and teaching, it has become routine to them, and besides, they’re tired. Jesus prays all the time. Nothing extraordinary about that. So they nod off a bit. But they are suddenly snapped fully awake by the brilliance of a vision of Jesus: they see him in a radically new way, they see him as he really is (or more nearly as he really is), they see Jesus in glory.

The reason why God gave them this vision, presumably, was to give them some vision. Vision has to do with being able to see where we’re going. Most of us like to root ourselves comfortably in the familiar past. Occasionally a few of us will dare to live somewhat adventurously in the present. We like to keep our reading glasses on, and to focus on the things that are immediately near-at-hand. But God is always calling us to strike out into the future, to share in building the Kingdom. God summons us to be changed, to be transfigured. God challenges us with a vision.

But to be able to have this kind of vision, to be able to see where we are going, to be able to see what all this is all about, to be able to see what our lives really mean, we have to be willing to see long-range, to put aside our near-vision reading glasses and look to the horizon, to look to the stars. We have to be willing to open ourselves to the possibility of transfiguration. We have to keep fully awake and pay attention, even when we’re drowsy; then we can see the glory.

What Peter and James and John saw in Jesus is actually just a hint of what is in store for us all—the glory of the Reign of God. If Jesus sometimes seems a little different from us, I wonder if maybe it isn’t really that he is so different, as that he is ahead of us, calling us to follow him into God’s future. Where he is, there we shall also be; as he is, thus we shall also be. The Feast of the Transfiguration celebrates the Vision of Christ—a most important vision, for that’s who we shall also be. The great early theologian St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”—that’s what we see in the transfigured Christ—“and full human life is the vision of God.”[1] And as St. John puts it, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”[2]

[1] Adv. Haer. IV.20.
[2] 1 John 3:2.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sermon -- 30 July 2006

Proper 12 / 8th after Pentecost — 30 July 2006
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 a.m.
2 Kings 2:1-15 Psalm 114 Eph 4:1-7,11-16 Mark 6:45-52

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

As I assume you all are aware, the Episcopal Church is in a bit of turmoil these days, both internally and in relation to the rest of the Anglican Communion.

(If you are not aware of this, let me congratulate you on your admirable discrimination about where you focus your attention!)

This morning I’m not going to get into the substance of the issues that are the occasion of this turmoil: first, because it’s very rude to come into somebody else’s parish from the outside and stir up trouble; second, because these are issues about which thoughtful Christians can in good faith hold different opinions. They are important issues; but they are not de fide, that is, they do not go to the core of Christian faith, they do not involve essential dogma (the more “dogmatic” people are about an issue, the less likely the issue is really to involve genuine dogma; but I digress), they are not articles of the standing or falling of the Church, being mistaken about them does not constitute heresy.

These considerations came to my mind as I was reflecting on the Epistle reading this morning, from the Letter to the Ephesians. The overall theme of this letter is “unity.” Paul begins the fourth chapter: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

I don’t hear as much of that as I wish I did, at least in some quarters of the Church. What I hear are charges and countercharges, threats and counterthreats. “You’re not obedient to the Scriptures!” “You’re not faithful to the Gospel!” “You’re in rebellion against your bishop!” “Well, we’re going to find ourselves a different bishop!” “We’re holier than thou!” “No, we’re holier than thou!” Apparently the authority of the Bible, particularly the fourth chapter of Ephesians, is a sometime thing, depending…

Paul goes on to talk about the diversity of the gifts Christ gives us “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” The context in which he is writing is not quite the same as our present one, but the picture I get from what he is saying here and in similar passages elsewhere[1] is not of some rigid monolithic structure of community life, but of a community which is a living body, the Body of Christ, a body growing into maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ our head.

One of the things that may underlie turmoil like we are presently experiencing is that we have bought into our own mythology: we don’t believe in an infallible Pope, but we do tend to believe in an infallible Tradition: that is, “We’ve never done it that way before,” case closed. We are so afraid to be wrong! Well, it’s important to try to be right, to avoid error, but the cold hard fact is that the Church has been wrong about a lot of things in the past — and not just trivial things — and somehow or other we have survived! “Somehow or other” — actually it’s because the Church and her mission and ministry does not depend upon our being right but upon the grace of God. That doesn’t mean we should be cavalier about truth, but given our history a little humility might be in order.

Molly Wolf, in yesterday’s “Sabbath Blessing,” had some very good words. (Molly Wolf is a Canadian Anglican laywoman who puts out a more-or-less weekly e-mail meditation; she is an extraordinarily perceptive theologian of daily life. If you don’t know her, I commend you to her. If you’re interested just Google on “Sabbath Blessings.”) Anyway, Molly said:

“The fear, of course, is that we'll get it wrong somehow — make some sort of mistake with fearful consequences. We've argued theology to death over the centuries; we've roasted one another, squabbled ferociously, published reams and reams of dead-tree stuff holding one viewpoint or another. We've boxed ourselves into corners, divided ourselves, gotten passionately angry and self-righteous… and does it work? Does it get us any closer to God?”

A quick final jump to today’s Gospel reading: The disciples are out on the Sea of Galilee in the boat, and something of a storm comes up (as seems to happen when the disciples go out boating; I don’t know what that says!). Jesus comes walking by (don’t ask!), the disciples cry out with fear, and Jesus gets into the boat with them.

Well, it often seems like we are straining at the oars against an adverse wind, and we don’t know what to do, and we are afraid. What matters is not so much that we understand everything correctly, but that we allow Jesus to get into our boat. The Church and her mission and ministry does not depend upon our being right but upon the grace of God.

[1] Romans 12:4ff, 1 Cor 12:4ff.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sermon -- 23 July 2006

PROPER 11 / 9 Pentecost — 23 July 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45
RCL: Eph 2:11-22 Ps 89:20-37 Mark 6:30-34,53-56

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

In Scotland, at least in the Olden Days, there was a lot of what we in the American West called “open range”—unfenced moors where unattended, unshepherded flocks of sheep wandered about as they would. For some reason known only to them, it often pleased the sheep to stand in the middle of the road, just on the other side of the crest of a hill. My college roommate and I were touring Britain on motorbikes one summer, typically running some hundreds of yards apart, and whoever was leading would come over the crest of the hill only to find the road full of sheep, screech to a sideways stop, engage the sheep in vigorous and contentious conversation (generally without much success), and finally persuade them to move over to the shoulder of the road, to permit passage. After which the sheep would saunter back into the middle of the road to stare with minimal curiosity at the departing form of this rude Yankee who was so insensitive to local Scottish ovine custom. At which point the other one of us would come over the crest of the hill.

“He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And the crowds today are still like that, including ourselves too much of the time. Absolutely clueless. And desperately in need of being taught by Jesus, taught many things.

But notice how the Gospel today begins. The disciples return from the mission that we heard them being sent out on in last Sunday’s gospel, and Jesus says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Even in the midst of the urgent work of teaching and healing, Jesus takes them away from the press of the crowds to a place where, they hope, they can be alone. Jesus takes very seriously the importance of withdrawing, of going into retreat for a new depth of prayer and reflection and renewal, away from the world’s business, even the world’s genuinely very important business.

If we as the Church are to minister to the world in Christ’s name, if we are to know what and how to teach this wandering and clueless world, then we too have to take seriously the importance of retreat, of detachment, of withdrawal from time to time for refreshment and re-creation. For the sake of our work in the world we must from time to time stop working. For if we are too completely buried in the world’s business, we shall lose all our perspective on it, and end up by having nothing to give to the world.

There are many ways we can detach ourselves and withdraw for a time. Vacations are an obvious and genuine instance, although I’m afraid that most of us do not pay as much heed to making our vacations as refreshing as we could. Too often our “vacations” are even more frantic and tiring than the rest of the year!—we get home and need to take more time off to recover from vacation! Another instance is the classic spiritual retreat. Not the so-called “working retreat” where groups of people in business or in institutions like the University—or the Church—go away somewhere in order to focus on aspects of our work (useful though such meetings may be), but a real retreat, perhaps though not necessarily in a religious community’s guest-house or a retreat center—like our St. Benedict’s Abbey down at Donnellson, or the Roman Catholic Cistercian Abbey up at New Melleray near Dubuque—where the whole purpose is not to get any work done, but simply to pray and read and think in a simple and uncluttered environment of silence for a few days. In a world which is obsessed with work, with achievement, the Church has a vital ministry of proclaiming God’s sabbath, of providing retreat.

Even within the ordinary day there is opportunity for withdrawal, detachment, retreat—within every day. Most of us, I’m afraid, don’t take the opportunity nearly as fully as we could. If we are to be God’s people, doing God’s work, teaching and witnessing to the truth to this silly clueless wandering sheep-like world, then we simply must spend some time being with God, being with Jesus, learning the truth about him, about ourselves, about our world—learning who the truth is. This means taking time out, stopping everything else, and withdrawing, even if only for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

“But I’ve got so many things to do! The day is so full! I’m too busy!” Yes, most of us are exactly that—too busy. Yet are any of us doing anything comparable in importance to the work Jesus was doing in his ministry? And yet Jesus needed retreat, withdrawal from the world, renewal—he needed a lot of it. Much though we in our pride hate to admit it, the world will not come to a halt and fall apart if we aren’t there every minute to manage it! We must take the time, we must make the time, to go apart with Jesus, away from the daily press of the world—in prayer and meditation, in the study of the Scriptures, in our worship together, yes, even just in play, in art and music and literature, smelling the roses, watching the clouds. If we do not do this, we will have nothing to give to the world, nothing to share with the world, nothing to teach the world. Instead of participating in Jesus’s ministry of being a shepherd, we will just be more aimlessly wandering sheep: not part of the solution, but just more parts of the problem.

But when we do go off with Jesus alone, leaving the world’s business behind, even if only for a little while, and not dragging along all our usual agenda and problems and concerns, then we become free really to listen to Jesus. And we receive the strength and the wisdom we need to be able to return to the world to share in his ministry of healing and reconciliation.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sermon -- 16 July 2006

Proper 10 / 6th after Pentecost — 16 July 2006
St. Alban’s, Davenport — 8:00 & 10:15
Amos 7:7-15 Ps 85 Eph 1:1-14 Mark 6:7-13

“O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah; earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel.”

Maybe I’m just projecting my own naïveté onto everyone else, but my suspicion is that we all grew up with a fairly simple-minded Sunday School bible-story image of the religious life of the ancient Israelite kingdom (or kingdoms, as they became after Solomon when northern Israel seceded from southern Judah). We all know the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law, the Torah, to Moses on Mount Sinai, and we probably assume that apart from the general sinfulness that we all share and a few notorious stinkers like Ahab and Jezebel, the people of God have been following the Law of Moses ever since.

Actually it’s not clear that such is the case. For instance, there is very little indication that during the days of the monarchs the great festivals and fasts, like Passover and Yom Kippur, were observed with any prominence. The Israelites offered sacrifice to the Lord God, but it’s not clear that there was really much difference between what they did, and what they thought about what they did, and what their pagan Canaanite neighbors were doing in their worship of Baal and the other deities of the Semitic pantheon. In fact, there was a lot of religious syncretism, people often worshipped the local gods, whoever or whatever they might be.

The reason I suspect that all that is true is because throughout the history of the Israelite monarchies from Saul (1000 BC, more or less) until the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians about 721 BC and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC, there is this recurring refrain from a few voices, whom we know as “the prophets” (although that’s a somewhat ambiguous term in itself; I’ll come back to that) about how the nation is going to hell in a handbasket. These are not occasional critiques! There seem to be at least some prophets speaking for the Lord God, ragging the Israelites all the time about their wickedness and faithlessness. Which suggests that any serious adherence to the Law of Moses may have been more the exception than the rule.

(Excursus: When did this change? It probably started in the religious reform under King Josiah in the late 600s BC, but it was too little too late; the Babylonians came; and so more importantly, the experience of exile in Babylonia. The Jews came back from exile in much better spiritual shape than they ever were before. Is there a lesson in that? Probably so. End of excursus.)

You have probably guessed by now that I am leading up to Amos, from whom we hear this morning. Amos was not a professional prophet. Thus the ambiguity about “prophets” that I mentioned earlier — the “sons of the prophets,” b’nai nabi’im, were guilds of cultic functionaries attached to shrines and temples. Among other things they acted as divine oracles to those who came to inquire of God. Ecstatic trances, sacred lots — sort of like psychics or fortune-tellers — lots of religious trappings but not really very much to do with God.

Anyway, Amos was not one of those prophets, as he makes clear, not an official prophet, not one of “the sons of the prophets”; he’s a herdsman and arborist, completely outside the religious establishment. He shows up at the royal Israelite shrine at Bethel and starts in about, “Hey, here’s what the Lord really requires of you, and you are out of plumb!” Well, that goes over like a dirty sock in the punchbowl, and the local priest Amaziah tells Amos to stuff it. They don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t fit in with their idea of nice comfortable religion.

(What exactly was Amos carrying on about? Well, for instance he was on them for lounging on ivory beds and drinking the finest wine and celebrating solemn religious assemblies while they trampled on the poor and needy. That wasn’t prophesying, that was meddling! You get the picture.)

We hear about Amos today because in the Gospel Jesus is sending his disciples on a mission, and gives them instructions about what to do if people don’t listen. Last week, you recall, we heard about how Jesus went back to Nazareth, and everyone said, “Oh, it’s only Jesus, we remember when he was just a little wad,” and Jesus said, “Well, a prophet is not without honor — except in his own home town!” You know, I just can’t help but think that the Bible — whether in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian New Testament — gives the distinct message that if we are faithful to God and to God’s message, the good news of God’s Reign, some people may not like us! Especially the religious establishment.

As we reflect on our vocation and task as the Church in the world today we need to keep this in mind. What is the Gospel? What is the Gospel really about? Who is God, and what does God really intend for us and want from us? And let me restructure those questions a little, because I don’t think this question gets asked nearly enough: If the Gospel is what we claim it is, and if God wants from us what we claim God wants from us, then what does that say about God? What does that say about who God is?

There are a lot of very religious folks out there who can quote the Scriptures for their purposes and who are very sure what God demands, especially what God demands of other people, but if they are right, then God is a pretty unpleasant fellow and not very much like anyone whom Jesus Christ would call “Abba — Father.” Folks like this gave Amos a bad time, because he did not fit into their religious system. Folks like this are likely to give us a bad time, because we don’t fit into their religious system. This should not be surprising: we follow a Lord to whom they gave a really bad time because what he said and did broke their religious system.

As our Church struggles with God’s call to Christian life and mission, as we seem to be doing these days — again — and always — let us pray to discern what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really about. Our ultimate context is what Paul is talking about in the letter to the Ephesians today: “[God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Who is God? What does God really intend for us, and expect of us? This isn’t about religious systems. This is about God’s purposes for the meaning and destiny of the universe!

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sermon -- 25 June 2006

Proper 7 / 3 Pentecost—25 June 2006
St. Alban’s, Davenport — 8:00 & 10:15
Job 38:1-11,16-18 Ps 107:1-3,23-32 2Cor 5:14-21 Mark 4:35 -5:20

They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind. . . . Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

The Old Testament lesson this morning is from the concluding part of the Book of Job. Job is a marvelous piece of literature, a theological elaboration of an old Semitic folktale, and represents a major step in the growth of Israel’s understanding of their relationship with God. It’s not without its problems, however.

You know the story of Job. Job was a rich and prosperous man, whom God allowed the Adversary to smite with calamity as a test of his faith. (That’s a major problem with the story right up front!) Job lost his riches, he lost his children, he lost his health, and ended up sitting in the ashes scraping his sores, and even his wife spits at him, “Curse God and die!” And along come Job’s three friends to comfort him (with such friends who needs enemies?): Eliphaz the Temanite, Zophar the Naamathite, and of course the shortest man in the Bible, Bildad the Shuhite. Their “comfort” consists primarily in trying to get Job to confess his sin, for such calamity can come only as divine retribution for grievous misdeeds. But Job protests, with complete justification within the context of the story, that he is innocent, and therefore, under the burden of all this suffering, “Why me?”

The very fact that we can raise what we call “the problem of evil”—if there is a good God why do the innocent suffer?—demonstrates the advance in moral consciousness which the Book of Job represents—the recognition that the innocent do suffer. In prior stages of spiritual development, human beings generally assumed that suffering and calamity were punishment for sin, and bad things happened to people because they deserved them. Job in his integrity protests, “I don’t deserve this, and I demand an accounting.” That takes us through the first 37 chapters of Job, up to the part we heard just now. And here in chapter 38 God is saying, “And who are you to demand an accounting from me?” God goes on in this vein for 4 more chapters (the Book of Job is not short!), whereupon Job repents, and is restored to prosperity.

Now as an answer to the question, “Why me?” this is really not very satisfactory, frankly. And in fact God does not really answer Job’s question at all. God simply reveals the divine self, and in doing so invites Job into fellowship with God: the creature with the Creator.

From the dawn of human history we have practiced a sort of “vending machine religion”—in which our relationship with God is transactional. We make deals with God, quid pro quo—“God, you give me this and I’ll do that for you.” We deposit our spiritual coins in the divine vending machine, prayers or good works or whatever, and we push the button, and down the chute is supposed to come the requisitioned item — health, or prosperity, or forgiveness, or peace of mind, or whatever. And you know how we are with a vending machine that takes our money and doesn’t deliver our candy bar! If we do right by God, God has to do right by us. We think. And too bad for any God who doesn’t hold up his end of the deal!

And maybe putting it that way can help us to see how far off the mark this ancient and widespread paradigm for understanding the nature of the relationship between humankind and God is. This transactional model just doesn’t have anything to do with it. If we are looking for justice in this human life, we are likely to be disappointed. Even God didn’t get justice in this life—and still doesn’t. Godliness is still very likely to lead to crucifixion.

These are very serious matters, and I don’t want to seem to be giving trivial or cheap answers. But I think we need to recognize that the response, if not exactly an answer, to “Why me?” is “Why not you?” (Mattie Stepanek, the wonderful young poet who died of muscular dystrophy at the age of thirteen, knew this; we seem to have a harder time understanding.) And to the protest, “If there is a good God, why do the innocent suffer?” the response, again not an answer, “If there isn’t a good God, where do you get your righteous indignation?”

In the Epistle this morning, St. Paul writes: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” And Paul goes on to explain that God has taken on all our stuff so we can take on all God’s stuff.

In the Gospel the disciples come whining to Jesus because they think they’re all about to drown. Jesus calms the storm—this is the thematic link back to the first lesson—and then he asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Not, I think, “Didn’t you believe that I would keep you safe from drowning?” but “Didn’t you have faith that as long as you are with me nothing else really matters?”

We look for answers, but I’m not so sure that God always gives us an answer, not the kind of answer we’re looking for. God is not a divine vending machine but a divine companion and our final lover. What God says is, “I who made you am with you always. Therefore whatever befalls you in this life, nothing can harm you forever; and in the end I shall make all things new.”

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sermon -- 11 June 2006

Trinity Sunday B — 11 June 2006
Trinity, Iowa City -- 8:45 a.m.
RCP: [Isa 6:1-8] Ps 29 Rom 8:12-17 John 3:1-17

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Have I told you the story about the man who came to church just once a year? But not on Christmas or Easter — this man showed up faithfully every, but only on, Trinity Sunday. And the priest finally couldn’t stand it any longer, and asked him, “Why Trinity Sunday?” And he replied, “Because I enjoy listening to you get all tangled up trying to explain the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity!”

Well, I’m not going to try to explain the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. At least not this year. (Maybe next year!)

I am, however, going to wander around in the general vicinity of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and perhaps we will find a little enlightenment and a little inspiration. For one thing, I do want to dispel the notion that the Trinity is a concept that a bunch of crotchety old bishops thought up in the fourth century.

Digression: (Well, you knew I was going to digress sooner or later, so we may as well get it over with.) Part of the detritus from the recent fuss over The Da Vinci Code and the publication of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Judas has been the idea that what we have come to know as Christianity, including such things as the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the canon of the New Testament, only emerged three hundred years after the ministry of Jesus. This is simply not so. Although it is true that early Christianity was a good bit more diverse than we may like to remember, and sometimes a good bit more bizarre, especially on the fringes, there really was a mainstream pretty much right from the beginning, even though it wasn’t completely homogeneous and not yet too precisely defined. But you see, we Anglicans, having rejected an infallible Pope and for the most part an infallible Bible (at least in the sense of a literally inerrant text), put all our chips on an infallible Early Church. This also turns out to be a bad bet. (If you’re looking for infallible authority, you’re in the wrong quadrant of the galaxy.) We believe and trust in God’s promise that God will see us through to the goal of our journey in the fulfillment of God’s Reign, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t wander off the road from time to time, and at any given moment we may well be in the ditch, and throughout our history our boots have always been a bit muddy. Being in denial about this is one of the reasons why the Church in the current generation is in such an uproar.


Although the word “Trinity” does not appear in the New Testament (the Latin trinitas is first used by Tertullian at the end of the second century — but bear in mind that Tertullian was the first Christian theologian to write in Latin), all of the raw data are there, in the experience of Christians as God’s people, saved by Jesus Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was simply (well, not simply, I guess!) the articulation, over the next four hundred years, of this fundamental experience as a systematic construct. The doctrine of the Trinity is a transcendental argument; that is, it is something to which we do not have direct access, but it represents the necessary conditions of the possibility of the truth of our experience and hope of salvation in Christ. If the doctrine of the Trinity is not true, then our whole Christian self-understanding falls apart. (One can, of course, believe that the Christian understanding of what God has done and pomised in Jesus of Nazareth is all a delusion, and then obviously the doctrine of the Trinity makes no difference. But those are the options.)

One of the pieces of New Testament raw data that goes into the doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Gospel today, in a verse well-known and rightly well-loved: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The words “so loved the world” could take a lifetime of sermons to unpack, but today I suggest we think about the phrase, “gave his only Son.” What can it mean for God to “give his only Son” to reconcile us and bring us to eternal life? And what do we understand by God’s “only Son”? What may come to mind, and I think has come to the minds of some people, is a picture of a human father and his son, and dad says, “Son, I love those folks so much I’d like you to go die on the cross for them.” And some may say, “What a dad!” And others, more troubled, may say, “What kind of a dad…???” I hope we see that this is an indication that we don’t quite have this right yet. So maybe we need to go back again to what we are saying when we say that God “gave his only Son,” exactly what “Son” means in this context, and what this “Son’s” relationship is to God.

There’s a lot that could be said, and maybe should be said, about how we use the word “Son” of Jesus in relation to God, but there’s another service at 11:00 and we need to be out of here. But I think I’ve said before something I think is very important — it’s not my idea, I got it from John Austin Baker, Bishop of Salisbury, in a book I no longer have — given what it takes to keep us from perishing but bring us to eternal life, given that cost. God did not send somebody else instead.

And that’s a first step down the road that leads us in our understanding of God, and of God in Christ, to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sermon -- 28 May 2006

7 Easter — 28 May 2006
St. Alban’s, Davenport — 8:00 & 10:15
Acts 1:15-26 Ps 47 1John 5:9-15 John 17:11b-19

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

This past Thursday was Ascension Day, and as you recall, the first reading for Ascension Day from the Acts of the Apostles tells how Jesus was seen to be parted from his disciples and to be taken up into heaven. The point of course is not that Jesus was going away, but rather that only in this way does it become possible for Jesus to be with us always, to the end of the age. The Ascension of Jesus proclaims that his presence is no longer limited to Palestine in the first century; Jesus now can be and is present in Davenport in the twenty-first century. As the Collect for Ascension Day puts it, “our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.”

But today I’d like to think a moment about another aspect of the Ascension of Christ, to which the Gospel today points us. And that is precisely that Jesus does after all ascend to heaven. And this raises for us the issue of God’s transcendence.

But a word here about the imagery that’s in use here. We all know, at least up here [head], that heaven is not a “place” which is located “up.” A few of us remember back some forty years ago when one of the early Soviet cosmonauts came back from orbit and in loyal Leninist fashion solemnly proclaimed to all the world that he had looked all around while he was up there and hadn’t seen God anywhere. And we all snickered at that; was that really supposed to be taken seriously as a scoring attempt by atheism? But let’s also not underestimate the power of these very simple spatial metaphors; we are, after all, by our very nature beings who live in space and time. We do speak of transcendance as “higher,” as “above”; heaven—the direct presence of God (“direct presence of God”—see? Even that’s a spatial metaphor)—heaven for us is “up,” not literally but powerfully figuratively. And this image is not disdained by the New Testament authors themselves: Jesus is spoken of as “ascending,” and although clearly he’s not sailing off in a hot air balloon like the Wizard of Oz, he still goes “up.” (The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, suggested that the Ascension event may be understood as an “enacted parable” by Jesus, a final resurrection appearance in which he vividly demonstrates to his disciples that they should not expect to see any more appearances. If Jesus had just vanished, or if the appearances had just stopped and Jesus was never seen again, the disciples might well have wondered what had happened to him, and have thought that Jesus was really gone for good now, absent forever. If Jesus had gone sailing off from the Mount of Olives on a westward trajectory, they might have thought he had gone to Cleveland. But Jesus is taken up into a cloud (cloud: symbol of the divine presence) so that the disciples will understand that he is going to the right hand of the Father (right hand: another spatial metaphor). Hey. We can appropriate this very direct imagery without being simple-minded literalists. After all, that’s the way it was meant in the first place by the New Testament writers, who also were not simple-minded literalists.

But I’m disgressing from my point about transcendence.

Most of us, I think, are very eager for our Christian faith not to be just a matter of “pie in the sky when you die by and by,” but to be a faith which impacts powerfully and transformatively upon this world in which we live. We recognize the validity in Karl Marx’s critique of much traditional religiosity as an otherworldly escapism that anesthetizes us against present evils, an “opiate” that dulls our sensitivity to injustice. A lot of Christianity used to do that. A lot of Christianity still does. We’re right to be on guard against it.

But we must also not forget that this world, the world of our own observation and experience, is not all there is. This world of ours is not the center of the universe, and certainly is not the center of all that is. And however much we come to know, in a descriptive, analytical way, about our universe and the process by which it came to be the way it is over the billions of years, however much we may be able someday to include within a unified theory the quantitatively unimaginably immense dimensions of astrophysics and the quantitatively unimaginably infinitesimal dimensions of quantum mechanics, it is still the case that the world, our world, our universe, does not account for itself. It is not self-explanatory, not to those who have the intellectual courage never to cease from asking “why?”. The ultimate meaning of this world is not to be found within this world itself.

As Christians our home base is not here; for we belong to the One who “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things,” “the One who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,” “the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart,” the creative Word eternally uttered by the Source of all Being — the risen Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians we must remember that reality is not to be reduced to our own measure; and all the more so our Christian faith.

In the Gospel today we hear Jesus in his great priestly prayer give voice to the tension, the paradox: we are truly in this world, but we do not finally belong to this world, we are not captives of this world, we are not beholden to this world. But we are in this world; we are not to be taken out of the world, we are not to try to escape from this world. But in this world we are to be protected from the evil one, sanctified by the word of the Truth Itself, made holy, claimed by that Truth as Truth’s own. And then sent back into this world as agents of that other realm, heralds of a transcendent dominion: the dominion of heaven, the eternal reign of God, which is after all the ultimate destiny of this world, the ultimate destiny of all worlds.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Sermon -- 7 May 2006

4 Easter — 7 May 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 a.m.
RCL: Acts 4:5-12 Ps 23 John 10:11-16

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

The picture of Jesus as the good shepherd is one of our most popular and by many most loved images of Christ. But typically, these are portraits of gentle Jesus with long flowing silky brown tresses, often carrying this cuddly little lamb curled around his neck.

Have any of you ever actually raised sheep? I had a parishioner once who raised sheep, and I’ve had a couple of encounters with sheep in the middle of the road, once in Scotland (where the sheep basically said, “Och, aye, what is it ye’re no’ understandin’ about whose country this is?”), and once in New Mexico, where the sheep didn’t say anything but I got to watch a really amazing demonstration by a cohort of sheepdogs.

So you know that the traditional depiction doesn’t have very much to do with real sheep, which are not particularly cute, or with real shepherds, who have to be pretty tough and rarely take time to blowdry their hair. Still, there’s something catchy about the image of the Good Shepherd, and in fact some of the earliest Christian art we have, reliefs and frescoes in the catecombs from the days of the Roman persecutions, include pictures of the Good Shepherd; though typically as a clean-shaven young man (for what that’s worth!). And on Good Shepherd Sunday, in the middle of Eastertide every year, we focus on this image of the shepherd, an image which Jesus is picking up from the Hebrew Scriptures: The Lord is our shepherd, and we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

Most years on this Sunday there now follows a disquisition on what stupid and stubborn critters sheep are.

This year, instead, I’d like to look for a moment at another aspect of this shepherd-sheep image. Jesus has just said, a few verses earlier (we heard this part on Good Shepherd Sunday last year): “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” And then today we hear him say: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This is interesting, I think. And we might keep in mind here that in John’s Gospel (and for that matter in the Scriptures as a whole), “to know” doesn’t just mean “to be acquainted with,” it’s not just a cognitive or intellectual term, it’s an existential one. It’s the difference between “knowing something” and “knowing someone.” Roughly, the difference between wissen and kennen. In the Bible, “to know” signifies a deep relationship, one that implies commitment. This is the real point of “to know in the Biblical sense,” in which “to know someone” is “to be one with someone, to be united with someone.” Not only does the shepherd know his sheep, he says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The pattern for the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep—between Jesus and ourselves—is the relationship between the Father and Jesus. And that’s a relationship of the closest love, a relationship of union.

That’s really an amazing thing to say, when you think about it! We’re talking about union with God.

But this passage here in the tenth chapter of St John is not an isolated instance. This idea runs throughout the Gospel. For instance, at the last supper Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And at the end of the supper Jesus prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And after his resurrection, as we heard in the Gospel a couple of weeks ago: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” “As ... so.” What powerful little words! “As ... so.” As the Father and Jesus are, so are Jesus and we to be. The loving union between God and Jesus is replicated in the loving union between Jesus and us. “As the Father knows me and I know the Father, so I know my own and my own know me.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Listen to this: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. As I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love, so if you keep my commandments you will abide in my love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” One step further! As God and Jesus, so Jesus and us; as Jesus and us, so we with one another! The life of God is given us to live and share with one another! John’s Gospel isn’t fooling when it says at the end that it has been written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

These are not just mystical clouds, though this is a call into the depths of the mystery of God. Through Jesus we are caught up to a unity with God. As the Father and Jesus, so Jesus and us; as Jesus and us, so we with one another! Caught up into the divine life, to live and to share! Nothing less!

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sermon -- 30 April 2006

3 of Easter—30 April 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45
RCL: Acts 3:12-19 Ps 4 Luke 24:36b-48

In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering. [Luke 24:41]

I remember when I was in Sunday School (yes, they had Sunday School when I was a boy!) they would upon occasion show us movies of Bible stories. (How many of you may remember before there were TiVOs or DVRs, or even VCRs? and we actually rented films and threaded them into projectors and set up a screen and turned the lights out! Remember that? Very retro! Very primitive! But in those days we thought it was a big deal!) These movies we saw in Sunday School were as I recall produced by a company aptly named Cathedral Films, and they were in black and white, and kind of low-budget, but all things considered they really weren’t too bad. (I liked them better than Cecil B. DeMille’s very high budget The Ten Commandments, which I think is perfectly dreadful. Or the more recent version they showed during Holy Week, which was much less pretentious than Charlton Heston and much more boring.)

I remember one particular episode from those old films of the life of Jesus, which must have been based on today’s Gospel, or maybe last Sunday’s, where the disciples were all gathered in the upper room after the resurrection, and the door was shut and locked, and the camera dollied in on the door, and all of a sudden the risen Jesus sort of materialized there in front of the door. It was all very impressive, and the disciples were properly awestruck. It was kind of like Marley’s Ghost stepping into Scrooge’s bedchamber.

What’s going on here, in these Gospel accounts?

The disciples have for some time—probably several years, at least some of them—been living fairly continually in close personal fellowship with Jesus of Nazareth. They have committed themselves—their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor (to borrow a later phrase)—to the cause of the Reign of God as Jesus has been proclaiming it. Jesus has become for them not only master and teacher, but dear friend in the deepest sense. Through their relationship with Jesus they have, in a way they never have before, known life, known love, known reality, known themselves, known God. They have come to realize—with that utter certainty that goes far beyond any clever proof written in a book, that utter certainty that comes out of the personal experience of living the reality over a long time—they have come to realize that their own very lives and the life of the world itself hangs upon this man, their friend and leader, Jesus of Nazareth, and what he is saying and doing.

And now they have seen Jesus come to a catastrophic end, while they themselves abandoned him out of panic and fear for their own skins. They have suffered the utter emptiness and desolation of those who have staked everything—not only their lives but even more precious, all their hopes and dreams and love—and they have lost. They are in chaos. The foundations of reality itself are crumbling. Either they are utterly insane, or the world is. There is no sense, no reason, no justice, anywhere; the words no longer have meaning; there is no meaning. “The stars are black and cold, as [they] stare into the void of a world that cannot hold.”

And then Jesus comes among them and says—as he has said so many times to them before: “Peace be with you.” And, says St. Luke, “they disbelieved for joy.” Not, they disbelieved for lack of convincing evidence. Not, they disbelieved in the absence of empirical verification. Not, they disbelieved because everybody knows that it’s a proven scientific fact that dead men don’t just saunter in, pick up a fish-stick, and say, “Peace!” They disbelieved for joy.

Once again, God was—they thought—too good to be true. This can’t be—it’s too much to hope for—I don’t deserve this—I’m just not worth it.

We can be faithless, and we are faithless, in many ways throughout our lives. But isn’t it true that at least one of the ways we are faithless, and thus cut ourselves off from the power of being really alive, is that we really just won’t believe that God cares that much about us? God’s love and grace are too good to be true—too much to hope for—not for me!—I don’t deserve it—I’m just not worth it!

“Well,” says Jesus, “I don’t know about that. Worth it by whose standards? I’m sure if you want to stay all hung up in preoccupation with your own worthiness and what you deserve, that you’ll manage to find some very good reasons to judge yourself unworthy and undeserving. Some folks do seem to get their religious jollies out of wallowing in their own unworthiness. As for me,” Jesus says, “I’m not really into that. Yes, your silliness, your stubbornness, your selfishness, your wickedness, they all pain me very much—because by hanging onto these things you are destroying yourself, and I love you and I don’t want you to destroy yourself. But ‘not worth it’?” Jesus says. “Ah, you are worth it to me!—and who can say me nay over who is or is not ‘worth it’? Whose world is this, anyway? Yes, you are worth it, you are infinitely worth it, I proclaim and decree that you are worth it. I understand that you should disbelieve for joy. Be filled with joy, and believe! It is I! I am no ghost! All that you staked on me—your hopes, your dreams, your love, your life—you haven’t lost at all! No, no, you’ve won! You’ve won for ever! For I love you,” Jesus says, “and that means that for you, nothing is ever too good to be true!”

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead