Sunday, February 26, 2006

Sermon -- 26 February 2006

Last Sunday after Epiphany—26 February 2006
Trinity, Muscatine — 8:00 & 10:00
1Kings 19:9-18 Ps 27:5-11 2Cor 1:18-22 Mark 9:2-9

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

A verse from a very popular (at least at one time!) old-time hymn, by John Greenleaf Whittier:
[f#] “Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.” [#652, st 5]

It’s all very interior and quiet and retiring and soothing, but I like it anyway, and it always comes to my mind when I hear the story of Elijah at Mount Horeb.

How do we hear the word of God? How does God reveal to us the divine will, the divine self?

In the Old Testament reading today, we hear about Elijah. Elijah was the first great prophet of the Israelite kingdoms, in the 9th century B.C. Elijah’s ministry consisted largely of bringing the word of the Lord against the kings of Israel, who were much prone to idolatry and trying to compromise the worship of the Lord God of Israel with the cult of the local pagan Canaanite nature deities, such as Baal and AshĂ©rah. At this point in the story in the First Book of Kings, Elijah has just recently staged a confrontation between himself and King Ahab and Ahab’s queen, the Phoenician princess Jezebel. Ahab had pretty well sold out to Jezebel’s pagan religion. Perhaps you remember the story: Elijah got Ahab to bring the prophets of Baal up to Mount Carmel, on the Israelite coast, and they played “Whose God is Better,” and the Lord God of Israel won in a flash (as it were, if you recall!), and Elijah and the people killed all the prophets of Baal (no politically correct religious tolerance here!), and Ahab ran home and whined about it to Jezebel, and Jezebel was really miffed off, and she sent a message to Elijah which said in essence, “You’re a dead man,” and Elijah figured that it was probably time to go on vacation—far far away. So he fled to the Sinai desert, southwest of Judah, to Mount Horeb (or Sinai), the mountain of God, where God had given the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law (the Torah) to Moses. And Elijah found a cave and holed up in it. Then the Old Testament reading for today: The word of the Lord comes to Elijah, saying, “Elijah, whatcha doing?” And Elijah starts in whining about how much he’s done for God and see what thanks he gets. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire [(1) Mount Horeb is a volcano, though I think it’s mostly dormant now; and (2) all of this power-of-nature, volcanoes and wind and lightning and rain and all that stuff, was what Baal was supposed to be the god of; notice that although the Lord in fact is the one who controls them, it is not in them that the Lord is to be found, but rather:]; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” [Which is closer to what the Hebrew means than “a still small voice.”] Out of which a voice comes to Elijah again, “I said, Elijah, whatcha doing?” And Elijah starts in to whine again about Ain’t It Awful, and the Lord says, “Yes, yes, I know; but go back to Israel, I’ve got some stuff I want you to do for me,” mostly by way of organizing a resistance movement against Ahab and Jezebel. Note both that the word of the Lord comes out of the silence, and also that it sends Elijah back into the world to work for the furtherance of the purposes of the Reign of God.

Second story today: the Gospel reading. Another mountain, this one the mountain of the Transfiguration, as we call it. Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain to pray, and there the three disciples have an impressive and powerful vision of Jesus, shining with the glory of God and consulting with Moses and Elijah—those two great Israelite veterans of mountaintop meetings with God, the paradigmatic representatives of the Law and the Prophets, summing up in themselves the whole of the Israelite religious heritage, conferring with Jesus in whom the Old Covenant is fulfilled. Simon Peter doesn’t get the point. He never does. Peter wants to build shrines, booths like the ones they built every autumn at Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, to celebrate the spiritual “good old days” when Israel was sojourning in tents in the wilderness and receiving the Law. Peter is having a wonderful religious experience, and he doesn’t want to let go of it. (I suppose in some ways like being there while God put on a fireworks display at Mount Horeb). But the experience passes; there is a cloud (itself a manifestation of the presence of God), and a voice (perhaps still and small, perhaps not; it doesn’t say!): “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And Peter and James and John look around, and Moses and Elijah are gone, and the cloud is gone, and nobody’s there with them but Jesus, and Jesus says, “Come on, let’s go back down; and let’s not say anything about this for the time being, okay?”

God continues to speak to us in many ways. Occasionally God speaks to us in flashy, exciting, dramatic ways. But usually not. In fact, on the whole, the dramatic stuff, the “religious experience,” needs to be viewed with a bit of skepticism. Not that God doesn’t use these things; God does, especially to get our attention, or to give us a little reassurance from time to time. But I think that God’s self-disclosure to us comes more often out of silence than out of power, in the midst of the ordinary when the visions have passed and the clouds of glory have cleared away. The definitive word of God has, after all, already been spoken, in Jesus, who is God’s Word made flesh. Listen to him, God says. Listen to Jesus. Only Jesus. He is enough.
And when we listen to God in Jesus, we find (like Peter and James and John, and like Elijah in the desert) that God does not let us linger on our own religious experience, but is sending us back into the world to help build God’s own dominion there.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Sermon (Evensong) -- 5 February 2006

5th Sunday after the Epiphany — 5 February 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong — 5:00 p.m.
Fifth Evening: Pss 27, 28, 29 Gen 24:50-67 2Tim 2:14-21

The Super Bowl has started! Why are you here?

The Scripture readings this evening sort of come out of nowhere, at least the New Testament reading (and also the Gospel reading at Matins this morning). Well, actually, not “nowhere,” there is a certain coherence to the system, but explaining it would take a lot more time than it’s worth. The Old Testament Lesson, as I mentioned last fall, continues the same course reading we are in during the week, which currently has us in the middle of the patriarchal saga from Genesis. But if you haven’t been keeping up, then this reading from Genesis may seem a lot like when you tune across one of those drama series that has an ongoing story arc, or, heaven forfend, an episode of a soap opera, and you say, “What’s going on here? Who are these people? (And why do I care?)” Laban? BethĂșel?

(When I was in seminary we had a homiletics exercise in which we were assigned a Bible verse and had to write a sermon on that text right there on the spot. Obviously luck played a role in this project! After all, one might have drawn “My brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man,” a verse which shows up a little later in this patriarchal saga. Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines.)

(Is there any score in the football game yet?) (Any good commercials yet?)

(I remember the old days at Diocesan Convention in Des Moines when Father Bob would be sitting there in the Saturday afternoon session, his face rapt with attention. Of course he had a transistor radio earpiece in his ear and he was listening to the Hawkeye game.)

Anyway, Abraham’s son Isaac has grown up (we’ve already had Sarah laughing, and the Binding of Isaac, and several other wonderful chapters in this rich and complex ancestral saga), and it’s time to get him married. But Abraham does not want him to marry one of the local Canaanite girls, because he is very conscious of his vocation from the Lord God who had called him and his family out from Ur in Chaldea (in Mesopotamia) and then subsequently had called him further to leave Haran in northeastern Syria where they had settled and to move on south into Canaan, where he would become the father of many nations. So Abraham sends his chief of staff (possibly Eliezer of Damascus, of whom we heard briefly earlier in the story, although the story never actually names him) and tells him to go back to what had become the family home in the district of Haran, across the River Euphrates in northeastern Syria, and find a wife for Isaac among his kinsfolk there. And so Abraham’s servant does, and that’s what the first part of the 24th chapter of Genesis is all about. Eliezer (let’s go ahead and call him that) meets Rebekah at the well (wells are the venue for a lot of important meetings in the Bible, as well they might be, so to speak! if you lived in that part of the world) and he introduces himself, and Rebekah runs to get her brother Laban and her father Bethuel, who invite Eliezer to stay with them, and Eliezer tells them all the news of Abraham, whom they haven’t seen for lo these many years, and the bottom line, of course, is that Abraham is looking for a wife for his son Isaac. And that’s about where the reading this evening picks up.

And so Rebekah goes south with Eliezer and marries Isaac. She becomes the mother of Jacob and Esau, and the saga continues.

A couple of interesting things in this story. First, the fact that Abraham sends back to the old country (least the medium-old country, if not exactly the old old country) to get a wife for Isaac. Suggesting that when you have been called out into a new land (literally or figuratively) to do a new thing, it is important to keep in touch with your spiritual roots.

Second, when Abraham sends Eliezer back up to Haran, he makes rather a big deal of the fact that he is not to take Isaac along with him. There may be a temptation just to settle and stay in the old country. The vocation of Abraham and his descendants is to become a new nation. You must value that from which you came, but you must be committed to that to which you have been called. (And a generation later, when Jacob goes back himself to Haran to find a wife, he ends up getting stuck there for years -- his uncle Laban is pretty crafty -- and he finally has to sneak out in the middle of the night in order to go home to Canaan. But that's another story for another time.)

It has been pointed out that in a sense, Rebekah is the next generation’s parallel to Abraham himself. Just as Abraham left behind all his relatives to respond to God’s call to be the agent of God’s purpose (ultimately for the redemption and restoration of the whole human race), so also Rebekah leaves her home in faith to accept her role in this early, adventurous chapter of God’s universal drama of salvation.

The tension between tradition and new creation is not an easy one, as we have been discovering anew in the church in the last generation (not just the last couple of years). It’s not a new tension. I think it’s one of the things Jesus himself warns us about in the parable of the talents. We are called to be a new people, to share with God in building a new world. But we must also remember whence we came.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead