Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sermon -- 26 March 2006

4th Sunday in Lent — 26 March 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 a.m.
RCL: [Num 21:4-9] Ps 107:1-3,17-22 Eph 2:1-10 John 3:14-21

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

There are certain classic forms for that important literary genre, the joke. For instance, there are the jokes that begin, “A guy walks into a bar…” Or sometimes it’s a panda that walks into the bar. Or maybe René Descartes.

Another classic form is the one that begins, “A man dies and goes to heaven, and St. Peter (or Jesus, or God) meets him at the pearly gates and says to him, ‘What have you done that entitles you to be admitted here?’” (Have I told you the one about the Baptist preacher and his wife, and the Lutheran pastor and his wife, and the Episcopal priest and his wife, who were all killed in an automobile accident together, and appeared at the pearly gates…?)

Well, anyway, this classic joke form depend upon a widely shared and commonly understood scenario of what our final judgment will be like. And in this scenario we appear before the divine tribunal, and our file is pulled and scrutinized, and all the wrong things we have done and right things we have failed to do are added up, and God says, “Hmmmm,” and depending on the tone of that “Hmmmm” we either get in or we don’t, we are either saved or damned. It’s a model rather like a human courtroom. Except that in a human courtroom we presumably have a defense attorney and can plead extenuating circumstances or something like that. But in our image of the last judgment — possibly influenced directly or indirectly by Michelangelo —we are guilty until proven innocent, the charges are inscrutable, and the sentence unappealable. It’s actually less like a court of law and more like an IRS audit.

Well, I don’t think the image of judgment in the Gospel is like that at all. St. John’s Gospel actually says quite a lot about judgment, and takes it very seriously, and so should we. I think it’s a real mistake to make a modernist sentimentalist assumption that God is a real weenie when it comes to judgment. But judgment is not the imposition upon us of a sentence by someone else (even by God) —where the issue might arise in our minds as to whether we were being dealt with fairly, where we might claim, “Yes, but, you don’t really understand!” On the contrary, judgment is the utterly clear, utterly transparent, utterly truthful disclosure and revelation of who we really are, what we have really made of ourselves. It really isn’t a matter of balancing our sins against what good we have done — in any case we are not saved by the good deeds we have done. What we have done matters, but it matters because what we do is what makes us who we are.

And so the Gospel today:

“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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

This is the judgment: face to face with the source and ground of the being of all that is, and seeing that That One is by very nature totally self-giving Love, who indeed so loves us that he came among us as one of us and shared our condition to its bitterest dregs in order to raise us to his condition in its utter glory — face to face with That Love, have we become persons who go to be embraced by That Love, or have we become persons who withdraw into our own sorry selves? (This is what “believing in the name of the only Son of God” is about — not subscribing to doctrinal propositions about Jesus, however important those may be in their place, but turning to the embracing arms of the Divine Love.) In the presence of the Light of the World, do we rejoice in that Light’s illumination, or do we flee to hide in the shadows? This is the judgment.

An image of judgment that I find appealing, in the genre of the “a man dies and goes to heaven” joke form (yes, I suppose I’m in danger of being judgmental myself here, except that I really don’t claim to know the outcome to this scenario and I really do believe in the power of God’s grace): Fred Phelps dies and goes to heaven (you remember ol’ Fred; he’s the preacher from Topeka who organizes his family and congregation to picket the funerals of people who die of AIDS, among other things. They picketed us here at Trinity a couple of years ago). So Fred appears before the pearly gates, and Jesus comes out to meet him, together with young Matthew Shepard. And Jesus says, “Fred! Welcome, brother! Come on in!” And Fred has to decide whether to go in. Or maybe Fred has already decided whether to go in. But I hope he still has one last chance to change his mind.

We are already being judged, by who we are becoming. And who we are becoming is a function of what we do. So the Lenten call to repentance (indeed, the call to repentance in every season) is critically important: we really do need to look at ourselves, be honest about what we have done and what we are doing, and understand who we are becoming. In some respects, at least, we’re going to realize that “this isn’t who I want to be!” So we had better do something about that, and turn around (which is what “repent” means) and become people who “do what is true” and therefore who in the judgment will “come to the light.”

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Sermon - 5 March 2006

Lent 1 — 5 March 2006
Trinity, Muscatine — 8:00 & 10:00
Gen 9:8-17 Ps 25:3-8 1Peter 3:18-22 Mark 1:9-13

“I establish my covenant with you, that ... never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

I remember many years ago seeing an advertisement in some religious magazine for Sunday School curriculum, and in the ad this bright-eyed little boy was running up to his mommy with his crayoned pictures in hand, proudly announcing, “Today in Sunday School we learned how to kill a giant with a slingshot like David did!” I think the point that the curriculum publishers were trying to make in this advertisement was that this is not what we want to be up to in Sunday School, and they were reminding us that it is very naïve to think that “Bible Stories” in the raw automatically make a good syllabus for children’s religious education.

Another story which we seem to think is eminently suitable for children is Noah and the Ark. Clearly because of the animals. Children love animals. They’re so cute. Here, kids. Watch the Discovery Channel, it’s educational. See the zebra. See the zebra run. See the lion. See the lion chase the zebra. See the lion seize the zebra by the throat and throw it to the ground. Listen to the zebra squeal while the lion chews on its haunch. If it has animals, it must be okay for children, and so we tell them about Noah and sing about how Noah he builded, he builded him an arky, arky.

Somewhere along in here we lose sight of the fact that the story of Noah is one of the very darkest stories in the whole of the Bible. It is not rated G, or even PG. It’s basically a story about how the people whom God had created really ticked God off, so God wiped them all off the face of the earth, man woman and child, except for eight. (And if you read on in the story, it’s not in the least bit clear why those eight were really all that much better than anyone else.)

Now if you believe in the literal verbal inerrancy of the Bible, this story presents you with a problem. (Although if you believe in the literal verbal inerrancy of the Bible, understanding this story is the least of your problems — making any sense out of the Bible at all is a far greater difficulty.) (There are, of course, people who really do make very good sense out of the Bible even though they claim to take it all “literally”; but in actual practice they have to ignore or fudge a lot of passages in order to really carry it off.)

I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture. But I think the God who inspires the Scriptures is a good bit more subtle, and certainly a much greater poet and storyteller, than some narrow and unimaginative folks seem to want to give their narrow and unimaginative God credit for. And in the case of the story of Noah, the inspiration, I think, was the spin which the Hebrews put on this old widespread middle-eastern reminiscence of a millennial flood in the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. (That’s Iraq, by the way.)

The overarching question which the people of Israel had to face, just as we have to face it, is: “Why is there so much evil in the world?” Not just the hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and disease and all that stuff, the so-called “natural evils”; that’s a problem, but not the hardest problem. But “Why are so many people so bad? Adults who do unspeakable things to little children. People who blow themselves up in an effort to blow up a bunch of their political adversaries with them. Why are even we so bad so often? What went wrong with the creation? And why doesn’t God do something about it?”

We’ve all had projects go wrong. What do we do when that happens? I grab the paper out of the printer, wad it up, and hurl it into, or at least at, the wastebasket. In a great outburst of frustration and rage, I punch out “Ctrl-Alt-Delete”! Reboot! Start over!

The people of Israel, remembering the old flood stories that everyone told back in Mesopotamia, saw God doing just that—writing off a bad job and cleaning the slate for a new start. But they saw that the real point of the story was not so much the flood itself (even though the part about the animals two-by-two may be fun to tell, especially to the children)—not the flood itself, but what happened after the flood, the part we hear about in the Old Testament Lesson today—the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood, God’s promise not to write the world off as a bad job, God’s promise not to give up on the creation and just pitch it into the trash can, God’s promise not to reboot the cosmic computer.

God’s plan is to redeem the world, to rescue it, to restore it, to heal us who have broken and disfigured and twisted ourselves so badly. God’s plan is to save the world, not to destroy it—and to save the world not just by patching it up on the outside with an assortment of chewing gum and baling wire, but to save the world by genuinely healing it, renewing it, recreating it from the inside, reclaiming us as God’s people in our freedom and not against our freedom, not coercing our obedience but winning our love, mending our brokenness and reconciling us to God’s own self in wholeness, in holiness. God’s plan of salvation is the long and hard way, but it’s the only real way. God doesn’t take cheap shortcuts.

In the Gospel today, this First Sunday in Lent, we hear about Jesus coming out of the privacy of his youth and young adulthood in Galilee to receive the baptism of John, and to begin his public work and ministry. And the first thing he does is to go away into the desert for a while. Jesus understands (as we often do not!) that in order to figure out what you’re doing, you sometimes have to get away from it for a bit. So Jesus goes into retreat for forty days, and for forty days he keeps his mouth shut—in silence, and in fasting—a sort of Messianic vision quest—and he works out in prayer with his Father the direction of his ministry for the redemption and reconciliation of the world.

This year, reading from St. Mark, we don’t hear the details of the devil’s temptations that Matthew and Luke recount in other years, but we know the story: Satan tries to sidetrack Jesus into a scenario for “saving” the world based upon the fallen world’s notions of power. And Jesus rejects that. For Jesus knows that God’s plan of salvation is not the way of power but the way of love, not the way of conquest but the way of suffering, not the way of the scepter but the way of the cross. The Christian life—life in Christ—is a call to share in that plan of salvation. As members of the Body of Jesus Christ, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are called into a mission, to share in God’s plan to reconcile and heal and restore and re-create this broken world — not by power but by love, not by control but (when need be) by suffering. We are not only the recipients but also the instruments of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, to draw the whole creation into an eternal community of love and joy. This Lent is an opportunity for us to be renewed in our own vision quest, in our life in Christ and in his mission of establishing in this our world the beachhead of the Reign of God.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead