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