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