Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sermon -- 23 December 2007

4th of Advent — 23 December 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am

A: Isaiah 7:10-16 Ps 80:1-7,16-18 [Romans 1:1-7] Matthew 1:18-25

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?”

At this time of year we hear a lot about the “Spirit of Christmas.” Peace on earth, good will to all. The brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. All that sort of thing. Well, good! That’s fine. The world needs all the Spirit of Christmas we can get! But somehow, sometimes, this seems all kind of vague to me, very general. It’s not quite clear to me from all these TV shows and songs and holidays sentiments exactly what this “Spirit of Christmas” is, or where it comes from, or how we get it. But it’s a Good Thing, and somewhere behind the chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus coming to town, there’s the old story of the Baby, and peace and good will is something we devoutly wish everyone else would get on with.

But God does not work in vague generalities and pious platitudes. God works with and through particular people in particular places at particular times. Particularly and supremely, God worked in one person, in one place, at one time. That person’s name was — and is — Jesus; he was born in Bethlehem of Judea, he grew up in Nazareth of Galilee, and he died on a cross outside Jerusalem. And the third day he was raised from death. All this was two thousand years ago. We are now getting ready to celebrate his birthday. And the only reason we can talk about the Spirit of Christmas, the only reason that peace on earth, good will to all, is more than wishful thinking is because of this particular person whose birth we celebrate this week. This is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity.” It offends us that God does not work in Great Philosophical Principles. But God does not work so. God did not write a dissertation on the Metaphysical Grounds of Human Possibility. God came among us in person, and was born in a barn.

Today’s Scripture readings have to do with this particular way God works. In the first reading we hear about King Ahaz of Judah, about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Ahaz was not a very good king. He was not faithful to the Lord God, but worshipped the pagan Canaanite deities. Well, Ahaz King of Judah found himself at war with the King of Israel, and the King of Israel was making war in alliance with the King of Syria, from Damascus. Ahaz’s realm, and the throne of David, were in serious jeopardy. The Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to assure him that he would survive this crisis (although heaven knows he didn’t deserve to). And through Isaiah the Lord had told Ahaz, “Ask for a sign as proof that Isaiah is telling you the truth.” All of a sudden Ahaz got all religious, and said, “Oh, no, far be it from me that little old me should bother The Lord — I know the Lord is very busy — and besides, asking for a sign would be superstitious and tacky and Not High Minded.” To which the Lord replied through Isaiah, “Ahaz, you really are a royal pain. Are you trying to be more religious than God? Okay, whether you ask for it or not, here’s the sign: The young woman will have a son and will name him ‘God Is With Us’ [Immanu-El in Hebrew]. And before the boy is old enough to know right from wrong, your enemies Israel and Syria will be destroyed. The downside of that is that it will be the Assyrian Empire from Nineveh that will destroy them, and then they’ll charge you a pretty penny in tribute for the favor.”

It’s not completely clear exactly who the young woman in the prophecy originally was. Probably it was Ahaz’s young queen, in which case the son “God Is With Us” would have been Hezekiah, who succeeded his father on the throne of David in Jerusalem and turned out to be quite a good king, loyal to the Lord, successfully holding off the Assyrians from conquering Judah. But seven hundred years later, what Isaiah had said was remembered in connection with the birth of the Son who really was God Is With Us, Immanu-El, a descendent of Ahaz and Hezekiah, and of David before them.

Sometimes it seems like there sure is an awful lot of history in the Bible! And there sure is! Maybe you’ve never cared much for history. Get over it! God loves history. God invented history. God uses history and works through history all the time. We are much given to Inspiration and Great Spiritual Comfort and being Religious and having High Principles, which is quite admirable and quite safe. God, on the other hand, messes around in history — particular people, particular places, particular times. And if we are scandalized by all that particularity, well, that’s our problem. Without the particulars, the generalities are empty.

So God does not send us a Sermon on the Spirit of Christmas. God comes in person, in particular historical person, in a particular historical place, at a particular historical time. Jesus, born to Mary of Nazareth and her husband Joseph, in Bethlehem, at the end of the reign of King Herod the Great of Judea, about the twentieth year of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, approximately one thousand years after the accession of David son of Jesse to the throne of Judah.

That’s how God works. Particularly.

And that means that we can expect that God is still working particularly. Among us. You and me. Here. Now.

© 2007 William S J Moorhead

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sermon -- 16 December 2007

3rd of Advent — 16 December 2007
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am
A: Isa 35:1-10 Ps 146:4-9 James 5:7-10 Matt 11:2-11

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”

What were you looking for? What do you want?

Jesus’ question to the people, asking them why they had gone out to hear John the Baptist, is a good question for us, too — especially now as we think about and in a special way prepare for the coming of the Lord, as we are doing in this Advent season. What are we looking for? What do we want?

Folks in Jesus’ time were a lot like folks today, and like folks today, they didn’t know what they wanted. And there wasn’t any pleasing them. The religious leaders — people like the Pharisees, respectable, righteous people — didn’t like John the Baptist, because he was weird and harsh, an ascetic who fasted and lived alone in the desert and called them “a brood of vipers” and told them that God didn’t give a hoot whether they were descendents of Abraham or not. On the other hand, they didn’t like Jesus of Nazareth either, because he didn’t fast or live in the desert, but went to dinner parties and befriended sinners. There’s just no pleasing some people. Jesus himself remarked, “We played music and you wouldn’t dance with us; we made lamentations and you wouldn’t mourn with us; John fasted, and said he was coocoo; I go to dinner, and you call me a glutton. Ah well.…

In his own way, John the Baptist had been popular for a while. Why? Because he told people what they wanted to hear? Certainly not! John the Baptist was no reed bending in the wind of popular opinion. Was he personally attractive, a trend-setter in his lifestyle? Not at all. He wasn’t part of the better levels of society — he had no money, no political office, no social status — and yet John had immense influence. The people flocked to him, because they perceived that he was, or at least might be, a prophet. He proclaimed God’s will for the people — God’s stern and righteous will. Okay then, if this man is a prophet of God, let’s do what he says: repent, prepare yourselves for the breaking in of God’s Kingdom into this world. Part of John’s message is that he is the forerunner for God’s Anointed One who is coming soon. So be prepared to hear and to follow this One when he comes.

But even John himself has his doubts — especially as he lay imprisoned in Herod Antipas’s dungeon, where his outspoken prophesying had finally landed him. Nothing much seemed to be happening that John could see — the Reign of God didn’t seem to be breaking in yet — at least it didn’t seem to be breaking in to John’s prison cell. And he began to wonder whether he had been right — was his cousin Jesus really after all the One who was to come after him, the Anointed One, the promised Messiah of God? So he sent word and asked. (A mark of his faith, even in the midst of his doubt: he didn’t just sit there wondering and whining, he asked.) And Jesus sent word back: “Take a look. What do you see? What are you looking for? What do you want? What the prophets said about the coming of the Messiah — it’s being fulfilled! All the things Isaiah talks about, for instance — the blind see again, the deaf hear again, the lame walk, the dead live — God’s Kingdom is breaking in, is it not? Tell John what is happening — and you are blessed if you don’t get all out of joint about me and what I’m doing.”

We all have our ideas, our preconceptions, about what God is like and about what God should be doing in the world. We all have expectations for God to meet. And when God doesn’t meet our expectations, we can get very upset about it! We have carefully constructed our own neat little system of reality, and demand that God fit into it. We have written a script for our lives, and we expect God to pick up the cues and read the lines assigned.
And of course, God doesn’t. God doesn’t. God is not a tame household deity. And so Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” — who doesn’t stumble over me — who is not all hung up by the fact that I don’t fit into your neat little religious system.

This was the problem that folks had in Jesus’ time. Jesus didn’t fit their preconceptions. Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected. He wasn’t the kind of Messiah they wanted. He didn’t follow the script they had written for God. He wasn’t the Divine Super-King who drove out the Roman occupation army and made Israel the Top Nation in the world. He wasn’t the great Super-Priest who uttered the sacred words to make everyone immediately good and holy and obedient to the Law of Moses, Pharisaic Edition. Jesus really just wasn’t what they were looking for at all. He was not what they wanted. And so in the end they turned against him and had him killed.

We really shouldn’t be too surprised. God made it pretty clear, through the prophets, just what it was God was up to. (That’s what a prophet is, by the way — not someone who foretells the future, primarily, but someone who proclaims to the world just what it is God is up to.) This morning we heard from the prophet Isaiah some of what God’s Kingdom is all about: sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute — and not, I think, just the healing of our physical handicaps, but the healing of the spiritual handicaps that we all have, that all our world has. Strength to the weak, firmness to the feeble, water in the desert — life to the dead. That all sounds nifty enough — but the breaking-in of the Reign of God is not a spectator sport where we can sit in the stands and eat hot dogs. We must let our eyes be opened, let our ears be unstopped, let our tongues be loosed to sing God’s praises — let our dried-up hearts become wellsprings of God’s love — let our dead souls be really enlivened! God comes to save us, but God comes with vengeance and recompense, says Isaiah. God is no marshmallow. The Reign of God is upon us, but in order to enter God’s Kingdom we have to turn away from the petty little kingdoms we have built for ourselves. We must repent: we must change our lives; we must turn around.

What place do we make for God in our lives? Yes, and that’s just it! We do “make a place” for God in our lives — but God cannot be fitted into a place in our lives! It is God who is the source and creator of our lives and our world and all that is and has been and ever will be. God has no “place in” our lives, it is we who must allow ourselves to be given a place in God’s life, to be fitted into God’s system, to follow the script that God is writing.

Jesus is coming. Are we ready for him? Are we ready for the real Jesus as he really is, and not just the Jesus we would like him to be? Is Jesus the one we are really looking for? Is Jesus the one we really want?

© 2007 William S J Moorhead

Monday, December 3, 2007

Evensong Sermon -- 2 December 2007

1st of Advent — 2 December 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong 5:00 pm
Pss 12, 13, 14 Amos 1:1-5, 13-2:8 1 Thess 5:1-11

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Well, we begin Advent this Sunday. We generally consider Advent to be a season of preparation for Christmas. Well, that’s right, generally, more or less. But it does leave a couple of unanswered questions: exactly what do we mean by “Christmas”? And how do we prepare for it?

Well, “Christmas,” most specifically speaking, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in Israel near the end of the reign of King Herod of Judea, traditionally in Bethlehem. (Some purveyors of the Assured Results of Modern New Testament Scholarship are arguing that Jesus wasn’t actually born in Bethlehem, but probably in Nazareth. I’m not convinced. I’m working on a paper about this. Watch my blog.) The date was assigned more or less arbitrarily by the Church in the fourth century or so as December 25. Sure. Why not.

But the birth of Jesus, his coming historically, is only one of the Advents of Jesus that we attend to in the season of Advent. We also consider all the ways Jesus has come into the world, and is coming into the world, and has come and is coming into our lives now. And further, we consider the coming of Jesus, his Advent, at the consummation of the age. So Christmas, strictly speaking, is only a part of what Advent is about. In fact, in Advent we don’t get around to talking about the birth of Jesus for another three weeks. The focus today is the consummation of the age, and then we spend a couple of weeks on weird ol’ John the Baptist, before we actually get around to Christmas itself.

Meanwhile the rest of the world has been Christmasing for quite a while already, since sometime before Hallowe’en. Whatever. We clergy and other Especially Pious Folk used to get our socks in a knot about this. I’ve given up on it. At some point it struck me that all this stuff that the world has been doing for the last month or more under the name of “Christmas” isn’t about Christmas at all.

The other night there was a new Holiday cartoon show on television, called “Shrek the Halls.” It was cute, though it fell a little short of being the instant holiday classic it was touted as. But at one point in the story, Shrek (who is a green ogre, in case you aren’t up on the higher realms of American culture. Mind you, I like Shrek!) — Shrek reads the Christmas Story to the assembled family and friends in his house. And what does he read? “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!” No! That’s not the Christmas Story! (At least in the Charlie Brown Christmas, when Linus reads the Christmas story he reads, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”)

There is “Christmas,” and there is Christmas. If the world wants to have a winter holiday and call it “Christmas,” sure, why not. And if some evangelicals want to get their socks in a knot because people are wishing them “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas,” I guess that’s their problem. (Evangelicals are better off when they pay greater attention to actually reading the Gospels. Oh well.)

In the New Testament reading tonight, from the First Letter to the Christian community at Thessalonica, Paul has been writing to them about the coming of the Lord, and he goes on to say, “You don’t need me to tell you about the times and seasons” — well, actually, some of them were probably hoping Paul would do just that. Already in this early generation of Christians, folks were already fretting about figuring out when Jesus was going to return. Never mind that not only Paul but even Jesus himself had made a specific and clear point that nobody would know when that day was coming. Jesus said that even he himself didn’t know. It was the Father’s little secret. Maybe even the Father hadn’t made up his mind about this yet! Paul goes on to say, “You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” “What is it you don’t understand about ‘A thief in the night’?” Jesus himself had said, “If you knew when the thief was coming, you wouldn’t have let him break into your house! Duh!” (Well, Jesus probably didn’t say “Duh!”) This is not rocket science, folks. “Don’t know when” means “Don’t know when”!

But, St. Paul goes on, there are some clues to be alert to. One of them was when they say “There is peace and security.” Who was saying “There is peace and security”? The Roman Empire was saying, “There is peace and security.” And Paul is suggesting here that it just ain’t so. A more inclusive way of saying this might be the core of the Gospel Paul was preaching, namely, “Jesus is Lord; and that means that Caesar isn’t.” (But that’s a path to follow further at another time!) So just when everyone thinks that everything is just fine, well, watch out!

So although none of us know just when the Lord is coming, it won’t surprise us (like a thief would), not because we know the time but because we know we must be ready at any time, at all times. For we know who holds the future. And it isn’t Caesar. (Who at this time was probably Claudius; this is a relatively early letter.)

You know, when we talk about “the coming of the Lord” we generally associate this with the notion of “the end of the world.” But it’s not at all clear that this is what Jesus means, or what Paul means, when they talk about the “day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord is not the end of this world, but its fulfillment, its completion, its judgment and the vindication of the faithful, the full establishment of God’s reign of justice, love, and true peace. In expectation of this Kingdom, and in the beginning of its implementation, we are called to keep awake and be sober.

Advent calls us not just to prepare for the Christmas celebration for another year, but to prepare our lives for the proclamation and service and fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

© 2007 William S J Moorhead

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sermon -- 18 November 2007

PROPER 28 / 25 Pentecost — 18 November 2007
St. John’s, Keokuk —10:00
Mal 3:13-4:2a,5-6 Ps 98 2Thess 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19

The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.

Do you remember your first trip to the big city? (If you grew up in the big city you will just have to find your own way around this launching device!) There’s something memorable about that experience of being a tourist for the first time in some notable place. I grew up around cities; we lived in Evanston, Illinois, when I was a small child, so I’ve always known that wonderful Chicago vista looking up Michigan Avenue, with the Loop on one side and Grant Park and the lake on the other. During my teens I lived in Denver, Colorado (though Denver was still an overgrown small town in those days). But I went to college in Boston, with all its marvelous historical landmarks; and while I was in college I visited London (still my favorite city in the world) and Paris. But it was only later in college that for the first time I went to New York City. I tried to be very cool; after all, I was no hick, I’d been to Europe! but on the inside I was really wired! Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, Central Park, St. John’s Cathedral — all the places I’d always heard about—they seemed so real, so “there”! And by comparison I felt so transitory and unreal and small.

Some of Jesus’ followers are doing the tourist-in-the-big-city bit in Jerusalem in this morning’s Gospel. (It’s not quite as obvious in Luke’s account — Luke is very cosmopolitan — but in Mark’s older parallel the disciples are saying, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Eyes like saucers!) Although most Galilean Jews probably went up to Jerusalem a few times in their lives, and some of them many times, even annually (you had to walk for a couple of days from Galilee, but it wasn’t that big a deal), there were undoubtedly some of them who had never been to Jerusalem before, and the crowd that tagged after Jesus was probably predominantly young. So some of them were rubbernecking. This was Jerusalem! This was the Temple of the Lord God of Israel! The very heart of their identity as a people! The seat of God’s Presence, the Holiest Place, the most real place in the world! The very center of the created universe! And when the disciples share with Jesus their awe, he responds: “The day will come when all this will be leveled to the ground.” And forty years later, it happened.

There is something about the institutions of this world—historic places, landmark buildings, famous monuments, long-standing traditions, national allegiances, community values, social customs—which seem to us to have a deep and lasting reality. At this level, we assume that what is, must be; and we conform our lives to that.

Well, in fact many of these things often are signs of deep and lasting realities. Signs. Jesus says, don’t hold on to these things too tightly. But we do. Because our cities and temples are the heart of our identity, the assurance of our security, the guarantee of our control, the warrant for our power. (Precisely why buildings like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon became targets for terrorists.)

I’ve been thinking about power and authority and control lately. One of the issues behind the terrorist problems of our era is an attempt to misuse and pervert religious faith into an instrument of power. Nor is this limited to the Islamic world: often enough in our own Christian history, and by some yet today, there are those who would impose their own orthodoxies by force. Within our own Episcopal Church we continue to struggle with many divisive issues, and although some of them may actually have to do with such important concerns as sexual morality, theological orthodoxy and Scriptural authority, a lot of it, on the various sides, is really about power.

Power. The ability to compel other people to do certain things and to refrain from doing certain other things. And the fact that this may indeed very well truly be for people’s own good is sometimes beside the point. The secular world uses power that way, and it is not only legitimate but necessary that it should do so.

But Jesus says to his disciples: “You know that those who seem to rule the nations are masters over them, and their great ones exercise power over them. It is not that way among you, but let whoever wants to become great among you be your servant, and let whoever wants to be first among you be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many.”

We’ve heard that many times, and it pleases us to think that Jesus means we shouldn’t be heavy-handed or arrogant in the exercise of authority. I don’t think that’s quite it.
Power. The power of the Gospel. Yes, I think the Gospel has power. I think God has power. But I think this power really isn’t anything at all like what we usually mean when we talk about “power” and seek to exercise power.

The Temple in Jerusalem represented the religious power of God’s People Israel (even under the constraints of the Roman occupation). It was inconceivable that the Temple of the Lord God should fall. But of course it did fall. In fact, the temple fell and was destroyed twice, once by the Babylonians (600-some years before Jesus) and once by the Romans (40 years or so after Jesus). Both times the Jewish People emerged with deeper faith and greater fidelity to God. The Reign of God works through, but does not rely upon, human institutions, not even ecclesiastical institutions. The Reign of God does not need, indeed is usually obstructed by, human power.

In the Gospel today Jesus promises his disciples nothing but powerlessness—persecution, betrayal, and death. Exactly what he himself would shortly face here in Jerusalem. We may sometimes be tempted to ask why Jesus did not use his power to save himself from the cross (Jesus himself remarked at the time that he could have twelve legions of angels for the asking
[2]). We assume that because the cross was the necessary condition of our redemption, Jesus forbore the use of power. Ah, but Jesus did use his power.

Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King; in the Gospel we will see Jesus hanging on the Cross. It’s a mark of how far we are from being fully converted to God’s Reign that we still find it so hard to understand that the Cross is what real power really is.

[1] Mark 10:42-45: Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 22:25-27.
[2] Matthew 26:53.

© William S. J. Moorhead 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sermon -- 11 November 2007

Proper 27 / 24 Pentecost — 11 November 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 8:00 & 10:15
RCL: Haggai 1:15b-2:9 Ps 145:1-5,18-22 2Thess 2:1-5,13-17 Luke 20:27-38

Those who are considered worthy of a place … in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

“Oh, no!…”

Or, there may be some who, for good reason or bad, would say, “Whew!…”

This is a difficult passage, and I think there are some Christians who are troubled by it; in fact, I know there are some Christians who are troubled by it, because some Christians have come to me and said, “I’m troubled by this passage”! It’s the kind of Sunday Gospel reading that this weekend, I’m quite sure, has caused countless clergy to say, “What’s the Epistle? Maybe I’ll preach on that this Sunday”! [Oh. Second Thessalonians. Mmm.] I, on the other hand, am fearless. That’s one of the advantages of being a supply priest; you can get away with almost anything, and not have to pick up the pieces afterward! So let’s take a look at this admittedly rather peculiar interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees, and try to see what it says; and perhaps also what it doesn’t say.

[The Sadducees were a very conservative sect, holding only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, to be canonical scrip­ture; they rejected the traditions of the Pharisees as modernist, liberal innovations. (One of these newfangled doctrines that they rejected was the resurrection of the dead.) The Sadducees were few in number, but wealthy and powerful; their power base was among the priestly families in Jerusalem. They came to an end as a distinct sect when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. They were rivals and competitors, if not enemies, of the Pharisees; one of the few things they apparently agreed with the Pharisees about was that Jesus of Nazareth was dangerous.]
There’s a species of religious puzzling called “desert island theology”—in which one posits some very extreme situation and tries to draw some principle of religious faith or practice. So called because it often starts out, “Suppose you were stranded on a desert island …” It’s not a very good way to do theology, or legal theory (“Hard cases make bad law”) or much of anything else. But that doesn’t stop the Sadducees, who come to Jesus determined to trip him up with this somewhat far-fetched little hypothetical situation which they apparently think will demonstrate how the Law of Moses reduces to absurdity all this newfangled unbiblical Pharisaic speculation about the resurrection of the dead: This poor woman works her way through seven brothers without having any babies; in the resurrection whose wife is she?

[According to the Law of Moses (in Deuteronomy 25), if a man dies without an heir, his brother is to marry the widow and raise up a son to perpetuate the dead brother’s name. This was an ancient custom, certainly going back at least to the days of the patriarchs; it appears to be an exception, rather than a contradiction, to another Mosaic Law (in Leviticus 18) which forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife (that’s the one King Henry VIII got all tangled up with). But it’s not at all clear that the Jews of Jesus’ time still observed this law or custom of levirate marriage (from the Latin levir,
brother-in-law), as they don’t now (and Christians never have), and so it’s not at all clear that the Sadducees are acting in good faith when they propose this problem of the woman who outlived seven brothers.]
In Mark’s version of this story, which is probably earlier and the source of Luke’s version that we hear today, Jesus begins by turning on the Sadducees: “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” Jesus doesn’t mean, “You don’t know what the text of the scriptures says,” because the Sadducees could quote the Bible as well as anyone in town, and better than most. Jesus means, “You don’t know what the scriptures are about, you don’t have any idea what God is up to or wherein the Reign of God consists; you’re not ignorant (that would be excusable), you’re clueless!”

Jesus then goes on to respond to the challenge. What’s absurd is not the situation of this poor childless woman in the resurrection who now finds herself with seven husbands, but the Sadducees for thinking that the resurrection is simply a return to a life like our present life; that being raised from the dead is like retiring to Florida, only with better weather. What you don’t get, Jesus says, is that the resurrection is a whole new creation, in which the necessities and limitations of this world just don’t apply any more. Specifically, marriage will be no longer necessary, since there will be no more death and thus no need to beget children.

It’s at this point that we in our generation are likely to raise our hands and say, “Ahem, excuse me?” And what concerns us is that this might mean that in the resurrection we shall lose the most precious human relationship we have—for many of us, our relationship with our spouse (which means a lot more to us than just having children), and by extension other deep, loving, fulfilling relationships with family or friends. “You mean we won’t be together in heaven??!!”

Well, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is getting at. I don’t think that’s the issue he’s addressing; and I think we would be repeating the Sadducees’ error of “knowing neither the scriptures nor the power of God” if we were to take Jesus’ words out of their context in a very specific controversy and try to build a systematic theology of the afterlife on them. But before going on to any speculative remarks about the nature of the resurrection, let’s first finish this episode.

Having attacked the Sadducees’ simplistic caricature of the resurrection, Jesus then goes on to affirm that this earthly life is not all there is. The way he does it is a little odd and actually not very convincing to our ears, but for first century and later rabbinic Judaism, it was a fairly standard way of arguing from scripture (this kind of use of the Biblical text shows up elsewhere in the New Testament, in Paul and in the Letter to the Hebrews, for instance): Jesus refers to Exodus 3:6 (but, as you perhaps know, the Biblical text would not be divided into chapters for many centuries yet, nor into verses for even longer than that; so Jesus simply refers to “The Bush”—God’s self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush in the passage we enumerate as the third chapter of Exodus) where God is identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and God is the God of the living, not of the dead; therefore the holy patriarchs (and by extension all of God’s righteous ones) must not be dead, but still living unto God; Q.E.D. Doesn’t measure up to Western standards of logic very well, but in the event it successfully serves to stuff a sock in the Sadducees.

And the fundamental point that Jesus is making is absolutely valid: God is the Lord of life, of the whole of life; and the power of God is such that God’s purpose for humankind is not frustrated by death. In fact, we would want to say (and here we’re moving from explication of the Gospel text into constructive theology) that God’s ultimate purpose for humankind so far transcends life in this world that our physical death is the necessary condition of our transition into that larger purpose, of our resurrection, of our new creation. It is from this perspective that we can perhaps speculate on the state of marriage relationships in the resurrection (remembering, after all, that we never claim that marriage is meant to endure longer than “until we are parted by death”). In that fulfillment of our humanity as the image and likeness of God, as “children of God” as Jesus says today, “like angels” but notice, not “the same as angels,” freed from the ordinary limitations of space and time as we know them in this life (as the Risen Jesus, appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, was evidently not limited in the usual way by space and time) — in that new and risen humanity, total loving intimacy, with God, and in God in community with one another, will not require the mediation of the body of flesh. And further, the kind of total self-giving in love which we in our fallen condition can give only to one other at a time will in the resurrection become the goal of our relationship with each and every one of the whole of redeemed humanity, a community of love of which marriage is but the foretaste. The earthly marriage relationship is thus not something which in the resurrection we lose, but rather something we shall be given to surpass beyond any imagining, in eternal union with the One who is Love’s own very self.

But, as I said, we have moved into constructive, even speculative theology at this point, and away from the text of the Gospel, which recounts a particular debate of more limited scope. Nevertheless, I hope the move is not altogether illegitimate—and at least of some help in our understanding of our journey!

© 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Sermon -- 4 November 2007

Proper 26 / Pentecost 23 — 4 November 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong, 5:00 pm
Ps 24, 29 Nehemiah 5:1-19 Luke 12:22-31

Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.

One of the things that’s kind of nifty about Evensong is that we get to hear Scripture readings, especially from the Old Testament, that compared to the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary are really remarkably obscure.

Did any of you attend last Sunday’s Adult Forum, when Fr. Mel talked about “The Changing Lectionary”? Yeah, neither did I. (Sorry about that, Mel!) But if any of you were there, you’ll recall that one of the things I assume he talked about was that in the new Revised Common Lectionary, at least during the second half of the year, the first readings at the Sunday Eucharist are generally in a course sequence from the Old Testament, so we are given a more coherent survey of the Hebrew Scriptures over the three years. This as opposed to the Roman-based Prayer Book lectionary that we had been using for the previous thirty years, in which the Old Testament readings were generally, and sometimes rather vaguely, keyed to the Gospel reading for the day. But even the Revised Common Lectionary with its more coherent survey never gets quite as obscure as the Book of Nehemiah. Well, that’s not quite true. There is one Sunday, out of the three years, in which we hear a passage from Nehemiah, in which the priest Ezra reads the Book of the Law to the people in Jerusalem. (Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C — that was last January — so it’s over two more years before it comes around again. Only now the Revised Common Lectionary gnomes in their infinite wisdom have edited out all the really obscure and largely unpronounceable Hebrew names of all the Levites who were standing with Ezra while he read the Law. Well that’s just no fun at all! Those of you who have ever been a reader on that Sunday are doubtless deeply grateful to the Lectionary gnomes.)

That’s why we have Evensong!

The Book of Nehemiah, along with the Book of Ezra, which is related to it, recounts how the Jewish people were allowed to return to their homeland of Judah after several generations of exile in Babylonia following the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. Nehemiah was a Jew who had been cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia (you’ll recall that the Persians had conquered the Babylonians or Chaldeans, and being somewhat more flexible in their imperial policy were willing to let the Jews go home if they wanted to; some did, some didn’t). Nehemiah asked to be allowed to return to Judah and oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem as governor of the province of Judah in the Persian empire. And that’s sort of where we pick up in the reading this evening.

Nehemiah was supervising the rebuilding of the city walls of Jerusalem; the work was being done largely on a volunteer basis by men who had returned to Judah from the Babylonian exile. There were other people, however — in some cases Israelites who had stayed behind when the Babylonians conquered the land and took the bulk of the people captive — they were probably people of no great significance with whom the Babylonians didn’t want to bother, but of course after the exile they were able to take over the abandoned lands and raise their social status significantly — and they were very much opposed to the rebuilding and refortifying of Jerusalem. Another group may have been those subsequently identified as the Samaritans, who had been imported into Israel following the conquest of the northern kingdom, and they also opposed the restoration of Jerusalem. So working on the walls of Jerusalem not only involved doing heavy construction with one hand but also holding a sword in the other, lest the anti-Jerusalemites attack them to stop the rebuilding.

Then on top of this, the men who were doing the work also had their own work to do on their own farms, raising crops, not only to produce food for themselves and their families and their neighbors, but also to earn enough money to be able to pay the Persian taxes. So a lot of these folks were in very tight circumstances, often deeply in debt, typically to the rich and well-born of their own people. They often had to sell their land, or send their children into apprenticeship or “service” or even slavery, just to eke out a living.

When this came to Nehemiah’s attention, he was seriously ticked, and he called an assembly, chewed out those who were exploiting their poorer fellow Jews, and put an end to it. I suspect that actually getting this reform accomplished was not as simple as the way Nehemiah tells it afterward! But that’s often the case.

Nehemiah himself makes a point of the fact that he did not draw the full usual salary for his position as governor, so as not to be a burden on the people. He does call God’s attention to this. Yeah, well…. Nehemiah was a very good and honest governor, if perhaps not the most modest man in town, and something of a hard-nose. But it was what the Jews needed at the time in order to get their nation reestablished. By his own example of caring for the welfare of the people, especially of the poor, and by calling to account those who would exploit them, Nehemiah was in his time a beacon and sign of God’s Kingdom.

© 2007 William S J Moorhead

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sermon -- 28 October 2007

PROPER 25 / 22 PENTECOST — 28 October 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am
Joel 2:23-32 Ps 65 2Tim 4:6-8,16-18 Luke 18:9-14

© 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is, I assume, one of Jesus’ more familiar stories. We have listened to it being read on Sundays every three years for the last thirty years in late October, and before that it was read every Sunday along about mid-August. So we know this story pretty well.

Which may not be the same thing has having really heard it.

I suspect that when we hear this story — at least if “we” are anything like “me” — we identify with the tax collector. (Excursus: the tax collector was a notorious sinner, not because he collected taxes, but because he collected taxes for the Romans, and furthermore did so dishonestly to his own personal profit. End of excursus.) We identify with the prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! But I thank you, God, that at least I am not like other people like that hypocritical Pharisee bragging about how devout he is.”


Christians have often made the simple assumption that the problem with the Pharisees was that they were hypocrites — that is, they were phonies — they said one thing but actually did something else. Well, no doubt some of the Pharisees were hypocrites — on occasion Jesus really put it to them about their hypocrisy, although it was generally about more than just being phonies. But then, Christians can be phonies and hypocrites sometimes too. (This would include you, and me.) But in the case of the Pharisee in this story, there’s no reason to think he’s not telling the truth in his prayer. (Presumably a prayer to God, though it’s not entirely clear just who he’s talking to!) The Pharisee was a very good man. He really did tithe his income. He really did fast twice a week (and that meant no food until supper, not just giving up hamburgers).

Another excursus: In an early Christian writing called the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, dating probably to a generation or so after the New Testament, it says to Christians: “Your fasts must not be identical to those of the hypocrites [i.e., the Jews, who by that time had become the spiritual descendents of the Pharisees]. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.” Wonderful. Two generations into Christianity, and already the Church has acquired a “Doesn’t Get It” Society. End of second excursus.

The Pharisee thought he was religiously superior to other people. And he was. He was not a thief, or a rogue, or an adulterer (“greedy, unjust, adulterous” the text says). And especially he was not a betrayer of his own people, like the tax collector over in the corner. He really was better than others by all the usual religious standards; he obeyed the Law, he kept all the rules (and then some), and he thought this won him God’s special favor. Moral basket cases like the tax collector earned his contempt. And though he probably didn’t realize it, he was even contemptuous of God, or at least awfully arrogant. He thought God “owed him.”

Arrogant toward God; contemptuous toward his fellow human beings. Very “religious.”

The tax collector? All we know of him is that he cries to God for mercy. Does he then go home and give up his career of collaboration and extortion? We don’t know. We don’t know how or why he got into the tax-farming racket in the first place — and thereby incurring the hatred of his fellow Jews. Greed? Perhaps. Or despair? Maybe. We don’t know. (Why do people become drug dealers?) And what does Jesus say about this tax collector? “He went down to his home justified rather than the other.” He was the one declared righteous, the one in right relationship with God.

I suppose it has always been the case, but it seems to be especially the case these days, that “religious” people so-called, so-claimed, are highly vocal about “others.” This seems to be so among American Christians generally, but also within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church.

Do you suppose there are some aspects of what we consider “religion” that “just don’t get it” as far as what the Kingdom of God is really about? And who God really is, and what God really cares about?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sermon -- 21 October 2007

Proper 24 / 21 Pentecost — 21 October 2007
St. Michael’s Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am
BCP: Gen 32:3-8,22-30 Ps 121 2Tim 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8a

RCL: Jer 31:27-34 Ps 119:97-104 2Tim 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8

© William Moorhead 2007

Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?

As you may recall, about three months ago in the Sunday Gospel reading we heard a strange little story that Jesus told about a man whose neighbor came to him in the middle of the night to borrow some bread to set before a friend who had shown up unexpectedly. And after a bit of whining and moaning, the man gets up and gives his neighbor what he needs. And Jesus ends up by making the point that if we who are evil still will meet the needs of others, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
[1] (If you missed it back at the end of July, you can check it out on my sermon blog, “Have Stole, Will Travel.”[2] Just Google it, or me.)

Today we hear what seems like a very similar story. And like the earlier one, it’s probably not as simple as it may seem. Luke introduces this parable as being about the need of the disciples to pray always and not to lose heart. Well, that’s part of it, but I think there are some other things going on as well.

The first character in the story is a judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” That makes him problematic right from the start. In our society we like to assume that our judges fear God, or at least the law, and also have respect for other human beings, and on the whole I think we are justified in that assumption. In Israelite society the expectations for judges was just as high, if not higher. The task of the judge in Israel was not just the technical interpretation and administration of the law (Israelite law was a good bit less complicated than modern American law, but cases could still be very difficult), but the determination and dispensation of God’s justice and God’s shalom within the covenant community. By these standards the judge in this story is not a very good judge!

The second character in the story is a widow. Being a widow in any society in any age is always difficult for a variety of reasons, but in Israel as in most ancient societies, widows were in a particularly powerless and vulnerable position. They did not normally have any inheritance rights, and so if a woman’s husband died and she had no sons who could take care of her, she could be in a very bad way. A recurring theme both in the Old Testament and in the New is the great importance of providing care and justice for the widows and orphans. To abuse and exploit these powerless ones is to incur God’s wrath.

Apparently someone is taking some advantage of this widow in the story, and she appeals to the judge, who initially does not care. But she doesn’t give up; and the judge finally says, well, even though I don’t care about God and I don’t care about other people, this woman is driving me crazy, so I’ll give her the justice she demands or in the end she’ll come and smack me in the face (that’s the literal meaning of the Greek!), or (perhaps metaphorically) “give me a black eye,” or (even more metaphorically, and a bit wimpily as we usually now translate it) wear me out.

And Jesus goes on: See? Even a bad judge finally gives in to justice! All the more so will God give justice to his chosen people who cry out for vindication. And he concludes: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This leads me to think, going back to the first verse, that “the need to pray always and not lose heart” is not primarily about “asking God to give us what we want,” though that may be an included dimension of what he is saying. Because the story Jesus tells is really about justice, and particularly justice for the powerless and oppressed.

During much of Christian history, we have had the notion that what Jesus was primarily about was teaching us a new religion. I’m not so sure about that — it depends on what you mean by “religion.” A lot of what passes for “religion” these days — not only among Christians but even among Episcopalians — doesn’t seem to me to have very much to do with Jesus. What Jesus was about was the Kingdom of God — the proclaiming and implementing and enacting of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom beginning now, God’s Kingdom eternally. But beginning here and now.

And so when we pray always, not losing heart, in the first instance that is not about “give me what I want” but committing myself constantly and with determination to the cause of the Kingdom of God. When Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to begin with “Hallowed be thy Name: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Only then do we go on to what we need (not just what we want) and then move directly to the grace to seek reconciliation and steadfastly to stand against the power of evil. This is the faith on earth for which the Son of Man seeks when he comes.

A century and a half ago, the English priest and theologian Frederick Denison Maurice noted that we are trying to fill people with “religion” when what they really need is the Living God. Christ did not come to establish a religious sect but God’s kingdom — a kingdom embracing all people, with no class distinctions, no rich and poor, no oppressor or oppressed — a kingdom of love and justice.

For this kingdom we must pray always, not lose heart in striving to serve it, and in our commitment to God’s Kingdom be found faithful by our Lord when he comes.

[1] Proper 12; Luke 11:1-13.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sermon -- 16 September 2007

Proper 19 / 16th Pentecost — 16 September 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 8:00 & 10:15
Jer 4:11-12,22-28 Ps 14 1Tim 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10

Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.

If I were a little more Monty-Pythonesque, I might produce a script in which there are a couple of shepherds standing at the back of the crowd muttering, “Oh, will ye listen to the carpenter now! Never herded a sheep in his life, he hasn’t! You can’t just leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness! You’d come back with your little lost sheep and there would be only eighty-nine sheep, scattered all over South Galilee, and ten fat and happy wolves!”

Well, that shows how not to interpret the parables of Jesus! Jesus isn’t talking about sheep-herding, or about keeping track of your money, he’s talking about God’s joy at finding the lost. “Hey, everybody! I found my sheep! Hey, everybody! I found my coin!” The sheer delight at finding something that had been lost! We’ve all had that experience. Some of us are at the point where we have that experience all the time, because we lose things all the time! But it’s more than just, “Oh, there are my car keys!” Think of something, perhaps some old and precious keepsake that you were trying to find once, and you couldn’t find it, and you were sure it was just gone forever and you’d never see it again, and then one day you ran across it in some utterly unlikely place — “Hey, look what I found! look what I found!” That’s the joy, and that’s the joy God feels about us.

I am inclined to think — Matthew’s parallel version of the parable of the lost sheep gives me some warrant, but in any case I am inclined to think — that the lines about “there is more joy in heaven” and “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God” are editorial addition by St. Luke. I don’t doubt that there is joy among the angels over one sinner who repents, but that’s not really the point, and it seems to me that it piously diffuses Jesus’ point, that God rejoices. Moreover, God does not only rejoice, but bids us as well as the angels to share in the divine joy. We too are to rejoice that the lost is found. And not to be like Jonah outside Nineveh, sitting around grumping: “Yeah, well what would have happened if the wolves had come while he was out looking for that stupid little lost sheep? When is she going to learn to keep track of her money a little better?” (Jesus gets at this a little more pointedly in the next story, the Lost Son, which we actually heard last Lent: “I’ve been working for you all these years but you never even let me have a little party with my friends, but when my bro—when your son comes home…”)

God rejoices. And we are to rejoice with God.

This may seem fairly obvious to us.. I hope so. But I’m not sure it is as obvious as we may think.

There is a religious stance we can take, in which we say, “There is us, and there is them; and God loves us, but God hates them.” Often enough they are people who are not Christians, or not religious at all; or maybe they are purported Christians but are in some other way are not like us, because they worship differently, or are culturally or ethnically different, or interpret the Bible differently, or don’t have the same opinion about various moral or political issues. Lots of folks seem to have taken that stance, and are taking that stance today, and we ourselves have taken that stance often enough in our history, and in own lives; and even today it lies, sanitized and covert, at the heart of the longing —which we all share at least a little, if we will admit it — the craving for self-justification.

Or there is the other stance, that understands that “There is us, and that’s all — there is no them — and God loves us all and yearns to gather us all, the lost, the strayed, the misplaced, you, me, them — God loves us all, all, as Archbishop Tutu reminds us over and over again, not some, but all —God is a God who rejoices to find us, and invites us and expects us to rejoice with God when the lost is found and to share with God in the ministry of seeking the lost.

Here is the heart of Christianity: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him” — not "everyone who assents to certain doctrinal propositions about him" (however important those may be), but everyone who follows in faith and trust into the life of the Reign of God that Jesus proclaims and enacts — “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep, I have found the coin, I have found my people who were lost.”

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sermon -- 5 August 2007

Proper 13 / 10 Pentecost — 5 August 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am
Hosea 11:1-11 Psalm 107:1-9,43 Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21

(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

In the Scripture readings today we hear about greed. In some places the Bible calls it “covetousness.” You remember coveting. The Tenth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not do it.” A little boy in Sunday School was learning the Commandments and he asked his teacher, “What does this word ‘covet’ mean”? And the teacher answered, “Well, you know all the nice toys your friends have? You’re not supposed to wish that they were yours instead.” The little boy shook his head: “Boy, they don’t let you have any fun around here!” St. Paul says, “I should not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” I didn’t realize it was wrong to do that! Most people understand that murder is wrong: a few of them do it, but they usually understand that it’s wrong. Most people understand that committing adultery is wrong: some people do say, “Well, yes, usually, for most people, but we’re different, we’re special, my spouse doesn’t understand my needs yada yada yada, but they still really understand that it’s wrong. Most people understand that stealing is wrong: some of them do it anyway, but they still understand that it’s wrong. Most people understand that bearing false witness against their neighbor is wrong: a lot of people do it and thoroughly enjoy it, but they still understand that it’s wrong. But coveting in our society is a major growth industry. Not only do people not understand that it’s wrong, they think it’s their patriotic duty. Covetousness is a leading economic indicator. Teaching covetousness it what children’s television does best; just watch the Saturday morning commercials. (Ads for laundry detergent are at least pitching something useful; but why does a child need a model robot that folds up and transforms itself into a toaster?)

In the Gospel today we hear Jesus say, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And Jesus goes on to tell a story about a farmer whose land produces abundantly. And some aspects of this story may begin to sound very familiar. We are surrounded, in the Midwest, by people who if they don’t get some bigger bins this year may have to let some of their corn sit in the field and rot. Now, I’ve known a lot of farmers, and on the whole and as a class, farmers are not any more greedy or covetous than anyone else; as a matter of fact, if anything, rather less so. But look at what we have done in American agriculture (and I do mean we — we’re all part of this system): plant plant plant, produce produce produce, expand expand expand, grow grow grow, more ethanol more ethanol more ethanol, borrow borrow borrow. Oh, now you’re overextended? So trapped in debt service that you can’t afford to diversify, or conserve soil, or back off on chemicals or any of the other things you’d really like to do? Join the rat race…

Well, most of us, as far as I’ve noticed, are not flagrantly covetous or acquisitive or greedy sorts of people. Most of us look at the farmer in this parable and we agree, he’s a fool, and we say, “I’m not like that.” At least not too obviously. And we’re not. Not exactly. Most of us are, I think, reasonably content with fairly modest means. We may daydream about winning the lottery, but we don’t really take that kind of thing too seriously. We’re not greedy. We’re not miserly. Certainly not by the standards of the world around us.

But what kind of standards are those? Let’s not deceive ourselves. We are thoroughly programmed into a moderate covetousness, a politely restrained variety of greed, that drives us constantly to want a little bit more, a little bit bigger, a little bit better. Our society spends (and needs to spend) less of its resources on the necessities of life, and those more on “elective,” nonessential “luxuries” than any other society on earth. We brag about it, as if it were the badge of moral superiority. Our standard operating assumption is that one’s life consists precisely in the abundance of possessions! That’s why we call it “standard of living”! It is a wonderful gift and privilege that we are able to produce so far beyond our necessities. But we haven’t understood why that is, or what it entails, or what it’s meant for. We have made our luxuries into our necessities of life. And like two-year-olds, “we don’t share” very well.

It’s not my purpose to get us all off on a fruitless guilt-trip, and I do mean us all, because God knows I want all the same grownup toys and gadgets that you want, and I chafe at what I cannot afford. I, like you, have to face up to the whole question of the place and value of things in my life, and questions of what we can “afford” and “not afford,” and what that really means, and just what it is that all that stuff and clutter of our lives is really about. “”One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Do we really believe that? What’s the evidence that we do? St. Paul today bids us to put to death whatever in us is earthly, including greed (which is idolatry). As Jesus elsewhere puts it, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” We can’t have it both ways. We are entrusted with worldly resources by the God who made this world. We can use these resources in the service of God’s kingdom, for the common good of all humankind — examples might include the Millennium Development Goals, or the production and use of energy around the world, or how we care for animals and fish and birds and forests and prairies. Or we can keep our resources for ourselves, “us first.” But if we keep them for ourselves they will turn on us and master us and ultimately destroy us. And if we think that won’t happen, if we think that isn’t happening right now, then perhaps we are not paying very close attention.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sermon -- 29 July 2007

Proper 12 / 9 Pentecost — 29 July 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am
Hosea 1:2-10 Psalm 85 Colossians 2:6-19 Luke 11:1-13

(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

I remember when I was a boy of, oh, about nine, I prayed, “O God, please let me get a new bicycle!” (Yes, bicycles had been invented when I was nine.) Some of you may have prayed that prayer yourselves at the age of nine or thereabouts. I suspect that nearly every child prays that prayer or one like it at one time or another. Such a prayer may seem inconsequential to us grownups, but it is serious business to children. And if the bicycle does not materialize, what then? Is it that prayer really doesn’t work? Does God not care that we get a bicycle? Is there a God at all?

Or a very much more adultly, much more serious instance: an elderly person, sick, feeble, in constant pain, alone, disabled, prays, “O God, let me die!” And yet that person lives on. And on. Why? Does not God hear our prayers? Does God not care? Is God there at all?

Prayer is right at the heart of our faith, of our relationship with God. Most of us take that for granted, most of the time, or at least some of the time. It’s a dimension of our daily lives, or we mean it to be, or we know we ought to mean it to be. And for many people, maybe for us, prayer comes very naturally. And for many people, maybe also for us, prayer is sometimes, maybe even very often, very problematic. We aren’t always sure how to pray; we aren’t always sure what to pray; we’re not always sure just what prayer is really all about. We often hear in the Gospels, or from the Church, or in sermons, things like what Jesus says today, “Ask, and it will be given you.” “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.” But what about when we ask, and we don’t receive? Is the promise empty? What about that? Some folks may tell us, “You don’t have enough faith,” and sometimes we may believe it, and often enough it may even be true. But as a response to the question of unanswered prayer, that’s a little too slick for me, too pat, maybe even a little too smug.

I’m wandering off into some pretty deep waters here. I don’t have a nice tidy little answer that will resolve the apparent discrepancy between what we read in the Bible, or think we are reading, and what we sometimes experience in our lives. Prayer — how it works, when it works, why sometimes it seems not to work, whether it even makes any sense to talk about prayer “working” in this sense at all (I suspect that may often be a category mistake) — prayer is a great mystery, that is to say, a reality which we experience but which we cannot fully comprehend of explain.

In the Gospel today the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray. Apparently John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray. I think this is the only reference in the Gospels to John teaching his followers how to pray, but it’s certainly reasonable enough to think that he did so — whether in the sense of “what words to say when you pray” or in a deeper sense of “what prayer is all about.” And it’s certainly reasonable that Jesus’ disciples should ask him the same question. Jesus’ first response is the words we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” You’ll note that this teaching from St. Luke is a bit more succinct than the slightly longer version in St. Matthew, which is the version which most Christians have used, both in corporate worship and in private devotion, ever since the first century. (My own suspicion is that this is a teaching that Jesus repeated on numerous occasions, with some variations, and it was initially remembered and passed on in slightly different forms until eventually it was more or less standardized.)

In Luke’s Gospel today Jesus goes on to talk a bit more about prayer. (In Matthew’s Gospel his teaching of the “Lord’s Prayer” is in the context of the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6, in the section about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.) And Jesus tells this rather strange little story about the man who goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night to borrow some bread. I think it’s fairly common to interpret this as meaning that if we just nag God enough, God will eventually give in and grant our request. In fact, I think I’ve preached that sermon myself. But I’m not so sure that’s right. Other commentators have pointed out that “persistence” is probably not the right translation; the word in Greek basically means “shamelessness.” What’s not clear is who is portrayed as shameless: the man knocking on the door at midnight, or the man who is being awakened. What would be more immediately obvious in a first-century Galilean village context is the strong sense of hospitality and honor: even though it is inconvenient, it would be shameful for a neighbor not to help his friend meet the unexpected obligations of hospitality. If that is how we are with each other, how much more is God willing to provide our needs.

God gives us good gifts. God will settle for nothing less than the best for us. God gives us God’s very self, God’s own presence, God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us and filling us with the divine life. And in the end, that’s the gift that really matters. Our days on this earth are not the ultimate reality of our lives, and the circumstances of our days on this earth are not God’s ultimate gift. But in any circumstances and in all, to have life — real life, authentic life, a blaze of life in our hearts and souls, eternal life now and forever: that’s the gift God always gives to those who ask — but we have to accept it. It can always be found by those who search — but we have to claim it. It is always opened to those who knock — but we have to enter through the door.

That doesn’t answer all the questions about prayer and about Jesus’ promises. But maybe it’s a place to begin.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sermon -- 22 July 2007

Proper 11 / 8th after Pentecost — 22 July 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45
RCL: Amos 8:1-12 Ps 52 Col 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42

(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

“You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

It was Calvin Coolidge who said, “The business of America is business.” (As distinguished from “bi’ness.”) “Business” is a central part of our daily lives. Whether or not we are, in the strict sense, “in business,” we all have “our business” to which we must tend, the affairs of our life. There is a wide range of activities having to do with being a free and self-determining human being in the world which falls under the category of “taking care of business.”

What is this word “business”? Its origin, of course, is in the notion of “busyness” — the state or quality of being busy. Being busy is, in our society, on the whole a Good Thing. We all want to keep busy. It’s important to us that we be productive, that we be useful. Since my retirement from the University, friends ask me, “So. Are you keeping busy?” (To which my answer is, generally, “Yes.”) Our culture is very activist, and very quantitative in its standards. “What do you do?” we ask each other when we meet for the first time. Usually unsaid, but still intended, is “How much can you do? How “useful” are you” What can you produce that can be quantitatively measured in some way?”

Well, all right. There is a very great deal of value in all that. When God put us in this world, God gave us business to do — to be God’s stewards and co-workers in “building the earth.” Laziness is a sin. Productivity is an important value. But…

Jesus suggests in the Gospel today that there’s a little more to be said about it than that.

I always find it easy to relate to Martha and Mary — for all that they are only mentioned three times in the Gospels — here, and twice in St. John — they are very real people to me, and reading between the lines, I can see that Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus (whom Jesus later raises from death) were very close and dear friends of Jesus. And who among us has not had occasion to say, like Martha, “Hey! How come I’m the only one who’s doing any work around here? Somebody come and give me a little help!”

“Look,” says Jesus. “There are lots of things to do. Some of them are even important things, and sooner or later they need to get done. But sometimes the thing to do is just to stop, and sit down, and keep still, and watch, and listen. There are things more important than just doing. Doing must be rooted in being, or else ultimately it will rot, wither, and die, a bitter, hollow shell. But being is delicate, sensitive soil, and needs careful tending and cultivation and feeding. So don’t begrudge the time taken just to be — to listen, to be nourished, to see. Do we not say with St. Irenaeus that the consummation of this life is the “Vision of God”? Do we not then need to spend time learning to see? Do we not need to sit down and be attentive, to look for the extraordinary, to suspend doing for a while and just to be? And Mary has chosen that better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Of course there is a sense in which our lives are something we do. We do have to take care of business — that’s part of our God-given responsibility as God’s stewards, exercising in God’s name the management of the earth. But in a deeper sense our lives, our true lives, are Gift — not something we achieve but something we receive. We need to learn to receive, to see, to be contemplative as the underpinnings of all our activity. One of the great tragedies of growing old in our culture is that contemplation, which can be a real specialty as we get older (although certainly not limited to us) — contemplation is not a very highly valued endeavor in our activist, business-oriented, achievement-oriented society. And so we never learn to be contemplative, we don’t consider it “worthwhile” or “productive,” and so when other activities are taken from us for one reason or another, we are left with nothing — unable to immerse ourselves in this special gift God has prepared for us.

But throughout the whole of our lives, at the heart of our lives, Jesus calls us to put our business — our busyness — aside for a bit, and to sit with him, to be with him, to be ourselves with him, to hear him, and to choose the better part which can never be taken away.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sermon -- 15 July 2007

Proper 10 / 7 Pentecost — 15 July 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am
Amos 7:7-17 Psalm 82 Colossians 1:1-14 Luke 10:25-37

(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

There was a letter to editor in The Living Church magazine a few weeks ago. I won’t name the correspondent, and it’s not my purpose to seem to be beating up on this person, who is clearly very serious and committed. But I think the letter raises an important issue about our Christian life:

“In response to [a previous letter to the editor], the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] may be good secular goals, but they are not the work of the Church. The Church’s mission is to bring people to Jesus the Christ, for only in him can we find salvation. If some readers have forgotten the mission of the Church, they should read scripture and the writings of the patristic fathers. As the body of Christ, we are not here to fulfill a secular agenda. We may reflect Christ’s great love for us, shown by his death, passion, and resurrection, by doing good works, acting as responsible stewards of the earth, but MDGs should not be construed as our mission.”

Well, I certainly support the admonition to read scripture, though I’m not sure to what extent scripture would actually substantiate this correspondent’s point. Nor am I sure that the patristic fathers would buy this writer’s argument. The distinction between the “religious” and the “secular” that the writer seems to be drawing is very much taken for granted in the post-Enlightenment West, but it was not the assumption of the scriptures, or the Fathers, or most of Christian history, or for that matter of many other faith traditions still today (for example, Islam). The issue of “religion” I think is much more problematic than we recognize, and especially for us as Christians.

In the Gospel today we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan — well known to all of us, and perhaps one of our favorites. An aspect of the story that typically gets bit of our attention is the first part, about the passing-by of the priest and the Levite. Those who like to point out the hypocrisy of much “organized religion” particularly enjoy taking a shot here, of course. And God knows there is plenty to shoot at, both then and now. And sometimes we may feel a little discomfort, even guilt, when we are presented in this story by official religious leaders who encounter obvious human need and “pass by on the other side.” We are ashamed of their indifference or their cowardice, ashamed of our own indifference or cowardice in the face of those who are in need of our help.

But the priest and the Levite are important characters in Jesus’ story. Commentators on this parable have observed that we may rush to judgment too soon upon the priest and the Levite. We must remember that in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, while the Temple in Jerusalem was yet standing, priests and Levites had clearly defined and very important religious functions and duties. They were the leaders and assistants at the official offering of worship to the Lord God of hosts by the chosen People Israel. By law and custom, men of the tribe of Levi, whether of the priestly clans or the lesser ministerial families, were exempt from many of the day-to-day duties and hassles of the rest of the people. They had Religious Commitments. And things they were religiously forbidden to do, like, for instance, touch a dead body (or a body that looked like it might be dead, or like it might soon be dead), because contact with a dead body made you ritually unclean (according to the Law of Moses; it’s in the 19th chapter of Numbers, if you like to look up stuff like that!). The period of purification from this ritual uncleanness was seven days, during which you couldn’t go into the Temple. So for a priest or a Levite, their ability to fulfill their religious commitments was on the line here. As they passed by on the other side they may have been motivated by indifference or by cowardice, but they may also have passed by very regretfully, wishing they could help but mindful of their Sacred Office and their Religious Responsibilities to God and the whole People of Israel.

We so instinctively think of “religion” as something apart from, removed from, the ordinary realities of human existence—art and literature, politics and economics, the simple needs of human beings in trouble. The priest and the Levite had “religious obligations,” and so they passed by on the other side. Too bad about that mugging victim; but they must go and be about God’s business. Jesus is putting it to us: Just what do you think your “religious obligation” is? What is “God’s business”? Religion is not some nice, tidy, antiseptic, lofty, ethereal realm untouched by the blood, sweat, and tears of human life. Genuine religion, or, better put, a life faithful to God, includes everything that has to do with being a human being. Some things are to be affirmed and celebrated; others to be purged and healed; but all human life belongs to God and is therefore, ultimately, “religious.” The Samaritan—the half-pagan heretic Samaritan—understood what his “religious obligation” was, though Jesus doesn’t portray him as thinking of it as a matter of “religious” obligation, simply as human obligation. And Jesus’ point is, there isn’t really any difference! The righteous, orthodox priest and Levite had no idea what “being religious” is really all about. They, and many of us too, have the idea that the purpose of life has to do with “being religious.” On the contrary, from God’s point of view, the purpose of “religion” must be to enable us to have and to share fullness of life.

And so to the Millennium Development Goals, to which the church — the Episcopal Church, and the Diocese of Iowa, and we hope every congregation — is committed. Obviously these are but one set of goals among the immense multitude of human needs around the world, but they are a good and worthy and pressing set of goals to which a wide variety of people and groups and organizations and nations are pledging themselves. They are certainly not the church’s only work, but to think they are not part of the church’s work is to miss the point of this parable, to miss the point of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, indeed to miss the point of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For Jesus, and Jesus’ Father, are not really that concerned about “religion” at all.

The lawyer in the Gospel today asked Jesus the right question, but he didn’t even understand what his own question meant. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Life—full, free, authentic, eternal life—life given, life shared, life affirmed, life enabled—is what God made us for.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sermon -- 10 June 2007

Proper 5 / 2nd after Pentecost — 10 June 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45 am
RCL: 1 Kings 17:8-24 Ps 146 Gal 1:11-24 Luke 7:11-17

(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.

One of the things about St Paul which emerges both in St Luke’s tracing of his missionary work in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and in the letters which Paul himself wrote as he went about that work, is Paul’s constant awareness that he had once been a persecutor of the Church of God. Paul was not some nobody who somehow rose to prominence in this new Christian movement. Paul (or Saul, to use the Hebrew name by which he was known in the land of Israel) was a brilliant young scholar, a person of note in religious and academic circles in Jerusalem, a rising star destined to take a place among the powerful in the religious establishment of Judaea. In his detestation of this new sect, this cult, that had the unimaginably blasphemous effrontery to claim that a crucified Galilean carpenter was God’s Messiah, Saul knew no equal. He held the jackets for those who killed one of the young Christian leaders, one Stephen, by battering him to death with stones. Saul not only rounded up all the known followers of this Jesus in Jerusalem, but he got extradition warrants to bring them back from as far as Damascus. Saul of Tarsus was gung ho.

What an incredible story it must have seemed at first when it got around that Saul — having had some sort of shattering vision while on the journey — had not arrested the Christians in Damascus, but had joined them. The great persecutor is now to become the great apostle.

And yet maybe it isn’t quite so surprising after all. I’m not sure that Paul’s conversion experience (which we heard about a few weeks ago, in the reading from Acts on the 3rd Sunday of Easter) hadn’t been brewing for a long time in the back of his mind—the realization that God’s grace is a free gift and not an earned reward. But on the Damascus Road it finally boiled over, when the risen Jesus confronted him: “Why do you keep kicking against the goads?” Still, this marked a reversal of the highest magnitude. The Christian Gospel’s greatest foe became its greatest advocate.

And yet that happens over and over again. How often is it that God takes the greatest saints, not from the nobodies, the genial wimps, but from the great sinners. Augustine of Hippo, an ambitious, worldly, self-indulgent professor and would-be politician who gave up the imperial courts for an obscure bishopric—and became the greatest theologian of the western Church. Thomas Becket, a career bureaucrat whose early loyalty to the King of England was exceeded only by his later loyalty to the Kingdom of God. Francis of Assisi, a dissolute young wastrel who became for God’s sake the poor brother of the whole world. John Newton, a successful slave-trader whose once-blind heart was opened by amazing grace to the service of God. God can do something with greatness, even if it first appears in the form of great pride, even great wickedness. What even God has trouble getting much out of is mediocrity.

The greatest evils of the world are notable for their stupefying banality. Hitler was a tawdry, petty, miserable little man. He was not great. And yet he caused so much evil. Yet that’s how evil is—often dull and petty — and that’s when it is most dangerous. Evil ultimately cares only about itself, and inevitably collapses in upon itself and destroys itself; but it can take much with it into its downward swirl into nothingness. Greatness, even perverse greatness, cares about something outside itself, and that’s the raw material of love. Saul of Tarsus really did love God, even when he did not yet understand Christ’s Gospel; and so when the light finally broke for him, he had the right stuff for heroic Christian sanctity.

We settle for so little. We’re willing to be so mediocre. That may be more dangerous than we realize. To most of us it does not fall to become famous, but that does not mean we cannot have a certain greatness of soul within our own worlds, if we will not cling fearfully to mediocrity, if we will take some risks for God’s Kingdom, if we will take a chance on love, if we will take the gamble that we may be closer to God when we’re passionately wrong than when we’re boringly safe.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Sermon -- 7 January 2007

EPIPHANY 1—7 January 2007
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa
BCP: Isa 421-9 Ps 8920-29 Ac 1034-38 Luke 315-16,21-22

(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming .… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Sally Mae had finally agreed to be baptized in her little rural baptist church, and so the whole congregation gathered by the river for the event, and the deacons plunged her into the water, and she came up sputtering, and the preacher said, “Sally Mae, do you believe?” “Yes,” she gasped, “I believe.” Again the deacons plunged her in, and again she managed to croak, “I believe.” A third time she went down, and as she came wheezing up out of the water the preacher asked, “Sally Mae, what do you believe?” And she sputtered, “I believe you people are trying to drown me!”

There’s something so dainty about the way we get baptized in the Episcopal Church. I wonder if that may be a reflection of how dainty we are about the way we live our faith. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Do we, in our Christian lives, show much sign of having been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire?” At least Sally Mae knew she had really been baptized!

John’s baptism was basically a sign of repentance—a symbol of turning back to God and allowing God to cleanse from sin. And there’s no reason why we should doubt that God’s forgiving grace was active in those who received the baptism of John, and that they were given remission of sin and the grace of amendment of life.

And for a long time—especially in Western Christendom, that is, the Christian traditions of Western Europe and subsequently the Americas—the washing away of sin was the primary focus of the way we talked about Christian baptism as well. Even the Nicene Creed itself, in which “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” encourages this focus; though I would submit that in the Creed “the forgiveness of sins” is an expression of the whole of the reality of the mystery of salvation; but that’s another sermon for another time. It’s a common question in Sunday School, “What’s the difference between John’s baptism and the Christian Sacrament of Baptism?” And even so noted a theologian as John Calvin ended up replying, well, not much, really. But Calvin was wrong here. As on a number of issues.

The washing away of sin is indeed part of the reality of Baptism, but it is not the whole of it. We might even say that the forgiveness of sins comes not in the first instance, but as a consequence of the whole new relationship with God, through Christ, which is established in baptism. Let us hear John the Baptist again: “I baptize you only with water—as a sign of cleansing from sin. But there is one coming after me—one stronger than I, and I am not even worthy to tie his shoelaces for him—and he will baptize you not only with the outward sign of water but with the inward reality of the grace and presence and power of the Holy Spirit, re-creating you, re-generating you, re-forging and re-tempering you, setting you ablaze with God’s love and God’s justice, firing you with zeal for the cause of the Reign of God.”

Our big problem is that we insist on settling for so little. We want to be decent and respectable. What God has in mind for us is to make us firebrands!

The theme of the Epiphany season is the manifestation, the showing forth, of Christ to the world. In the development of the Christian Year, it was not at first the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem that was seen as the primary epiphany or manifestation, but rather Jesus’ baptism—the beginning of his entry upon his adult ministry, the beginning of his mission. In any case, “mission” has become, very appropriately, a major Epiphany theme. And the celebration of the Baptism of Christ on this First Sunday after the Epiphany—and the restoration of the tradition of making this one of the major occasions for baptisms during the year—should help us see more clearly the direct connection between our own baptism into Jesus Christ and the mission in the world to which that baptism commissions us.

You don’t have to belong to the Church to be good; there are lots of good people outside the Church (and lots of stinkers inside, just in case you hadn’t noticed!). You don’t even have to belong to the Church here on earth in order to be saved. (Though if you really care about salvation it seems like it might be a good idea to hook up with that community to which the message of salvation has been primarily entrusted!) Belonging to the Church is being part of the mission force, the proclaimers and enacters of the Good News of God’s Reign. We are the ones to whom the Gospel has been entrusted, that we may enact it in the world, and invite the world into God’s Dominion of love and joy and peace and justice and wholeness. We are God’s firebrands, sent to set the world on fire with God’s burning love, a love which seeks to reconcile the world and heal it and give it new life. The power we bear is the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, into whom we are baptized, with whom we have died and in whom we have been raised. The baptism we acknowledge is baptism for the forgiveness of sins—but not just the pardoning of our own misdeeds but the purging and healing and raising-from-death of the world. As the Church, baptized into Christ, members of Christ’s Body, we are God’s agents, God’s presence in the world, Christened as God’s anointed ones. Me! And you! Sent into the world! That doesn’t mean we have to go overseas to some “mission field”—there’s plenty of “world,” plenty of “mission field” right here in Iowa. To be the Church—that’s what Jesus wants of us. Not just to go to Church, not just to belong to the Church, but to be the Church, to be his Church, to carry out his mission in the world. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”