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.