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