Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sermon -- 30 November 2008

1 Advent—30 November 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

Isa 64:1-9 Ps 80:1-7,16-18 1Cor 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37

Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

There are fundamentally two ways in which human beings, over the years, have approached the meaning of the passage of time. Today, the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the Church Year, we are presented with both of them.

The first approach sees time in terms of recurring cycles. For example, the seasons. Out of winter grows spring, which flowers into summer, which decays into autumn, which dies into winter, out of which grows spring. The seasons change, but they keep coming round again in recurring cycles. Agricultural societies have always had a strong sense of the recurring of time, rooted as they are in the passing of the seasons and the planting, growing, and harvesting of the crops. Change, yes, but always a return. There’s always next year. As the French proverb puts it, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same.” People have sometimes focused on this (philosophers of religion call it “the myth of the eternal return”), and have seen the recurring cycles as the essence of time. Hindu and Buddhist societies in the far east, for instance, see time as a turning wheel, always coming back around again. Time is therefore a trap, a prison; and salvation consists in breaking out of the recurring cycles of the same old thing into the timelessness, the changelessness, of Nirvana.

The other approach to time sees time not as cyclical, but as linear. That is, it’s not the same old thing over and over, but rather time is something that goes from here to there in a line. (Not always a straight line, but a line!) Time marches on. You can’t go home again. You cannot step twice into the same river, as the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus used to say. Time is going somewhere. Each moment is unique, and never to be repeated. Each moment is genuinely new.

There’s a sense, obviously, in which the Church’s liturgical year expresses the cyclical aspect of time. In Advent we await the Lord’s coming; at Christmas we celebrate his birth, and at Epiphany his manifestation to the world. Lent prepares us for the celebration of his death and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter, and at Pentecost we celebrate the empowerment of the Church by the Holy Spirit. Year by year we deepen our understanding of what God has done and is doing for us in Christ by “living through” these great events over and over again. The Church year is a recurring cycle—in fact, a double recurring cycle; for while we are living year by year through the events of the life of Christ, we also observe the cycle of the saints—the festivals commemorating the heroes of the Christian Faith, the apostles and evangelists and martyrs and other signally holy ones of our history.

History. Aha! There’s the real meaning of time. And by history we mean not just a list of dates and names and places to be learned and regurgitated for a school examination—that’s not history, it’s simply chronicle. (Yet, sadly, too often that’s the way history is taught.) No, history is the realization that events have meaning, that we have a story to tell, that time is going somewhere, that there is significance to time’s going somewhere. There is a goal toward which time is moving.

And on this First Sunday of Advent we are confronted with this, too. Today’s Gospel is a picture of the end, the final coming of our Lord, the conclusion and completion of history. That picture is painted in the bizarre apocalyptic imagery that was popular in first-century Jewish thought, but it’s a little foreign to us—but that’s another story for another time! The point is that there is an end; time is linear, there is a goal to be reached. History does have meaning and significance. Indeed, unless there is an end, a goal, a conclusion, then events, and human deeds, and our very lives, are forever only provisional and thus ultimately meaningless.

“History” as such—the understanding that time does have direction and meaning—is an invention (or, I would say, a discovery) of the Biblical tradition. The pagan peoples of the ancient near east centered their religion around nature-gods, closely connected to the agricultural cycles, and the only significant time was the recurring passage of the seasons. It was the people of Israel, in their covenant relationship with the Lord as the chosen people to bring all the world to God, especially as perceived by the prophets, who understood that time does not just go around and around, or even just on and on, but that time is God’s time and leads in the end, “in the fullness of time,” to God.

The cyclical character of the annual observance of the Church’s liturgical year is really only apparently cyclical; it is actually grounded in the linear time of history. God has acted in history; indeed, it is God’s actions that have created history, that is, given meaning to the passing of time. It is God’s purposes that are being worked out through the unfolding of historical time — God’s purposes that are being worked out through our lives in this world lived in faith. It is those once-for-all actions in history that we celebrate yearly in Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. By “living through” those events year by year, we deepen our own discipleship in this present time, that we may be pointed more securely in faith to that future in which God claims all time as God’s own in the fulfillment of the divine Sovereignty.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sermon -- 19 October 2008

Proper 24 / 23rd after Pentecost — 19 October 2008
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am

Exodus 33:12-23 Ps 99 1Thess 1:1-10 Matt 22:15-22

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

The gospel today is a study in conflicting loyalties. And speaking of conflicting loyalties, we start right out with the Pharisees making common cause against Jesus with the Herodians. Very strange allies, the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were very religious. They were even more religious than God. They were very devoted to the observance of the Law of Moses, and beyond the written Law in the Torah, to a body of unwritten Tradition. The Pharisees were fiercely nationalistic, and very much opposed to the Roman hegemony in Palestine and occupation of Judea. They regarded the presence in the Holy Land of these Gentiles — who of course were not only present but were in power — as a blasphemy against God. However, the Pharisees were generally not in favor of armed insurrection against the Romans. They believed that God would intervene to save Israel and re-establish the Israelite Kingdom, and for human beings to take matters into their own hands by force of arms betrayed a lack of faith.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were not very religious at all. They were not a clearly defined party, but were people who were supporters of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch or prince of Galilee in the north of Israel. Herod Antipas was of course a puppet of the Roman Empire, and to support his rule was in effect to support or at least collaborate with the Roman overlordship. Certainly the Herodians were content with the status quo, a status quo in which they were rich and prosperous. They would have shared Herod Antipas’ aversion to religious rabble-rousers like John the Baptist and were doubtless relieved when Herod did away with John. And this Jesus seemed like one more religious fanatic that for the sake of stability and order they could well do without.

So the Pharisees and the Herodians shared this, at least: opposition to Jesus of Nazareth, though for very different reasons and out of very different loyalties. But this actually served their little plot well. Here was the deal: Confront Jesus with the issue of taxes to Rome, which were understandably unpopular with the people, first because they were taxes (!) but especially because they were paid to the Roman overlords. This issue, they thought, would put Jesus in a no-win situation. If Jesus said, yes, it’s okay to pay taxes to Rome, then the Pharisees could accuse him of disloyalty to Israel and to the Law of Moses, and thus discredit him among the people. On the other hand, if Jesus said, no, it’s not permissible under the Law of Moses to pay taxes to Rome, then the Herodians could complain to Pontius Pilate the Roman governor that Jesus was disloyal to the Empire, probably an insurrectionist, and should be done away with.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!”[1]

“Christology” is that branch of theology which considers how we are to understand the relationship of Jesus of Nazareth to God — what we mean when we talk about the Incarnate Son, or the Word Made Flesh. Some of it gets pretty boring; even I find some of it kind of boring. There are very traditional statements (and I would insist true!) such as the Definition of Chalcedon that you can read in the historical documents in the back of the Prayer Book. Some radical modern commentators prefer to talk about Jesus as a wisdom guru, or a Cynic philosopher, or an illiterate but charismatic faith healer, or whatever. A point that they often miss is that, whatever Jesus may have been, he was not stupid!

And so when the Pharisees and their temporary cronies the Herodians come to him with this little trap, Jesus sees right through it. And of course the rest of the story we know. (And have just heard!)

Sometimes this response — “Give back to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and give to God what belongs to God” — is taken as some systematic or legal pronouncement on church-state relations. As if our obligations could be neatly divided into a “religious” pile and a “secular” pile, and these are the things we owe to Caesar and these are the things we owe to God, and never the twain shall meet. This is an interpretation much beloved by those who don’t want anybody to mix politics and religion.

[Excursus: Every time the Church has acquired political power, it has been corrupted by it. On the other hand, any religious faith that does not inform every aspect of our lives, including our politics, isn’t worth holding. End of excursus.]

What is there that does not belong to God? What on earth, or in heaven, is there that does not belong to God, that is not God’s creation, that is not ultimately accountable to God and destined to be caught up and transformed into the final consummation of God’s Kingdom? “Give therefore to God the things that are God’s” — it would be interesting to see what we think that leaves out! And of course that’s exactly what Jesus means in his response to the Pharisees and the Herodians. Where is your ultimate loyalty? Where else can your ultimate loyalty lie? (And not just later, not eventually, but now!)

On the other hand, contingently, provisionally, human institutions such as political structures and governments do have legitimate authority and a legitimate claim on our proximate loyalty. Although states and nations — and churches, insofar as they are human institutions — have made and do make idolatrous claims and we sometimes yield them idolatrous loyalty, that is an abuse, not the proper use of their legitimate authority. Christians, even when they were being persecuted to death by the Empire, insisted that they were, and tried to be, good citizens. Governments exist for the sake of the common good, and thus they have a legitimate role in the building of the Reign of God. Do they often fail in this vocation? Yes, as human institutions; yes, as do we individually as sinful human beings. But as human institutions governments ultimately are us; they are the means of our corporate action, and we are responsible for them and have the obligation to try to set them right when they go astray. Thank God we live in a (relatively) democratic-republican (small d, small r) society in which it is possible for us to exercise this responsibility and fulfill this obligation, in a way that was not possible for those who lived in the Roman Empire in the first century, or in most places in the world at most times in human history. For all that our current political campaign for the Presidency has been, to my mind, tediously long and often distasteful on all sides, our proximate loyalty to our society requires that we inform ourselves and participate in the process and in the responsibility — while bearing in mind also that our actions and decisions and values should and must be informed by our ultimate loyalty to the God to whom ultimately all belongs, and whose Reign claims our ultimate citizenship.

[1] Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto VI.xvii.332-33.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sermon -- 10 August 2008

Proper 14 / 13th p/ Pentecost — 10 August 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

Gen 37:1-4.12-28 Ps 105:1-6,16-22,45b Rom 10:5-15 Matt 14:22-33

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

One of the stories that’s been passed around in the Episcopal Church in the past couple of years — maybe you’ve heard this one, but also maybe not — if you don’t hang around in the usual blogs on the Internet, that indicates that you are a person of considerably better taste than some of the rest of us — anyway, the story is about Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She wanted to try to establish a better working relationship with some of the other bishops who had not supported her election as presiding bishop, and in fact were not in favor of women as bishops at all. So she invited Bishop Iker of Fort Worth and Bishop Ackerman of Quincy to go fishing with her, a suitable thing for successors of the apostles to do. So they got in the boat with their fishing tackle and rowed out into the middle of the lake and prepared to fish. Bishop Ackerman asked, “Katharine, would you like me to help you bait your hook?” The PB replied, “Oh, thank you, Keith, but no, I know how to bait a hook — after all, I was an oceanographer before I went into the ministry.” And after a few minutes, there was a strong strike on the Presiding Bishop’s line, and she started to reel in a large, thrashing bass. Bishop Iker said, “That’s a great catch, Katharine! Would you like help landing it?” The PB responded, “That’s very nice of you, Jack, but I think I can manage. Just hand me the net, please!” And as she reeled the fish in, she deftly scooped it into the net and brought it aboard. They all agreed that it was a fine catch, and the PB then slipped the hook and released the fish back into the lake. At this point Bishop Ackerman said, “Oh, no! We forgot the beer! Look, there’s the cooler back on the dock!” Bishop Katharine said, “That’s okay, I’ll go get it. Only fair — I caught the first fish.” And she got out of the boat and walked on the lake back to the dock. As soon as she was out of earshot Bishop Iker turned to Bishop Ackerman and said, “You see? The woman can’t even swim!”

(If there is anyone here from the Diocese of Quincy or the Diocese of Fort Worth and you are offended by this story: It’s a joke. Get over it.)

“Walking on water” is one of those phrases that has become so common that I suspect there are some people who use it who don’t really know where it comes from. One of the standard items in personnel evaluation forms is: (1) Walks on water; (2) Swims in water; (3) Drinks water; (4) Drowns in water. (That’s another joke, folks!) One of my favorite lyrics from the musical play Jesus Christ Superstar (I think I’ve mentioned this before) is Herod Antipas’ line when Jesus is brought before him: “So you are the Christ, you’re the great Jesus Christ! Show to me that you’re no fool — walk across my swimming pool!” (Ironically, the appearance of Jesus before Herod occurs only in St. Luke’s gospel, which is the only one which does not include the story of Jesus walking on the water!)

So what are we to make of this story? Today we hear the version in St. Matthew’s gospel, which Matthew has taken from St. Mark’s earlier gospel, with a bit of editing and with the addition of the part about St. Peter. But this story also occurs in St. John’s gospel — clearly the same story, but told in somewhat different words. To me this clearly indicates that this is a story from early in the Jesus tradition (whether from the beginning of the tradition you can judge), well before the formation of the Markan and Johannine traditions. (We might note that in both traditions — the synoptic tradition underlying Mark and Matthew, and the tradition underlying the gospel of John — the story of Jesus walking on the sea immediately follows the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we heard last Sunday, and which is also obviously from the early Jesus tradition.) (I could have built a sermon on that connection, but I didn’t. Maybe in three years!)
So let’s see what’s going on here. When the disciples see Jesus walking toward them on the water, they are terrified. The Greek is actually a little more flexible than that: they were troubled, they were upset; and they said, “It is a phantasm!” — a ghost, or an apparition, or a vision — “we must be dreaming!” But it’s still pretty scary. Jesus says, “Courage! It’s me! Don’t be afraid!”

Then Peter, uniquely in Matthew’s gospel, does something I find a little surprising and puzzling: he says, “Lord, if that’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus answers, “Okay.” And so Peter gets out of the boat and starts toward Jesus.

What’s this all about? There’s a strong wind, the waves are tossing the boat all over the place, the disciples are already spooked as it is even before Jesus shows up, and Peter gets out of the boat?! Why on earth would he want to get out of the boat? May it not be that he’s asking Jesus to prove himself? Give me a sign! “Let me walk with you across Herod’s swimming pool!” “If you are the Son of God, let’s jump off the pinnacle of the temple!” “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” Give us a sign!

When Peter realizes what he has really done, he gets scared, he takes his eyes off Jesus, he looks down, and he starts to sink. Jesus rescues him, of course, but he chides him: “Why did you doubt?” But I don’t think Jesus means, “Why didn’t you believe you could walk on the water just like me?” (which is what we might first think), but “Why didn’t you have faith in me without asking me for a sign?” It is not God’s purpose for us and for our life in the Kingdom that we should be able to walk on water. Not even the clergy!

God has work for all of us to do — to proclaim and to model and to implement the Reign of God in the world — God’s kingdom of love and joy and peace, and goodness and truth and beauty, and justice and integrity. That’s what we need to be about. It’s not about walking on water.

And now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sermon -- 3 August 2008

Proper 13 / 12 Pentecost — 3 August 2008
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00

Genesis 32:22-31 Ps 17:1-7,16 Romans 9:1-5 Matthew 14:13-21

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Last Sunday in Track One of the Revised Common Lectionary, and for a few previous Sundays, we were traipsing about in the Patriarchal Sagas in the Book of Genesis, and today we are still traipsing. The story has moved on a little; last week Jacob had finally been allowed to marry Rachel, at the cost of having to marry Leah first. Well, then this cheery family got into a baby-making contest (and you thought the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel just happened by accident?). Leah got off to a fast start, and Rachel wasn’t doing at all well, so Rachel gave Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to be a surrogate mother so she could catch up. Leah said, Well, if that’s the way you’re going to play! and she gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate, and then Leah had a couple more sons of her own. She also bore a daughter, Dinah, about whom a little later on there is a tragic and unpleasant episode, but that’s another story for another time; it’s not very edifying or theologically significant. I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t picked up on it yet. It’s full of sex and violence. Then finally Rachel had a baby of her own (Joseph). So in the Sons Contest, counting those born to the maidservants, Leah was up eight to three. (Rachel would later have one more son, Benjamin, but she would die in that childbirth, to Jacob’s very great sorrow.)

So Jacob decided that it was time for him to take his now rather considerable family and go back home to Canaan. (Well, an angel told him to.) There are stories about all of that, too, because Jacob’s father-in-law Laban really didn’t want him to leave, and there was a bit of contention about whose sheep and goats were whose, but they finally parted in peace. But that’s yet another story for another time.

This pretty much brings us to the First Reading for today, where we find Jacob on his way home from his long sojourn with Uncle Laban in the old country.

Jacob and his twin brother Esau were on the outs (a sibling rivalry of long standing, having to do with selling birthrights for a mess of pottage—that’s another story for another time!). And so Jacob’s return to Canaan was a careful one. In the event, you’ll recall or will be delighted to hear, Jacob and Esau were reconciled and reunited in peace; but in the part we hear read today that issue is still up in the air, and Jacob, worried about his family’s safety, sends them away, and he is left alone. And in the middle of the night Jacob has his famous—and mysterious—wrestling match with a stranger who turns out, apparently, to be an angel or a manifestation of the Lord, and Jacob receives a new name—”Israel”—which in Hebrew means, roughly, “wrestles with God.”

(People’s old Hebrew names actually meant something, you know. Rather like Native American names. I once saw an ad for a T‑shirt that read “My Indian name is Runs with Beer.” I liked that. Except I don’t run very well any more, and I don’t drink beer any more. Oh well. But I digress.)

“Israel” — “Wrestles with God.” I daresay that the idea of wrestling with God, or striving, or contending, or fighting with God, is not something most of us usually think of in connection with our spiritual lives as Christians. We think of worshipping God, or obeying God—or perhaps disobeying God—but not, very often, fighting with God. At least not as something to be regarded as positive or constructive. And yet the name “Israel” has its origin in a fight with God, and the whole history of the Israelite nation can be viewed under the model of wrestling with God—and not only the Israelites of Old Testament times but even the history of the Jewish people in the Christian era. The struggle with God is a common theme in Jewish spirituality right down to our own times—for instance, in the stories by Sholom Aleichem from which the musical play Fiddler on the Roof is drawn—remember Tevye the milkman’s running argument with God?

Are we willing to wrestle with God? Do we care enough about God, and our relationship with God, and the building of God’s Kingdom, that we will stand up in protest and contend with God in our hearts? Do we love God that deeply? Are we that committed to the Reign of God? Or do we quit? Do we resign ourselves and say, “Oh, it’s God’s will” and give up, long before we can possibly have found out what God’s will really is? (Be very careful about what you say is “God’s will”!) Or do we just walk away, saying, “Well, God, if you’re gonna be like that, just forget it!”? We surrender, or we desert, but we will not wrestle. And yet with God, as in our relationships with each other, to be willing to struggle is a sign that we take the relationship and our commitment to it seriously.

The depths of the mystery of God are very great, and God will not be tamed by us. Like Aslan the lion in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, God can be very gentle and yet also very terrible. As indeed is Jesus himself (of whom Aslan is a literary figure). A major New Testament image presents God as our loving Father, and rightly so; yet God is not just good old Dad. In the depths of the divine mystery God also comes to us as the fearsome stranger summoning us to combat in the dark of the night: challenging us that we may truly grow, wounding us in order to make us truly whole, slaying us that we may truly live. Our response to this God who summons us to wrestle is to say with Jacob, “I will not let you go, until you bless me.” And thus—perhaps only thus—are we given to see who we really are, what our name really is. Only in relationship of that depth are we, with Jacob, able to see God face to face.

And now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sermon -- 29 June 2008

PROPER 8 / 7 PENTECOST — 29 June 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am

Romans 6:12-23 Psalm 13 Matthew 10:40-42

Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks, at least for a lot of us. For some of us directly, and for the rest of us at least for people we know. As I said a couple of weeks ago, we are grateful to the many people, and to God’s grace empowering them, who have pitched in to help the many who have suffered and are suffering, a lot or a little, because of the flood. This may not be a perfect community in which to live, but it’s a good community, and we thank God for that. (And we need to bear in mind that it isn’t just churchy people who have helped share the burdens — a lot of the folks just care about each other, and that’s a sign of God’s grace whether folks recognize it or not.)

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, all kinds of distressing and annoying things are going on. As Episcopalians, we tend naturally to be caught up by the Adventures in Anglicanland. I’m not quite sure what to say to you about that. On the one hand, I am a great believer in transparency in the life of the Church, and therefore I don’t want to sound like I’m telling you that the stuff that’s going on is not important and you really don’t need to pay attention and fret about it, just let the clergy worry about it! If you are interested or concerned, I’m willing to discuss these things with you and point you to a number of sources of news and information. [*] On the other hand, if your attitude is that following Jesus is quite enough of a job without being distracted by Anglican politics, I assure you that you should not feel guilty about that! In the end, Jesus is Lord and we really don’t need to fret. And in any case, most of the rest of the world — not only non-Anglicans but a lot of Anglicans too — really aren’t paying a lot of attention to our ecclesiastical internecine disputes, not compared with the multitude of real, critical human problems that face us in this world.

You may have noticed that in the case of many of these critical human problems that face us in this world, religion is not part of the solution!

In the Gospel reading today (incidentally, you may have noticed along the way that I generally do not regard the Gospel and Religion — even the Christian Religion — as coterminous. If you display them in a Venn diagram, they do overlap, but I think not as much as we often assume. But I digress.) In the Gospel reading today, from the tenth chapter of St. Matthew, we have been hearing Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about their mission of proclaiming the good news and healing the afflicted. Today we hear the conclusion of these instructions.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” Note that Jesus does not tell them, “In order for their welcome of you to count as welcoming me, they have to sign this application for membership in the Jesus Club.” He does not say, “Be sure you show your Jesus ID card first before you ask them to welcome you.” He says, “If they welcome you, then they are welcoming me — whether they know it or not. And furthermore, if they are welcoming me — whether they know it or not — they are welcoming God who sent me — whether they know it or not. ‘Whether they know it or not’ is for the Father and me to deal with — it really isn’t up to you. Your message — whether you proclaim it aloud or whether you proclaim it in your actions of healing and service — is simply 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'"

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” A Semitic locution that means “If they welcome you as a prophet because they perceive that you are a spokesman for God’s kingdom” — without passing any further doctrinal exams — then they will share in the life of God’s kingdom. And “whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person” — because they perceive in you the love and justice of God, even if they don’t yet realize that it is God who is the source of love and justice — they will share in God’s grace drawing them into God’s holiness.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple” — if you minister even in very simple ways, a moment of caring, a little help from a friend so they can get by, a random act of kindness, just because you follow me, then you will not fall short of life in the kingdom. However (the Gospel doesn’t say this, but I think Jesus means it:) “Don’t use me as a club to beat people over the head. Minister to the needs of people — not just thirst, but any need; not just children but all God’s ‘little ones’ who need our care. They don’t have to meet any preconditions. They don’t have to join the club. They don’t have to sit still for a sermon first.”

You know, there are some folks performing “Christian service” who seem to convey the attitude, “Personally, I think you are undeserving scum, but for the love of God and out of Christian duty I will help you.” Jesus says, “Don’t care for your sisters and brothers because you love me; care for them because you love them! That’s how you share in the life of God’s kingdom, and it is the life of the kingdom that is your reward.”

“As you go, proclaim the good news,” Jesus said a couple of weeks ago, “‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment, give without payment.”

And now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Thanks be to God.

[*] In the sidebar to the right there is a link my other blog, The Liturgical Curmudgeon. In the right sidebar of that blog there are links to several good sites for news and information.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sermon & Bishop's Pastoral -- 15 June 2008

Proper 6 / 5 Pentecost — 15 June 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, and 11:00

Genesis 18:1-15;[21:1-7] Ps 116:1,10-17 [Romans 5:1-8] Matt 9:35-10:9[9-23]

“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

A couple of weeks ago we decided for the summer to read just two of the three appointed Scripture lessons. I’m not quite sure why (though that’s what we always do at 8:45). Mel thought it was a good idea. Easy for him to say. He’s in Greece. Anyway, what this meant is that two weeks ago we heard Romans and did not hear the reading from Genesis, parts of chapters 6, 7 and 8. Yes, that’s right. The story of Noah.

Who knew?

But I’m not going to make Noah jokes, because this really isn’t funny. And this week it’s going to get even unfunnier.

I’m not going to go on too long this morning, partly because the Bishop has sent a pastoral letter that he requests be read today in all churches in the Diocese of Iowa, and I think what he has to say is more important and better said than anything I would say. We also may run through some extra announcements that we have gathered.

The gospel today is about the proclaiming of the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus is going about Galilee and attracting great crowds of people — evidently more than even he can handle himself. He commissions the Twelve with “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” He tells them, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

What is it we are to be about? What does it mean to follow Jesus? What are we saying when we proclaim Jesus as Lord? The reading today shows us at least some of what Jesus means when he calls us to discipleship. And it’s not what an awful lot of people seem to mean by “religion.” Proclaiming the kingdom of heaven isn’t just about going to the “good place” when we die instead of the “bad place” — or maybe not even primarily about that. (The notion of “heaven” as someplace up there, off somewhere, where God lives instead of here, is a notion we thought up a few hundred years ago — I’m not really quite sure just when — but it doesn’t have very much to do with what Jesus means by God’s kingdom.) Proclaiming, enacting, living in God’s Reign means a ministry of healing, of reconciliation, of restoration. It’s about fullness of life, about beauty and truth, about love. Being a follower of Jesus is not about me. It is not a business. We aren’t here to get anything. We are called to give freely, because we were given freely.

In times like these the basic realities of our life and of God’s call to us in this world become very vivid. By God’s grace this is a community in which countless numbers of people, people of faith and people whose faith (as we say) is known to God alone, have been and will be pitching in to help one another as we recover from this devastating flood. If you have an opportunity to help someone (or some institution or business) that needs help, I encourage you to take it; if you need help, please let us know. I’ll say a bit more about this in a few minutes. But know that this is indeed a dimension of our vocation as followers and disciples of Jesus — a dimension (at least generally if not specifically) of that for which we prayed in today’s Collect: that we be kept in God’s steadfast faith and love, that through God’s grace we may proclaim God’s truth with boldness and minister God’s justice with compassion.


Sunday, 15 June 2008

Dearly beloved in Christ,

We gather today in difficult circumstances. We are mindful of the young men lost last week to the tornado in Little Sioux City and the heroics of their friends that saved lives. We may have spent hours on the sandbag lines, saving our city downtown, or seeing our efforts less successful. We have homes suddenly caught in the middle of rivers turned lakes. Our farmers are faced with an uncertain crop and livelihood from their mud-filled, lake like fields. Our houses have taken on a distinctive odor as we continue to bail out our basements or worse.

One month ago we were grateful for the gift of water (as every baptismal liturgy helps us recall). We were celebrating Waters of Hope, and now our new web-site for blogging our stories is simply “Iowa Waters”. What needs to be said or done at this time?

First of all, we continue to wrap each other and our communities in prayer. We share this as every moment together with God. There was a photo in the Des Moines Register of a man sitting on his favorite bench yet knee deep in water and clearly out in a large patch of flood water. He was catching his breath and perhaps a moment of reflection. If praying, he could not have offered it in a more appropriate place. Prayer lifts our eyes above ourselves and it takes place in the midst of the storm, not only in quiet moments.

Secondly, we need to know that we are sharing ourselves with each other. On the sandbag line in Cedar Falls, a sixty year old Episcopal priest was sandwiched between two High School football players, who insisted on tossing her the sandbags until she let on that her strong looks may deceive and asked if he would hand them to her. We share ourselves through communicating together, which is why we have started a special blog called Iowa Waters to listen to one another. (Link through our Diocesan website, or directly to

Thirdly, we commit to a long term action of service. I was reminded that there are several stages – this watching and holding back phase; the immediate caring of the evacuees and those most affected; then the clean up crews and the planners and the rebuilding; eventually we have also decided as a Church to be present for the mental and spiritual health needs as they arise once bravery and adrenaline drop with the water levels.

Today [Friday, June 13] leaders of almost all the faith denominations held a conference call to map out how we can carry out as coordinated an effort as possible. We have offered the new web-site (Iowa Waters) which Pat Genereux put together for our communication to the ecumenical community. It is being expanded as a vehicle for news from the ecumenical community. We are talking about obtaining some volunteer coordinators in order to be ready for what we expect to be a rush of men and women eager to clean up and rebuild.
Above all we know that the Church is not the Red Cross or FEMA or the insurance business, and we need to be able to guide people for the assistance which can come from those official sources. We will wait our turn to meet longer term needs. And in the meantime pay attention as best we can to those with special needs, those without sure employment or resources, even those recently arrived in our state.

We gather then today to find God as our tower of strength, not our rescuer from hardship. As Eucharistic Prayer C says at its conclusion “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not for renewal.” These are hard words when we really need Christ’s saving embrace; when we need the Christ who calms the storm to show up on the waves. Instead He shows up on the sandbag line, with the offertory box, in our loving embraces and our resolute spirits, in our wiping away of tears, and in our stubborn willingness of faith always to give thanks for the gift of water.

Yours in the peace of Christ that passes understanding,

+Alan Scarfe, Bishop of Iowa

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sermon -- 25 May 2008

PROPER 3 / 2 AFTER PENTECOST — 25 May 2008
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am

Isaiah 49:8-16a Psalm 131 1Cor 4:1-5 Matt 6:24-34

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

I assume that most of you noticed that Easter came very early this year. As a consequence, of course, Pentecost also came very early, as did Trinity Sunday. What you may not have noticed (and to be honest, why should you?) is that today, when we move on to the remaining Sundays of the year, the “Sundays after Pentecost,” the summer-and-fall “green season,” we begin in the Sunday Lectionary with “Proper 3.” This is the earliest numbered Proper that we can use on Sundays after Pentecost. We haven’t used Proper 3 in Year A since 1979. We won’t use it again in Year A until 2035. However, today’s scripture readings are not quite that rare, because, as you may know (and if you don’t know this, please do not feel guilty, because, to be honest, why should you?), the readings for Proper 3 are a duplication of the readings for the 8th Sunday after Epiphany. The reason that’s okay is that since the 8th Sunday after Epiphany comes only when Easter is very late, it cannot happen that Epiphany 8 and Proper 3 ever occur in the same year. In fact, in the average year, when Easter occurs somewhere in the middle of the range of possible dates, neither Epiphany 8 nor Proper 3 will occur. Specifically, Epiphany 8 in Year A last occurred in 1984, will occur again in three years in 2011, and then not again until 2038. The upshot of all this is that we do not hear this Sunday Gospel reading from the sixth chapter of St. Matthew very often. Certainly not once every three years, as is the case with most of the readings from Matthew. It’s more like once every ten years.

At this point you are undoubtedly saying to yourselves, “Of all the sermons that Fr. Moorhead has preached in this parish over the years when he has supplied here, so far this has to be by far the most boring.” And of course you’re probably right. My point, however, is that the Gospel today comes from that portion of St. Matthew that we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” which is well known, and the part about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field may be one of the most popular passages. It’s odd that we don’t read it on Sunday more often. After all, is not the Sermon on the Mount one of the great expressions of Christian ideals?

No, it is not. There is nothing idealistic about the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is never idealistic. Jesus is a blunt and hard realist. Jesus tells us how it really is. And if what Jesus says doesn’t always sound realistic to us, that’s because we are the ones who don’t know what’s real. Jesus does know what’s real, and he tells us. But we prefer to live in our own fantasies and call them reality. And then we wonder why our lives are empty.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.” I suspect for many of us our initial reaction is, “Well, no fear!” Of course, we overlook the fact that by the standards of most of the rest of the world, even the most economically modest of us is filthy rich. (But that’s another sermon for another day!) We probably remember the older translations of the Bible in which this saying was rendered “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Well, that was safe. Most of us weren’t quite sure what “mammon” was and so we didn’t think we had any, and so we must not have been tempted to serve it. Yes, “mammon” is the word here in the original Greek text, but it’s not really a Greek word but a transliteration of the Aramaic word mamôn, which can mean “wealth” or “riches,” but more generally just means “property,” without any specifically negative connotations. It means “possessions.” It means “our stuff.”

Well, none of us thinks that we have chosen to serve mammon instead of God. But when Jesus starts talking about my stuff, then he’s gone off preaching and started meddling! The real choice of what we serve is not disclosed by what we tell ourselves. Each one of us is a most persuasive con artist — to ourselves. Our real choice of what we serve is shown by what in fact we do. Where do we really put our time, our talent, our treasure? We can espouse all the lofty ideals we want, but where do we really stack the chips? What are the things that we don’t quite get to because we’re “too busy”? When do we find ourselves saying, “Yes, but first.…”? How much of ourselves are we really giving to God and God’s Kingdom — and I don’t just mean “the church,” I mean God’s people, God’s world, our families, our friends, the people we don’t like or even know but who need us? “Yes, but.…” “Yes, but what?”

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” One of the themes that seems to be floating around in this country these days — especially on TV — and not just in our country — is what is called “Prosperity Gospel.” If you serve God, God will bless you — with material prosperity. Strive first for the kingdom, and you’ll have all the food and drink and clothing you want! Well, maybe. I seem to recall Jesus saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The promise is resurrection: new life, real life, eternal life. But resurrection comes only by the way of the cross. Before we can be born anew we have to die — die to getting and having and possessing. And that is a real death. In our society, we measure value quantitatively — I am what I have. My net worth is given by a balance sheet of financial assets and liabilities. We are so accustomed to everything we really need, if not quite everything we want, that we find it hard to believe that in the end none of it really matters. Not even food and drink and clothing. None of our stuff really matters, in the end. We say, “You can’t take it with you!” and we laugh about it. But that’s true. It really doesn’t matter what we have or don’t have, because in the end we have nothing anyway — nothing but our own selves before God. And what kind of selves will we be?

Jesus does not promise to make us rich. In fact, he rather clearly suggests that being rich is not all that desirable. Jesus promises to make us free. Jesus promises to make us alive, really alive, eternally alive, not just in the sweet by and by, but now, if we will choose life, if we really will be free from having-or-not-having, and strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And from the perspective of life — real, full, true, eternal life — what else in there that really matters?

Memorial Day — BCP page 839

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful
hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of
decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant
that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the
benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This
we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sermon -- 4 May 2008

7th of Easter — 4 May 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 & 11:00

Acts 1:6-14 Ps 68:1-10,33-36 1Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11 John 17:1-11

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?!!! :-)”

[Pounding forehead] “Some of you have been with me for years! You stayed together even after I was killed, until I came to be with you anew. And we have all been together for the last forty days, and we’ve been talking about the kingdom of God, and I have promised that you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit! And you are still asking, ‘Hey, is now the time when you are finally going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Do You Still Not Get It?!”

Well, actually, that’s not what Jesus said. (Though I suspect he may have thought it!) What he said was, “It isn’t for you to know either the scheduled moments or the appropriate times (the chronous or the kairous, it says in Greek) that the Father has determined by his own authority. But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power [not the power to rule over others, but the strength in yourselves to be and to do], and you will be my witnesses (we don’t know how Jesus said that in Aramaic; the Greek word is “martyrs,” but it’s not clear that the word had yet acquired its subsequent connotation of “witnessing even to the point of suffering and death”)…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…”

[“Okay, well, here we are! Jerusalem is right across the valley there!”]

“…and in all of Judea…”

[“Well, yes, sure, let’s do the whole province!”]

“…and Samaria…]

[“What? Even down to Samaria?! Do we really have to go to Samaria?”]

“…and to the very ends of the earth.”


So much for just restoring the kingdom to Israel!

We are Jesus’ witnesses. Whether we like it or not, our lives are visible testimonies to the redeeming, healing, unifying power of Jesus Christ in this fallen, broken, alienated world.

Part of what’s involved in being Jesus’ witnesses surely is paying some attention to exactly what witness we’re giving. Some of that has to do with language—what we say about Jesus. But who and what is this Jesus? The Divine Logos, the Word who was in the beginning with God and who was and is God, did not become flesh in order to be an object of religion. Jesus did not found a personality cult. The point of the Gospel is not Jesus but the Reign of God. The so-called liberal protestant Biblical scholars of a few generations ago were much too simplistic when they opposed the Gospel preached by Jesus to an alleged Gospel about Jesus preached by Paul and the early Church. But the person of Jesus is inseparable from the Gospel of the Reign of God, because it is in the person of Jesus, not only in his preaching and teaching and healing but in his death and resurrection, that the Reign of God is not only proclaimed and demonstrated but inaugurated, implemented, opened to us. But those old scholars were right about this: the point of the Gospel is not Jesus, but the Reign of God.

In the first reading this morning, the angels (I guess that’s what they were) chide the disciples: “Yo, Galileans, what are you guys doing just standing around staring at the sky?” What kind of witness do we bear when we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus? I think the Ascension of Jesus is important as an aspect of the Resurrection, and it’s good that we celebrate it liturgically, but the point is not to stand around staring into the sky watching Jesus lift off. That’s not what it’s about. What is it about? Part of it, anyway, I think, is just that Jesus is removing himself from the center of attention; just as he said to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, “Do not hang on to me,” so now he is sending his followers out to bear witness for his cause, which is the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God, the Reign of God — the whole rich and diverse treasure which God wills to share with the creation — peace, and love, and joy, and truth, and goodness, and beauty, and justice, and integrity, and wholeness. This Kingdom is not a geographical region or a political order or a power structure like an earthly kingdom but a whole new state of affairs, a new realm, a new context of life.

How do we bear witness to the Reign of God (which is what being witnesses to Jesus means)? We bear witness by living within God’s Reign ourselves. (Ay, there’s the rub!) Not just by being religious, but by being holy, which is a very different (and very much more difficult) thing: bearing witness to wholeness within a broken world — even from within our own brokenness bearing witness to wholeness that a broken world may share with us in our hope. Being persons in whom the Reign of God can be seen, and seen as credible, and seen as possible.

“You will be my witnesses.” Yes, we will. Yes, we are. For good or for ill, we will be his witnesses. Future indicative; now realized in the present; simple fact. We are his witnesses. But also future indicative, now realized in the present, simple fact: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”; and therefore we will be able, therefore we are able, to be his witnesses—in Iowa City, and Coralville and in all Johnson County, and to the ends of the earth.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sermon -- 30 March 2008

2 of Easter—30 March 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk — 10:00

Acts 3:2:14a,22-32 Ps 16 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands . . . I will not believe.”

“[The White Queen said to Alice,] Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’

“‘I ca’n’t believe that!’ said Alice.

“‘Ca’n’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’

“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”

(From Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll.)

The apostle Thomas is not good at believing impossible things. One of the impossible things he can’t believe is that dead people come back to life and visit their friends. (Yes, even in the first century they knew that was impossible!) So Thomas doubts. And at this point we can have a certain amount of sympathy with Thomas.

But there are other reasons why we doubt, besides skepticism about things we think are impossible, and some of them are probably more important in the basic issues of life. Maybe some of them were what was really behind Thomas’ doubting. Maybe some of them are what is behind our own doubting.

Sometimes we doubt out of fear. We doubt that “Proposition A” is true, because if “Proposition A” is true, then that has consequences that affect the way we live our lives; and we are afraid of those consequences and afraid of the effect they will have on our lives. So we deal with our fear of the consequence by doubting the antecedent.

Maybe sometimes it isn’t so much fear as stubbornness. We don’t want to change the way we live our lives, and so we refuse to face up to any claim that would involve changing. We close our eyes. We stop our ears. We try to drown it out by running our own mouths. We distract ourselves. We change the subject. We ridicule. We go into denial. We doubt.

And maybe sometimes it’s neither fear nor even just simple stubbornness. Sometimes maybe it’s conscious, willful, self-centered, self-satisfied pride. We just ain’t gonna believe because we just ain’t gonna let anything but ourselves be at the center of our little worlds. Nothing and nobody is gonna define my reality for me but me! Our doubting is an act of defiance. Here we’re getting into the realm of the sin against the Holy Spirit; it’s a good way to go to hell.

I don’t know where Thomas was in this picture. I think not in the last category, defiance, nor even in the second, stubbornness. Perhaps in the first, fear. I don’t know where you are; I’m not even sure where I am.

But they are all stages in faithlessness, and faithlessness is the issue which Jesus addresses when Thomas finally sees him. “Do not doubt, but believe. . . . Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (The English translations usually fumble this verse, which in Greek plays on the word that we translate “faith” or “belief.” “Do not be an unbeliever, but a believer,” reflects the play on words; “Do not be faithless, but faithful” is much more on target. Mé ginou apistos alla pistos, the text says.) (Don’t let it be said that the sermons in this church aren’t multi-cultural!)

“Faith” is not the willingness to believe six impossible things before breakfast. “Faith” has to do with trust, it has to do with being willing to be open to, being willing to accept, being willing to receive, the life-giving power of the Risen Christ. It has to do with being willing to let go of our fears, our stubbornness, our pride. It has to do with being willing to let our lives be changed. If we are not willing to let God raise our lives through Jesus Christ, I’m not sure it matters a whole lot whether we believe that God raised Jesus or not. If we are willing to receive the power of new life through Jesus Christ, then his resurrection is indubitable; we’ve experienced it ourselves.

In the Gospel today Jesus says to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and he gives them power over the brokenness of human life. And that’s really the text and the issue in the Gospel for today. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus gives us the power to live within the Reign of God; he gives us the power to proclaim God’s Reign to others; he gives us the power to enact the Reign of God in this world. Jesus not only gives us the power, he gives us the commission, the mandate, to do so. And that, I think, is where we really start doing our serious doubting.

This applies to each of us personally, individually, but it also applies to all of us corporately as the Church, and to you as a congregation—especially now as you reflect on your challenges and opportunities as a worshipping and ministering community. “Receive the Holy Spirit” for the work of the Reign of God in this place: that’s a promise, that’s a promise that’s already been delivered on. Will we accept it, will we receive it, will we believe it, will we let ourselves be transformed by it? Will we trust God? Or will we let our fears, our stubbornness, maybe even our damnable pride keep us among the doubters? You in this parish, and all of us throughout the church, we can be what God calls us to be; we can do what God calls us to do. We don’t need anything we haven’t already received. “Receive the Holy Spirit … Do not be faithless, but faithful.… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sermon -- 9 March 2008

5 LENT—9 March 2008
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa—10:00

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-45

“I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live!”

Long, long ago (though not in a galaxy far far away, but just on the other side of our own planet!), God called Abraham to leave his home and father in Mesopotamia and to go to a new land, where, God promised, he would become the ancestor of nations. And, in faith, Abraham went. And his family prospered and multiplied in the land of Canaan.

Yet famine drove his descendents south into Egypt, where they were eventually reduced to slavery. But God liberated them from their bondage, with great signs and wonders, and God gave them the Torah, the holy Law, to teach them how to live, and God promised, “You will be my people and I will be your God.” And God brought them back to their own land.

Again they flourished; and from among them God raised up a shepherd boy to be king. And God promised David, “Your dynasty shall reign forever over my people Israel.” And David’s son Solomon, the next king, built a great temple, where the Name of the Lord God of Israel might dwell, at Jerusalem in the midst of God’s people.

[Pause] And now that temple lies in smoldering ruins. The land lies desolate and abandoned, pillaged by the heathen Babylonians. And the People of God languish in exile. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The promises have all come to naught. God has forgotten us. If indeed God is even there. All is lost.

But God has not forgotten; and in far-off Babylon God speaks to the priest Ezekiel: “Mortal, Ben-Adam, Humanchild, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel says, “You know, Lord God.” And God says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”

In the Gospel today we see another of Jesus’ signs. Now, Jesus’ miracles are never just “wonders” to astound the onlookers, they are always signs which point to the breaking in of the Reign of God; they are effective signs which themselves inaugurate the breaking in of the Reign of God. In the case of the raising of Lazarus, we see and experience the glory and power of God, and that it is God’s will and purpose, indeed, God’s very nature, to give new life to God’s people. If Jesus were concerned only for Lazarus and for Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha, he could have arrived in time to save Lazarus from death. Jesus makes rather a point of not arriving in time, actually, and is reproached for it by Martha and Mary. But God had a more important vocation for Lazarus—to be someone in whom the glory of God would be shown forth.

The raising of Lazarus was not an ultimate resurrection—that is, Lazarus was resuscitated and restored to his previous state of life, but later on in due course he would die again. But it was a real raising from a real death—Jesus waited until he had been dead four days—so that everyone would understand that Lazarus was really dead. The Gospel, the good news, is not just that God can rescue us in the nick of time, but that the power of God can reverse a final situation. Lazarus was dead—stinking dead—and Jesus called him out of his grave. And Lazarus came out.

And that’s the Gospel. That’s the Good News. God raises the dead. The Gospel is not just about some sort of personal immortality in which our souls survive somehow in some sort of afterlife. The Good News is not that somehow everything will be patched up. It is not that we can go back to some Good Old Days. It is not just that we can escape this vale of tears, or somehow get through it with minimal damage. There is no such promise. God’s promise is that we, and this whole vale of tears with us, our whole valley of dry bones, will in Christ become a new creation, raised and brought to fulfillment. This new creation, this new life, is fully accomplished only at the consummation of the ages, but it begins in us now. We do not escape death (in any of the many ways the power of death intrudes and encroaches upon our lives)—but we pass over from death to new life, risen life, through the death-conquering Passover of Jesus. The power of sin and death and hell is not escaped, it is not avoided; it is finally and forever broken. And although the fullness of the realization of this victory is not yet, the beginning and the promise and the effective sign of it are already. God can raise us from the dead now.

As we think about this in terms of our common life and mission as Christians in the world, and as you think about this as your Christian parish community in this place in the world, let us think on this: When Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out of there!” ol’ Lazarus could presumably have just lain there and replied, “Oh, no thanks, it’s okay, I’m comfortable this way, this is how we’ve always done it, so if you don’t mind I’ll just lie here and stink.” But he didn’t. Lazarus came out of there.

This Lent—as indeed always—Jesus is calling to us: “Come out of there!”

“I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live!”

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sermon -- 2 March 2008

4th Sunday in Lent — 2 March 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk — 10:00

1Sam 16:1-13 Ps 23 Eph 5:8-14 John 9:1-41

“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

This text, from today’s Epistle, the Letter to the Ephesians, seems to be a line from an early Christian hymn that St. Paul is quoting. And it’s a very apt summary of the good news, the Gospel. “Once you were darkness,” the apostle says; “but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”

There’s something almost inevitable about the symbolism of light and darkness. There’s nothing esoteric about this symbolism — it’s very immediate. We use it all the time. Darkness is a symbol for ignorance, for instance, and light for knowledge. “I’m completely in the dark about this,” we say; “let’s shed some light on the problem.” But light and darkness are also symbols of moral value — goodness and evil, truth and falsehood, reality and nothingness. This is familiar to us, too — remember the old western movies where the villains all wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats and rode white horses?

The New Testament makes much use of the symbolism of light and darkness — especially the Gospel according to St. John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
[1] So St. John’s Gospel begins. And John explains further: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.…And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil love the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”[2] And Jesus himself proclaims, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[3]

We see this in action in the dramatic healing and subsequent encounter with the Pharisees that is related in the Gospel for today. Jesus heals a man who has been born blind. An unheard-of thing! But we need to bear in mind that Jesus does not heal the man to create awe and wonder among the onlookers. Jesus never performs stunts of that kind — that’s not what his miracles are about. Nor does Jesus do it simply out of compassion for the blind man, although certainly Jesus does have compassion for him and is concerned that he be made whole. The miracles of Jesus are always signs — that is, they point beyond themselves, they are indicators of the Reign of God. They are signals that God’s Reign is breaking in, and they tell us what that Kingdom and its King are like. So it is that Jesus points out at the beginning: “Look, this man’s blindness is not a punishment for his sins, or his parents’ sins, or anybody else’s sins. God doesn’t do that kind of thing!” That’s worth repeating: “God doesn’t do that kind of thing!” “But this man’s blindness is an occasion in which God’s great love and power can be shown.”
[4] For the Reign of God is a realm in which people find healing, wholeness — God wants us to see — really to see — and to be filled with the light of the Kingdom of God.

The healing of the blind man provokes a big squabble with the Pharisees — that sect of Jews who were very devout and very committed to the Law of God — so much so that they had gotten the notion that they had some exclusive franchise on being devout and committed to the Law of God. And they were all out of joint because this healing wasn’t done according to the Rules. For one thing, it was done on the Sabbath Day, when you were forbidden to work. And for another, this Jesus had no credentials as a healer. He wasn’t licensed. He wasn’t ordained. He wasn’t a Pharisee. The Pharisees were so concerned about their own system of religious rules that they could not, would not, see the power of God even when it was right in front of their eyes. The Pharisees are the blind ones. And Jesus then: “My coming into the world is a judgment — that those who cannot see may be given sight, and that those who claim that they see may be shown to be blind.”
[5] In what ways are we choosing to remain blind? What are our favorite little systems that keep us from seeing what God is doing right in front of our eyes?

God wants us to see. God wants us to know the truth about God and about ourselves, and to be filled with God’s truth, God’s life, real life forever in God’s kingdom. but we cannot receive God’s light if we continue to try to walk by our own light. Only as we recognize our own blindness can God open our eyes. Only as we admit that we are dead can God raise us to newness and fullness of life.

It’s significant that in the early days of the Church, Baptism was often spoken of as “enlightenment” or “illumination.” That’s what Jesus Christ is to be for us — illumination, the healing of our blindness, the opening of our eyes to the glory of the Reign of God. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. By him we see and can walk the highway of the Kingdom of God into fullness of life. But we must turn away from darkness, and receive God’s gift of learning to look, and to see, and to live.

[1] John 1:1,4-5.
[2] John 3:17,19-21.
[3] John 8:12.
[4] John 9:3, my translation/paraphrase.
[5] John 9:39, my translation.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sermon -- 24 February 2008

3 Lent—24 February 2008
St John’s, Keokuk — 10:00

Exodus 17:1-7 Psalm 95 Romans 5:1-11 John 4:5-42

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.

Suppose that one day you are dusting off some old decorative bottle that you picked up at a garage sale somewhere, and suddenly there’s a billow of smoke, out of which appears a genie who says, “O Master O Mistress, your wish is my command! You are granted three wishes!” What would you wish for?

The “genie in the magic lamp who grants your three wishes” seems to be a universal part of our common cultural heritage, and keeps showing up over and over. Remember the old TV series with Larry Hagman as the astronaut and Barbara Eden as Jeannie who lived in a bottle? (Thanks to Nick at Night and TVLand, I can talk about old TV shows to young people and they still know what I’m talking about!) A number of years back, the Walt Disney folks got Robin Williams on board and did very well with a genie! I also recall a TV commercial in which this Indiana Jones type fellow discovers an antique lamp, which he rubs, and the genie pops out and grants him three wishes. First the fellow wishes for great wealth, and is immediately surrounded by piles of gold and jewels. Then he wishes for the adulation of women, and is immediately surrounded by a harem. Finally he wishes for long life, and the genie with a smirk turns him into the Energizer Bunny. So be careful with your wishes! You might get them!

There’s something about this “genie in the magic lamp who will grant your three wishes” that really hooks us. I suspect that this fantasy is not too uncommon, at least among children. As adults we realize that too much of that kind of really off-the-wall fantasizing probably isn’t too healthy (don’t we?!)—it tends to sap our sense of responsibility for our own lives—but we can at least remember those childhood dreams, and after all it’s also not healthy to get too far out of touch with our childhood. And we have our own grown-up modern version of the genie-in-the-bottle fantasy, anyway. It’s called the Iowa Lottery.

So what would you wish for? Maybe a million dollars. That’s straightforward! And there’s lots of very constructive worthwhile things that you, or I, could do with a million dollars! (The word for the day is “tithe”!) I remember that when I was a child I fantasized a wish for 20/20 vision. (I’ve worn glasses since I was seven, and it got to be a drag fairly early on, and it just gets worse!) But then, I also remember that when I was in college in the early sixties, the Air Force had a heavy recruiting campaign on for reserve officers who would agree to take flight training—ROTC had too many desk jockeys and not enough pilots—and at the time I said to myself, gee, I love to fly; if I had good eyes I’d take them up on that. And I probably would have. That would have put me on active duty just in time to fly B-52s over Hanoi. (With great respect to the men who did that, many of whom did not come back and some of whom came back only after many years in prison camps, I don’t mind passing on that opportunity.) So be careful about your wishes! You might get them! On the whole, our wishes—even our most fantastic and extravagant wishes—tend to be petty, narrow, shortsighted, and not really very imaginative after all.

I was put in mind of all this by the Scripture readings today—readings which remind me also of the Prayer Book’s Collect for the first Sunday in October, in which we pray, “Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve.”

Look at the Old Testament Lesson. The people of Israel have escaped from Egypt, principally through God’s mighty intervention on their behalf at the Red Sea; and now, free at last, they are trekking across the Sinai wilderness toward their ancestral homeland. And what are they wishing for? Water. Well, sure, they need water. But considering what they’ve just been through, you’d think they’d have a little more faith and trust than that. The Reign of God and of God’s Righteousness were still singing in the air, and here the Israelites are, already, whining, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink?” No wonder God was ticked! (The Psalm today is an expression of how ticked God was. Made ‘em keep wandering in the wilderness until all the whiners had died off.) And maybe this event was in Jesus’ mind when he said, don’t be so anxious about stuff like that.

The Gospel today shows us the Samaritan woman at the well. A well-known story from St. John, who likes to tell long stories about Jesus—we’ll get a couple more of his in the next two weeks. John tells longer stories than Matthew and Mark and Luke do! Anyway, here’s Jesus promising the poor woman the water of eternal life, and all she can think of is not having to make so many trips to this darn well. If she could have had her wish, she would have settled for indoor plumbing. Jesus was offering a whole lot more than indoor plumbing!

What do we really want from God? (Be honest, but be mature—no silly stuff.) What do we really want from God? Me, I’ve got a pretty good sense of what I deserve (maybe not a good enough sense of what I deserve, but at least an inkling), and my desperate hope is that God will give me a break!

But what does St. Paul say today? “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” While we were yet sinners—petty, nasty, obnoxious, and altogether undeserving—Christ died for us. Our vision—even for ourselves—is so narrow! And God’s love for us is so broad—so far beyond anything we might ever wish for ourselves, so far exceeding anything we can even desire for ourselves, much less deserve! Like the Israelites, we sit in the desert and whine about being thirsty, and nag at God to save our lives; God says, “Save your lives? I’m going to transform your lives!” Like the Samaritan woman, we’d like indoor plumbing; God offers us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life! We want God to give us a break. God wants to give us an Easter!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sermon -- 17 February 2008

2 Lent — 17 February 2008

RCL: Gen 12:1-4a Ps 121 Romans 4:1-5,13-17 John 3:1-17

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

“Like father, like son!” A familiar remark? How often do we condemn with faint excuse-making: “Well, what do you expect? I mean, look at the family he comes from!” Kind of a snotty thing to say, and certainly not universally valid — good strong families sometimes produce very strange children, and wonderful people sometimes come from quite peculiar backgrounds — our children are not entirely either our accomplishment or our fault! But as a general observation “Like mother, like daughter” does have some force. Our families do have a lot to do with the kind of people we are. After all, Jesus himself said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.…Thus you will know them by their fruits.”[i] To understand the present, and certainly to have any vision of the future, we must see and understand our roots in the past. We must know where we’ve come from. Thus the critical important of history as a subject for human knowledge. As has often been observed, those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. (And there may be a special circle of purgatory reserved for those schoolteachers who have made “history” dull! — a dry shell of lists of dates and places — which is mere chronicle, not real history at all. Real history is fascinating, because it’s a storyour own story, and it tells us who we are.)

But doesn’t all this suggest that our lives are in fact predetermined — that we are prisoners of our family background, our heredity, our environment, and our own past, and that our lives are simply the playing out of a script that has already been written for us? The answer to that is No — but a qualified No. Our backgrounds have a lot to do with who we are, but they don’t have everything to do with who we are. Despite all the formative influences upon us, at our core we are free: we have the capacity to make our own choices and decisions. We can choose how and where to commit our lives.

But in making that choice, by ourselves all we have to go with is our heredity, our environment, and our own past. We are free, but on our own there really aren’t all that many options! And so, however free we may be in theory, in actual practice, the way it works out in real life, we really are very much products of our families, our towns, our friends, our schools, our culture and its communications media — we are in fact to a remarkable and perhaps even dismaying extent conditioned by our heredity and our environment and our history.

Or, as Jesus said, “What is born of the flesh is — flesh.”

We are what we are. By ourselves that’s all we are, and all we can be.

But we are not by ourselves. We are not on our own. What is born of the flesh can only be flesh, but what is born of the Spirit is spirit. We are indeed formed by our heredity, our environment, and our past, but we are free, and what makes our freedom meaningful, what opens us up to the future instead of trapping us in the closed circle of the same old same old, is the presence to us of the grace of God. That is to say, in the power of God’s own gracious presence to us, we can have a whole new start, in which the determining power of the past is broken. We can be converted. That is the essence of spirit — openness to the new, to the beyond, to the transcendent, to the absolute, to the infinite, to God.

There are various ways we can talk about the reality of the offer of this new start, this breaking out of the determinisms of our own past nature. St. Paul, for instance, especially in his letter to the Romans, talks about “justification by grace through faith.” (This is what he’s getting at in the Epistle today, in his typically abstruse way!) Jesus, on the other hand, tends to use images that are more homey, if no less profound: “You must be born from above.” The word translated “from above” (in Greek, anóthen, if you care!) has the sense of “from the top,” “top to bottom,” not just “again a second time” (though that’s what Nicodemus hears) but “all over again from the beginning.” You must be born anew. You must be reborn. Of water and Spirit.

The immediate reference — which the first hearers and readers of John’s Gospel were expected to recognize immediately, and we too are expected to recognize and we usually do! — the immediate reference is to Baptism: the sacrament of new birth in which the water is the outward and visible sign of the inward reality of the Spirit. In the first centuries of the life of the community of the followers of Jesus Christ, set in the socio-politico-cultural context of the hostile pagan Greco-Roman Empire, admission into the Christian community, the Church, through baptism really was an experience of a whole new birth into a whole new world, the installation of a whole new “operating system,” entrance into the Kingdom of God. This really was new life, liberation from a closed world of stagnation, oppression even to slavery, and despair. In the world we inhabit — a world superficially Christianized, though certainly no more than that — our experience of Baptism is not as dramatic, but our need for it is as great, and the contrast between the old life of mere human flesh and new life in the Spirit is just as profound, if perhaps not as obvious.

But Baptism is a sacrament. It is not magic. And the ultimate reference to which today’s Gospel and the Sacrament of Baptism point is the birth from above, the birth anew, the birth all over again, wrought in us by God the Holy Spirit — what St. Paul calls “new creation” for those who are in Christ.

In the grace and power of that new birth we are delivered from the shackles of heredity and environment, prisoners of our past, flesh producing only flesh, free only for a Hobson’s choice of our own self-conditioned selves. We are brought forth into the freedom of the Reign of God, in which the gift of an eternally open future is ours for the claiming.

[i] Matt. 7:17,20.
[ii] 2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:15.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon -- 10 February 2008 (Evensong)

1ST IN LENT — 10 February 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 5:00 pm (Jazz Evensong)

Psalm 103 John 12:44-50

“I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” [John 12:47]

Last fall a study was published that indicated that among 16- to 29-year-olds a very large percentage (in the 80’s) perceived that Christianity was, among other things, judgmental and hypocritical. We might immediately get all defensive, and say, “But no! Christianity isn’t like that at all! These respondents obviously don’t understand what Christianity really is!” But these numbers did not reflect only non-Christians; a full half of churchgoing young people reported they had the very same perception. [1]

Interestingly, on the whole these respondents reported a much more positive attitude toward Jesus himself than to the present Church, which they often perceived as being “unChristian.”

Well, obviously we aren’t doing our job very well. Or perhaps we don’t really understand what our job is as Christians. People don’t just make up these perceptions of judgmentalism and hypocrisy. And although it would be easy — cheaply easy — to point the finger at various other communities of Christians (“Well, maybe they are judgmental and hypocritical!”), I think we need to recognize that we as Episcopalians bear our own share of responsibility for the flaws in Christian witness as it is widely perceived today. And our own witness is the only one we can control.

This evening we hear Jesus say, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”

Some things to notice here in what Jesus says. Jesus makes clear here, as indeed he often does, that his ministry is not about himself, it is about God, and about the Reign of God. Over the centuries, an awful lot of folks seem to have gotten the idea that Christianity is a religion about Jesus. (Sometimes that gets blamed on St. Paul. I think that’s a bum rap. But that’s another sermon for another time.) Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to think that he is founding a religion about himself. Jesus seems to think he is proclaiming and enacting the Kingdom of God. Jesus is always pointing beyond himself to the Father, the God who sent him.

Further, when Jesus talks about “believing in him” he doesn’t mean “assenting to a set of theological propositions about Jesus.” Theological propositions about Jesus may have their importance in due course, but they are not in themselves what Jesus was up to. In fact, using theological propositions about Jesus as a gatekeeper into “believing in Jesus” is a good way of condemning many to remain in the darkness. What Jesus means by “believing in him” is believing in the coming Reign of God, trusting in the Good News that Jesus is proclaiming, repenting — that is, allowing God’s grace to turn our lives from our own self-centeredness, our drive for our own power and control, and turning and giving ourselves into the love and the justice of God and thus being opened to the fullness of human life — now, and forever. This has to do with human wholeness. I don’t know how much it has to do with “religion.”

Today is the First Sunday in Lent — a season in which we prepare for the Easter celebration through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to turn our hearts more fully to God’s love manifested in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But our Lenten observances are not religious exercises in themselves — although prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are always good things and if we think we never need to bother with them then we do need to take a much closer look at ourselves — but ways of enacting our repentance, turning from our devotion to ourselves to an openness to the life and love of God.

As we commit ourselves more fully and deeply to the Reign of God, and not to our own judgmental religious constructs, perhaps the world will be able to see more clearly not only Jesus in us, but through Jesus the love and justice and eternal life of God into which God calls us all.

[1] The Barna Group, September 27, 2007. (Accessed 2/8/2008). The Barna Group is a research organization that appears to have an evangelical Christian orientation, The studies which they post on their website are very interesting, and a bit troubling. While I am inclined to question aspects of their statistical surveying, I suspect that the numbers they report are not too far off. If this is the case, some of their studies indicate that very many Americans are, at least religiously, dumber than a box of rocks.

© 2008 William Moorhead

Sermon -- 10 February 2008

1st in Lent — 10 February 2008
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00 am

RCL: Gen 2:15-17;3:1-7 Ps 32 Rom 5:12-19 Matt 4:1-11

[He] was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin. [Proper Preface/Heb 4:15]

I’d like to see a show of hands. How many of you here have been tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread? Okay. Now, how many of you have been tempted to jump off a high building so that everybody would see the angels rescue you? Okay. (I don’t think I’ll ask how many have been tempted to fall down and worship Satan in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world!)

Well, let’s turn to the first reading, the Garden of Eden story. How many of you have been tempted to eat an apple that you weren’t supposed to eat? Okay, now how many of you have been tempted to eat a fudge brownie when you should have eaten an apple instead? Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere!

The Scriptures today are about temptation and sin—appropriate enough for the First Sunday in Lent! But is it at all clear what these two stories have to do with us—with me and my life, with you and your life? Maybe I’m a little dense, but aside from the generic “temptation” motif (Adam and Eve yielded to temptation and that was bad; Jesus resisted temptation and that was good), it’s not immediately obvious that these stories are about us. Snakes and apples and stones and bread and the pinnacle of the temple? (Some of you may already be ahead of me on this, because of course these stories are about us. Hopefully we’ll see why.)

Let’s take a look at what’s going on in the story from Genesis this morning. (And let’s be clear that these stories from the early chapters of Genesis do not have anything to do with astrophysics or geology or paleoanthropology. That’s not what they’re about. They’re about who we are, and our relationship with God, with each other, and with the world we live in, and in that respect they are true stories.)

The man and the woman have the care of the garden, and the run of it, except that they may not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the serpent comes. But notice: the serpent does not say, “Hey, why don’t you guys defy God?” And the serpent certainly does not say, “Defy God or I’ll bite you!” He says (the serpent is the most subtle of all the beasts), “Did God really say not to eat that fruit? Oh, surely you must have misunderstood! This is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! Its fruit will make you wise—just like God!” Oh, well now! We must indeed have misunderstood! Surely God wants us to be wise! And what I want for myself must certainly be what God really wants for me! So—crunch!

Nor does Satan come to Jesus in the wilderness and say, “Jesus, give it all up! Tell God you don’t want to be the Messiah after all!” (Do any of you remember The Last Temptation of Christ — a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis made into a movie by Martin Scorsese a number of years ago? When the movie came out there was a lot of silly fussing by some Christians who should have known better. By all means read the book or rent the video, if you want to. Just be aware: Kazantzakis and Scorsese didn’t get it about the temptations of Christ.) Satan doesn’t come to Jesus saying, “Jesus, don’t be such a religious fanatic. Go home. Get married. Have kids.” No, no. Satan says, “Of course you’re the Son of God! And you want to be a good son! You want to bring in God’s Kingdom! You need to make sure you’re strong and fit and prepared! Get the energy level up for your ministry as the Messiah! Make yourself a sandwich! And besides, people are starving all over the world—and you can feed them! You can do it! People are lost, they don’t have anything to believe in—show them the power of God! Prove that miracles still happen! And some people just cannot live in peace, there’s hatred and bigotry and terrorism and ethnic cleansing—put an end to it! Enforce God’s righteousness! Make them straighten up, or else! You can do it! You’re the Messiah! You’re the Son of God! It’s for God’s Kingdom—do whatever you have to do!” Unlike Adam and Eve—indeed, in reversal of Adam and Eve—Jesus says No. Jesus knows it’s all a lie, that Satan is The Liar.

What’s going on here? In the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—for us that may sound very intellectual, like being an expert scholar in the fields of ethics and moral philosophy—but then we’re Westerners, products of Greek head-tripping and Roman legalism. For the Hebrews, knowledge is not just intellectual and cognitive, but personal and experiential, heart-and-gut-knowledge and not just head-knowledge. And “the knowledge of good and evil” means universal knowledge, knowledge of all reality. And knowledge is power. The Hebrews were acutely aware of that. “The knowledge of good and evil” is universal power, utter self-sufficiency. The man and the woman could be their own gods, at license to do their own thing, accountable to no one, no longer responsible to anyone but themselves. That’s “the knowledge of good and evil.” The issue is control. The issue is power.

In the wilderness: Satan doesn’t try to talk Jesus out of being the Messiah. He wants to turn Jesus into a corrupt Messiah. Jesus too is tempted by power—ultimately the same temptation which confronts the man in the garden comes around again to The Man in the wilderness. Magical power. Manipulative power (off the pinnacle of the temple! Is that a media event or what?). Bread and circuses. And political power; and if all else fails, there’s always the military option. Whose Kingdom does that build? Not God’s, says Jesus. Whose kingdom are we really building? The real issue is control. The issue is power. I want to be, I have to be in control of things. We’re going to do it my way.

Yes, these temptation stories are about us. Because they aren’t about eating apples (or even primarily about breaking commandments), or about turning stones into bread. They’re about the temptation to control, the temptation to power. Satisfying ourselves, buying influence, impressing others, manipulation, using leverage, clever management, subtle extortions, imposing my agenda. Getting you to do what I want you to do—even for your own good, even when it really is for your own good—instead of what you freely choose to do. I’m not talking about open debate, considered deliberation, cogent argument, inspiring example as a way of inviting people freely to change their minds or their actions; I’m talking about getting an edge. Oh, yes, that’s us. It’s you. It’s me. And, brothers and sisters, it has been the Church — and still is.

In the garden we were tempted to power, the power of knowledge, the power of worldly wisdom. In the wilderness Jesus said No to the temptation to power—the power to manipulate people into the Reign of God by magic or PR or legislation or force. The only power of the Reign of God is the power of love itself, the power of truth, the redemptive power of suffering.

No more than that is needed. No less than that is sufficient.

© 2008 William Moorhead