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, anĂ³then, 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

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sermon -- 6 February 2008

Ash Wednesday — 6 February 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 12:15 pm

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 Ps 103:8-14 2Cor 5:20b-6:10 Matt 6:1-6,16-21

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19.

One of my earliest memories as a little boy is of going to church on Ash Wednesday with my parents — in those days it would have been early in the morning — and I grew up in a very churchy family, which probably puts me in the minority among clergy — and we went up to the altar rail and the priest traced a cross of ashes on our heads and solemnly intoned, “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” (In those days everyone was “O man,” even pretty little five-year-old girls.)

Which of course reminds me of the story of the little boy (this wasn’t me!) who was playing on his bedroom floor, and happened to look under his bed, and immediately ran to his mother and said, “Mommy, remember how the priest yesterday in church said ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’? Well, there’s somebody under my bed and he’s either coming or going.” (I think it was my grandmother who told me that story.)

It seems to be the case that this line from the Book of Genesis entered the Ash Wednesday rite sometime in the later middle ages. In the context of Genesis, Adam and Eve have messed up, with the business about the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is laying on them and on the earth the consequences of their sin, and expels them from the Garden of Eden. In this sense today’s ashes are a sign of our mortality, as we will note in the prayer over the ashes in a few minutes. But an earlier and still more general theme is that the ashes are a sign of our penitence. To sit in dust and ashes is a traditional Jewish sign of repentance and mourning (and perhaps other cultures have done it too). Dust and ashes show up in Genesis, in Samuel, in Job, in Isaiah, in Jeremiah, in Ezekiel, in Daniel, in Jonah, in Esther, in Judith, in Maccabees, in Matthew and Luke, in the Revelation. And so it is a natural enough ritual sign of the repentance into which we enter with special intensity during this season on Lent.

“Repentance” is probably not the most popular notion in contemporary religious sensibility. I’m not sure the New Age goes in too much for repentance. Too bad. Get over it. If we think we don’t need to repent, just take a look at your life. (One way to start is to read the newspaper; and we mustn’t kid ourselves about the extent to which we are complicit in what’s going on in our community and in the world. Remember that denial is not just a river in Egypt.)

However, let’s also remember that God is not the King of Siam, and toadying and cringing and whimpering before God is not what repentance is about. Repentance is about changing the direction of our lives. And the change to be wrought through repentance is, put most simply and starkly, the change from death to life. Death is what Adam and Eve had chosen, by trying themselves on their own to be like God. Life is what Jesus offers us, in the good news of God’s Kingdom. (In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
[1] Or as St. Paul puts it, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”)[2]

What we may not always notice is that all of this means that we, on our own, are not immortal. Lots of folks seem to think that one of the core traditional Christian doctrines is the immortality of the soul. Not at all. Not core, not traditional, not Christian. The Biblical doctrine is, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return….But….!” We are created for eternal life, but we are given it not as our own possession, but as gift, as the grace of God.

And the conquest of death and the gift of eternal life is accomplished and shared in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why we structure our shared spiritual life in the Church as we do — our Lenten repentance is to prepare us for Easter. We turn away from our own self-sufficiency, our own self-satisfaction, and turn to God with open hearts to receive God’s gift of life, now and eternally.

[1] John 10:10.
[2] 1 Cor. 15:22.

© 2008 William Moorhead