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.