Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sermon -- 1 November 2009

ALL SAINTS DAY — 1 November 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Wisdom 3:1-9 Psalm 24 Revelation 21:1-6a John 11:32-44

Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.

If we look at the Calendar of the Church Year in the front of the Prayer Book (that’s pages 19–30 for those who would rather page through the Prayer Book than listen to me!) we see the listing of those saints’ days that are Major Feasts together with a whole lot more that are called Lesser Feasts. The Major Saints’ Days celebrate figures from the New Testament; the Lesser Feasts are commemorations of people a few of whom are Scriptural but mostly are post-Biblical, including some even of our own generation. (Well, at least of my generation!) And as we look through them, we note that these were pretty much all people who were famous, or at least in retrospect historically significant.

And yet: “sanctity” (or “sainthood”) isn’t supposed to be about being famous, it’s supposed to be about being holy.

Although, in order to be celebrated by others for being holy, at some point one’s holiness has to be well known!

How does one get to be recognized officially as a “saint,” or at least make the list in the front of the Prayer Book?

As you may be aware, the Roman Catholic Church has rather an elaborate process for canonizing saints (that is, putting them on the official list). One of the criteria is that you have to have at least two verified miracles ascribed to your intercession, which is proof that you really are in heaven and thus a Real Saint, not just cooling your heels in purgatory like the rest of us. (No, don’t ask me to defend that theology!)

See, here’s how this scenario goes: Blessed Fred and Blessed Susie are both on the track to sainthood, they each just need one more authenticated miracle. The Joneses have a critically ill child, and they appeal to Blessed Fred for his prayers. The Rodriguezes also have a critically ill child, and they appeal to Blessed Susie for her prayers. The Jones child is suddenly and inexplicably healed. The Rodriguez child dies. The Pope by and by canonizes Saint Fred. Susie languishes among the merely Blessed. The Rodriguezes are pretty thoroughly bummed out. They picked the wrong Blessed. But they aren’t nearly as bummed out as the Stanislawskis, who also had a critically ill child and who appealed both to Blessed Fred and to Blessed Susie, but their child died anyway.

Does anyone else share my profound discomfort with this whole scenario `and what it implies about God?

There are three ways of looking at what a saint is:

1. A saint is somebody famous. Well, I think we understand that that’s not necessarily the case, although as a matter of fact in order to become an official saint (with a day in the calendar) you do have to have gotten yourself noticed by the folks who make these decisions. But when we sing a song of the saints of God and we mean to be one too, we probably don't mean primarily that we want to be famous and have a day in the calendar, and so we can still be in the running to be saints even though we probably won’t be well known or have a day in the church calendar.

2. A saint is somebody very religious and churchy. Well, this can be a little off-putting, because most of us are not very churchy most of the time (although we go to church and work in the church), not very religious (not that we aren’t faithful believers, but our lives are lived in the secular world), yet an awful lot of the saints in the calendar are religious and churchy folks, monks and nuns and priests and bishops and theologians. And this isn’t too surprising, really, since the folks who make the decisions about recognizing official saints — whether it’s the Pope or the General Convention of the Episcopal Church — are to a great extent religious and churchy folks themselves. But we understand that being a saint is not necessarily to be religious and churchy, and so we are still in the running for sainthood, and there is still not any reason why I shouldn’t be one too.

3. A saint is somebody who is morally perfect, or at least mostly so. Aha. This one catches us. This is the one that is operative in the protest, “Hey, I’m no saint!” (as if sainthood were too lofty to be aspired to by mere us). Here’s where we feel cut off from the whole sainthood business. Because we are sinners. We are a long way from moral perfection. Oh, we are repentant sinners, I hope, recovering sinners if you will, but still obviously sinners. And thus we are the opposite of "saints," as in the self-evident polarity of “saints and sinners.”

Well, the fact of the matter is, the saints were sinners too. And not just before they became saints. I don’t want to suggest there is no connection between moral virtue or righteousness, and sanctity or holiness. On the contrary. But sainthood, sanctity, even holiness, is not defined primarily by moral perfection. St. Jerome, the great fourth-century theologian and translator of the Latin Bible, was a notorious grouch. His contemporary St. John Chrysostom (one of my personal patrons, by the way, his feast day is my birthday), the great preacher and Patriarch of Constantinople at the end of the fourth century, was a virulent anti-Semite. St. Bernard, the great medieval monastic reformer, teacher and writer, also preached a Crusade against the Muslims. (Thanks a lot, Bernie, that was very helpful!)

My point is not to deconstruct the great saints of our tradition, but just to observe that it is not moral perfection that distinguishes them from the rest of us. We are, after all, not justified by our own works, but by the grace of God. And that’s what marks out the saints — they are beacons of God’s grace, even in the midst of their imperfections. The love of God shines in their lives, even with all their warts and all.

And that is our vocation as well — whether or not we are ever well known in the church or the world, whether or not we have some position in the institutional church or in organized religion, even as our lives continue to be an ongoing struggle against our besetting sins and moral flaws — to be nevertheless people through whom God’s love shines to enlighten the world.
They lived not only in ages past,
there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me
and I mean to be one too.
And so, by God’s grace, may we all.

[“I sing a song of the saints of God,” words by Lesbia Scott; Hymnal 1982 # 293.]

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sermon - 25 October 2009

21 PENTECOST / PROPER 25 — 25 Oct 2009
Trinity — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

Job 42:1-6,10-17 Ps 34:1-8,[19-22] Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 10:46-52

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

You may have noticed — or you may not have noticed, and that’s okay too! — that for the past few weeks we have been taking our first reading from the Book of Job. Four Sundays. Not a lot for a book that is 42 chapters long, but it’s more than we had before. And I think Job is worth some attention.

How many of you have actually read all the way through the Book of Job? [A number of hands raised.] That’s good — but those of you who haven’t, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about it. It starts out fairly easily but then gets a little harder. I do encourage you to give it a try.

The Book of Job addresses the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” You may be familiar with a book from a few years ago, with pretty much that same title, written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It’s a very good book, and I commend it, although he doesn’t really solve the problem; but then, neither do any of the rest of us. (Including the Book of Job itself!)

Job is apparently based upon a middle-eastern folk tale, which we see reflected in the first two chapters (three weeks ago) and then the last part of the 42nd chapter (which we hear this morning). In the story, Job is a man of great wealth but also of great virtue and faithfulness to God. Well, one day the heavenly host comes before God, and the Satan — in Hebrew ha-satan, which means “the accuser” or “the adversary,” sort of “the Devil’s advocate,” but he isn’t to be identified with “the Devil” yet — the Satan says to God, “Well, yes, this Job fellow is very faithful to you, but why shouldn’t he be? Look at all the stuff he’s got! Let’s take it all away from him, and see how faithful he stays!”

And God says, “Okay.”

(Yeah, I know. Just go with me on this, we’ll come back to this later.)

So the Satan sets it up that Job loses all his flocks and herds and camels to rustlers and to lightning storms, and all his hired hands are killed, and then his seven sons and three daughters are all killed by a tornado, and finally Job himself is struck by loathsome sores all over his body and he is left sitting in the ashes, and his wife tells him, "Curse God and die!" But “in all this Job did not sin with his lips,” it says — Job remained faithful to God.

Along come Job’s three friends to console him. And they have a great dispute in superb Hebrew poetry for the next 29 chapters, in which the friends argue, “Admit it! You are guilty of some great sin, that’s why God has done this to you!” And Job says, “No I’m not! I'm innocent!” And then a fourth friend pops in, and he chews on Job for six chapters more. Then out of the whirlwind God intervenes and answers Job, “You don’t know what you’re taking about! Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who do you think you are?” And God then goes on in this vein for another four chapters, and it’s really a quite wonderfully impressive celebration of God as Creator. And then today we hear Job’s reply, “Okay, I finally get it! I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you — I now see the mystery of you, I see that you are not to be called into account. Therefore I despise myself and repent, for I am but dust and ashes.”

This first part of today's reading is the conclusion of the poetic discourse that began between Job and his friends, and then continued from God to Job, and ends today with Job’s reply. The rest of the reading today is the final resumption of the old prose folktale with which the book began 42 chapters earlier. God restores Job’s fortunes — twice as many flocks and herds and camels as he had before, and a new family of seven sons and three daughters.

Well. How nice.

Too bad, I guess, about the first set of kids.

So after hearing God blithely let the Satan take all Job’s stuff and kill his children, we’re now supposed to think that it’s all okay because God gives Job a new set of stuff? [*] That’s right, it’s a cop-out. At least on the surface.

Please understand that I am not trying to put down the Book of Job! On the contrary, Job is a very complex and sophisticated reflection on the suffering of the innocent, perhaps the first really sophisticated such reflection in all human literature. And I include, maybe even especially include, the naïve or pseudo-naïve telling of the folktale with which the Book of Job begins and ends. There is significant dissonance between the folktale, and especially its conclusion that we hear today in the second half of the reading, and all that has gone on in the poetic dialogues up through the first part of the reading. And we should not assume that the author of Job just didn’t notice this dissonance! This book wrestles with very hard questions about God, and God’s power, and God’s justice, and God’s love. And to say, as I would say, that the Book of Job does not successfully resolve these hard questions is not to disparage it: we don’t successfully resolve them either. But we can be enriched by sharing in this book’s wrestling with the reality of suffering and evil in the world and the ultimate justice of God.

But we do have one advantage, one that the author of Job did not have (and one that presumably would not have occurred to Rabbi Kushner either): We know the cross of Jesus Christ. (And his resurrection: but first his cross.) God does not manipulate our suffering in the world — God shares it with us.

That doesn’t make it any easier; in fact, it may make it harder for us. There are no easy answers for us. There are no easy answers for God either.

[*] At one of the services a child cried out at this point, "No!" which of course was quite right!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sermon - 4 October 2009

Proper 22 / 18 Pentecost — 4 October 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 Ps 26 Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 Mark 10:2-16

One of the good, and sometimes exciting, and sometimes challenging things about the Revised Common Lectionary is that it forces Old Guys like me who serve as supply priests in other parishes not to just dive into the sermon barrel and dust off a homily that I’ve preached before. Actually, some years back for this Sunday, I wrote what I thought (and still think) was a pretty good sermon on the Gospel reading for today. In those days the reading was just the first part, about marriage and divorce; it hadn’t had the second part about “Let the little children come to me” added yet. I wrote it for a parish I was supplying, and then three years later I dug it out and preached it again (over at Waterloo, as a matter of fact). But it seemed to me that at this present point in the life of the Episcopal Church, we probably don’t really need another sermon about sex, particularly from a visiting priest!

So then I looked at the Epistle, from the Letter to the Hebrews. But Hebrews is not easy to preach from, since it’s really a fairly complex essay and doesn’t lend itself to reading in short snippets, as the Gospels do (even John, although they are longer snippets!), and even Paul’s letters, although it helps if you are aware of his overall argument. (Don’t rely on quotes from Romans without bearing in mind the whole letter!)

And then I thought, well, it’s St. Francis’ Day, and we’re blessing the animals, so maybe I should talk about the animals, and so there immediately came to mind a thing that was on the internet lately. Maybe some of you have seen it — two churches across the street from each other, having a church signs duel. (By the way, this posting was entirely an internet construct, and never occurred in real life. You can create and post a church signs duel like this yourself. Here are the URLs: )

[In the sermon as given, this posting was described.]

In the past, on Sundays we have never read much from the Book of Job. There was one year when we picked up on the “I know that my redeemer lives” verses, and another Sunday when we heard the part near the end where God tells Job to stop whining, and yet another Sunday when Job gets it, and repents, But these are bits and pieces and the context isn’t very clear, and there’s no attempt to wrestle with what the Book of Job as a whole is about. Now, at least in Track One, we have a four-Sunday sequence (which is still just bits and pieces, but it’s still a sequence) in which we hear the beginning of the story (today), next week we hear a representative sample of Job’s lament, then the week after that the part closer to the end where God says, “Just who the heck do you think you are?” and then finally in 3 weeks the end where Job repents and gets all new stuff. That’s a start, anyway. So let’s go with it.

“Stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to his face.” The Lord said to [the] Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

How many of you have read the Book of Job (all the way through!)? [A number of hands are raised.] Good! But I’m not trying to make the rest of you feel guilty or ashamed! It really is quite all right, and very understandable, if you never have read Job, or even if you tried you never finished it. (My guess is that some of you have read it more often, and more deeply, than I have!) But let’s face it, five or six chapters in you are very likely to say, “This is heavy going!” But I encourage you to persevere! Take notes — it helps if you can keep track of who is saying what. Chapters 3 through 37 are long poetic dialogues between Job and his friends.

Do not try to read the Book of Job this afternoon while you are also watching the football game.

I have absolutely no idea what a rock-hard fundamentalist Biblical literalist would make of the Book of Job. (Even ordinary conservative evangelicals have pretty much the same problems with it as the rest of us.)

Basically the Book of Job is about “Why does bad stuff happen to good people?” It may represent the first time — at least the earliest instance of religious literature — that seriously tries to deal with this question, or is even aware that the issue exists. Probably — not certainly — Chapters 1 and 2, and the last part of Chapter 42, are, or are derived from, an older middle-eastern folk tale, which in our Bible is in Hebrew prose, and then Chapters 3 through 37 are Job’s poetic dialogue with his friends who come to console him and explain to him why God is letting all this bad stuff happen to him. Job doesn’t buy it. Chapters 38 through 41, also still in Hebrew poetry, is God challenging Job for challenging him. Then in Chapter 42 Job says, “Okay, I give up,” although it’s not entirely clear why he should, and then in the last part of Chapter 42, back to the old prose folk story, God gives back to Job all the family and property and health that Job had lost in Chapters 1 and 2.

No, this is not at all satisfactory, for a whole variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that Job’s original family of sons and daughters are still all dead. But that’s a question that will arise for you in three weeks on Sunday the 25th. And for me, too, since I am scheduled to preach in Iowa City that day!

The reading this morning leaves out most of Chapter 1. That’s where God grants to the Satan (ha-satan, the adversary, the accuser, sort of God’s inspector-general, not yet The Devil) the power to take away all of Job’s flocks and herds and finally even his children. Even so, Job does not blame God for his misfortune. Then in Chapter 2, which we hear most of this morning, the Satan gets permission to ramp up to step two in the testing of Job, and he takes Job’s health away from him. That’s more than Mrs. Job can stand. But Job himself remains faithful to the Lord.

Incidentally, when I was in seminary, we put on a production of Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.” based on the Book of Job. I played J.B. Typecasting, no doubt. The classmate’s wife who played J.B.’s wife (“Curse God and die!”) gave a very moving performance.

Okay, let's review this story. Job is filthy rich, but he is blameless and upright, and he has seven sons and three daughters, as it goes on to say in the part that gets left out of the reading today. (I don’t see anything nefarious in that omission, it’s just a matter of editing for length.) Well, the “sons of God” as they are called — the heavenly court, the angels, whoever they are — not “Sons of God” in the sense that Jesus is — get together and the Satan says, “Well, sure Job is blameless and upright! Look at all the stuff he has. But take it away and we’ll see how long he stays blameless and upright!” And God says to the Satan, “Okay, take away all his stuff. Just don’t hurt Job himself.” Then a series of disasters follows, and Job loses his 500 oxen and 500 donkeys, and then his 7000 sheep, and then his 3000 camels — together with all the servants who took care of them — and finally all his children who are killed while they are having dinner together when a great storm blows the house down on top of them. (Hmm. Job lives in the "Land of Uz".... Naaahhh….) And in all this Job did not sin. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Then we come to the next part, that we hear this morning. Not having been successful in the first round — foiled in his attempt to prove that human beings are faithful to God only as long as God is faithful to them — the Satan gets God’s permission to continue in a second round, and to strike Job’s own body, save only his life. Yet even now Job does not sin; he does not curse God.

Well, I hope we see there are some problems in all this. Do we want to say that God is a God who can pull this kind of stuff on us (or specifically allow this kind of stuff to be pulled on us)? I certainly don’t want to say that. And yet it’s true that Stuff Happens, and God doesn’t seem to stop it. What are we to make of that? We have to admit that we know people — and sometimes we are people — who are God’s fair-weather friends. If God does not take care of us, why should we care about God? If God abandons us, why should we not abandon God?

We do need to remember that the God in whom we believe is not first of all the God of the Bible; first of all we believe in the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And yet this God also let Jesus die on the cross. God raised Jesus from death, but first God let him die. God will raise us from death, but first God will let us die.

This is hard stuff. There are no easy answers, and the Book of Job does not provide any easy answers. It makes an honest effort, perhaps the first honest effort, and it offers us a lot to meditate on and to pray about, but my judgment is that in the end it does not succeed. I think that ultimately Chapter 42 is a copout, though I guess we’ll all see in three weeks what we think about that!

Jesus is not in this story. Not yet. And in our own story, in this story when it has become our story, Jesus is the center, Job is prelude. But it’s still very hard stuff.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sermon - 13 September 2009

PROPER 19 / 15 PENTECOST — 13 Sept 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Proverbs 1:20-33 Psalm 19 James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

We call this incident “The Confession of St. Peter” and we also celebrate it every year as a holy day on January 18, as well as on this Sunday every three years and also in August of Year A, in Matthew’s telling. It’s a turning point in the course of Jesus’ ministry. Before this, in Mark’s narrative, Jesus has been puttering about the Galilee in the north of the land of Israel, teaching, healing, gathering his followers, proclaiming the Reign of God. From here on out, things take a more foreboding turn: it’s right after this that Jesus turns south, to Jerusalem, and although the teaching and healing continue, the conflicts with the religious establishment intensify, and more and more Jesus himself becomes the issue, until matters finally reach a crisis in Jerusalem at the Feast of the Passover.

But at this point, where we are in the Gospel today, the sun is still shining and the birds are still singing, and trooping about the highways and byways of the Galilean hills is still something of a lark for Jesus’ followers. As we have seen in the Gospel readings this summer, from the early chapters of Mark mostly, Jesus has been proclaiming God’s Reign, and not only proclaiming it but enacting it, performing the signs of the Reign of God, what we might call the signs of the Messiah.

And so now Jesus and his friends are hiking around up north of the Sea of Galilee. (Near where today the borders of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon meet, the area we call the Golan Heights. In Jesus’ time this was not within Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great [the Herod who was King of Judaea when Jesus was born]; it was in a district ruled by another son of Herod the Great, Antipas’s brother Philip. Philip had rebuilt a city and renamed it for Tiberius Caesar as a way of currying the Emperor’s favor; the city was renamed “Philip’s Caesartown,” or, as it was actually put in Latin, “Caesarea Philíppi.” As distinguished from Caesarea Maritima, on the Judean Mediterranean coast. And as distinguished from Caesarea of Cappadocia, in the highlands of eastern Anatolia. Actually the Roman Empire had more towns named “Caesarea” than we have “Washington” in the United States. And for much the same reason. But I digress…)

Anyway, Jesus and his friends are walking down the road, and Jesus says, “So. What are they saying about me?” As it happens, people are saying a lot about Jesus, some of it pretty much off the wall. “Well,” say the disciples, I heard one guy saying he thought you were John the Baptist come back to life.” (John the Baptist had recently been arrested and then executed by Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, the brother of the Philip who had built Caesarea Philippi. [Are you getting all this? It’s a little like the episode summaries on the websites of the TV dramas — sometimes it’s hard to keep track!] Remember Salome and the dance of the seven veils and John Baptist’s head on a platter? Of course, some of that is in the Gospel and some of it is Richard Strauss. [I’m digressing again, aren’t I?] Anyway, that was still hot news just then, and some people thought Jesus was the Baptist come back to life.)

And, the disciples went on, “Some other people are saying that you’re the prophet Elijah come back from heaven.” Elijah, you recall, was the great prophet of the Kingdom of Israel, and been carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot, and it says in the book of Malachi that Elijah will return before the final Day of the Lord. So. If you’re following the reading sequence in the Daily Office Lectionary, we are currently wading into the Elijah saga.

Anyway, the disciples went on, “Some say you’re one of the other prophets come back to life — or maybe ‘The Prophet Like Moses’” predicted in Deuteronomy — whom many expected the Lord to send to bring in God’s Kingdom.

“Mmm,” says Jesus. “But what about you? You’ve been with me for a while now. You’ve heard what I’ve said. You’ve seen what I’ve done. Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter, as so often the spokesman, answers him, “You are the Messiah.”

I’m not sure our English Bibles always catch the full flavor of that reply. Oh, the translation is word for word — Su ei ho Christos — “You are the Christ.” But what does Peter mean by that?—when he actually said it, not in Greek but in Aramaic? “Christ” (Christos) is a Greek word, meaning “the anointed one,” and it translates the Hebrew Mashiah or Aramaic Meshikha, “Messiah,” “anointed one.” But for us Christians almost two thousand years later, “Christ” has simply become the common title for Jesus, almost his surname; for Peter to say “You are the Christ” seems perfectly obvious to us. It wasn’t obvious for Peter. What did Peter think he was saying when he said “You are the Messiah”? And why does Jesus seem not exactly tickled to death about it? Why did he tell them not to talk about it?

For Peter, “Messiah” means “savior-king.” The Messiah is the one whom God is going to send to rally the people, purge the sinners, expel the imperial Roman occupation army, and restore the nation of Israel to its glory. The Messiah is the one who is going to come and fix everything for us.

And, in effect, Jesus says, “Not me.”

Jesus goes on to explain that he will be rejected, and finally put to death; and Peter says, “No way! Not God’s Messiah!” And Jesus says, “‘No way!’ to you, Peter—you’re the one who is opposed to God. What you mean by ‘Messiah’ is not who I am. That isn’t what I’m doing here. I am not the one who is going to come and fix everything. You’re going to have to learn a whole new definition of what God’s Messiah is, because I have come to die on a Roman cross.”

Much of the Church, through much of our history, and probably most of us at least much of the time, range ourselves on the side of Peter; and thus we are not on the side of God but of corrupt self-seeking humanity. Because we expect that God is a God who is supposed to come and fix everything for us. We demand that of God. And the plain truth is, God doesn’t do that. Oh, in the ultimate end, in the fulfillment of the Reign of God, all will be well. But in the meantime, God doesn’t come and fix everything. We still lose, we still suffer, we still die.

But winning, and power, and having everything fixed for us, is not what life is about. We live by giving our lives away. That’s the Gospel. Listen to what Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s God’s truth. That’s the kind of Messiah Jesus is, one who gives it all away. And what God gives us in this life is not any promise of success, or prosperity, or health, or satisfaction, but limitless opportunities to give our lives away to each other. What God gives us is limitless opportunities to give our lives away to each other, because that’s what it’s really all about.

And it is really — almost — just as simple, and just as difficult, as that.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sermon - 23 August 2009

PROPER 16 / 12 PENTECOST — 23 August 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 a.m.

1Kgs 8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41,43 Ps 84 Eph 6:10-20 John 6:56-69

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” an old French proverb runs. History is a fascinating tension of change and identity, of continuity and discontinuity. I myself think that people are pretty much the same as we have always been — human nature as such isn’t a lot different now from what it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago, or two thousand years ago. But the world has changed, in important ways. It really has. And the world has changed in two senses. First, the actual conditions of the world have changed. The world itself is a different place from what it was just a few generations ago. This is largely the result of the building of the infrastructures of human society. Much that was formerly wilderness is now under cultivation. (Some real problems arise from this, but I’m certainly not suggesting that in itself this is a Bad Thing!) Communications with virtually any place in the world are instantaneous, and very difficult to impede. Still new to many of us is the notion that from your own telephone — in your own home or in your pocket! — you can call directly to almost any other telephone in the world. And travel to anywhere in the world isn’t that much more difficult (only somewhat more expensive!). (I’m still not quite used to all the ordinary folks I run into who want to tell me about their trip to China or Russia or West Africa. It used to be a big deal just to go to Chicago!)

And as a direct result of all this (what we might call the “infrastructural change” of the world), the second sense in which the world has changed is that we perceive the world in a different way. Our technology has brought the world largely (not completely! but largely) under our control, and we assume that things will continue in this direction. The world is the venue of human action, the object of human manipulation, configured by human infrastructures.

In the world when the New Testament was being written, and in fact in the world in any pre-modern period, people had a much clearer sense of their world, their universe, as a personal living environment — not a dead impersonal thing to be used, and manipulated, and exploited. Even the stars of the heavens were seen as gods, or powers, or angels. Nature around us was often (not always, but often) seen as the habitat of spirits, and of demons. The world was enchanted.

The “modern” view of the world, which began to be operative somewhere along about the sixteenth century — in part because of the foundational scientific work of people like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others who demonstrated that we are not at the center of the universe, that nature obeys discoverable rational laws and not just the whims of the gods, or even God, and (more arguably) that human consciousness is the measure of reality — this “modern” view dis-enchanted, de-divinized, de-spiritualized, de-demonized, de-personalized the world. Now, that’s not all bad! Sometimes we get very romantic about (for instance) Native American, or African, or Aboriginal Australian perspectives on our relation to the natural world, and indeed there is much wisdom among these peoples. But the enchanted, personalized, divinized world of pre-modern societies can also be a place of fear and terror, where human beings are at the mercy of famine and flood, ravaged by disease, tossed to and fro by the whims of gods and demons over whom they have no control and whom they can only desperately try to placate by magic or sacrifice. (Well, we’re still at the mercy of famine and flood, but at least we now understand that in large part it’s our own fault.) For our forebears, the world was different than it is for us, and not always for the better. The “modern,” scientific, technological view of the world brings with it (or should bring with it; it certainly demands) a maturity, a sense of responsibility, which is appropriate and necessary to our full stature as human beings created in God’s image. Superstition is not a fitting stance or behavior pattern for the children of God redeemed by the blood of God’s Christ! But clearly also there is a very real danger of overemphasizing and overestimating our own competence and our own degree of control over the world, and we very easily assume that the evils of the world just need a little more applied technology, a bit of sociological adjustment, one more Federal program, and everything will be made well again.

St. Paul is telling us this morning — for our purposes I’m assuming Paul wrote the Letter to the Ephesians; there’s a fair amount of serious and legitimate dispute about that, but for the moment let’s just go with it — St. Paul is telling us that the enemies of the Kingdom of God are not just private evils and personal sins; something much more is at stake. (And thus Christian faith is not, cannot be, must not be concerned just with personal morality and private spirituality.) (Bishop Katharine said this a few weeks ago and a bunch of people beat up on her about it. But of course she was right. She reads Paul.) Paul talks about “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” — within his own world framework what he’s talking about are demonic spirits, and that’s probably not the way we’d put it; nor should it be the way for us to put it, I don’t think. But the truth is that there are powers of evil which are bigger than private hearts; the evil of the world is greater than the sum of its parts. Technologies, ideologies, “isms,” political and economic structures, vested interests, communications media, public opinion polls, the infamous “They” (as in, “They say that...”) — all of these can be “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”

Against all this we as Christians are called to stand.

And as the evil against which we must stand and struggle is larger than our own personal petty sinfulnesses, even, apparently, larger than all our own personal petty sinfulnesses put together, so we cannot rely simply upon our own strength, our own wisdom, our own virtue. They aren’t enough. They are too easily corrupted. No, St Paul calls us to rely on “the whole armor of God.”

But let us note carefully what that armor is (listen to St Paul again): “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Here are God’s weapons: truth, righteousness, the good news of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God. Not our own swords, but only the “Sword of the Spirit.” We cannot use evil’s own weapons against it. In this realm of what ultimately matters, we cannot fight fire with fire. We don’t need any more Crusades, no more wars of religion, no more inquisitions, no more persecutions. God’s Kingdom is served not by power and force and craft, but by humility and patience and love. And always, in all things, by constancy in prayer, through which the powers of evil within ourselves are vanquished by God’s grace, and we, ever more closely conformed to the Reign of God, are strengthened as faithful soldiers of the Cross of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on Absalom

Here's another -- and much better! -- sermon on David and Absalom from last Sunday. This is by the Very Rev. Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St. Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow.
A hat tip to the Mad Priest ("Of course, I could be wrong..." who passed this on.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sermon - 9 August 2009

PROPER 14 / 10 PENTECOST — 9 August 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am

2Sam 18:5-9,15,31-33 Ps 130 Eph 4:25-5:2 John 6:35,41-51

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!”

I have commented before — I think it was to you last summer, but perhaps it was in another
parish — that one of the great opportunities of the Revised Common Lectionary, and particularly Track One thereof, is that we read great stories from the Hebrew Scriptures at the Sunday Eucharist, stories that in the past never quite fit in with the rest of the Sunday readings. (Well, they still don’t fit in, but we no longer care!) Of course we have always read them if we have some systematic way of reading through the Bible, such as the Divine Office (Morning and Evening Prayer), By the way, the Office Lectionary just this Friday and yesterday caught up with the David and Bathsheba story we read at the Eucharist on the last two Sundays; and for fun I got the old Gregory Peck-Susan Hayward movie from Netflix and watched it last night! Yeah, well… Very Hollywood. An interesting take on the story, though. An imaginative incorporation of some tales from elsewhere in the Books of Samuel. Somewhere there a Strict Rule that Hollywood can never do a story from the Bible straight.)
For the next two weeks the Office Lectionary will be working through the Absalom saga, of
which we get just a little piece today. Which is the downside of Track One of the lectionary. The Absalom story goes on for eight chapters (beginning with Chapter 13 of the Second Book of Samuel), and it is a rich, fascinating, and complex tale. I encourage you to go home today, or this week, asking yourself, “What was that Absalom business all about?” and take your Bibles and start in with 2nd Samuel 13. It’s a story that has inspired other stories — I think of the novel Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner, which I’m sure some of you have read and I suspect others of you have not read (not yet; that would include me!).

The Absalom saga is a story about how we manage to mess up our lives by a series of bad
decisions. And the fact that they may have been well-intentioned at the time really doesn’t help. The roots of it are actually a consequence of the Bathsheba story; you may recall last Sunday we heard the prophet Nathan chew David out about his murder of Uriah the Hittite, and he said, “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house.…Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.…” (In the movie the prophet Nathan was played by Raymond Massey, so you know this was serious business!) What goes around comes around, and it starts coming around when David’s son Amnon has the hots for his half-sister Tamar (his half-brother Absalom’s full sister). Well, the Hebrew text says he “loved” her, and that’s how it’s usually translated into English, but “had the hots for” seems to be more to the point, since it quickly becomes clear that “love” is not the issue. This is not a Sunday School Bible story, by the way. So if the kids would like to color on their bulletins for a while now, that might be a good idea. (We might also note that the folks who talk a lot about “the Biblical doctrine of marriage” might want to explain themselves a little more clearly.)

Anyway, Amnon manages to get Tamar up to his room, where he rapes her, and then in disgust throws her out. (The biblical scholar Phyllis Tickle includes this passage as one of the Bible’s “Texts of Terror.” Yes.) When King David finds out about this, he is very angry, but he — does nothing. Amnon is his firstborn and heir-apparent, the “crown prince.” And after all, David is hardly on the moral high ground, as you will recall from the last couple of weeks. Still: Absalom is not only enraged at his brother for having violated his sister, he is also deeply angry with his father for not doing anything about it. Absalom bides his time, but in due course he engineers Amnon’s murder, and then flees into exile. The story goes on; ultimately Absalom comes back to Jerusalem, but he is already plotting rebellion to dethrone and replace his father David. And by the time we get to today’s part of the story, Absalom is leading an open revolution; he declares himself king at Hebron (where David had originally become king in Saul’s place before his conquest of Jerusalem). David flees to the Jordan valley, and Absalom occupies Jerusalem. (There is a whole series of intriguing little subplots in connection with all this. This is not a simple story!)

Well, now, comes the great climactic battle. The royal army of David — apparently mostly men of Judah, David’s own tribe — defeat Absalom’s insurgents, apparently mostly Israelites from the northern tribes. (The tension between the northern tribes of Israel and the southern tribe of Judah goes back long before the division of the kingdom following the death of King Solomon.) Absalom himself gets his hair caught in a tree. We learned earlier [14:26] that Absalom had a magnificent head of hair, which he cut annually, and the hair trimmings weighed five pounds; so let this be a lesson for you boys: Get a haircut! (Not a problem for some of us.) But I digress. Absalom gets his hair caught in the branches of an oak tree as he rides under it (Israel in those days was heavily forested, before the loggers and the sheepherders over the centuries turned it into a desert; there’s an environmental lesson in that; but I digress again). Today’s reading leaves out a few verses of plot here; it’s actually David’s general and all-purpose hit-man Joab who first plunges three javelins into Absalom’s heart, before his flunkies finish him off. We might note that Joab has a long history of
being David’s hired gun: it was he who killed King Saul’s general Abner after the death of Saul; it was he who set up the death of Uriah the Hittite at David’s order. Joab was the guy whom David used to keep his own hands clean of blood. Now after the death of Absalom David can mourn the death of his son, in a scene which is well known, and deeply touching, the deep grief of a father who has lost his son — a grief which is, alas, not an unknown experience in any age. But we should also realize that David’s grief should not be taken completely at face value. In the chapter after today’s reading, Joab challenges David about this — he reminds me of Dr. Phil: “David, what were you thinking? We all just risked our lives to save your throne, and you’re whining about that faithless brat of a boy. Get over it!”

I said at the beginning that the Absalom saga is a story about how we manage to mess up our
lives by a series of bad decisions. And the fact that they may have been well-intentioned at the time really doesn’t help. I think this is the appeal of David especially among the figures of Jewish history recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. A great leader, a hero, most certainly, but a very real and deeply flawed human being. Intensely devoted to the Lord God of Israel, and yet over and over he keeps finding ways to mess up — for which he must pay very high and painful prices. Just like us? Well, I hope that we are not just like him. But, alas, we too manage to mess up our lives by bad decisions, if usually, I hope, in less catastrophic ways. But in any case, I hope we understand that God is with us — God is with us even when we abandon him. God will not save us from our own consequences, as he did not save David. But God does not leave us. God stays with us. God weeps for us. God loves us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sermon -- 2 August 2009

PROPER 13 / 9 PENTECOST — 2 August 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.

2 Sam 11:26-12:13a Ps 51:1-13 Eph 4:1-16 John 6:24-35

The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

A few Sundays ago over at Trinity in Iowa City I was observing that one of the features of the Revised Common Lectionary that we are now following is that it takes the Old Testament readings seriously as stories, indeed our stories, not just as some kind of prophecy of the Gospel reading for the day. That’s fine. The downside of that is that sometimes the stories themselves are fairly long, and so we don’t always get the full picture in any one Sunday. The selection from Second Samuel this morning assumes we remember last Sunday’s reading. We have to recall that the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s generals in the Israelite army, was named Bathsheba? Remember Bathsheba? Well, David had an affair with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, and then arranged to have her husband Uriah killed in battle against the Ammonites. But at the end of today’s reading the lectionary gnomes leave out the final part, another ten verses or so, after David confesses his sin: the Lord still punishes David by striking his and Bathsheba’s baby with a fatal illness. How just of God! (I’m not at all sure what the fundamentalists make of this story. I suspect that those who interpret the Bible strictly literally probably haven’t actually read it.) The story of David and Bathsheba was made into a fairly awful movie with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward back when even I was very young. I’ve put it in my Netflix queue. So we’ll see!

I have absolutely no idea how to link this story with the Gospel today. But it’s an important story for its own sake.

In the Gospel we have been hearing about the feeding of the five thousand. The folks got fed last week, you recall, as we switched from St. Mark’s Gospel to the sixth chapter of St. John to hear his account of the feeding. (The feeding of the multitude is the only story, apart from the Passion narrative, that occurs in all four Gospels. Actually, it occurs six times in four Gospels. But I digress.) This Sunday we continue working through John’s sixth chapter, and we will keep that on for a few weeks yet, hearing Jesus' discourse about the Bread of Life, before going back to St. Mark at the end of the month.

So today the folks catch up with Jesus again after the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus tells them, "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." (Not because you put your faith in the in-breaking Reign of God, but because you got your own perceived needs met.) "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." God does not always agree with us about what is really important, or about what we really need.

Well, then, the folks go on, "what must we do to perform the works of God?" And Jesus replies, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."

Believe in Jesus. What's this about? I've come to the conclusion that "believing in Jesus" is one of the most misunderstood notions in the Bible. "Believing in Jesus" is not the same thing as assenting to certain doctrines about Jesus. I don't mean that doctrines about Jesus aren't important, or that what the Church teaches about Jesus isn't true, or that we shouldn't believe them. I just don't think that's what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Believe in me." I also don't think Jesus meant anything very much like, "Accept me as your personal savior." I don't mean that personal commitment to Jesus isn't vitally important, I just mean that I don't think Jesus intended to present himself as an object of religion. Being doctrinally correct, and having a personal relationship with a savior, however important they may be, can still be ways that we satisfy our own perceived needs rather than commit ourselves to God's cause. When Jesus says, "Believe in me," I think he means, "Believe in the message I am telling you, believe in the word I speak to you as God's Word, believe in the Kingdom of God which I am proclaiming and enacting among you, believe in me as the one who embodies God's Reign." To believe that Jesus is the true bread which gives life to the world - not just that "Jesus is the True Bread," but that the bread which gives real life to the world is indeed precisely that which Jesus proclaims and enacts and embodies, the loving sovereignty of the living God — to believe that Jesus is the true bread which gives life to the world is to commit ourselves to his pattern of life as true human life, to commit ourselves to his values, to his cause, to his vision, as the values and cause and vision of God, to commit ourselves to him precisely as the Way and the Truth and the Life.

Specifically how does all this play out? Well, that's what we're given this life to work out. I don't think there are any cheap or easy answers. I certainly think we need to question all those assumptions which self-servingly try to turn God into the provider for our own perceived needs. I am convinced that when God is really providing for us, God is giving us what we really need in order to share with our Lord in giving life to the world.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sermons -- 21 June 2009

PROPER 7 | 3RD PENTECOST — 21 June 2009
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45 & 11:00 am

[Track One] 1Sam 17:32-49 | Ps 9:9-20 | 2Cor 6:1-13 | Mark 4:35-41

“This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.”

I’ve told this story before in other contexts — I don’t remember whether I’ve told it to you. Many years ago (!) I saw an advertisement in a church magazine from a publisher of Christian Education curriculum material. And in the ad there was a very cute little boy running and waving the paper he had colored, and shouting, “Mommy! Today in Sunday School we learned how to kill a giant with a slingshot!”

Well. The point of the advertisement, as I recall, is that this is not the approach this publisher takes in their Sunday School curriculum. (And I feel quite confident that this is not the approach that Meg and her staff take in our parish’s Christian Formation program!)

Nevertheless, here it is in the first reading from Scripture this morning. Actually, it gets even better. The Revised Common Lectionary gnomes apparently figured that this story had gone on long enough (you’ll note that we left out a bunch of verses at the beginning as it is!), but if it had gone on for a couple more verses we would have gotten: “So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his [the Philistine’s] sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.” [vv. 50-51]

As the Church Lady used to say, “Well, isn’t that special?”

I think most of you are aware — well, some of you are aware — and perhaps there are a few of you who even care! (and that’s okay!) — that for the past few years on Sundays we have been reading the Scripture lessons according to the Revised Common Lectionary, a plan or schedule of the Sunday readings over a three-year period which is widely used by many churches around the world, ecumenically, not just Anglicans. Generally speaking, it’s not very different from the previous three-year lectionary that has been in the Book of Common Prayer for the last thirty years and which was based more or less on the Roman lectionary. But one respect in which the Revised Common Lectionary is a bit different shows up in the “Green” half of the church year, from Trinity Sunday to Advent, when there is the option for the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures to follow stories in sequence. We call them “course readings.” We’ve been doing this all along with the Gospel readings — last year we read Matthew, this year we’re reading Mark, next year we’ll read Luke, and John is read in all three years, especially during Lent and Eastertide. We’ve also been doing it with the Epistle readings — we’re currently reading our way through Second Corinthians, which we will continue for a couple more weeks, and then we’ll read Ephesians for a while. This summer for the Old Testament reading we basically hear the King David saga. Last year it was the Patriarchal stories and the Moses saga from Genesis and Exodus; next year it will be the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah up until the exile to Babylonia; and later in the fall of these years we also get some further selections from the Prophets (from whom we hear a lot during the first half of the year) and from the Hebrew Wisdom literature (like Proverbs and Job).

Well, why do we do this? I think there has been a concern that we have been missing out on much of the story of God and God’s people in what we call the Old Testament. We’ve been reading from the Old Testament every Sunday for over thirty years, but they have been selections that are usually keyed to the Gospel reading and often lose their original context. Well, in itself that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact Track Two of the Revised Common Lectionary still does that, like our previous lectionary and that of the Romans. But it is thought, and I think, that it is important on a regular basis that we actually get the story of the Chosen People straight, without any specific relation to the other readings of the day. And so today we get David killing Goliath and cutting off his head. (Well, it’s an important part of the story of God’s People! That is, it is our own story!)

And one of the reasons why it is important for us to know our story is so that we can understand our story — who we are as God’s People, where we came from, where we have been, how we got to where we are now, the stories we have heard and told along the way, what meanings they may have for us, and what God is continuing to call us to be and to do, especially through these stories.

So it’s a good thing, I think, that the Church is now encouraging us to actually read these stories which are in a sense the pre-history of Christ, to read them as stories and not just out-of-context snippets that are presumably somehow related to the Sunday Gospel reading (which is what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years!) The downside of this of course is that some of these stories are fairly long, as stories often are, and you’ll note that even today we omitted a chunk. Oh well. Take your bulletins home and get out your Bible and re-read each Sunday’s story and include a couple more chapters on each side! And experience them as the stories of God’s People — as our stories — but not as God’s News Bulletin downloaded from On High, because they’re not that. (The message of today’s first reading is not that God wants us to go and behead any giant Philistines we encounter! Not even with a slingshot!)

I think we understand that from the Scriptures we learn about God and who God is and what God desires for us. But remember that the foundation and the starting point is Jesus: We know God first of all as the Father of Jesus Christ. We often didn’t get that right before Jesus, which is one of the reasons why God became Incarnate in Christ. (Sadly, we haven’t always gotten it right even after Jesus, either, but that’s our own fault.) Let us pray that the more deeply we study the Gospels, and also the Epistles, the deeper will be our insight into God’s actions in the history and the stories and the poetry of the Hebrew Testament.

PROPER 7 | 3RD PENTECOST — 21 June 2009
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am

2Cor 6:1-13 Ps 9:9-20 Mark 4:35-41

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Have you ever been in a situation where you were really afraid? Especially, really afraid for your life? I’m sure that some of you have been, and I don’t want to suggest anything that would diminish the profound reality of that experience for you. (Other than to say, I’m certainly glad you’re still here!) Military combat, or a terrible auto accident (or even a near-accident for a few terrifying moments), or — well, you have your own story and I won’t presume to try to tell it for you.

I’ve been lucky, I guess. The only really scary moment I can recall was when I was a small boy (small enough that I can’t clearly remember just when or where this was). My family was participating in a group picnic at what I remember as being a state or a county park (it wasn’t like City Park). I think maybe it was an office picnic for the company my father worked for, and so I didn’t know any of the people and they didn’t know me. (This makes me fairly certain it wasn’t a parish picnic.) Apparently the picnic was over and it was time to go home, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t know where my parents were. I didn’t see them anywhere. I ran all over the picnic ground, where all the families were packing up to leave, and I didn’t see my father or my mother anywhere. I was lost! I was afraid I would be left behind, and they would be able to find me, and I didn’t know how to get home! I had been abandoned! I was in a panic for what seemed like hours! Well, of course it was really only two or three minutes, I suppose, and then I saw my dad coming back from the parking lot to look for me. How relieved I was! I suppose they had gone to put away our picnic stuff and didn’t notice that I wasn’t tagging along. (And my mother needed to put my sister, who is several years younger than I am, probably a toddler at the time, in the car. Alas, no, we didn’t have infant car seats in those days, or even car seat belts.)

Hmm. Reminds me a little of the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple. (But Jesus wasn’t panicked, it was Mary and Joseph who were panicked.) “Oh — were you looking for me?” Jesus may have been the Incarnate God, but he must have been a handful for his mother. But I digress.

In the Gospel today, Jesus has been sitting in a boat just offshore a few yards, teaching the people in parables about the Kingdom of God. (You remember that we heard a couple of these stories in the Gospel last week.) And at the end of the day Jesus says, “Let’s go over across the lake.” It doesn’t say whose boat it was — since the disciples were with him, we can presume that it was Peter and Andrew’s boat, but it doesn’t say so. And “other boats were with him” but we never hear anything more about them. Presumably they included James and John’s boat, but it doesn’t say that either, and we don’t know what happened to them in the storm, but apparently everybody ended up safe over on the eastern shore, although it doesn’t say so! Mark tends to start stories with bits and pieces of details that he forgets to finish. He could have used an editor! Oh, that’s right — he had one. Matthew. But I digress. Again.

Telling parables of the Kingdom is apparently hard work, and Jesus falls asleep in the boat. Even when a storm comes up. The disciples — at least some of them, Peter and Andrew and James and John at least — were skilled and experienced fishermen, and we can fairly assume that this storm was a pretty serious business, as I’m told storms on the Sea of Galilee can be. So they are madly bailing out the boat and not making much headway, and they say, “Master, you’re not helping!” or words to that effect. So Jesus gets up and calms the wind and the sea. (I haven’t figured out yet whether Jesus said, “Peace! Be still!” or whether he said, “Oh, peace, just be still.”) And the disciples were filled with great awe and said to one another, “What was that all about?” or words to that effect.

Our lives may encounter great storms, too, even if we don’t go boating on the Sea of Galilee. Or even on the Coralville Reservoir. They may be physical storms — floods or tornadoes, just to name a couple of recent local instances. Or financial storms, or professional storms, or storms within our families, or storms within our own hearts (and sometimes, especially, all of the above). And we cry out in our hearts, or even aloud, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” And maybe the storm abates — and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s still raging. Is Jesus still sleeping? I don’t have any quick or cheap responses to that.
Jesus asks his disciples in the boat, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Not, I think, “Didn’t you believe that I would keep you safe from drowning?” but “Didn’t you have faith that as long as you are with me nothing else really matters?”

We look for answers, but I’m not so sure that God always gives us an answer, not the kind of answer we’re looking for. God is not a divine vending machine, into whom we deposit our spiritual coins and wait for the desired response to come down the chute. God is a divine companion and our final lover. What God says is, “I who made you am with you always. Therefore whatever befalls you in this life, nothing can harm you forever; and in the end I shall make all things new.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon -- 14 June 2009

PROPER 6 / 2ND PENTECOST — 14 June 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am

1 Sam 15:34-16:13 | Ps 30 | 2 Cor 5:6-17 | Mark 4:26-34

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”

This may have occurred to you at some time, though I suspect most people (other people, not us, of course!) have never given it any thought and would find the idea quite surprising: Jesus was not particularly religious. Now, let me be clear: it is obvious from the Gospels that Jesus prayed; in fact, he prayed a lot. Apparently he often went off by himself, up a hill or whatever, and spent the whole night in prayer with his Father. Sometimes his followers would find him and interrupt him because there were people who wanted, for instance, healing and who needed his attention, and he always gave it. And obviously Jesus talked a lot about God. But most of what he said about God really wasn’t very what-we-would-call “religious.” One of the reasons why the Pharisees disliked Jesus so much was that he was clearly not as religious as they were. And that’s true!

In fact, the words that we translate into English as “religion” or “religious” occur very rarely in the New Testament, and not in a very positive sense. For example, in the Epistle of James he writes: “Religion [I’m actually tempted to suggest that James is putting quotes around the word: “Religion”] — “'Religion’ that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [James 1:27] True “religion” has to do with love and justice and integrity.

Another place where the word “religion” occurs in the English bible is in the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul is preaching in Athens, and he says “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” [Acts 17:22] He says this with a straight face, but I suspect with his tongue in his cheek a bit. In this case the Greek word is not the same one James uses, but a word that can reasonably be translated “superstitious.” And Paul goes on to say, “I am here to tell you about the real God, the Lord of heaven and earth” — not, he implies, the deity of human religion.

Later on in Acts, Paul says in his self-defense before Agrippa and Festus: “I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.” [Acts 26:5] (The Greek is the same word that James used in his letter.)

And that’s pretty much about it for “religion” in the New Testament. The word never appears in the Gospels. The word only becomes common as denotative of Christianity later on, after the Church had spread out into the Empire and particularly after Latin become the dominant language of Western Christianity.

Jesus does not talk about “religion.” Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God. Typically he begins by saying something like “The Kingdom of God is like this:” and then he tells a story, or paints a little word-picture. (“Parable” has a fairly broad definition.) Jesus’ parables are not particularly “religious” — mostly they depict situations or activities from normal everyday life. But they are designed “to get you thinking,” to present “a different perspective” on some aspect of life that we thought we were very familiar with. They provide an insight into the Kingdom of God.

Okay, having tromped around on the meaning of “religion” for a few minutes, now let’s tromp around on the meaning of “Kingdom,” specifically when we are talking about the “Kingdom of God.” We have a tendency, especially given the fact that culturally if perhaps not ethnically we are to a fair extent British by history, to think of “kingdom” as a political or geographical entity, as in “the United Kingdom” (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). A “kingdom” is a place, and that place is ruled by someone called a king. Or, in the case of Britain for the last 57 years, a queen. (Did you know that the longest-reigning monarchs of England have been queens? — Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II. At least until you get back to the Plantagenet kings Henry III and Edward III. But I digress.) But actually, it works the other way: The king comes first, and then his sovereignty, his reign, his rule, his kingship, may be referred to as his “kingdom.” In the Biblical languages, beginning with the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and continuing in the related language Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, and true also in the Greek into which Jesus’ teachings were quickly translated, the words that we are likely to translate into English as “kingdom” actually have the sense of “kingship,” or “kingly rule,” or “sovereign reign.” The sense is more personal and relational than geographic or political.

So the Kingdom of God is not some place, some other place, especially not some other place in some other time, a time yet to come. But, as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (you plural) or “among you.” {Luke 17.21] Jesus told Pilate, “My kingship is not a merely worldly kingdom — it’s nothing at all like Caesar’s empire.” [John 18:36] The Kingdom of God is now; the Kingdom of God is here! All we have to do is to open our eyes to it, to open our hearts to it, to follow Jesus who leads us into it, here and now. Jesus did not say, “Come join my church” (although in due course that might be appropriate!). Jesus said, “Follow me!” Jesus still says “Follow me!” Follow me into God’s Kingship! This is what the Gospel, the Good News, really is: That the God who created us loves us and wants us to share God’s love with one another, and to share in the building and spreading of the Kingship of God throughout God’s World.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jesus did not say “I have come that you may have religion, and have it abundantly.” Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life — life in God’s Kingship — and have it to the full.” [John 10:10b]

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sermon -- 17 May 2009

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER — 17 May 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am

[BCP] Acts 11:19-30 Ps 33 1John 4:7-21 John 15:9-17

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

Jesus was raised from the dead and commissioned his followers to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, nineteen hundred and seventy-some years ago.

For pretty much all that time ever since, we’ve been fighting with each other about it.

I’m not picking on you! I’m picking on all of us! I’m picking on me! God knows I love religious battles as well as anyone, and probably better than most. Which is probably why our Lord frequently has to remind me, “I did NOT say: ‘I came that they may have RELIGION, and have it abundantly’!”

Or, as he also says to us all with similar frequency, and occasionally we may even hear him and pay attention: “What is it you don’t understand about: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’?”

In the Epistle today, from John’s First Letter, which is mostly about love, John begins, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” “Let us love one another, because love is from God; … for God is love.” What John is sharing with us in today’s Epistle, like what Jesus is sharing with us in the Gospel, is not just a set of moral rules but a vision of reality. A vision of reality. That which is the most real of everything, that which is the ground, the basis, the root, the foundation of all that is real, is Love love’s-self. God’s very nature is love. The most fundamental thing that we can say about God—even more fundamental than talking about God as omnipotent or omniscient or any of those other six-dollar philosophical words—is that God is loving, indeed, more profoundly and fundamentally, that God is love.

One of the most basic affirmations of the Christian faith. But one about which we need to be very careful. Because the truth of the matter is, our understanding of love is pretty shaky, and when we extend “love” as all too often we mean “love” and apply it to God, we end up with a shallow and sentimental deity very much in our own image. Quite the contrary, it is God who defines what love really is: obviously a reality too rich to define simply, but having to do with the mystery of creativity, indeed the very rationale of creation; the bestowing of authentic being upon another, the free sharing of life, a fundamental generosity that is not controlling or self-gratifying, but the kind of self-giving disclosed in Jesus. This is what love really is, and our loving is only truly loving to the extent that it reflects (in a finite way) the infinite divine loving of God. As St John says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Or as Jesus himself says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends ….” “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Well, that’s all very inspirational, no doubt. But we easily overestimate how much interest God really has in being inspirational. “Inspiration” is often very much like “religion,” and “religion” is often what we substitute for holiness. But God tends to be disconcertingly concrete and practical. It is after all from St John—the one we like to think of as the “most spiritual” of the Gospel writers (and thus we can keep him safely enshrined on the “religion” shelf)—it is from St John that we hear, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.… Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.…Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” That’s the practical definition of love for us, the pattern for our loving: if we want to see what love really is, we look at Jesus. His commandment to love is not just an order to be obeyed, but a disclosure of reality, and not just a disclosure but an invitation to share in that reality to its richest depths, to share in the very life of God. “I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

As we move beyond thinking of Jesus’ commandment to love as a sort of religious inspiration, and start catching it as a vision of reality to be lived in, and to be shared with others, and to be enacted in the world (and feeling the exhilaration of the assurance of God’s trust in us), then perhaps our love will no longer be quite so hedged round and qualified. Perhaps our love will no longer be quite so conditional, not quite so sensible. Perhaps we will be less concerned to count love’s cost. We’ll start seeing more clearly, not only with the eyes of our minds but with the eyes of our hearts, that to love one another—to love one another by the measure of how Jesus has loved us—is what it is really to be alive. As the divine love reaches out beyond itself in creation in a free bestowal of being, so we turn outward beyond ourselves in respect, in concern, in compassion, in affirmation, in cherishing—to other persons and to the whole of God’s creation. We hear more clearly Jesus’ words today, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” “Love one another as I have loved you”—not just a commandment in the narrow sense, not just an inspirational motivation, and not just for ourselves, but a commission, a commission to bear to the world the vision of its own truest destiny.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sermon -- 3 May 2009

4TH SUN. OF EASTER — 3 May 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 AM

Acts 4:(23-31)32-37 Ps 23 1 John 3:1-8 John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

The picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most common in Christian imagery. In one form or another it recurs throughout the gospels, and for that matter through the Hebrew scriptures as well. We may immediately think of the parable of the lost sheep (in Matthew and Luke). Jesus also picks up on themes that run throughout the Old Testament — as we heard in Psalm 23 today (“The Lord is my shepherd…”), or in Psalm 100 (“We are [God’s] people and the sheep of his pasture”), or in Psalm 80 (“Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim”). Recall that the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were all shepherds, as was Moses after he fled from Pharaoh’s court in Egypt into the Sinai, as was David before he was anointed as Israel’s King (“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” 2 Sam 7:8).

In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, a passage which Jesus pretty obviously has directly in mind in what he is saying in today’s Gospel, the prophet Ezekiel, speaking for God at the time of the conquest by the Babylonians, condemns the leadership of Judah for not caring for God’s flock but letting them be scattered, and God promises to be their true shepherd and to bring them home.

Most of us have little direct acquaintance with sheep or shepherding. (Are any of you still raising sheep? Or at least, was your family raising sheep on the farm when you grew up?) So for most of us, the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is a lot like the stained glass window over the high altar over at Trinity Church in Iowa City, which some of you have probably seen: Jesus in long white robes, with a neatly trimmed beard and long flowing locks of well-brushed, well-conditioned hair, cuddling a couple of soft curly lambs that at first glance look like poodle puppies.

Right. You get my point.

When the Bible talks about us as the sheep of God’s flock, about Jesus as our shepherd, there is nothing cute or romantic about it. We’re not being given a compliment here, folks! But what I hope is clear is that God loves us, God cares for us, God rescues us even at the cost of his life, and this is not because we deserve it or have earned it, but just because!

And we say that over and over, but even as we say it, we back away from it. Yes, God loves us — if.…

God cares for us — when.…

God rescues us, if we can demonstrate that we deserve it. When we can prove that we have earned it.

And that’s wrong. And we know that it’s wrong.

How many of you were raised Lutheran? Martin Luther knew this was wrong. Lutherans since Martin Luther, not so much. Anglicans, at least since Richard Hooker, not so much. Reformed, including John Calvin, not so much. Roman Catholics, not so much, especially if you went to parochial school.

Why do you suppose it is that no matter how much we say we understand, how much we think we understand, we so often just don’t get it? One of the things that I discovered when I had left parish ministry and went to work for the University — something I really hadn’t realized before, since I was ordained to the priesthood when I was still a young squirt and clueless about a lot of stuff — but something which I suspect most of you have known for a long long time — is that the world is full of folks who are really good, decent, caring people but who have long since been turned off by “The Church” or “The Christian Religion” because their experience has been that they’ve been repeatedly told that God will love them but only when they get all their ducks in a row, and sorry, they aren’t in a row yet, at least not good enough. Perhaps some of you have been there. If so, welcome back!

Let me be clear in a brief excursus: I am not suggesting that issues of sin and morality aren’t important. They are. In some instances they are far more important that we realize. (Although in some others, they are far less important. But I digress.) But there is a widespread notion, even within mainstream Christianity, that the big problem with sin is that it offends God. Now, I don’t believe that God is offended by our sins. But I do believe that God is deeply grieved by our sins. Because our sins damage and even destroy ourselves, and they damage and even destroy each other, and (as we are becoming increasingly aware) they damage and even destroy the world that God created for us to live in. God does not want us to destroy ourselves, because God loves us. God wants us to be whole, and not to be broken. And sin breaks us, and it breaks others, and it breaks the world. As Jesus says in the verse immediately before this morning’s Gospel reading: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” We live in a world, and in an age, when “religion” seems to some to be slowly, and not always so slowly, losing its grip, at least in Western society. I’m not at all sure this is a bad thing. History does not suggest that when “religion” has a grip on society it has very much to do with the Kingdom of God. I mean, let’s just look around at various parts of the world these days, including some aspects of our own society, and of alleged “Christianity.”

All the more reason why it is vital that we not just sigh and say, “Oh well.” Jesus calls us to proclaim his good news — the good news of God’s love, God’s love for humankind — including others who do not belong to our particular sheepfold — for whom the shepherd has laid down his life in order that we all may share his life.