Monday, March 30, 2009

Sermon -- 29 March 2009

5TH IN LENT — 29 March 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:15 a.m.

Jer 31:31-34 Ps 51:1-13 Heb 5:5-10 John 12:20-33

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The people of Jesus’ time, and for many generations before, had been waiting for deliverance. With great longing they yearned for the coming of the Messiah (the “Anointed One”), or The Prophet (like Moses, or Elijah returned), or the heavenly Son of Man. (The titles varied somewhat.) But they had their own ideas of how God ought to act, and what the Messiah, or Whoever, should do, and what deliverance and salvation meant. They assumed that they knew what the nature of reality was, and how the universe worked, and what they had a right to expect from God. Their ideas of deliverance were in terms of power, of glory in the sense of grandeur. They expected God to come and fix everything for them. They wanted the Messiah to come swooping in like Superman and make everything all right again. They wanted the Messiah to drive out the Roman occupation army and re-establish the kingdom of Israel like it had been in the good old days of David and Solomon. They thought that God’s Messiah would make them all righteous and prosperous and free, and so on and so on.
And how unlike all that Jesus is! “If you try to save your life you will lose it; you will only save your life if you lose it for my sake.” This saying recurs over and over in the Gospels—we heard it in Mark’s Gospel three Sundays ago—and it is right at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps this above all is the scandal of Christ. And let’s be honest: If, upon reflection, in our heart of hearts, if we aren’t offended, scandalized, “tripped up” by Christ—at least sometimes—then we just aren’t paying serious attention. Jesus really means it when he says the first shall be last and the last first. In the Reign of God, everything really is (by our standards) topsy-turvy.

“Quit trying to accumulate things for yourselves,” Jesus says, “riches, or position, or security, or even honor, or even virtue. Stop trying to save your own lives! You can’t do it. If you want to live really, live fully, live eternally beginning right now, then you have to give your life away. Don’t try to run away from death—it is only through dying that you can begin to live. All those things in which you put your trust to find your security and happiness will betray you in the end and rob you of that which you seek.”

And that’s not what we were expecting! That isn’t what we had in mind at all! That’s an attack on everything we have ever held dear, all our traditional values! If these are God’s ways, they are strange indeed! Think about it! What an absurd Messiah! There he stands, not in Rome, the capital of the Empire, or in Alexandria, the Mediterranean world’s second city, but in the middle of Jerusalem, a backwater provincial not-much-more-than-a-county-seat-town, surrounded by a rag-tag mob of ne’er-do-wells who obviously have nothing better to do, proclaiming: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
We thought we knew, in those days, how God ought to operate in God’s world. We still think we know how God ought to operate in the world. We think in terms like “merit” and “virtue” and “earning” and “deserving” and “worthiness” and “security” and “self-fulfillment” and “self-preservation.” We think that’s being Realistic. The scandal, the offense, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the Gospel claims that God does not operate in the world the way we think God ought to. The Gospel claims that what we assume is “realistic” isn’t realistic at all, isn’t real at all. God does not bring salvation and deliverance by power and the glory of grandeur, by lightning and thunder and armies of angels. God does not send us a king, as this world understands kings. God does not take us out of the world of pain and suffering and death—God leads us into pain and suffering and death, and through pain and suffering and death God brings us out into true and genuine life. God does not manipulate us, or compel us, or coerce us. God draws us—draws us by the divine love, draws us by the divine truth, draws us to the Cross.

And this is the mystery of the Cross, the mystery into which we enter more and more deeply as Holy Week approaches:

– The power and glory of God are known to us through suffering love;

– What our human lives are really all about is seen in the Crucified One;

– Only in letting go of everything can we really have anything at all;

– Love—unreserved, unconditional, unrestricted, unbounded love, love that holds back nothing, seeks nothing for itself, but gives all—this love is the most powerful reality, the only truly powerful reality, ultimately the only reality of all that is.

Only by being lifted up on the Cross does Jesus draw all of us to himself by his power and glory.

We heard Jeremiah speak today of a new covenant that God is making with us, written on our hearts. This new covenant is a covenant which calls us to die: to die to ourselves and our own ways, our self-assurance, our self-sufficiency, our false and illusory “realism,” our security, our “worthiness”—to die to all of this, so that we may be re-born, re-created, re-enlivened with the real life, the true life, the eternal life of the Crucified and Risen One.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sermon -- 22 March 2009

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT — 22 March 2009
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00 a.m.

Num 21:4-9 Ps 107:1-3,17-22 Eph 2:1-10 John 3:14-21

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

There are certain classic forms for that important literary genre, the joke. For instance, there are the jokes that begin, “A guy walks into a bar…” Or sometimes it’s a penguin that walks into the bar. Or a giraffe. Or maybe René Descartes (that’s a very philosophical joke).

Another classic form is the one that begins, “A man dies and goes to heaven, and St. Peter (or Jesus, or God) meets him at the pearly gates and says to him, ‘What have you done that entitles you to be admitted here?’” (Have I told you the one about the Baptist preacher and his wife, and the Lutheran pastor and his wife, and the Episcopal priest and his wife, who were going out to dinner together but they were in an automobile accident and were all killed, and when they appeared at the pearly gates…?) (If you don’t know that one, ask me at coffee hour. Or, if you’re smart, don’t.)

Well, anyway, this classic joke form depends upon a widely shared and commonly understood scenario of what our final judgment will be like. And in this scenario we appear before the divine tribunal, and our file is pulled and scrutinized, and all the wrong things we have done and right things we have failed to do are added up, and God says, “Hmmmm,” or perhaps “Hmmmm,” and depending on the tone of that “Hmmmm” we either get in or we don’t, we are either saved or damned. It’s a model rather like a human courtroom. Except that in a human courtroom we presumably have a defense attorney and can plead extenuating circumstances or something like that. But in our image of the last judgment — possibly influenced directly or indirectly by Michelangelo —we are guilty until proven innocent, the charges are inscrutable, and the sentence unappealable. It’s actually less like a court of law and more like an IRS audit.

Well, I don’t think the image of judgment in the Gospel is like that at all. St. John’s Gospel actually says quite a lot about judgment, and takes it very seriously, and so should we. I think it’s a real mistake to make a modernist sentimentalist assumption that God is a real weenie when it comes to judgment. But judgment is not the imposition upon us of a sentence by someone else (even by God) —where the issue might arise in our minds as to whether we were being dealt with fairly, where we might claim, “Yes, but, you don’t really understand!” On the contrary, judgment is the utterly clear, utterly transparent, utterly truthful disclosure and revelation of who we really are, what we have really made of ourselves. It really isn’t a matter of balancing our sins against what good we have done — in any case we are not saved by the good deeds we have done. What we have done matters, but it matters because what we do is what makes us who we are.

And so the Gospel today:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

This is the judgment: face to face with the source and ground of the being of all that is, and seeing that That One is by very nature totally self-giving Love, who indeed so loves us that he came among us as one of us and shared our condition to its bitterest dregs in order to raise us to his condition in its utter glory — face to face with That Love, have we become persons who go to be embraced by That Love, or have we become persons who withdraw into our own sorry selves? (This is what “believing in the name of the only Son of God” is about — not subscribing to doctrinal propositions about Jesus, however important those may be in their place, but turning to the embracing arms of the Divine Love.) In the presence of the Light of the World, do we rejoice in that Light’s illumination, or do we flee to hide in the shadows? This is the judgment.

We are already being judged, by who we are becoming. And who we are becoming is a function of what we do. So the Lenten call to repentance (indeed, the call to repentance in every season) is critically important: we really do need to look at ourselves, be honest about what we have done and what we are doing, and understand who we are becoming. In some respects, at least, we’re going to realize that “this isn’t who I want to be!” So we had better do something about that, and turn around (which is what “repent” means) and become people who “do what is true” and therefore who in the judgment will “come to the light.”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sermon -- 15 March 2006

3 LENT—15 March 2009
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00

Ex 20:1-17 Psalm 19 1 Cor 1:18-25 John 2:13-22

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

The preacher was preaching on the Ten Commandments; and as he preached, a man sitting toward the back slunk lower and lower in the pew, commandment by commandment; but at the end of the sermon he suddenly straightened up, his face brightened visibly, and the usher heard him to say to himself, “Well, at least I have never made unto myself any graven image!”

The Old Testament lesson today is the narrative of God’s giving the Ten Commandments to Moses—the heart of the Torah, the Law of the old Covenant. The cornerstone of morality, we might say; and some do say. I’d like to think for a few minutes about morality and law.

There is a level at which we think about morality or goodness or righteousness in terms of obedience to laws. Virtue consists in keeping the laws; sin consists in breaking the laws. There’s a certain immediate simplicity to that; it makes moral issues fairly clear-cut, at least in principle. We know where we stand, roughly. Legalism can be attractive and appealing. But it’s not the basis of Christian morality. (Nor, for that matter, is it even the basis of classical philosophical ethics.)

St. Paul wrestled very hard with the issue of the Law. Paul was by upbringing, education, and natural inclination a Pharisee—a member of that party in Judaism which took very seriously the obligation to obey strictly the most minute prescriptions of the Law of Moses.

(The Pharisees, by the way, were not, on the whole, hypocrites in the sense of being phonies. They really did try very hard to live up to their ideals, and many of them succeeded, or came pretty close. One such was the young Saul of Tarsus, as he was known in Jerusalem—“Paulos” was his Greek name. But the Pharisees were rigorists, and rigorists are often intolerant, and they tended toward the notion that their strict observance of the Law earned them God’s special favor.)

(By “The Law,” we might also note, in St Paul’s letters, he normally means not “law” generally in the sense of the civil law, but very specifically “The Law” given by God to Moses and the people of Israel, the Jewish Law of the Old Testament as we would call it, the Torah. It would probably be helpful if in the translation of the Epistle, “Law” were capitalized when it refers to Torah.)

(Ancient Greek manuscripts don’t distinguish between upper- and lower-case letters, so capitalization in English versions is always an editorial decision of the translators.) (Are you taking notes on all this? There will be a quiz...)

Anyway!—The issue of the Law was a very important one for the first Christians. If you can gain salvation by keeping Torah, then what is the point of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If on the other hand salvation comes by God’s free gift, working through one’s faith in Jesus Christ, then keeping the Law—particularly things like the dietary and ceremonial regulations which apparently did not involve moral issues—is no longer necessary. As Christianity spread into the Gentile world, the question of the place of the Old Testament Law in Christian faith became crucial, and Paul, the great missionary to the Gentile world, had to struggle very hard with it, as we see especially in his letters to the Christians at Rome and to those in Galatia (west-central Anatolia, what we now know as Turkey).

The problem with the Law—or with any law—all by itself, is that it shows what is good and what is evil, but it gives no power to choose the good over the evil. The Greeks thought, and lots of folks today still think, that it’s just a problem of education: if we teach folks so they know what is right, then they’ll do it. The Greeks could be stupefyingly naïve! And so can we! Paul had a much more perceptive view of human being. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Moral law—whether Torah or any other—can educate us, it can show us what things are loving and what things are destructive, but law cannot save us. Law cannot make us good, it can only show us our sin.

In the Gospel today we see Jesus symbolically cleansing the Temple (he’s enacting a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the Messiah). And when he’s challenged about it, he replies very cryptically, “Destroy this temple [he means his own body, of course; well, maybe not “of course”; Jesus can be very enigmatic, especially in John’s Gospel!]—destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The old order is coming to its fulfillment in the new creation which is breaking in.

Christian faith, and the ethical dimension of Christian faith, calls us beyond mere obedience to law, even to what we think is God’s Law. Rather, in Jesus Christ we are called into faithful relationship with a person. We are summoned to a discipleship that is far more than just following a set of rules. We are enlisted in a cause, Christ’s cause, to be heralds and agents of the Reign of God, pioneer and charter members of the redeemed community that shall in the end include all creation. For obedience is all that law can command; God claims our whole hearts.