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.