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]