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.