Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sermon -- 21 November 2010 - Last Pentecost

PROPER 29 / LAST AFTER PENTECOST — 21 November 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, and 11:00

Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Canticle 16 | Colossians 1:11-20 | Luke 23:33-43

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

This Sunday, the Last Sunday after Pentecost or, more elegantly, Proper 29, is also known and celebrated as The Sunday of Christ the King, or as some prefer to put it, The Sunday of the Reign of Christ. (A distinction without a difference, it seems to me; but, oh well.) This is a celebration that we, and a whole lot of churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, adopted and adapted from the Roman Catholics back that generation ago when we all enriched our selections of Sunday Scripture readings by expanding to a three-year rotation, in which we all generally read the same scriptures every Sunday. This has been a Good Thing, I think.

The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is itself fairly new. It began in the Roman Church in 1925, at the direction of Pope Pius XI, as a way of countering a perceived increasing secularism in the world (the 1920s were not a particularly pious decade, except perhaps in Dayton, Tennessee) by focusing on the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, to whom we owe our true and ultimate allegiance and loyalty. (This was right after Benito Mussolini had seized the dictatorship in Italy, a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of the Italian constitutional monarchy, so we can see why the Pope had some motivation to do something about who we really believe to be our King!) Originally Christ the King was celebrated on the last Sunday in October, which coincidentally was the same Sunday that the Lutherans were celebrating Reformation Sunday. Or maybe not coincidentally. But in 1969 Pope Paul VI shifted the celebration to the last Sunday of the church’s year, just before the beginning of a new year with the season of Advent, and that seems to be working pretty well for all of us. Especially the Lutherans, presumably.

But this leaves unanswered the question of what exactly do we mean in this context by “King,” and how are we to understand Jesus Christ to be our King? In fact, we in the United States, and a lot of other people in the world (including in the British Commonwealth) aren’t real big on kings. Well, at the moment we have William and Kate, but that’s supermarket tabloid fodder, not political theory. One of the few nations that still has a really serious king is Swaziland, and that is not working out for the Swazis. In this country we decided 234 years ago that we don’t do kings. So what does “Christ the King” mean for us? (I think we can pass on “Christ the President” or “Christ the CEO.” Even “Chairman Jesus” didn’t hang on too long!)

Well, what does the New Testament say about Jesus Christ as King? Not very much, as a matter of fact. There are a couple of references to Christ as King in the Book of Revelation — “King of kings and Lord of lords” — but one has to be a little careful about the imagery in Revelation. In the Gospels, when the issue of kingship is brought up to Jesus, he pretty much ducks it.

For Jesus’ own take on “kingship,” let’s look at a passage I consider over-neglected in the history of the Church: Jesus tells his disciples, “The kings of the nations are lords over them, and their great ones have power over them; but it is not that way among you.” [Luke 22:25-26] But the reason for this is not because Jesus is reserving this kind of lordship for himself, but precisely because this is not how Jesus is with us: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45] Jesus says, “I am among you as one who serves.” [Luke 22:27]

The only real references in the Gospels to Jesus as “the King of the Jews” are, first of all and very briefly, in the nativity narrative in Matthew, where the astrologers from Babylonia (or Persia or wherever) find a peasant baby in the village of Bethlehem, who then has to flee the jealous wrath of the this-worldly King Herod. And then much more extensively, in the passion narratives in the four Gospels, beginning with the entry into Jerusalem but leading to the accounts of Jesus’ trials, suffering and death by crucifixion. So today, in the Gospel reading for this Christ the King Sunday, we see our King, reigning from his throne. Over his head, his royal title is written—not engraved in marble, not beautifully inscribed on parchment, but doubtless scrawled in charcoal on a scrap of old board: “King of the Jews.” Not exactly what we usually mean by “king.” Jesus is King only as one who by worldly standards is utterly powerless.

We seem to have a thing about power. The solution to all our problems is the possession and application of power. It’s no surprise that the kings of the Gentiles or their modern equivalents buy into this notion. The tragedy is that so does the Church. The Kingdom of God will be advanced if we can just make people behave themselves the way we think they should. We saw this reflected a few weeks ago here in Iowa, where, whatever you may think about who should be able to marry who, there are folks who not too covertly in the name of God want to control the issue by the imposition of political power; and 54% of the Iowa electorate were suckered into this. In the Anglican Communion, we are currently in dispute over a document called the Anglican Covenant, which is a thinly-veiled attempt by some churches in the Communion to exercise power over other churches. (If you know what I’m talking about, then you know what I’m talking about; if you don’t, consider yourself fortunate, although you will probably find out soon enough.) We all know a lot of folks — maybe including ourselves sometimes — who feel alienated from God because God does not exercise the divine power to fix their problems. And often enough these are very real problems. I have to say that, despite the fact that we say or sing it at every Eucharist, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Power and Might” does present some issues about what we understand about power and how we expect God to exercise it.

But it is on the cross that we see true kingship, true authority, true power. The scene on Golgotha, “The Skull,” is not just a temporary setback to God’s true power, not just a moment of irony to highlight God’s true power, but is the very thing itself. This is the supremacy of Christ: not being better than somebody else’s expression of religious faith, not exercising control of public policy, not compelling the outward forms of virtuous behavior or orthodox belief, but disclosing the Rule of God, which is always and eternally the rule of self-giving, life-giving love.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sermon -- 3 October 2010 -- 19 Pentecost

PROPER 22 | 19 PENTECOST — 3 October 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am

Lam 1:1-6 | Psalm 137 | 2 Tim 1:1-14 | Luke 17:5-10

“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

The Gospel reading today is not one of my favorites.

(And so I’ll begin immediately with a digression: One of the reasons why we have a lectionary of readings — that’s what the word “lectionary” means, a schedule of “lections” or “lessons” or “readings” — one of the reasons why we have a lectionary is so that we will not get to read, and to preach and hear sermons about, only our favorite Scripture passages. We have to read, and try to preach and to hear about, a lot of our unfavorite passages as well. There are some churches and Christian communities in which the preacher always gets to pick his or her own Bible texts. Presumably we realize pretty soon that this is Not A Good Idea. But, as I said, I digress.)

The Gospel reading today is not one of my favorites. First, the little saying about having faith and uprooting mulberry trees (that’s the first two verses; it’s not clear how, or whether, that is connected to the next four verses, about how a master treats an arguably worthless slave. (Or “unworthy” slave — there’s some dispute about how the Greek adjective should be translated.)

We seem to have gotten a number of unfavorite Gospel readings lately. A couple of weeks ago we had Jesus’ story about the dishonest steward, who cut himself deals with his boss’s debtors so he would have a soft place to land when he was thrown out of his job. I’ve always found that whole story a tough one. Did Fr. Hulme try to take it on
that Sunday? If so I’m sure he did a much better job than I would have! I’m still not quite sure what Jesus is getting at in that story.

And then last week we had the Rich Man and Lazarus. We probably like that one a lot better, but mostly because we can gloat about that mean rich guy burning in hell while poor Lazarus is up in heaven with Father Abraham. But gloating over other people’s sins actually does not make well for our own spiritual growth, and the more we think about that story the more likely it is to become one of our unfavorites.

And then we have these peculiar sayings this morning. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” This saying sounds like a version of a saying that occurs in Matthew and Mark [Mt 17:20; 21:21; Mk 11:22-24] about having the faith to move mountains. “Moving mountains” was apparently a common expression in Jesus’ day (and it still is among us today) for doing some very difficult, even apparently impossible thing. I don’t think I quite get the point in Luke’s Gospel today about the mulberry tree, or why you would ever want to uproot one and plant it in the sea, but it seems to share the extravagance of the expression about “moving mountains,” and we know that Jesus often, more often than we may be aware, used extravagant expressions to make his points,

(On the other hand, the prophet Muhammad is said to have said, “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad will go to the mountain.” I have no idea how that relates.)

So now we have the little parable about the master and his slave. I think this is not an instruction course in Human Relations.

First of all, this is a parable, not an allegory. That is, it’s not a narrative network of symbolisms, in which this stand for this and that represents that. The master in this story is not God. This guy in fact is not a very good master, although by the standards of the age he is fairly ordinary. We are much more sensitive to the issue of slavery, although we also have to confess that it took most of the Christian world eighteen hundred years to realize that. (Remember that in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus does say “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” [John 16:12-13].) It may be the case that ordinary household slavery in the ancient near east was generally less oppressive than plantation slavery in the old American South, but it was still slavery. (To translate the Greek word doulos as “servant” is a bit wimpy.) A slave could not say to his master, “You really are treating me very rudely, so I’m going to file a complaint with HR, and maybe I’ll give my notice and look for a job somewhere else.” But that was all taken for granted by everyone at the time, and in this little parable Jesus is just assuming the social structure of which all his hearers were also a part.

The point, I think, is the tagline: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.’”

And although this is kind of a rough way of putting it, it expresses a basic truth that Christians have hard a hard time getting for two thousand years. Life — whether our life now, or the eternal life to which we are called and for which we are destined — life is a gift — it is not a wage. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. All we can do is accept it.

And this is so hard for us to understand! St. Augustine had a big fight with the British monk Pelagius (you might know he would be a Brit!) and his followers — Augustine insisting that we are saved only by the grace of God, and the Pelagians holding out for the notion that we can earn salvation by our own virtue. Martin Luther had to fight this issue all over again — salvation comes not through our performance of the works of the moral law but by God’s grace received through faith. (Sadly, after Luther much of the protestant reformation slipped back into “not getting it,” and in effect turned “having faith” into just another kind of “work” by which we merit our salvation.)

My point is not that we should run about beating our chests and whining about how unworthy we are, and wondering whether we have been good enough to make it into Heaven when we die. What Jesus, and St. Paul, and I think St. Augustine, and I hope Martin Luther, are trying to tell us is that that doesn’t have anything to do with it! God wants us, now and for all eternity, because God loves us; that’s why God created us. All we have to do is say “Yes.” That’s very simple, though perhaps not as easy as we might think. Saying “Yes” to God means saying, “Yes, God, you are God and I am not.” That’s what the story of the man and the woman in the garden is about — their sin was not just disobedience (although people, and churches, that are hung up in power might like to think that disobedience is the first and original sin). Their sin, as St. Augustine and other great teachers and theologians over the centuries have always insisted, was pride. The serpent’s temptation to Eve was, “When you eat of [this fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” [Genesis 3:5].

Life — now, and eternally — is a gift, from the loving God who created us. It is not a wage. We do not earn it. It is not a reward. We do not deserve it. It is not a prize. We do not win it. All we have to do is accept it, as gift, from God.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sermon -- 29 August 2010

PROPER 17 | 14 PENTECOST — 29 August 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1,10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16 | Luke 14:1,7-14

“Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death.”

That’s not a quotation from one of the Scripture readings this morning. It’s from Auntie Mame. (You remember Auntie Mame!)

In many ways a banquet, a dinner party, is a telling microcosm of human life. A good party is an occasion of refreshment and joy, of friendship, of hospitality freely given and openly received, a moment in which we share our lives with one another, and so become more completely ourselves. A good party builds community — unity together — which is, after all, God’s ultimate plan and destiny for the whole created universe. The Holy Eucharist which we are celebrating is, among other things, Jesus’ party with his people, a foretaste of the eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God.

But if a party can be the microcosm or the paradigm or model of all that is good and possible for human life, a party can also be a microcosm of the things that are wrong with human life. I suspect some of us have had the experience of attending a truly dreadful party, the kind where you are desperate for a plausible excuse to go home early! In the Gospel today, Jesus has been invited to a party, apparently a rather posh dinner party, but it’s not turning out to be one of your more successful soirées. Jesus takes advantage of the occasion to make some remarks about what he sees going on around him. (Have you ever noticed how Jesus isn’t real shy about doing that kind of thing? Not always the most tactful guest, either, is he?) “Look here, people,” Jesus says, “if you keep squabbling and pushing to see how high you can get yourself placed, you’ll very likely end up not only disappointed but rather badly embarrassed as well. [The fools are starving to death!] Don’t worry so much about your status! Have a little more modesty — and (who knows?) you may find yourself pleasantly surprised and honored!”

Very common-sense advice about how to behave at a party. And underlying it, of course, some profound truth about life. If our attitude toward life is “Get out of it everything you can, Take all you can get, Look out first for Number One,” then we will ultimately find that life is unsatisfying, unrewarding, and even hostile. That’s so. Show me somebody who grumps around all the time about what a bad deal life is, and I’ll show you somebody who’s trying to get something out of life. If we insist that life be on our own self-centered terms, then our lives become turned in upon themselves, small, nitpicking, guarded, closed off. We become obsessed with the fear that someone is getting the better of us, and we waste our lives trying to insure that other people owe us more than we owe them.

If, on the other hand, we take the stance toward our lives of seeking to give rather than to get, receiving life in thankful wonder as the gift of God that it is rather than as a right to be claimed and seized as something due us, then we are truly free to live.

This is what the Letter to the Hebrews is getting at this morning in the Epistle. “Let mutual love continue,” it says. Don’t be all hung up in your own selves. Life and the fullness of life comes to you as you give yourself away. This is one of the reasons why the New Testament repeatedly urges hospitality, especially to strangers, and caring for the sick and the prisoners — things that you’re not going to be paid back for. “Don’t be stingy with your life and with yourself,” the epistle is saying to us. “You may be so busy trying to safeguard and protect yourself that what life is really all about will pass you right by.” And then it goes on, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” We may not be too sure we want to hear that! It doesn’t sit very well with our culture’s fascination with possessions, with success, with growth, with bigger-and-better, with getting ahead in the world. The ideals of financial prosperity, the “self-made man,” showing the proper image to the world, are all drummed into our heads from our earliest childhood, and every day since, by our schools, our literature, our entertainment, the barrage of advertising constantly bombarding our minds. We all know perfectly well that material possessions cannot buy the truly good life — we’ve seen often enough how the lives of people we know, or even our own lives, have been damaged or even destroyed simply by having too much — and yet still we won’t really believe it. We’re brainwashed into thinking that true value is, ultimately, economic value. (That, incidentally, is the heresy, and the fatal flaw, of Marxism. But our consumerist capitalist society is equally guilty of it.) Possessions — not only money but status, reputation, image, “What-will-people-think?”, “How-will-I-look-to-the-neighbors?”, pride, self-centeredness, independence, self-sufficiency, self-fulfillment. If we stake our lives on these things, our lives will perish with these things. If we make these the end of our lives, they will be the end of our lives!

“Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death.” Auntie Mame was right. Jesus goes to a party and finds the guests squabbling over the place cards! What do we want? What is it that we really want? Do we want the seats of honor at the feast? Well, we can try to take them, I suppose, but it’s not a very sure thing, very likely to blow up in our faces, and even if we succeed, what have we got? After all, what difference does it really make? Who cares? God? I doubt it. Or do we want life, life received as gift from God the giver of life? That we can have. That we can always have — the banquet of eternal life, now and forever — the banquet to which Jesus is inviting us all and calling us all to join him at the head table.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sermon -- 22 August 2010

PROPER 16 / 13 PENTECOST — 22 August 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Jeremiah 1:4-10 | Psalm 71:1-6 | Hebrews 12:18-29 | Luke 13:10-17

“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

We’ve heard a lot in recent years from folks (folks in the newspapers, and folks on TV, and folks on the Net, and all the various places where “folks” hang out) who say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

(Do any of you consider yourselves to be “spiritual but not religious”? Okay. Are there any of you who would consider yourselves “religious but not spiritual”? Ha. You might want to talk with Elizabeth next month!)

The problem is that we throw these words around without being very clear about what we mean by them. “Spiritual” may be a fairly clear notion, although it covers a range of meanings. Generally, it seems to me and perhaps you’d agree (or perhaps not), “spirituality” has to do with the conviction that our human life has some sort of transcendent dimension, however we might understand or define that. In some way, and there is a wide variety of ways of thinking or talking about it, there is “more to us” than “just this.” Healthy spirituality looks beyond ourselves, both horizontally and vertically. (There is also a so-called “spirituality” that is mostly just about me. You may recall that Robert Bellah a generation ago pointed to “Sheilaism” as tending in this direction. [Habits of the Heart, 1985, pages 221, 235])

“Religion” is a much trickier concept. It seems to include a variety of notions, generally having to do with how human beings are related to God, or the gods, or whatever. St. Augustine and others thought that the word religio was derived from religare, “to bind together.” (Cicero, on the other hand, thought the word came from the verb relegere, “to go over again,” but I don’t really see his point, so he must not be right about this!) We use “religion” in a variety of ways. One of its narrow senses, for instance — used more often among Roman Catholics than among us as some of you may remember, although we use it this way too occasionally, is to say a person is “a religious,” meaning he or she is a member of a monastic or other vowed community — monks, nuns, friars, sisters, for example. They are bound (religati) to their communities by their religious vows. This leads to a distinction — again more common among Roman Catholics than among us —between the “religious” clergy and the “secular” clergy — i. e., priests who are vowed members of religious orders, as apposed to priests who are diocesan parish clergy.

In a much wider and by far the more common context, of course, “religion” refers to systems of belief and/or behavior and/or ways-of-life that have to do with human relationships with and in reference to God (or the gods). Although there are, for instance, some traditions of Buddhism that seem not to have a place for a God. Whether therefore they are really a “religion” depends on how you define “religion.”

(“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.” [Through the Looking Glass] )

The Buddhists can speak for themselves on the issue of religion! Perhaps they might be willing to be the original “spiritual but not religious” folks! Although many forms of Buddhism have traditions and ways of life that many would consider “religious.”

I will confess that I have a great deal of sympathy with the “spiritual but not religious” stance. Critical, but sympathetic. The fact of the matter is, “religion” gets a lot of bad press these days, and a very great deal of it is fully deserved. And I am not just talking about “them,” I am talking about us too. It seems to me that a great deal of the fussing that is going on in the Anglican Communion, as well as in our Episcopal Church, is coming from folks who are, as I like to put it, “more religious than God.”

It’s really no wonder that “religion” isn’t doing very well these days. There’s so much “religion” going around, and a lot of it is pretty appalling. Especially those parts that focus on how some other people are going to hell.

(By the way, I am convinced that it is entirely possible to go to hell, if that’s what we really want. And I’m afraid some people really do want that — that is, they choose themselves over God. It’s an eternal choice, but it has its roots in now. But the criteria by which this judgment is revealed are I think very different from what some “religious” folks think.)

So I tend to be a little cautious about “religion.” What we call “religion” is
meant to be a means to our spiritual growth and maturity and fulfillment, with God and in community with all humankind and indeed with all creation. “Religion” is not an end in itself. Jesus did not say, “I have come that you may have religion and have it more abundantly.”

And I think this is one of the things that Jesus is getting at in the Gospel today. Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for many years. And the “religious” folks get their shorts in a twist because Jesus did this on the Sabbath Day, when the religious law prohibited anything that might be defined as “work.” And Jesus responds, in effect: “You people just do not have any clue at all, do you?” Jesus says, “You hypocrites!” I don’t think he means “You phonies!” exactly, which is what we usually mean by the word “hypocrite,” and in classical Greek the word can have the sense of a stage-actor or a dissembler. But the roots of the word carry something of the notion of “faulty judgment” — in that sense, “hypocrites” are folks who just don’t really understand what they’re talking about. “Hypocrite” is not too far from “clueless.”

Jesus says: Look here. Freeing this woman from her crippling bondage is much more what the Kingdom of God is about than keeping religious rules, whatever value those may have in their proper context.

And the proper context of all religion is just this: the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sermon -- 15 August 2010

PROPER 15 / 12 PENTECOST — 15 August 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00 am

Isaiah 5:1-7 | Psalm 80:1-2,8-18 | Hebrews 11:29-12:2 | Luke 12:49-56

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

You may remember — or maybe you don’t, and that’s okay — I’m not trying to lay any guilt trips on you, or at least not yet! — that last Sunday the Gospel reading, from just a few verses before today’s reading, began: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’” This passage from the Gospel stuck in my mind this week, at least in part because this passage was also the appointed Gospel reading this past Wednesday when we commemorated St. Clare of Assisi. As a young woman Clare was inspired by the preaching of St. Francis to adopt a similar religious life of complete poverty and utter devotion to God and living out of God’s love, and there gathered around her a community of women, associated with the Franciscans, who became known as the Poor Clares.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” — that’s what we heard last Sunday, and what we heard this past Wednesday. These are important words. How often do we get suckered in by the fairly common and allegedly “religious” but utterly false notion that God is “out to get us,” that God doesn’t really like us very much, that somehow we have to earn God’s approval? What is it we don’t understand about “God loves us”? Not “God loves us if…” Not “God loves us when…” Just “God loves us!” “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Okay. Got that?

So now today, just a few verses later in St. Luke’s Gospel, we get this: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

(Well, as a matter of fact, we had rather thought that you came to bring peace to the earth! We were under the distinct impression that that's exactly what you were about! “The Peace of the Lord be always with you …” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you …”?) “Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you,” Jesus said, “but I do not give to you as the world gives …

This paradox of God's great love for us and the sternness of the divine word of judgment runs all the way through the Bible. We hear it in the First Reading this morning, for instance, from Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard.” The Lord plants a vineyard (God’s people Israel) with great love and care and devotion and hard work— but what happens? Instead of clusters of grapes (’onabeyim), the Lord’s vineyard produces sour, rotten fruit (be’ushyim — two completely different words in Hebrew). God expected from the beloved Israel mishpat but got mispah (a pun in Hebrew, untranslatable into English: instead of justice, bloodshed); God expected tsedhakah but got tse‘akah (instead of justice, a cry of distress).

It's easy, and it's attractive, to fasten upon one of these aspects of God's self-revelation to us, love and judgment, at the expense of the other. I prefer to hear about God's forgiving love! -- God's eager yearning to bring us together into union. Although I can see where some people might rather prefer the notion of a fearsome, wrathful God; it does provide some nice simple answers and meets some psychological needs, even if it does demand a rather cheerless outlook on life! (And especially for those folks who tend to be fearsome, wrathful people themselves!) But here, as so often, the tension, the contradiction, is only apparent. It's not that God is inconsistent, but that our perspective is so limited. God is always more than we can ever say or know about God.

And, after all, we do not love our children by letting them get away with anything they like and never calling them to account. Parents who let their children grow up undisciplined, untrained, uncorrected may seem like sweeties, but they're doing their kids no favor. They have spoiled them; they really have not cared about them, they have not cared for them.

But God cares for us. And so it sometimes appears to us that God is a little tough. God's love is no marshmallow — God's love is more than just warm fuzzies. Because God loves us, God tells us the truth - even though we don't always want to hear the truth. One truth that we must hear and understand, even though we may not always much care for it, is that between the Reign of God and the dominions of this world and its worldly values and priorities there is a great gulf. This gulf is not of God's making, but of our own - of humankind's making. We have a perverse determination to have things our own way, to cut ourselves away from the Kingdom of God, to wall ourselves off into a narrow, restricted, and largely hollow reality of our own devising. And given where we are, and what we have done to ourselves, restoration to God’s Kingdom can hardly come without pain, wrenching, strife, contention, division. Those who are faithful citizens of God's Kingdom must necessarily seem a traitor to the perversities that twist and distort this fallen world's values.

The Gospel of Christ brings division - not because it is God's purpose to be divisive (God's purpose is to bring us together), but because the world resists and rejects God's purpose. And so even families can become divided in the face of a value higher than family, in the face of a loyalty more demanding than blood. Jesus warns us: this is how it is! Be prepared for it!

In the end there must be decision and commitment: God and God's Reign - or ourselves? We must choose; to choose one is to reject the other; not to choose is to choose ourselves. To choose God is to reject the distorted values of this world - and thus to suffer the fury of a world scorned: ridicule, estrangement, hatred, persecution. Hardly what the world would call peace. But then, there's not very much evidence that the world knows very much about what real peace is, is there? “I do not give to you as the world gives . . .” Or as the hymn [#661] puts it: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod; yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sermon -- 1 August 2010

PROPER 13 / 10 PENTECOST — 1 August 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant— 9:00 a.m.

Hosea 11:1-11 | Psalm 107:1-9,43 | Colossians 3:1-11 | Luke 12:13-21

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

The first reading this morning is from the 11th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Hosea. We’ve never read this particular passage at the Sunday Eucharist before — it’s assigned to this Sunday in Track One of the Revised Common Lectionary.

(Perhaps you’re aware that in the Long Green Summer and Fall season of Sundays, the Revised Common Lectionary provides a choice for the First Readings between Track One and Track Two. And you may not really care, and that’s quite okay! Karon knows about this choice, because she checks with the priest for that Sunday to see which Track he or she wants to follow in order to do the Sunday bulletin. In Track One, if you haven’t drifted off yet, the Old Testament readings follow a semi-continuous sequence from Sunday to Sunday, just as the Epistle and the Gospel do. It’s related to the other readings only coincidentally, which means, surprisingly often. Track Two is basically the same as our previous lectionary that goes back to the 1970s, and in that track the Old Testament reading is selected because it has, or at least is perceived as having, some connection to the Gospel reading for that Sunday. That’s the advantage of Track Two. The advantage of Track One is that there is somewhat more continuity from week to week in the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. This year, for instance, the first readings in Track One are mostly from the prophets: we heard about the prophet Elijah, and then about his successor Elisha, and then we had a couple of weeks from Amos and now we are getting a couple of weeks of Hosea. Amos and Hosea were prophets in the northern kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel (as opposed to the southern kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah — and all too often they were opposed!) in the middle of the 8th Century BC. The messages of Amos and Hosea were basically “If you people don’t get your act together, God will send the King of Assyria from the East to whup you.” And as it turned out, the people didn’t, and God did.

Anyway, in Track One, beginning next week the Old Testament readings are from Isaiah for a couple of weeks, and then from Jeremiah for most of the rest of the fall. The Track Two readings are an assortment, related to the Gospel reading for the day. Which one you get depends on what priest you get that Sunday!

Anyway: Although we’ve never used this reading at the Sunday Eucharist before, it’s possible that this verse rings a bell for you [you might want to put a finger in your pew Bible, even if you don’t usually follow along with the readings — page 632]:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

Yeah. Where have we heard that before? Well, it’s quoted in St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter two, verses 14 & 15, just after the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus. An angel appears to St. Joseph in a dream and tells him to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, because King Herod is out to kill him: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [Hosea], ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’”

Oh, right! I thought that sounded familiar!

Of course, if we look carefully at today’s reading from Hosea, it seems that Matthew is taking this verse pretty much out of context. (What? Take a Bible verse out of context? Oh, surely not! Who would do such a thing?) This verse is not a prediction of the return of the Christ Child from being a refugee in Egypt. It’s about how God brought God’s people Israel out of Egyptian slavery into the promised land hundreds of years before — Israel referred to here metaphorically as God’s child, “my son.”

Oh, wait…

Well, maybe Matthew isn’t taking this verse so much out of context after all. Just with a bit of insight and imagination.

Anyway, Hosea isn’t predicting the future (at least not that he knows of!), he’s reflecting on the past and what it means for the present (which is what prophets do). And he’s saying here, “Look, God brought us out from bondage into freedom, and what have you people done? You’ve messed up! Over and over! You’re worshipping the pagan Canaanite gods, the Baals! What is it you didn’t understand about God’s command, ‘Don’t worship the Baals!’? This isn’t just like going to a different church, you know! But God still loves you, even though there are consequences for what you are doing. The Assyrian Empire will conquer the Kingdom of Israel, and you will be scattered from Mesopotamia to Egypt.” (This wasn’t an organized exile into captivity, like the Babylonians would do with the southern Kingdom of Judah a hundred fifty or so years later, but it was the beginning of the diaspora, the dispersion, of the people of Israel into the surrounding world.) But Hosea goes on, “But God still loves you. God will not utterly destroy you the way he destroyed Admah and Zeboiim.” (Who? Where? Admah and Zeboiim were neighboring cities to Sodom and Gomorrah, and shared in their destruction by fire and brimstone, or as we might say, volcanic ash and lava, back in the Olden Days.) “God says, ‘I will not destroy you, Ephraim’.” (Ephraim was the largest of the northern tribes; here it’s a figure of speech in which one stands for all.) “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.”

God is not “out to get us,” as so many people even today seem to think. God loves us, and wants to bring us home, even when we have messed up. The prophet Hosea lived and proclaimed God’s word over eight hundred years before Jesus Christ, but he still had a great insight into the Good News of the Kingdom of God. This is Gospel.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sermon - 23 May 2010

Christ Church, Burlington — 8:00 & 10:00 a.m.

Acts 2:1-21 | Ps 104:25-35,37 | Romans 8:14-17 | John 14:8-17,25-27

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:26]

Notice what Jesus promises his followers: the Holy Spirit to teach them. He does not promise them the Bible.

Jesus did not have a Bible. The first hundred years or so of the Christian Church did not have a Bible. Oh, of course they had the Jewish Scriptures — plural — because the only form in which they knew them was a multiplicity of scrolls.

Jesus and the first Christian generations knew the Scriptures, but they were not yet a “Bible.” There was actually a pretty solid consensus about what writings were to be counted as “Scripture,” including the Torah, the history books, the Prophets, and the Psalms — there was still some dispute about some of the others — but “Bible” was not quite yet a single hammer with which to pound people on the head. (Although “it is written” got used for a certain amount of smacking around, to which Jesus often replied, “Yes, but I say to you…”) And although the various writings that we call the New Testament were in the process of composition, and some of them were becoming widely known, they were not universally recognized as “Holy Scripture” and in fact some were still not accepted for quite a long time.

In fact, apparently many early Christian congregations functioned reasonably well without a “Bible” at all. In the later second century, St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons in what is now France, tells about “barbarian” churches who had salvation without written scriptures because they had the Apostolic tradition of the rule of faith. Irenaeus seems to be referring to Gallican rural churches around Lyons whose people did not read or speak Greek, and there was no Imperial Bible Society to translate the scriptures into Gallic, their Celtic tongue.

Now, I am not in any way trying to disparage the importance or the authority of Holy Scripture. I steadfastly affirm the ordination pledge from the Prayer Book: “I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” But we need to understand — as I think many so-called “evangelicals,” within the Anglican tradition as well as beyond, do not understand — that the Bible did not create the Church, the Church created the Bible. That is not to deny that the Bible may stand in judgment on the Church, and indeed often does. The New Testament writings are the authoritative witness to the original Apostolic tradition, and through them God the Holy Spirit constantly moves to renew us and recall us to our genuinely evangelical roots. But the Church of Jesus Christ is founded not on the Bible but on Jesus Christ, who committed the mission of the proclamation and enactment of the good news of the Reign of God to a community of followers empowered by his Holy Spirit with the promise that the Spirit would continue to lead them into all truth.

But being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth can be Very Very Hard. For two reasons: one is moral and spiritual: the simple fact is that we really don’t want to be led by the Holy Spirit into all truth, what we want is ratification of the validity of our own prejudices and preferences. So one reason why being led by the Holy Spirit is hard is because it means we have to recognize and surrender our precious Pride.

The other reason is a little less spiritual and a little more cognitive: it is sometimes just hard to tell what is really true. The evidence and the indications are often confusing and contradictory — not least from Scripture itself. I have never really understood the Biblical-literalist mind. (I’m staying away here from the term “fundamentalist,” which I think is not really very helpful.) These folks who make such a big deal of the inerrancy of the Bible — have they never read the text? But I digress.

My point is that the Scriptures are full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Does that mean that these writings are worthless, deceitful, untrustworthy? No! Of course not! But it does mean their contradictions and inconsistencies are aspects of them that has to be incorporated into their interpretation. And even in some of the most appalling stories from the early history of God’s People Israel, the Holy Spirit may have a word for us.

And then on top of that there is Christian history. I referred earlier, along with St. Irenaeus, to the Apostolic tradition. But the Apostolic tradition is no nice and tidy piece of work either. Roman Catholics have an infallible Pope, and conservative evangelicals have an infallible Bible. Anglicans like to say we have an infallible Early Church, but it’s just not that simple!

And being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth has to do in part with sorting all this out. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of humility. It takes a lot of tolerance for the possibility that I may be mistaken. (And it’s not so bad to be mistaken, as long as we stay open and keep listening, keep thinking, keep praying. The Holy Spirit will eventually bring us around, though perhaps not quite on our schedule.)

It also takes a lot of willingness to be thoughtful. I don’t mean that one has to run off and get an advanced degree in Biblical Studies. Formal academic study of the Bible is a good thing, on the whole, I think, and I encourage you to do it if you are led in that direction, but frankly the evidence suggests that the Holy Spirit is not more likely to be heard in the ivy-covered halls of a university or seminary than in an ordinary parish Bible study group. But just because one isn’t academically trained in biblical hermeneutics doesn’t mean one has to be simple-minded about the Scriptures. A lot of it is actually a matter of common sense. If you are halfway adept at interpreting human life and human experience, it will take you a long way in interpreting the Scriptural witness. And the Scriptures are a witness to the acts of God in the human world, not in some religious fantasyland. (“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” after all.)

It is often said that Christianity is a “religion of the Book,” along with Judaism and Islam. But I think it really isn’t, at least not in the first instance. Our faith is not based on a Book, but on a Person.

(Islam probably really is a religion of the Book, the Qur’an. Judaism became something of a religion of the Book, the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh, and secondarily the Talmud, but originally it was a religion of History: God’s choice and redemption of the people Israel.)

We know this Person on whom our faith is based — Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, the Incarnate Word — primarily through our foundational and authoritative written witness, through the memory and experience of the Christian community through the years, but also more directly, through the Holy Spirit whom Christ sends from the Father to be with us and in us, to breathe the divine life into us and draw us into God’s eternal love. It is this gift that we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon - 16 May 2010

7TH OF EASTER — 16 May 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Ac 16:16-34 | Ps 97 | Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20-21 | John 17:20-26

“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

The preacher was warming to his task: “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stop frequenting the saloons!” “Amen, brother, preach the word!” “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stay out of the casinos!” “Amen, brother, preach the word!” “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stop charging your customers too much and paying your employees too little!” “Hey, wait a minute, brother, that’s not preaching the word, that’s meddling in bus'ness!”

One of the things that has from the very beginning been a source of some contention within the Christian Church, and among those outside the Church looking in, has been the role the Church ought to play in regard to the carrying on of the world’s ordinary business. When the Church speaks to the world about the way the world does its business, it is exercising a prophetic ministry on behalf of God’s justice — or, depending on your point of view, it’s “meddling.”

And well before Christianity, the prophets of the Old Testament were constantly getting on the case of the powers-that-were in Israelite society about their greed and corruption and oppression of the poor. Often enough the prophets got themselves cast out, jailed, or even killed for their trouble.

In the first three centuries of the life of the Christian Church, there wasn’t a lot of outward, direct effect the Church could have on the Roman Empire; nor, for that matter, could very many other groups; the Roman Empire was not an open or democratic society. And the Christian Church, particularly, had to lay fairly low much of the time; Christianity was illegal, and although out-and-out persecution was only sporadic, you never knew when some gung-ho local magistrate might go on a tear, and so you had to keep your head down. The Church did have its effect, however, as leaven in the lump, and after the conversion (~) of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, and the subsequent establishment of Christianity as the official imperial religion, the Church started wielding a lot more clout in secular society. The history of the later Empire and of the European middle ages is full of struggles between the Church’s concern for justice (at our best) and secular kings’ concern for their own power. (The assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, by some of King Henry II’s national security staff is but one of the better-known of such episodes.)

Anyway, nowadays when the Church speaks to an issue like the environment, or foreign policy, or economic development, or international debt, or human rights, it’s not too uncommon for a lot a people (including some who claim to be members of the Church) to start having conniptions about “religion” “meddling” in the world’s business. (Some folks are gonna be real surprised when they discover that there’s only one place where the Gospel doesn’t mix with politics or economics—or anything else. And it’s very warm in that place!) The Gospel isn’t really about “religion,” you know. It’s about life. All of life.

Today in the first Scripture reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we catch up with St Paul again. Continuing last week’s episode in our annual Eastertide continuing drama of The Missionary Journeys of St. Paul, Paul and Silas, and maybe Timothy (and maybe not — it isn’t clear whether he accompanied them from Lystra to Troas), but apparently now with young Luke tagging along, have ended up across the Aegean Sea on the European side in the Roman province of Macedonia (though today it’s not in the country of Macedonia but on the northeastern coast of Greece), in a city called Philíppi, which the Romans had taken over as a place to settle retired army veterans.

Here they encounter a slave girl. She is possessed by “a spirit of divination,” Luke tells us. I’m not sure how that would be described in modern medical or psychiatric terminology, and I’m not sure it matters much; the point is, she’s weird. She’s fey. She’s possibly schizophrenic. But she tells fortunes. And she’s real good at it, and her owners are making a lot of money off her.

The girl may be crazy, but she’s not stupid, and in her psychotic-visionary way she is able to discern who Paul and Silas and their companions are, and what they’re up to. And she runs around telling everybody, “Hey, listen to these Jewish guys, they have a message of salvation from God.”

After a while this gets on Paul’s nerves. He’s not mad at the slave girl — it’s not her fault, after all — still, it’s not a good advertisement for your new church if your biggest supporter is the town madwoman. And clearly the girl is (we would say) seriously mentally ill. So Paul heals her. He drives her demon out of her in the name of Jesus Christ.

And now she’s well. She’s happy; she’s calm; she’s at peace. And she can’t tell a fortune from a meatloaf recipe. Her owners are very upset. The Philippi Chamber of Commerce is very upset. The whole town is very upset. Here’s a bunch of religious do-gooders meddling around with the free-enterprise economy! They haul Paul and Silas off to court. “They’re disturbing our city!” (Maybe have to plead guilty to that!) “They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe!” (Like, they’re infringing on our right to make a buck any way we want. Like, they want us to give up sorcery, and exploiting our slaves, and ripping off the rubes! Like, they actually want us to change the way we live our lives! Can you imagine the gall of these people? Who do they think they are, to come busting into our nice little community and meddling?!)

Well. You get the point. We don’t have any problem granting the Gospel’s claim on us to be honest and kind and decent, at least as honest and kind and decent as we can afford to be while we go about our own business trying to make a living. It gets a little dicier if it begins to look like Jesus Christ wants us to make some radical changes in our own agenda for our lives—if he wants us to start going about his business. There is absolutely no area of human life that stands outside Jesus’ summons—or outside his redemption. Deep in our deepest soul, in our innermost heart, the thing that we care about the most, where we will hang on though all else be lost, that which we will not surrender—be it money, power, position, security, honor, pride, loyalty—precisely there it is that Jesus Christ comes and claims us for his own.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sermon - 13 May 2010

ASCENSION DAY — 13 May 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 12:15 p.m.

Acts 1:1-11 | Psalm 93 | Eph 1:15-23 | Luke 24:44-53

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

When I first volunteered (or was volunteered; I don’t remember for sure!) to preach at our celebration of Ascension Day, I told Raisin that I promised not to drag out the “Toes” picture yet again. But she said, “Oh, drag it out! I’ve never seen it!” Those of you who have been around here for a while may recall seeing this before; if you’ve been around for a long time you may even recall having seen it a couple of times! (Is this only the third time I’ve dragged this silly thing out? If God is merciful and just, there won’t be a fourth.) Anyway, here it is. “L’Ascenzione di Christo,” attributed to Fra Gulielmo il Insensato.

What I didn’t realize — and I really didn’t realize! — and what I just discovered a couple of weeks ago — is that on the ceiling in the Ascension Chapel at the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk in England there is this:

I’ve been to Walsingham, and I don’t remember this at all. But that was almost fifty years ago, and so maybe it wasn’t there yet when I was there back in the day. But hey, I was only nineteen years old — I can’t imagine that if I had seen it I would ever have forgotten it! Nineteen-year-old boys love stuff like this!

(I think these are supposed to be beams of light, not super-long toenails. I think.)

Well, more than enough silliness for this important celebration. This is not what the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is about.

Okay, then, what is it about?

The Ascension into Heaven is a standard part of our faith about Jesus, and has been right from the beginning. Paul (or an immediate successor, as the case may be) says in the Epistle today, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” [Eph 1:20]. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” [Hebr 4:14].

The Gospels themselves say less about the Ascension of Jesus as an event (as opposed to a theological reality as a dimension and consequence of the Resurrection) than we might think. Mark doesn’t mention it at all as an event; the authentic text, at least as we have it, ends with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. (Subsequently, probably in the second century, there was added a “longer ending” which is clearly dependent upon knowledge, though apparently not actual copies of the texts, of Matthew, Luke, and probably John.)

In John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus in his appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them… [John 20:17]. However, nothing further is said explicitly about any subsequent event.

In Matthew’s Gospel, quite to the contrary, Jesus at his appearance to his disciples in Galilee, gives them the Great Commission to go and “make disciples of all nations,” and then simply concludes, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” [Matt 28:19-20]. (I am inclined to think that the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel would be a better reading for Ascension Day than the conclusion of Luke’s. But, oh well.) It is only in Luke that we actually get the narrative picture of what I so reverently refer to as “Toes.” But possibly you have noticed, in the readings today first from the Book of Acts and then from Luke’s Gospel, that although Luke tells this story twice, the actual event of the Ascension takes place on different days. In Acts it is forty days after the resurrection (hence our festival today), but in the Gospel it is on the Sunday afternoon of Easter Day itself.

(Excursus 1: Two or three hundred years down the line this inconsistency between Luke and Acts upset some people, and so they tinkered with the conclusion of the Gospel text so that it read just “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them.…And they returned to Jerusalem…” [Luke 24:51-52] So Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Bezae, if you’re taking notes; but most of the early manuscripts include the full text of these verses.)

(Excursus 2: All of this suggests to me that St. Luke himself was not deeply concerned about the issue of exact chronology. He was typical of ancient historiographers, in that he was much more concerned about what events meant than with precise accuracy about all the details of timing and sequence. We know, for example, that that’s how Luke handles his account of the evangelization of the Gentiles by the infant Church.)

“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That’s the real heart of what we celebrate on Ascension Day. If the Risen Christ had just continued to hang around in Jerusalem, none of his followers would ever have been willing to leave and get on with making disciples of all nations. Jesus’ Ascension is not about his going away from us, least of all his going “up there” (whatever that might mean for our generation in which we have actually been “up there” and can telescopically see thirteen billion light years into “up there”). “Heaven” — that is, the presence of God and the reign of Christ — is not “up there,” it is right here if we will accept it and live into it. Because Jesus is ascended into Heaven, he is no longer stuck back in Galilee and Judea in the first century but can be and is present to all people in all times in all places. Jesus is Lord, not just long ago and far away but here, now, forever. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sermon - 25 April 2010

4TH OF EASTER — 25 April 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45 and 8:45 a.m.

Acts 9:36-43 | Psalm 23 | Revelation 7:9-17 | John 10:22-30

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This Sunday is traditionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because today in the Gospel reading each year we hear a portion of the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus talks about the “good shepherd” and himself as “The Good Shepherd.” In this third year of the cycle of readings, Year C, we hear a follow-up or extension of that theme. We also refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the Collect today, and you may note that we read Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," as well!

“At that time,” the Gospel reading begins. Well, not exactly. The last time stamp, back in chapter 7 [7:2], was the Feast of Tabernacles, which occurs September-Octoberish, and chapters 7, 8, 9, and the first part of 10 (the “Good Shepherd” sayings) appear to be part of a continuous time frame. Or not. Neither John, nor Mark and the other Synoptists, are all that committed to chronological precision; they build their narrative themes in other ways. But in any case, the beginning of today’s reading is better translated as “It happened that…” and the temporal reference is now to the festival of the Dedication (of the Temple). If that doesn’t immediately ring a bell, that’s because we now normally refer to this celebration by its Jewish name, Hanukkah (“Oh, right!”), which occurs in December. And although winter in Jerusalem is hardly like winter in Iowa, still it could be a little chilly, and Solomon’s Portico was on the east side of the Temple where it was in the lee of the December winds.

That this conversation between Jesus and “the Jews” — in this case the Greek probably more specifically means “the Judeans,” residents of Jerusalem — that this takes place at Hanukkah is not just passing trivia. (There are no passing trivia in the Fourth Gospel. We don’t always catch on, but this Evangelist never uses any stray or throwaway words.) Hanukkah, of course, is the celebration and commemoration of the Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (you remember Antiochus!), the Seleucid Emperor (you remember the Seleucids -- they were the Syrian partition of the Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great a century and a half earlier) -- Antiochus had militarily took Judea away from the Ptolemaic Empire (that was the Egyptian partition of Alexander’s brief domain). Antiochus was rabidly Hellenistic, that is, culturally Greek, and one of the things he did in the year 167 Before the Common Era was to erect an idol of the Greek god the Olympian Zeus (whom the Syrians called Baal Shamem) in the Jerusalem Temple. This was an act of unspeakable defilement which the Jews called the Abomination of Desolation. Three years later the Jews under Judas Maccabeus drove the Syrians out of Judea and cleansed and reconsecrated the Jerusalem Temple. Most of us have at least a little familiarity with how Hanukkah is celebrated among Jewish people today, especially in the United States (where in December there is all that quasi-Christian stuff going on around them). I’m not sure what they did in Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era, though I suspect it did not involve dreidels, but for the Jews of Jesus’ time Hanukkah was not a happy domestic holiday but was still very much a Big Patriotic Deal — the liberation from the Hellenistic Syrians was, if not exactly living memory any more, at least an emotionally very powerful remembrance. It was like the Fourth of July. But the bitter irony was that Judean independence had only lasted for a hundred years or so, and Judea had then again been conquered, this time by the Romans under the general Pompey the Great. The Romans had the good sense not to try to mess with the Temple, on the whole, and they installed an Idumean puppet king, that is, an Edomite, which was sort of like being Jewish, known to history as Herod the Great. Herod wanted to curry favor with the Jews and he sponsored a major renovation of the Jerusalem Temple, about which the Jews on the whole had very mixed feelings. (They were glad of the renovation, but why did it have to be Herod who did it?) And so the celebration of Hanukkah in those years was dripping in irony: "We rejoice in the liberation of our people from the conqueror and the rededication of the Temple of the Lord; but on the other hand now we are occupied by another conqueror and so we need God’s Anointed One, like another Maccabee, to liberate us again."

So anyway, the opening verses of the Gospel reading this morning are Very Heavily Loaded. And so they come to Jesus, walking in the Temple during Hanukkah, and they ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” Or something like that. It’s a somewhat obscure idiom in Greek, literally meaning “How long are you taking away our life?” So it's something like, “How long are you going to keep driving us nuts? If you are God’s Anointed One, the one who is finally going to liberate Israel permanently, then say so!”

And Jesus says, “I did say so, only you didn’t get it! I am the Shepherd, yes, like David if you will, but you aren’t my sheep.” One of the reasons why they ask Jesus whether he is the Anointed One (in Hebrew, the Messiah; in Greek, the Christ) is because he has not said so directly. (Well, in John he tells the Samaritan woman, and he hinted at it to the man born blind, but those conversations were private and in a sense off the record. In Mark's Gospel we do talk about the “Messianic Secret,” but scholars may push that a little too far. Nevertheless, Jesus does not go around saying, “Hi, folks, I am God’s Messiah.” Not directly. Jesus just does the works of God’s Anointed One, indeed of God’s Son, of him who is One with the Father, and then he asks, “Well? Do you get it?” The problem is that for everybody but Jesus himself, and that includes the disciples, the “Messiah” means the one who militarily, or miraculously, or both, is going to drive out the Romans and liberate Israel (as Judas Maccabeus had driven out the Syrians and liberated Israel, for a while, almost two hundred years earlier) — thus the irony of this encounter in the Temple during Hanukkah.

And Jesus says, “You have your expectation of the Messiah, but that’s not who I am, and that’s not what I am doing — what I am doing in my Father’s name and in union with my Father. The true sheep hear me and they follow me as their true Shepherd King, but what I give them is not mere political independence. Babylonians and Greeks and Syrians and Romans come and go. What I give them is fullness of life eternally, and they can never be snatched out of my hand.”

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sermon - 18 April 2010

3 OF EASTER — 18 April 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.

Acts 9:1-20 | Psalm 30 | Rev. 5:11-14 | John 21:1-19

Get up and enter the city; and you will be told what you are to do.

Have you ever had a vision? I never have. My guess is that you haven’t either, most of you, but I might be wrong about that. The state of the world and the church is such that if you did see a vision, and you told anyone about it—even a priest—maybe even especially a priest!—they might well call some nice people to come and escort you away to a new home! If you have had a vision, or think you might have, and you want to tell somebody about it, I promise to listen and not to assume from the outset that you need nice people to come for you. But most of us don’t have visions; and those who do have them don’t normally have them very often. Some people who have visions — especially a lot of visions — really do have problems, and their visions may be arising out of their problems. But some visions really do come from God, and some people really do have them.

Today in the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about a couple of visions which we believe were visions which genuinely came from God. The first vision was given to one Saul of Tarsus, a young and zealous Pharisee, who had grown up in the province of Cilicia on what is now the south coast of Turkey but who now studied and lived in Jerusalem. We more often refer to him not by his Hebrew-Jewish name Shaul, but by his Greco-Roman name, Paulos. (Lots of Jews had two names in those days.) The second vision was given to a Jewish Christian named Ananias who was a member of the new community of followers of Jesus in Damascus, in Syria northeast of Galilee. (Right where Damascus is now. In fact, Straight Street is still there.) And in these two visions we see something of what God is up to, and how God operates, and, perhaps incidentally, why visions are rather rare things and why that’s okay.

Paul was one of those people who was so single-mindedly religious that the only way God could get through to him was by knocking him off his feet. So God knocked him off his feet. We call that “The Conversion of St. Paul.”

Note what happens in this encounter. (Incidentally, this story occurs three times in the book of Acts; it’s first told here in chapter 9 that we just heard, and then later there are two accounts of Paul himself telling it, in chapter 22 and again in chapter 26. I’m picking up from all three tellings.) Paul sees, apparently, a blinding light, and he falls down and hears Jesus speaking to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Paul says, “Who are you?” And Jesus says, “Who do you think? So who else have you been persecuting? And why do you keep resisting me so hard?” “Okay, okay,” Paul says, “I take your point. So now what?” And then Jesus says to Paul (and I think this is significant): “Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Jesus doesn’t tell Paul very much in this vision. All he really tells him is, “Go on into Damascus and wait for further instructions.” That’s all. After such a big flashy start, it ends up being kind of a disappointment, as visions go. But, Paul goes on into town. Well, he’s led into town; you see, God not only knocked Paul down to get his attention, God also blinded him so Paul would know God was serious about this whole thing.

(We have this notion that a word from God is always going to be soothing, and comforting, and supportive, and just the thing we’ve been wanting to hear. Well, I’m sure God does some of that, but actually, in the Bible, God kicks a lot of backside. Be careful if you have a vision in which you are told just what you wanted to hear. “Oh, you poor thing, I know how hungry you must be out here in the desert! You really need something to eat before you starve! Why not command these stones to become bread?” Beware of visions like that!) (But I digress.)

So Paul goes on into Damascus. Meanwhile the second vision is taking place. This is a much less dramatic and much more businesslike kind of affair. Jesus appears to Ananias and tells him to go find Saul of Tarsus in Judas’s house on Straight Street, and heal him of his blindness. (Simple enough!) Ananias says, “Say what? Saul of Tarsus? That Saul of Tarsus? Hey, maybe instead I could just go sell subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal in Teheran.” But Ananias is a good disciple, and he goes. And Ananias finds Saul, lays his hands upon him, and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And Paul regains his sight, and rises and is baptized by Ananias into Jesus the Christ, whose followers Paul had come to persecute.

Sometimes God works very directly. (“Hey Saul! [Smack!] Listen up!” Or, “Ananias. I need you to run an errand for me and I need it right now, and I’m in a hurry, so here it is.”) But most of the time, and generally as soon as possible, God gets others of us into the act. (“Saul! Have I got your attention now? Good! Okay, Ananias will come to see you. He’ll tell you the rest.”) God normally reveals the divine self to us through other people. Again: God normally reveals the divine self to us through other people. Not normally in visions. And when God does give us a vision, God is very likely to do something like giving somebody else a vision too, to be kind of a check-and-balance on us. Because some visions are delusions, and some visions do come from the Devil, and if a vision tells you all sorts of wonderful secret knowledge that only you know now, and nobody else is in on it, and because of this vision you are now the Great and Wise Seer, then your vision may not be very reliable. On the other hand, if the vision is basically a kick in the pants to get you doing what you really knew you should have been doing all along, and it immediately leads you into collaboration with other people for the building up of the community, and it all fits in with the Holy Scriptures and with overall Christian experience, then there’s a much better chance that your vision was the real thing.

But even more to the point: we don’t have to sit around waiting for visions of any kind. It is primarily—not exclusively, by any means, but primarily, directly or indirectly—through other people that God speaks to us. Through the worshiping community as together we hear and meditate upon God’s Word in the Scriptures, and through the world whose need for healing God is sending us to meet: there it is, here it is, that God makes the divine self known to us.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sermon - 4 April 2010

EASTER DAY — 4 April 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.

Acts 10:34-43 | Psalm 118:1-2,14-24 | 1 Cor. 15:19-26 | Luke 24:1-12

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Well, you never can quite be sure, but it does seem that maybe spring is finally sprung in eastern Iowa. (It seems to me that I remember a few years back when it was warm and sunny on Palm Sunday and on Easter we had six inches of snow. Oh well.) But it’s very easy for us to forget that the conjunction of Easter and the return of spring is part of the experience of only a minority of the world’s Christians. Most of the Church lives in tropical or at least semitropical regions (did any of you just get back from Florida?), or else in the Southern Hemisphere (where summer is passing into autumn right now). Spring, in the dramatic way we know it, is largely a northern European and northern North American phenomenon. Still, I guess if our little corner of the world presents us with a vivid image of resurrection, it’s okay to use it, as long as we remember that the analogy does break down: the yearly, cyclical, dependable renewal of growing things as winter turns to spring — the whole business of eggs and lilies and bunnies and chickies — is not the same thing as what God is doing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A fertile egg, no matter how inert in may look on the outside, is full of life inside. A daffodil bulb in the ground does not really die during the winter; it simply goes dormant, to awake (as it were) when the soil warms up again. These are the regular processes of nature.

On the other hand, Jesus was dead. Dead as a doornail. And God raised him to life. Raised him to a whole new kind of life. Not back again for another round of the same old thing (like spring does), but something utterly new. As God says in the lesson from Isaiah [65:17] today (that we didn’t hear because it’s more usual to read Acts as the first lesson instead): “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth!” And we shall share that utterly new life, if we are in Christ. We can experience the beginnings of it, a down payment as it were, even now. But St. Paul makes clear, in the letter to the Romans [6:3,5]: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?…For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” And to the Colossians [3:3] these words: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In order to be raised with Christ, we first must die with Christ. We first must die.

I hate to think what this world would be like today without the witness and ministry of the Christian Church, the community of the people of God in Jesus Christ, over the past two thousand years. We may sometimes wonder whether we’ve done any good at all. Well, we have. Despite everything, we really have. But not nearly what, in the full power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we could have done. We ourselves over the centuries have been as much a part of the problem as we have been the solution. If the world still remains unconverted to the Kingdom of God as proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus Christ, let’s face it, there isn’t all that much of God’s kingdom that the world has seen in us. The history of the Church, right up until and including the present, is one appalling chapter after another. We do not show the world the new life of resurrection, the life of the risen Christ in us, because we ourselves have refused to die.

It isn’t, I think, just that we stumble and fall. It isn’t just that we are sinners. The world understands about stumbling and falling. Heaven knows God understands that we are sinners. No, it’s that our vision itself is so short and narrow. We have a Gospel, Good News, of the radical transformation of human life in Jesus Christ, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God; yet we ourselves are so resolutely resistant to transformation, we insist on puttering about in a petty religiosity that has very little to do with the Reign of God. The world continues to be plagued with hatred, greed, violence, vengefulness, exploitation, oppression, self-gratification, arrogant pride, the thirst for power. We have good news for this world, good news of new life, life for the dead, good news of love and peace and joy. But the world does not see that good news in us. Our vision of the Kingdom of God in our own lives is dim and blurry. It’s so hard for us to let go of ourselves. It’s so hard for us to die to ourselves that we may live for one another in love. Because we refuse to die, we are unable to live. And being ourselves unable to live, we are unable to share life with the world.

But what can you or I do about all the problems of the world? They are so massive, so global. Well, directly, this week, maybe not a lot. But every world problem started sometime, somewhere, as a personal problem, as a family problem, as a neighborhood problem, as a local community problem. Hatred and injustice among nations has its roots in hatred and injustice between persons. We can do something about our own little corner of the world, and it is all our own little corners that make up the world as a whole. Those of you who are as old as I am will remember Pogo the Possum, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” “Us” is a place to start. And if we will die to ourselves, die to our blind narrow self-interests, so that we can live with the transforming life of the risen Christ, it will not end there. It will not end any short of the transforming and healing of the world.

The Easter Gospel is the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it is not just good news about Jesus, it is good news from Jesus for us, good news in Jesus for the world. God can and does and will raise us from death to life. But this Gospel of Resurrection is not a mere cheery hopefulness that things will get better, it is not a message of “if winter comes can spring be far behind?” It is good news of new life, utterly new life, news of the triumph of love and peace and joy, news of life from death. God can raise the dead to life; but God can only raise the dead to life. We first must die — die to ourselves. Then and only then can we live — live in Christ to God, live for the life of the world.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sermon - 28 March 2010

PALM SUNDAY — 28 March 2010
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa —10:00

Luke 19:28-40 | Ps 118:1-2,19-29
Isa 50:4-9a | Ps 31:9-16 | Phil 2:5-11 | Luke 23:1-49

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Human beings around the world and through the ages have generally been in agreement on some assumptions about human life, and the values of our lives. One of these assumptions is: “You get what you pay for.” Or at least that’s what’s fair; and conversely, you shouldn’t get what you don’t deserve. (You shouldn’t get what you don’t deserve!) Another assumption is that it’s only fair, and a matter of justice, that we should give as good as we get. If you do to me, then I have a right to do to you in return. A further correlated assumption is that we should stand up for ourselves and not let other people get the better of us. This is, as we say, only fair.

These assumptions have a couple of things in common. One is that they are all very much based upon common sense. Another thing that they have in common is that they have the nature of sin.

We have great admiration for the generosity of Jesus, who, while enduring the body-wracking agony of having iron spikes driven through his wrists and ankles, nevertheless has such greatness of heart that he can forgive his own executioners as they pound home the nails. Indeed, we become very sentimental about it. Our admiration and sentimentality can be a cover-up for the fact that we don’t really take Jesus seriously in this. We recognize that if we were in that kind of situation, the spirit of forgiveness would be the furthest thing from our minds. We admire the forgivingness of Jesus, but the one who really makes us stand up and cheer is the condemned prisoner who disdains the blindfold and cigarette and spits in his executioner’s eye. Yes, we admire Jesus, but our hearts are really with the feistier heroes.

All of which is very much why Jesus died, and why he died the way he did. Because our values, our assumptions, the things most likely to thrill our hearts, are all wrong. Sin does not have to do just with a laundry-list of misdeeds: it has to do with our whole outlook on life. Retaliation under the guise of justice is not an authentic value. Jesus was perfectly serious when he counseled us to turn the other cheek. We are not here to get all the gusto we can out of life, or even “our fair share,” or indeed to get anything at all out of life. And “deserving” has absolutely nothing whatever to do with anything.

We don’t know very much about the soldiers who actually did the dirty work of crucifying Jesus. It would be misleading to say that they were much like any soldiers anywhere anytime; because at least in our society, our armed forces are made up largely of citizen-soldiers with strong ties to their families and homes. On the other hand, in the first century of our era the legions of the Roman Empire were largely made up of men who literally had nothing better to do. Their enlistments were for the full term of their vigorous years, twenty years or more. They were often provincials, or even barbarians from outside the Empire, rather than Romans from central Italy, and they usually had no family ties, no real homes to return to. They were good fighters, well-disciplined, but hard and tough and not a little mean. No, they didn’t know what they were doing specifically — they didn’t know that they were crucifying the Lord of Glory. But they knew they were crucifying a man, and they didn’t much care; they had crucified men before and they would do it again. This one was apparently some kind of religious fanatic, which was mildly amusing. He was a Jew, and a Roman imperial soldier stationed in Judaea would certainly not consider the death of another Jew as any great loss to the world. We can get very romantic about these poor benighted troops staunchly doing their very unpleasant duty, fortunately unaware of the horror taking place at their hands, and have a certain sympathy for them. But that doesn’t ring true. Crucifixion details weren’t much fun, except to the sadistic, but the soldiers were hardened to them, they had ceased to care, they had developed a repertory of coarse gallows humor to keep what they were doing from affecting them too deeply. They didn’t deserve to be forgiven, on the basis of ignorance or anything else.

But Jesus prays for their forgiveness anyway — indeed, forgiveness hardly means much if the one forgiven deserves to be forgiven. Because forgiveness is the only way we can really deal with that kind of situation. Forget about all the bravado and the heroics and the blustering about “justice” — only one thing can really defeat evil, and that is love. Have done, Jesus says, have done with all this nonsense about self-preservation, and retributive justice so-called, and charity beginning at home, and looking out for Number One first, and “I don’t get mad, I get even,” and never letting anyone else get the better of you, and keeping up with the Joneses, and what will people think, and sticking up for yourself like a man. Forget it! It’s all going right down the tubes with your old bones anyway! That’s the junk that will really kill you.

Take all that injustice, that pain, that blasphemy, upon yourself and return only good for evil, blessings for curses? To be reviled, and not to revile in return, to suffer and not threaten?? To forgive those who do us evil, whether they deserve it or not?

In this scene on Golgotha, Skull Hill, who are the ones whose very names we have forgotten? and who is the One who is the very hinge of history? Who are the ones who in themselves are almost completely unmemorable and long dead? and who is the One who is the First and the Last, the Living One, who was dead and see, he is alive for ever and ever, and has the keys to Death and Hell? Who is the One?