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?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sermon - 14 March 2010

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT—14 March 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.

Joshua 5:9-12 | Psalm 32 | 2Cor 5:16-21 | Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

"Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends."

One of my favorite windows on what’s really going on in people’s minds is the advice columns in the papers. In the Iowa City Press-Citizen that would be Dear Abby. (Although of course now it isn’t the original Dear Abby any more, it’s her daughter, who actually is a pretty good counselor. But I digress.) Sometimes these columns are kind of depressing, because it’s fairly clear that there are a whole bunch of people running around out there who are profoundly clueless. But one of the recurring themes that keeps popping up in the letters that come in to these columnists has to do with gifts. “My nephew who lives on the west coast and whom I haven’t seen since he was seven has sent us a high-school graduation announcement; do we have to send a gift?” “My cousin is getting married for the fourth time; she could furnish a whole house with the engagement, shower, and wedding presents we’ve already given her, and we don’t even like her very much! Do I have to send a gift?” I remember a marvelous one from some years back — “Should the value of the wedding gift equal the price-per-couple being spent by the bride’s parents on the reception and dinner?” Or this: “I keep getting Christmas presents from so-and-so, and so we give presents back, but it’s more than we can really afford, and we really aren’t all that close anyway . . .” And on and on. You know how it goes. Most of us have been in that situation ourselves a few times.

What this suggests to me is that we have a real problem with the whole business of gifts. We don’t understand about Gift. Gifts are free. Absolutely free, or else they aren’t really gifts. We don’t pay for gifts (then it’s not a gift but a purchase we’ve made). We don’t deserve gifts (then it’s not a gift but a wage we’ve earned). We don’t owe gifts (then it’s not a gift but a debt we need to pay off).

But no. We’re all brought up to believe the wise old saying, “There’s no free lunch, you get what you pay for, and nothing’s going to come in the mail.” And so too often for us there’s no real giving in our lives, only transactions.

There is no virtue in irresponsibility, and real life is not lived in idle wishfulness. God knows our modern society understands poorly enough about actions and consequences. But our normal operational prudence must not blind us to the realization that at the deepest level of how things really are, everything is Gift. That’s at the heart of our faith as Christians.

The religious establishment in Israel—the pillars of the Church, the Scribes and Pharisees—have been grousing at Jesus because he hangs around with sinners, outcasts, non-observant Jews, and other such riffraff. The Pharisees’ basic problem is that they think that the old dictum “there’s no free lunch, you get what you pay for, and nothing’s going to come in the mail” is a Fundamental Law of the Universe. And so they think that God’s special favor rests upon those who, like themselves, have “earned” it by observing all the minute details of the Law of Moses, and further that God’s favor does not rest upon “undeserving” folks like Jesus and his trashy friends. The Pharisees were very much hung up with the question of “deserving.” Like the older brother in the parable this morning. Like us. (And of course, it is the older brother and his father that the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is really about. And us.)

In this morning’s epistle, St Paul reminds us that God does not keep score on the past. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” No, God’s plan is to give everyone a whole new start. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” God “made him (who knew no sin himself) to take on sin for our sake, so that we, in him, might take on God’s righteousness.” A whole new start, not earned, not deserved, but given. “All this is from God,” St Paul says. God’s doing, not ours. Gift. Free gift.

That’s hard for us to accept. The economics of our world doesn’t work that way. “You only get what you pay for.”

We’ve heard and told and retold the story of the prodigal son for so long that we instinctively see the older brother as a hardnosed coldhearted whiner. He’s not. The older brother is the good guy, by our own usual standards. He’s the one who is hard-working, loyal, thrifty, responsible, brave, clean, reverent. The older brother is us. He’s the one who embodies all those ideals that you and I usually hold about human life. He understands that there’s no free lunch in life, you get what you deserve and should deserve what you get, we’re not to sit around waiting for something to come in the mail. And by these standards which all mature and responsible people share, his father is not being fair.

Well, no. God isn’t fair. Not if by “fair” you mean some human standard of “deserving” or “just deserts.” God’s justice is really a whole lot more encompassing than our rather narrow and often retributive notion of justice. (And a good thing, too. If God were really fair, and gave us all what we deserve, then we would all have long since perished in our sins!) Thanks be to God, divine justice is concerned not with what we deserve but with what we need; not with fairness but with forgiveness, with love and with life, new life, new creation.

At the very deepest level, all is Gift. Lunch at God’s banquet table is utterly free, if we will just sit down and eat. We get more than we can ever pay for, if we will just quit fumbling around with our wallets and reach out our hands to receive. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” [1] if we will just go look in the mailbox.

[1] 1 Cor. 2:9; cf. Isa. 64:4

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sermon - 7 March 2010

3RD SUNDAY IN LENT — 7 March 2010
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00 a.m.

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 63:1-8 | 1 Cor. 10:1-13 | Luke 13:1-9

God said to Moses, "I am who I am."

“What’s in a name?” So wonders Shakespeare’s Juliet, whose beloved Romeo bears the name of the Montague family hated by her own Capulets. “O, be some other name! What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Alas, it was but wishful thinking, for there is more in a name than Juliet thought, and therein lay their tragedy.

For the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, there was a lot in a name. Your name somehow touched the essence of your identity, it expressed who you really were. Thus, if other people knew your name, they knew you; they had something of a claim on you; in a sense they had power over you, in knowing your name.

This same idea is found in other cultures as well: for instance, some Native American cultures, in which you have a public “nickname” by which you are known by other people, and then your own real name — often discerned in the course of a vision quest — which you never disclose to anyone else, lest it give them power over you. In a more positive mode, to be known by name opens the possibility of fellowship, of welcome, personal relationship, as for instance in the famous tavern of the old television series Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” (But I digress.)

Young Moses has escaped from Egypt after assassinating an abusive slavemaster, and he has fallen in with the desert Midianite sheepherder Jethro. He has married Jethro’s daughter, and now, like a good son-in-law, Moses is out taking care of the sheep. And God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush. Which right in itself is a pretty remarkable thing!

Even more remarkable is what God has to say to Moses; God wants Moses to go back to Egypt (where Moses has a price on his head) and lead the Israelites out from under Pharaoh’s slavery. Just like that.

And perhaps most remarkable of all is what God says when Moses very naturally asks, “Ah . . . who are you? Just what kind of a God am I dealing with here? What is your name?” God responds, “I AM WHO I AM.”

Now, what’s in that name?

This is one of the things that Old Testament scholars have a good time with, trying to figure out what the Hebrew words which God gives us as the divine name (and which we see translated here as “I Am Who I Am”) really mean. It’s not completely clear. In Hebrew there is a play here on the verb häyâ, “to be,” and its relation to the usual divine name in the Hebrew Scriptures, spelled “YHWH” (or, as it was not-very-accurately rendered into English some centuries back, “Jehovah”). Later on among the Jews, respect for the divine name, God’s proper name, grew so great that they refused to say it out loud at all, lest sinful mouths pollute the sacredness of The Name. (I personally prefer to respect this tradition, though some Christians and some Christian bible translations do not.) Instead, when the Jews encounter the Sacred Name YHWH in the Hebrew text of the Bible, they substituted the word Adonai, “the Lord,” or sometimes the usual word for “God,” Elohim. You will recall seeing in your Bible perhaps — and this was the case with the King James Version, as well as the Revised Standard and New Revised Standard Versions and other many other modern translations, and also with the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer — instances of “the LORD” printed in small capital letters. The small caps are to alert us that the original Hebrew text does not actually read Adonai (the title “Lord”), but in fact reads YHWH — a name too sacred to be pronounced aloud in Jewish practice.

And the underlying meaning of the Divine Name, “I Am Who I Am”? Interpretations of the Name may tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the text. The early Fathers of the Church, and the medieval scholastics, suckled as they were on Greek metaphysics, saw in the Divine Name the expression of God’s Being, the one who is Being Itself — not just one being among other beings, not a being in the way you or I or a rabbit or a rock is a being, not even as the Supreme such Being, but “Being Itself,” “The Ground of All Being,” The One Who Is.

But most directly and literally, I think, “I am who I am” points best into the mystery of God, which is what God is trying to get across to Moses at the burning bush. Because in telling Moses the divine name, God is really not telling Moses very much at all. It is as if God were saying, “Do not attempt to name me — especially if you think that to name me is to tame me. My name is not something you can invoke with impunity for purposes of your own, and certainly not a formula you can conjure with. I Am Who I Am. My identity will always, ultimately, be opaque to you, for I infinitely exceed your ability to conceptualize me. I Am Who I Am.

“But there is another side, too [God says]: for you can trust that I Am Who I Am, and not another. I Am Eternally Who I Am; I am always consistent with myself; I do not waver; I am never fickle; my loving-kindness is steadfast and faithful; I keep my promises, and I do not change my mind, for I Am Who I Am.”

What’s in a name? In the case of God, everything, and nothing. At the burning bush, God reveals a name which points to God but does not really disclose God, except as the one who is beyond our naming.

But in the fullness of time God does bring the divine self within our naming, enabling us, not to comprehend God fully (finite creatures cannot do that), but to know God truly. God brings the divine self within our naming — not in a burning bush, but in a stable, and in a workshop and a fishing boat, and in the streets and on the hillsides, and on the Cross.