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.