Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Homily -- 28 December 2011

HOLY INNOCENTS — 28 December 2011
Trinity – 5:30 pm

Jeremiah 31:15-17

Psalm 124
Matthew 2:13-18

Perhaps you recall T. S. Eliot’s verse play, Murder in the Cathedral, in which in the Interlude, a Christmas sermon by Archbishop Thomas Becket a few days before his assassination in Canterbury Cathedral, Becket calls attention to the fact that on the day after Christmas, the celebration of our Lord’s birth, we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen. As indeed we did this past Monday. But the point that Becket is making, in Eliot’s words, about the dark side of Christmas, is equally, maybe even more, applicable to Holy Innocents’ Day, which we observe (it’s not clear that “celebrate” is exactly the right word) today. This is indeed the Incarnation at what is arguably its very darkest. And since at Christmastide we are all light and joy, we tend to overlook the Holy Innocents, or at least to sentimentalize them. And that may be to miss an important dimension of Christmas.

It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the massacre of the boy-babies of Bethlehem. The only account we have of it is in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which we just heard. There is no mention of it in secular history, even in the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. We may assume that if Josephus had known about it, he would have said something about it, because Josephus had no use at all for Herod the Great and didn’t hesitate to record Herod’s many murders and atrocities. The Bethlehem slaughter would certainly not have been out of character for Herod. On the other hand, Bethlehem in the first century was apparently not a very large town, and the number of victims probably wasn’t large. Compared to the numbers of deaths in other massacres of women and children in the ancient world, and in the medieval world (including by Christian Crusaders), and in the modern world, and even in our own country (including of Native Americans), the Bethlehem “incident” was comparatively minor. (Not that that makes it any better!)

But what this observance forces us to realize is exactly into what kind of world God became incarnate, and what the cost of that incarnation would be. Our liturgical color today is red – the color of blood (appropriate enough!) and thus the color of martyrdom. But although the deaths of the innocents of Bethlehem were a martyrdom, a witness, of sorts, they would certainly not have been recognized as such at the time – only a bitter witness to the cruelty of those in power. And some of us remember when our custom on this day was to wear violet, the liturgical color of repentance, recognizing the sinfulness and moral corruption of a world in which such a bloodbath could take place. And still could. And still does.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sermon -- 24 July 2011 -- Proper 12

PROPER 12 / 5 PENTECOST — 24 July 2011
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Genesis 29:15-28
Ps 128
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

When morning came, it was Leah!

I would love to write a screenplay of this episode for a TV movie. Dawn is breaking; the birds are singing; the sheep are bleating; Jacob wakes up in his tent and turns over toward his new bride, and looks into her eyes (which the New Revised Standard Version says were “lovely” but it admits in a footnote that the meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain; God knows my Hebrew is uncertain; the lexicons seem to support translating the word as soft, delicate, or weak. Take your pick.) And she says, “Good morning!” And Jacob says, “OMG!” Hmm. Maybe it was Jacob’s eyes that were weak! Or maybe he just should have been more careful about how much wine he drank at the wedding reception.

Just to remind ourselves of the setting of this story a little, since the selection we heard doesn’t quite do that: Isaac is sending his son Jacob back to the Old Country to find a wife, much as his father Abraham a generation earlier had sent his servant back to the Old Country to get a wife for Isaac. Perhaps you heard that story as the First Reading three Sundays ago.

(This really isn’t all that uncommon even today. My understanding is that men from India, for instance, even though they have become successful businessmen or professionals in the United States, will still go back to India to marry a girl whom their families are proposing to them. And even in our own Midwestern tradition, it’s not that long since men who had come to America from, for instance, Norway or Sweden would write back to their home village to have a young woman sent over to be their wife. And they would hope that when he met her at the train from Chicago that it wasn’t too much of a disappointment for either of them!)

Anyway, Jacob journeys up to the family estate in Paddan-Aram, in the district of Haran in northern Mesopotamia, to get a wife in the Old Country. (It’s what is now northern Syria, or perhaps southeastern Turkey – I’m not sure exactly where the modern borders are.) And early on in his journey, Jacob has the dream of the ladder with the angels, which you may have heard about last Sunday. Well, Jacob finally arrives at Haran, and meets up with his uncle Laban, his mother Rebekah’s brother. And he works for Laban for seven years to be able to marry Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, with whom he has fallen in love. And then we get today’s story of the morning-after-the-wedding-night surprise. But oh well. Jacob gets to marry Rachel too, in exchange for an additional seven years of service, and as it turns out their maids Zilpah and Bilhah also get thrown into the deal. However, as it turns out, Jacob’s household was not a particularly happy home. (The Bible says the patriarchs practiced polygamy, but it doesn’t suggest this was really a very good idea.) There is a fair amount of family turmoil before Jacob finally gets back to Canaan (to say nothing of a wrestling match with an angel of the Lord, but that’s another story for another time – specifically, for next Sunday), and this Biblical soap opera goes on for several more chapters. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already.

As nearly as I can tell, there is nothing in this story that is either of direct theological importance or particularly edifying. “Turn the light on for a minute on your wedding night to make sure you’ve got the right girl.” The Word of the Lord! The only point I might make in passing is that people who yammer on a lot about the Scriptural Doctrine of Marriage and Biblical Sexual Morality apparently have a different edition of the Bible than any of the shelf-full of Bibles that I have. The Bible does have some guidance related to sex and marriage, but this story isn’t it.

So why do we read this story today? As you are perhaps aware, during the “green” half of the church year we have the option for the Old Testament Lesson of a “course reading,” a connected sequence. In this Year A it consists of highlights of Genesis and Exodus and ends up in November with a bit of Joshua and Judges — the story of Israel’s early history, from Creation and Noah, then through the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then going on to the Joseph saga, the liberation from Egypt under Moses, and the return to the Promised Land.

In short, we read about Jacob and Laban and Switch-The-Bride today not because it is of direct theological importance or because it is particularly edifying, but because it is a story, and most specifically and significantly, it is part of our story. (And so the fact that this is not a very edifying story probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise! Lots of events in our own story aren’t very edifying!) But we need to know our story in order to know who we are, and who God is.

And so, although I’m not sure there’s a lot in the content of today’s installment of All My Chosen People that is theologically important, I think that it is theologically important that this is a story and that this is our story.

In the Gospel today we hear Jesus telling stories. Well, actually, the ones we hear today are pretty short vignettes, but they are still little stories. Not as long as some of Jesus’ parables — I think for instance of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, which are more fully developed tales — today’s parables are not as long as the stories that just preceded these, and which we heard the last two weeks — the Parable of the Sower, which is actually about the ground on which the seed is sown, and last week the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Incidentally, in regard to both of those parables, they represent two rare examples — we hear a third brief instance this morning — in which Jesus is depicted as explaining his stories, using an allegorical type of interpretation which is unlike anything Jesus does elsewhere. New Testament scholars are in fairly general agreement (and I think they’re quite right) that these explanations of the parables were composed by the early church and don’t actually go back to Jesus himself. (The early church was just like the disciples – they didn’t understand Jesus’ parables the first time either!) Jesus’ parables are not allegories to be decoded; they are challenges to be responded to. In fact, I suspect that when the disciples came to Jesus after one of his parables, saying, “We don’t get it. What did you mean by that story?” Jesus didn’t explain it the way the later Gospel writers had him do. I think Jesus threw up his hands and cried, “Oh you of little faith and hardness of heart!” -- and then told yet another story!

A story, when it is functioning well as a story, has as its first purpose to draw us into the story’s world. In the case of some stories there may be some ultimate purpose of edification or because the author wants to share her or his vision of life, but with lots of stories it’s really just for entertainment, and that’s okay. (I read murder mysteries too!) The point is that a story creates a world and draws us into it. And that’s what Jesus is doing in his parables — he is confronting us with another world, an alternate reality — specifically the reality of the Kingdom of God. Some of these parables are just quick little snapshots, like the ones we hear today. Others give a fuller narrative picture. But they really all end up asking us — you, so what do you think about that? What do you say now? What are you going to do about your life?

I was thinking the other day — Just how much better has the world been made by some people telling other people how to live their lives? And the answer that came to me was, Not Very Much Better. And, you know, that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus wasn’t real big on handing out rules. Oh, there are a few, like for instance, “Love your neighbor.” But you’ll recall that when someone asked Jesus, “Yes, but what do you mean by that?” Jesus responded by telling a story. Jesus does not beat us over the head about our lives. Jesus does not hassle us (unless we are beating somebody else over the head about their life, and then he may get on our case, as he does with the Pharisees). Jesus draws us into a new world, Jesus invites us to experience an alternate reality, Jesus summons us to the Kingdom of God. And he does this by telling us stories.

And this is what the Bible really is: the story of God and humankind. It’s a very old, very full, very rich story. And in one of its early chapters, à propos of nothing in particular, the protagonist of the moment wakes up the morning after his wedding and discovers he married the wrong sister!

(Although, as it turns out, that too was part of the plot of the story!)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sermon -- 5 June 2011 -- Easter 7

7TH OF EASTER — 5 June 2011
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10,33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11
John 17:1-11

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Good morning and welcome to all of you who, like me, have been Left Behind!

Okay, I suppose after a couple of weeks we’re all getting a little tired of “rapture” jokes. One the one hand, the folks who got all wrapped up in and perpetrated that illusion probably deserve to be made fun of. I find it amusing that the more noise people make about how “Bible-believing” they are (the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” bumper-sticker folks), the less likely they are to have actually read the text of the Scriptures, at least with their brains as well as their lips. In fact, that whole “rapture” business is not in the Bible at all. (What 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is about is something quite different.) But on the other hand, a lot of sincere but gullible people lost their money in this silliness, and that’s just not funny.

But it does point to some real issues that really are in the Bible, and I think these are worth our attention. As you are perhaps aware, this Seventh Sunday of Easter is also the Sunday after Ascension Day, which day was this past Thursday. Did you have the opportunity to do anything to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension? Perhaps not this year. But the first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, is a partial repeat of one of the Ascension Day readings, and includes St. Luke’s account of the ascension to heaven of the risen Christ. The Gospel reading on Thursday was also the account of Christ’s ascension from St. Luke’s Gospel — Luke describes this event twice. (Once in Luke 24 and once in Acts 1. And not quite the same way!)

The Ascension of Christ to heaven is a major dimension of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, which is absolutely central to the Christian Gospel. It is frequently referred to in the New Testament, in a variety of ways. But it is never actually depicted, except by St. Luke. In John’s Gospel, when the risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalene at the tomb, he tells 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, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” [John 20:17] But then John never gets around to describing exactly what if anything that “ascending” to the Father might look like. The authentic text of St. Mark doesn’t have any resurrection appearances at all — it ends with the discovery of the empty tomb. St. Matthew sort of implies an ascension, but doesn’t actually describe one. St. Paul in his letters writes about the ascension, though without describing an event; for instance, “God put [his great] 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…” [Ephesians 1: 20-21] This is reflected in the Nicene Creed that we affirm every Sunday: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” And of course in the Collect this morning we prayed, “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven.” So this business of Jesus ascending to heaven is a solidly recurring theme in the celebration of our Christian lives together.

So, okay. What is this “ascension to heaven” about? For one thing, what is heaven? And for another thing, where is heaven? And for still another thing, when is heaven?

First, and skipping over the long parts, the bottom line is that “heaven” for us generally designates the immediate and direct presence of God.

Second, this then raises the question of whether to ask where heaven is may be a category mistake. God, after all, is, we believe, everywhere; although even to say God is everywhere may still be a category mistake. But, never mind. The word we translate as “heaven,” in both Hebrew and Greek, originally meant “the sky.” And it still often means that. (That’s true for us in English as well.) And probably way way back people thought that God, or the gods, lived in the sky. After all, if you looked at the sun during the day, and at the stars at night (in a non-electrical world in which you could actually see the stars at night!), that’s not all that unreasonable an assumption. But by Biblical times, certainly by New Testament times, people had done enough reflecting on God, and had enough experience with God, that they understood that the notion that “God in heaven” is “up in the sky” may be a colorful way of speaking, but it isn’t literally the case. Perhaps you remember that when one of the original Russian cosmonauts (I’ve forgotten which one) came back from an orbital flight, he said that he had looked all around and he didn’t see God or Jesus anywhere up there. He must have found that really embarrassing, to be required to recite a Soviet party line which to everyone else was obviously so stupid. No, God is not up in the sky (or at least not any more so than anywhere else), nor did Jesus “ascend” up into the sky. We know that, St. Luke knew that, the apostles knew that. But “up” and “down” are universally used metaphors in a wide variety of contexts — being successful is “coming up in the world,” we are promoted to a “higher position” (or demoted to a “lower position”!), and that kind of thing. There is an article in the Des Moines Register this morning about the "ten highest executive salaries" in Iowa based corporations. (And they're pretty high!) We use these expressions so often and so automatically that we don’t even think about them. But in that metaphorical sense “heaven,” “God’s immediate presence,” is “up,” and we are “down here.” (And hell is “even further down there”; but let’s not go there today!) The only thing wrong with that language is if we take it physically literally. And I don’t think St. Luke did.

Indeed, to the extent that we can use a spatial metaphor at all, “heaven” is right here, except that we cannot — usually — see it. And so, in a very important sense, Jesus in his ascension did not go away, although it does mean that he is no longer with us in the same way any more. Which is good, because that way was to be located in first-century Judea, which doesn’t do us much good in twenty-first century Iowa! But as Jesus himself said, at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [28:20] Or as we prayed this past Thursday, “Give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” And that’s an important dimension of what the Ascension of Christ means for us.

And this then points us to our third question, “When is heaven?” And the simple answer, but not always realized by us, is right now. Or at least, beginning right now. When Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of God” (or, especially in Matthew, “the Kingdom of Heaven,” which is exactly the same thing — Matthew’s largely still-Jewish community was a little careful about the way they spoke the name “God,” which was probably a good idea) — for Jesus “the Kingdom of God” is not off somewhere in the sweet by-and-by. The message of Jesus was, and is, “The time has come, and God’s Kingdom is here! Change your lives, change your world, and believe this good news!” [Mark 1:15] “Heaven” is not where we go when we die, if we have been good. (It may also be that too, but that’s not really what the Gospel of Christ is about.) Heaven is the command-and-resource center for the Kingdom of God, and God’s Kingdom is what Jesus calls us to start living right here and now. After all, it is our constant prayer that “thy will be done on earth (right now) as it is (already) in heaven.”

So the angels’ question to the apostles is the same as their question to us: “Why are you standing around looking at the sky?” The Holy Spirit comes upon us with power also, that we may be Christ’s witnesses in the world. No, the Kingdom of God will not be accomplished just by our own efforts, but we are called by God to share in the building of the Kingdom. We believe that Jesus will come again to bring the Kingdom to fulfillment, but we do not know what that will look like or when it will be. (What don’t the rapture folks understand about “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority”?) [Acts 1:7] But what the Bible consistently says, right down to the end of the Book of Revelation, is that Jesus will come, not to snatch us away from this world in an imagined “rapture,” but to fulfill the resurrection of this world as a new heaven and a new earth. [Rev. 21:1, cf. Isa. 65:17, 66:22, Rom 8:19ff, 2Pet 3:13]

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon -- 21 April 2011 -- Maundy Thursday

MAUNDY THURSDAY — 21 April 2011
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:00 p.m.

Ex 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Ps 116:1, 10-17
1 Cor 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Do this in remembrance of me.” [1 Cor 11:24]
“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” [John 13:15]

Liturgically speaking, Holy Week is a very busy week!

But you already knew that! (After all, you’re here tonight!)

This past Sunday, as you recall, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which is what we have always called it for short, but you may have noticed, whether in previous years or just this year, that the full name of the day is “The Sunday of the Passion Colon Space Space Palm Sunday.” That’s because there are in fact two liturgical services that take place that morning: First, there is the Liturgy of the Palms, at which we read the Gospel of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and bless palm branches and parade around singing psalms and hymns, and then there is the Eucharist of the Lord’s Passion (his suffering, culminating in his crucifixion), which is very very different in its tone. (In fact, old guys like me remember when the clergy types used to stop, take off their festive red vestments, and put on somber purple vestments at the segué into the Eucharist.) But now we scrunch these two services right up together, apparently mostly for the sake of saving time, and so we may not notice how very different these two liturgical “moments” are.

Well, today, Maundy Thursday, is kind of like that. Except that we aren’t celebrating two different services right in a row (well, right at the end we sort of do), we are celebrating two different themes at the same time. The word “Maundy,” you may recall, is what the Brits did to the Latin word mandatum, “commandment,” from Jesus’ words in tonight’s Gospel reading, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” [John 13:34] And in this context this has been applied particularly to the footwashing, which we observed ritually just now, in remembrance of how, according to St. John’s Gospel, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The footwashing may make some of us uncomfortable, because we find it culturally bizarre. We Don’t Do That Kind Of Thing. Well, Simon Peter and the other disciples found it culturally bizarre too — they didn’t do that kind of thing either. Yes, it was usual in those days to provide your dinner guests with a basin of water when they arrived so they could wash their dusty sandaled feet — on one occasion Jesus chides a Pharisee who is hosting him for neglecting to do so— but usually people washed their own feet, or maybe a slave might actually assist with washing the guests’ feet, But certainly the host would never do anything so menial, nor would a guest ever allow the host to do so. (As usual, good ol’ Simon Peter Just Doesn’t Get It, but at least he shows he has good manners!) And what Jesus says is, “Yes! This is not only bizarre, it is completely counter-cultural! Get Over It!”

So that’s one of the things (one of the many things!) that’s going on in the upper room tonight.

The other thing that’s going on — or at least another thing — is what for many of us may be what most comes to mind when we think about the celebration of Maundy Thursday, and that’s what we refer to as the Institution of the Holy Eucharist — when Jesus took bread and wine, said, “This is my Body — this is my Blood — Do this for the remembrance of me.” And we have been “doing this” ever since. (As the Anglican Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix famously put it, “Was ever another command so obeyed?” And then Dom Gregory goes on for a long paragraph listing some of the myriad ways and contexts in which we have “done this” over the centuries. [The Shape of the Liturgy, page 744])

You may have noticed this evening that the account of this first Eucharist does not occur in the Gospel reading, but rather in the Epistle, from First Corinthians 11. I might note that this is the earliest written account of “the Lord’s Supper” (as we sometimes call it) that we have; pretty much the same account occurs in St. Mark’s Gospel and from there also in St. Matthew and St. Luke. Not to say that they got the story from St. Paul — there’s no evidence that they, even St. Luke, had ever read Paul’s letters — but they are all reciting a narrative from the earliest tradition. St. John, however, does not tell that story in connection with Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. (John does talk about the Eucharist, as we would put it, but in another context; John relates it to the Feeding of the Five Thousand.) At the Last Supper, St. John wants to focus on his own story of the washing of the disciples’ feet, and then to follow up with his long account of Jesus’ farewell discourse.

Related to this is the fact that in the synoptic Gospels, and arguably in Paul, the Last Supper is explicitly a Passover Seder. In John it is explicitly not the Passover, but takes place the previous evening. In John’s Gospel the Passover lambs are sacrificed in the Temple on Friday while Jesus is hanging on the cross outside the city, and that’s the point John wants to make.

So which Last Supper version is more historically, chronologically accurate? Was this a Passover Seder, or not? Biblical scholars and historians have been having a field day with this question for generations. There are good arguments on both sides. (I’ll have to ask Jesus about this when I see him. And Jesus will say to me, “And just why is it that you think it’s important that you know this?”)

“Do this for the remembrance of me.” And here “remembrance” does not just mean, “Oh, yes, I recall how, way back then…”
Remembrance is not an exercise in nostalgia. The Greek word anamnesis that we translate as “remembrance” means welcoming Jesus as living and active into our present and as setting our course into our future.

But, “to do what for the remembrance of him”? To share his Body, so that we may be his Body in the world? To share his Blood, that we may be quickened by his life in the world? So that he may dwell in us, and we in him? Yes.

To follow his example, that we should do as he has done to us — to love one another as he has loved us? Yes.

All this “in remembrance, in re-membrance, of him.”

Homily -- 20 April 2011 -- Wed in Holy Week

Trinity – 5:30 p.m.

Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 70 | John 13:21-32

After receiving the piece of bread, [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night.

Judas Iscariot has become a byword for treachery. He is "The Traitor" - not so much in the political sense as in the personal -- the betrayer, the breaker of trust. Even in the Gospels themselves Judas becomes something of a stock villain.

What about Judas? Why did he do it? It's interesting to speculate, so long as we remember that there really isn't very much evidence, and what there is comes from what we might describe as hostile witnesses. Did he do it for the money? Only Matthew mentions the thirty pieces of silver, which was more than pocket change, but hardly a huge fortune and not really a convincing motive (it’s really a reference to the book of the prophet Zechariah [11:12-13]). John explains that Satan had entered into Judas, which may be true enough, but it isn’t very specific.

So why? Why this primordial, archetypal act of betrayal, from one who had presumably accompanied Jesus as disciple and companion for months, perhaps years? If Judas had simply become convinced that Jesus was wrong, why not just walk away? If Judas had decided that Jesus was a dangerous fraud, why not just publicly denounce him, and abandon him? Why this nasty, underhanded piece of treachery?

One speculation — and it's just a speculation, there's no evidence for this, but it's not contrary to the evidence — is that Judas had not given up the idea that Jesus was — or could become — the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel, but he thought that Jesus was dinking around. After that splendid beginning with the royal parade on Sunday, now Jesus was about to let it all slip away. He needed a little help, a little prompting, a little management. Jesus needed an occasion to rise to, a crisis to bring out the best in him. Perhaps Judas thought that if Jesus' hand were forced, he really would call on God for twelve legions of angels, and finally get on with driving out the Roman goyim and restore the kingdom to Israel. And only when it was too late did Judas realize what a horrible mistake he had made. But he had too little faith and too much pride for true repentance. So, says St. Matthew, he threw the money at the feet of the priests in the temple and went out and hanged himself in despair.

Well. Perhaps.


We commonly see ourselves in the disciples, in the disciples in their weaknesses and frailties and sinfulnesses, and well we should: in Peter, engaging mouth before the brain is in gear, much bluster but not much spine; in James and John, squabbling for the best seats in the kingdom; in Thomas, not quite daring to believe. But not in Judas. Judas is outside the pale. We would never do that. Deny Jesus out of fear, like Peter? Yes, sadly, perhaps. Sell Jesus out, out of greed? I don’t think so.

But try to force God's hand? Try to engineer a divine complicity with our own agenda? Invoke the divine sanction upon our own kingdom? Make God be the kind of God we want God to be? Repackage God for more effective marketing?

Oh, yes, Judas is us.

"If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple; for it is written, `The angels will bear you up...'"

"Greetings, Rabbi!" and he kissed him. "Will you not now finally appeal to your Father for twelve legions of angels?"

"Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

Satan had indeed entered into Judas Iscariot.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sermon -- 3 April 2011 -- Lent 4

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT — 3 April 2011
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Last Sunday over at Trinity in Iowa City, Fr. Schlachter began his sermon on the Gospel reading — which, as you recall, was the story of the Samaritan woman at the well — by noting that that Gospel reading was the longest Gospel reading of the year (not counting the Passion-Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday). St. John tends to tell very long stories in his Gospel, as you may have noticed just now!

Well, I sat there in the pew and thought, “Oh, I’m not so sure about that!” (You may have noticed over the years that I’m not too good about taking people’s words for things! Especially when I’m sitting in the pew!) So I checked when I got home. My basis was counting the number of lines in the Nestle edition of the Greek New Testament. Sure enough, the longest Gospel reading of the year (not counting the Passion-Gospels) is the reading today, about the healing of the man born blind. The second longest is the reading next week, the raising of Lazarus. (I’m not trying to scare you off from church next week!) The Samaritan woman at the well is only number three!

There now! If anyone asks you if you learned anything in the sermon this morning, you can say Yes! (And does this enrich your spiritual life? No!)

There is a point to this bit of introductory silliness, however, I think. It reminds us of something that we all know, but maybe haven’t really paid much attention to: The Gospel of John contains a lot of long stories. Not stories that Jesus himself tells, like the parables in the first three Gospels, but narratives, some of them quite substantial, about things Jesus does and says. In one case, of course, as you recall, in what we usually call the Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus goes on for over four chapters!

What I’m trying to get at is that the four Gospels are not simply four variants on the Jesus story. As I think we all know, the first three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — are very similar in many ways. First of all, Mark is the initial framework for all three of them. Matthew and Luke then add further material, some of which, mostly sayings of Jesus, they share between themselves, and then some other sayings and episodes that are unique to each of them. Even with all they have in common, each of these three Gospels has its own distinct “flavor.” But you can line them up side by side and compare them, you can look at them together, and so (because we never use an English word when a Greek one will do!) we call them the Synoptic Gospels — syn-optic, from the Greek words for “see together.” (In fact, you can buy a book that does just that — go to the Amazon website and search for “synoptic gospels” or “gospel parallels.”)

But the Gospel of John really is very different. And because all the Gospels are so familiar to us, we may not always notice how different the Fourth Gospel really is.

First of all, none of the Gospels are news stories that were written at the time of the events. Nobody was taking notes. The three synoptic Gospels especially drew on the memories of the communities of the followers who had been with Jesus during his ministry and in the first years following. I don’t suggest that these memories were not reliable — people then were generally at least basically literate, but they did not have notepads, much less iPads, and they had to be able to remember things, a skill that most of us have lost. But the way they told their recollections about Jesus was shaped by who they were and where they lived.

I think the stories in the Fourth Gospel, St. John, are based upon real events in the ministry of Jesus. But John, whose Gospel was the last of the four to be written, is not primarily interested in just telling stories about Jesus. By his time everyone already knew the stories. (There is no evidence that John knows the actual written texts of any of the synoptic Gospels, but his community already had long known the stories and traditions on which those Gospels were also based.) John’s purpose is telling what these stories mean and who Jesus really is — after decades of praying and reflecting on the stories themselves, those same stories that we know primarily through the synoptic Gospels. And, as you no doubt have long since noticed, what John does with these stories is very sophisticated from a literary point of view, and he operates on multiple levels. And we see that very much going on in this story of the healing of the man born blind.

Well, since we all would like to be home before lunch, I won’t work through all of the stuff that’s going on in the Gospel reading today, but it would take that long, or longer. It starts with the healing of the man (which presumably is a genuine story; Jesus was well-known for healing, including of blind people, and there are several instances in the synoptic Gospels), but then John starts to spin out the implications he sees in this event. To start right up front, Jesus is asked, “Being born blind is a terrible curse, obviously a punishment for sin: So who do we blame for this, the man himself? Or maybe his parents?” And Jesus says, “You people obviously Just Don’t Get It. Haven’t you read the Book of Job? (Although to be candid, that really doesn’t help very much; the author weasels out at the end!) Afflictions like this are not God’s punishment for sin” (— do we really Get This? Even today, among good Christian folks, there is still this notion that Bad Stuff happens to us because somehow we Deserve It) — “Afflictions are not God’s punishment for sin, but they may be an occasion in which the grace and power of God may be revealed.” Okay, there’s the beginning point. And Jesus now goes on to talk about light and darkness, and how he himself is the Light of the World (a statement which he has made before [John 8:12] and will make again [John 12:46; see also 1:4-9]). There’s another sermon for another time! And then Jesus spits on the ground and makes a clay of the earth (there’s another sermon in that), anoints the man’s eyes (still another sermon), and instructs him to go wash in the water of the Pool of Siloam (at least two more sermons; the Fathers saw this as a baptismal theme).

The story then goes on with a series of interviews between the Pharisees and the man (and his parents), in which the man by stages comes to realize who Jesus really is and what has been given to him (and there’s yet another sermon in that). The story then closes with Jesus addressing some Pharisees with the concluding point: if we confess our blindness we can seek the opening of our eyes and be empowered to walk in the light; but if we insist that we can see, we admit our blindness and remain in darkness.

And there are some more sermons!
But not today!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sermon -- 9 March 2011 -- Ash Wed

ASH WEDNESDAY — 9 March 2011
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:00 a.m.

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 | Psalm 103:8-14 | 2Cor 5:20b-6:10 | Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

Back in the Good Old Days, Way Back! we used to confess our sins, at least upon occasion, in these words:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Well, when we last revised the Prayer Book, we altered that a bit, and we left out the phrase “And there is no health in us” and the words “miserable offenders.” This may be seen as an early triumph of political correctness, and I suppose it probably is, though the omission of these phrases had been proposed for over two hundred years on the grounds that they “tended often to be misunderstood.” And I suppose they probably were. But I’m always a little uneasy when people deal with problematic texts by expunging them rather than interpreting them. But interpretation is harder. It’s too much like thinking to be congenial to the modern American temperament.

Anyway, the notion that “there is no health in us miserable offenders” certainly seems overly dismal to the trying-desperately-to-be-optimistic modern mind. (Never mind that it’s true). But what is this sixteenth-century (not twenty-first century) language saying? “Health” in classical English is practically a synonym for “salvation,” certainly for “wholeness.” (Actually, in Old English, “health” and “wholeness” are the same word.) It’s not that there is nothing good about us at all, but that we are not able to fix ourselves, we are not complete, we are not whole. And “miserable” is an assertion about our objective condition, not about our subjective emotions. “But I don’t feel miserable!” So who cares? Preoccupation with our feelings is a modern fascination, in which Biblical faith has relatively little interest. Our feelings are vitally important as communicative of our subjectivity, but they are not reliable indicators of the objective reality of our lives in the world. Which is that we live in a world of misery to which our own offenses have contributed, and we do not have the capacity to heal ourselves. (And if you require evidence for that, circumspice. Look around. Buy a clue.)

We do need to seek healing. But part of our problem is that all too often we seek healing and forgiveness on the basis of an incomplete diagnosis. Most of us probably can, and sometimes do, compile a list of our sins — especially if we avail ourselves of the opportunity to receive the ministry of the Reconciliation of a Penitent, or as we have usually called it, Sacramental Confession. (“Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. Since my last confession I have [rustle rustle] umm…where’s my list?...”) Well, yes, our sins probably do include the behaviors on our list, mostly, though some of them are likely to be trivial and the really serious ones it may never have occurred to us to put on the list at all.

But in this Lenten season of penitence, let me suggest that perhaps what we mean, or should mean, by being “miserable offenders with no health in us” goes beyond —includes, but goes beyond — our lists of self-perceived, personal, individual screw-ups. Sin is not only personal, it is communal, corporate, societal, systemic. We are victims of the sin of the world, but we are also complicit in it, sometimes without even knowing it, often without being able to do much about it directly. Repentance does not have anything to do with groveling and cowering as “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” It has more to do with turning around, turning our values around, turning our commitments around, turning our loyalties around, turning our whole lives around, and following Jesus Christ into the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sermon - 6 March 2011 -- Last Epiphany

LAST EPIPHANY — 6 March 2011
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, 11:00

Exodus 24:12-18 | Psalm 2 | 2 Peter 1:16-23 | Matthew 17:1-9

“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Today is called “The Last Sunday after Epiphany,” because it is, well, the last Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany, which as you recall was
way back in early January! This year this Sunday is as Last as it ever gets! And this coming week the season of Lent begins, on Ash Wednesday. (You will note that we are celebrating the Ash Wednesday Liturgy at three different times on Wednesday, so you have lots of choices!) And every year, no matter how many weeks it takes us to get here, on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, for the Gospel we read the account of what we call the Transfiguration of Christ — Jesus’ appearance in glory to his chief disciples, Peter, James, and John. This year we hear the account from St. Matthew’s Gospel, and in other years we hear the accounts from St. Mark and St. Luke. Pretty much the same account, although with some variants.

Anyway, the Feast, and the Season, of Epiphany celebrate the epiphany (Greek), the manifestation (Latin), the showing forth (good Old English!) of Christ. It begins with the visit of the Wise Men, continues with the Baptism of Jesus by John, and goes on to include the transformation of water to wine at the wedding in Cana (by which, John says, Jesus “revealed his glory”). And the Epiphany season concludes, and transitions into Lent, with the Transfiguration of Jesus, his metamorphosis as the Greek text puts it, his appearance in glory.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a mountain (to pray, according to St. Luke). And the three disciples have a vision of Jesus. It’s not clear exactly what they saw, and this is one of the points at which there are variants in the accounts, probably reflecting the fact that in the telling of this story, the early Christian communities and perhaps even Peter, James and John themselves, weren’t really quite sure exactly how to describe it. At any rate, Jesus was seen to be shining — his face, or his clothing, or both — evidently a sign of divine glory. (You may recall that the face of Moses shone when he came down from Mount Sinai after talking with God and receiving the Law — we didn’t hear this part this year in the first reading, but we did last year and we will again in two years. [Ex. 34:29-35]) The Second Letter of Peter which we hear today speaks of Jesus receiving “honor and glory from God the Father….while we were with him on the holy mountain.” [1:17-18] (No, Second Peter was not written by St. Peter the Apostle. If you are troubled by that, talk with me afterwards! But Second Peter does reflect the same early tradition as the gospels do.) It has also been suggested that this may be what St. John’s Gospel is referring to: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” [1:14]

And if that’s not enough, all of a sudden Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah — the greatest figures of Hebrew history, who can be understood as representing the Law and the Prophets. They are talking with Jesus. And what they are talking about, according to St. Luke, is what Jesus is going to do when he goes to Jerusalem.

The disciples don’t know what to say. That, of course, does not stop Peter, who blurts out, “Let’s make three dwellings here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah!” “Dwellings” may not be a very helpful translation here. The Greek word is “skénas,” which normally means “tents” or “huts” — temporary shelters, not permanent residences. More to the point, in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (which was widely used by the early Christians and for that matter even by many Jews in Judea and Galilee) the word skéné is used to translate the Hebrew sukkáh. plural sukkóth, and perhaps a bell is beginning to ring for some of you: sukkóth are the shelters, sometimes called “booths,” that even today Jewish people build and live in, or at least eat their meals in, during the week-long Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths, in remembrance of the 40 years in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt and in thanksgiving for the harvest. So perhaps what Peter is crying out is, “Let’s all celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, right here, right now!” In short, Peter is reacting to this startling vision of Jesus, with Moses and Elijah, by saying, “Let’s do something religious! Let’s keep a holy day, or build shrines, or something!”

Well. Peter misses the point, I think. Not for the first time. Nor for the last. You might recall that just a few days before this Peter had responded to Jesus’ question “Who do people say I am?” by bursting out, “You are the Messiah!” So far, so good; but as it turns out, Peter has no clue what “Messiah” really implies, and Just Doesn’t Get It when Jesus explains that when he goes to Jerusalem he will be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

And now on the mountain Peter still really Just Doesn’t Get It.

What happens next is that a voice comes out of the cloud, and says — I suspect not in a still small voice, since the disciples fall to the ground in fear — the voice says: “This is my Son! LISTEN TO HIM!” Don’t build shrines! This isn’t about being “religious”! Just listen to Jesus!

Father Mel has pointed out over the past few weeks that only when we get this long long Epiphany season do we actually get to hear in the
Gospel readings major portions of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, from chapters 5 and 6 of St. Matthew. It’s really too bad that it’s so rare that we hear these readings on Sundays. (I don’t care what the Consultation on Common Texts says: we need to fix this!) Because those readings from the Sermon on the Mount are what makes this Gospel on the Last Sunday after Epiphany make sense: Listen to Jesus!

But we don’t want to listen to Jesus. We would rather be religious about Jesus. We would rather build shrines. That’s a lot easier. Because if we listen to Jesus, what he says is, “The kingdom of God is upon you, here and now! And this is what God’s kingdom looks like! So follow me! Join me in proclaiming and enacting God’s kingdom here and now, on earth (as it is in heaven)!” And Matthew 5 is a good place to start listening to Jesus.

And we might note that the next thing that happens after Jesus and the three disciples come down from the mountain is that Jesus heals a boy who is suffering from epilepsy. Which suggests to me that the glory of God, manifested in Jesus Christ, is not so much about Religious Celebration as it is about getting on with the work of the kingdom of God.

And so the Epiphany Season concludes and transitions into the Season of Lent. There are a lot of good things we can do in Lent, and the parish Lenten program leaflet and Father Mel’s letter in the latest Chimes have some helpful suggestions. But I think the best starting place for Lent is what God tells us today: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased; LISTEN TO HIM!”

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sermon -- 30 January 2011 -- 4 Epiphany

St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.

Micah 6:1-8 | Psalm 15 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 | Matthew 5:1-12

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

This verse is the first verse of the Epistle reading this morning, from 1 Corinthians 1.18. You may recall that it was also the final verse of the Epistle reading last Sunday, from the previous verses in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. But what is this — “the message about the cross”? (More literally the Greek says, “The word of the cross.”) What is this “word of the cross,” this “message about the cross”? When we read on a little further this morning, we hear Paul say, “we proclaim Christ crucified”; and that may make it a bit more specific but I don’t know that it clarifies it all very much. Oh, I suppose it means something to us — something like “we believe and know that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins” — although even that is not as transparently clear a statement as we may assume it is — but we have, most of us I think, a lifetime of context in which to hear that phrase. The folks in the Greek city of Corinth — a big, raucous, multiethnic port city — had no context at all in which to hear it. Not only were they new converts to Christian faith, the Christian community itself was brand-new. What can the words “a message about the cross” possibly have meant to them? For us the “cross” may have an important symbolic significance. We may wear a decorative cross, perhaps even jeweled, around our neck. We hang a cross on the wall, or in church we place one above the altar, or embroider it into our church vestments and hangings, as a sign of our faith. Sometimes that cross may even be sort of realistic, showing the body of Jesus hanging on it. But pretty dainty “realism,” compared to the coarse, cruel actuality of Roman crucifixion. And the actuality of Roman crucifixion is the only context the new Christians of Corinth knew. And they probably knew it pretty well, and had seen it firsthand often enough. Crucifixion was horrible. It was meant to be horrible. It was excruciating. (That’s where we get the word “excruciating.”) It was degrading and humiliating beyond description. It was arguably the worst possible thing one could do to a human being. The Romans didn’t waste it on petty criminals (they just sent them off to the salt mines, or whatever) — crucifixion was reserved for Public Enemies, for revolutionaries, for terrorists, for traitors. Crucifixion of these malefactors was the way Rome said to the rest of the community, “Don’t even think of ever being like these people, or this is what we will do to you!”

And this was the Gospel that Paul and his companions were proclaiming — God’s Messiah as crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” — oh, you bet! — “but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Okay, let’s hold that right there for a moment. We’ll come back to it.

The Gospel today is the Beatitudes, from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, so-called, in the Gospel of St. Matthew. A well-known and popular passage, I think. But I wonder if we don’t tend to see the Beatitudes as some kind of lofty ethical or moral ideal that Jesus is holding before us. (Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if I could live like that! But of course, I can’t…) Well, I’m not so sure that Jesus is holding up a lofty ideal. I don’t think Jesus is into idealism. Jesus is always thoroughly realistic, thoroughly practical. He tells the truth. He tells us how it really is. Our problem is not that we fail to live up to his ideals, but that we don’t really believe him. We will not accept the reality that he proclaims and shows us. Jesus says, “Do you want to know what blessedness, true happiness, true joy, fullness of life, really is like? Well, it looks like this: Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who can mourn. Blessed are the meek (actually, a better translation might be “the gentle,” or “the considerate”). Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. This is what true life really is. Not an ideal to be striven for, but a reality to be accepted and embraced.

Here’s the thing, I think. We human beings are entranced by power. We want power. Oh, I don’t mean that any of us really want to be King of the World, or anything like that. Oh, there are people who want that kind of power — we’ve seen them in human history, both ancient and modern — but I assume none of them are in here today! But we want power over our own lives. And there is an important sense in which that’s not only valid but necessary. Our psychological health requires that we have a real sense of our power over our own lives. But how easily our concern for power over our own lives spills over into a grasp for power over those around us, over our circumstances! And at that point, as St. Luke makes clear in his take on the Beatitudes, our blessedness turns into woe.

“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims that things really are not the way we and the world generally assume they are. It is the cross that is how things really are. It is the Beatitudes that are how things really are. And if we can make the act of faith and trust, to abandon our own false realities and enter the true reality of God’s kingdom — to believe and embrace the truth, seemingly so topsy-turvy, that we do keep by giving away, we do preserve by sacrificing, we do live by dying — then the Beatitudes, and the cross of Jesus Christ, will become the character of our lives.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sermon -- 2 January 2011 - 2 Christmas

Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 10:00

Jeremiah 31:7-14 | Psalm 84:1-8 | Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a | Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

We are just now coming toward the end of a season in the Christian Year — and not only the Christian year — that is especially rich and full of Holy Scripture and its stories, not only for many people active in the Church but also many who are less active, even non-active, at least so far: I speak of the stories of the birth of Jesus the Christ, and the surrounding events, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I hope it will not come as a surprise or a shock to you to be reminded that these stories are historically problematic. There are those who would say that these nativity stories are purely legendary. I do not say that; but I do recognize that they are historically problematic. And I say that on the basis of the Gospel texts themselves. You may also have seen that on the basis of your own reading of the Gospel texts themselves. The number one issue, which I assume you are aware of if you have read the Gospel texts, is that Matthew (whose nativity story we will read next Thursday, on the Feast of the Epiphany) and Luke (whose nativity story we read at the Christmas Eucharist) are not telling the same story. Oh, we have managed to cobble them together in such a way that we can pretend not to notice — we line the shepherds up on one side of the manger and the wise men on the other — but the truth is, Matthew and Luke are not telling the same story, and neither of them knows the other’s story. But the nativity stories are about far more than just the recounting of historical-biographical events, to whatever extent they may in fact recount such events. And that “far more” is where I would like to try to go this morning. Who is Jesus? And what is he all about?

It’s well known that there are no accounts in surviving secular history (although remember that not all secular ancient history did survive!) about a massacre of children in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great. The Jewish historian Josephus, whose writings do survive, does not mention such a horrendous deed, and given Josephus’s hostility to Herod the Great, we might surmise that if Josephus had known about the Bethlehem killings, he would eagerly have said something about it. But that’s speculation. What we do know with some certainty about Herod is that such a crime would not have been at all out of character. Herod murdered a lot of people, including many of his own family, in his determination to hold on to his somewhat uncertain throne. But be that as it may, what is the likelihood that the infant Jesus might have been taken by his parents to Egypt, whatever the historical role of Herod may or may not have been? It seems to me that it’s not really all that implausible, although admittedly we are wandering far into a speculative left field. For one thing, “Egypt” was not really a completely foreign land for Jews, especially if by “Egypt” is actually meant the city of Alexandria, which was a Hellenistic metropolis and not really very Egyptian. At that time there may have been more Jews living in Alexandria than there were living in Jerusalem. And there are many reasons why a young family might leave home. And remember that according to Matthew, Bethlehem was home for Joseph and Mary. And Bethlehem was a small village at that time, and possibly the employment opportunities for a craftsman who needed to support a new family were limited. And maybe their Bethlehem neighbors could count to nine. And then perhaps there was a threat from Herod, at least perceived if not actual; if Mary and Joseph had some idea of who their baby really was, then Herod’s Judea would not have been a good place for him to grow up. (And after all, here in Iowa it’s not all that surprising for young people to go off to Chicago or Kansas City.) So might Joseph have taken his family to Alexandria? Sure! Why not?

But that choice would not have been without it complications. Doubtless a number of the Jewish people living in Alexandria still spoke some Aramaic; but in fact most of them normally spoke Greek. After all it was in Alexandria that the Hebrew Scriptures had first been translated into Greek, what we call the Septuagint version, beginning over two hundred years earlier, because the Jews of the Dispersion could no longer read Hebrew. So whatever advantages there may have been for Joseph and Mary and their baby to live among Jews in Egypt, it was still very much not home. They were immigrants, even among the Jews. And if they understood something about who Jesus was and what his ministry would be, then they knew they could not stay in Egypt. They would have to go home eventually. But even after Herod died, the option of going back to Bethlehem didn’t really look good. When Herod died, his kingdom was split up among his sons (his few surviving sons!), and Archelaus, who got Judea, inherited all of his father’s nastiness and very little of his competence. (After ten years of messing around with Archelaus and his inability to keep order, the Romans said, “The heck with this,” deposed him, and took over direct rule through a series of Roman prefects, of whom Pontius Pilate was the fifth. But I’m getting ahead of the story!) So, we speculate, Joseph wanted to return to Israel, but not to Archelaus’s Judea, so instead he settled in Galilee, which was ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Antipas. Antipas was much more competent than Archelaus, though probably not much nicer. (Herod Antipas, as he was often called, was still ruling Galilee during Jesus’ adult ministry, as we know from the Gospels.) One of Antipas’s projects was rebuilding the city of Sepphoris, in central Galilee; for many years it was his capital. (Why Sepphoris needed to be rebuilt at that time is another story for another time!) And civic rebuilding meant jobs for carpenters. And a nice quiet place to raise a family, within walking distance of Sepphoris where Joseph could earn a living, was the little village of Nazareth across the valley. (Remember that in Matthew’s story, Joseph and Mary were not from Nazareth, they were from Bethlehem, and they only settled in Nazareth after they came back from Alexandria while Jesus was still a young child.)

So what of all this? Well, I’ll say again, this is all speculation, though perhaps not completely unreasonable. But this story says that when the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus, he came as an outsider. He started his life as a marginally legitimate child, who promptly became a refugee with no real home, a stranger in a strange land. When his family eventually settled down, it was not among their own close kin. (How many of you ever lived in a small town in Iowa? If your grandfather wasn’t born in that town, then you were still a newcomer! All the more that a prophet was without honor as a newcomer in his adopted home town!) Jesus’ dad earned his living, and as Jesus grew up he worked with him, over in that hybrid Greek-Jewish city across the valley, Antipas’s capital Sepphoris, a place that was probably morally despised by the Jewish country folk as much as it was economically necessary for them. Perhaps this will remind us that Jesus’ ministry, God’s action through Jesus, was not to create a religious establishment, not to found an institutional Church, not to exercise ecclesiastical power, but, in Isaiah’s words, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.(1)

Who is Jesus? What is he all about? The stories of his birth, in Matthew and Luke, despite their very considerable differences and the problems with their historicity, still far more importantly point to who and what Jesus is. And that may not be quite what we have assumed.

(1) Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1.