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!”