Friday, December 28, 2012

28 December 2012 -- Holy Innocents' Day

THE HOLY INNOCENTS — 28 December 2012
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Jeremiah 31:15-17  |  Psalm 124 |  Revelation 21:1-7  |  Matthew 2:13-18

"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."  [Matt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31.15]

   Some of us Old Guys remember when it was the custom to use purple as the liturgical color on Holy Innocents' Day, the color of repentance, mourning, and solemn reflection.  This was something of a downer just three days after Christmas, when we had finally gotten past four weeks of Advent purple (as we generally used in those days), and now it was back again, a sour moment in the midst of the festivity of Christmastide.  Then the Church decided to change to liturgical red for today, the color of martyrs, the color of blood, the color of the Spirit.  And at the time many of us said, Oh, Good Idea.  The thought apparently was that the infants of Bethlehem were indeed martyrs for Christ, albeit unwittingly.

   But in retrospect I’m not so sure it has been such a Good Idea after all.  Particularly not after the past two weeks.

   First of all, I’m going to bracket and set aside for the moment the question of the historicity of the story of the massacre of the little boys in Bethlehem.  There is no evidence for this outside St. Matthew’s Gospel.  The Jewish historian Josephus, who had absolutely no love for Herod the Great and who does not hesitate to recount Herod’s many atrocities, doesn’t mention it, and he probably would have if he had known about it, and he probably would have known about it.  Obviously this massacre in defense of his own royal power would certainly not have been out of character for Herod – he was a serial murderer, including of some of his own children – but the fact that an atrocity like this would have been in character doesn’t mean that he actually did this one.  But the whole matter of the historicity of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke is another question for another time.  I keep meaning to write a paper about it and so far haven’t followed through, and anyway it’s beside the point.  So.  Bracketed and set aside.

   My present concern is that it may be wrong-headed of us to describe the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem as “martyrs.”  Martyrs are those who witness to the Kingdom of God at the cost of their own lives, as, for instance, St. Stephen two days ago.  The massacre at Bethlehem did not witness to the Kingdom of God.  The only kingdom it bore witness to was Herod’s.   The children were not martyrs, they were victims.  And I wonder whether celebrating them as “martyrs” isn’t just putting a pious religious gloss on what was in fact a horrendous atrocity.  To call this “martyrdom” is a form of denial.  Celebrating today as a Major Feast can be a way we deny the awful reality of the ongoing victimization of people, and especially including children, in countless ways to this very day, and thus deny our need to do something about it.   Yes, by all means we must observe Holy Innocents’ Day.  And use it by remembering also Sandy Hook Elementary School and Columbine, and Virginia Tech and the University of Iowa (All Saints' Day, 1991).  And the Holocaust (the Shoah).  And 9/11.  And the genocide in Rwanda, and in Sudan, and elsewhere in Central Africa.  And Wounded Knee and Sand Creek.  And the Crusades.  It just goes on and on.  And it keeps going on and on.  In terms of numbers of victims, the Innocents of Bethlehem would have been a relatively minor incident – Bethlehem wasn’t a very big town at the time.

   Ben noted the other night that T. S. Eliot, speaking as St. Thomas Becket, reminds us of the close relationship of birth and death, that the joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus is immediately followed by the observances of the death of his first martyr, of the long life of persecution and exile of one of his chief apostles, and of the “collateral damage” (as we so daintily term it) that followed Jesus’ birth.  We both rejoice and mourn.  Yes, we do and must celebrate the Incarnation of God the Word, but we do and must also remember the need and the cost of that Incarnation, not only then but now in our own world today.  Christmas is not cheap grace.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

18 November 2012 - Proper 28 / Pentecost 25

PROPER 28 /  PENTECOST 25 — 18 November 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

[Track Two]  Daniel 12:1-3  |  Psalm 16  |  Hebrews 10:11-25  |  Mark 13:1-8

"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 

   In the Collect for the Day for this Sunday, we prayed:  “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:  Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”  This is a familiar prayer to us, I think; it was composed for the first English Prayer Book in 1549 as a Sunday collect, and it is also sometimes used as an opening prayer at Bible study groups.

   The prayer reminds us that we need not only hear and read the Scriptures, but also mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.  One of the ways we do this is by reading them over and over and over again.  

   I’m not suggesting that you need to read the whole Bible over and over, going back to Genesis 1 when you finish Revelation 22.  (Some people do that, and I won’t gainsay them, but although all of the Bible is worth reading, some parts of it are worth reading more than others, so it’s okay to be a little selective.  God can and does speak to us in Second Chronicles, but I think God usually says a lot more to us in the Gospels!  Remember that this Church is committed to the belief that all things necessary to salvation are contained in Holy Scripture, but that does not mean that all things contained in Holy Scripture are necessary to salvation, and in fact some of them are simply wrong.  And it’s by reading them over and over again that we are given the grace to discern which is which!)

   Anyway, I was reading the Bible again, and specifically St. Mark’s Gospel, since that’s what we have been reading on Sundays this year.  And I discovered, again, that sometimes on the umpty-umpth reading, a perfectly familiar passage suddenly speaks a Word that I have never heard before.  I expect some of you have had the same experience.  I am now speaking of the Gospel readings for last Sunday and this Sunday.  

   So I think we need to start by going back to last Sunday’s Gospel reading, because it’s really continuous with today’s.  (Remember that the chapter divisions weren’t added to the Bible until the Middle Ages, and the verse divisions not until the Renaissance/Reformation.)  Last week we heard, as I trust you recall!:

Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes…They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."  [Mark 12:38,40]
   And then there follows the episode of the poor widow who put her last two copper coins into the Temple treasury.  We typically read the story of the widow’s mite as an “Awww…” story that fills us with admiration for her devotion and encourages us to greater generosity, especially along about Church stewardship season!  But I have a suspicion that we may have missed the point that St. Mark is trying to make.  Remember that in ancient Jewish society – and most other ancient societies, for that matter – widows were really at the bottom of the economic ladder, at least if they didn’t have a son or a brother who could take care of them.  (Thus the repeated emphasis in both the Old and New Testaments on the need to care for the widows and orphans, who were utterly powerless in a patriarchal society.)  And maybe what Jesus wants us to see in looking at the poor widow putting her last two cents into the collection is not how devoted she is (though she obviously is that), but how the religious establishment – the scribes and the priests and all that gang – lay a piety trip on everyone, including poor widows whom they exploit rather than support.  In other words, Jesus points to the poor widow as an example of the moral corruption of the religious system that “devours widows’ houses.”  He cares about her, and respects the tragedy of her devotion, but that’s not his point.

   And so now we come to today’s Gospel.  The disciples are staring with their mouths hanging open, like a bunch of Galilean hicks in the big city.  And we should not underestimate how impressive the Jerusalem Temple was, even by the standards of the Roman Empire.  Here’s what the Jewish historian Josephus, who was by no means a Galilean hick, says:  “Now the outward face of the temple … was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who faced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.  But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for, as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.”  [Jewish Wars 5.5.6]  

   So what we have heard is Jesus first of all (and once again!) sitting in the Temple and harshly condemning the hypocrisy of the religious establishment that exploits and oppresses the people, and then we hear Jesus stepping out, looking back, and predicting the utter destruction of one of the greatest, perhaps even the very greatest, religious edifices in the ancient world.  It would be like proclaiming a solemn curse against the National Cathedral, or St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Kaaba in Mecca.  I’m not sure we fully realize how very subversive Jesus of Nazareth was.  And is.

   And of course that’s how it played out.  A few years after St. Mark composed his Gospel (I think it was after, though that’s not completely certain) the Temple was burned to the ground by the Roman Legions under the general Titus, who was the son of the Emperor Vespasian, and who himself became Emperor nine years later. 

   Well, we started out with today’s Collect:  “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:  Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”  I suspect that as we continue to read and study the Bible over and over – and never allow ourselves to say “Oh, yes, well, I’ve already read that!  I understand that!  I already know what that means!” – we will find that God uses the Word to open our minds and hearts to new, enriching, and often startling and challenging new insights into the meaning and demands of God’s Kingdom.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

28 October 2012 -- Proper 25 / Pentecost 22

PROPER 25 / 22 Pentecost—28 October 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant  — 9:00

[Track Two]  Jeremiah 31:7-9  |  Psalm 126  |  Hebrews 7:23-28  |   Mark 10:46-52

   From the Collect of the Day for this Sunday, Proper 25 – it’s on page 235 of the Prayer Book, if you haven’t already looked it up:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.

    “Make us love what you command.”  That’s kind of an odd phrase, isn’t it?  We don’t normally associate “love” as a response to a “command.”  “Commands” are to be obeyed, not to be loved!  But then, “odd” phrases are fairly common when we’re talking about God—God often does not fit very neatly into our categories!

   We are familiar with the idea that God commands certain things of us.  The words of our liturgy, the words of Holy Scripture itself, speak often of what God commands.  Perhaps the most obvious example is the “Ten Commandments.”  Often, though, don’t we too easily translate the concept of God’s commandments into the equivalent of commands in our own human world (a fallen human world)?  If a military officer gives a command, he or she expects it to be obeyed; if it is not obeyed, there are various sanctions that can be brought to bear upon the disobedient.  A commanding officer has the power of command, the ability to enforce commands, to coerce obedience or at least to punish disobedience.  Now, power in itself is morally neutral; many officers are good commanders who use their power wisely for the common good.  But it’s also true that in our fallen human world, power does tend to corrupt, and some human commanders use their power for their own self-aggrandizement, to gratify their own need to coerce the obedience of others.  And, against the background of that common experience within our fallen world of the connection (sometimes corrupt) between command, power, and obedience, we look at the commandments of God.

   Many, hearing about God’s “commands,” judge that God must be a tyrant—possibly because the only human commanders or authority figures they’ve ever known have been tyrannical—and so they reject God.  I think there are many who have fallen away from faith for just that reason.  Even worse, I think there are many who worship God on exactly that basis; there’s a kind of twisted spirituality that revels in groveling before a tyrannical God—and then in turning to the world in the tyrannical image and likeness of that god.  You may have noticed that some of the folks who talk the most about “God’s commandments” are the most eager to impose their own commandments on other people.

   Obviously, I don’t think that’s at all a picture of what God is like, or what God’s commandments are about!  God is not just the biggest toughest kid on the block!

   Notice that in today’s Collect we ask God to make us love what God commands in order that we may obtain what God promises.  There’s a key, I think—God’s promises.  Not just that God’s promises are a reward for our obedience, though there are some folks who seem to think that.  But that wouldn’t really be a promise—that would be payment of a wage earned, on the basis of a contractual condition fulfilled — a point that St. Paul makes in the letter to the Romans. [4:4]  God’s promises are unconditional—they are the promises of a loving Father.  Or rather, there is just this condition—not that there is anything we have to earn, or prove ourselves worthy of, but simply that we do have to put ourselves in a position where we can accept and receive God’s promises.  God’s promises are always there for us—the gift is always offered.  But if we ignore it, if we turn away from it (and we often do!) then the gift cannot be given.  A gift is freefreely given, freely received.  If I have to earn it, it’s no longer a gift.  If it is forced upon me, it is no longer a gift either.  I don’t have to deserve it, but I do have to choose to accept it.

   Look at blind Bar-Timaeus in the Gospel today.  When he hears that Jesus is coming by, he doesn’t just sit there wishfully thinking, “Golly, wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus helped me.”  He starts to yell at the top of his lungs:  “Have mercy on me, Son of David, I can’t see you, are you there?  Yo, Jesus, do you hear me? have mercy on me!”  When Jesus calls him, he springs right up, throws off his cloak, and scrambles, claws, gropes, pushes his way to him. And when Jesus asks him, “What do you want?” Bar-Timaeus doesn’t just stand there and shuffle his feet and mumble, “Well, gee, you know, aw shucks.”  He’s got the chutzpah to come right out with it:  “Duh!  I want to see again!”  Bar-Timaeus has reached out his hands to accept the gift of healing.  He knew he had to choose to do something—not to sit still, but to move where he could receive the gift of healing. And he made the choice. And that’s what Jesus is replying to when he says, “Your faith has made you well.”  Your trust has made it possible for you to be healed.

   You may remember that in the Gospel two weeks ago Jesus told the rich young man to give away everything and to follow him; but the rich young man couldn’t do it.  Last week when Jesus asked James and John what they wanted, they asked for places of honor and power in the Kingdom.  But Bar-Timaeus throws away his cloak -- the only possession this poor blind beggar had, and the only means of his paltry income (because he spread his cloak in front of him to collect alms from the passers-by).  And when Jesus asks Bar-Timaeus what he wants, Bar-Timaeus doesn’t ask for honor or power, he asks for vision.

   To love what God commands.  Not just to feel warm and cozy about the Ten Commandments.  Not even just to obey them out of some kind of sense of duty (though I suppose that beats disobeying them out of rebellious self-centeredness!).  God, after all, is not a petty tyrant who gets a kick out of being able to boss people around.  God’s commands are not arbitrary and ultimately unintelligible rules to which we must conform.  For what is it that God commands?  Is not God’s command, finally, “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live”? [Deuteronomy 30:19] —live fully, live authentically, live in love, live with God in God’s kingdom?  Is it not that God’s commands are the guideposts, the roadmap, the key to the door, of Life, life to the full, now and forever?  To love what God commands—to care deeply enough and passionately enough that we will choose to do what we have to do in order to be where we are able to accept and receive God’s promise of fullness of life.

   And yet even the choosing to accept is not a matter of our own accomplishment alone.  And so we start by asking God to “increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.”  For the bottom line—once again—is that it is all Gift.  It is always all Gift.  To be received.  

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

22 July 2012 -- Proper 11 / 8 Pentecost

PROPER 11 / 8 Pentecost — 22 July 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant  — 9:00 am

[Track Two]  Jeremiah 23:1-6   |   Psalm 23  |  Ephesians 2:11-22  |  Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

   I’ve told this story before, but I don’t remember whether I’ve told it to you, but even if I have, it’s okay, I guess, because the rest of the sermon is mostly new!

   In Scotland, at least some years ago, there was a lot of what we in the American West called “open range”—unfenced moors where unattended livestock wandered about as they would.  In the American West it was normally herds of beef cattle.   In Scotland it was unshepherded flocks of sheep.  For some reason known only to the sheep themselves, it often pleased them to stand in the middle of the road, just on the other side of the crest of a hill.  My college roommate and I were touring Britain on motorbikes one summer, typically running some hundreds of yards apart, and whoever was leading would come over the crest of the hill only to find the road full of sheep, screech to a sideways stop, engage the sheep in vigorous and contentious conversation (generally without much success), and finally persuade them to move over to the shoulder of the road, to permit passage.  After which the sheep would saunter back into the middle of the road to stare with minimal curiosity at the departing form of this rude Yankee who was so insensitive to local Scottish ovine custom.  At which point the other one of us would come over the crest of the hill and screech to a sideways stop.  

   “He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  

   This is kind of an interesting Gospel reading selection for today.  I’ve indicated in the past that I’m never always quite sure what the Revised Common Lectionary Gnomes have in mind…  Anyway, you will perhaps note, from the bulletin or from your Bibles if you were following along or if you looked this reading up in advance, that there is a big break in the middle of the reading, eighteen verses.  What’s that all about?  Those of you who have your finger in your Bible may have already noticed that what’s been left out is the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and also the story of Jesus Walking on the Water.  ???!!!  Well, fear not, little flock.  As it turns out, next Sunday the Gospel reading is the Feeding and Walking stories, only from St. John’s Gospel instead of St. Mark, and the Gospel readings continue to be taken from the sixth chapter of St. John through August, returning to St. Mark in September.

   But that leaves us with today’s reading, in which it’s not quite sure what’s happening.  And in fact it’s true that in St. Mark the two sections are both transitional passages, except the stories that they are transitions into and out of are left out!

   Still, you may recall that I said last month that Mark’s Gospel is a very sophisticated literary composition and is not just a simple stringing together of Jesus stories.  So he’s up to something even in these transitional passages, and there is a Word of God to be heard in them.  (And God says, “You got that right.”)

   You remember that two weeks ago, before last week’s story about John the Baptist being executed by Herod Antipas (which may have seemed like a digression but it really wasn’t), Jesus had sent the twelve out in pairs on a preaching-and-healing mission.  Well, now they have come back, and Jesus says, “Let’s go on retreat and debrief a bit.”  Alas, the crowd doesn’t let them get away.

   Last month I noted that the word Mark uses that we translate “the crowd” does not mean just “a lot of people,” it’s “the poor folks,” “the peasants,” “the nobodies.”  But Mark’s point is not that these folks are just a bunch of dumb sheep as on a Scottish moor.  Mark is making a very clear allusion to the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament.  And we heard that this morning in the First Reading from Jeremiah:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.… Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold.” 

   This theme of the scattering of the Lord’s sheep (Israel) by wicked shepherds (faithless and corrupt kings and priests, the religious establishment) runs throughout the Hebrew prophets.  For example, Ezekiel [34:2b,4-6]:

“Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?…You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.”

   So when Jesus sees the crowd like sheep without a shepherd, this is really a loaded image.  It’s not just a bunch of dumb folks.  They are God’s People, suffering under the oppression of the domination of corrupt powers, locally the temple establishment and other dimensions of the religious establishment such as the Pharisees, and the political establishment of Herod Antipas in Galilee, and overarching them and especially in Judaea, the Roman Empire.  Establishment powers which are not shepherds of God’s people.

   Jesus is, as St. John’s Gospel says explicitly, the Good Shepherd.  But in the context of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and in the specific context of first-century Roman Palestine, this really doesn’t have anything to do with the kind of sentimental pictures of the wimpy Victorian shepherd and his cute little lambs (like the stained-glass window over the altar over at Trinity, Iowa City – but let’s not go there right now!).  Jesus is the Liberator, the Savior, the King.  

   Yes, Jesus is political.  Yes, St. Mark’s Gospel is political (as are all the Gospels, as are the Letters of St. Paul, as is the whole Bible).  Yes, the Kingdom of God is political.  But that doesn’t mean competing with the powers and dominations of this world, or trying to overthrow them forcibly.  (I said all this last Sunday, but you weren’t there!)  “Politics” is about the ordering of the common life of the polis, the city, the state, the community.  It’s about how we live together as human beings in justice and peace.  But the more “politics” becomes about power and domination, the more it has become corrupt.

   The politics of the Kingdom of God is about how we love the Lord our God, and our neighbor as ourselves.  The Kingdom of God is not about life in the sweet by and by, at least not initially.  Yes, of course the Kingdom has a transcendent, eternal dimension, but Jesus doesn’t really say very much about that.  (Most of our images about what “heaven” is like don’t come from the Bible, they come from New Yorker cartoons.)  Jesus talks about how we are to live with each other now, in this world, in justice and peace and love, and thus subverting the kingdoms of this world.  

   And these are, I think, among the “many things” that Jesus taught the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd.

Monday, July 16, 2012

15 July 2012 -- Proper 10 / 7th Pentecost

PROPER 10 – 7TH PENTECOST — 15 July 2012
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

[Track One]  2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19  |  Psalm 24  |  Ephesians 1:3-14  |  Mark 6:14-29

   One of the nice things about being retired is that when I want to I can just sit and watch stuff on television.  (I do have to find a way to tune out the little voice in the back of my head that is saying “Vacuum cleaner?”  “Supper?”)  One of the things that I have been watching lately is a mini-series that was originally on Showtime (we don’t subscribe to Showtime, I got this through another online source).  The series is called “The Tudors,” which is a dramatization of the life and reign of King Henry VIII of England.  It is sometimes historically accurate.  And sometimes not.  But it’s all good fun – lots of sex and violence and corruption (that much is accurate!), and as Anglicans it is good for our humility to be reminded of our tawdry origins.  So far I’m up to the episodes in which Henry renounces papal authority, sends Katherine of Aragon off to the countryside, and marries Anne Boleyn.  Thomas Cranmer has now shown up.  He’s depicted as kind of a wimp.  (That part’s not historically accurate, I suspect!)  Thomas Tallis has also shown up in Henry’s court, probably a year or two early.  A musical genius, but we already knew that.  It’s not entirely clear in the series how any of these people had time to run a kingdom; but never mind.

   So, speaking of sex and violence and corruption in the courts of power, in the Gospel today we hear the story of the execution of John the Baptist.

   It’s not entirely clear why St. Mark tells this story (which Matthew copies and abridges).  The beginning of Mark’s Gospel itself, with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness, is really a lead up to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus of whom Mark sees John as the forerunner.  Today’s story, after the opening transition, is apparently simply about John, not directly about Jesus, the only story in Mark that isn’t. 

   We start with Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee (you recall he was a son of King Herod the Great of Judaea), hearing about what Jesus and his followers were doing, and wondering if John the Baptist had come back to life.  It’s not clear how we should take that.  Herod Antipas wasn’t very religious except when it was politically expedient, and it’s questionable that he would have seriously believed that anyone could come back from the dead.  (Of course, Pharisaic Judaism believed in the resurrection, but only at the end of the age, not before then – that’s why the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus upset the Pharisees so badly.)  But on the other hand, Herod Antipas may well have been very superstitious, as not-very-religious folks often are, and therefore might believe almost anything.  But perhaps Antipas just meant, “Rats!  Is this Jesus fellow going to turn out to be yet another John the Baptist?  Am I going to have to kill him too?”  So that may be the subtext here.

   Anyway, Mark then tells the story of John’s execution at Antipas’ orders. We also have a version of this story from an outside source:  the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Antipas was afraid that John’s vigorous preaching and strong following among the people might lead to a popular uprising, and so he arrested John and put him to death, for political reasons. [Antiquities 18.5.2]   Josephus doesn’t mention the daughter of Herodias dancing for her stepfather/slash/uncle at his birthday party.  The girl’s name, of course, was Salome, but we know that from Josephus, not from the gospels.  And I don’t think anyone says anything about the seven veils until the play Salome by Oscar Wilde (who else?!), which then was the basis for the opera by Richard Strauss, which is not an opera to which you would want to take the kids, and not just because of the seven veils part.

   But this story is not just about people being naughty, and persecuting God’s prophet.  It’s a political story, and I think that’s why Mark tells it as part of his very political Gospel (in case you hadn’t noticed).  Here’s the back-story, which Mark and his community knew very well; after all, they had lived through it:  Herod Antipas had married the princess Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabataea.  Nabataea was a very powerful kingdom to the east and southeast of Judaea.  (Its capital city was Petra, which is now a major archaeological tourist site in Jordan.)  So the marriage of Antipas and Phasaelis was a political alliance, and there was probably nothing romantic about it!  Well, Antipas got tired of his Nabataean princess and dumped her so he could marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip.  Upper-class Romans did this kind of wife swapping thing all the time, but the Jews didn’t, and so they, evidently including John the Baptist, added this to their long list of grievances against Antipas.  And when the rejected princess Phasaelis came running home, her father King Aretas got very very mad and declared war against Antipas.  (Which Aretas won, inflicting major casualties on Antipas’ army.)
  Josephus tells us that many Jews thought that the military defeat of Antipas’ army by Aretas was God’s punishment for the execution of John the Baptist.

   Hmm.  Divorcing your first princess bride in order to marry your girlfriend.  Where have we heard that before?  No wonder I started out by talking about the TV series “The Tudors”!  Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Except in Henry’s case, it was the first bride who had been his brother’s wife. 

  Did you note that at Herod Antipas’ birthday party, the guests were “his courtiers and officers and … the leaders of Galilee”?  That is, the political establishment.  Ched Myers notes, “Mark accurately describes the inner circle of power as an incestuous relationship involving governmental, military, and commercial interests.”  [Binding the Strong Man, page 216]

   Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.  Oops.

   I said this was a political story, told in the context of a political Gospel.  That idea may ruffle our feathers, accustomed as we are to the notion of never mixing politics and religion.  Which just demonstrates that we don’t really understand either politics or religion.  We usually think of “politics” in a very narrow, partisan sense.  We’re spoiled because in our democratic republic, our political life is actually fairly civilized.  Even this year, believe it or not!  At least compared to politics elsewhere in the world and in world history.  But “politics” is about the ordering of the common life of the polis, the city, the state, the community.  It’s about how we live together as human beings in justice and peace.  But the more “politics” becomes about power and domination, the more it has become corrupt.

   And so, yes, the Gospel, the Good News, of the Kingdom of God is about politics.  It’s about how we love the Lord our God, and our neighbor as ourselves.  The Kingdom of God is not about life in the sweet by and by, at least not initially, and Jesus practically never talks about that kind of stuff.  Jesus talks about how we are to live with each other now, in this world, in justice and peace and love.  This entails confronting the kingdoms of this world, for which the bottom line is power.  But the Kingdom of God does not come through forcibly overthrowing the kingdoms of this world, but by subverting them with love and justice.  But this is a hard road.  It led John the Baptist to Herod’s dungeon.  It led Jesus to a Roman cross.  Where should it be leading us?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

6 May 2012 -- 5th of Easter

5TH OF EASTER  — 6 May 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

Acts 8:26-40  |  Psalm 22:24-30  |  1 John 4:7-21  |  John 15:1-8

I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.  [John 15:5]

   In the Gospel today Jesus is speaking about our relationship with him.  And in thinking about our relationship with Jesus Christ, I’m going to start by setting up a foil.  But in setting up this foil, I’m not claiming that it is altogether false, because it’s not.  In fact, there is a very great deal of truth in it, although I think it is also not the whole truth, maybe not even the most important dimension of the truth.  Nor do I want to deny or disparage the very real value some of you may find in what I am setting up as a foil, though I would encourage you to look and think and pray further and more deeply into these things.  (Okay, now where is he going with this?)  The foil that I am setting up is, as modern American neo-evangelicalism typically calls it, the “personal relationship with Jesus.” 

   What do I mean here by “a personal relationship with Jesus”?  Well, to tell you the truth, when I hear neo-evangelicals use the phrase, I’m often not at all sure what they mean by it—what exactly they mean by “a personal relationship” with Jesus (as opposed to whatever “an impersonal relationship” with Jesus might be), and I don’t always find it clear how this relationship is actually with Jesus.  In fact, I’m not always convinced that it really is Jesus that this relationship is with.  There is always a danger – for all of us – that our “Jesus” may just be a projection of our own selves and wishes.  But to give some substance to what may be a somewhat slippery concept here, I will cite the theme of “walking and talking with Jesus” which is a traditional dimension of some American evangelical spirituality, and which finds voice in such hymns as “I Walk in the Garden Alone,” with its refrain, “the joy we share while we tarry there none other shall ever know.”  (If this is your favorite hymn, I apologize for any offense, but I don’t actually take it back!)  I suggest that not only does this not represent the Catholic Christian tradition, it doesn’t represent classical Reformation Protestantism; and, most important, it does not represent the New Testament.

   I think there are some real problems with the Jesusolatry of American neo-evangelicalism, despite the zeal and genuine sincerity of its proponents, who urge upon us a personal, but highly individualistic, very private, relationship with a Jesus who is indeed asserted to be Lord and Savior but without any very clear notion of what that means or might entail.  Nor do I perceive much real content to the identity and mission of this Jesus other than to be someone who provides me with spiritual consolations as we walk in the garden or wherever, and who “saves” me, which apparently means when I die I go to heaven instead of hell.  But it’s not certain exactly what else or what more Jesus as Lord and Savior might mean.

   Well then, what does the Gospel say about our relationship with Jesus?  The word which St. John, both in his Epistle and in the Gospel today, characteristically uses to describe our relationship with Jesus is “abiding in,” “remaining in,” “dwelling in,” “continuing in.”  St. Paul talks characteristically of being “in Christ.”  It is at least in part to celebrate and the strengthen this mutual “living in” each other—Christ in us and we in Christ, that we make Eucharist and receive the Holy Communion—that we may be “living members of his Body.”  St. Paul reminds us that “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  [1 Cor. 12:27]  It is to enact sacramentally God’s initiation of this relationship that we celebrate Holy Baptism.  And as St. Paul notes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”  [Romans 6:3]  I think, and hope, that this is what we are talking about in the pledge of our baptismal vows:  “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”  [BCP, page 302-303] 

   In today’s Gospel Jesus uses the image of a grapevine:  he is the vine, and we are his branches.  We are part of him.  We share his life.  But we share his life not just for ourselves but for the life of the world.  Being Christians, being in relationship with Jesus, being branches of Jesus’ vine, does not just mean hanging there alone in the garden, tarrying and joyfully slurping up the sap!  We are to bear fruit, we are told in the Gospel today.  The whole point of branches of a vine is to produce grapes, for eating or winemaking!

   The only gardens in which we meet Jesus in the Gospels are Gethsemane and the tomb at Calvary.  Jesus himself says, “If you want to become my follower, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”  [Mark 8:34]

   Our relationship with Jesus does not exist just for our own sake, for the satisfaction of what we perceive as our own “religious” or “spiritual” needs, even for our own personal salvation.  Jesus shares his life with us so that we may share his life with each other, and with a dying world.  I’m not sure that neo-evangelical Jesusolatry can see, or thinks there is any need to see, beyond Jesus himself.  But Jesus did not come to be an end in himself.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, for Jesus really to be Lord means something far more than, and I think quite other than, being an object of religion.  [Letters & Papers, 30 April 1944]  Jesus came, and comes, in the service of the Kingdom of God, proclaiming and enacting God’s Reign, himself embodying God’s Reign.  And he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Jesus calls us into relationship with himself, not so that we can walk and talk in the garden but so that we can share in his work.  “I have called you friends,” he says, “and I appointed you to go and bear fruit.”  If we are not bearing fruit then we are not remaining in the vine at all.  But if we abide in Jesus and Jesus in us, if we are taking up our cross and following him, if we are members of his Body, if we are baptized into his death so that we may walk in the newness of the life of his resurrection, if Jesus is indeed our Lord and Savior, if we have a real relationship with the real Jesus, then it is his mission on behalf of God’s Kingship that we share: loving, healing, restoring to wholeness; bearing the liberating power of God’s love to everyone we meet, and in everything we do.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

29 April 2012 -- 4th of Easter

4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER — 29 April 2012
Trinity, Iowa City – 11:00 am
Baptism of Peter 

Acts 5:4-12  |  Psalm 23  |  1 John 3:16-24  |  John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  [John 10:11]

   [Good Shepherd Window]


   Lots of us really like this window!  Others of us, not so much.  But I’m not going there.

   The thing is, “awww!” isn’t really all that appropriate a thing to say about sheep.

   How many of you grew up on a farm where you raised sheep?  (Yes, you can count grandma and grandpa’s farm where you went in the summer.)  Yeah, me neither.  I grew up in cities.  It was easy to go to Sunday School in an urban church and be sentimental about sheep.

   In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is not being sentimental about sheep.  Jesus frequently talks about sheep.  Jesus talks about the real world in which he and his followers and his hearers live.  Jesus doesn’t talk a lot about “religion” – whatever we mean by that.  Jesus talks about fish, and wheat, and olive trees, and vineyards.  And about sheep.  Remember his story about the lost sheep?  The Hebrew Scriptures talk a lot about sheep, too.  As we heard in Psalm 23 today (“The Lord is my shepherd”), or as in Psalm 100 (“We are [God’s] people and the sheep of his pasture”), or Psalm 80 (“Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock”).  Recall that the ancestors of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were all shepherds, as was Moses after he fled from Pharaoh’s court in Egypt into the Sinai desert, as was David before he was anointed as Israel’s King (“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be prince over my people Israel” [2 Samuel 7:8]).

   So the Bible talks a lot about God’s people (that would be:  all people, folks!  "So there will be one flock, one shepherd."  [John 10:16b]) -- God's people being the sheep of God’s flock, and about Jesus as our good shepherd, but there isn’t anything sentimental or cute about it.  Jesus is not complimenting us.  Sheep are not cute.  The shepherd searching for the lost sheep was probably muttering under his (or her) breath pretty good, but he still looked high and low, and rejoiced when the lost one was found.

   What I hope all this business with sheep makes clear to us is that God loves us, God cares for us, God rescues us even at the cost of life itself, and this is not because we deserve it, and certainly not because we are so cute, but just because!  Just because that’s who God is.

   I was wandering through a greeting card department the other day, and saw a card for Mother’s Day that said, “As we used to tell the children, I’ll show you unconditional love when you’ve earned it!”

   Well, I’m afraid there are some parents who are really like that.  God is not like that.

   Yet we just can’t get it out of our heads that that is what God is like.  God will love me, if I behave myself.  God will care for me, when I am a good boy.  God will save us, if we can demonstrate that we deserve it.   When we can prove that we have earned it.

   And that’s wrong.  And we know up here somewhere that it’s wrong.  And yet we still won’t let go of it.  We just seem to be unable to get it, that God’s love is free gift.  And “free gift” means FREE GIFT.  The gift of life, fullness of life, wholeness of life, now and beyond.  

   Jesus told a story – I expect you know this story – about a man who had two sons.  [Luke 15:11-31]  Well, the younger son was an arrogant little snot, and he talked Dad into advancing him his share of the inheritance, and he went off to the big city and blew it all living high on the hog.  Which meant that he ended up living low with the hogs.  That was a bummer.  “What can I do now?”  he asked himself.  “I can’t just go home.  Well, maybe if I kind of sneak home, and really moan and whine about how awful I’ve been, maybe they’ll send me out some leftovers to eat on the back porch.”  So he’s shlumping up the alley so he can knock at the back door, but his dad is out in the yard and sees him coming, and runs out to him and throws a giant hug on him before the boy can even finish his little rehearsed speech.  “You’re just in time for dinner!’ he cries, and he hauls him into the dining room and sits him down beside him at the table.

   That’s how God is.  This is a story about grace.

   You probably also remember that the older brother is now in a snit (as older brothers are wont to be), because his little bro didn’t deserve that kind of unconditional love.  He hadn’t earned it.

   No, he hadn’t.  Neither have you.  Neither have I.  Neither had St. Francis.  Neither had Mother Teresa.  It doesn’t matter!  “Deserving” and “earning” don’t have anything to do with it.

   Yes, but…!   Yes, but…!   Yes, but what about all my sins?  Isn’t God offended by my sins?  We’ve pretty much always thought God is offended by our sins.  We very frequently say it.  (If you root around in the Book of Common Prayer you’ll probably find some stuff like that.)  I don’t believe that God is offended by our sins.  (God isn’t all that easily offended, and the things that do offend God might surprise us.)  But I do believe that God is deeply grieved by our sins.  Because our sins damage and even destroy ourselves, and our sins damage and even destroy each other, and (as we are becoming increasingly aware) our sins damage and even destroy the world that God created for us to live in.  God does not want us to destroy ourselves, or each other; God grieves over us, because God loves us.  God wants us to be whole, and not to be broken.  And sin breaks us, and sin breaks others, and sin breaks the world.  And so what we need to do about that is to come home.  To accept God’s love.  To let God make us whole, and to make each other whole, and to make God’s world whole again.

   Today, in a few moments, we will celebrate Peter’s baptism.  Baptism means a great many things, but suffice it for now to say that baptism is an effective sign of God’s love, God’s free love, welcoming us into the new life of the Body of the Risen Christ.  Some of our Christian brothers and sisters believe it is important that we be able to make a mature profession of faith; and growing into mature faith is indeed important for all of us.  But life is a gift, not a wage, and where is life more obviously a gift than in an infant?  We don’t earn this gift of God’s love by anything we do, by anything we achieve, by anything we prove, by anything we deserve, by any theology we profess.  God loves us.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  [Luke 12:32]  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  Just because.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sermon - 1 April 2012 - Palm Sunday

PALM SUNDAY — 1 April 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

The Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Mark 15:1-39

Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, a colleague and friend of mine made this statement about Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and it has always stuck with me: “It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.”1

We’ve all gotten very accustomed in the Church to how we celebrate what we usually call “Palm Sunday” – which, as you will have noticed in the Prayer Book, has the full title “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” And the two elements of this double title, while closely related, are by no means synonymous. The service today actually consists of two liturgies: First the Liturgy of the Palms, and then the Liturgy of the Word, where we are now and which will continue into the Eucharist or the Holy Communion.

And these two liturgies, though related and conjoined, have very different tones. The first is – or seems to be – very celebrative and joyous. The Gospel is the story of a triumphant parade, along a route lined with cheering crowds, singing hymns of victory. For hundreds of years we have sung “All glory, laud, and honor!” (Well, the tune goes back only to the seventeenth century, but the original words of the hymn to the ninth, and the liturgical celebration itself to the fourth.)

And then suddenly the mood changes radically and abruptly. We put all that aside and pick up the story later in the week, when it has become very dark. Now it is about betrayal, arrest, condemnation, torture, and death.

“It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.”

So what’s going on here? Well, a few days back, according to St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. They had been in Galilee, where Jesus had been teaching and healing. But in these latter days Jesus had started getting a little weird. It may have started while they were up north; Jesus had asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter had replied, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus then explained that this meant that the powers-that-be would kill him, and Peter got all upset about that and Jesus had to straighten him out. We heard this in the Gospel last month. [Mark 8:27-33] Then a little later Jesus tried to explain to them again what was going to happen, and the disciples still didn’t get it. [Mark 9:30-32] But now Jesus starts really getting weird – the bit about how hard it will be for the rich and powerful to enter God’s kingdom. [Mark 10:23-27] And so they started up to Jerusalem, which must have seemed to the disciples a pretty spooky thing to do. (We all grew up looking at maps, and so for us to go from Galilee to Jerusalem would be “down,” like going “down to St. Louis,” but for Galileans hiking along the Jordan River, Jerusalem was very much “up,” climbing over 3000 feet, walking all the way!) And a third time Jesus told them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles [that’s “the Romans”]; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” [Mark 10:32-34]

So now they have arrived outside Jerusalem, and in the well-known story (and if we read between the lines we know it even better), Jesus stages this little parade down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem. He’s riding on a donkey that he has borrowed. Just like the prophet Zechariah had said about the coming of the king. [Zechariah 9:9] And like blind Bartimaeus had cried out a little earlier while they were still down in Jericho: “Jesus, Son of David!” [Mark 10:47] Nudge nudge wink wink.

(It has been suggested by scholars – and it’s just a suggestion, I don’t think there is any direct proof, but I like the idea – that at the very same time Jesus was leading this somewhat rag-tag Jewish procession into Jerusalem from the east, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem from the west, at the head of a cohort of his legionnaires from the imperial headquarters down on the Mediterranean coast at Caesarea Maritima. One can well imagine that while the peasants over at the east gate were shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” the upper-class folks were lined up at the west gate, gritting their teeth and muttering “yay Caesar.” I like the irony.)

Of course Jesus knew perfectly well how this was all going to turn out. (This isn’t because Jesus had some infallible divine foreknowledge. Orthodox Christology requires us to understand that Jesus had a genuinely human mind. But Jesus wasn’t stupid, and he understood very very well the meaning and implications of the Kingdom of God.) And so although the cheering crowd along the road, and even his own disciples, thought that this was a victory parade, Jesus knew that it wasn’t.

Last month we also heard Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8:34-35]

We talk about the events of the Friday of this week, what we call Good Friday in Holy Week, which we hear in the second Gospel reading today, as the Passion of Christ, meaning his suffering and death. But the word “passion” also has a wider meaning that we often use, when we say we have a passion for something. It may be utterly trivial, as when we say we have a passion for chocolate ice cream. It may be much more profound, as when we have a passion for our spouses and our families. Johann Sebastian Bach had a passion for music, evidenced among many other compositions by his settings of the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion, which some of us may have had occasion to hear at this season. Well, Jesus too had a passion, beyond what happened to him in his final days in Jerusalem. Jesus had a passion for the Kingdom of God. His whole ministry expressed his passion for the Kingdom of God. And he brought this passion down the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem on this Sunday. And, staggering, he brought this passion out of Jerusalem to the stakes at Golgotha on Friday. Because that is what the kingdoms of this world do to the Kingdom of God.

Or try to do. Because as we know in hindsight, the kingdoms of this world are not ultimately victorious. It was not obvious to anyone on that Friday, but it began to be obvious on the following Sunday, and we will celebrate that next Sunday.

“It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.” But it was a victory. It was the victory.

1 The Rev. Charles Peek, Diocese of Nebraska, ca. 1979.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sermon - 11 March 2012 - 3rd in Lent

3RD SUNDAY IN LENT — 11 March 2012
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 |
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.

The Bishop had come for Confirmation – (by the way, this was told to me as a true story, although I wasn’t there. And it’s an old story – it goes back to the Olden Days which a few of us remember, when young people were not admitted to Holy Communion until they were confirmed. Thus in some parishes, especially those that were eucharistically centered, children were presented for Confirmation at a relatively early age so they could begin to make their Communions as soon as possible. They had to know the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments. So, anyway -- ) The Bishop had come for Confirmation, and, as was that bishop’s custom, he was catechizing the children in the class before confirming them, and he asked, “Who can tell me the Third Commandment?” One little girl shot her hand up in the air, and when the Bishop pointed to her she stood up and proudly announced, “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain!” The Bishop said, “That’s right – very good! And can you tell me what that commandment means?” The girl’s pride immediately dissolved, and she looked down at her brand-new patent-leather shoes and began to fidget. “Well,” asked the Bishop, “do you know what the Third Commandment means?” She nodded her head. “Then can you tell us?” She stammered out, “I can’t say it.” “No, it’s quite all right,” the Bishop assured her. “You can tell us what the Third Commandment means.” The girl took a deep breath, screwed up her eyes, and shouted, “It means you’re not s’posed to say ‘goddammit’!”

(The story goes that the Bishop looked out at the adults in the congregation and said, “I‘m not going to ask about the Seventh Commandment!”)

No. We’re not supposed to say “goddammit.” I don’t doubt that it annoys God when we do. But I think the Third Commandment is about a little more than just that, and frankly there’s a lot of taking God’s name in vain going on these days even among folks who probably never ever say “goddammit.”

Since it’s Lent, we heard the Ten Commandments in the Penitential Order at the beginning of the service, and the Rite II or “contemporary” version of the Decalogue (“The Ten Words”) reads like this: “You shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God.” Well, yeah, I suppose that’s at least part of it, though not all of it. The New Revised Standard Version, which we heard in the first reading this morning, says: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,” and that’s getting closer. Actually, closest to the Hebrew may be the traditional “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain (lashawa’).” Another modern translation gives us: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” and I think that’s not far off. And there’s a lot of misusing of God’s name going around.

Sometimes we can be very sure that we know and understand who God is and what God wants, and we have little hesitation in saying so, especially to other people who, we think, do not have our insight and wisdom. (St. Paul talks about wisdom this morning, but that’s another sermon for another year!) We use the name of the Lord our God as a club to beat other people over the head with. (“Taking in vain?” I should think so…!) There seems to be a good bit of this going on in politics these days; maybe you can speculate who I might have in mind, but I’m not going there today! Let’s just stick to ourselves, as individuals, as members of our extended families, as members of our local communities, as members of the Church, locally, denominationally within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and throughout the world, among Christians and among all faith communities. “This is what God wants!” we proclaim to each other. “See? It says so right here in the Bible!” (“But what about this passage over here?” “No! No! Don’t look at that one! Read my passage!”) “If you don’t hear and obey the word of the Lord (just exactly the same way I do!) then you must be in league with Satan!”

(You all know about the folks who close their eyes, open the Bible to a page at random, and stick their finger on a verse, and then look to see what it says and take that for some definitive guidance. Maybe you have been one of those folks yourself. I suggest that that’s a good shortcut to taking the Lord’s name in vain. But I digress. Slightly.)

Bear in mind that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” (That’s Shakespeare [Merchant of Venice, I.iii], though Dickens and others have also picked it up. But ultimately it reflects the accounts in Matthew [4:1-11] and Luke [4:1-13] of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness during his 40-day retreat of vocation. But I digress again. Slightly.)

When we are thinking about God, and God’s will, there are obviously passages in the Scriptures to which we can appeal. For instance, the Ten Commandments, which we hear again this morning. (And we also heard again how Jesus summarized them: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole being, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets.” And don’t forget the Prophets. Jesus didn’t.) But we also need to be careful lest we claim or assume too much.

God, and God’s Name, are not to be taken lightly. You are aware that it has been strict Jewish practice, from well before Jesus’ time, never to speak the Hebrew proper name of God aloud, but to substitute for it another divine title, most commonly “the LORD” (signaled in some English Bibles and in the Prayer Book Psalter by using small capital letters). Every time we don’t understand something, when we can’t make sense of something, we drag in God. We say “This must be God’s will.” Well, a lot of things go on in the world that are not God’s will, especially including human tragedy. “God has a purpose for us in this.” Well, I think God does have a purpose for us, but I suspect that when we say that it betrays the fact that we actually don’t really have any idea what God’s purpose might be. “It’s God’s plan for your life.” I think that’s on very thin ice. God is not a puppeteer. God does not write hidden scripts for us that we are somehow supposed to discern. God does not play games with us. We must
not play games with God. Above all, we must understand that the Holy One is not to be made a tool of human ideology. God does indeed say, “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon - 4 March 2012 - 2nd in Lent

2ND SUNDAY IN LENT — 4 March 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

Genesis 17:1-7,15-16 | Psalm 22:22-30 |
Romans 4:13-25 | Mark 8:31-38

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Poor St. Peter! No matter what he does, he never seems to get it right! Just a couple of weeks ago we heard about how he shared in the vision of Jesus in glory, with the heroes of Israel, Moses and Elijah, and Peter didn’t know what he was saying; he wanted to stay and build shrines! Much more seriously, as we remember and will hear again in a few weeks, Peter promised Jesus that he would never abandon him, yet the very first time he was challenged about Jesus he chickened out.

Well, in today’s episode, we hear the verses that immediately follow this (which we heard in Matthew’s version last summer): “[Jesus] asked [his disciples], ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’” [Mark 8:29]

Peter got the right word, but he still didn’t know what he was saying.

We know what the word “Messiah” means. (Well, actually, we probably don’t know all that it really means, but we may be closer than Peter.) For us, the first image that comes to mind when we hear or read the word “Messiah” is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ (which we usually remember is simply the Greek way, and subsequently the Latin way, and ultimately the English, Spanish, and so on way, of saying “Jesus the Messiah”). And for us that image probably includes Jesus as healer, and teacher, and ultimately the Crucified One. The symbol of the Christ, of the Messiah, is the Cross.

Well, not so for Peter, or probably for anyone else among first-century Jews in Judea or Galilee (or anywhere else). The Hebrew word mashiah (anglicized Messiah) is “The Anointed One,” and the Anointed One is the King, anointed by God, like David of old, and in the context of first-century Judaism, living under the rule, often the oppressive rule, of a series of foreign empires for most of the previous six hundred years. So the Messiah-King is the Liberator, the one whom God will send from heaven, or will call out from among the people, to free God’s chosen and (as even Jesus’ disciples keep on thinking) to “restore the Kingdom to Israel.” [Acts 1:6] Some who speculated about the Messiah envisioned a revolutionary leader who would raise the nation in armed military insurrection against the Roman overlords. Others hoped for a Messiah who was more of a heavenly figure who with a host of God’s angels would overthrow all other earthly kingdoms by divine intervention and raise Israel to be Top Kingdom in the world.

So somewhere in here is probably where Peter (and the other disciples) were. We can imagine that when Peter answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” he is only just realizing it himself when he says, wide-eyed, “It’s you! You are the Messiah!”

But you will remember that Jesus immediately says, “Okay, but now just keep that under your hats.” And then he goes on as we hear in the Gospel reading today: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” And this isn’t anything at all like the Messiah that Peter and the others had in mind. Their Messiah was a leader with power, even divine power! What is all this about suffering and rejection and death? And as for rising again, well, lots of Jews believed that everyone would be raised at the last day, but that doesn’t do us much good right now! So Peter cries, “NO! It can’t be! That’s not right! It’s not like that!” And Jesus says back to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” That is right. It is like that.

(As the prophet Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” [Isaiah 55:8])

We are so sure that we know what God wants, what the will of God is, what the purposes of God are. We see this all around us. We see this in our national (and state and local) political life, which in this season has become particularly unsavory. (I won’t name names!) But we see it also in our religious or church life, between and among faith communities, between and among denominations, and within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. “I know what the will of God is. I know the truth! And anyone who disagrees with me or has a different perspective is somewhere between Grievously Misinformed and Mindless Pond Scum.”

Yeah, right.

We seem to think it is so important that we know everything about everything in advance, that we have all the answers. We don’t do at all well with uncertainty about anything. (In passing, I might note that last month I attended a series of lectures by a noted astrophysicist at the University, who pointed out that uncertainty and indeterminacy are the condition of being able to do modern physics at all. But I digress!) More to the point, our first reading from Genesis today, and the epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans which comments on that first reading, remind us that Abraham didn’t know in advance where all this wandering around would lead him, but he trusted God.

Jesus said to Peter and the disciples, and Jesus says to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon - 12 February 2012 - 6th after Epiphany

6TH AFTER EPIPHANY — 12 February 2012
Trinity – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

2 Kings 5:1-14
Ps 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.

How many of you have read the Bible? The whole Bible — or at least pretty much the whole Bible? (I’m not trying to put you on the spot here, and I’m not taking names!) Did any of you do the thing where you said, “I need to read the Bible!” and you started in on page 1 with Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1? How far did you get? (Or at least, how far did you get before you started skimming ahead? Along about Chapter 5? Right!)

We all think we ought to read the Bible. And we’re right, we all ought to read the Bible; and at one time or another we probably ought to read at least most of it. (Incidentally, there was a very interesting posting on the Episcopal Café a week or so ago about whether everybody should be encouraged to read the Bible, with lots of good comments. Here's the URL:)

The truth of the matter is, in some respects the Bible isn’t all that reader-friendly. A lot of it really isn’t very accessible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and particularly the parts that drone on and on about who begat who. But there are some wonderful stories in the Old Testament -- as well as some that are terrifying -- and we should read them and know them, because for good or ill they are our story.

Today we get the story of Naaman. We get Naaman because the Gospel today is about Jesus healing a leper, and Naaman was a leper who was healed by the prophet Elisha. Okay. But Naaman is a story worth knowing for its own sake, apart from any connection with today’s Gospel reading.

Naaman was a general in the army of the King of Syria, or “Aram” as the Hebrew text actually says. He had contracted leprosy. It’s not entirely clear just what “leprosy” is in the Bible. It was regarded as a dreadful and fearsome affliction. It may be that some of the “lepers” in the Bible did have what we now call Hansen’s disease, which is a grievous affliction, though generally controllable by modern medicine, at least for people in the first world who can get modern medicine. But other persons who are called “lepers” in the Bible may have had nothing worse than the heartbreak of psoriasis. But whatever the disease was dermatologically, it still had the same disastrous social and psychological consequences, and Naaman desperately wanted to be cured. And, as we hear this morning, he finally ended up at the gate of the Israelite prophet Elisha.

Elisha, like many godly persons, was good to people but not always nice to them, and he simply sent out instructions for Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River. You know how sometimes when we’re not feeling well we call the doctor, but the doctor isn’t available just then, so we have to tell the nurse or the office secretary what ails us, and by and by the office staff calls back and says the doctor has called in a prescription for us, and we run down to the drugstore and pick up the pills, and we take them, and they work and we feel better, but we’re still a little miffed about the whole thing because we didn’t get to actually talk directly to the doctor. Well, Naaman is a Very Important Personage, at least up in Syria, and he was expecting a Personal Consult and a Major Prophetic Procedure. Instead he’s been treated rather shabbily by this Israelite prophet, and he gets into High Dudgeon about it. Naaman’s servants, who have acquired some good sense over a lifetime of being treated rather shabbily themselves most of the time, understand that High Dudgeon is not a particularly fruitful place to be, and they talk Naaman down. Naaman goes grumbling off to the crummy ol’ Jordan River, and he washes seven times, and he is cured of his leprosy.

We all love to complain and whine and get into High Dudgeon about the fact that things aren’t the way we want them to be, instead of simply doing what is necessary to make things better. We would rather curse the darkness than light one candle.

We are especially like Naaman when, as with Elisha’s instructions, what we need to do is something fairly simple. We think that we could get our lives into better shape, get our act together, get our ducks in a row, if only God would perform some great miracle, if only we could have some great spiritual experience, if only we could accomplish some truly heroic quest. If only, if only — anything but just taking care of business right here and now.

And that isn’t the way it really works. It’s all the little daily things that are the real substance of our lives, not the big fat hairy deals, not the “if onlys.” The way we share in the boundless creative love of God that sustains the immensity of the universe in being is — by loving the specific person who is next to us right now. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Every few years we get a cycle of exotic fad diets: buy some TV time for an infomercial hawking your new book on the Beer and Parsnip Diet, and my gosh how the Visa charges roll in! Of course, fad diets don’t really work in the long run, and some of them are dangerous. What does work (though I’m hardly a convincing witness, am I?) is to eat well-balanced, but smaller, meals, and get regular exercise. Calories do count; to lose weight you must consume less and burn up more. It’s that simple. Maybe not easy, but simple. Too simple for many of us. We’re just like ol’ Naaman.

Christian discipleship is a lot like following Elisha’s instructions: relatively simple, really, though not always easy; but the key is to start doing it. Let’s not hold in contempt the ordinary day-by-day things that countless generations of Christians have found necessary to their spiritual growth. Prayer. Reading the Scriptures. Gathering together with the community of fellow disciples to worship and to be fed with Word and Sacrament. Self-discipline. Generosity. Service. Love.

We are such Very Important Personages, in our own minds. We’re so proud. We’re so rebellious. We’re so self willed. Like Naaman we want to do it our way!

“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times.”

Really pretty simple. Let’s just do it!