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.”