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.