Sunday, December 1, 2013

1 December 2013 - 1 Advent

1 Advent — 1 December 2013
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Isaiah 2:1-5   |    Ps 122   |   Romans 13:11-14   |   Matthew 24:36-44

“Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Last week a friend of mine posted this on his Facebook page:  “For every Christmas light lit before Thanksgiving, one of Santa’s Elves kills a baby reindeer!”

I have some very weird friends!

Looking back over my sermon archive for this Sunday in past years, I discover that I often spent an inordinate amount of time moaning and whining about the fact that in modern society the Christmas celebration gets earlier and earlier.  Bad enough that we should be celebrating Christmas already when the season of Advent has only just begun, but now “Christmas” has not only crowded out Thanksgiving – Black Friday now apparently begins before we have even put the turkey leftovers in the refrigerator on Thursday afternoon – but it is well on the way to displacing Hallowe’en! 

Moan and whine.  Moan and whine.

And yet, you know, when we think about what we are hearing on the radio or on retail stores’ background music, or seeing on television, there are lots of songs and decorations that have to do with the winter wonderland, and Frosty the snowman, and Santa Claus and his reindeer, and holly and mistletoe and chestnuts roasting on the open fire, and gift-giving, and family; and that’s all fine.  Apart from the over-commercialization, this is all pretty much pleasant, delightful stuff.  We really don’t need to have any problem with that.  In fact, let’s not be Grinches about it! 

But presumably we notice that there really isn’t very much about Jesus in all of this; and what there is tends to be sweet and sentimental.  And whatever the truth is behind our traditional and largely mythological picture of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus, it certainly was not sweet and sentimental.

I hope that it will not come as surprising news to any of you that we do not have any idea at all about on what day of the year Jesus was born.   Nothing in the Gospels or elsewhere in the New Testament gives us any clue.  Furthermore, there’s no indication that the early generations of Christians really cared about this issue.  In fact, some early Christian leaders and theologians argued that what day Jesus was born was an improper question:  the pagans celebrated the alleged birthdays of their alleged gods, and it would be a mistake for Christians to imitate them.  (In the years following the Protestant Reformation, many Christians of Puritan bent agreed with that, and some conservative Christians still do.)  But as the years passed, that argument became harder to sell, and in the late third and early fourth centuries the pagans in the Roman Empire (who were still the majority) were making a big happy festival deal over the Birthday of the Invincible Sun, celebrated at the time of the winter solstice.  And so Christians began to say, well, if they’re going to celebrate the birthday of the sun, we should celebrate the birthday of Him who created the sun!  And so the Church settled on December 25 to celebrate the nativity of Christ.  Sure, why not?

But it’s still the case that much of what the world thinks of as the “Christmas celebration” is not really about the birth of Jesus Christ at all, it’s about celebrating the winter solstice.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, as long as we keep the agendas straight.

So today we begin the season of Advent, the celebration and anticipation of Christ’s Advent, or Coming.  And by the “Coming” or “Advent” of Christ, we mean several things.

Most obviously and immediately, we think of Christ’s coming into the world in his birth at Bethlehem two thousand years ago.  That’s the religious and liturgical side of “Christmas,” and we’re not there yet.  This is a season of anticipation.

Another aspect of Advent is what we call Christ’s Second Coming, when this world is brought to its culmination and conclusion, and the whole creation is gathered together, perfected, resurrected, and brought fully within God’s Sovereignty for ever. This fulfillment of the Reign of God in peace and joy is what the Prophet Isaiah is looking forward to in the Old Testament lesson today.  This is, at least in part, what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel today, in rather stern and awesome imagery. And Jesus warns us that the whole business of his Coming Again is quite beyond our knowing, and will come at an hour — not just at a day and time, but in a whole manner — we do not expect.  Let me repeat:  Jesus warns us that the whole business of his Coming Again is quite beyond our knowing, and will come at an hour — not just at a day and time, but in a whole manner — we do not expect, and indeed cannot even imagine.  (But that’s another sermon for another time.) 

But besides our Lord’s first, historical coming, and his second, eschatological coming (they taught us in seminary never to use the word “eschatological” in a sermon!) – besides these there are all the countless ways Jesus comes into our own lives now, encountering us again and again in our daily routines, presenting us with opportunities to grow closer to him to be conformed more fully to his image, and to serve the world in his Name.  This is what St. Paul is getting at in today’s Epistle — “It’s time to wake up!  Get ready!  Let’s get on with it!”  For the Lord comes in ways and at times we do not expect— indeed, Jesus has a positive flair for the unlikely. He comes in a beautiful sunrise, and also in a cold dank dreary rainy night. He comes in the harmonies of a majestic symphony, and also in the harsh clangor of a rush-hour traffic jam. He comes in the birth of a new baby, and also he comes in the long slow painful death of a loved one. He comes when we’re not looking for him at all; espe­cially he comes through people. A little child, who deserves a swat but needs a hug; the harried salesclerk made grouchy by the holiday rush; the lonely old lady next door. You just never know where Jesus will be coming next. So we are bid to be ready at all times, having laid aside the works of darkness and having put on the armor of light, having indeed put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord is coming. He has come, he comes now, he will come. Not just because it’s Advent Season now, but because the Lord is always coming. Every day he has come, he comes now, he will come. We celebrate our Lord’s Coming—his Comings—at this time so that we may live his Advent at every time, at all times. Jesus is always coming, and we must be always ready.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

8 September 2013 - 16th Pentecost / Proper 18

Proper 18 / 16th after Pentecost — 8 September 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 a.m.

[Track 2]  Deuteronomy 30:15-20  |  Psalm 1  |   Philemon 1-21  |  Luke 14:25-33

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.…So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  [Luke 14:26,33]

Okay, what do we do with that? 

Well, one possibility is to find some way to explain it away.  This has traditionally been what we’ve done with this text.  “This is hyperbole!  Jesus doesn’t really mean that literally!”  Well, yeah, maybe so.  But that leaves me squirming uncomfortably.  I don’t know about you.

Another possibility is to see what else we’re reading in the lessons this morning.  Oh, look!  Here’s the little letter of Paul to his friend Philemon, a member of the Christian community at Colossae in Asia Minor!  We only get that once every three years, let’s go there!

Paul is sending back to Philemon his runaway slave Onesimus, and he asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to receive him as a brother; and Paul hints not too subtly that Philemon should emancipate Onesimus, give him his freedom.

There’s no big doctrinal or disciplinary issue in this little note, as there is in most of St Paul’s letters that the Church has preserved.  It’s a very domestic, pastoral piece of correspondence.  But we can see in it some important assumptions about the way Christians are expected to order their lives and their relationships with other people.

Under Roman law, Philemon would have been quite entitled to be very harsh with young Onesimus—all the more so since there’s at least a hint in Paul’s letter that when he ran away Onesimus had absconded with some money.  Philemon has every legal right to pack Onesimus off to the salt mines—or worse.

But Paul not only asks Philemon not to be harsh, but he assumes that Philemon will not be.  For the relationship between Christians is not one governed by right or obligation, but one characterized by love, respect, cooperation, forbearance, patience, and forgiveness.  It would be some time before the Church would be in a position in the world to mount a frontal assault on the social institution of slavery, and very much longer before it would actually do so, but right from the very beginning the Gospel of Christ transformed the lives and the relationships of people even within the unjust structures of secular society.

And we deceive ourselves if we think that we can claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and yet not allow our lives and our relationships to be transformed to the core.  And this is the point Jesus is making in the Gospel today.

We have to be very careful about dismissing too lightly Jesus’ words.  Now in this case, Jesus is using an extravagant figure of speech typical of Hebrew and Aramaic rhetoric, yes — but let’s not think that he’s not quite serious about the point he’s making.  No merely human right or obligation or tie, no matter how close or pressing, has priority over Jesus’ summons to us to enter into the life of the Kingdom of God.  Living under God’s Reign inevitably means surrendering our natural worldly “rights.”  In Roman law, Philemon had some legal rights over Onesimus; Paul expected that Philemon, as a Christian, would not exercise those rights, because his allegiance was to a higher set of values.  “Rights” have to do with what is owed to me; in the Kingdom of God, the issue is what I can give.  That’s easy to say, but the transformation is radical, and as the world counts such things, the cost is very high.

Jesus talks a little about the cost accounting that his disciples must do.  Don’t start building a tower you can’t finish; don’t try to fight a war you can’t win.  (President Obama, please copy.  But I’m not going there today.)  And, Jesus goes on, don’t think you can be my disciples on the cheap.  Life in the Kingdom of God can be a very costly thing — as this world counts cost.  You can’t let anything get in the way, or be an excuse for dropping out, of your following Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life — not even your parents, not even your spouse, not even your children, not even the preservation of your own life in this world.  Understand the cost — if you enter God’s Kingdom, your life will be transformed.  Transformed how?  From a life of competitive striving to a life of open sharing; from a life of merit eked out to a life of grace freely received; from a life of jealously guarded self-sufficiency to a life of mutual interdependence; from the frenetic pursuit of happiness to the serene gift of joy; from the grasping after “rights” to the freedom of claiming nothing for oneself; from the stern requisites of our earthly justice to the warm yearning open love of God; from a clever plastic replica to the real thing — a human being in the image of God, fully alive, eternally alive!

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”  Marvelous words from the Book of Deuteronomy that we heard in the first lesson this morning.  We have to make a choice, we have to set priorities.  The fact that saying Yes to one thing means saying No to some others is a necessary lesson as we come to maturity.  If we want to live under God’s Reign, then we have to say no to the things which are contrary to life under God’s Reign.  Philemon could have exercised his earthly rights over his wayward slave Onesimus, but presumably he said No to that option for the sake of saying Yes to the richer and fuller life of receiving home a brother in the Lord.  (This may be the same Onesimus who later became Bishop of Ephesus.)  Many claims, obligations, ties, rights, reach out to hold us—often things which in themselves may be good.  But they are not ultimate; and whenever we give our ultimate allegiance to that which is less than ultimate, we ensnare ourselves in death.  We are no longer able to be Jesus’ disciples, for we have laden ourselves too heavily and we can no longer keep up with our Lord as he leads us into the Kingdom.  It’s a choice — it’s a choice we have to make.  It’s a choice we are making, every day of our lives, in every decision, in every determination of a priority, conscious or unconscious.  Do we really want the real thing—life in the Kingdom of God?  Are we willing to make the hard choices, to bear the cost?  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live!”

Sunday, August 25, 2013

28 August 2013 - 14 Pentecost / Proper 16

Proper 16 /  14 Pentecost — 25 August 2013
St. Luke’s Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

 [Track 2]  Isaiah 58:9b-14  |  Psalm 103:1-8  |  Hebrews 12:18-29  |  Luke 13:10-17

If you remove the yoke from among you,…if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.…If you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable,…then you shall take delight in the Lord.  [Isaiah 58:9b-10,13b,14a]

The leader of the synagogue [was] indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath.  [Luke 13:14a]

The Gospel this morning, the healing of a crippled woman in a synagogue on a Sabbath day, sounds like it should be a very familiar story, and if you read the Gospels with any frequency, it probably is to you.  There are actually a number of stories of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath and then getting grief from the Establishment for it.  Mark tells a story of a man with a withered hand being healed on the Sabbath in the Capernaum synagogue, and Matthew and Luke both repeat that story.  In addition to today’s story, Luke also tells about the Sabbath healing of a man with dropsy (a form of edema, often a symptom of a serious disorder); and John tells the story of the lame man healed on the Sabbath at the Bethesda Pool in Jerusalem.  What amazed me when I actually checked is that apparently we have never told any of these stories in the Gospel at the Sunday Eucharist!  (Well, if you’re anywhere near being an Old Guy like me, you may remember that in the 1928 Prayer Book on the 17th Sunday after Trinity we heard Luke’s story of the healing of the man with dropsy.)  Only in very recent years since we shifted to the Revised Common Lectionary have we heard one of these stories of Sabbath healing on Sunday.  Good for the RCL; they got another one right.  This is an important story, and it was a mistake to overlook it and the several stories like it.

It’s pretty straightforward:  Jesus goes to synagogue on the Sabbath and sees this crippled woman, all bent over, and he heals her.  He sets her free, as Jesus says and the Gospel recounts.  Well, the leader of the synagogue – in Greek he is called the archisynagogos, perhaps we might say the president of the synagogue, not a teaching rabbi, but something like the senior warden – anyway, this guy goes all bananas because technically it’s against the Law to “work” on the Sabbath.  “You broke the rules!” he accused Jesus.  Jesus of course has little patience with that kind of nonsense, tells him so, and the crowd cheers.  (Yay!)

But this brings up a very fundamental issue in what we call moral theology, one which the Church has often dodged, as have other people trying to live in faith.  What is the place of “the rules” in determining moral behavior?

One way in which this question is sometimes phrased is:  “Is a certain act wrong because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because it is wrong?”

(For those of you who when you are reading a book turn straight to the last page to see how it comes out, let me say that on this particular last page the two questions are convergent; but I think it matters how we get there.)

Some folks have traditionally opted for the first understanding, that a certain act is wrong because God forbids it.  Typically the source for the understanding that God does forbid a certain act is the Bible.  (And here I am using that word in an inclusive sense, meaning not only our Bible, including the Torah, but also the Qur’an.)  This certain act is wrong because it says so in the Bible.  This approach may be, and indeed often is, hard to follow in practice, but, as the cell-phone commercial puts it, “It’s not complicated.”  Here are the rules:  obey them.  On the surface this seems to be what Jesus is telling the lawyer (an expert in the rules!) in the Gospel a few weeks ago.  But the lawyer is a good enough lawyer that he sees where this needs to go:  “Yes, but who is my neighbor?”  [Luke 10:29]  “It says so in the Bible” is a lot like the old maps of the world that noted around the edges, “Here there be dragons.”  The moral guidance may seem simple and straightforward, but be careful!  There have been those who have argued, “God says, ‘You shall not murder,’ but if God had commanded instead, ‘Off anybody who seriously annoys you,’ then that would be right.”  And I think some folks have thought that.  (I suspect that’s what the Army psychiatrist down in Texas who was just convicted of mass murders thinks.  Jihad justifies all.)  This can lead to a very arbitrary reading of moral obligation.  Behind this is a very strong belief in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, a doctrine particularly important in Calvinism and other what we might call “conservative evangelical” communities.  As well it should be.  Except that we need to understand that God is sovereign as God defines sovereignty, not as we would define sovereignty if we were sovereign.  The “sovereignty of God” has been used, and is being used, to justify a lot of Bad Stuff.

To say that God forbids a certain act because it is wrong (rather than the other way around) is not to constrain God within a larger-than-God moral reality.  God is not bound by moral rules.  God is bound only by God’s faithfulness to God’s own nature.  To the extent that moral rules reflect God’s own being – which of course is Love, as revealed preeminently in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – then they are valid and binding upon us.  God calls us, and commands us if you will, to live and act in accordance with God’s own nature:  to live, as we say and as Jesus said, in God’s Kingdom. 

There is of course the danger that we will use “Love” as an excuse to run amuck over the moral tradition.  The moral rules, at least most of them, exist for a reason.  They reflect the moral experience and wisdom of millennia of human community life.  Any exceptions should be made with great hesitation and trepidation.  But the rules themselves are not their own justification, and even as they are ultimately rooted in the being and nature of God, they are in themselves still human constructs.  And part of our moral obligation is to seek to perceive the divine reality that underlies them.  Whatever the Fourth Commandment says, the primary obligation is to heal the crippled.  “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”  [Mark 2:27]

Sunday, June 30, 2013

30 June 2013 - 6th Pentecost / Proper 8

6th after Pentecost / Proper 8 — 30 June 2013
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

[Track 2]  1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21  |  Psalm 16  |  Galatians 5:1, 13-25  |  Luke 9:51-62

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Have you ever gone into a restaurant that charges maybe twenty or twenty-five bucks for a steak; bad enough, but that's just a la carte; and you discover after you've had a beverage (depending on whether you have a glass of pinot noir or a Diet Coke) and an appetizer and soup and a salad and dessert and coffee and the sales tax and the tip, that the two of you have just dropped coming up on a hundred bucks!  But you can't really complain:  the prices were all right there in the menu; you've nobody to blame but yourself if you're shocked when the tab comes.  (That’s why my wife and I often go to the Midtown Family Restaurant in Iowa City, on the east edge of town just off Scott Boulevard.  (That explains why it’s named the Midtown Family Restaurant.)  We call it the “Codger Café.”  You all know the kind of place it is.  We like it.  You’d probably like it.)

Or buying a new car.  The hyped-up ads on TV talk about a base price of, say, $22,499, but we all know perfectly well that by the time you get any kind of optional features on it at all and pay transportation and dealer prep and sales tax, by the time you drive the thing off the lot you’re talking thirty thou.  Step up to the model you really wanted, and you’re pushing forty.  You may not like that, but you understand that that's how it is.  It's all right there on the sticker on the car window.

There is a profession among the many jobs and occupations and professions in the world, a profession called “cost accounting.”  Some of you probably know a good bit more about it than I do.  Are or were any of you cost accountants?  As I understand it, a cost accountant uses his or her special financial and analytical skills to determine, for instance for a manufacturer, exactly what it costs to make the product – not only the direct costs for materials, wages, overhead, and so on, but all the hidden indirect costs that can swallow up any hope of profitable return.  Continual monitoring of costs is necessary if a company is to succeed.  Or, a manufacturer may have an idea for a new product; but before they can put it into production they must have some notion as to what it will cost to make it, what it will cost to distribute it, what it will cost to advertise it so people will know about it, and therefore what price they will have to sell it for in order to make a profit.  And they must then judge whether enough people are likely to want the product at that price to make it worthwhile for the manufacturer to get into this market at all.  The cost accountants provide the data and the analysis for the decision.  I assume that cost accountants are reasonably well paid, and are worth it.

In today's Gospel Jesus is also talking about cost accounting, and about sticker shock, and about reading the menu.  People come to Jesus and say, “I want to follow you, Lord.”  But Jesus says, “Can you meet the cost of following me?  Do you know what following me involves?  Are you prepared to put God's sovereignty ahead even of your home and family if need be?  Remember, if you come with me, that I’m homeless – I don't have anywhere to lay my head!  I don't promise you a rose garden - at least not without a lot of thorns!  No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Reign of God.”

A lot of people seem to want to be followers of Jesus, but when they discover what it costs, they are surprised, upset, hurt, dismayed, even angry.  Apparently they didn't read the menu.  We promised to follow Jesus, but we sometimes forget just where it was that Jesus went – and where following Jesus is likely to lead us.
A rich young man once came to Jesus once, and asked, “What do I need to do in order to have eternal life?”  Jesus looked at him and saw what he needed, and he told him.  “What you need is to sell off everything you own, and then come and follow me.”  “Oh, no, I can't do that!” said the rich young man.  And so he went away.  And Jesus let him go.

I think many folks come to the Church because they expect to get something out of it.  They expect to be given something.  They expect simply to be ministered to.  They come as customers.  They think “church” is something which somebody else is supposed to do for them – not something that they are to be and to do for the world, on behalf of God.  They come to the Church, but they don't count the cost of discipleship.

Well, heck, we don't care why people first come into the Church.  Any old reason will do to start with.  Jesus wants a crack at us any way he can get us.  But we need to be warned!  Once we’re here, God will start drawing us into God’s reasons for bringing us here -- and what our reasons were don't really matter so much.  God cares a lot about what we need.  God does not care a lot about what we think we want.

Oh, yes, we’ll get something out of Church.  We’ll get a ministry – not a ministry for us to receive, but a ministry for us to do, all of us.  Christian ministry is primarily something the Church does to, for, in the world - something we the Church do to, for, in the world, in God's cause.  And ministry within the Church, our ministry to each other, much of the particular ministry of those who are ordained within the Church, is primarily for the purpose of equipping us all and strengthening us all for our shared ministry in the world.

But we must count the cost.  Following Jesus can be a very expensive business.  The Body of Christ is a glorious Body, but it still bears the wounds of the Cross.  No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for God's Reign.  Real discipleship costs us everything we have, everything we are.  In return, God gives back to us everything we can be!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

23 June 2013 -- 5 Pentecost / Proper 7

5 Pentecost / Proper 7 — 23 June 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

[Track 2]  Isaiah 60:1-9  |  Psalm 22:18-27  |  Galatians 3:23-29  |  Luke 8:26-39

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?”  He said, “Legion”: for many demons had entered him.

The story of the exorcism of the Geresene demoniac …

(Don’t you just love the way we can turn relatively simple stories into obscure churchy language?  It’s worse than particle physics!)

The story of the exorcism of the Geresene demoniac is to my mind one of the niftiest stories in the Gospels, and the odd thing is that we seem never to have read it at the Sunday Eucharist.  Actually, in the previous 1979 lectionary Mark’s version of this story was appointed in Year B, but it was listed in parentheses following the previous verses, which recount the stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  The parentheses meant you could leave this story out, and since it’s a bit long, as I recall we often did.   In the Revised Common Lectionary we now get Luke’s version every three years.  Good.  They got that one right.

And this is an important story.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all think it’s important, which is why they included it in their Gospels.  I have no idea why the Western Church has apparently not read it at the Sunday Eucharist for at least a millennium.

The story was originally Mark’s.  Luke tells the same story, as we heard it just now, though in a somewhat less wordy version.  Matthew’s version is even more abridged and edited.  (Matthew and Luke got it from Mark, of course, who was an important source for both of them.  However, they often handle Mark’s material in somewhat different ways, as they have their own narrative strategies they are working with.  The Gospels – all four of them – are not just collections of Jesus-stories, they are careful literary-historical constructs.)

Anyway, Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee to the east side, “opposite Galilee.”  This was actually predominantly Gentile territory, what was called in Greek the “Decapolis” (Ten Cities), and it was heavily Romanized.  So this was one of the apparently very few occasions when Jesus went into a mostly non-Jewish area.  This is significant for Luke, who, as you know, was very interested in the early Church’s mission to the Gentiles and its previews in the ministry of Jesus himself.

We’re not really sure exactly where this place was.  The city of Geresa, one of the cities of the Decapolis, was actually not very close to the Sea of Galilee, and the texts of the early manuscripts of the synoptic Gospels disagree vigorously about whether this was the country of the Gerasenes, the Gadarenes, or the Gergesenes.   This is the kind of thing that is good for a master’s thesis in New Testament studies, if perhaps not a doctoral dissertation.  For our purposes, It Does Not Matter.  You do not need to take notes.  There will not be a quiz.

So Jesus encounters this poor fellow who is afflicted by a very serious psychiatric disorder.  The first-century edition of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) identified this as “possessed by demons.”  Evidently the poor guy runs around naked (a very un-Jewish thing to do, even for crazy people) and he lives among the tombs (which for Jews were ritually unclean and to be avoided unless strictly necessary) and nobody can successfully control him.  So this poor fellow throws himself down before Jesus and addresses him as “Son of the Most High God.”  We may not particularly notice that, but Mark and Luke mean us to notice it.  The phrase “Most High God” or “God Most High” (El Elyon in Hebrew) is very rare in the New Testament, and not very common in the Old.  It is typically the way the God of Israel (of the Hebrews, of the Jews) is spoken of by pagans.  So I think Mark and Luke mean us to identify this poor fellow as a Gentile.  But note also that this Gentile recognizes who Jesus is.

When Jesus asks the man his name, he shouts back (in Mark), “My name is Legion; for we are many.”  Well, that’s cute, we may say.  “Legion – many – ha ha.”  But particularly in this context, “legion” is not just a play on words meaning “a lot of folks.”  It’s a very specific word.  It literally means the Roman army.

The significance of this may be a bit clearer when we recall that this story was first told, at least in written form, by Mark.  And although there remains scholarly disagreement about this, I am inclined to believe that Mark’s Gospel was written shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, during the Jewish War of rebellion; and that Mark’s community may well have been in northern Palestine or southern Syria.  In other words, a “Legion” was very much a harsh and oppressive present reality to Mark’s community as the Roman Army swept south toward Jerusalem.  And although Mark, like Luke following him, was very much interested in telling about the healing power of Jesus to expel demons, Mark’s subtext may very well have included trust in God’s ultimate power even over the Roman Empire.  As the Psalm says today, “Kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations.”  [Ps. 22:27]

Well, what do you do with a legion of demons when you expel them?  They have to go somewhere, don’t they?  Those of us who have lived in Iowa for much if not all of our lives may be relatively kindly disposed to the raising of hogs.  Some of you may have first-hand experience with pork production.  Did any of you raise a piglet for 4-H?  So why is Jesus picking on the herd of swine?  But remember that Jesus was a Jew, for whom pigs were unclean animals.  (After all, this was Gentile territory.  There was presumably no hog raising in Galilee or Judea.)  Jesus’ Jewish followers would not have seen any ethical problem with the destruction of a herd of pigs.  (Remember what Isaiah said this morning about people “who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh…; who say ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me.’”)  [Isaiah 65:4]  But now this poor man had been freed of his demons; the demons got just what they requested, though they ended up in the abyss after all.  (Arguably that was their own fault, not Jesus’.)  That’s what happens when evil gets its own way.  Evil is ultimately self-destructive.  Jesus has outsmarted the devil once more.

And perhaps that’s what we can take away from this Gospel today.  The Roman Legions are not an issue for us – although there are many other legions around us, some of which are for our defense but some of which are threats to us.  And most of us probably regard pork production as a good thing, unless we happen to live downwind from a hog confinement operation.  (The state tries to regulate this somewhat, but I remember years ago in rural Nebraska when I was driving between my churches I had to pass an operation that really peeled the paint off my car!)  

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of God’s power of liberation – political, medical, psychological, spiritual – from all the many ways we can be bound.  Good news for all people – “Jews or Gentiles, bond or free, male and female” [Galatians 3:28] – and it remains our mission and vocation to go and proclaim to the world how much God has done for us.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

2 June 2013 -- 2 Pentecost / Proper 4

2 Pentecost / Proper 4 — 2 June 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:00 am

[Track 2]  1 Kings 8:22-23,41-43  |  Psalm 96:1-9  |  Galatians 1:1-12  |  Luke 7:1-10

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel.  [Galatians 1:6]

There’s an old Latin saying, “Caveat emptor” – “Let the buyer beware.”  The point, of course, is that if what you bought turns out to be crummy merchandise, tough luck for you.  You paid for it, it’s now yours, it’s your problem.  Fortunately, increasingly, those days are passing away.  “Consumer protection” is now taken with at least some seriousness.  We can now insist that we be dealt with fairly and honestly by those who would take our money, and those who sell are discovering, if they didn’t know it already, that guaranteeing a good value for a fair price is good business.  As consumers, and that’s where most of us find ourselves most of the time, we’re glad that we have some recourse against shoddiness and misrepresentation.

In regard to the selling and buying of goods and services, this “consumerism” is a good thing.  But there’s a downside to the consumerist mentality, when it gets away from where it legitimately belongs.  For we come to assume that we ourselves, and our own pleasure and convenience, are the measure of everything – that the whole of life has to meet our specifications.  Including God.

This Sunday we  begin reading St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which we continue for the next several weeks.  Galatia was not a particular city, but an area in central Anatolia (what is now the country of Turkey), and the chief city is what is now called Ankara.  (Cappadocia was to the east, Phrygia to the west. Pontus to the north.  Pamphylia and Cilicia to the south.  Aren’t you glad you came today?)  Paul apparently founded several churches in Galatia as he was wandering around on his missionary journeys.  These folks were still very much first-generation Christians – this was written perhaps twenty years after the Resurrection of Jesus.  And I think unlike many of Paul’s initial churches, which began with his preaching in the local Jewish synagogue, the Galatians apparently were mostly Gentiles.  (Ethnically they seem to have been Celts, related to the Gauls in what is now France, and to the British – Brittany, Britain, Cornwall, Wales.  There were Celts all over the place!)

Paul’s missionary work in Galatia, and this follow-up letter, came in the midst of the dispute among the older Christian communities in Palestine and Syria over the question of whether you had to become a Jew first before you could be baptized as a Christian.  The Church eventually decided, No, you didn’t, although it took them a while to recognize that the Christian community is open to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.  Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles gives Luke’s tidied-up account of this controversy and its resolution.  The Letter to the Galatians recounts how Paul stood up to Peter at Jerusalem and Antioch.  But you’ll have to read it yourselves (the first part of Chapter 2), because for some unaccountable reason the Revised Common Lectionary gnomes left those verses out of the reading the Sunday after next.  Politically incorrect, I suppose.  Thththppp.  (The original Prayer Book Lectionary included some of this story.  Oh well.)

The situation is this:  Paul has proclaimed to the Galatians a Gospel of salvation, not by adherence to the prescriptions of the Old Testament Law, especially the ceremonial and cultic provisions, buy by the free grace of God through faith and trust in the Lord Jesus, God’s Messiah.  But after Paul moved on, apparently some other missionaries came through and told the Galatians that they had to be circumcised and adopt the other observances of the Jewish Law in order to be real Christians.  Maybe these other missionaries were Jewish Christians, or perhaps they were themselves Gentiles who had become proselyte converts to Judaism before, or in connection with, becoming Christians.  (Maybe they thought, “Well, we had to do it, so should everyone else!”)  But it’s also the case that a religion of rules and laws is a much more convenient thing to manage than a religion of grace.  With law, you know where you stand, and even if you are falling short, you at least have a specific and attainable goal.  You know when you’ve done enough.  You can tell when you’ve succeeded.  It may be difficult, but, as the saying goes, “it’s not complicated.”

Paul is determined not to let them get away with this.  The Gospel of Christ is not something that people can tailor to their own specifications.  (Not that we don’t continue to try!)  Paul had not come to the Galatians preaching what the Galatians wanted to hear.  Paul wasn’t interested in market research.  Paul didn’t care about what would “sell.”  Here’s the Gospel, Paul says; and I had it by direct revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ.  So if anyone preaches anything different, let that one be anathema (more than just “accursed,” but “thrown out!”)

The question of whether we are, as Paul puts it, seeking human approval or God’s approval always remains a live and important question for us.  Are we really interested in being servants of Christ, or in trying to please other people?

And this is specifically a live and important question for you here at St. Luke’s, as in this time of transition you review your own identity, vocation, and mission as you prepare to call a new rector.  “Hmf!  Easy for you to say, coming in from outside!”  But of course we down at Trinity in Iowa City are in just the same time of transition as we also review our identity, vocation, and mission as we prepare to call a new rector, and so it is also a live and important question for the congregation of which I am a member.

And further, this is a live and important question for the whole Episcopal Church, and indeed for all the churches.  As you know, statistics show (“lies, darned lies, and statistics…”) that church membership has been falling off in recent years, pretty much across the board.  (It isn’t just us!)  The reasons for this are I think many and complex, and we need to take them seriously, but we should also beware of panicking.  In our concern to reach out for new members – “How can we attract more people to our church?” – it’s very easy to start saying, “Oh, there must be something wrong with us!  We need to do something different!  We need to be something different!  Change the service, change the music, change the preaching, something to appeal to the young people!”  Well, of course, there is something wrong with us, we do need to do something different, we do need to be something different, but that’s because we are sinners who are not as faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel of God’s Kingdom as we should be.  But that’s a perennial issue for us, and was just as true when we were statistically flourishing as it is now.  (Maybe even more.)  Yes, we need to reach out in love and faith and service, but we must never slip into a mission strategy of “what will sell?”  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not consumer goods.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

19 May 2013 -- The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost:  Whitsunday — 19 May 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Acts 2:1-21  |  Ps 104:25-35,37b  |  Romans 8:14-17  |  John 14:8-17,25-27

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  [John 14:16-17]

The Feast of Pentecost, on which we celebrate and remember the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following the Ascension of Jesus, has sometimes been called “The Birthday of the Church.”  Perhaps you’re familiar with that expression; perhaps you’ve used it in Pentecost celebrations here.  I’ve never been very comfortable with that, and am not quite sure what we mean by it.  Do we mean, “this is the day the Church was born”?  No…  If by “the Church” we mean the community of the followers of Jesus, the Body of Christ, then the Church clearly is already in existence.  In a sense the Church came into existence with the call of Abraham and the establishment of the People of God.  Perhaps it might be better to say that Pentecost is the Baptismal Anniversary of the Church.  After all, just a few days ago Jesus reiterated to his disciples, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ [Acts 1:5]    We might also think of it as the Commissioning of the Church; Jesus had also said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ [Acts 1:8]    And of course, in another narrative Jesus had said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  [Matthew 28:19-20]  It crossed my mind to speak of this filling with the Holy Spirit as the Church’s “Ordination,” but I backed away from that pretty quickly.  The last thing we need is to encourage more clericalism!  And in any case it really isn’t too clear just who the recipients of the Spirit on this occasion are:  Although the New Revised Standard Version that we heard this morning says, “the disciples were all together in one place” – whoever “the disciples” included – the text actually just says, “they were all together in one place,” or perhaps “they all were together in one place” (or “all of them”) and it isn’t too specific as to just who “they” were.  Apparently the antecedent, at the end of the previous chapter, is “the believers,” who Luke notes “numbered about one hundred and twenty people.”  [Acts 1:15]  Thus it would be that the whole community, the whole Church at that time, is filled with the Holy Spirit.  And we should remember that although the Church, like any other human community or organization, has from the beginning had identifiable leaders with various duties, the idea of “clergy” (as distinct from the “laity,” the people) didn’t come along until many generations later.  (And like a lot of things that came along after many generations, it has been something of a mixed bag!)

Well, having said all that, we might also note that St. Luke, the historian, likes to tell narrative stories.  And that’s fine.  Jesus liked to tell stories, too, and Luke in his Gospel includes some of Jesus’ best!  Narrative stories are an important way, and often the most effective way, and sometimes the only effective way,  to communicate truths. But we might also take notice that many of the writings in the New Testament talk about important truths without apparently depending upon Luke’s narratives.  For example, the ascension of Jesus Christ and his seat at the right hand of the Father runs throughout the New Testament; St. Paul is full of it, the Letter to the Hebrews, the Revelation obviously; Matthew’s Gospel clearly implies it, John’s is pretty explicit, but only Luke, in his Gospel and the first chapter of Acts, provides a narratively described event.  So with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, in the people of Jesus’ community:  this theme runs throughout St. Paul’s letters, particularly the gifts of the Spirit and the Spirit as the basis of our relationship with God (as in the reading from Romans today).  The Gospel today from John recounts Jesus’ promise of the Spirit to his disciples, and later in the Gospel, following the Resurrection when Jesus appears to them, he says right out, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  [John 20:22]  This is not to deny the historical basis of Luke’s Pentecost event narrative, but to remind us that for the Church, in the first century and in the twenty-first, the gift and the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and our lives, individually and corporately, is more than a Bible story to be commemorated.

Next Sunday, you presumably recall, is Trinity Sunday.  Not to preempt Fr. L.’s sermon next week (I get to sit in the pew down at Trinity and hear Cathy Quehl-Engel!), but it’s no accident that Trinity Sunday comes on the next Sunday after Pentecost.  Despite what some not-really-very-good-historians imply, the doctrine of the Trinity was not invented in the the Fourth Century, nor is it based in Greek philosophy (although we did, and still do, adopt some Greek philosophical terminology to articulate it).  It is based in the lived and living experience of the Church of the followers of Jesus Christ, who knew the Lord God of Israel, who encountered that same God in a radically new way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and who experienced that same God in the power of the Holy Spirit in them.  (How do we talk about that ineffable, transcendent, but experienced divine reality?  It took us a while to figure out how to do that without losing any of that reality.  But that’s what the Nicene Creed is basically all about.)

So I guess I am preempting Fr. L. next week!  But the truth is that the Day of Pentecost, and our understanding and experience of God the Holy Spirit, does indeed have a lot to do with what we developed as the doctrine of the Trinity.  That God is the creator of the universe who completely transcends and is far beyond and above (as long as we understand that those words are metaphoric, not literal) all created being – well, that may be hard fully to understand, but the basic concept is not too hard to grasp.  (Not everyone believes it, but (as the cell phone guy says to the kids) it’s not complicated.  That God became one of us, entered into our world as a human being, taught, healed, loved, died – and was raised from death – again, there are folks who don’t believe that’s true, but incredible as it may seem, it’s not really complicated.   The part that we tend to forget, that we often don’t pay much attention to (because the Holy Spirit does tend to hang out in the background) is that God is not just away up there (whatever that might mean), or away back then two thousand years ago, but that God is here now, God is here with us, God loves us here and now, God fills us with God’s grace here and now. God fills us with God’s power of life here and now, and through us here and now God is reaching out to all the world.

“This is the Spirit of truth…You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  [John 14:16-17]

Sunday, April 28, 2013

28 April 2013 -- 5th Sunday of Easter

5th Sunday of Easter — 28 April 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Acts 11:1-18  |  Psalm 148  |  Revelation 21:1-6  |  John 13:31-35

"I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

Some preachers love to preach on the Book of Revelation.  They are not usually Episcopalians.  Other preachers never preach on the Book of Revelation.  There are lots of Episcopalians among them!  I don’t preach on the Book of Revelation very often myself!   But we’ve been hearing a few passages from Revelation in this Easter Season of Year C.  This is about the only time in three years that we read from Revelation at the Sunday Eucharist, and, I might note, we hear a rather narrow selection, mostly hymns of praise offered before the throne of God in heaven.  Which is fine, although as I expect many of you realize, that leaves out a whole lot of stuff, especially the violent and gory stuff.  Though we might keep in mind that the passages we do hear this Eastertide, and especially today, next Sunday, and the Sunday after, really are what this book is all about!  I don’t know whether others have talked about the Book of Revelation this season, but I thought I would say something about it!
A popular phrase these days—a devastatingly accusatory, condemnatory phrase—is “You just don’t get it!”  You young people – how many of you have ever thought in regard to your parents, and if you’re kind of sassy maybe even said out loud, “You just don’t get it!”  And parents – how many times have you told your kids, when they are resisting your parental wisdom, “You just don’t get it!”  The truth is, most of us, about a lot of things much of the time, and about a few things most of the time, “just don’t get it!”  High on the “just don’t get it” list, you will probably not be surprised to hear, is the Bible.  But we need to realize that those who “just don’t get” the Bible are not just “those other folks” of denominational traditions other than our own (I won’t name names!), but we also!  It doesn’t take a lot of study of Church history to realize that in regard to the Bible, much of the Church, throughout the centuries and around the world, “just didn’t get it.”  But that’s another very long sermon for another time.
The Book of the Revelation to John may well lead the whole Bible on the “just don’t get it” list.  And at this point perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Well, I guess I must be one of those who just don’t get it, because I have no idea what the Book of Revelation is all about!”  It’s okay, you are in good company!
Let’s admit that the Book of Revelation is hard for us.  In some respects it’s probably the hardest book in the Bible.  But actually, it isn’t so much that it’s hard (like a textbook in quantum physics is hard, especially if like me you don’t count physics and math among your strongest subjects) as that it’s alien.  It’s foreign to us.  (Actually, quantum physics is not only hard, it’s also alien!)  The rhetoric of the Revelation is very different from anything we normally encounter.  However, it was quite familiar to first-century Jews and to Jewish Christians and to the Gentile Christians who had a substantial exposure to the Old Testament and other Jewish religious literature.  The Book of Revelation is steeped in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel, and all that gang, as well as a number of late second-temple Jewish writings that the rabbis excluded from the canonical Tanakh.  If we were Christians, particularly Jewish Christians, in Asia Minor in the last decade of the first century, John’s Revelation would probably be fairly clear to us.  But we aren’t, and so it isn’t.  The problem is not so much the text itself, but the fact that we are so far removed from its cultural context, by which I mean both its literary genre and its social and political historical setting. 
The Book of Revelation is an account of visionary experience, akin to the language of dreams.  Thus we are in a realm of highly symbolic discourse.  Part of our difficulty with this is that we are not familiar with the apocalyptic symbol system which the Revelation and other writings of this genre take for granted.  Another part of our difficulty is that our post-enlightenment, rationalist, technological, left-brained culture tends to have problems with symbolism or metaphor of any sort.  We just don’t get it. 
But in any case, we need to understand that the symbolics of the Revelation are not cold hard ciphers, where this translates to this and that translates to that, and once you figure out the key the meaning is unambiguous.  On the contrary, the symbolic imagery is intended to be evocative, to call the reader or hearer into a dialogue with the text at an imaginative, creative, poetic level where mood is more important than concept, the affective more than the cognitive, and meaning is multivalent, multi-layered.  I am reminded somewhat of dream sequences in movies, which give important insights into what’s going on in the character development or the plot of the drama, but which are not meant to depict literal reality.  (An example that comes to mind is the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, about an old professor reflecting back on this life.  I first saw it when I was a college student, pretty much into my head, and I didn’t get it at all.  Thirty years later I found the film a much more profoundly moving experience, and even more so two days ago when I watched it yet again.)  (While I was at it, thinking about the Book of Revelation and Ingmar Bergman, I also watched The Seventh Seal again, which explicitly draws on Revelation.  But that’s another path that I won’t go down right now!)  What I am suggesting is that the Revelation to John is the New Testament’s great final dream sequence. 
The other thing to keep in mind is what’s going on in the lives of these Christians in Asia Minor at the end of the first century of the Christian era.  What the Revelation is finally about is faith in the ultimate victory of the Rule of God despite the present tribulations and persecutions which the Christian community is suffering.  Some of the visionary imagery about the struggle against the godless Roman Empire is pretty wild and woolly stuff.   A lot of the imagery about pagan empires reflects similar concerns from about 250 years earlier in the Book of Daniel.  But the final assurance is that God, and God’s Son and Messiah the Lamb – will in the end triumph.  So hang on!  “The one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
And this is all still true.  This is all still valid for us.  The big difference, I think, is that we see the world – still God’s world, but God’s world as we see it and live in it – in a very different way, and with very different imagery.  For most Christians throughout history, and for many people still today, the world we live in was thought to be only a few thousand years old.  And thus the idea of this world coming to its final conclusion sometime soon was not all that far out.  And I suppose we do have to grant the possibility that God could end the world this afternoon.  But it does seem to me that this would be out of character for the God we have come to know.  God has been about the creation and sustaining of this universe for, at last count, 13.8-and-change billion years, which leads me to suspect that God works on a very long timeline!  So for us, to think and talk about the ultimate destiny of the world requires new and different imagery, which I’m not sure we have yet conceived. 
But the basic point of all this, and of the Book of the Revelation to John, is still true.  Ultimately the Rule of God will triumph, and we will share in that victory.  We do not know, we cannot know, exactly or even approximately what the new heaven and new earth will be like, and the question of “when” is effectively off the table.  But we are called to believe and trust that in the end God will indeed make all things new.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

7 April 2013 -- 2nd of Easter

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER  — 7 April 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Acts 5:27-32  |  Psalm 150  |  Revelation 1:4-8  |  John 20:19-31

“Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

   On this the second Sunday of Easter – does anyone else remember when we used to call it “Low Sunday,” allegedly because after the huge crowds in church on Easter Day, today got a much more modest attendance.  I’m glad to see that doesn’t apply to you in this parish!  Actually, it probably reflects the fact that the Sunday of the Resurrection was considered a ‘high holy day,” in comparison to which today, a week later, is relatively lower.  Don’t take notes.  It’s quite all right to completely forget this whole point.

   Anyway, on this the second Sunday of Easter in the Church –not only the Catholic tradition in the West but also the Orthodox Churches in the East – the Gospel reading every year has for a very very long time been the narrative of the encounter of St. Thomas with the risen Jesus.  Here’s where we get the whole bit about “doubting Thomas.”  I assume you have heard many many sermons that argue that this is not altogether fair to poor St. Thomas.  I have certainly preached them!  And sometimes the point has been that doubt, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing.  Which is true.

   Have you all seen the TV commercial sponsored by one of the cellphone companies, in which a man wearing a red-and-black-checked lumberjack shirt – I have one just like it -- and his apparently expectant wife – come into the cellphone store and he announces that he’ll believe anything – Bigfoot, ghosts, mermaids and mermen – but he won’t believe that this company has a good deal on cellphones.  His wife observes that the cellphone company should write a joke book.  Well, fortunately, St. Thomas was not anything like that guy.

   He was not the only one who was doubtful when told that Jesus had risen.  St. Matthew tells us that when the disciples met the risen Jesus in Galilee, “some doubted.”  [Mt 28:17]  In the well-known and well-beloved story about Cleopas and his companion – I suggest it’s his wife Mary – meeting but not recognizing the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they say that they had heard the story that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty, but they doubted. [Luke 24:22-24] After all, St. John’s Gospel says that Mary the wife of Cleopas was one of the women standing near the cross of Jesus.  She had seen Jesus die!  They didn’t know what this empty tomb business was all about, but they doubted.  So let’s give poor St. Thomas a break!  Lots of reasons for doubt going around.  People in the first century knew just as well as we do that dead people do not rise from their graves.  (Though north of the Wall in Westeros, all bets are off.)

   Incidentally, the discovery of the empty tomb does not in itself prove the resurrection of Jesus.  I think there are all sorts of reasons – historical, scriptural, theological, spiritual – for concluding that the gospel stories are basically sound and that the tomb was indeed found empty on Sunday morning, but that is important not so much for proving that the resurrection happened as for clarifying what happened.  We do need to understand that the resurrection of Jesus was not simply the resuscitation of his corpse, “back to life.”  The resurrection was not, and is not, “back.”  According to the gospels, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus were resuscitated.  What God did with Jesus was, is, at a wholly different order of reality. 

   (Don’t ask me about the Shroud of Turin.  I’m not going there.)

   And I think we can see that in the gospel story of St. Thomas today.  Note that the Gospel says that both on that first Sunday, and then a week later on this second Sunday, the doors were locked; but “Jesus came and stood among them.”  [John 20:19,26]  It does not say that Jesus walked through walls!

   (I have this immature and very silly image in my mind of the risen Jesus standing outside the door, wondering to himself, “Should I knock?  Or should I just walk through?”)

   (Another reflection, I hope not quite as immature and silly:  The other disciples are telling Thomas that they’ve seen the risen Lord.  Thomas says, “No!  I won’t buy that!  Bad enough that our hopes have been so cruelly dashed, I can’t risk the pain of some wild hoax!  Not unless I can touch his wounds!”  And then, in the event, does Thomas examine Jesus’ wrists and say, “Ooh!  Big nails they used!”  and poking Jesus in the side comment, “Ow!  That’s got to have hurt!”?  No!  In the event Thomas does not touch Jesus’ wounds, he falls and cries, “My Lord and my God!”  That, by the way, is not a statement of systematic Christological theology, although it may be relevant to that.  It’s a cry of faith and trust.  Thomas recognizes what has happened in that upper room:  at least for that moment and in that place, in the words of the Revelation and of Mr. Handel, “The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”  [Rev. 11:15])

   Where is the risen Jesus between his appearances to his disciples?  A silly question, probably, but I suspect it has occurred to most of us at one time or another.  Hanging out inconspicuously in that little coffee shop across from the Pool of Siloam, maybe?  I don’t think so!  No, despite how the gospel writers, and especially St. Luke, address it narratively, the resurrection and the ascension are aspects of the same reality.  The risen Jesus is in heaven, which is to say with the Father, which is to say in the headquarters of the Kingdom of God.  Heaven, of course, is not “up there.”  It is not anywhere in this created universe; it is the greater reality within which this whole created universe has its present existence and its ultimate goal.  “My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not of this world.”  It is the ultimate beyond, which in various ways and at various times breaks into our present world.  The signal instances of this breaking in from the ultimate beyond are, I think, the Incarnation and the Resurrection (which themselves may be aspects of the same reality). 

   We need to understand, in our heads and in our lives, that all this stuff we are celebrating, especially at this season, is not about “religion.”  Or even about “spirituality.”  (“I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”  “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.  How can I help?”)  “Religion” and “spirituality” can all too often be seen as just one of life’s compartments, just one pigeonhole among other pigeonholes in our desk:  job, family, recreation, politics, hobbies, religion, whatever, often isolated and not always related to each other.  The Gospel, the good news, which has been proclaimed to us and which we are to share with the world, is about God’s ultimate rule over the whole of existence, and how this rule, this “Kingdom” in human terms, has appeared and been especially enacted in our world by the creator God enfleshed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

24 March 2013 -- Palm Sunday

PALM SUNDAY — 24 March 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Luke 19:28-40  |  Psalm 118:1-2,19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a  |  Psalm 31:9-16  |  Philippians 2:5-11  |  Luke 22:39-23:49

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

   The story of the penitent thief is unique to St. Luke’s Gospel.  The other three Gospels do not mention it, although they do all record that Jesus was crucified with two other men.  That all four Gospels mention this is a pretty clear indication that the triple crucifixion at Golgotha that day comes from very early tradition, i.e., there’s no reason to think it didn’t actually happen that way.  But only St. Luke tells of the penitent thief.  Is it possible that Luke knew something, had access to a story, which the other evangelists did not?  Sure.  Is that likely?  Well….  Luke, like the other three evangelists, and also like Hellenistic historians generally, is certainly willing to tell a story to make a theological point.  So what’s up with this story?

   First of all, in this story, we have over the ages easily slipped into thinking that this is about a penitent thief (for whom we invented the name “Dismas” along about the fourth century) and his colleague, an impenitent thief.  Well, that’s not what the Gospel says, and certainly not what it means.  These two guys may well have been thieves, but that’s really incidental.  They weren’t being crucified for mere thievery.  The Romans couldn’t be bothered with petty crimes.  They would have left that up to the local Jewish authorities, who would indeed have dealt with them. Crucifixion was the penalty for political offenses, and was reserved – to the extent that the Romans were ever “reserved” about crucifying people – for major threats to the Pax Romanum when the Romans wanted to make a public point.  So it’s probably safe to assume that these two guys were anti-Roman revolutionaries.  Today we might call them terrorists.

   Matthew and Mark call them by a word that today we often translate as “bandit” [lêistês], although we should understand that as having clear political overtones.  Luke uses a simple Greek word [kakourgos] that means literally “evil-doer,” and today’s translation as “criminal” isn’t far off.  (St. John just calls them “the other two guys.”)  Now here’s a pure speculation, but maybe I’m right:  A little earlier in St. Mark’s version of the story, Mark writes, “Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.”  Barabbas, of course, was released by Pilate at the instigation of the high priests’ claque, but it may be that the other rebels with him may have been these two guys who were now being crucified together with Jesus.  This leaves us with the picture of three Jewish insurgents being marched out to Golgotha for crucifixion, except that as a substitute for their leader Barabbas, instead we see the prophet Jesus of Nazareth.  That may be worth some meditation.

   Remember that these two guys aren’t just crooks.  If C-4 had been invented in those days, one can well imagine them strapping some around their waists and walking into the Roman barracks in the Antonia fortress.  But as it was, whatever they did, they got caught at it.  And I think the only thing they were really sorry about was that they got caught.  These two saw themselves as patriots, as Jewish freedom fighters.  Already full of years of anger about the oppression of their people, they are now enraged by their own failure.  Presumably they knew, or at least had some vague idea, of who this Jesus of Nazareth was.  They may even have hoped that he would be one of them, that if he was indeed the Messiah he would lead a popular uprising to restore the independence of Israel.  But obviously not.  “So, ‘Messiah,’ if that’s who say you are, wouldn’t now be a good time to get on with it, and save us in the process!”

   But, says St. Luke, the second guy has a deeper perception.  

   (Please forgive me for a brief digression here:  Luke is writing, probably, towards the end of the first century, well after the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman legions in 70.  He is also writing, probably, to a Gentile or predominantly Gentile Christian readership, likely in Greece or maybe even in Rome (including his dedicatee Theophilus).  The Jewish war of independence is many years past.  The Jews lost.  The Romans won.  Get over it.  Many of the political dimensions of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that were still live issues when St. Mark’s Gospel was being written are now dead embers best not stirred up.  Therefore the two insurrectionists crucified with Jesus are now depoliticized as just “criminals,” “malefactors,” "evildoers," as indeed also is Barabbas in a brief earlier reference.  We might keep that in mind as we reflect on the man we call the “penitent thief.”  End of digression.)

   “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Thus says the second guy.  But let’s consider.  In the event, “fearing God’ is not really likely to have been at issue.  These guys ended up on Roman crosses precisely because they “feared God,” or at least that’s what they thought they were doing.  Their hero was Judas Maccabeus, after all.  They didn’t think their condemnation was at all just, nor did they deserve it.  They just had the bad luck to have been caught by the Romans.  The worst-case scenario for them would have been that God had abandoned them; they too like Jesus could have quoted the opening verse of Psalm 22.  “This man has done nothing wrong”?  According to whom?  In Luke’s account, after Jesus dies the Roman centurion says, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  No he wasn’t!  The sign over his head said “The King of the Jews,” and that was treason, and then some:  Jesus in fact is the King of the World, and Caesar wasn’t having any of that!  In St. Mark’s earlier version, you may remember, the centurion says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”  (Or as John Wayne put it, “Truly this man was the Son o’ God!”)  That was not so much a Christological statement as it was the recognition that after all, this Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar isn’t.  A significantly gutsy remark in the mouth of a Roman centurion, even John Wayne!  But within a Roman context, Luke can’t exactly put it that way.  He has to appeal to the Roman sense of justice (never mind that “Roman justice” is part of the problem!).  But I think Luke hints at it pretty broadly when he has the second insurgent say.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He’s not, I think, being ironic.  This fellow actually does repent.  But his confession is not so much “I’ve been a bad guy,” but “I’ve been wrong about the Kingdom of God.  We thought we could restore God’s Kingdom to Israel by violence, but that was a huge mistake.  Now I finally see who God’s Anointed One really is – the one who brings good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, God’s justice to the oppressed.  [Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2]  I finally get it about your true Kingdom; Jesus, remember me when it comes!”  And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  

   By the way, I don’t think Jesus means, “I’m going to take you to Heaven with me in a few minutes when we die.”  “Paradise” is a Greek (originally a Persian) word for “garden,” God’s garden, where God’s faithful people await the fullness of the Kingdom in the resurrection.  It seems to me that what Jesus is getting at here is to assure his fellow, “God’s Kingdom which I have proclaimed and enacted, and even in this very moment am proclaiming and enacting – this Kingdom is not just yet to come sometime in the future, but in an important sense is coming and is here right now, and you are with me beginning here and now sharing in and awaiting the fullness of the victory of this Kingdom, for which you have longed so fervently if not so wisely.”

   Many years ago, 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.”  St. Luke understood what was defeat and what was victory, and he shares this with us in the Palm Gospel and the Passion Gospel today.