Sunday, February 24, 2013

24 February 2013 -- 2nd Sunday in Lent

2ND SUNDAY IN LENT — 24 February 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.  

Genesis 15:1-12;17-18  |  Psalm 27 |  Phil. 3:17-4:1  |  Luke 13:31-35

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.…their minds are on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

   I think we’re all aware of the distinction we commonly make, specifically in a religious or spiritual context, and even more particularly in a Christian context, between “heaven” and “earth.”  To take perhaps the most obvious example, we pray — not only every Sunday morning but I hope a number of times in every day — in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But what do we mean by that?  Well, there is a variety of things we could mean, and do mean, when we talk about “heaven” and “earth.”  But I suspect that for lots of us lots of the time, the default meaning is something like, “Heaven is ‘up there’ somewhere, and that’s where God lives, and earth is ‘down here’ and this is where we live.  And further, earth is ‘now,’ whereas heaven, at least to the extent that it includes us, is “then,” “someday,” “in the sweet by and by.”

   Perhaps you have already suspected that I suggest that this is not what St. Paul means in today’s Epistle, nor is it what Jesus means when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God (which are essentially equivalent phrases).  

   You perhaps noticed that the Epistle this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Philippi was a city in northeastern Greece, named after King Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) who founded it in the fourth century B.C.  It languished for a time, but was re-established by Octavian, shortly to become Caesar Augustus, Emperor of the Roman Empire, in the 30’s B.C.  He used it as a colony to settle retired legionnaires — a form of military pension — and part of what made this a good deal for these army veterans was that they all were granted Roman citizenship, a status which had a variety of political, social, and economic advantages, even though they did not actually live in the city of Rome.  Philippi was organized as a “miniature Rome,” a mini-version of the imperial capital, as it were a colony of Rome.

   Well, now, that was a fascinating excursus into ancient history!  (And now let’s move out of Sheldon Cooper mode…)  I think this underlies Paul’s remark to the Philippian Christians, “But our citizenship is in heaven.”  Now for the people of Philippi, “Roman citizenship” was a big deal.  It gave them an important identity, even though they did not live in central Italy but in northeastern Greece.  A major event in the life of one of these Roman colony-cities would be when the Roman Emperor came to visit them.  (Although I can’t find any indication of whether Augustus or any of his successors as Emperor actually did visit this city.)  And we might note that it was not the Emperor’s intention in granting Roman citizenship to the veterans settled in Philippi that they should ever retire back to Rome – he really did not want them to do that! – but to bring Roman culture to northern Greece as Roman colonists.

   But Paul, who had founded the church at Philippi, is now reminding them, “our true citizenship is not from Rome but in heaven, and the savior whose visitation we await is not the Emperor [whose titles routinely included ‘Savior’ and ‘Lord’], but the true Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  (We might recall that to say “Jesus is Lord” was not just a pious sentiment, it was treason.)  Our real identity, political or otherwise, is not defined from within this world, but is defined from beyond the limits of the merely human.  This present world is not our ultimate home, and we must beware lest we define ourselves too completely by it.  But we are here now, and we must take seriously our vocation and mandate to be colonists in this world – even subversive colonists – here and now of the life of the Kingdom of God from which we hold our true citizenship.  

   Which means that complacency about our lives, and the values by which we direct our lives, can be a great enemy.  Even the holy city Jerusalem itself was not immune to faithless complacency.  How moving is Jesus’ lament over her:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Jerusalem was not, as it turned out after all, the City of God.

   “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”  We march to the beat of a different drummer.  We are in this world, but we do not belong to this world but to God’s world.  In this world’s eyes we are weird.  Not silly weird stuff, like not going to the movies or dancing or playing cards — some Christians are weird, but often about the wrong issues.  But we are weird because we do not buy into this world’s “sensible,” “practical,” ‘realistic” value system.  Weird because we keep mumbling a little too loudly that anybody who looks at this world and the way it does business — poverty, exploitation, oppression, injustice, war — all rooted in greed and the lust for power — and insists that that’s being “sensible, practical or realistic” obviously doesn’t have both oars in the water.  We are weird because we will not let this world define reality for us, we are weird because we believe (and how absurd and arrogant of us, unless of course it’s true) that it is we who have a definition of a deeper reality to proclaim to this world.  If this world does not think we are weird — if the world thinks we are safe and harmless — then maybe we’d better ask ourselves where our citizenship really is, and where our minds are really set.

   “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”  Are we the prophets sent to proclaim the word of the Lord and to be colonists for God’s Kingdom?  Or are we Jerusalem?

   (These are the only options.)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

10 February 2013 - Last Epiphany

LAST AFTER EPIPHANY — 10 February 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Exodus 34:29-35  |  Psalm 99  |  2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2  |  Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

   If you’re not already aware, and I’m sure most of you are, a reminder that for the last generation or so the Church has concluded the season following the Epiphany on the Sunday before Lent begins by reading in the Gospel the account of what we call the Transfiguration of Christ.  (We rotate through the three synoptic Gospels every three years; this year it’s the version from St. Luke.  St. Luke’s account is also used every year on August 6, when we celebrate the Transfiguration as a major Holy Day.)  Some of us recall further back than a generation, when we used to lead into Lent by observing three Sundays yclept Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  (Don’t ask.)

   In the Epiphany season we have been reflecting on various modes of the Manifestation of Christ – to the gentile Wise Men, at his Baptism, to the wedding guests at Cana – and we conclude with this one to Peter, James, and John, following which Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, a journey that will take him to the Cross.  Appropriate as we move toward Lent.

   Actually, by strange coincidence, I was here on this Sunday three years ago, when we read this Gospel from Luke, and I preached on this same text, and I started from a point where I am going to start again today, although today I think I will then go in a somewhat different direction.  Luke of course got this story from St. Mark, as also does St. Matthew, but Luke adds a line, which I think is not really a new thought but just makes more explicit what was already implicit in Mark’s story, in which Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus; and then Luke adds:  “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  “Speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  Well, yes, that’s a reasonable enough translation, except that it kind of misses the point that I think Luke is trying to make.  In the Greek text they are speaking of Jesus’ exodus.  His Exodus.  And if that word rings a bell, maybe it’s because Luke is banging on it with a clapper!  It sure rang a bell for the first Christian communities, Jewish-Christian communities initially,  that heard and read it.

   “Exodus” is a loaded term.  The word itself literally means “the way out,” ex odos, “the going-out,” but it’s not very widely used in classical Greek and despite what the lexicons say, it doesn’t really have a generalized use in the New Testament either.  What it does mean in the context of the Greek scriptures is “The Exodus” of the People of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

   The early story of Israel begins of course with the patriarch Abraham, but the book of Genesis is basically a family saga.  The history of the Israelite nation begins in Egypt with their liberation from slavery under the leadership of Moses, with the reception of God’s Law at Sinai, and their entry into the Promised Land across the Jordan.  But, as the question goes, “So how did that work out for you?” and the honest answer is, “Not very well.”  There was something of a resurgence under King David, a Golden Age which gleamed more brightly in retrospect than in the events themselves.  Under David’s son Solomon, who is remembered for his wisdom as a denial of the historical fact that he was actually a fool, the nation of Israel began to fall apart, until finally there was a new enslavement, this time in Babylonia to the east.  The “anointed one” (the Messiah) who liberated Israel (more or less) this time was Cyrus, the King of Persia (of all people!).  Persian domination was replaced by the empire of Alexander, a Macedonian Greek, which then broke up and left Israel to be dominated in turn by the Ptolemaic Greek subempire in Egypt and then the Seleucid Greek subempire in Syria.  The next liberation came under Judah the Hammer, Judas Maccabeus, who led a successful war of independence and gave his people the feast of Hanukkah.  But once again, “How did that work out for you?”  And a century later, the Romans decided they needed a better buffer against the Parthian Empire to the east, and they took over Israel militarily.  Initially the Romans ruled through a puppet king named Herod, known as Herod the Great especially by himself, but later through a variety of other
kinglets, tetrarchs, and direct Roman prefects and procurators.  The Jews didn’t like this very much, and the Romans didn’t like it that the Jews didn’t like it, and so the Romans finally lost patience and shut the whole nation down.

   So that’s the backstory (and a bit of the frontstory) of what’s happening on the mountain of the Transfiguration in the Gospel today.  Jesus, in consultation with Moses and Elijah (the two great figures of Israelite history), is preparing to accomplish a new Exodus, a new Passover, at Jerusalem.  They appear in glory, what the Hebrew Scriptures call the shekinah, the Presence of the Lord God.  For Israel the Presence of the Lord was preeminently in the Temple in Jerusalem, where heaven and earth touch.  Yet we are now being shown that the Presence of the Lord is preeminently in Jesus.  One of the points Jesus will make after his procession into Jerusalem is to imply not too subtly that the Temple is now no longer the preeminent place of God’s presence, and indeed its days are numbered, as indeed they were.  (What Jesus is doing is not “cleansing the Temple” but proclaiming God’s judgment on the Temple.)    He himself is God’s Presence, he is Immanu-El, God with us.  And at Jerusalem he will indeed accomplish a new Exodus, a whole new liberation of the renewed People of God, far beyond what Moses did, or David, (or even Cyrus of all people!) or Judah the Maccabee.

   Because when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he meant something very different from all those past attempts at liberation.  He did not mean a kingdom established by political or military power, winning victory by violence, as all these past attempts had been.  (And once more:  “How did that work out for you?”)  That was what many people who heard Jesus hoped he meant – apparently including Judas Iscariot, who when he realized that that wasn’t what Jesus was up to, he betrayed him.  Presumably the Jewish religious leaders thought and feared that Jesus intended a political revolution, and certainly that’s why the Roman prefect Pilate had him crucified.  But many claiming to be followers of Jesus thought, and even today still think, that the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and enacted had to do not with this world but with some otherworldly realm in the sweet by and by.  But very little that Jesus said has anything much to do with the sweet by and by.  Heaven is where God reigns, but God is not up in the sky, off in the future somewhere.  It was Jesus’ vocation to launch God’s sovereign rule on earth, but to win the victory in this new Exodus not with the power of violence but with the power of justice, of which the flip side is love.  And he does this as now God’s presence in the world.  His presence in his Body.   And his Body is …

Friday, February 1, 2013

27 January 2013 -- 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

3RD EPIPHANY — 27 January 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

[Not preached, due to hazardous weather conditions that cancelled the service.  I  reserve the right to resurrect this sermon on this Sunday in 2016!]

Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10  |  Psalm 19  |  1 Corinthians 12:12-31a  |  Luke 4:14-21

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. [1 Corinthians 12:27]

  The human body is a remarkable thing.  I think we instinctively know that; most of us, I suspect, have given some explicit thought to it at one time or another.  Have you ever meditated upon your own body, or some part of your own body?  Even some of the silliest little things are occasions of wonder.  Why do we have two hands, and not four?  (God knows there are times when four hands would come in handy!)  Why don’t we have eyes in the back of our heads?  (That might have a certain usefulness too, especially for parents!)  Why do children take so long to grow up?  I don’t mean, “Why do children take so long to grow up!!??!” but, some little animals like mice grow to maturity in a few weeks.  Even big animals like horses and cattle are mature in, what? three or four years.  Depending on how you define “grown up,” it takes us twenty years, plus or minus.  (A few generations ago it was about sixteen; these days it’s closer to thirty!)  Human beings—just as bodily creatures, without getting into all our personal diversity—are astoundingly complex and sophisticated systems.  We often discover this precisely when something breaks down:  we are very fragile, and malfunctions in some apparently minor part of the body can hamper and even seriously threaten the whole organism.  Consider the toothache!

  I think we’d probably do well to consider “bodiliness” more deeply than we do.  “Bodiliness” is an important way of being.  And it doesn’t just have to do with our own individual bodies; it has to do with the way we are in relationship with each other.

  The Latin word for “body” is corpus.  That may be a boring piece of information; but it’s the root of the English word “corporate.”  We talk about our “corporate life”—in the Church, in business, in human society—and what we mean is our life together as a body.  In the Epistle this Sunday, St. Paul talks about the Church as the Body of Christ.

  In thinking about human society, there are two extreme poles which we need to avoid.  One of those poles is “collectivism.”  That’s the notion that human society is just like a beehive; it is the group that is important, the individual is not (unless, of course, you are the queen bee!).  One person is but a cog in a machine; conformity is all-important.  If any of you were television science-fiction fans, you may remember “The Borg” on Star Trek; more recently we might think of “The Observers” on Fringe.  More realistically historically, this “collectivism” has been represented in the world by Marxist-Leninist regimes.  Part of their internal contradiction is shown in that while Communism claimed to be the party of the “working class,” it had little real care for working men and women as persons; “the people” were simply “the masses.”  It’s not surprising that it was primarily the working people themselves who brought about the demise of Marxism, especially in Eastern Europe.  But there were also significant collectivist elements in Nazism, which exalted the state and the ethnic and racial identity of the nation above any concern for individual persons; conformity was essential there, too.

  The other pole is “individualism.”  That’s the notion that every single human being is complete in him- or herself, by him- or herself; that we do not need other people (except in certain instrumental ways), and that dependence upon another is a sign of weakness.  Individualism sees human society, and any human relationships, as a matter of practical convenience, no more.  Life becomes a matter of competition rather than cooperation; life is a zero-sum game, so that if I am to win, you have to lose; the goal is the self-fulfillment of the individual.  Our own society has a very heavy streak of individualism in it, and we are not the better for it.  Extreme forms of libertarianism, a la Ayn Rand, would  be examples.

  As you might suspect, I suggest that the truth is at neither of these poles.  It’s not so much a matter of the truth being “somewhere in between,” as if it were a compromise, “half a cup of collectivism and half a coup of individualism, beat briskly for two minutes on ‘high’.”  No, human life is really a different kind of thing, not on the scale between those two poles at all.  As human persons, we have our own integrity, our own autonomy, our own value, our own importance, and yet we are created to live not by ourselves but in relationship to each other; we are persons in ourselves but we cannot be persons by ourselves.  (My seminary professor told us that, and I’ve always remembered it.  So should you!  We are persons in ourselves but we cannot be persons by ourselves!  We are meant to live in “community,” which is a very different sort of thing either than an all-subsuming collective or a mere aggregate of individuals.  We are, in short, as human beings, very much like the organs of a body.  Our life as human beings is, and is meant to be, corporate.  We might note that this is part of what is involved in our being created in the image of God, the Triune God.

  And so our life in the Church is corporate; and in fact, the life of the Church, as a corporate community, is meant to be a model for the life of the human world as a whole.  It’s a model in which (and this is what Paul is getting at in the Epistle this Sunday) every member has his or her own uniqueness and importance.  It’s a model which requires cooperation and participation.  It’s a model characterized by mutual responsibility and interdependence (to revive a good expression once common in the Church), in which the common good and the individual good converge.  And what makes it work, and what makes the corporate life of the Church a model for the common life of the whole of humankind, is precisely that we are the Body of Christ.  It is the grace and power of Jesus Christ’s love which is the life of the Body.  For in the end it is only love which makes true human community possible; and it is our calling as Christians to enact and model the true human community in the world.