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 CafĂ©.”  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.