Sunday, August 31, 2014

31 August 2014 -- Proper 17

Proper 17 / 12th after Pentecost  — 31 August 2014
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45 am

Track 2:  Jeremiah 15:15-21  |  Psalm 26:1-8  |  Romans 12:9-21  |  Matthew 16:21:28

[Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Last Sunday in the Gospel reading we heard how Jesus asked his disciples, “so – what do the people think about me?  Who do they say I am?”  And the disciples respond, “Well, a lot of ideas are floating around.  Some think you’re John the Baptist come back to life [John had just recently been executed by Herod Antipas], or the prophet Elijah returning, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”  And Jesus then asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah!”  And then last week’s reading concludes, “[Jesus] sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

Well, what’s that all about?  As you may be aware, this reflects what New Testament scholars have often called “the messianic secret,” which is most obvious in St. Mark’s gospel but is also followed by Matthew and Luke.  (It doesn’t appear in St. John – rather the contrary – but John is following a different narrative strategy.  But that’s another sermon, or lecture series, for another day!)  And it still doesn’t answer the question, “‘Don’t tell anyone’? – What’s that all about?”

And today as we read and hear the next eight verses, perhaps we begin to get a clue.  Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem – the seat of power – and suffer and die at the hands of power – and on the third day be raised.  The Gospel continues, “Peter [the one who had just said, ‘You are the Messiah!’] took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord!  [More literally, the Greek means ‘Mercy on you!’]  This must never happen to you!’  But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block [literally, ‘a scandal’] to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things [more literally, ‘you think not of God but of human beings’].”

“Get behind me, Satan!”  Well, that’s rude!  Come on, Lord, give the guy a break!  He just professed his faith in you as the Messiah! 

And that’s just the point.  Peter was wrong.  The reason Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah was that it wasn’t true.  At least not the way they would have meant it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about the “messianic secret” but rather the “messianic denial.”

Well, yes.  You see, the problem was that nearly all the Jewish people in the late second-Temple period had a notion of what “the Messiah” meant.  There were some differences among their ideas, but they also had a lot in common.  And the disciples, including Peter, pretty obviously shared these ideas.  And they were all wrong.

And that’s the point Jesus is making with them.  “You do not know what you are saying!  So until you do, keep quiet!” 

“Get behind me, Satan!”?  Yes, exactly so.  Remember that after his baptism, when Jesus was in the desert on what we might call his retreat of discernment or his vision quest, Satan tempted him.  Not a temptation to abandon his vocation as Messiah, but temptations about what kind of Messiah to be:  temptations to be the kind of Messiah that everyone, yes, everyone, was expecting.  Magic.  Manipulation of public opinion.  Political-military power.  And Jesus said “No!”  But Satan didn’t give up, and now he returns in the mouth of Peter.

And this idea that the Messiah was to be a figure of earthly power—whether divinely or politically based – just wouldn’t go away, and it still won’t do away even today.  It has been speculated – a speculation, but I don’t think unreasonable – that the reason that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus was because Jesus wasn’t being the kind of Messiah Judas had been hoping for, and by setting up his arrest Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand.  And even after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Cleopas and (presumably) Mrs. Cleopas, on their way home to Emmaus, told the stranger they met on the road about “how our chief priests and leaders handed [Jesus of Nazareth] over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel [i.e., the Messiah.  But obviously not].”  [Luke 24:20-21] 

So now Jesus goes on to say to his disciples, in effect, “If you’re going to talk about me as the Messiah (the Anointed One; in Greek, of course, ho Christos, the Christ), then you need to get straight who God’s Anointed One really is.  So if you want to be my followers, you must deny yourselves” – Jesus isn’t talking about giving up chocolate for Lent!  “Denying yourself” is what you do publicly, maybe even in a courtroom, when you profess Jesus.  It is to put your life at risk before the powers of this world.  Peter, in the high priest’s courtyard, did not deny himself, he denied Jesus.  “Take up your cross” – this is not metaphorical.  In the first-century world, crosses were not symbols, much less decorations.  To take up the cross was to accept the condemnation of the powers of this world.  “And follow me” – we’re not going to Disney World, you know.  To follow Jesus is to follow him to Golgotha.

And to the Resurrection, certainly; but only first to, and by way of, Golgotha.

Many who claim to follow Jesus Christ appeal to their faith in their quest of power.  We did it in the fourth century, we did it in the middle ages, we did it in the Renaissance and in the Reformation, we’re still doing it today.  And I don’t just mean “those other folks,” I mean us as well.  And Jesus still says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Sunday, July 27, 2014

27 July 2014 -- Proper 12

Proper 12 / 7 Pentecost  — 27 July 2014
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

RCL1:  Genesis 29:15-28  |  Psalm 128  |  Romans 8:26-39  |  Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

(I love that line in the first reading, “When morning came, it was Leah!”  I wrote  a sermon about that that I kind of like!  Unfortunately, I have already preached it to you three years ago!)

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…like yeast…like treasure…like a merchant…like a net…”

When you hear the phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” what pops up in your mind?  Or “the kingdom of God”?  (The phrases have the same meaning.)

In recent years I think we’ve gotten a little more aware of what Jesus means, and doesn’t mean, when he talks about the kingdom of God (which he does all the time – that, after all, is his mission from the beginning:  to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God).  But I think there still lingers some baggage on the word “kingdom,” and on the phrase “kingdom of God,” that we acquired somewhere along the way and need to be aware of, so that it doesn’t distort our understanding of what Jesus is talking about.

First of all, for us a “kingdom” often is first of all a political entity, a geographical area, typically a nation-state, like “The United Kingdom.”  But in the ancient world, and in the world of the Bible, that’s not really what is meant by the Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or Latin words that we translate “kingdom.”  A perhaps subtle but important distinction:  they carry the idea that we would call “kingship,” “reign,” “rule.”  Yes, it involves geographical extension, but it’s really about personal dominion. The kingdom of God is not a place, but a life in which God rules.  It is God’s kingship.

Well, what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  We all grew up with all sorts of pictures, many of which continue to appear in cartoons in the New Yorker,  where they are usually pretty funny.  Clouds, and angels playing harps, and streets paved with gold (well, that’s from the Revelation of St. John, who didn’t mean that any more literally than any of the other bizarre apocalyptic imagery he uses).  But in sum, I think we tend to think of the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom, as a very religious place.  (Which may explain why lots of folks really aren’t particularly interested in going there!) 

Well, anyway, Jesus tells little stories about what the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is really like.  One of the things we notice, I hope, is that these are not particularly religious stories.  I think we need to remind ourselves, paying attention to what the Gospels actually say, that Jesus was not in fact very religious.  (The scribes and Pharisees were very religious.  Jesus gave them a hard time about it.  They gave him a hard time because he wasn’t.)  Occasionally there are religious figures in Jesus’ stories, but they are not usually the good guys.  The priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side.  The Pharisee in the Temple who reminds God about how religious he is.  The little stories that we hear in the Gospel today are very ordinary, day-to-day life, stories.  They tend to be a bit extravagant, as we’ll see, but they’re not particularly religious.  And my own suspicion, because of their extravagances, is that if we could actually hear them as Aramaic speakers we would realize that they are jokes.  Not that they’re not serious, but they’re amusing.  People hearing them probably laughed.  Maybe a little nervously, especially as they began to “get” them and to realize how much they actually challenge us and how we think about things.  Jesus was not a standup comedian, but I think he was a little like Mark Twain.

Today Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”  The smallest of all seeds, he says; well, not really; lots of seeds, especially flower seeds, are smaller; but compared with wheat seed, or barley seed, or olive pits, or acorns, or other agricultural seeds, they are pretty small.  But a mustard plant gets to be pretty good size, although “tree” is something of an exaggeration.  But this parable is not a lecture in botany.  The tree in which the birds come and nest is an image of a great kingdom that protects all its people.  [Ps 104; Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6; Daniel 4:12,21]  That’s how God’s kingdom is.  Unexpectedly extravagant.

Again:  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”  Another extravagant tale:  three “measures” of flour is not three measuring cups, the Greek word means about ten gallons!  That’s a lot of bread!  And the text says the woman “hid” the yeast in the dough.  And in the morning she uncovers her (very large!) mixing bowl, and poof!  The kingdom of God works like that.  Undercover, unexpected, extravagant!

Again:  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…”  Does anyone notice that the guy in this episode is dishonest; at least in Roman law this would have been illegal?  After all, this treasure is not the finder’s to recover, it belongs to the field’s owner, and to buy it without telling the owner why you want it is a little crooked.  (In our modern world no investor or real-estate speculator would ever pull off something like that!  Oh, surely not!)  But that’s not the point.  The kingdom of God is worth giving up everything else in order to gain.  Unexpectedly extravagant.

And so also with the jewel merchant who finds the pearl of great price.  More extravagance!

And then Jesus shifts the tone a little.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”  The kingdom gathers in everyone, with extravagantly open arms, and sorts them out only later.  Kind of like the Wheat and the Weeds.  And then there is added another instance of what a lot of us think is a later addition by the early Christians “explaining” with the bit about the angels what the parable means.  We saw the same kind of thing with the parables of the Sower and of the Wheat and Weeds in the last two weeks.  Like I said last Sunday, I don’t think Jesus ever “explains” his parables.  We either “get” them or we don’t.  The early Christians, compiling the Gospels from the original Jesus traditions, felt guilty because so often they didn’t get them at first, so they felt they had to explain them!  Not to say that this explanation is wrong, but I think Jesus himself left it up to us.

Then Jesus wraps up this set of stories:  “So do you get it?”  They answered, “Yes.”  Actually, at the time, probably not!  And Jesus concludes with a final parable:  If you do get it, you’re like somebody who lives not only by the tradition but also is open to radically new insights, because that’s what the kingdom is like.  The kingdom is not “up there.”  The kingdom is not off in the sweet by-and-by.  the kingdom is not “here!” or “there!” (as Jesus points out elsewhere [Luke 17.20-21]).  The kingdom is among us, within us, in our midst, suddenly, extravagantly, right when we least expect it, beginning here, beginning now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

20 July 2014 -- Proper 11

6th after Pentecost / Proper 11 — 20 July 2014
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

RCL1:  Gen 28:10-19a  |  Ps 139:1-12,23-24  |  Rom 8:12-25  |  Matt 13:24-30,26-43

Let both of them grow together until the harvest. [Matt 24:30]
The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. [Romans 8:22]

I have never really been much of a gardener.  Oh, at various times I’ve grown some vegetables — tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn when I had room for it.  But it hasn’t really been “my thing.”  And in our present house, the shade trees in the back yard have made growing tomatoes virtually impossible.  Wendy is a bit more of a flower gardener, which she does very well.  Especially hostas, which love all the shade!  But I have found that, after many years of living in rectories, and then in rental housing, since we have ad our own houses I have a somewhat different attitude toward lawn and garden issues.  This ground is now mine!  And I take the presence of weeds as a personal insult.

Some weeds are pretty obvious.  In the lawn, for instance, dandelions show up pretty readily, and are relatively easily controlled, and so far I have been generally victorious in this battle.  Crabgrass is also fairly obvious but less easily controlled, and by the end of the summer the war is something of a stalemate.  Creeping charlie is always kind of a tossup, though I have made some progress.

Garden weeds are something else, especially in the spring if you are planting from seed.  It takes a while before you can be sure whether these little green sprouts are what you planted, or what The Enemy planted!  And so you have to exercise a bit of care.

What you don’t do, whether you’re growing flowers, or vegetables, or a field crop like wheat or corn, is let the weeds grow up with the crop until the harvest.  One, it makes the flowerbed look all ratty, and although aesthetics is not exactly the point of farming, there is something really lovely about an absolutely clean field of soybeans, and something tacky about a beanfield full of scraggly volunteer cornstalks and pigweed.  Two, and more important, weeds draw away moisture and nutrients that should be going to the crop.  (I see that herbicide-resistance is now bringing back the annual summer teenage task of walking beans!)

All of this was just as much true in the first century as it is today, and a Galilean farmer hearing Jesus tell this story that we call the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (or the Wheat and the Tares, though most of us wouldn’t recognize a tare if it grew in the middle of our geranium pot.  Actually, “tares” are probably darnel, a weed that looks a lot like young wheat) — a Galilean farmer hearing this story would have said, “Whattayou crazy?  You're a carpenter, obviously not a farmer!”  I think this is one of those stories that Jesus tells that we have “scripturalized” and tamed so that it no longer occurs to us how much it really runs counter to common sense.  Even the earliest Christians had trouble with this — if the consensus of New Testament scholars is right, and in this instance I think it is, the second half of today’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus is depicted as “explaining” the parable, is actually an addition by the church a generation or so later, who felt a need to come up with some plausible religious interpretation of what is actually a very difficult and troubling story.  (A lot of us think that Jesus never “explained” his parables.  Either we get them, or not.  Often not.)

And so we read this story as an allegory of the last judgment.  Well, I don’t think that’s wrong — part of the point of parables is to suggest a variety of interpretations — but I think that what the story is really about is (what we call) the problem of evil.  And what it says is not really what we want to hear.

We naturally and understandably assume that God is a God who fixes things for us.  (And there is a sense in which that’s true, though what God fixes is not so much “things” but us, if we will let God’s grace work in us.)  But I think that Jesus is suggesting to us in this story that God is not a “fix-it” kind of God.  At least not always right now.  Ultimately, all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well (as the Lady Julian says).  But in the meantime God lets the weeds grow.  And furthermore, God has to let the weeds grow for our sake.  Pulling the weeds up now would destroy us too.  But I’ll come back to that in a minute.

(When I say God has to do something, of course I don’t mean that there are any external constraints that can compel God to do a thing or prevent God from doing another thing.  God is, after all, God!  But God is who God is, as God told Moses at the burning bush, and in that sense God cannot contravene God’s own nature.  God must be true to God’s own self.  And in relation to us, God’s creation, God must act consistently with the purpose and destiny of the creation.  I’ll come back and pick this up again too the next time around.)

We need to approach this issue with some care.  There are a lot of people out there, and maybe some of you in here, who have been hurt very badly in one way or another — themselves, or people they love — and they asked God to fix it, and God didn’t fix it, at least not the way they wanted, and so they are dealing with pain, or anger, or despair, or all three, and that’s all very real.  And it simply won’t do for us to say, “Well, that’s how the world is, that’s how God is, suck it up.”

Because that’s not what God says to us.  God says, “My grace is sufficient for you [2 Cor 12:9], if you will receive it and let it change you, let it change your life, and thus change your world.  I cannot just pull up the weeds for you.  But I can do this — I will do this — I have done this:  I will come and be with you, and I will bear on myself all that the world’s weeds can do, and I will live, and in the end I will gather you to me at harvest-home.”  And that is how we in God’s Name must be with those who hurt.  Not everything can be fixed, but we can be there to share the hurt.

Here’s the hard truth:  the necessary condition of the possibility of freedom is the possibility of evil.  In order for love to be possible, hatred must be permitted.  God could have created a universe of robots in which everything is precisely programmed.  And maybe in some alternate universe God did so.  But that’s not the universe we have been given to live in.  God created us in the divine image and likeness, to share in the work of building the world, to share with one another the love of God for us and to freely return in that love to God.  God does not make us grow, God lets us grow.

And the corollary is that God has to let the weeds grow too, else we would no longer be free, we could not be what God created us to be.  If God pulls the weeds, it destroys us as well.  So the weeds have to be allowed to grow too. 

But only for a time.  Not forever.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

29 May 2014 -- Ascension Day

Ascension Day  — 29 May 2014
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 pm

Acts 1:1-11  |  Psalm 47 or 93  |  Ephesians 1:15-23  |  Luke 24:44-53

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  [Ephesians 1:20-21]

There’s a piece in the current Christian Century (some of you may be familiar with that magazine – it’s been around for a long time, and represents what I suppose we might call a progressive ecumenical mainstream viewpoint), and in this piece the author writes about how he and a committee were planning  a service of worship for Ascension Day, and the question arose as to whether the Paschal Candle should be extinguished after the reading of the Gospel.  They were Lutherans, so they didn’t have the Book of Common Prayer to tell them that no, the Paschal Candle continues to burn throughout the 50 days of Easter through the Day of Pentecost!  I won’t accuse any of you of being old enough to remember, as Fr. Hulme and I do, that we also back in the Olden Dayes used to put out the Paschal Candle after the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Day.  I recall as an acolyte responding “Praise be to thee, O Christ” after hearing St. Luke’s account of Jesus being carried up to heaven, taking the candle thingy, and extinguishing the flame.  “’Bye, Jesus!”

Which of course is exactly wrong, and why the Prayer Book now has it right.

(Some of you may recall one or another versions of my infamous “Toes” sermon for Ascension Day, but I promised I wouldn’t go there this year.  You’re welcome.)[1]

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament.  Matthew and Mark certainly imply it, for instance when Jesus being interrogated by the high priest quotes Daniel 7 [Mt. 26:64; Mk 14:62].  In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about his ascension to the Father, notably with Mary Magdalene after she discovers the empty tomb [Jn 20:17; cf. Jn 6:62], and in his long so-called “Farewell Discourse” to his disciples Jesus talks repeatedly about how he will go away and then come again [Jn 14 & 16, passim].  In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and the apostles speak to the Sanhedrin about how “God exalted Jesus at his right hand as Leader and Savior” [Ac 5:31], and later Stephen, witnessing before the Sanhedrin just before his stoning, cries out, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man [Jesus] standing at the right hand of God!” [Ac 7:55-56].  St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, writes about “Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God” [Rom 8:34], and in Philippians he quotes what seems to be an early Christian hymn with the line “God also highly exalted him” [Phil 2:9].  In the Letter to the Colossians Paul (or whoever) writes, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” [Col 3:1], and in the Letter to the Ephesians that we heard in the Epistle today, “God put this power to work in Christ, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at is right hand in the heavenly places” [Eph 1:20], and again, “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10].  The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of how Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” [Heb 1:3]; he is the “one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” [Heb 8:1].  The First Letter of Peter talks about “the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God” [1Pet 3:22].  But note that all of these many references are to the ascension of Jesus and his seat at the right hand of the Father as a present reality;  they may imply, but do not narrate, an event

The only descriptions of the ascension of Jesus as an event are by St. Luke, which we have just heard in the readings:  in the Gospel, and before that in the Acts of the Apostles.  And perhaps you have noticed that these two tellings are not quite the same story.  Luke does that.  For instance, he tells the story of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus three times, two of them purportedly from Paul’s own mouth, but the three stories are almost but not quite identical.  Of course Luke is, or at least is acting as, among other things, a Hellenistic historian, and historians in the Greco-Roman Empire did not have the kind of detailed documentary research resources that modern historians are expected to use.  They saw their task to be to tell the meaning of the story as they understood it.  They knew that a historian is not simply a chronicler.  Another example of this is the Jewish historian Josephus, who tells the stories of Jewish history and of the war with Rome the way he wants us to remember them!

 This does not mean that the event of the Ascension of Jesus at Bethany or on the Mount of Olives or wherever did not actually occur.  I don’t know whether it did or not.  If it did, then I think Archbishop Michael Ramsey was right in suggesting that it was an “enacted parable.”  What did not happen is that Jesus “lifted off into orbit.”  Jesus “ascended” into Heaven (how else would we say it?); but Heaven is not “up there,” and we know that.  “Up there” is billions of light years of the vast expanse of interstellar space; and God is there too, but neither more nor less so than right here and now, and it’s the “right here and now” that should matter to us.  Yes, Jesus had to leave us, in a sense, because otherwise his location would have remained fixed in first-century Jerusalem and therefore he couldn’t be in twenty-first-century Iowa.  He has “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.”  

So the point of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is not that he has gone away – “’Bye, Jesus!” and snuff out the candle – but so that the Light of Christ may remain lit in us and among us in all places at all times.  It is St. Matthew who records the essence of what we celebrate this day:  “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”  [Mt 28:20].

Sunday, March 30, 2014

30 March 2014 -- 4th Sunday in Lent

4th Sunday in Lent — 30 March 2014
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

1Sam 16:1-13  |  Ps 23  |  Eph 5:8-14  |  John 9:1-41

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

It was an unheard-of thing for a man who had been born blind to be healed.  But Jesus does not heal this man in order to create awe and wonder among the spectators.  Jesus never performs stunts like that.  Nor does Jesus heal the blind man simply out of compassion for him, although certainly Jesus does have compassion for him, and is concerned for his wholeness, and that’s at the heart of it; but there’s more.  The miracles of Jesus are always signs—that is, they point beyond themselves, they are indicators of the Reign of God.  They are the signals that God’s Dominion is breaking in, and they tell us what that Realm and its Sovereign are like.  And because this healing, like all Jesus’s miracles, is a sign of the Kingdom, Jesus is careful to make something clear right from the start:  “Look,” he says, “this man’s blindness is not a punishment for his sins, or for his parents’ sins, or for anyone else’s sins.  God doesn’t do that kind of thing!”

That’s worth repeating:  “God doesn’t do that kind of thing!”  [Digression:  Why is it that anytime anything horrible happens, people start in with this business about “Lord, help us to understand why.”  Now, let me be clear; I’m not trying to get on the case of people who have really suffered some terrible loss, and for whom this is a genuine cry of pain from the heart—the families of the passengers on Flight 370, for instance, or the families and friends of the dead and missing in the Darrington, Washington mudslide.  But when horrible things happen, there are always others, often enough clergy types, who are not personally really emotionally involved, who solemnly intone, “Lord, help us to understand why,” and in that case it seems to me to be actually just a pious anger-denying way of saying, “God, this is all your fault and we want to know what you have to say for yourself!”  Maybe it makes us feel more secure to think that God is pulling the strings on every little thing that goes on in the world, but the truth is, God is not, at least not directly.  God does sustain the world in being, right down to the last charm quark, but God doesn’t micro­manage, and God is not a control freak.  We can be safe, or we can be free, but we cannot be both safe and free.  And in this world, God thinks it is most important that we should be free.  The price of human freedom is high, and God paid it too, on the cross.  The question is not “Why?”  The question is, “What are you going to do about it—how are you going to respond to this?”  End of digression.]

So Jesus says, “This man’s blindness is not a punishment for his sins—God doesn’t do that kind of thing—but his blindness does present an occasion, an opportunity, on which God’s love and power can be shown.”  For God’s Realm is one in which people find healing, true wholeness.  God wants us to see, really to see (with our hearts and minds more importantly than with just our eyes), and Jesus is for the world the Light of the Kingdom of God.

Well, the healing of the blind man provokes a big squabble with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were very devout and very committed to God’s Law—so much so that they had gotten the notion that they had some exclusive franchise on being very devout and very committed to God’s Law.  They were the true believers.  (Does any of this sound familiar?)  The Pharisees – at least as they are portrayed in John’s Gospel, not altogether fairly -- were “more religious than God.”  And they were all out of joint because this was not an orthodox healing.  It was done on the Sabbath, for one thing, and practicing medicine counted as work, certainly for a non-emergency elective procedure like this.  The man had been blind all his life— could he not have waited one more day!  Further, this Jesus of Nazareth was practicing healing without a license.  He wasn’t ordained.  He didn’t have a degree, he wasn’t board certified.  The Pharisees were so concerned about their religious system that they couldn’t see the power of God even when it was right in front of their eyes.  It was the Pharisees who were the blind ones in this story!  And thus I think the importance of the concluding verses of the chapter, dripping with irony (as often in John’s Gospel!).  The Pharisees were blind to God’s obvious will concerning the well-being of God’s People.  To watch Jesus give sight to a man who had been blind all his life, and then to gripe because he wasn’t the right kind of healer and it was the wrong day of the week, was a wicked, wicked thing to do.  And if you don’t think we do the same kind of thing today, I urge you to think again.  Those of us who are traditionalists at heart, and I include myself, need to watch ourselves very very carefully—we so easily assume that “We’ve Always Done It This Way Before” is an exact representation of the will of God.  For all their professed devotion to God’s Law, the Pharisees could not see God’s mighty works right before their eyes.  And they not only could not see them, they would not see them. 

In what ways do we choose to remain blind?  What are our favorite little snippets of what we perceive to be “God’s Law” that we stubbornly cling to even when it is perfectly clear that God is up to something new?  Where are we letting our religion get in the way of our faith in the living God?

Lent is a time for looking at ourselves and our lives and our faith and our ministries as Christians.  What is it we are really up to?  Are we just maintaining a comfortable familiar system of piety to make us feel good about ourselves?  (Or, as many Christians do, a comfortable familiar system of Lenten piety to make us feel good about feeling bad about ourselves, which amounts to the same thing.)  That’s what these Pharisees were doing, though they would have denied it, just as most of us would deny it.  Or are we really concerned with God’s mighty works, with turning human blindness and brokenness into occasions for the breaking in of the healing power and love of God?

22 March 2014 -- In Obsequiis Arlene Dolan

Burial:  Arlene Rose Dolan  — 22 March 2014
Trinity, Iowa City – 10:00 am

Lamentations 3:22-26,31-33  |  Psalm 139  |   Corinthians 13:1-13  | Psalm 23  |  John 6:37-40

Just a brief reflection on the Scriptures this morning:

St. Paul reminds us, in a passage that I assume is familiar to most of us, that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  What Paul is talking about is not sentiment or warm fuzzy feelings. He’s talking about how we relate, how we choose to relate, to other people, to the world, and to God.  We often slip into the notion that the measure of our lives is how successful we are, how bright we are, how religious we are (whatever we mean by that).  But in the end all these things pass away.  What counts in the end is love.  As Jesus himself commanded us, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”  As we heard in the Gospel reading this morning:  “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life.”  “Eternal life” is not just about then or someday.  It develops and endures into then, but it begins now.  And seeing the Son and believing in him is not about having theological opinions about him, but trusting in him as the source and guide for your lives.  Jesus did not say “Join my club.”  He said, “Follow me.  Follow me into God’s Kingdom.  Now.”

I’ve known Arlene for a long time, but I must confess, not well.  That’s my loss.  We were fellow parishioners here at Trinity, and although we saw and greeted each other warmly Sunday by Sunday, I was and am an assisting priest here at Trinity, but I was not her pastor.  But she was always a bright spot on Sunday mornings, cheerful and smiling.  She radiated her love for her family and her friends.  We remember how full of joy and excitement she was when Katelyn was born!  Arlene “got it.”  And even in our grief for ourselves, we may be confident that she has eternal life, and the Lord will raise her up at the last day.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

5 March 2014 -- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 5 March 2014
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 pm & 7:00 pm

Joel 2:1-2,12-17   |  Psalm 103:8-14  |  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverum revertéris.

One.  Some of you may be aware that in recent years a new liturgical, or quasi-liturgical, custom has arisen in many parishes, usually called “Ashes To Go.”  What this means is that instead of waiting for people to walk through the church door to attend an Ash Wednesday service, a team of the church’s ministers, ordained and/or lay, go out into the urban streets of their city and offer the imposition of ashes, a sign of our mortality and penitence, to any passers-by who wish to receive them – a way of outreach and expression of interest and concern for the lives of people who are the church’s neighbors but not usually its members.  As nearly as I can determine, this began four years ago in Chicago, and as the saying goes, it promptly went viral.  It’s now all over the country, and in other parts of the world as well.  Apparently mostly Episcopalian or Anglican at this point, but also some Roman Catholics and Lutherans are joining in.  I’m not arguing either for or against this new custom – I think there are things to be said on both sides as to whether this is a good idea – but I think we should notice that obviously a lot of people have found this very meaningful, even if, perhaps especially if, they do not have the time or even the inclination to go to church on a busy workday. 

Two.  One of the objects of the little jokes we make when we are being more religious than God – that’s one of the things that Jesus in the Gospel today means by “hypocrites” -- is about “Christmas-and-Easter Christians.”  I think these jokes represent a failure of charity.  But one of the things we may not notice is that there are many people who don’t come to church very often, even on Christmas and Easter, but who do often show up on Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps you are one such; if so, welcome and we are glad you are here today.  You are on to something.

Three.  Although we have been offering the Ash Wednesday Liturgy for a long time now quite widely in the Episcopal Church – especially since the no-longer-so-new revision of the Prayer Book in the mid-70s (though many of us had been doing it long before) there still sticks in our mind – each year including this year – that we are about to do something which Jesus in today’s Gospel reading seems to be explicitly telling us not to do, namely disfiguring our faces so as to show others that we are fasting.  Yes, there really is a disconnect here, and I’d be happy to discuss this with you at greater length than you would probably like; but that was another Ash Wednesday homily in another year!

So what is it about this “ashes” business that grabs us, even against our first instincts?  And in a way that seems to go beyond our usual “churchy” stuff, as “Ashes To Go” witnesses. 

Something about all this touches us very deeply, even though – or maybe precisely because – this whole “ashes” thing is so radically counter-cultural.  In a couple of minutes we will explicitly name what this is about:  mortality and penitence.  This is not “politically correct” in our modern culture.  We are in deep denial about death and sin.  In our society we really don’t want to talk, we refuse to talk, about sin.  And yet deep in our hearts we know that this is a reality of our lives.  We are sinners, and we are mortal

Sin is not just violation of God’s Laws, a “breaking of the rules.”  Sin basically is about the choice of our own short-term gratification at the cost of the long-term destruction of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.  It leads to eternal death, not simply as a punishment but as an inexorable consequence.  And God does not will our self-destruction.

Ash Wednesday, and the season of Lent which this day begins, confronts us with our need to deal with these realities:  sin and death.  As we must at all times and in all seasons, but perhaps with special focus in Lent, we examine ourselves, our choices, our values, our lives, in the light of God’s will and call to live in God’s kingdom of love and justice.  We deepen our prayer, our meditation, our reading of the Scriptures.  And then we seek through God’s gracious gift to change our minds and hearts (that’s what “repentance” means), so that with Christ and in Christ we may be raised to eternal life.