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.