Sunday, March 22, 2015

22 March 2015 -- 5th Sunday of Lent

5th Sunday of Lent  — 22 March 2015
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

Jeremiah 31:31-34  |  Psalm 51:1-13  |  Hebrews 5:5-10  |  John 12:20-33

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I’m assuming that most of you are aware of some things about the reading of Scripture:  The Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, and the Bible as a whole.  (The “as a whole” is important!)  These are not simple newspaper articles.  They require some sophistication.  I don’t mean you have to get all academic and scholarly with the Bible; it’s often useful to do that, but sometimes it may also get in the way of hearing the Word of God.  What I am talking about is being careful to read the text.  Read the text.  And to be aware that the Gospel narratives, particularly, were not written by CNN reporters who were present onsite with cameras and sound recorders.  The Gospels were written, in the form we have them now, by Christians, followers of Jesus, some 35 to 65 years after the events, based not only upon their communities’ authentic memories, but also upon their own prayerful reflection on the meaning of those memories of the events.  I’m assuming that Mother Alice and other clergy have discussed and taught and preached about these kinds of things with you over the years.

One of the things you also will have noticed is that the four Gospels are not four identical, or even similar, books; they are not like birds on a wire.  Well, the first three Gospels are obviously related.  Each is distinctive, with material of its own, but obviously related.  They can easily be compared, or looked at side-by-side.  Which in Greek is to say “synoptic.”  But you know that, and the details are for another time.  The fourth Gospel, that “according to John” (although the author nowhere names himself – or herself!) covers a lot of the same material about the ministry of Jesus, but with a very different perspective.

For instance:  as we all recall, most of the accounts of Jesus’ ministry in the first three Gospels are brief straightforward stories.  (They’re not simple, and we keep discovering new dimensions in them all our lives, but they are generally short and to the point.)  Jesus tells a parable.  Jesus heals someone who is sick or disabled.  Jesus gives some short pithy instructions about life.  Jesus gives little pictures of the Kingdom of God.  In the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, Jesus heals someone, or feeds the multitude – there’s not much parable-telling in this Gospel – and then follows that up with a long discourse on the meaning of it all.  And even after many many years of reading the Fourth Gospel over and over, I still find myself saying “What is he talking about?”

Okay, here’s what I think.  This is what I think, and you may disagree with me, and that’s all right, and Mother Alice may disagree with me, and that would be all right.  But I think that the Fourth Gospel is up to something quite different from what we see in the first three Gospels.  In the first three we see, basically, the writing down of stories passed along in the “Jesus Tradition.”  They may undergo some editing in the writing down of the Gospels, particularly as the local communities’ circumstances change over a generation or two – particularly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans – but these are basically traditional stories.  The Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, apparently knows all those traditional stories – I would say from the tradition itself; I don’t see any indication that the author knows any of the written Gospels.  But the Fourth Evangelist starts with one of the traditional stories, and then goes on to compose a long discourse, placed in the mouth of Jesus, about what those stories and events mean.  And I’m certainly not saying his interpretation is not right – but it’s the result of his, and his community’s, reflections on the meaning of the stories of the Jesus tradition.

Okay, so finally now we come to the Gospel reading today.  Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem (following the so-called “Triumphal Entry” that we will celebrate next Sunday) and he’s in the Temple, and some “Greeks” approach him.  In this case, the Evangelist probably means people who were ethnically Gentiles – not necessarily from Greece but Greek-speaking – and may have been proselytes, that is, religious converts to Judaism, which explains why they were in Jerusalem for Passover.  (A slightly different word is used for Greek-speaking ethnic Jews who lived in the Diaspora outside of Judea and Galilee.)  Or perhaps these Greeks were “God-fearers,” Gentiles drawn to the moral and theological power of Judaism but unwilling to accept the full obligations of the Torah, the Jewish Law.  They approach Philip (who, being from Bethsaida, a mixed Gentile-Jewish town, probably speaks Greek, and he has a Greek name) and they tell him that they “wish to see Jesus.”  Not just look at him, but meet him, talk with him.  But also, in the Fourth Gospel, “to see” often connotes “to believe in,” and I can’t help but think the Evangelist has that in the back of his mind.

Anyway, we don’t know what happened with the Greeks after that; the Evangelist apparently doesn’t really care about them; he moves right on to the point he wants to make:  Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  All along throughout this Gospel Jesus has been saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  But with the coming of the Gentiles – the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” but whom Jesus must now bring in [John 10:16] – with the coming of the Gentiles the  time for his glorification – that is, his crucifixion and resurrection – has now arrived.  (As the Pharisees had just said:  “Look, the world has gone after him!”  [John 12:19])

The Evangelist then goes on to draw on some sayings from the Jesus tradition that we already know and have seen in the other Gospels, though slightly differently phrased:  only if you give up your life will you gain your life;  if you would follow me, deny yourself and take up your cross.  Following Jesus means following Jesus where he goes, and where he goes is by way of Golgotha.  And then, reflecting similar words which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane – an incident which the Fourth Gospel does not include in the Passion narrative – “Now my soul is troubled – I am deeply grieved, even to death.  Father, shall I ask you to save me from this hour that has now come?  But not my will but yours be done.  Father, glorify your name!” [Cf. Mark 14:34-36 & ||s.] 

And then the Evangelist shows us Jesus speaking in words which we and the tradition have known, or should have known, all along:  “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”  Well, yes, of course!  That’s exactly what we all thought the victory parade into the city was about!  God’s reign is being restored, the Romans are about to be driven out, and the Messiah is to be crowned as King!  But no:  Jesus goes on:   “‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”  Hoisted up from the earth on a Roman cross.  The judgment of this world, and the fulfilling of God’s Kingdom, turns out to be very different from what we had in mind.

The Gospel reading today I think in some ways foreshadows the two Gospel readings for next Sunday, Palm Sunday.  As you know, and perhaps anticipate with some dread! next Sunday’s service is longer than usual, and involves a radical and abrupt change in mood and tone, from the apparent triumph of the Entry into Jerusalem to the stark and somber account of the Crucifixion.  To quote as I often do a colleague from many years ago [the Rev. Charles Peek],  It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, and moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.” As we move toward the conclusion of Lent, through our Lord’s death (and ours) to his (and our) resurrection, may we renew our commitment to the good news of God’s Kingdom, a realm which is not about the love of power but the power of love. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Thursday, February 19, 2015

18 February 2015 -- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 18 February 2015
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 pm & 7:00 pm

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

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

In recent years there has been something of a new turn, at least in our society, about the way people talk about their faith journeys.  Part of this, I think, is related to the fact that over my lifetime (which is now getting to be quite a while!) the place of “church” in our society has shifted a bit.  It used to be taken for granted that most people were members of one or another church, even though their participation may have been pretty minimal, and even regular attendance was for many more a matter of social conformity than any deep commitment.  The fact that there seems to be less of that going around these days is perhaps not a bad thing, at least to the extent that it may represent a lessening of hypocrisy.  And what an increasing number of people are saying, according to studies by groups like the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, is that they would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” 

I’m not sure exactly what that means.  Or rather, I suspect it may mean a number of different things to different people who say that of themselves.  (And probably still more different things to people who, sometimes rather snottily, say that about other people.)  Generally – very generally – it seems refer to people who may well believe in God – in a variety of understandings of who or what God is – and who may well pray, or meditate, or reflect on transcendent reality, and have a strong moral sense – but who do not participate in or claim affiliation with “organized religion.”

Maybe there are some of you who would say of yourselves that you think of yourself as “spiritual but not religious,” in some sense or other.  Please be assured that it is not my intent to beat up on you from the pulpit today.  (Or any other day.) 

On the contrary, I would like to suggest, on this first day of the season of Lent in which we traditionally ramp up our attention to such things as prayer and meditation, that Jesus himself might well be described as “spiritual but not religious.”  And in that way, as in so many others, a model for us who claim and strive to follow him.
Okay, what do I mean when I suggest that Jesus might be described as “spiritual but not religious”?  Well, first of all, in this context, the word “spiritual,” and that Jesus was “spiritual,” probably isn’t a matter for much argument, although I think it has much deeper implications than is sometimes assumed.  But “religious”?  Jesus not “religious”?  Well, of course it depends on what you mean by “religious,” but, yes, I’ve been saying all my ministry that Jesus really isn’t very “religious.”  At least not in the sense that we often mean by that word. 

Now of course, I hope obviously, Jesus prayed.  The gospels note this many times, and he gave a model prayer to his disciples and to us, and we will be praying it (again) a little later.  The Gospel today suggests that Jesus was in favor of fasting, at least in appropriate circumstances, although he also says that while he, the bridegroom, is with his followers it is not yet time to fast.  And to the extent that “fasting” has to do not just with self-denial but with self-sharing, we can recall how when faced with five thousand hearers Jesus directed his followers to share the food they had.  And although Jesus doesn’t seem to have had any money to give alms with, he was a model of Peter’s later statement to the disabled man in the Temple, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you” [Acts 3:6], as Jesus healed many of their diseases and infirmities.  Further, it is clear in the Gospels that Jesus was a regular in the synagogues of Galilee, where he preached and taught.  And healed, even on the Sabbath Day, which was actually very irreligious of him!  And Jesus had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, which he often quoted – and  sometimes controverted. And in the Temple Jesus was something of a troublemaker!

The unmistakably “religious” people in the Gospel narratives are, after all, the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the Sadducees, whose religiosity was well blended with power politics.  We know what Jesus thought of their “religion.”  The Gospel today recounts one of the instances of that.  Not that Jesus is against almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – the classic Lenten disciplines.  But they aren’t about being “religious,” and certainly not about being seen as “religious.”  But I think they are, or can be, about being “spiritual.”
Jesus’ mission in this world was not about making us human beings more “religious.”  We were already plenty religious, thank you very much.  Jesus came to proclaim, and to enact, the Reign of God in human life in this world.  Not just a promise about the sweet by and by, about which Jesus says relatively little (although eternity is the Kingdom’s horizon), but to enable us be what God in creation intended us to be in the divine image and likeness.

And that, I think, is our vocation and destiny, a lifelong task and goal to which we may pay special attention in Lent:  to grow further into the fullness of humanity, into the image of the God who is Love, the God of Justice, into the vision of the God whose glory we are meant to be.  [Cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. IV.20.7.]  Let us go forward, then, in these coming weeks, not that we may be more “religious,” whatever that means, but that by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit we may become as human persons more loving, more just, more “spiritual” – more real.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

4 January 2015 -- Christmas 2

St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

Jeremiah 31:7-14   |  Psalm 84 or 84:1-8  |  Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a   |  Luke 2:41-52 

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

We were visiting for Christmas with family in Tennessee, and last Sunday with them we attended an evangelical church.  The young youth pastor was preaching – he was quite good, by the way – and his text was this verse from the Gospel of St. Luke.  (Evangelical churches typically do not have a seasonal lectionary, as we do; they apparently just choose their sermon texts because they want to.  But in this case it was certainly appropriate.)  I wasn’t taking notes, and I certainly don’t want to seem to be plagiarizing from him, but his words did lead me to some reflections of my own on these verses.

I suspect we all have some images in our minds about what the various parts of the Christmas story were like.  We often get these from Christmas carols and hymns, or from the artwork on Christmas cards, or from the creche scenes we set up in our churches or our homes.  From the actual texts of the Gospels?  Often, not so much!

For instance, one of the depictions I have often seen is of Joseph leading the expectant Mary sitting on a donkey, trudging all alone across the Judean mountains to Bethlehem.  Actually, probably not.  I’ll bracket for the moment the whole business of Caesar Augustus’s decree for a tax census; but in the context of St. Luke’s story, presumably there were a whole bunch of people coming to Bethlehem to register.  After all, it had been a thousand years; every Jewish Tom, Dick, and Harry was a descendent of King David.  It was like being a descendant of the Kings of Ireland.  Or in my case, a descendant of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland.  (I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it makes a good story.)  Joseph and Mary in this story would not have been traveling all alone.  And let’s not beat up on the poor Bethlehem innkeeper.  Inns in the ancient world were not like Hampton Suites, or even like a Motel 6.  Ancient inns may have had an actually-not-very-private room or two for wealthy travelers, but everyone else slept as best they could in a common room that was also the bar and grill.  “No place in the inn” was not a “No Vacancy” sign, it just means that a saloon is no place to have a baby.  Being allowed to use the stable was a good deal for Mary and Joseph.  “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”  Well, probably not.  It may be one of your favorite hymns, and it’s one of mine, but probably not.  Remember what Luke says about the shepherds when they came:  “They made known what had been told them about this child; all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”  [Luke 2:17-18]  It doesn’t exactly imply a huge crowd, but evidently there were some other people there, and we would hope at least a couple of older women who could assist Mary as midwives.

The birth of Jesus, whatever it was like, was probably not a particularly private event.

Lives in ancient Israel, and lives in ancient anywhere else, and lives anywhere before modern times in Europe and North America, were not private.  Lives were lived in community, and in much of the world they still are.

Well.  In the story we hear today from St. Luke, when Jesus is twelve his parents take him with them to Jerusalem for the Passover, and evidently a good number of villagers from Nazareth and the surrounding area, neighbors, friends and relatives, are going together.  (Good judgment, right there!)  So when they all start back home after the festival, it doesn’t initially occur to Mary and Joseph to worry that Jesus isn’t with them.  (He probably hasn’t been with them the whole trip!  Kids then as now like to hang out together away from their parents!)  They finally find him still in the Temple, talking with the scribes and priests, possibly including some Pharisees, who were finding Jesus a very interesting young prodigy.  (Oh, if only they had known how “interesting” he would be twenty years later!)  But we know this story.  A point to note, I think, is that matters of faith were not private matters, as we tend to try to make our “personal religion.”  They were very much matters for community discussion.

Jesus was not much interested in “personal religion.”  Faith was not a private matter.

And the Gospel story today reminds us that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” [Luke 2:52]  No matter how we phrase our understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him.…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  [John 1:1-3.14]  The statement “Jesus is God” is true, but it is not simplistically so.) – no matter how we phrase our understanding, we must remember and insist that Jesus really was a real human being.  He was an infant, and then a child, and he had to learn, and to grow up, and all these things were for him, as they were and are for us, processes that took place in the context of community and family.  Presumably Mary potty-trained him.  Joseph taught him how to use tools.  The local rabbi taught him the Scriptures.  Working with Joseph on construction across the valley at Sepphoris taught him about the political and economic realities of living in the shadow of the Roman Empire.

And so, when Jesus began his own ministry, this was his message:  “The time has come!  God’s Kingdom has come near!  Change your lives and the way we live with each other, and trust in this good news!” [Mark 1:15]  Jesus came not just to make us individually and privately religious, but to call us and empower us for life together as citizens of the Kingdom of God.