Tuesday, August 23, 2016

21 August 2016 -- Proper 16 / 14 Pentecost

Proper 16 /  14 Pentecost — 21 August 2016
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant – 10:00 am

 [Track 1]  Jeremiah 1:1-10  |  Psalm 71:1-6  |  Hebrews 12:18-29  |  Luke 13:10-17

The leader of the synagogue [was] indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath.  [Luke 13:14a]

The Gospel this morning, the healing of a crippled woman in a synagogue on a Sabbath day, sounds like it should be a very familiar story, and if you read the Gospels with any frequency, it probably is to you.  There are actually a number of stories of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath and then getting grief from the Establishment for it.  Mark tells a story of a man with a withered hand being healed on the Sabbath in the Capernaum synagogue, and Matthew and Luke both repeat that story [Mark 3:1-6; Matt 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11].  In addition to today’s story, Luke also tells about the Sabbath healing of a man with dropsy (a form of edema, often a symptom of a serious disorder such as heart failure) [Luke 14:1-6]; and John tells the story of the lame man healed on the Sabbath at the Beth-zatha Pool in Jerusalem [John 5:1-18].  What amazed me when I actually checked is that apparently, with the exception of this one, we have almost never told any of these Sabbath-healing stories in the Gospel at the Sunday Eucharist!  (We do tell the story of the healing on the Sabbath of the man born blind in Lent in Year A, and Mark’s story occasionally but not often gets told in the early summer of Year B.)  The other stories don’t get told on Sundays.  But these are important stories, and it is a mistake to overlook them.

It’s pretty straightforward:  Jesus goes to synagogue on the Sabbath and sees this crippled woman, all bent over, and he heals her.  He sets her free, as Jesus says and the Gospel recounts.  Well, the leader of the synagogue – in Greek he is called the archisynagogos, perhaps we might say the president of the synagogue, not a teaching rabbi, but something like the senior warden – anyway, this guy goes all bananas because technically it’s against the Law of Moses to “work” on the Sabbath.  “You broke the rules!” he accuses Jesus.  Jesus of course has little patience with that kind of nonsense, tells him so, and the crowd cheers.  (Yay!)

But this brings up a very fundamental issue in what we call moral theology, one which the Church has often dodged, as have other people trying to live in faith.  What is the place of “the rules” in determining moral behavior?

One way in which this question is sometimes phrased is:  “Is a certain act wrong because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because it is wrong?”

(Are there any of you who when you are reading a book turn straight to the last page to see how it comes out?  To you let me say that on this particular last page these two questions converge; but I think it matters how we get there.  Which is why even if you have peeked at the last page of your book, you probably still read it anyway to see how it gets there!)

Some folks have traditionally opted for the first understanding, that a certain act is wrong because God forbids it.  Typically, the source for the understanding that God does forbid a certain act is the Scriptures.  This certain act is wrong because “it says so in the Bible.”  This approach may be, and indeed often is, hard to follow in practice, but, as the old cell-phone commercial puts it, “It’s not complicated.”  Here are the rules:  obey them.  On the surface this seems to be what Jesus is telling the lawyer (an expert in the rules!) in the Gospel a few weeks ago – love God, love your neighbor.  But the lawyer is a good enough lawyer that he sees where this needs to go:  “Yes, but who is my neighbor?”  [Luke 10:29]  Maybe it is a little complicated!  “It says so in the Bible” is a lot like the old maps of the world that noted around the edges, “Here there be dragons.”  The moral guidance may seem simple and straightforward, but be careful!  There have been those who have argued, “God says, ‘You shall not murder,’ but if God had commanded instead, ‘Off anybody who seriously annoys you,’ then that would be right.”  And I think some folks have thought that.  And in fact in some places in the Bible God does command that!  (Jihad justifies all.  And let us not think that so-called “radical Islamists” are the only people who have operated on this basis.  So have we.   But I digress.)  “It is wrong simply because God forbids it” can lead to a very arbitrary reading of moral obligation. 

Behind this is a very strong belief in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, a doctrine particularly important in Calvinism and other what we might call “conservative evangelical” communities.  As well it should be.  Except that we need to understand that God is sovereign as God defines sovereignty, not as we would define sovereignty if we were sovereign.  The “sovereignty of God” has been used, and is still being used, to justify a lot of Bad Stuff.

On the other hand, to say that God forbids a certain act because it is wrong (rather than the other way around) is not to constrain God within a moral reality that is larger than God.  God is not bound by moral rules.  God is bound only by God’s faithfulness to God’s own nature.  To the extent that moral rules reflect God’s own being – which of course is Love, as revealed preeminently in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – then what those rules express is valid and binding upon us.  God calls us, and commands us if you will, to live and act in accordance with God’s own nature, which is Love:  to live, as we say and as Jesus said, in God’s Kingdom.  

There is of course the danger that we will use “Love” as an excuse to run amuck over the moral tradition.  The moral rules, at least most of them, exist for a reason.  They reflect the moral experience and wisdom of millennia of human community life.  Any exceptions should be made with great hesitation and trepidation.  But the rules themselves are not their own justification, and even as they are ultimately rooted in the being and nature of God, the rules are in themselves still human constructs.  And part of our moral obligation is to seek to perceive the divine reality that underlies them.  Whatever the Fourth Commandment says about the Sabbath, the primary moral obligation in this case is to heal the crippled.  As Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”  [Mark 2:27]

Monday, June 27, 2016

26 June 2016 -- Proper 8 / 6th Pentecost

Proper 8 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost  — 26 June 2016
Christ Church, Burlington – 10:00 am

BCP:  1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21  |  Psalm 16:5-11  |  Galatians 5:1,13-25  |  Luke 9:51-62

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them.

I am not a biblical literalist.  I hope that doesn’t offend any of you.  If any of you are offended that I am not a biblical literalist, then let’s get a cup at coffee hour and talk.

But what I’m getting at by that, at least in regard to the Gospels, is just that I recognize that CNN was not following Jesus around with their cameras.  Nor was any journalist following him around with a notebook.  Nobody was taking cell phone videos.  Jesus had followers – a lot of followers, not just the twelve – and they remembered stuff.  (In those days you had to remember stuff, and so they did.  We don’t have to so much any more because we have paper and computer files, and so we don’t have to remember anything!)  (Anyway, that’s my excuse!)  Well, at some point, many years later, it occurred to various of Jesus’ followers that they probably ought to write some of this stuff down.  And so they did.

I will forbear going into a detailed history of the formation of the Gospel tradition (you will be relieved to hear!) – four single authors (mostly), each with a distinct character, but drawing on the Jesus tradition through their faith communities.  There are some folks who apparently want to disparage Christianity and claim that we know nothing about Jesus of Nazareth and later generations just made all this stuff up.  Well, you can believe that if you want.  (You can also believe that climate change is just made up by The Liberals.  But I digress.)  On the other hand, one of the things about the Gospels that I find remarkable is that some of the traditional Jesus stories are actually quite embarrassing.  If you’re going to just make up stories about your Lord and Master, and about the founding leaders of your Church, why would you make up embarrassing stories like this?

For example, in the Gospel today:  Jesus and his followers are on their way up to Jerusalem.  They are cutting through Samaritan territory (the hill country between Galilee and Judea), which is a little odd; the usual route was through the Jordan Valley – easier walking, and you avoided the Samaritans.  Be that as it may:  as you know, the Samaritans were sort of renegade heretical schismatic Israelites, and they and mainline Jews did not get along at all well.  (Gee, that would never happen in our Church, would it?)  Long story, for another time.  Anyway, Jesus and his followers try to stop over in a Samaritan village, and when the folks there find that they are on their way to Jerusalem, they throw them out.  In response to which James and John (the “sons of thunder,” you recall) say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  And Jesus says, “Really?  Really?  (Actually the Gospel just says that Jesus rebuked them.)

It’s interesting how often the Gospels portray the leading disciples, particularly Peter, James, and John, as utter doofuses.  I mean, by the time the Gospels are written, these guys are the great heroes, the saints, of the first generation!  Simon Peter, for instance:  the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, but also clueless about what “Messiah” really means, as seen in his protest about Jesus’ foreseeing of his own suffering and death.  And it is Peter who pledges to Jesus that he will be faithful unto death, and then within hours he chickens out and denies his Lord.  It was James and John who came to Jesus and asked for the highest seats in the Kingdom.  (Matthew says it was their mother, but I think that’s just a cover-up; Mark lets the full embarrassment stand.  [Mark 10:35-37; Matt 20:20-21])  And Jesus’ response – I think one of the most important things Jesus said, and yet for two thousand years mostly ignored by the Church:  “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them.. It shall not be so among you.”  [Matt 20:25-26; Mark 10:42-43; cf. Luke 22:25-26.]  (“Authority” – katexousia – power.)

“It shall not be so among you.”  Except that for most of the past two thousand years, it pretty much has been so among us.  Especially since Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, and subsequently established as the state religion.  A really mixed bag, that.  I mean, it was nice that they weren’t going to burn us at the stake or throw us to the lions any more, but the price was pretty high.  (And we took up our own burning at the stake when we had the chance.)
Human beings have a thing about power.  We just can’t let it go.  And by “power” here I don’t mean just the ability to do stuff that needs to be done, I mean our need to control.  I think perhaps the thirst for power is the original sin.  (No, the original sin was not about sex, no matter what the nuns said, and even the Christian tradition that the sin was Pride I think is a little weasely.  In the Genesis story, what the serpent tempted Eve with was power – “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” – that is, having control of all things.)  

Many in the Church seem to think their faith entitles them to power, and specifically political power.  And here by “the Church” I mean Christian communities in the broadest sense, and especially their, our, leadership.  Yes, I do have some specific groups in mind, and if you’ve been paying attention to recent American politics you may be able to guess who I mean and what some of the issues are, but I’m not going there today.  It’s actually a pretty inclusive list, and sometimes we’re on it.  (The main reason why our own church may not have tried to wield political power as much as some others is that it turns out we’ve just not been very good at it!)  I don’t mean that we should sit quietly by in the face of the evils in the world and in our society, of which there are a great many.  Absolutely quite the contrary!  We are called to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, and must do so vigorously and faithfully.  But bearing witness is not the same as exercising political power.  And in the past – at least 1700 years, if not more, and continuing today, Christians, and other religious groups, have tried to enforce their beliefs, with the civil law or court rulings, sometimes with the sword (or perhaps fire from heaven!).  Funny how that always ends up being not about God’s Kingdom but about our own power.

Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you!”  And he goes on, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  [Mark 10:43-45; Matt 20:26-28; cf. Luke 22:26-27]

Monday, June 13, 2016

12 June 2016 -- Proper 6 / 4th Pentecost

Proper 6 / 4th after Pentecost  — 12 June 2016
St. Peter’s, Bettendorf – 9:00 am

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15  |  Psalm 32  |  Galatians 2:15-21  |  Luke 7:36-8:3

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  And Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin.”

How many of you remember, perhaps in school, reading James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation”?  As some of us recall, it begins:
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'm lonely--
I'll make me a world.

It’s a really lovely poem, and if you don’t know it I encourage you to look it up.  The problem with it is that although it’s great poetry, it is not great theology.  ("Oh, no!  A religious Grinch!” you say!)  But here’s the thing:  God did not create the universe because God was lonely.  God was, is, never lonely.  (This all has to do with the doctrine of the Trinity, and I would investigate with you how that is, but when Meg gets back she would say, “Why are you still here?  And why is our congregation all asleep in the pews?”)

In truth, God made the world – God created the whole universe – not out of loneliness but as an outpouring of the Divine Love which is the essential nature of the Triune God.  God created us, and indeed the whole world – in order to share God’s love, to share being.

The Scripture readings this morning are about sin.  

We all probably remember the story of David and Bathsheba, which is where the first lesson comes from.  (If you’re not quite sure about the whole story, when you get home, look it up in Second Samuel chapters 11 & 12.  Do not get the “David and Bathsheba” movie from Netflix.  Nothing against Netflix, but the film, with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, is really pretty awful!)  David has an affair (“affair” may not really be quite the right word for this) with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his generals.  Anyway, Bathsheba gets pregnant, in circumstances in which it will be obvious to her husband Uriah that he is not the father.  Oops.  So David covers this up by arranging for Uriah to get killed in battle.

Very nice, David.  “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”  “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  “Thou shalt do no murder.”  For somebody who is supposed to be faithful to the Lord God of Israel, David, at the moment that’s not going too well for you, is it?  Which is exactly what the prophet Nathan tells him, trapping him with the moving story of the poor peasant with the ewe lamb.  “You are the man!”  Well, David repents, and the Lord forgives him (though not without consequences, and actually the Lord does not come out of this whole business with clean hands either. But that’s another sermon for another time).  The point is, God can forgive even heinous sin.  And David’s sin is pretty heinous.

In the Epistle this morning, Paul is writing to the Christians in the new churches in Galatia (what’s now the middle of Turkey), reminding them that we are justified, that is, brought into right relationship with God, not by adherence to the works of the Law (i.e the Law of Moses, but by extension any other law) but by God’s grace accepted in trust.  (This is also a major theme in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and it was the favorite theme of St. Paul for both St. Augustine and for Martin Luther; but it is not Paul’s only major theme!)  The bottom line is that we do not earn God’s favor by what we do, or say, or think, or believe (which is different from faith, but that’s another sermon…).  God loves us.  God created us so that we might share in his love.  And so God forgives.  But…  (Well, I’ll get to the “but” in a minute!)

In the Gospel today we hear a story about Jesus at a dinner party at a Pharisee’s house.  The Pharisees apparently loved to invite Jesus to dinner, so they could grill him and give him a generally bad time about some of the things he was saying and doing.  Jesus enjoyed going, because he would always beat them at their own game.  Anyway, at dinner a woman who was a known sinner (“sinner” can mean all sorts of ways of being not-observant of the Law of Moses, but in this case, yes, that may well be what kind of a sinner she was, or at least had been) – this woman comes in and washes Jesus’ feet with oil and her tears.  Well, the Pharisee gets all in a snit that Jesus would put up with such a scandalous thing, So Jesus tells the story of the creditor with two debtors.  You heard the story, and where it leads.  The bottom line once again:  God forgives.

(I might note, and I trust you already know this, that there is no basis whatsoever in the Gospel text for identifying this repentant apparently “fallen” woman with Mary Magdalene, who is named in the next, but unrelated, account that is also part of the Gospel reading this morning.)

I suspect that most of us know people who are afraid of God.  Maybe sometimes those people are us!
(An aside, to clarify:  The Scriptures, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, often speak of “the fear of the Lord,” as in, for instance, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  The Hebrew word here that we translate “fear” has the sense of “reverence,” not “being afraid” or “terrified,” for which Hebrew has different words.  In the Gospels the typical context of the Greek word for “fear” is “Do not be afraid!”  The kind of “fear” I’m talking here about is being scared of God.)  

Yeah, and maybe for some folks that’s appropriate, although often enough those who have good reason to be scared of God typically aren’t – they haven’t a clue!  But there is a very long tradition in popular spirituality – Christian and sometimes sort of semi-Christian – that “God is out to get us.”  We are afraid that when we come to judgment, or even still in this life, God is looking up our records and finding all kinds of stuff to hold against us.  We spend our lives looking over our shoulders heavenward – a spirituality of fear and guilt, often very unspecific guilt.  (Does this sound at all familiar?)

And even the mainstream Christian tradition is responsible for a lot of this.  Dante and other poets and Michelangelo and other artists of the Renaissance got a lot of mileage out of sinners being thrown into hell.  The other day I re-read the famous sermon by the eighteenth-century New England Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  A terrifying piece of work!  Yes, Edwards quotes a lot of Bible verses (and of course as Shakespeare’s Antonio reminds us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” [The Merchant of Venice I.iii.99]), but after page after page of threatening people about how God is dangling them over the fires of hell, Edwards gets around in one final paragraph to urge them to flee the wrath to come by conversion to Jesus Christ.  But is the Kingdom of God well served by frightening people into repentance?  I don’t think so.

God loves us, and God created us to share in the divine Love.  God did not create us for condemnation.  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:17].

A couple of minutes ago I said “God forgives…but.”  Here’s the “but.”  God’s love for us is unconditional.  But part of that love is that God created us free.  (God created the whole universe free, but that’s another sermon, or lecture, or book, for another time!)  God created us free.  We are not God’s puppets.  You can’t love a puppet.  God will not compel us to accept the divine love or to share in the divine life.  If we choose to live all on our own rather than to share in God’s love, God will let us do that.  But with this warning:  It will not turn out well!  So we must not think that we can do anything we want, and God will just overlook it.  The problem with defying the will of God is not that it makes God angry (though I’m sure it makes God sad), but that it is ultimately destructive of ourselves, and of others, and of God’s world.

God loves us.  Do not be afraid.  Trust in God.  When we mess up – and we do mess up – even when we mess up really badly, like David – if we turn back to God, God will forgive us.  “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” [Ezekiel 18:23]