Wednesday, February 10, 2016

10 February 2016 -- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday   — 10 February 2016
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 & 7:00 pm

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12  |  Psalm 103 or 103:8-14  | 
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self‑examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self‑denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

We hear the reading from the sixth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel every year on Ash Wednesday.  It has to do with what the Church would later refer to as the major spiritual disciples for Lent:  Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting.  

In this Gospel reading Jesus addresses these disciplines, which were common in Jewish spirituality; and we note that Jesus does not say “if” you do these things, but “when” you do them!  

And the point Jesus is making here, as seems pretty obvious, is “when you do these things, do not be like the hypocrites!”  I suspect we’ve always pretty much assumed that the folks Jesus was talking about were the Pharisees, and perhaps he was, at least some of them, but it’s a mistake to think that the objects of Jesus’ criticism are necessarily “them.”  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”  As Pogo might say, “We have seen the hypocrites and they is us.”  Out of the depths of our nation’s political life we are hearing folks who talk about how religious they are and in the next breath advocate carpet-bombing of villages, deportation of immigrants, and cutting back assistance for the poor, many of whom are, in the recurring Biblical phrase, “orphans and widows.”  I’m not sure just what Bible these folks are getting their “Biblical Values” from.  You can attach any names you want to this stuff.  There are plenty to go around.

So how do we respond to our Lord’s admonitions?  In our charitable giving, do we really need not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing?  I don’t think so.  (We may need to let the IRS know what our right hand is doing!)  I think we know the difference between “Look at me!  See how pious I am!” and being listed among several hundred other people in a charitable organization’s annual newsletter, by which we may simply be saying, “We think this organization’s work is valuable and we encourage you to join us in supporting them.”

Do we really need to pray only shut up in our rooms?  No, I don’t think so.  But I think we know the difference between “Look at me!  See how devout I am!” and offering prayer and praise to God together with other people, sometimes even in public, though not ostentatiously.  I have mixed feelings about praying on a loudspeaker over NASCAR races, though quietly and fervently is probably appropriate.

Fasting, by its very nature, is not usually too public, unless we consciously make a big deal of it.  Here, of course, the issue comes up about this thing we do with the ashes today.  Context is all!  The imposition of ashes goes back only to the ninth century or so, at which time presumably everyone in the village was wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday and so it was not a big deal.  In that context, not to wear ashes and to strut around saying “Jesus said wash your face Matthew 6:17 nyah nyah nyah!” probably puts you on the wrong side of Jesus’ admonition.  I don’t know how the recent custom of “Ashes to Go” on the city streets is doing this year.  Some people find this meaningful, although it’s not always clear what that meaning is.  As I said, context is all.
A couple of days ago there was an article in the Washington Post by Elizabeth King, a writer in Chicago, entitled “I’m an atheist.  So why can’t I shake God?”  An interesting article, which mostly has to do with the opinion that evolution has neurologically wired us in favor of religion.  But I don’t want to go there just now.  I was simply struck by her opening remarks in which she told how she was raised a “born again” Christian but as a teenager began to have questions which her church leaders could not or would not answer.  They smugly told her that her questions were her own problem and she just needed to “have faith.”  To the surprise of very few of us, including God, she decided, “Well, nuts to that.”

And I suspect that this kind of thing – all too common in the churches, yes, including our own – is what is really behind the admonitions that Jesus gives us in this Gospel for Ash Wednesday.  We need to understand that our spiritual lives – including the disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – are not about us!  Their point is not so we can pull out our thumb and say “What a good boy am I!”  (And also “what a less-than-good boy or girl are you!”)  And yet all too often that’s what we are like, or at least are perceived as being like.  This is not the Kingdom of God.

Lent is preparation for Easter.  And Easter is the foretaste of our own eternal destiny as God’s children.  It is newness of life.  It is not about piety.  It is not about how devout we are.  It is about how we love one another.  It is about doing justice for one another.  

And so I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

7 February 2016 -- Last Sunday after Epiphany

Last Sunday after Epiphany  — 7 February 2016
Christ Church, Burlington – 10:00 am

Exodus 34:29-35  |    Psalm 99 |    2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2  |    Luke 9:28-43a

Suddenly [the disciples] saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to [Jesus]. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Every year on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (that’s this coming Wednesday; it always manages to sneak up on us, doesn’t it?  Especially in a year when Easter is early!) – every year on this Sunday the Gospel reading is the account of what we call the Transfiguration of Christ.  All three synoptic Gospels include this narrative, and we rotate through them year by year; this year it’s from St. Luke.  (We also celebrate the Transfiguration every year on August 6, but that’s six months away!)

One of the questions that occurred to me not long ago – and I’m not sure why it took me so long for this question to occur to me; after all, I’ve been reading and hearing this Gospel account for sixty-some years! – but then, that’s one reason why we should never say, regarding the Scriptures, “Oh, I’ve read that one already, I don’t have to read it again!”  Oh yes!  It’s only after the second or third or sixtieth or five hundredth reading that the good questions start to occur to you!  -- anyway, one of the questions that occurred to me was, “How did Peter and John and James know it was Moses and Elijah that were talking with Jesus?”  It isn’t like they grew up with copies of Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible, with full-color illustrations, like I did.  (Did any of you grow up with Hurlbut’s?)  Moses and Elijah didn’t have Facebook pages.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing name tags.  The disciples had never seen Raphael’s great painting of the Transfiguration.  How did they recognize Moses and Elijah?  I guess we just don’t know!  But there must have been something about them that made it obvious who they were.  They were, after all, the great heroic figures of Jewish history and identity – Moses the liberator from slavery, and God’s lawgiver, and Elijah the prophet, who stood up for faithfulness to God against the infidelity and wickedness of Israelite kings.  Both of whom, in Jewish tradition and legend, had been taken by God into heaven.  And here are these great figures – historical and heavenly figures – talking with Our Jesus!  Blows the mind, it does!  And so Peter, never at a loss for words even when he’s at a loss for thought, shouts out, “Let’s build tabernacles – shrines!”

One of the advantages of our worship tradition in the Episcopal Church, and in many other mainline liturgical churches, is that every Sunday there is substantial reading from the Scriptures, and in a very comprehensive way.  I’m not saying this is something we should be proud of, because we aren’t the ones who set this up, but we can be grateful for it.  The Book of Common Prayer is richer in Scriptural quotation and allusion than any other tradition, I think.  I’ve found it kind of interesting in my very limited experience attending worship in evangelical churches that although they may talk a lot about the Bible and frequently quote snippets of it, they don’t seem very often to read it aloud in church!  Oh well.  

The downside of our tradition, of course, is that although we read a lot of Scripture, we do it mostly in discrete chunks.  But the Scriptural books are not for the most part written in chunks.  The Gospels are not just a random collection of Jesus stories – they are carefully crafted and sequenced narratives.  This is particularly obvious with John, but it’s also very much true with Mark, and with Matthew and Luke.  And so when we hear a narrative like today’s, about the Transfiguration of Jesus, we tend to have forgotten what happened a few verses earlier, and sometimes what happens shortly thereafter.

Shortly before the episode in today’s Gospel, Jesus has been alone with his disciples, and he asks them (you know this story), “Who do people say I am?”  And the disciples repeat some of the pious speculation that’s floating around, and then Peter says, “You are the Messiah!”  (And to borrow a phrase from today’s Gospel, “not knowing what he said”!)  And Jesus responds by telling them that he must be rejected and suffer and be put to death – not anything at all like everyone assumed about the Messiah – and then be raised from the dead.  And that they too must take up their crosses and follow him.  You may also recall that in St. Matthew’s Gospel Peter reacts to this by crying out, “God forbid it!  This must never happen to you!”  [Matt 16:22]  And Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!  That’s the line the devil tried on me in the wilderness!”

So that’s the context of today’s Gospel about the Transfiguration.  This vision is God’s testimony that, yes, indeed, what Jesus said is exactly what must happen to him.  The appearance of Jesus in glory – the Greek word doxa here has the sense of the late Hebrew word shekinah, which designates the dwelling of the Lord God, present in an overshadowing cloud  – and thus is a clear sign that this Our Jesus is not just some itinerant preacher but is indeed Immanuel, God-With-Us.  And the attendance upon Jesus by Moses and Elijah testify to the continuity of Jesus with the whole covenant history of Israel.  

But it’s more than just continuity with the Israelite past.  The disciples hear a voice from the cloud (who would that be?!):  “This is my Son!  This is my beloved and chosen one!  Listen to him!”  And then Jesus is found alone:  the cloud is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone; now it’s just Jesus.  So listen to him!

And what has Jesus just said?  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

So much for being the Messianic King who would drive out the Romans and restore the Kingdom to Israel.  So much for being the kind of Christ that we were imagining and expecting.  

We read about this vision on the Sunday before we begin the observance of Lent.  And Lent is a season of spiritual preparation to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death, that we will contemplate in Holy Week.  And his resurrection on the third day, indeed; but first the Cross.  The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is not about power, despite the fact that the Church over much of her history has tried to make it so, and still does yet today.  Or if power, then only the power of love.  This Jesus, seen in glory on the mountain, raised high upon the Cross, “is my Son, my Chosen.  listen to him!”