Sunday, June 25, 2017

25 June 2017 -- Proper 7 / 3 Pentecost

Proper 7 — 25 June 2017

Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 9:00, & 11:00

Track 2:  Jeremiah 20:7-13  |  Psalm 69:8-11, (12-17), 18-20  | 
Romans 6:1b-11  |  Matthew 10:24-39

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [Matt 10:34]

There are still a few of us around who remember the little section of the Prayer Book Communion Service called “The Comfortable Words.”  That was the part that began, “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.”  The first of those sayings, you may recall – or not! – was from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

(Those were in the “old Prayer Book,” as opposed to the “new Prayer Book.”  But the “new” Prayer Book is forty-plus years old now, and the “old” Prayer Book that it replaced only lasted for about fifty years.  And the version of the Prayer Book before that only made it for a bit over thirty.  But I digress.)

Actually, these “Comfortable Words” are still in the current Prayer Book, in Rite One, but they are no longer called “The Comfortable Words”; now they are introduced with “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.”  (Page 332, if you’re getting bored, or haven’t any idea what I’m talking about, and want to look them up.)  But the “Comfortable Words” title goes back to the first English-language Book of Common Prayer, in 1549, four and a half centuries ago.  Do these verses from the New Testament make us feel comfortable?  Well, actually, I suppose they do, and that’s fine.  But probably not exactly what Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had in mind when he compiled the first English Prayer Book.  As you’re aware, words shift meaning over the centuries, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  The original meaning of “comfort” is not so much “make feel better” (the general modern meaning) as it is “strengthen.”  (The English word “com-fort” comes from Latin through French.  Check the OED!)  A related example is the still-in-some-use title “The Holy Comforter” for the Holy Spirit.  But the Spirit is not a warm fuzzy blanket, but a source of spiritual strength.  And what makes us strong may or may not make us feel good.  And very often not. 

And this, in case you were wondering, or may already have guessed, brings us to the Gospel reading today. 

There’s not much very “comfortable” (in the modern sense) about the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.  You possibly may have noticed that today’s reading, from St. Matthew, follows directly upon the Gospel reading last Sunday, which also wasn’t very comfortable.  You may recall Jesus’ words last week: “…You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”  [Matt 10:18,21-22a]

Well, it doesn’t get any better in today’s Gospel reading.  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’”  [Matthew 10:34-36; quoting Micah 7:6] 

Oh, that’s comfortable!

We should note that the part about “the man against his father” and so on is Jesus quoting the prophet Micah, where it is part of a prophecy of doom against Israel for her faithlessness.  Jesus’ disciples would presumably have recognized that, as would the Christians in Matthew’s community.  I’m not sure whether that’s very helpful for us, but it does mean that Jesus didn’t just make these words up on his own!  But it is still the case that Jesus is warning his disciples in his mission charge to them (which is what last Sunday’s Gospel reading and this Sunday’s is) that if they are faithful in proclaiming God’s Kingdom, they are not likely to be regarded as rock stars.  God’s faithful ones may very well end up in all kinds of worldly trouble, rejected, maybe persecuted, even unto death.  It was true for Jesus’ own disciples; it was true for Matthew’s community; it is true for us.  I think we need to take that seriously. 

No, it is not very likely in this country that faithful Christians will suffer overt persecution, although indifference and even scorn are likely to increase.  But there are many places in the world today where Christians are currently facing oppression and even death.  As was the case for the first three centuries of Christian history, at least on and off in the Roman Empire, and in other places for many centuries after that, up until and including our own time.

Jesus was not crucified because he went around saying things to make people comfortable (in the modern sense).  He certainly didn’t preach a “prosperity gospel.”  He said, “Follow me,” and we know, as he knew, where that would lead.  Yes, ultimately, resurrection; but first the cross.  As we hear St. Paul today, writing to the Christians at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  [Romans 6:3-4]

Jesus speaks to us to challenge us, to strengthen us, yes, even, ultimately, to comfort us.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  [Luke 12:32]  Last week we heard him assure us, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”  [Matthew 10:22b]  He gave comfort – strength and assurance – to Dame Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  [Showing 13]  And to his disciples, including us, Jesus says, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  [Matthew 28:20]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

25 May 2017 -- Ascension Day

Ascension Day  — 25 May 2017

Trinity – 12:15 pm

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

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  [Matthew 28:20b]

When we think of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ – (I don’t know how often you actually think about the Ascension of Christ, apart from on Ascension Day, but, after all, we do refer to it every time we say the Creed – “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father” – and so presumably you do occasionally think about the Ascension of Christ, at least briefly!) – what comes to our minds?  Well, a lot of the time, I suspect, maybe first of all, is this story that St. Luke tells us today.  In fact, Luke tells this story twice.  We hear his second telling in the first reading today, from the first chapter of his second book, that we call the Acts of the Apostles; and then we hear Luke’s first telling, from the 24th chapter of his Gospel.  They are mostly, but not exactly, the same story.

The major difference between them is that the first, Gospel, story, apparently takes place at the end of Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection.  (A very very long day, if you actually set a clock running on the events in Chapter 24!)  The second story, at the beginning of Acts, takes place 40 days later.  (“40 days” is always a symbolic number in the Scriptures, whatever the chronological reality behind it may be.)  I hope you are not distressed by this discrepancy.  You should not be.  Unimaginative literalism is an illegitimate child of the Enlightenment, not of the Christian tradition itself.  St. Luke was, or at least was functioning as, a Hellenistic historian, and in the Greco-Roman world historians understood their task as to explicate the meaning of events, at least their understanding of the meaning of events, not to provide a CNN transcript.  This is true of all of them – Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Suetonius, all that crowd – including the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.  On a spectrum of historical writers we would put them somewhere between Doris Kearns Goodwin [Team of Rivals, a history of Abraham Lincoln, presidency] and Hilary Mantel [Wolf Hall, a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII].  Probably closer to Ms. Mantel.  But I digress.

There are a number of references in the New Testament, direct and indirect, to the ascension of the risen Christ into heaven, where he reigns – as for instance in the Epistle from Ephesians today.  But St. Luke is the only one who provides a narrative, a story.  This suggests to me that the narrative is not the essence of the reality of the Ascension, despite the fact that this narrative so readily captures our imagination, which is probably why Luke uses it.  Luke likes to tell stories.  (We get most of our favorite parables through Luke.)  And after all, this narrative gives us “Toes.”  (Ah, you don’t remember.  Just as well.)

The problem with the narrative is that it seems often to imply, although I don’t think this is what St. Luke intends, that now Jesus is gone.  Yes, Jesus will come again, but as it turns out, his coming again is not any time soon (at least not so far!), although some Christian sects have spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for him, and other sects have wasted an immense amount of energy trying to decipher from misinterpreted Scriptural passages just when that coming is going to happen.  But the bottom line of all this is that we operate on the assumption that Jesus is not here.  And that is absolutely not what we celebrate on Ascension Day.

“But isn’t Jesus in heaven?”  Yes!

“And so he’s not here.”  No!

That raises the question of the relationship of earth to heaven, which is another homily, or another lecture series, or another book, for another time.  And still another question for another time is what we mean when we profess our faith that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

The important thing, I think, and the bottom line for today, is that Jesus is not somewhere else.  And certainly not long ago and far away, in first-century Judea or wherever.  Heaven is not somewhere else.  Heaven is here.  Jesus is here.  St. Matthew concludes his Gospel by telling it right:  “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Friday, April 14, 2017

14 April 2017 - Good Friday

Good Friday  — 14 April 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Isaiah 52:13-53:12  |  Psalm 22  |  Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9  |  John 18:1-19:42
“So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’”  [John 19:5]
Pilate said far more than he knew.  For Jesus is indeed “The Man” – the Human Being.  Ecce homo; idou ho anthropos. Despised, mocked, beaten, bound, powerless, helpless, condemned to die – everything which our values tell us to avoid being.  And yet in this little vignette – so pitifully typical of so much of human life in all times and all places – it is Jesus, rather than Pilate, who is “The Man.”

We talk a lot, within Christian faith, of things like salvation and redemption, and I sometimes wonder if all we mean by that is just getting whisked out of a world of pain and sorrow off to a magic never-never land in the sky.  Well, there’s a bit of truth to that, in amongst the simplistic caricature of the reality of the thing.  But what God is really up to in God’s loving tireless quest for our salvation is not just to make sure we get tickets for heaven instead of hell, but to restore us to the fullness of humanity as God’s sons and daughters, to make it possible for us to become, finally, who we really are, who we are really meant to be, as human persons created in a finite world yet called to citizenship in an eternal kingdom and destined for everlasting glory.  God wants us to be fully, truly, human – each of us a full, true human person – not the poor bent twisted shadow of the real thing that the world seems to take for granted as ‘being human.”  The model, the example, the herald, the pioneer, the enabler of that new, restored, fulfilled humanity is Jesus, The Man, The Human Being.  Look.  Here’s the Real Thing.  Real humanity does not consist in getting power, but in giving love.  Jesus is it.  Pilate isn’t.

It’s not a part of God’s plan – not directly – that being a real human being must necessarily involve pain and suffering and death.  These are not good things; they are not, really, authentically human things.  But if we are to live in a world in which most people are capable of looking at The Man himself and crying “Crucify him, crucify him!” then the pain and suffering and death will go with the territory for those who are authentically human.

We look at Pilate, robed in all the pride and power of Imperial Rome; and we look at Jesus, robed in mockery and crowned with thorns.  Which one is really The Man, The Human Person? 

But of course, we know how the story turns out in the end.

But do we always remember?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

1 March 2017 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 1 March 2017

Trinity – 12:15 pm

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

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”  [Matthew 6:16]

So, what are you giving up for Lent?

It’s funny how quickly this question arises for us, and among us, as we begin the season of Lent.  Or at least it does, and always has, for me.  Lent has always been, from my early childhood, about “giving up” something.  Or so it seems, and so I remember, although it’s probably not completely true!

The traditional themes of Lent are reflected in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about almsgiving, prayer and fasting.  Likewise, as we will hear in a few minutes, the Prayer Book expresses the Church’s tradition about the observance of Lent, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  [BCP p 265] 

But what I remember most clearly from when I was growing up was especially the self-denial part.  Lent was for giving up stuff.  If it was something I enjoyed, I had to give it up.  (Incidentally, this is not an accusation of my priests or Sunday School teachers, it’s a statement about me and what I was hearing!)  We had to give up chocolate.  (Well, that’s probably not a bad thing!)  We had to give up desserts at dinner.  (Also probably not a bad thing!)  We had to give up going to the movies.  And at least in some years we had to give up television.  Or reading books that were purely entertainment or recreational.  Lent was really pretty miserable!  And you could tell how miserable it was by how disfigured our faces were so much of the time!  (Even without ashes!)

Perhaps you get my point.  And, I think, Jesus’ point.

This is not to say that any or all of these self-denials may not be appropriate parts of your Lenten observance.  That’s between you and God, and perhaps your spiritual director if you have one.  But to the extent that we assume Lent is a time to make ourselves miserable and not have any fun, we probably need to take a better look at what we think we’re about in our Lenten observance.

In these more recent times, as I suspect you know, we have tended to put more emphasis on what we were taking on for Lent rather than what we were giving up.  And generally, I think, that’s good.  Prayer, for instance, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Yes, by all means.  Perhaps participation in some additional service activity.  And let us not forget the words of the prophet Isaiah:  “Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  [Isaiah 58:6-7]

But if we are honest with ourselves, we understand that if we are going to take on something for Lent, this may well, and perhaps should, involve giving up something else.  Not because there is any merit in being dismal, but because it’s good to remind ourselves that we can’t have it all.  And, frankly, in this modern world, particularly in our own society, we come perilously close to assuming that we can have whatever we want.  Most of us have too much stuff – physical, psychological, emotional – in our lives.  And just like our basement or our attic, sometimes we need to clean it out.

The season of Lent exists not for its own sake, not primarily at least, but because it is a time of spiritual preparation for Easter.  And Easter is not just the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, although it is certainly that.  But not only that.  It’s not “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia, How Nice For Him!”  The Risen Christ is the promise and the guarantee of our own eternal destiny; Jesus is what St. Paul calls “the first fruits.”  [1Cor 15:20]  I think we ought not to worry overmuch about the specifics of what that will be like.  We simply don’t know.  And that’s then, and this is now.  But we do believe, and have confidence, and trust, that this is not all there is.  And if we are wise, and faithful, we will prepare ourselves to be ready for then..  May God grant us all the grace of a blessed Lent!