Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17B  ~  August 30, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Graft in our hearts the love of your Name

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,


There are number of ways to interpret this prayer. I have, before, emphasized the mystical practice of the Jesus Prayer, by which we invite God’s Love to be united to our own personal centers.  The prayer may also refer to our story or narrative about God.  As I have also said before, name means reputation, a person's public story.  So, here is an obvious meaning: May God help us to love the story about His activity.
However, since God's activity is love for us, the "love of your Name" could also mean God's love as revealed in the story.  Not our love for the story, but God's love for us as revealed in the story.  In that interpretation, we are not asking God to excite in us feelings of piety or reverence for the Bible and tradition (although there's nothing wrong with that!); rather, we are asking that the whole import of the story — the awful Love of God — may take over our innermost selves.
Graft in our hearts the love of Your Name.
The Love of God's Name also reminds us that God has a Name known to us.  Now, a name is a word.  A reputation, a story, a narrative, is nothing but a collection of words, a description.  The presupposition of revealed religion is that God has given us a self-description.  God has identified Himself in language we can understand.  The problem is that our words are limited, while God is not.  Therefore, the story we have been given is incomplete and, in a certain sense, faulty. It has to be, because it is given in terms we can understand (up to a point), but the Object of our understanding is, by definition, incomprehensible!
Even though God has told us His Name, we must not pronounce it, because it is holy.  That means it is entirely removed from us — "utterly other."  To speak it is blasphemy.  That is the primary meaning of the Third Commandment: the Name of God is holy, and so we may not even utter it aloud. As Wittgenstein famously observed, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”
All this is a colorful way of expressing our basic problem, as adherents of divine revelation:  God has revealed Himself, but God is still Utterly Other.  We may know the Name, but we must never say it, because to do so is to describe God as less than God, to "take the Name… in vain."  So what are we to do?
At the very least, I think, we must recognize that anything we say about God is conditional, provisional, and incomplete.  It cannot be otherwise, since we are finite while God is not.  That means that it is the extreme of arrogance — rising perhaps even to blasphemy — to say that my pronunciation of the Name is right and yours is wrong.  In giving us His Name, God has not given us certainty, at least not the kind of certainty that warrants persecution of those who disagree.
At the same time, God has revealed something of Who He is.  If we must be very careful not to take the Name in vain, it is because God Who so commands has already identified Himself as our Liberator: "I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."  (The original Hebrew has the unutterable Tetragrammaton, which we render as LORD, all in capitals, to avoid pronouncing it.) Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you see!  We can say something about this Utterly Other One, something about His identity.  We can say that God has freed us from slavery, because God has told us so.  The very One Who commands us not to take the Name in vain, also commanded us to recognize God’s acts of Love in history – and to tell of them. We may not be able to speak of God out of our own limited consciousness – “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent” – but it is God Who is speaking here, not us, Who says
I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."  
            Of course there will be those who deny this.  We have to say that they are mistaken, because we have experienced God's liberation and heard God’s self-identification – we know God’s Name.  That does not mean that we are permitted to hate anyone or persecute them, just because they don’t acknowledge the Name.  In fact, they may know things about God that we don't.  They may know God by another Name, which is just as holy and faithful.  That is none of our business.
The paradox is that this salutary humility, arising out of our recognition of our own limitations, is commanded by the One Who has revealed Himself to us and identified Himself — Who has, in other words, told us His Name.
Lately we hear many who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious."  I suppose this means that such people recognize within themselves the desire for the Unnamable One, a desire we would say God has given them.  In Augustine's great prayer:
You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
I suppose our spiritual-but-not-religious friends hesitate to be duped by all the counterfeits available in the religious supermarket. I suppose they have come to Wittgenstein’s conclusion about the limits of our ability to name God. Finally, I suppose they may hesitate to acknowledge the Name, out of a kind of awe — an instinctive horror of taking the Name in vain.  If so, this is good.  "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."  
The good news is that God has spoken.  God has told us His Name.  The Utterly Other, silent by definition, is also the Word spoken from the Beginning, Who has become flesh and dwelt among us. Our own hearts are restless until that Word enters them and comes to dwell in them — until the Love of the Name grafts itself in our hearts, as a new vine grafted onto an old root, causing the steady increase in true religion, which is to say increase in our bond with Love Himself, by the Holy Spirit's nourishment with all goodness, unto the fruition of good works.

AMEN
MARANATHA

COME, LORD JESUS!

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16B  ~  August 23, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

This teaching is difficult.  Who can accept it?
                                                                                                                                                
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
We pray today that we may be gathered together in unity by God's Holy Spirit, and that we may show forth God's power among all peoples. The power we are to show forth, however, is not what we usually mean by power.  It is not any kind of coercion. It is certainly not military domination.  This is what power means to the rulers of this world, as Paul calls them. Imperial power. In the world of separation from God, human beings try to dominate one another.  The world calls this "power".  It is opposite to the power of God, the Power the Church is sent to show forth.
The power of God is the power to give life.  That is, it is the power of love.  The power of God is the power to overcome separation and alienation, which is to say, Sin.  The power of God is the power to include everyone who wishes to be included, and to attract them, as our Lord attracted the Twelve, who stayed with Him because they could not imagine anything better – however difficult His teaching.  The considerable number of disciples who did stop going around with Him, show us that God's power does not coerce.  It attracts, but it does not coerce.  Finally, the power of God is the power to suffer and to overcome evil.
All those evildoers mentioned in today's Psalm — those whom God will punish and destroy — are not to be thought of as human persons, but rather the mysterious forces of wickedness that cause people to find His teaching too difficult.  These forces are all around, they are found in social and economic systems, as well as in our own psyches.  Sometimes they are just annoying, at other times they are really dangerous, in any case, they all are ways of confirming our separation from God and from one another, and beckoning us toward death. That is what the Psalm seeks to destroy – not other people, but the spiritual forces of alienation.
I ran across an image our individual psyche — ego, consciousness, subconscious — as a bus or light-rail car, crowded with passengers, each of whom has a particular agenda.  They get on and off the car at various stops, sometimes they get very close to us and bother or delight us.  The point is that what we usually think of as "Me" is more like a crowd of tendencies, agendas, and forces, which — taken together — are really Me.  (This would explain why other people may sometimes surprise us with their opinions of who we really are: these opinions may differ vastly from our own.)  I can use this picture to understand and apply the notions of judgment and punishment I encounter in scripture, such as today’s psalm: the annoying and dangerous passengers on the car will be thrown out.
Evil shall slay the wicked, *
and those who hate the righteous will be punished.
The LORD ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.

The power of God, not our own effort, improves the crowd on the streetcar of my inner being.  Likewise, it improves the whole world, but not by force.  The Power of God in the world is the power of the Cross: that is the power to endure all the abuse the world has to offer, and thereby to overcome it. 
The Joly Spirit gathers the Church.  That is, we are called out of individual separation into unbreakable Communion — out of sin into righteousness, out of slavery into freedom, out of death into life.  But that is not the whole deal: it is not simply about our individual salvation — not just about the improvement of the population of our individual subway-cars, nor even about our rescue from individuality itself; because the Church is also commissioned to show forth God's power among all peoples.
That means the Church is to exercise the divine capacity to absorb all the world's evil –  all the forces of sin, slavery, and death – and by absorbing to vanquish them.  To show forth the power of God among all peoples is to universalize the Victory of the Cross.
The Cross, after all, was the world’s assertion of ultimate power.  Crucifixions showed forth the power of Rome among all the peoples of the Empire.  The crucified person was utterly powerless, totally subject to the will of the Emperor.  The Cross was imperial propaganda: the symbol of the invincibility of Rome, and the folly of opposition, made legible in the suffering victim. But Jesus Christ has turned that on its head.  The Son of David has slain Goliath with his own sword.  The power of God in the world appears as powerlessness, but Christ has turned the ultimate symbol of imperial domination into the emblem of liberation from that kind of power, altogether.

The repose of the Julian Bond has given occasion to remember the civil rights movement of a half-century ago.  The freedom riders, the voter-registration organizers, the numerous martyrs like our own Jonathan Daniels, and hundreds of confessors, who suffered short of death, had no power at all, from the world's point of view. Their only power was their capacity to suffer without retaliation. Yet, in the words of their hymn, they did overcome.  United by the Holy Spirit, they showed forth the power of God among the people of the United States.
The Communion of the Holy Spirit – God’s New Creation, the Church – shares Christ’s power to endure all things, and by doing so shows forth God’s power among all peoples.



AMEN
MARANATHA

COME, LORD JESUS!

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15B  ~  August 16, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

Jesus is also an example of Godly life. In other words, He shows us how to participate in His Liberating work. What did He do? Healed the sick, forgave sins, raised the dead, and proclaimed good news to the poor. We too, are called and empowered to do all those things –we being the Church as a whole. Some of us will literally heal the sick, many more will contribute to the steady increase in physical well-being of all creatures.  Others raise people from the death of ignorance and slavery, beginning with the proclamation of the Good News of their supernatural dignity as Gods image. All of us will exercise the divine power to forgive sins – anything unjust done against ourselves.
Forgivenesss means the obliteration of any rupture caused by human will. Human beings cannot heal the breach, but God can. The Cross gives us the power to do the same in His Blood. God gives us the divine power to forgive so perfectly that it is as though the acts themselves  had never been done. They are obliterated – forgotten by the omniscient God.
That is the godly life of which Jesus is the Example. It is not a question of practicing virtue or developing character, It is a matter of joining Him in the completion of Creation.

This week, we rejoice in a particularly stellar list of saints who did so:

Laurence the deacon and martyr
Clare of Assisi
Florence nightingale
Jeremy Taylor
Jonathan Daniels
The Bl. Virgin Mary

These examples of Godly life come from widely different times and places. You will know their stories, so I can be brief:
Laurence was an early martyr, who joked with those who were roasting him to death on a grate! For that reason, he has become the patron of cooks and chefs …and comedians! Although the legend is probably the result of a copying error, which turned the word suffered into roasted, Laurence is still important because he personified the diaconal ministry of active work on behalf of the poor. In fact, the reason the prefect roasted him was that when he commanded Laurence to produce the Church’s riches, the Deacon brought the poor and crippled. Laurence had given the poor as much as he could to keep it from the State. He also hid the Church records, which has made him the patron of archivists.
Clare was a contemplative, who lived a completely cloistered life – St. Francis other half in the sense that while he went out into the world to sing about God, she stayed in the monastery.
Jeremy Taylor was a faithful royalist, known for his unsurpassed English prose and for his advocacy of tolerance in theological matters. He was imprisoned, briefly, by the Puritans but made a Bishop in his native Northern Ireland after the restoration. He authored one of our most exquisite prayers: O God Whose days are without end and Whose mercies cannot be numbered, make us deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life….
Florence Nightingale was a devout Anglican. Unorthodox only in that she rejected the class prejudices of Victorian England, including those of the established church, she was considered eccentric by her fellow-aristocrats. But she believed her calling to serve the poor was from God. Her active work on behalf of the sick and wounded, and later on behalf of women’s rights, is well known. Less so is her contemplative side. She studied and wrote about the Christian mystical tradition, as well as those of other cultures, to whom she extended Taylor’s Anglican tolerance. Non-Christian religions could also lead to God. Her openness in this matter seems unremarkable to us, but in her time it was another mark of eccentricity or worse. Florence Nightingale – one of the most famous activists in history – was also a mystic.
Next Thursday is the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels. (We observe August 14, the day his group was jailed in Alabama, as the commemoration of civil rights marytrs).  Upon learning of Daniels' murder, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels". The teenager he died to save, Ruby Sales, went on to Episcopal Divinity School. She later worked as a human rights advocate in Washington D.C.
Finally, August 15 is the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Her Son is the Firstfruits of the Resurrection of the Dead, but He is not alone in His bodily glory. The Assumption of the BVM is an impenetrable mystery, which we can only adore. We Anglicans do not speak of it officially, even though it is a widely held belief from ancient times. It points to our hope for every human being and for all creation: corporeal transfiguration and glorification. What happened to Christ’s Body happened also to his Mother’s, as it will happen to ours. So that the Godly Life of which Jesus and the Saints are examples, will be achieved as actual participation in the Life of God.



AMEN
MARANATHA

COME, LORD JESUS!

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14B  ~  August 9, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

….the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.


+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
Today’s  first reading suggests a pattern: Elijah is despondent, God sends what he needs to revive his spirit and persevere.  Elijah tells God he wants to die, and then he goes to sleep. (Even the greatest of prophets, who had lots of personal experience of God, had his bad days.) He was depressed and wanted to quit.
But God wouldn’t let him. God sent an angel with food. Elijah ate and then went back to sleep. That is the detail in the story that struck me. Even after being visited by an angel and nurtured with miraculous food, Elijah still wanted to die! God didn’t try to cheer him up, but neither would He let him sleep. God’s angel kept poking Elijah until he got up and ate enough to sustain him on the difficult journey ahead.
So, like last week, it is possible to see ourselves in Elijah. How often we would just like to go to sleep. Even when we get what we need, we happily take it and then go BACK to sleep.  But, it seems, God won’t let us alone.  For some reason, God wants Elijah to go on a journey. To  Horeb, the mount of God. Another name for Sinai, perhaps. Doesn’t matter. It means heaven, where God dwells. The point is Elijah’s three states: sleep, waking, and the mount of God –  ordinary consciousness, spiritual awakening, and union with God. I notice that this is the same form as last week’s story about the rebellion in the wilderness: the people despair and complain and God feeds them, so that they can journey on to some unknown destination, which for all they know may be purely imaginary.
Once again, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, in that this seems to be the pattern of our individual spiritual lives, too. Elijah’s example makes it at once more individual and more communal. I suppose we are never more alone than when we sleep - except when we die.  Of course, sleep is a metaphor for death. Elijah wants to die: to lose consciousness. But God won’t let him. God keeps prodding the great prophet and God also provides everything he needs to keep awake and to keep going. Bread and water.
It is obvious why the lectionary pairs this account with our Lord’s proclamation that He is the Bread of Life. Elijah suggests that it is all about consciousness: sleep is our ordinary consciousness. We have moments of awakening but our inclination is to go back to our ordinary state. God’s Bread and water help us to wake up more and more, so that we can go to the mount of God, a third level of consciousness, perhaps: something beyond imagining.
The bread and water are the center of Elijah’s story. They are what he must have to make the journey. They bring him out of sleep into consciousness, out of death into life. They give him the strength to go to the mount of God. But it’s not just about him.  The bread and water belong to the world. Christ gives His Flesh for the life of the world, that is, of all the cosmos together. Furthermore, while water occurs in nature, bread does not. Bread is a human artifact the product of civilization. Is this meant to suggest the communal nature of the journey? Even our journey to the unknown heights of Horeb? To get there, Elijah needs not only God’s gift of water,  but bread, God’s gift  through  human society. If Elijah’s sleep represents death and solitary alienation, is not his awakening the opposite: life and communion? Elijah’s Bread represents the Communion that Paul describes, the Body in which we are “members of one another.” Is not that the Communion that brings the world to life?
The bread that I will give for the
life of the world is my flesh.
Bread is the center of the story. Bread awakens Elijah and Bread also gives him what he needs to go on through the desert.
Elijah’s destination represents our encounter with God, which is to say eternal life, a condition as far exalted above ordinary waking consciousness as that consciousness is above sleep, a condition as far exalted above ordinary life as that life is above death. In today’s Gospel, our Lord calls it heaven. But something is different in the Gospel:   Elijah has to go to the Mount of God.  But in the Gospel, Life comes to us. We don’t have to go anywhere; Life comes down from heaven:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.


AMEN

LORD, GIVE US THIS BREAD ALWAYS!

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13B  ~  August 2, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.
 The LORD spoke to Moses and said,
"I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them,
`At twilight you shall eat meat,
and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread;
then you shall know that I am the LORD your God. '"

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

Manna comes to the Israelites when they are in the desert and when they are hungry, and with the manna comes knowledge of God.  In other words, life and knowledge of God comes to those who go into the wilderness and fast. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Each soul recapitulates the paschal journey out of Egypt, through the desert, to the Promised Land. The story of the Exodus and wandering in the wasteland has a legitimate, spiritual meaning on the level of the soul’s journey. It is not the only meaning, and it may not even be the most important meaning, but it is ONE of the meanings of the Exodus: each of us must leave the fleshpots of Egypt – the place security and slavery – and go out into the desert. There and only there is where we encounter God. Salvation is communal, not individual. Nevertheless, we feel our longing for salvation individually – just like we feel our physical hunger.
To be in the desert is to be hungry: in the wilderness, we will get hungry, and it will seem as though we are sure to die. And we are going to die. That is the point. We must die to our Egypt-consciousness in order to enter the Promised Land. Our hunger – our fasting – is indispensable to this journey.
Fasting represents the whole array of ascetic practice. It is not punishment of the body, but training. As an athlete trains her body not to destroy, but to develop it, so too our spiritual exercises are training. That’s what asceticism means, from the Greek askhsis, meaning athletic training. It may not be altogether pleasant, at the time. (To say the least.) To the Egypt-head it seems like foolishness ending in death, and so we are inclined to grumble, like the Israelites, and say that we had been better off in Egypt.
Sooner or later.  We have ultimate doubts.  "Why did we ever leave? We must have been crazy to believe Moses.  All in all, we had a pretty good thing going back in Egypt, compared to this.  Now we are just going to die."  And all of that makes a good deal of sense.  In order to make any spiritual progress, we have to take a big chance, trust the impossible, risk our lives and go out into the empty wasteland, where we starve.  And we do starve to death, because the death of our old Egypt-consciousness — our old slave-consciousness — is the purpose of the first part of the journey.  We don't shed that consciousness simply by walking across the Red Sea.  In fact, it seems that we have to come to the point where we think it was all a mistake, there is no God, and we wish we had never started on the journey at all, before we can receive the manna.
God’s answer to our grumbling is a rain of quails. This strikes me as ridicule, almost scorn. The Israelites got WAY more than they needed, as if to say “Oh, you doubt ME? Well get a load of this!” They couldn’t possibly eat all that meat. It would have soon become a smelly nuisance in the camp out in the desert. The point seems to be that God knows what we need and we don’t. When we start to think that we would have been better off never to have started the journey in the first place, we may get a sickening surfeit of what we thought we needed.
He rained down flesh upon them like dust *    and winged birds like the sand of the sea.
He let it fall in the midst of their camp *
and round about their dwellings.
So they ate and were well filled, *
for he gave them what they craved.
I think it significant that the rain of quail – the exaggeration of divine abundance –  happened only one night, while the manna came day after day. God first has to teach us to get over our own Egypt-idea of what we need. Making fun of us with the quails is part of God’s mercy. Without the quails, we would probably find the manna insubstantial. This is why the Collect prays that God’s mercy may continually cleanse Israel (the Church) as well as defend her. The cleansing is an indispensable part of God’s mercy, and it comes first – before the defense.
By the way, the mistranslation of the Lord’s Prayer – calling it daily bread instead of supersubstantial Bread –  is both ancient and deliberate. It indicates the universal understanding that the Bread for which we pray comes every day and is not ordinary bread. It is manna. The Bread of Angels. The warrant for this apostolic identification is today’s Gospel, in which our Savior says that He is the Bread of Life.
There is an old epicurean saying that hunger is the best sauce. The manna, the supersubstantial bread, would seem insubstantial to us unless we were fasting – dying of starvation from the perspective of our old Egypt-consciousness. On the other hand, we cannot do without food altogether. The rain of quails reminds us that God’s bounty fulfills our needs and more. When we recognize that, we can accept the supersubstantial manna as the fulfillment of a more basic need.
So, our inner spiritual journey resembles the biblical wandering in the wilderness. I think it vital to remember that the journey is a communal one. We participate in it as persons – each soul suffers her own hunger, as her own individual Egypt-consciousness complains about its death. Mystics call this the “purgative way,” or “the soul’s dark night.” But “…in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.” And those who eat this Bread – this communal  Bread – shall never die.

AMEN
MARANATHA

COME, LORD JESUS!

Sermon for the Pentecost 8
Proper 11 B  ~  July 19, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
                                                                 
God did not make death…righteousness is immortal.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
Three words jump out at me: compassion, shepherd, and fringe.
Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they seemed to Him like sheep without a shepherd, and they all wanted to get near Him and even just touching the fringe of His robe healed them. The Collect also mentions compassion: invoke divine compassion on our weakness. With that prayer setting the tone, the readings seem to invite us to identify with that desperate crowd who were like sheep without a shepherd.

In this context, shepherd means a higher being that DOES have compassion. Not a ruler and judge, but the One who leads beside still waters and restores the soul, our guide into green pastures and our defender in the Valley of the Shadow of death. The Shepherd is the compassionate One, who knows better than we do what we need and where we want to go.
Look how desperately the people wanted to be near Jesus. He and the Apostles were worn out and wanted to get a rest, but the crowds beat them to the deserted place and Jesus felt sorry for them. Apparently He gave them what they were looking for – everyone who touched the fringe of His robe was healed. I suppose that is what they were looking for – healing, health, wholeness, salvation. And although they may not have known precisely what they were looking for, It didn’t matter: Jesus gave them what in their blindness they could not and in their unworthiness dared not ask.
We are the same, aren’t we? We don’t know what we really need, and if we do, we don’t dare ask. What strikes me about the crowd is that they didn’t give up trying to get to where Salvation was. Their behavior seems to indicate a kind of desperation. But it didn’t matter. They weren’t required to learn anything or to profess anything, or even to recognize the precise nature of their need. All that was necessary was contact with Jesus.
That is well to remember, when I consider the Church. The person of Jesus is all that is important – whatever brings one closer to Him is the road to salvation – spiritual health and wholeness. – since He IS that road.  What does that for me may not necessarily do it for everyone. There is more than one way.  I fully believe that the visible Church is the vestibule and gateway into the Mystical Body of Christ, and that salvation is participation in its life. But I must remember that all those people didn’t get directly into contact with His Body.  Most of them only touched his outer garment. And some of them only its hem (as in the older translations) and that was enough.
I like fringe better, because of its meaning in our everyday speech. The robe isn’t Jesus’ Body, and the fringe is even more external and removed. But even those who can only get into contact with the fringe are healed. That’s an important detail, I think. I must remember it the next time I am given to think someone else’s religion is fringey. And if I am honest, I also have to admit that my own is certainly on the fringe! It is good for me to recognize that, because there is always the danger for fringies like me to imagine that what brings me closer to Jesus is the best way for everybody. Worse, it is also tempting to think of my fringe as SUPERIOR. That is a temptation because it is sectarianism rather than salvation –  mistaking the fringe for the Real Body of Christ.
But the Gospel insists that ANY contact with Jesus is salvific, however distant.  I would say that the only proviso is that those who touch the fringe and are healed must not imagine that theirs is the only possible approach. It would be foolish to think so. God is the Fountain of Wisdom, Who knows our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking. Like those desperate people in Gennesaret, we don’t know what we really need. The best we can do is to rely on God’s compassion, displayed by His Son, asking Him to give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask.

AMEN
MARANATHA
COME, LORD JESUS!

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9B  ~  July 5, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief..

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
I like to think that the lectionary gives us these two readings deliberately on Independence Day weekend,  not to rain on the parade, but just to remind us that no nation can presume God's favor.  Even the Chosen People of Israel, favored by the prophetic visit, and so much the worse for them.  And Jesus' own hometown wouldn't listen either. 
For me, this is a reminder that no human group — ethnic or political — can claim to be the Kingdom of God.  Nazareth was not an exception, and neither is the United States of America. National idolatry is one of the worst kinds.  Good to be reminded of this on the Fourth of July.  That doesn't mean that we shouldn't give thanks to God for what we have got right, but that we should ask God's help to correct what we don't.  Our Collect for Independence Day speaks of kindling a torch of liberty to pass on to other nations.  Okay, as long as we remember that the liberty was tainted with racism and genocide, particularly horrible because of the clarity of the ideal we espouse.  But then, we are a work in progress.
Take a look at the back of the dollar bill, there is depicted the Great Seal of the United States, which has a reverse as well as an obverse, like a coin.  The reverse shows the Masonic symbol of a truncated pyramid, which symbolizes the Temple of Solomon.  It is unfinished, a work in progress like the United States, the All-seeing Eye keeping watch.  It seems to suggest that the Founders recognized that we were a long way from the ideals we profess.  Human rights, equality, and so on.  Thomas Jefferson also wrote words — now inscribed on the walls of his Memorial — "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His, justice will not sleep forever."  I recently learned that the country to which he referred was not the United States, but Virginia.  He was right to tremble.
As are we.  We seem to be in decline.  Many believe that the very notion of human progress is an illusion. The truncated pyramid is collapsing, not being built. But isn’t it also possible that our increasing trouble is not altogether unfortunate?  Isn’t it possible that growing difficulty may stimulate salutary reforms, as it has in the past?  It looks like that would be a miracle, which is our modern way of saying it won’t happen, and to hope that it might is superstitious.  So, today the lectionary confronts us with Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, where He "could do no deed of power." Although he was still able to heal some of the sick, He could only marvel at the Nazarenes’ unbelief, which means their lack of hope.   
It may be true that we are a plutocracy and not a democracy, as Noam Chomsky says.  On the other hand, Bernie Sanders is doing better than anyone could have predicted.  His events in Madison and New Hampshire have drawn more people than any other candidate of either party, surprising the Senator himself.  Now, I would never compare any candidate to our Lord, but I would go so far as to suggest a possible analogy between our own weary pessimism, and the unbelief of the Nazarenes.  Even God Almighty can't do much for people who want to cling to their hopelessness.
While it is the worst kind of delusion to imagine that we Americans enjoy any kind of special divine favor — raving about exceptionalism and “humanity’s  last, best hope," it is not impious to hope that more of us may repent — change our minds — and rise to the occasion.  Like Israel, we “have become nation of rebels who have rebelled against (God);” like them, we and our “ancestors have transgressed against (God) to this very day,” often claiming that our transgressions were actually God's will! With Jefferson, we ought to tremble, reflecting that God’s justice will not sleep forever. There is no guarantee for us. 
Even God couldn’t say whether Ezekiel would get Israel to listen; even Jesus couldn’t predict who would receive the disciples He sent out in pairs. Even so, apparently there was some chance that some would. Some room for hope.

If we have any patriotic duty at all, it is to those before us, who kept that hope alive.  Even though it seems impossible, I consider that I do not have a right to give up, when I remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers, Eugene Debs and Joe Hill and Mother Jones, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer, and on and on.  They have passed to us the torch of liberty to be shared with nations yet unborn.  They represent the America I am proud of on Independence Day— the only America upon which I would invoke God's blessing. 

AMEN
MARANATHA
COME, LORD JESUS!



Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sermon for the Pentecost 5
Proper 8 B  ~  June 28, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
                                                                 
God did not make death…righteousness is immortal.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
I have posted a somewhat longer commentary on today’s readings on my blog (billteska.blogspot.com). For now, let me observe that the first readings in Track 2 often function as antiphons, setting out a theme in which to interpret the Gospel. In this case, the theme is that
God did not make death,
And he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.

So then, why doesn’t God do something about all the suffering in the world? If God is good and omniscient, then why allow all that random and undeserved suffering? Last week, I suggested that one way God deals with it is to calm our anxieties about it. This week, we see Him at work actually doing something about human suffering.
Does this help? It shows that God CAN help if He wants to, so why not help everybody? What are we to do with this? For us prisoners of time, I think, there is still no answer to Job’s question other than the miraculous calming of the seas of our own inner anxiety about the problem – with the addition of the Mystery of the Cross. We are finite and we don’t see the whole picture. That’s one (not very satisfying) observation. A somewhat more interesting one has to do with time and eternity, and their intersection on Calvary.  We say that God is outside time. We are in it, and that is the problem. Our suffering occurs within time. In the eternity of God, suffering is already overcome and healed – and has been from the beginning, “from the foundation of the world.” The days of creation are not measures of time. Time began when Adam and Eve left the Garden. Time is an aspect of the Fall, and all our suffering occurs in time.
So the Incarnation means that God enters time – the fallen world – to save and recreate the world. In entering time, God accepts its limitations. He can’t fix everything instantly. He can do only so much. He can encounter only so many people. He can’t help everyone, at least not in the way He helped the hemorrhaging woman or the dead girl, because He has accepted the limitations of time and space. This doesn’t mean that God is indifferent, and that is what these miracles show. They also show that His first priorities are the weakest and lowliest, which is what females were – as they still are in so many places. He calls them daughter and chooses them to be healed out of all the sufferers in the area. He is still working in time, though, and the limitations He has accepted prevent this kind of intervention beyond the local setting. As long as He is operating in time and space, He can’t fix everything.
God’s rescue of Creation happens in time. What we see seems to us to be partial. I suggest that it cannot be otherwise, because time and space are intrinsically limited.  But that temporal re-creation is pointed toward the cosmic and eternal re-creation: the Victory over Death on Calvary, where time and eternity intersect.
One thing that strikes me about today’s Gospel is that Jesus’s touch seems to heal independently of His awareness. “Who touched me?” He asks. Eternal God acting in Time can’t seem to help healing everyone He touches – if they are willing. That is why there is such a mob around Him all the time.  But those local, spectacular healings are only a small part of what God is doing here.
Perhaps the secrecy that Jesus tried (unsuccessfully) to impose on the witnesses of these miracles was intended to permit Him to get to Jerusalem for the cosmic Event, rather than spend His limited time on local, piecemeal repairs. Our suffering is temporal. Salvation is eternal, but it is going on in time. God has come to sanctify time, but apparently that does not happen instantly, in our time-bound perspective. 
Let me conclude with an analogy that seems related: modern physics asks us to contemplate the speed of light as absolute. Everything else is relative to it. Also, the faster you go, the slower time moves, so that time stands still altogether at the speed of light. As an Episcopal astrophysicist once told me, a photon reaches our vision in the same instant in which it left the Big Bang!  The photon, travelling - by definition - at the speed of light, experiences no lapse of time. Rudolph Steiner thought that light is the same as Spirit. Given what we are discovering about the relationship between light and life, let us not be too quick to dismiss that as merely analogy. To say that God is Light and the creedal dogma that Christ is Light from Light may be an analogy, a figure of speech. But then again it may be more than we know.
In any case, we can say that, in encountering Jesus Christ we encounter the Absolute and the Eternal, the Source of Life and Light, Who is and was and is to come, Who, by entering time,  has saved us from suffering and death even though, in time, we still experience it.

AMEN
MARANATHA

COME, LORD JESUS!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sermon for  Pentecost 5
Proper 8 B  ~  June 28, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
(first preached at Chjrist Church Bayfield, June, 2012, 
not preached in 2015, but suggested as background commentary)
                                                                 
God did not make death…righteousness is immortal.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

Archbishop Tutu is fond of saying that we live in a moral universe. The Bl. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the arc of history bends toward justice. There is an objective moral law, just as real as the laws of physics —maybe more so, since they seem to keep changing. What is right may not always be so easy to figure out either — and our apprehension of it is according to our own imperfect understanding. But the right itself is objective. That's one way to interpret the declaration that righteousness is immortal. What is right does not pass away with persons or cultures. Even if some science-fiction, doomsday, apocalyptic scenario were to happen, and our planet and everything on it were destroyed, righteousness would not be destroyed, because righteousness is immortal. Righteousness does not depend on us. It is of God.
Another way to understand what it means to say that righteousness is immortal is to say that death is not an aspect of what is right, what is just, what is fair. Wherever it comes from, death is most definitely not a just punishment imposed by God on sinners. That is nonsense, just as the idea that the generative forces of the world are somehow unwholesome or poisonous God did not make death…righteousness is immortal. In other words, death is not God’s will and death is not just.
But we still die. In fact all people die. Some of us die surrounded by family and friends, full of years, and at peace. But most of us do not. The majority of people lead miserable lives, characterized by suffering and oppression. Sad, pathetic lives. Lives cut short, like Jairus’ daughter's, lives whose potential was never reached. But then, who ever does fulfill their potential? The whole of life is a series of decisions, forks in the road in which we have to take one or the other and taking one means not taking the other, and forsaking it, leaving that potentiality unfulfilled forever. Nobody ever lives up to their full potential. Still, some lives are more pathetic than others.
And that isn't fair. It isn't just; it isn't right. "Life isn't fair".  No, it’s not.  But that's the mystery of iniquity. That's the contagion of death that has mysteriously crept into the world. And God didn't make it. Nor did God ordain that life shouldn't be fair, but just the opposite that life should be fair because righteousness  –  that is justice –  is immortal.
The Son of God came to fix that: to destroy the “works of the devil”, to destroy death and unrighteousness. That is the subject of today’s Gospel, in which Jesus saves two dying people. It is really significant that both of these people are women. That is, people of no account, of no public significance. Life is draining out of both of them. The incident of the woman with the chronic hemorrhage is inserted, like a parenthesis, into the story of the comatose girl. Blood was life itself to the ancient Hebrews. Bloodshed was necessary for covenants and for atonement, but – paradoxically – human blood was also defiling. Anyone who came into contact with blood became unclean for a time, as did anyone who touched a dead body.
That is why the woman was so afraid. She had touched Jesus. No woman would ever even speak to a man, much less touch him, in public. Moreover, Jesus was considered a Rabbi, a holy man – especially untouchable! For a woman known to be constantly defiled by a hemorrhage to touch a Rabbi would be a real outrage. It would make Him unclean. It was entirely reasonable for her to fear that He would be angry with her for contaminating Him. Instead, He praised her and called her “daughter”, and told her that it was her faith that had saved her. Faith and fear, again. The woman trusted enough to overcome her fear of offending the Rabbi, but her fear remained. Jesus cast that out, too.
Notice that the woman did not say to herself: “Well, I have an affliction, and it’s not fair, but then life isn’t fair, so I will just have to learn to live with it.” There are plenty of advisers who would have told her so. Then as now there were plenty of sages counseling her to develop the serenity to accept that which she could not change, to give up her striving to be whole.  But that is not the attitude Jesus praised as “faith”.  What He praised was her refusal to give up hope that things could change: her trust in the goodness of God, her trust that God is not content with the unfairness of life. This trust not only heals her, but it causes the Godman to call her “daughter”.
This is the second time this word occurs in the passage. The first is when the desperate Jairus asks Jesus to save his “little daughter”. On the way to do so, Jesus is delayed by the woman He calls “daughter”, meanwhile Jairus’s daughter dies. The counselors of despair advise Jairus to give up, but Jesus says “Do not fear, only trust”. Faith and fear again.  I notice that this pattern occurs also in the Raising of Lazarus, in which Jesus delays while Lazarus succumbs. The latter story, in the Fourth Gospel, makes it explicit that the delay was intentional,  in order to reveal the “Glory of God”, but in both stories the bereaved people take a negative attitude toward Jesus: Martha reproaches Him for being late; the mourners at Jairus’s house laugh at Him scornfully, when He says that the daughter is only sleeping.
But God did not make death; God sent His Son to destroy it. He does so, however, in private. He puts the scornful mourners out and takes only the parents and the closest disciples – Peter, James, and John  –  into the room of the dead girl. Then He ignores ritual defilement again, taking her by the hand, and restores her to life.  But was she dead, or – as Jesus Himself has said – only asleep? It is the scornful mourners who say she is dead, not Jesus. But then Jesus strictly commands the witnesses that no one should know about what had happened. Why, if she had only been sleeping, as He had just said?
It is also a little hard to imagine how the witnesses were supposed to obey this strict instruction. Were they supposed to bury the girl alive? Forbid her to go out? Everyone knew she had been sick to the point of death. Jairus was a well-known public figure, who had sought Jesus’s help in the middle of a big crowd, and everyone knew that Jesus had gone to the house even after the report of the daughter’s death had come. Then there were those mourning people Jesus had put out of the house. Some of them, presumably, had actually seen the girl die. How could the fact that she was now alive be kept from everybody, so that “no one should know of it”?
Perplexing. Maybe it points to another theme of the whole passage about faith and fear. God cannot compel faith. For if it were compulsory, it would not be faith, just as we do not hope for things we can already see. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ observes that if people did not believe the prophets, neither would they believe if someone rose from the dead.  Dostoyevsky elaborated: the doctors and scientists would crowd around the resurrected person, withdraw and confer   among themselves, and then announce that they would reserve judgment.  A few months later would appear scientific papers, redefining death. The resurrected person was never really dead, but only in a previously-unknown kind of coma. Resurrections, of course, do not happen. So, the raising of Jairus’s daughter occurs in private. Dead people do not wake up, and when the girl appears again among the living, skeptics are free to believe what Jesus said to begin with “the child is not dead but sleeping”.
Both of these victories over death were private. The woman was anonymous in the crowd. No one, not even Jesus, knew what had happened. He just felt that “power had gone out of Him”. He didn't know who had been healed until she came in fear and trembling, fell down at His feet, and told the whole story. I suppose the people pressing close to them in the crowd might have heard something about what the woman thought had happened, but in the large, excited crowd, only a few. The healing, though not exactly private wasn't really that public either, even though it occurred in the middle of a big crowd. What really happened was known only to the woman. The woman could not doubt that she had been healed, but then, she trusted to begin with, and as Jesus said, it was her trust that healed her. Everybody else could easily ignore it. So even in these two spectacular displays of divine power over death and injustice, people remained free – free to doubt the activity of God in the world, free to resign themselves to the supremacy of death and to the loathsome cliché that tells us “life isn’t fair”. Whatever else we may think about these incidents, It seems clear that He didn't want the news to get out.
Why? I can think of two reasons. The first is that the Divine project of liberating the creation from death, is much larger than these local victories. These are signs of what is going on, but what they point to is vast beyond imagining. The Victory over the usurper death will take place on an even more mysterious, cosmic level. As the Godman travels around Galilee and the Decapolis He cannot not help undoing death wherever He goes. But these healings and resurrections and exorcisms are almost incidental. They help to establish His reputation and to lend authority to His otherwise fairly-conventional teaching (as Nicodemus said to him in his nocturnal visit, “we know that you are a teacher sent from God because no one not of God could do the wonders you do") but the point of these healings is that they are signs: signs of God's will to set creation free from death altogether, for God did not make death and God's righteousness has nothing to do with death. Righteousness is immortal.
The second reason I can imagine for Jesus’s insistence “that no one should know” is that God will not interfere with our autonomy. God will not force us to hope by doing wonders that we MUST acknowledge. Divine love requires that God remain incognito in the world, for otherwise, we would be deprived of our freedom, and thus we would no longer bear the Image of God.  God is not like the American strategist in Vietnam who thought he could save the village by destroying it. God will not destroy His Image in order to save it. Indeed, even God cannot free us by violating our freedom.
So, even the Resurrection on the Eighth Day occurred secretly: not just in private, but in secret. There were no witnesses to the actual Event, only to its consequences. People like Mary Magdalene saw Him alive again, shortly after the Resurrection, but they did not see Him rise from the dead.
Nevertheless, those who witness the results, like the Woman with the hemorrhage, Jairus and his wife, Peter, James, and John, may – if they wish – celebrate the mysterious hope that the bondage of death is undone. Those who are willing to live in this hope may come together to rejoice, and to join in the common effort to advance God’s justice, which has nothing to do with death. For “God did not make death…and righteousness is immortal.”

AMEN
MARANATHA

COME, LORD JESUS!

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