Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Sermon for Proper 28: Don't be unregulated!

This sermon, or something like it, was preached November 13, 2022, at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee.

So,  “All scripture is for your learning.” You are to “read mark, learn and inwardly digest;” and they give us these lessons. I think here there are some of the most mis-digested texts in Scripture. But one of the things that caught me as reading through this - can’t imagine why - “They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be and what will the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware, Do not that you are not let astray; for many will come in my name and say ‘I am he,’ and ‘the time is near.’ 

And the most interesting memory popped up in my head. A few of you know that in the summer of 1980, Bishop Sanders assigned to St. Rafael's Mission Station in Crossville this recently graduated, not yet ordained seminarian to be the lay minister in charge. He went on to do hospital chaplaincy and a lot of other stuff. Yes, I was here all those years ago; and there used to be a used bookstore in the strip mall that now has the Gondola - it’s not there anymore. And I was in there one day looking through the piles of books and I ran across a book. I don't remember exactly what the title was, but the subtitle was “Why God Sent Elvis to Earth, What he had to say to us, And When He Will Return.”

 Now this had an odd resonance for me because one of my lesser claims to fame is that Elvis is my seventh cousin twice removed. I’m always happy to share that because that's a relationship such that everybody knows there's no money involved. And I also know how Elvis died.

So here we are, Elvis - St. Elvis. Now, I have lived in Memphis and I have been to Graceland. And let me tell you, when you go to Graceland, you may see some things that strike you as odd. They have rearranged it, but when I went to Graceland, they had three entire display panels talking about all that Elvis did to fight in the war on drugs. And I was with a couple of other people and I said, “Do not laugh. There are true believers here and they will hurt you.”

So, yeah, there are those in the oddest of places who will say, or someone will say about someone, “I am he.” This is one we hear all the time. I can remember growing up and watching, and even as an adult watching on Sunday morning, “The World Tomorrow” with Herbert W. Armstrong and it's all apocalyptic and it's all pretending to - well I shouldn't say pretending, they actually believe it - but with this idea that you can predict the end of the world. What I really liked was that they had the most wonderful graphics, the most wonderful images of those monsters. They're beautiful art in a kind of way. 

And yet Jesus says, “Do not be led astray.” This is a passage that is in all the Synoptics at this point, almost at the end of the church here - because next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year - we get to what is usually referred to as the Little Apocalypse. There's something like this in Matthew and Mark and Luke. We don't know the circumstances under which Jesus said these things. Really we think, scholars think, that they took on a particular resonance because the written versions that we have of the Gospels probably did not come together until around 65 AD. Depending on who you ask, Mark is first and Matthew is the expanded edition, the director's cut. Or Matthew is first, and Mark is the Reader's Digest Condensed Version. But we think they came together around 65 or a little after; and then Luke was 70 or a little after, which is significant because this was after the Temple was torn down. And for this Christian community that was still in Jerusalem - there was persecution, you see it recorded in Acts but there were still still Christians around -  who were still at that point thinking of themselves as Messianic Jews. It's not a term they would've used, but they were still worshiping in the Temple. And then the Romans come in and the Temple is desecrated, the walls are torn down and they say, “Whoa! Jesus had something to say about this!” And so they are looking for the end times. 

And of course the end times always, always sound dreadful; because, after all, major turnover is dreadful. Anything that uproots what we know and are used to feels uncomfortable, even threatening. And so Jesus said, “Yeah, these things will happen. And guess what? You've got a while to wait.”

Now, remember that in all of the Synoptics he also says, “You don't get to know the time.” That's the problem with folks who are trying to read mark, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures as if they could figure out a calendar. Jesus said, “You don't get to know the time. You get to know there's going to be trouble. You get to know this being a Christian is not going to be the easiest and most comfortable thing. You get to know that there are going to be some people that don't like you being a Christian;” or, I guess now that we live in a Christianized culture, we live with a lot of people who don't like how other people go about being Christian. You know, I grew up in Knoxville and I remember people who would encounter you interesting encounters at West Town Mall when it was still a thing and and they would say, “Are you Christian or are you Catholic?” So you know people who are uncomfortable with how other people go about being Christian; and sometimes the people who most claim to be persecuted really seem to want to use it as a justification to challenge others. 

But Jesus says, “Do not go after them, as awful as things may be. Do not go after them. Wait on me because you don't get to know.”

Which gets us to Second Thessalonians. Now second Thessalonians also has one of these really badly digested passages in it: “For when we were with you, I gave you this command. Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Now there are places in Paul when Paul really sounds rather un-Jesus-like, and this is one of the worst. Jesus said, “Give to anybody that begs of you.” Period. Jesus spent his time feeding and healing and he didn't ask whether they deserved it. And we've known in our own time people, happily few people in churches, but people who wanted to use that and say, “See these people are undeserving. They're not putting up enough effort to help themselves;” usually without any reflection about what opportunity or capacity they have to participate. Somehow this is less about what it means to be meaningfully involved in the Christian life and more about, “That’s fine, but I don't want 'em to have my money.” 

Paul is talking to the Thessalonians who are a long way past waiting, probably not to the destruction of the temple - Paul’s earlier than the Gospels - but they had kind of expected something to happen on the Monday after the Resurrection, and it's now been decades. And so Paul is in encouraging them all the way through Second Thessalonians and and saying, “You guys are doing a good job” outside of this passage. He spends a good deal of time saying, “Look at the ministries you have. Look at how well you have lived in faith. Look at how well you have sustained it in the face of everything else.”

“But,” he said, “I've heard some of you are living in Idleness.” Well, at least hopefully he didn't mean retirement. That “idleness” is interesting. It's an odd word according to the scholars I read. It's an odd word in Greek. It doesn't really mean sitting around. It means disorganized, it means disorderly. When you say disorganized and disorderly to me in context of what it means to live the Christian life, I fall back to the concept of Rule. This is “unregulated,” and I think of the Rule. I am an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, a Benedictine monastic order for men in the Episcopal Church. I have my own Rule. I confess I'm not the best at keeping my own rule. The Daughters of the King have a Rule; and I wonder if the word here is not better understood as “irregular,” not “sitting around wasting time.” 

I think it's significant that in here he's talking to believers, he's not talking to the world. And Jesus in this Gospel lesson, when he talks about what's going to happen, the “they,”, it's believers. So we are clearly focused on how we as believers live the Christian life. And scholars debate: are these Christians who said, “We still believe that next Thursday it's going to happen and we might as well just sit and wait?” That's possible. I don't know about anybody else -  I'm sure I was particularly attentive to it because I think it happened while I was in seminary -I remember there was a small apocalyptic congregation out in Arkansas, and they decided that the time was coming. And families went out dressed in white robes, adults and children, and sat on the roofs of their houses waiting for it to happen. And they sat there and they sat there and they sat there, until the truant officer came and showed up to wonder why the kids weren't in school. So we don't know if that's a possibility. 

The other possibility is that other evangelists had come through, other ministers following in Paul's tradition and they were acting somehow privileged. They were acting somehow, “Well I have the Word, you take care of me.” We don't know for sure who Paul was unhappy about, but we are pretty sure this was not simply Paul saying, “Look, I was sewing tents while I was in Thessalonica and these other people, you know, they ought to be out doing trade. They ought to be out making pottery. They ought to be out working.” 

No, this is about believers and believing, and what it means to live as a believer. So what does it mean to live as a believer? And I found myself thinking that we are at the end of Luke; because starting with Advent, we get back into Matthew again. And thinking about the beginning of Jesus's ministry in Luke because it clarifies both ends of this. It clarifies what Paul may be talking about and what Jesus certainly is talking about, about who to follow and who not to follow. Remember that wonderful and powerful passage in the Fourth Chapter? Jesus is in the synagogue. They hand him the scroll. He reads from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has sent me to preach release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, the year of the Lord's favor: God demonstrating goodness.” And Jesus said, “Now you're seeing that be fulfilled:” Jesus demonstrating God's will, which in Jesus' ministry is about proclamation and actual healing; is about proclamation and actual feeding; is about proclamation and actual care for the poor; is about proclamation and actually showing in the world by how he lived, that God was indeed at hand. 

And you've heard from me and others, as we say that's Jesus's ministry. And if we're gonna claim to be Jesus, literally the Body of Jesus now present, that's our ministry. And suddenly it becomes clear what we at least can think about, about who to follow when they say, “I’m with Jesus.” Well, are they with Jesus in that? When people say, “I am working within as a part of the Christian community,” are they working with Jesus at that? When people talk about what it means to live as a member of the body of Christ, then that means we are embracing some portion, none of us totally, but some portion of that ministry of Christ; and that ministry of Christ, at least as Luke understood it, was all about that kind of service and care, and demonstrating God's loving and caring presence in the world.

Now, before you leave today, we're going to get to the closing prayer. Pay attention because it says, “And now Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do,” which is “to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” That is, in some sense or another, a life that is not idle and not disorderly, but as each of us is called, as each of us structures what each of us understands “Christian” to be, to follow the Rule, to stick with the path; knowing that, yeah, the time will come when all things are torn down, and it may be next Thursday, and it may be long after all of us are resting. In the meantime, we are called to remember who Jesus was, and therefore who we are called to be. And as Paul said, “Do not become weary in doing what is right.”

Saturday, February 05, 2022

General Convention is Coming - And You Can Play a Part!

 I think most folks who have seen this blog know that it began reflecting on matters beyond chaplaincy. That’s why, among others things, I have written many posts about General Convention. General Convention has always been important to me as an Episcopalian (I know that may seem obvious, but I bet we all know enough Episcopalians who don’t think about General Convention), and especially as a wonk. I appreciate that the ecclesiology expressed in the Episcopal Church considers that the Holy Spirit moves in each person, and so we hear the Holy Spirit most clearly when the greatest number of us are thinking together. That is the value of General Convention: more than 1,000 folks are gathered to share how they’re hearing the Spirit and lead the Episcopal Church accordingly.

With that in mind, there is a great opportunity available to all of us this year. The 80th General Convention was delayed a year by the pandemic, and will gather this summer. That also allowed for time for an unexpected chance for so many to participate. From the Episcopal News Service: “General Convention committees to welcome public to first-ever online legislative hearings.

If you’ve never been to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (and I think every Episcopalian should attend, even if only as a Visitor -yes, that’s an official status - and only for a day or two), you may not be aware how matters are decided in General Convention. It looks an awful lot like legislative meetings of the United States or of the various states. Things are voted on. And like those other legislative bodies, a lot of the important work happens in committees. It’s really in the committees that legislation is considered and shaped, and, especially, that testimony is heard. 

In General Convention, any person registered (including Visitors and Exhibitors, another real status) can testify before a Committee, as time allows. Granted, in meetings in person Deputies and Bishops get the first chance to testify, because they may be from other committees, and so need to get back to that work. However, anyone else can put a word in. Testifying by individuals adds information and often a lot of reality and emotional power to the consideration and shaping of a resolution. A resolution is less abstract when you hear how real people are affected by the issues addressed. 

This year at least some committees are meeting ahead of Convention, and meeting online. That will give opportunities for testimony in the Zoom meetings, and that might allow testimony from many of us who wouldn’t otherwise be involved in Convention. As a chaplain I think that’s a great opportunity. We have perspectives on how issues affect people who are receiving healthcare or working in healthcare institutions, perspectives that aren’t heard that often. That’s not to suggest our parish-based clergy and lay siblings wouldn’t care, but that we live in an environment they don’t see every day.

So, ready the article carefully to see how you might participate. Then, go the General Convention Virtual Binder. You can find all the resolutions currently received. For background on the A resolutions (remember, there are A, B, C, and D resolutions, but for this purpose the differences aren’t important), check out the Reports to General Convention, also known as the Blue Book. A few meetings will have happened before you see this, but many more will be coming. You can find the schedule here. And remember to check back regularly on both resolutions and committee meetings. Resolutions will be coming in right up to the first days of Convention; and while you might not have an opportunity to participate in Zoom testimony, you will certainly have an opportunity to let your own bishop and Deputies know what you think. You can also find the lists of committee members here, and so perhaps share perspectives with a bishop or Deputy you know. Oh, and if you don't know who's in your own diocesan deputation (and every one of us who's endorsed has a diocesan connection) you can find that out here.

This really is an important opportunity. Please take the time to read the article, and then explore your own innate wonkiness to help shape the positions and direction of the Episcopal Church

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Philip and the Evidence: a Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, Epiphany 1, 2022

 This sermon, or one something like it, was preached January 9, 2022, at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee.

When I was ordained - both times I was ordained - I was ordained a deacon on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, at the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville. And I grew up in Knoxville. You've heard that before. And my mother's people are from Caryville, in the coal country north of Knoxville, on lower reaches of the Plateau, but north and east of here. When I was ordained I found myself wondering, so I'm going to get to this point in the service and the Bishop is going to lay hands on my head. What would happen if I were slain in the Spirit?  And a little over six months later, when I was ordained a priest at St John's Church in Memphis - then it was the Bishop and also all the other priests laying hands on my head - what would happen if I were slain in the Spirit? 

Now, if you're not familiar with that phrase, it is one of those moments, common in Charismatic and, Pentecostal expressions of Christianity, where the Spirit comes on someone and they are laid out on the floor, bang! Let’s call it a holy faint, but it’s believed to happen because the Spirit overwhelms the person.  And having grown up in this part of the country and knowing something about and even experiencing Pentecostal worship, I wondered about that. What would happen if Bishop Sanders laid hands on my head and I were slain in the Spirit?

Which brings us to today. No, not me being slain in the Spirit, but today, for all that we talk about the baptism, all of the focus is on God being present in the Spirit and God being present where we don't expect it. 

Today I want to talk about Philip. Where did Philip come from? Anytime you look at the Lectionary and you see a set of verses as short and truncated as we have in the Acts lesson today, the first thing to do is ask yourself what's missing; because when they've made that tight of selection, the context may be really interesting. And I found the context today really interesting because it's about Philip. 

The disciples heard that the word had come to Samaria - well, wait a minute! How did that happen? And why? Samaria of all places! We know, and especially from Luke, that Jews and Samaritans, they didn't talk to each other. They actually had some common roots, but some significant differences. And it was one of those things where they were in many ways so alike, they couldn't stand each other. Why Samaria?

Well, the answer to the question is Philip, Philip the Deacon. Now, how does Philip become a deacon? If you remember, and we hear earlier in Acts that the members of the early Christian community who were Greek-speaking Jews kind of felt like they were being shorted by the early Christian community who were Hebrew-speaking Jews, Aramaic-speaking Jews. And so the Apostles said, “Well, we're going to appoint seven good men as diakonoi, waiters - basically seven leaders in the Greek-speaking part of our community, who will make sure that the widows and orphans get their due.” The most famous of them was Stephen, but also justly famous is Philip. And when you look into the rest of the story and you look into the eighth chapter of Acts as a whole, the first thing you see is that after Stephen was martyred, there was persecution in Jerusalem and the Christian community, or some scholars think maybe just the Greek-speaking part of the Christian community, got scattered. And in that scattering, Philip goes to Samaria.

This is also the same Philip who at the end of this chapter meets the Ethiopian eunuch on the road. See, there is this consistency about Philip. He was ordained, we would say now, for the function of taking care of the people who were left out. And so when he is thrown out of Jerusalem, he goes to some of the most left out people that he can imagine. He goes to Samaria. 

And by God's grace, he's successful in Samaria. He is convicting in Samaria. They believe, and they see him doing wonderful things. In fact, one of them who sees him doing wonderful things is a guy by the name of Simon. We know him as Simon Magus, the guy who, after he sees what happens with the Apostles will say, “Listen, lay hands on me, too, and give me this power and, and I'll pay you for it.”

And Peter will say, “You keep your money. You do not understand. And your heart is not in the right place.” And this is interesting, because Simon believed, Simon had been baptized, too. 

He and others had received baptism in Jesus, but had not yet received the Spirit. Isn't it amazing what happens when they just give you this little chunk here: we have a minister, someone who is committed to the ministry of those who've been left out, and he goes to those who've been left out and time after time he is successful. And in fact, we know that the Spirit is with Philip because at the end of the chapter, it is the Spirit that catches Philip up, carries him out of Samaria, and takes him down to the road south of Jerusalem to meet the Ethiopian eunuch.

 At the same time, Philip for all his success needed, or at least the early Church felt he needed, confirmation of his authority.  And in Jerusalem the remaining Christians and the Twelve hear, my Lord! My Lord is doing something in Samaria. Phillip’s got something going in Samaria. And they don't go down there and say, “You shouldn't have done it.” They don't go down there and say, “This is a good start, but we're gonna finish it off.” They go down there and say, “Okay, so far so good. And we will now lay hands on all of them.” It's easy for us to confuse this, and I imagine some people have seen this, as a model for Confirmation as we practice it in the Church post the Apostolic Age. I don't think this is really that because this is not so much liturgical. This is a new step in bringing these outcasts - and believe me to Peter and John the son of Zebedee, these people would still have been outcast: they’re Samaritans! -  and they bring them into the Body. And we know they're brought into the Body because when they lay hands on them and pray, they receive the Holy Spirit

And whatever they do, there is enough evidence that the Holy Spirit has been received, that, again,  Simon wants in - unfortunately wants to buy his way in and not believe his way in - because he sees something. We don't know exactly what, but he sees something. Now we've spent a lot of time in the years since thinking about what that something is. And we know that it's important because in the baptism of Jesus, in all of the stories we have in the Synoptic gospels of the baptism of Jesus, this moment happens.  Luke all but ignores that Jesus was baptized, doesn't even say that he was baptized by John. Look in your bulletins and you'll see that they took a few verses out. In those verses John gets arrested. In Matthew and Mark it's a little bit later, but in Luke John gets arrested apparently before Jesus gets baptized. Odd, considering it's Luke that makes a concrete connection between John and Jesus. And we still believe he was actually baptized by John, but Luke doesn't make a big deal of that. What he does continue to make a deal of is that after the baptism and as Jesus is praying, it is under those circumstances is that the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends visibly as a dove, “in bodily form.” There's something there to see that lands on Jesus. And there is a voice. There is something there to hear, or at least that Jesus hears: “You are my beloved Son. And I am pleased with you.”

So we know how critical the Spirit is in empowering people, right? Because this is where Jesus' ministry starts. John is now off the table. This is where Jesus' ministry starts, and it has to do with this wonderful Trinitarian moment. Don't miss that. The Son here's, the Father speaks, the Spirit descends, the Trinity's present. And it is from this moment that we start seeing the evidence. 

See, the church has always taught that when theS pirit is moving, there's evidence. We have lists from Paul in Romans and in First Corinthians of the gifts of the Spirit. Actually, there are several different lists of the gifts of the Spirit. And I've seen some people try to say there are seven and some nine -  I actually read was something that said they were 18 because with all of these different lists, they wanted to make them additive, not overlapping. But there are certainly the ones that Paul talks about in Romans 12: prophecy, ministry, teaching, preaching, charity or giving, leading or governance, mercy. And later on, he also talks about tongues and interpretation of tongues, but in a context where, okay, that happens, but that's hardly the most important of the gifts.  Elsewhere, Paul talks about fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long suffering, meekness, faith, modesty, self-control, chastity. So the expectation has always been when the Spirit moves, there’s evidence. Understand, if you look at those lists, it doesn't have to be dramatic. Again, I had that wondering about what would happen if I were slain in the Spirit, but it seems that the most profound and important evidences of the Spirit aren't that dramatic. They're in day-to-day living and in day-to-day functions that serve to reflect God's presence in the world. 

It’s kind of like my perspective on miracles. Most of you know that I spent nearly 40 years as a hospital chaplain, and people would say to me, “Have you seen any miracles?” I would say, “I've seen lots of them.” But I want you to appreciate my perspective on a miracle. A miracle is an event that shows God's presence in the world, whether we think we understand it or not. It’s a miracle when the medicine works - Not because we didn't think it would, but because it's evidence of God working in the world. It's a miracle when people get better. And I will tell you sometimes as a chaplain, it is a miracle when people find rest at last, not because we don't understand what's going on, or we don't have a perspective on how God is working in the universe, but because these are signs of God's presence in the world.

So Jesus, having been baptized and praying, receives the Spirit in this sense, and I say in this sense for a reason, and his ministry begins and we see the evidence; and Philip goes to another group of cast out people, the Samaritans, and he's preaching and baptizing and there's evidence. And the Apostles come down to confirm the evidence. And the evidence is certainly perhaps healings and wonders, but also the way the church is built up. And also the way people who had been cast out, left out, are brought in and made part of the community. 

Ordination is like that. My ordination, your ordination - I mean, you knew that right? One of the best comments I knew from my recently retired Bishop, Bishop Marty Fields, was that the primary ordination for ministry is in baptism. And we receive the Spirit from God, which we know is going on in baptism - if not only in baptism - for ministry, to see the evidence. And lay people have the broadest perspective on where that evidence can be shown. Bishop Field said that in ordination, your focus, or where you show your evidence, just gets narrower and narrower. The Bishop has the least scope of all because that's most focused. The layperson has the most choices of where and how to show evidence of the Spirit working in the world and the most opportunities with these varied gifts that any one of us may have. - and one of these gifts each one of us surely does have - to show the evidence of the Spirit working in the world. Maybe it's like what happened with the Lectionary. What I mean by that is, I saw this little snippet and said, “There's got to be more to the story than this. There's something going on. I’ve got to put in some effort to look for it.”

By the same token, we believe that by virtue of God's presence, the Spirit is working in the world. We believe that by virtue of our baptism, the Spirit is in some sense working in each of us. And we may need to put in some extra effort to see it. Sometimes it's harder to see it working in other people. Sometimes in our overly-expressed humility, it’s hard to see it working in ourselves; but the opportunity is there to see and participate in the work of the Spirit in the world. For after all, we have been baptized in the baptism of Christ in a tradition that comes to us from the Apostles. We have been baptized and we can start looking in our own lives and in the lives of others for the evidence that in us is the Holy Spirit and the fire, the power, to show the Spirit in the world.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Looking Back and Forward: A Sermon for Advent III, Year C

Preached at Pleasant Hill Community Church (UCC) in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. If you'd like to see the service and sermon in context, you can see that here.

The Gospel lesson tells this story from Luke’s text. We also have it in Matthew, but today we’re looking at Luke. 

So, the people went to the Jordan to hear from John, the Baptizer. And when they arrived, this is what they heard:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Now, this is different from Matthew. In Matthew, John is speaking especially to the Scribes and the Pharisees. In Luke, John is speaking to everyone.

In either case, it seems a very familiar sermon. It’s an expanded version of what we’ve seen so often by the roadside: a cross-shaped sign emblazoned with, “Get Right With God!”

And what were they getting right for? 

"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And avoiding the fire seems to have been on the minds of those who heard John. “What do we do?” they asked. 

“If you have two coats, share!” said John. 

If you have more than enough to eat, share!,” said John.

“If you have a job that gives room for theft, fraud or extortion, 

don’t!” said John. 

This is also different from Matthew. Matthew just left his listeners hanging. Luke at least gave them something to do.

Again, this seems a very familiar sermon. How many of us have experienced sermons with just this point: either you live right, or it’s fire! 

I have to imagine it was also familiar to most of John’s congregation. We sometimes speak of John as the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, largely in recognition that he proclaims the Lord’s intention of the New Covenant. That’s true; and it’s also true that among the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures this was a well known proclamation. The Jews in the congregation would have known that well. And even the soldiers would have had some idea. In the Roman Empire there were plenty of ethical teachers to remind folks that it’s wrong to steal or extort. They might have had different ideas of what the consequences would be, but they agreed that there were consequences for doing wrong. Everybody in the crowd would have had some opportunity to look forward to those consequences, and to look back at what they’d heard, what they’d learned, so as to avoid the fire.

And what a relief in what they heard! It was all familiar! There was something they could do! They could be in control!

But, then, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If it’s just about right behavior, then we’re in control. Oh, there’s lip service to God being in control. After all, it’s God that has the fire and knows how to use it. But, really, God’s not in control. We are! And, oh, how reassuring that is!

It’s how we are, really. There’s plenty of research that human beings are hardwired to fear losing in the present more than to hope for the future. That makes it really reassuring when we can look back to find the tactics to move forward. Indeed, it can lead us to the false conclusion that we can use the past to shape a future that doesn’t have to change. We’re in control, and what we see looking forward will look as familiar as the present.

But, what if we’re not in control? What if the future is being shaped in ways we don’t expect? What if God is in control, and not only in control, but free to do new, unexpected things?

It’s possible, you know. If God really is in control and we aren’t, doesn’t that mean we can’t just look back to see forward? 

Maybe, it means looking back to see when God has not been predictable. Maybe it means looking back to see God call, not just for a justice we can control, but for a hope that is beyond our shaping.

That theme is in the prophets, too. That’s what we see in the passage today from Isaiah. You can find some interesting parallels between Isaiah’s day and John’s. The province of Judea was under Roman domination. In Isaiah’s time, the nation of Judah was threatened by the large, powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire. And, while at the time of our passage Judah hadn’t fallen, Judah’s neighbors had or soon would. The Assyrians in their time were just as infamous as the Romans would be for imposing their laws and culture on conquered nations. Indeed, they were, if anything, worse, tearing conquered peoples from their homelands and settling them in the midst of strangers.

In the face of this, the prophets in Isaiah certainly call for righteous behavior, but they also call for trust: trust that God is in control, and trust that God can bring about a future that’s not just another round of the past we already know.

And so we have the hymn from Isaiah in today’s lessons.

Surely, it is God who saves me; *

  I will trust in him and not be afraid.

For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *

  and he will be my Savior.

Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *

  from the springs of salvation.

And on that day you shall say, *

  Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;

Make his deeds known among the peoples; *

  see that they remember that his Name is exalted.

Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *

  and this is known in all the world.

Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *

  for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

Now, this is a very different proclamation, isn’t it! This is not about us getting right with God to escape the fire. This is about God making things right, and our joy in it. This is not about us doing what we’ve always done, hoping to get something no worse than we always got. This is about God being free to do new things, unexpected things, which we will recognize in faith and for which we will give thanks.

There is a turn this Third Sunday of Advent. Since August our lessons have, one way or another, spoken to the coming Reign of God. That peaked on the last Sunday of the Church year when the lessons reflected ideas of what the complete presence of God’s reign might look like; but even in the first Sundays of Advent, we have still been hearing about the promise of God’s reign. If we look back at how earthly empires appear, like John’s congregation we might expect God’s reign to look like any other conquering force.

If, on the other hand, we look back to see how God has surprised us, and how God has called for faith in hope, and not simply obedience in fear of fire, we might glimpse a different future, one that we don’t control but that offers so much promise; one where we live right, not to avoid the fire, but to participate in God’s grace. 

We might look forward, then, and recognize it when God does unexpected things - like, providing children to a woman long past her time and to a man near dead; or leading a people to freedom through the depths of the sea; or proclaiming promise in the midst of a frightened people; or sending an angel to talk to a young girl; or starting the restoration of the universe in a village shed.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Time to Suit Up: a Sermon for Proper 16, 8.22.2021

 Preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee, August 22, 2021.

You know, there is always a story. That used to be the bane of people I used to work with because it didn't matter what the topic was, there was always a story. The story this morning is actually not a teaching story. It's an experience out of my own life. Early in my ministry, I got asked to do a wedding and this was a great pleasure for me because the groom was a very good friend of mine from college, very close friend. And he was a little out of his element. He had grown up in the country in Tennessee, although he by this time had gone on and graduated from college and completed his law degree and was doing quite well. But there was that part of him that was still an East Tennessee country boy, and his wife was from a different culture: the reception took place at the James River Country Club in Newport News, Virginia.

It went very well: as interesting wedding, lots of fun stories, and a black tie reception. But, of course, I was working, so I was in clericals, not in black tie. And about, oh, 45 minutes into the reception, I realized there was somebody who was always at my elbow. It was my friend's cousin. My friend's cousin was interesting in and of himself. He had grown up in the country in west Tennessee, and decided he wanted to see the world. So he joined the Merchant Marine. And after serving a number of years in the Merchant Marine, he left the Merchant Marine, joined the Army, became a Ranger and served with honor in the Rangers. And he was at the wedding, not in black tie, but in full dress uniform. Now those of you that have served, understand that when I say full dress uniform, this was quite something. I looked at him and I said, “What's going on?” He said, “Well, you know, I see all these people around me and I'm just staying close to the guy who's in uniform.” 

When we talk about being in uniform in American culture and in American history, there's a certain expectation attached. Usually we talk about it as military service; but the fact is, is that we have a lot of different uniforms in our lives. And many of us have been in a uniform, if not in the armed services. Nurses still have uniforms. I mean, scrubs look a little bit different, but I can tell you that hospitals do things like have different colored scrubs on registered nurses versus licensed practical nurses versus nurse aides: a sense of a uniform. I served in a uniform for a number of years, not in the military, but because I was in marching band. And I remember my college uniform for the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band. Even more I remember my high school uniform because being a high school uniform - this was at Bearden in Knoxville - they had opted for a dual use uniform. It was basically a tux suit with a red vinyl overlay over it. And trust me, in late August and early September, there are a few things hotter than a red vinyl overlay laid over a wool suit.

So. I had my time in that uniform. Or,  you see me when I'm working Sunday mornings in clericals and that uniform. Many of us have some sense of what it is to be in a uniform, even if it's just a bowling shirt, because we want those things that being in uniform gives us. They identify us with a particular group. They give us a sense of solidarity with the other folks who are in uniform. Generally, they imply a certain skill or a certain training, even if it's just those highly visible t-shirts that the moms wear when they're the chaperones for the field trip. It’s for the people to be able to see them and come to them and ask them about things they are supposed to know about and be authorized and prepared to do - a lot of different kinds of uniforms. I miss actually when nurses wore caps, because most of you probably know each different educational institution for nurses had a distinctive cap. And back in the days when nurses wore caps, you could learn where a person got their education. A lot of things you got out of the uniform.

The author of Ephesians talks today about a uniform. I know it's armor, but if you think about it, it's a uniform. Those who wore armor didn't just wear armor when they were going into battle. They wore armor pretty much anytime they were on duty. And especially in Rome when so much of the work was civil unrest. You never knew when something was going to come up. They were in uniform and it was a uniform that would have been very familiar to Jesus's listeners. In fact, if you know much about armor or know much about the history of military service, you will remember that different groups at different times had different kinds of armor, different shapes of the breast plate, different shapes of the sword. You could identify who they fought for by what they wore, which in the middle of a crunch was really important. You wanted the right person at your shoulder, not the wrong person.

So the author of Ephesians, who, as I said last week, has been talking to us how to live in the presence of Christ in the world, talks about putting on armor to withstand the evil that besets us. And the evil that besets us, says the author of Ephesians, is not people. It’s not, as he said, enemies of flesh and blood. It's against rulers. It's against authorities. It's against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Some years ago there was an author, and I'll blank on his name for a few minutes, but the title of one of his book was The People of the Lie.It it was talking about demonic powers. I was a priest in Memphis at the time, and one of my colleagues did a book review of it for the other Episcopal clergy. And this colleague of mine said, “I’m much too educated and much too sophisticated to believe in demonic powers.” And I looked at a colleague of mine right next to me. He said, “I'm glad I'm not that sophisticated.” Depending on how you want to understand creation to be, you may or may not want to talk about personified expressions pursuing evil, but all of us will remember that there are forces that are a whole lot bigger than us, in the face of which we fear we have no control. And some of them seem to be doing people harm.

One of the commentators I listened to, a professor at Luther Seminary said that there are some people that say this is that idea of systemic problems. That is, the author of Ephesians is not just talking about - in fact, it's particularly not talking about - defending against individual sins, but against the waves of sinfulness that go through society, the waves that no one person is responsible for, but that we have some responsibility to meet. And that's one way to think about what this armor is about. It's about being prepared to meet, however you want to understand it, not just the wickedness of the person next door, (because as I used to say to nurses, I'll hear your confession. And if you're concerned about it, I'll match you sin for sin), but about, again, those things for which we trust in God’s support and work with God  because they certainly seem to be beyond us as individuals.

So we are called to be prepared for that. Not just thankfully on our own strength: the Greek of “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” Delmer Chilton says could be better understood as “be strengthened in the power of the Lord:” God working in us to do these things. And therefore God calls us to put on the uniform, to suit up, to put on the belt of truth and to be truthful, to put on the breastplate of righteousness, which means to do rightly. (That’s not an attitude of self righteousness. There's too blessed much of that around already.) To hold the shield of faith, to have on your feet whatever makes you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace - individually and as a community: St. Raphael's Episcopal Church. What is it that prepares us to proclaim the Gospel of peace? And then the sword, which is the Word. But note that again, this is about defending against evil. This is not about going out and beating anybody up. Being prepared, being in uniform, being in company, because all of these “you-s” are plural in the Greek -to take our place against those principalities and powers and authorities that on the one hand seem beyond our control and therefore we need God's strength for them; and on the other hand, we clearly see, they are doing harm.

The author of Ephesians calls us to put on the uniform and to become part of the company. Remember I said, that being in uniform is part of a team; part of being in a group; part of being identifiable in the group; and also part of being identifiable outside the group. The hardest part about putting on any uniform, not withstanding my experience in marching band, is not getting the suspenders. Those of you who served in the armed forces will appreciate, and  those of you who've ever been in marching band will appreciate the hardest part about being in uniform is the drill. It's the getting out and doing what you're supposed to do again and again and again and again, when you don't need it, so that you'll be prepared when you do need it. 

And that's a tough commitment. That's what we think people found tough about Jesus. He kept saying these odd things, and if you paid attention in the Gospel of John, with me preaching about it or somebody else, Jesus has a tendency in the Gospel of John to say some pretty interesting things. And scholars are not sure what it was that caused these people in this lesson to turn away; whether they were just at a gut level offended at Jesus's words, because remember I said in the Greek, Jesus is saying, “He who munches on my meat” when he says, “eat my flesh,” a very physical and tangible understanding of the Incarnation and also a very physical and tangible appreciation of what it means to be in Christ; or whether it got to them when he said, “Well, then what would it mean if you were to see the Son of Man returning to heaven?” That is, “Listen, I've been telling you all along: I'm God.” So I'm not sure which of those things or both of those things got those folks to say, “Who can keep this teaching,” because they weren't sure they were prepared to live with either of those things.

“That’s the drill,” Jesus said to the disciples. Now, you know there is a distinction here. We can think of the apostles as people that Jesus called versus the hangers on.  In John Jesus doesn't have a good opinion of the hangers on. He says, “You know, you're just here because I keep feeding people. You're just here because the miracles are exciting.” And when he says to the Twelve, “What about you,” they say something different. Peter says “There's no place else to go where we know there are the words of eternal life. We're willing to embrace you. We're willing to embrace that life.” They're willing. They commit to do the drill. 

So Ephesians calls us to this uniform that prepares us to be defended in the world against evil and, we hope, to help others in the world defend against evil, and not just our own individual sins, but against those things that are bigger than us, that we see doing harm. And Ephesians tells us that to do that, you take on a uniform, you take on a community, you take on a lifestyle, you take on the drill. We are those among those who say we're prepared to embrace that lifestyle and embrace that drill, to say with the Twelve that we know where are the words of eternal life. Very good. So, let's suit up!