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!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Wisdom: a Sermon for Proper 15, August 15, 2021

So, as I prepare my sermon for Proper 16, here is my sermon from last Sunday on Proper 15.

I am a big fan of teaching stories, especially middle Eastern Sufi and other teaching stories. This is one from the person I read most often, an Afghan Englishman named Idries Shah. He said that two men found themselves crossing a river on a ferry. This was an old ferry in an old country, and it was strung on ropes. And the ferrymen basically pulled the rope to get you from one side of the river to the other. So these two men were on the ferry. One of them was a professor of logic and rhetoric. And the other one, he was a local farmer. In the midst of their conversation, the rustic gentleman said, “Well, you know, if’n y'all were really prepared,” at which point the academic stopped him. He said, “Wait, no, there is only one of me. It has to be ‘you.’ And there is nothing to be added to ‘if. It’s not, ‘if’n,’ it’s just ‘if.’ If you haven't learned proper grammar, you've lost half your life.” At which point, the cables holding the ferry snapped, and the ferry began to rise on a rush of water and the head down river quickly. And the farmer said, “You know, professor, if’n y'all, hadn't learned how to swim, you've lost all your life.”

The theme today is wisdom. What is wisdom? And it's an interesting thing to think about, what we think of as wisdom or as wise. You know, we live in a time where a little owl appears on our TV screen and says that being wise has to do with taking the right antihistamine. (And as somebody with perpetual sinus issues, I pay attention.) Now, wisdom is something we talk about a lot in scripture. We say that there are portions of scripture that we speak about as “wisdom literature.” For example, that includes Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, or Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus is a favorite of mine.)

They are, as we say, about wisdom. And the wisdom they are about is how to live a proper and righteous life in the world. Now, granted, in all of this, walking before God, as it were, is assumed, but it's not really what they talk about very much. They talk about right relationship between one person and another, or right ways to fit in with the structures of society, or ways, if you can, to do well for yourself and others. You know, the, the content is somewhat different from Confucius, but the intent, if you will, is the same. This is how to live a righteous and sober and productive life in society. And, if you get the opportunities, to do well. 

We still talk about wisdom today. Unfortunately it seems to me to have a bit of a different edge. It’s more personal; it's more selfish. It's less about having a successful life and more about winning - and all too often winning at any and all costs: you know, weakest to the wall and the devil take the hindmost. “I've got mine, and you have to look after yours.” We're told by voices around us, that “wise” means, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

But in the lessons today, we have a different standard for what is “wise.” It's in Ephesians. We’ve been in Ephesians for the last few Sundays, and the last half of Ephesians is all about what it means to live in Christian community. And there's a bit of a summation, if you will, in today's lesson, because it says to be careful - or more accurately, be thoughtful, be attentive  - to live in the world as wise rather than unwise, That has to do, Ephesians tells us, with understanding what the will of the Lord is.

So, in Ephesians, it's clear that living wisely is understanding and participating what the will of the Lord is. And perhaps that shouldn't be that hard for us. I don't mean it's not hard to do. Sometimes it is. But I mean, it shouldn’t be hard for us to have a handle on this idea of living with what the will of the Lord is. That is because we are people who say the Lord is not just coming. We say the Lord is with us. That’s all through the Gospel of John, and I’ll get back to today’s lesson in a minute. But it is in John that Jesus keeps saying eternal life is now. This is not something you wait for. Life in the kingdom is already ongoing. And we are the spiritual descendants of that. To live by understanding what the will of the Lord is begins with understanding that the Lord is present here and now.

One of my favorite spiritual writers focused on that. Perhaps some of you will know of him, Brother Lawrence at the Incarnation whose collected works were published as The Practice of the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence was an interesting character. He was a Carmelite monk in Paris, and he was a sculler. You've heard of a scullery maid: He was a sculler brother. He worked in the kitchen. He cleaned vegetables. He hauled out the trash. He wasn't even the cook. And also, he was so recognized by his order as being wise, so wise that he was in a number of cases the ambassador of his order to the civil authorities or the ambassador of his chapter to other houses of the Carmelites. And in fact he was a famous spiritual director in his own time. And his focus was on practicing the presence of God. That is, “If I operate with the assumption that God is with me right now, then how should I behave in light of that?” You know, we have that old joke, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” But Brother Lawrence was really focused on the concept that Jesus is here; and it's not about looking busy, but it is about participating in what it is that Jesus and God and the Spirit have going on in the world around you.

In his way, that's exactly what Solomon asked for. David has died. By the way, I can't tell you how many commentaries and podcasts I listened to this week that said, “Let’s stop using a euphemism. David didn't sleep. He died.” However, to say “he slept with his ancestors” means that he died at peace. He didn't die in war. He didn't die because he was smitten. He died of old age. 

So, David died. And because Bathsheba who had been a victim had also learned how to be a sharp political person, Solomon, who was not the oldest son, becomes king. And so King Solomon is offering sacrifices. He’s offering sacrifice at Gibeon. And he has a vision, a dream, that’s really a message from God. God says, “How shall I equip you?” And Solomon says, “What I really need is the wisdom to lead, to lead this people who are yours.” Now, capture that. It's not that he's simply leading Israel, his kingdom, but he is leading the people who are God's people and is asking to be part of God's will for that people. So as with Brother Lawrence, Solomon is in the presence of God; and he’s thinking wisdom is about how does he, as king, participate in the will of God.

If you read the rest of Solomon's story, you'll discover that he's pretty spotty about actually doing that, but it's the right prayer. And God says it's the right prayer. And he says, “There will be no one of wisdom ever like you after nor has there been anyone before.”

 So we have clear guidance in our own tradition and in scripture about this idea that to be wise is to seek the will of the Lord. And it shouldn't be that hard for us to understand what the will of the Lord might be. Now, never claim perfection in this. I have this personal conceit. I believe that the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven is certainty. Always hold a little bit of humility. I'm bad at that myself, but always hold a little bit of humility about one’s sense of what God is doing. 

But we have plenty of guidance in the Gospel of John. We know about God's commitment to God's people because the Word became flesh to live with us;  because the Word came, as in my favorite passage from John, John 3:17, God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that all the world might be saved through him. That the Incarnation is about bringing salvation into and among all of creation. And Jesus in today's lesson brings that Incarnation home because what the Greek says is, “those who munch on my meat.” We don't like to translate it that way, but this is different in the Greek from other places where he talks about eating flesh. It's a different word for eat. It's a different word for flesh. It is those who are “those who are chewing my muscle tissue abide in me and I in them:” that God's will, is that all of us and all of creation be so intimately involved in God and in what God is doing that salvation embraces all. And when I worry about what "all" means, I always come back to another passage of John and the Good Shepherd where he says, “and remember that I've got sheep you won't recognize. But when I call them, they will come.” All, all, all.

So to be wise is to participate, as best we can, in our own circumstances and in our own moments, with the will of God; that the love of God should be so demonstrated in how we live, that we share that sense of God's purpose to embrace all people and all creation in salvation. That is what Ephesians tells us wisdom really is. 

So, we have that standard to live by. We are called, not to be careful because we're afraid, but to be observant and careful and particular about living wisely. We are committed to live in a world of wisdom where wisdom is to seek to understand and to seek to participate in what the will of the Lord is. That in and of itself will bring us sufficient joy that the alcohol won't be necessary; sufficient joy, that we will be singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs. If we are going to live, we are called to live as those who are wise which means we're seeking to understand and to participate as fully as we can in what the will of the Lord is.