Scripture

Being Christian in the World we are in — Calvary Flemington Forum

Session 2: The origin of our Scriptures in Judaism We are having a series of brief discussion sessions at Calvary this Fall that are meant to explore being Christian both throughout history and in the times we’re now living. Anybody can come—it doesn’t matter what age you are, or whether you buy into any of […]

via Being Christian in the World we are in — Calvary Flemington Forum

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Salvation is nearer to us now

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

sawtooth

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

Today is the first Sunday of what?

… It can’t be Christmas shopping season, because that started at least two weeks ago. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and in Advent the church looks forward to the coming of the Lord… not to the coming of the Christmas tree and presents, and not really to Christmas at all, even the “real Christmas” that some people say is under attack. Advent points to the ultimate coming of the Lord, as the collect for today says:

“That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…”

We think of that day as Judgment Day, a scary and dark time for anybody who has anything to be afraid of. Of course, most of those who really deserve to be scared think we are talking about somebody else. But this season we look forward to the final reckoning, when God’s justice is established–of course we want some details on that: who, what, where, WHEN?

Of course, religious folk turn to their Bible, and what does Jesus say? Nobody knows. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That’s such a disappointment—because you know, if we just knew exactly what was going to happen, then we would have so much power—we would know when to invest in the stock market, or when to take vacation so that the storms would hit somebody else …

There are plenty of people who think that that is what religious faith is supposed to do—give you magical powers or special knowledge that take you outside of the ordinary difficulties of human life. It is easy enough to see Christians who completely ignore what Jesus has to say today. They make pronouncements about the future of the world, or the future of the church, or their own personal future, somehow alluding to hints in scripture, or similarities of some political event with some surmise about an image in scripture, or perhaps to interpreting God’s promises in such a way that God has to give them specifically what they want right now.

Jesus says to be watchful, now and every day—the day of the Lord can be here at any moment. We often think that we know what will happen, or even what is happening. When I was a teenager, I was particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking: a good word from a teacher or a good result in a musical performance and I was going to be a tremendous success—maybe I would be a star at the Metropolitan Opera or President of the U.S. And if something went wrong, my life would be over, everything was a failure. As we grow up and mature, we get a bit of a handle on our expectations, but still the temptation is there to project that recent events will follow in straight lines… /  up  … or \ down . Or we look around us, and assume that possibilities are limited to what was, and things can never change.

But the real world is not like that. When something new and creative happens everyone’s expectations are turned upside down—no one predicted Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, neither could anyone envision that the most amazing music of the baroque period would be produced at its very end, by a conservative named Johann Sebastian Bach. The Day of the Lord overturns our expectations, our grandiose self-serving expectations, and our demoralized and discouraged expectations. The Kingdom of God comes, not when we want, or when we think the preparations are done—two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left… a baby is born of a teenage mother, and the universe is changed. When the pride of the powerful is at its height, their plans collapse. And in the midst of collapse and discouragement, love and sharing are set free to change the world.

I believe in the Day of the Lord, which we focus on in this season of Advent. The specifics, I do not know, any more than Jesus did… but that Day brings life and new things because God’s people are prepared in humility and joy to follow him into new possibilities.

In today’s lesson from his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says:

“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

In the Gospel of Luke, this is the first record of Jesus’ teaching. After his baptism and his temptation in the desert, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and went around preaching in Galilee, his home region. And when he got to his home town of Nazareth, the Gospel describes that teaching.

He opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, the sixty-first chapter, where the prophet announces the hopeful message of God’s redemption for Israel, his summons for them to return from exile. Jesus teaches the meaning of the text, and that meaning is himself. “Today this House of hospitalityscripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As we proceed through the Gospel toward Easter, it will become more and more clear what it means, that he himself is the meaning of the word of God. Today, let’s look at the text he reads: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

So is the Good News of God’s love mainly for the poor?  Could be. Certainly the song that Jesus mother sang before he was born says, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

God is here for those who suffer and those who have needs that are more than they can handle. Yet it doesn’t just mean that God has pity on the poor or gives cosmic handouts to the needy.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a slave who was forgiven a tremendous debt, but then immediately grabbed another slave who owed him a very small debt and had him thrown in jail—being poor, or of low estate did not justify him in being unmerciful to others. Jesus did not come to change the order of things in order to privilege a different group, he came to give release to the captives, sight to the blind—a time of the Lord’s favor—when ALL the oppressed are free.

It is significant, of course, that he starts with the poor. Those who get the least respect, are just as entitled to full honor and respect as those who presume that they are the ONES who are entitled. It is not so, that some are entitled to honor and others can be dismissed. ALL are worthy of our respect. ALL of us have God’s respect and love, right now. Jesus is telling us that—the challenge is to us, and to everyone—how do we respect the ones who God loves and respects, particularly those who are pushed to the side, dishonored in their social status, or physical disability, or their place on the economic ladder. God gives us freedom, what do we do with it?

Jesus announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This means two things—first, it is in Jesus that these promises are fulfilled—his person and his life make the difference. Next week’s gospel lesson continues this story, and I will talk about what happens when Jesus made that announcement in my sermon next week.

But the other thing is, TODAY, the good news to the poor is announced, TODAY the release of captives and recovery of sight to the blind, TODAY the oppressed go free. This year is the year of the Lord’s favor, not some day in the far off future, when we get around to it, some day when the rich get tired of being rich, until, literally, Kingdom come. God is not waiting for justice, or mercy. The mercy of God, the right of those who are poor and oppressed to find freedom is right now. In Jesus, we are freed from the values that say whatever has been established by those in power is how it has to be. God’s mercy is here, in Jesus Christ. In us, in his mercy, we live as merciful, in his hope, we are generous and share our lives, in his courage and his way of the cross, we courageously face the difficulties that this world has brought and will continue to bring. We live in the year of the Lord’s favor.

Once again, let us pray in the words of our collect for today:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Way of Wisdom

The Way of Wisdom

A Challenge to Theology and the Life of the Church

A Declaration by the Faculty of
The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church

The faculty of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church met on retreat during the week of January 20-25, 2014 for prayer, reflection and discussion. The consensus that emerged was that the most serious problems in theological education, congregations, the structural organization of the church, especially The Episcopal Church, and the relationship of Christianity to the society at large emerge from a common root. This is the separation of theological reflection from the life of prayer and spiritual transformation, from Christian action and outreach.

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
–Micah 6:8
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
–John 17:17-18

Way of Wisdom

I. The Problem: The Decline of Theological Education and the Health of the Church

The stewards of the Church have impaired its health. Our neglect and confusion, evident around the world in various denominations, has led to grave problems of decline in the number of faithful disciples among all mainline churches—not least in The Episcopal Church in the United States. As theological educators, we are acutely aware of the role we have played in this decline.

We have shaped and worked to reproduce a system of theological education that is estranged from the living ministry of the whole Church and its wisdom of spiritual transformation and mission to the world. We have been complacent, serving as a mere facsimile of secular education, validating our vocation in the church’s teaching office only with reference to academic specialization. Having lost our intimate connection to the Church’s ministry and mission, our work within the seminaries also has become fragmented. We find that we can no longer articulate how our disparate disciplines and specialties hang together or offer to our students or supporters a cogent vision of theological education as a vital and essential aspect of the Church.

Theological students do not have an holistic experience of theology. They are discouraged and unsatisfied with the increased separation of learning from formation and ministry. They are unsatisfied with their inability to integrate learning with spiritual practice and the work of ministry. All are looking for alternative solutions. Many believe that our congregations today most need priests with the so-called “practical” skills of liturgical, pastoral, and managerial know-how. Others, with the intent of addressing the diocesan needs of the church economically, have attempted to form spontaneous and self-governing bodies that can equip ordinands locally with basic skills for ministry. Yet, these have not overcome the fragmentation that fuels our decline. They have merely swapped the disciplinary fragmentation of our seminaries with the treacherous triviality of business management theory and the inertia of bureaucratic administration, or they have further divided the church from the resources it needs to carry out its ministry with wisdom and understanding.

These are illusions. They are more destructive to the health of the Church’s ministry and mission than the system we now have. Instead of unifying theological education and the church, they set out to redefine the meaning of ordained ministry entirely in terms of its functions, tasks, and public acts. They abandon any reference to the theology of Church’s ministry and mission. As a result, the fragmentation we now witness in the seminaries is perpetuated in our parishes and dioceses. As Edward Farley wrote prophetically thirty years ago, “The more the external tasks of ministry themselves are focused on as the only telos of theological education, the less the minister becomes qualified to carry them out.”

As a challenge to ourselves, our fellow seminaries of The Episcopal Church and those responsible for theological education in the Church at large, we declare:

Because of the confusion and neglect perpetuated by our disconnection from the Church’s ministry and mission and by our internal fragmentation, the only solution to the decline of the Church is a renewed commitment at all levels to affirm the necessity of theological education to Christian discipleship and for formation in a way of life that desires “the depth of the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Romans 11:33) for all things.

II. The Solution: The Way of Wisdom

Our present system of theological education, the only one any one of us has known, is a novelty in Christian history. For the majority of its life, “theology” was not an academic specialty. It was the path walked by all Christians in their desire to bring the whole of their life into unity with God’s; it meant the participation in the ever-deepening practice of Christian discipleship that we all share. The idea that education in this way of life could be separated from the ministry and mission of the Church or that the study of scripture, theology, salvation history, ethics, pastoral care could be isolated from spiritual practice was inconceivable. The Fathers and Mothers of the Church, whom we call “theologians,” were at once biblical scholars, pastors, and critical thinkers of great spiritual wisdom who drew deeply from sophisticated philosophical reasoning as they guided the course of the Church in their time. Preaching the Gospel was integral to the transformation of the lives of all Christians. Responsible preaching required study and study was also worship.

We are not calling for a return to the past. We are troubled by the present. Where study has been separated from the goal of discipleship, theological education has been sequestered from the whole Church, reserved for those preparing for ordained ministry. The unintentional result has been unchecked clericalism and widespread biblical, liturgical, and theological ignorance in the church.

Though we are troubled, we are hopeful for the future. We are acting creatively now. We call the whole Church at every level, to live in this hope, to focus its energy on integrating the depths of the Way of Jesus Christ into every aspect of its life, and to work with us to imagine ways to revitalize theological education as pursuit of and formation in the depth of the riches of the Wisdom and knowledge of God. We cannot do this work alone.

Many theologians and teachers have recognized the need for this transformation of theological education. We have learned from them and many work beside us now. Up to now, however, their wisdom and efforts for reform have been frustrated by both the academy and the Church, neither of which has been able successfully to reorder the content, structures, and institutions of theological education toward the goal of spiritual transformation. They have instead retained the models and goals of secular corporations and bureaucracies.

The faculty of the General Theological Seminary now commits to reordering the content, structures, and institutions of its ministry to this goal according to what we call “The Way of Wisdom.” All Christian disciples walk in the Way of Wisdom, all encourage one another in the Gospel and share the wisdom found in their own unique life circumstances and gifts. Some become leaders, encouraging and helping others to grow in the depth of the Christian life. Some are commissioned to the special ministries of presiding over the assembly of disciples, overseeing their spiritual health, and instructing them in the knowledge of God. Theological education is vital to these ministries of the Church because it guides and forms leaders in critical reflection on the Gospel, enables these leaders responsibly to care for the community of disciples, and preserves the truth of the Church’s witness to the gospel in our time and place.

The Church can and does fall into error, and yet we have been promised that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. Thus, theological education is an awesome and humbling service. As a theological faculty we are called to listen—to listen to that Spirit and to the needs of God’s people. We must not only approach our work with academic expertise, but as theologians, we must be accountable to one another and our students: to teach in ways that enhance development in the practice of the Christian life in the living ministry of the Church for the benefit of the world. The teaching office of the Church is particularly invested in its bishops, and we invite the bishops to join with us in this ministry of listening and mutual accountability.

The Way of Wisdom begins with the practice of attentive listening. It cannot be a narrow set of prescriptions. In a seminary, students are exposed to new and challenging voices. Sometimes those voices are the traditions and history of the church, or the beginning of serious study of the scriptures. Sometimes the voices are from the margins: the poor, the differently-abled, those suffering from discrimination and oppression. Sometimes the real surprise is to discover that the mainstream of scripture and tradition are those on the margins. We commit to teach so as to cultivate practiced spiritual attention in tandem with critical theological reflection and in this way to reshape theological education as integral to our shared life in the Body of Christ. Intellectual problems, disagreements and problems of privilege and oppression will not be wiped away or resolved by directing our work to this goal. They will, however, be illuminated by our common commitment to the Way of Wisdom. In the light of our common goal, we will be drawn closer together rather than further fragmented.

III. A Way Forward

The Gospel amplifies the prophet’s call to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” This summons is addressed to the whole church, all its members. It is of the essence of the Way of Wisdom. It is a ministry for those who are in need, those who suffer, those who seek the wellbeing of their neighbor. It is not a way to serve ourselves or preserve any institution.

The Way of Wisdom is the way of those who love justice and kindness, the Way of those who walk with God together with their fellow Christians.

• We call on all Christians to renew their commitment to the Way of Wisdom and their appreciation of the depths of Christian tradition, especially learning from those who are least among them.
• We call on seminaries and the wider Church to commit to supporting sustainable levels of high-quality theological education for all levels of the church (laity, priests, deacons, and bishops) and for all levels of study, from Catechesis through doctoral study.
• We call for greater cooperation between the seminaries in realizing this goal of theological education for the whole Church.
• We invite the bishops of the church to recommit themselves to their teaching role as listening theologians to work to revive and reform the catechumenate for our time, and for church-wide support of the formation of catechists and other church teachers.
• We call on all members of the Episcopal Church to more deeply appropriate the vision of the Church as a community of all the baptized, as found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
• We call on all clergy to more deeply appreciate the Wisdom found in the people in their congregations.
• We call on theologians and theological educators to make Wisdom their paramount priority and to seek to integrate all aspects of theological inquiry as a coherent whole.
• We as the faculty of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church pledge to follow the Way of Wisdom more deeply in our own lives and to change our courses and our curricula to better enable our students to encourage and help others on the Way of Wisdom.

Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Book of Common Prayer)

The original draft concluded with the following version of this collect, in which the petition is much clearer:

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who declarest thy glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth; Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1928 Book of Common Prayer, p. 44

The Way of Wisdom

A sermon for Theological Education Sunday

St. Paul’s, Ossining, NY 4th Sunday after Epiphany, February 2, 2014

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Who knows what today is? Of course, we all know what it is—Super Bowl Sunday. And this year, the most important event in the American secular calendar falls on February second, the same day as Groundhog Day. Even in the calendar of the Church it is at least three other things: In the Book of Common Prayer, February 2 is a major feast, the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, in older days and in some contexts the same feast was called the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lectionary also has today as the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, and that’s where today’s lessons come from. But in the Episcopal Church, the first Sunday in February is designated as Theological Education Sunday, and I’m here today, as a faculty member of the General Theological Seminary, to talk with you about Theological Education.

So what IS Theological Education? Over the years there have been a lot of confused, obscure and frankly, quite deadly, sermons and other presentations on that topic. There’s actually a reason for that. Theological Education has been regarded as being about the training of professional clergy in specialized skills which are seldom of interest or relevance to ordinary Christians or about the support of theologians whose job is to think thoughts and write books in obscure terminology that are usually inaccessible to most ordinary church members and often to ordinary clergy.
Thus presentation of Theological Education is usually an anemic attempt to communicate across a vast divide to a foreign audience. This is a problem, not just with seminaries, but with the whole church, including congregational life. The faculty of General spent a very intense week on retreat in January working on this very problem, and I would like to report out some of my perception of what we arrived at.

Theology does not have to mean a distant and abstract thing. It is clear that in the early centuries of the church, theology meant the participation in the ever-deepening practice of the Christian life which we all share. The whole church needs to be called to a more intentional and deeper commitment to this. We’re calling this the Way of Wisdom. There’s a reason for this because if we call it theology, people will get confused because they have a different idea of what theology should be about. But make no mistake: this is theology that is meant to be practiced on the ground at St. Paul’s.

TutumandelaBut what does this mean? From the Old Testament, we have a statement of the Way of Wisdom at the end of our lesson from Micah: “God has told you, O Mortal, what is good;” –and what is that?—“and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We could spend a long time unpacking that statement, and we should—we should spend our whole lifetime understanding and living what it is to walk humbly with God, love kindness, and to do justice. You could think of it as the art of living the Christian life and that’s the theology we call the Way of Wisdom.

The Way of Wisdom is exactly the same in a parish or a seminary, or indeed in all the contexts of ministry that we have, whether a soup kitchen, community organizing, outreach to returning veterans or an EFM group gathered from a number of churches. We all share our wisdom and we encourage one another in the Gospel. But among us, some are leaders who particularly focus on encouraging and helping others to grow in the depth of the Christian life. Some become clergy and others have ministries that don’t fit that mold. So at seminary we have a group that is seeking that, to grow into more depth, usually to become leaders in the church. Some are young, some are not; some have a lot of experience in life or in the church, some have less. But to one degree or another they have already embarked on the Way of Wisdom, some more than they know and others less than they think. The conversation and the community broadens and deepens.

The faculty introduces them to voices they have never known existed—from the church of the second, third and fourth centuries, from the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and from more recent times. The community critically reflects on scripture—for instance, how it impacts women in the present and in the past, or how we might sort through the controversies of the present day and how the church has done so in many critical times in the past. Even those philosophical, theological, and theoretical thinkers such as I mentioned earlier are engaged, so those voices are heard and understood, and their insights incorporated into the way of wisdom that is our life together. But none of this is just an academic or scholarly exercise, no matter how exciting that might be for some.

What does it mean to those students when they return to a parish community or another ministry and work to help people in their community deepen their walk with Christ? What does it mean in teaching, or visiting the sick, or organizing ministries, or standing in the pulpit and trying to say something true? This takes reflection, and listening, and acquiring a habit of learning and prayer.

These students, remember, don’t come to the seminary as tabula rasa. Their own wisdom is always an important part of the experience of everyone, faculty, students, staff, and others as learning and growing community. Together we learn to become those words of Micah: what is it to do justice? That takes more than a couple of minutes to answer. What is it to love kindness? What is it to be a community that always seeks to be kinder and more compassionate, especially to those who are troubled or marginalized? And how indeed can we walk humbly with our God, except for one small step at a time, and falling back and retracing those steps. The seminary provides community, so that when one stumbles along the way, there are fellow seekers there to lift one up.

So our goal at seminary is not to produce priests who have pre-made solutions to problems and who are solely focused on fixing things. What we are here to do is to provide wise, resourceful people who know how it feels to struggle to live on the Way of Wisdom and who know how to be companions to others following alongside.

That doesn’t mean we want our students to be impractical or too abstruse to bother with finding solutions to problems. On the Way of Wisdom, sometimes you have to know some skills and whether your skills address the problem at hand, or if you need to find someone with the right set of skills. Sometimes you have to fight back against injustice, while at other times, the solution is to reframe one’s perspective and let go of the issue. And sometimes, we must just be companions to one another in the difficulty of the moment. It takes resilience and wisdom to choose and shape those solutions to the hard questions, and that is where theological education is an invaluable guide.

We need to look only as far as our Gospel lesson today, the Beatitudes, for an example of what I have been talking about. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ blessing on his people on the Way of Wisdom. These blessings in many ways are simple—conveying the love of God for everyone—for example: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Yet when we reflect on these well-known passages tough questions emerge. Let’s just examine the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does that mean, “the poor in spirit?” People have a lot to say about that, to the point where it can end up meaning not very much at all. The Gospel of Luke says: “Blessed are you who are poor”—so maybe the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is just softening up Jesus’ original revolutionary message. Perhaps, but what does that have to do with how we live our lives? Maybe “poor in spirit” means that I’m blessed if I just feel poor—sort of like the guy who wrote an article for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, describing how he was furious one year because he got a $3.6 million dollar bonus and he was convinced that he deserved and needed far more than that. Lots of us feel poor like that, though probably not quite in such a dramatic fashion. Do we just use the Gospel to make ourselves feel justified and content?

It is certainly possible to interpret “poor in spirit” as humble. In fact I think that humility is essential to our understanding. But it is also easy to fall into a negative and complacent humility, regarding ourselves as not much good, with little to offer. That’s safe. And passive. And lazy.

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This does not mean that if you are passive you will go to heaven. In all of Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom is dynamic, God among his people, transforming and healing. If we try to understand the lesson through its literary form: in the first beatitude the blessing on the poor in spirit is the kingdom of heaven, and in the last beatitude the blessing is also the kingdom of heaven, even though none of the others have the same blessing. There is a parallel between the first and last passage. But the first is “poor in spirit” and the last is “persecuted for righteousness sake,” which is the only one that is repeated and elaborated. Humility is in fact being at the service of God. Recognizing our weakness and sinfulness, nevertheless, when we are poor in spirit we are in God’s service. And that service is courageous witness to the truth in our lives, which is the witness that historically resulted in martyrs in the early church and at other times.

And that is an abbreviated example of the kind of reflection that goes on in theological education. It’s for the students yes, but it’s also so that we can continue to form courageous people to walk humbly, both followed and led by their sisters and brothers in the church, and by the whole world.

The Kingdom of God and the Way of Wisdom describe essentially the same thing: our growing along with one another in the life of God. It is for us all, the art of living our lives in Christ. We all are active participants, but disciplined reflection and knowledge is needed to challenge us to live our life together in the Way to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

The Day of the Lord

A sermon at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY December 1, 2013

IMG_0096_2“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

Today is the first Sunday of what?

… It can’t be Christmas shopping season, because that started at least two weeks ago. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and in Advent the church looks forward to the coming of the Lord… not to the coming of the Christmas tree and presents, and not really to Christmas at all, even the “real Christmas” that Sarah Palin and some of her friends believe is under attack. Advent points to the ultimate coming of the Lord, as the collect for today says:
“That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…”
We think of that day as Judgment Day, a scary and dark time for anybody who has anything to be afraid of. Of course, most of those who really deserve to be scared think we are talking about somebody else. But this season we look forward to the final reckoning, when God’s justice is established–of course we want some details on that: who, what, where, WHEN?
Of course, religious folk turn to their Bible, and what does Jesus say? Nobody knows. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That’s such a disappointment—because you know, if we just knew exactly what was going to happen, then we would have so much power—we would know when to invest in the stock market, or when to take vacation so that the storms would hit somebody else …
There are plenty of people who think that that is what religious faith is supposed to do—give you magical powers or special knowledge that take you outside of the ordinary difficulties of human life. It is easy enough to see Christians who completely ignore what Jesus has to say today. They make pronouncements about the future of the world, or the future of the church, or their own personal future, somehow alluding to hints in scripture, or similarities of some political event with some surmise about an image in scripture, or perhaps to interpreting God’s promises in such a way that God has to give them specifically what they want right now.
Jesus says to be watchful, now and every day—the day of the Lord can be here at any moment. We often think that we know what will happen, or even what is happening. When I was a teenager, I was particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking: a good word from a teacher or a good result in a musical performance and I was going to be a tremendous success—maybe I would be a star at the Metropolitan Opera or President of the U.S. And if something went wrong, my life would be over, everything was a failure. As we grow up and mature, we get a bit of a handle on our expectations, but still the temptation is there to project that recent events will follow in straight lines… /  up  … or \ down . Or we look around us, and assume that possibilities are limited to what was, and things can never change.
But the real world is not like that. When something new and creative happens everyone’s expectations are turned upside down—no one predicted Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, neither could anyone envision that the most amazing music of the baroque period would be produced at its very end, by a conservative named Johann Sebastian Bach. The Day of the Lord overturns our expectations, our grandiose self-serving expectations, and our demoralized and discouraged expectations. The Kingdom of God comes, not when we want, or when we think the preparations are done—two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left… a baby is born of a teenage mother, and the universe is changed. When the pride of the powerful is at its height, their plans collapse. And in the midst of collapse and discouragement, love and sharing are set free to change the world.
I believe in the Day of the Lord, which we focus on in this season of Advent. The specifics, I do not know, any more than Jesus did… but that Day brings life and new things because God’s people are prepared in humility and joy to follow him into new possibilities.
In today’s lesson from his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says:
“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

“Whose Wife will the Woman Be?”

A Sermon at St. Paul’s, Ossining, NY November 10, 2013

Our Gospel lesson today isn’t really about marriage or about the resurrection, either. This story is set during the last week of Jesus’ ministry, after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (also known as Palm Sunday). Jesus is teaching in the temple and there is a series of scenes of controversy with different groups trying to catch Jesus out with awkward questions—just before today’s lesson is the story where they come up to Jesus and ask him, “Do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Temple in Jerusalem

Temple in Jerusalem

So these Sadducees are trying to score points by putting forward this theological hard case. Levirate marriage, where a childless widow is required to marry her late husband’s brother, is culturally very distant from us today. I’m not aware of any Christian sect that has ever practiced it, and even among orthodox Jews, it is really only recognized through a ceremony to be exempted from it. Judging from the history of the Talmudic interpretation of this law, levirate marriage probably seldom occurred even in the time of Jesus and the Sadducees, though the Sadducees disappeared by the end of the first century and we know little about their actual practices. They were a sort of aristocratic, conservative group that only accepted the first five books of the Bible—they believed in the temple which they controlled, but not in the resurrection, which they didn’t. So they are using their understanding of the Bible and a ridiculous case to show up Jesus in a theological absurdity.
Some of you may notice that the question is posed as a property dispute: “Who will this woman belong to?” But Jesus doesn’t bite. He says, “In this age people marry and are given in marriage, but [in the resurrection] they are children of the resurrection and children of God.” Things are different, like the angels of God…this is where literal-minded people pick up the idea of going up to heaven and having wings and a harp and so on, but that is really not what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is not describing heaven here—in fact there is nothing in our experience that is “like” the resurrected life in God. People like to make God follow rules, and the rules somehow end up looking like the parts of culture that give advantages to the people who are asserting those rules. Good luck with that.
The freedom of God is to define life, and to define the life of the resurrection. In God’s freedom the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is always messing up things that way, especially our rules and our expectations. He brings new life, life that is not held within the boundaries of death or limited by the expectations that we have for ourselves or that we accept from those around us.
It is easy enough to see how limited the Sadducees in this story were—the rules that they based their question on were really obsolete, even at that time. And today, their question, to translate the Greek literally: “In the resurrection, to which of these men does the woman belong?”, implies a relation that at least some of us would not think of as heavenly, or even workable in our society. Like them, we want to know, and to have clear rules, but instead, Jesus brings us possibility. The prophet Haggai spoke to the people of Jerusalem in its desolation, after they returned from the exile in Babylon, to find the Temple destroyed: “Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord of hosts…My spirit abides among you, do not fear.” The resurrection destroys both arrogance and demoralization and replaces both with hope and possibility. The life that is not stopped by death or even hindered by the horrors of the cross is the foundation of imagination and creativity. Each time that his opponents challenge Jesus, he responds in a way that points to generosity, courage, and selflessness—that is, toward an abundant life of freedom.
As our psalm for today says:
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
In righteousness shall he judge the world, and the peoples with equity.”