Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sermon: 15 Pentecost (24 August 2008)

Sermon: 15 Pentecost (24 August 2008)
(Genesis 45:1-15/Psalm 133/Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32/Matthew 15:10-28)
Wash Your Hands Before You Eat

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In October 2007 Barack Obama stopped wearing the United States flag label pin that has become the standard fashion for most male politicians. His actions caused a furor and required several explanations. Here is how one political blogger documented the conservative outrage.

Yesterday, in response to a question from a reporter suspicious of why he wasn’t wearing an American flag pin on his lapel, Barack Obama explained his belief that for some, the pins became a substitute for “true patriotism.” The senator said he would instead “try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

I didn’t expect leading conservative voices to understand, but I was a little surprised at the ferocity of the response. Jonah Goldberg described Obama’s perspective as “staggeringly stupid,” and “the single dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of him doing.” Another prominent far-right blogger responded this way:

Seriously, you want this for President of these great United States.This is how he catches the attention of a media aligned with the terror force? This useful tool won’t wear an American flag pin? Talk about pandering to the radical base, he ought to run against Ahmadinejad…What’s Obama Hussein’s new campaign slogan, “America Sucks!” ?

Higher-profile conservative voices were only slightly less unhinged.
But talk radio and cable news quickly pounced on the issue. “It just shows you he’s not ready for the big time,” conservative Laura Ingram opined on Fox News. Said Sean Hannity: “Why do we wear pins? Because our country is under attack!”

But for my money, James Joyner relied on a Seinfeld episode to offer the most clever, poignant take on the “controversy.”

ORGANIZER: But you have to wear an AIDS ribbon.
KRAMER: I have to?
KRAMER: See, that’s why I don’t want to.
ORGANIZER: But everyone wears the ribbon. You must wear the ribbon!
KRAMER: You know what you are? You’re a ribbon bully.
ORGANIZER: Hey you! Come back here! Come back here and put this on!
New scene - Kramer in the AIDS walk. Some AIDS activists accost him for failing to wear the red ribbon.
WALKER #1: Hey, where’s your ribbon?
KRAMER: Oh, I don’t wear the ribbon.
WALKER #2: Oh, you don’t wear the ribbon? Aren’t you against AIDS?
KRAMER: Yeah, I’m against AIDS. I mean, I’m walking, aren’t I? I just don’t wear the ribbon.
WALKER #3: Who do you think you are?
WALKER #1: Put the ribbon on!
WALKER #2: Hey, Cedric! Bob! This guy won’t wear a ribbon!
BOB: Who? Who does not want to wear the ribbon?
New scene - Kramer surrounded by Cedric, Bob, and the other walkers.
BOB: So! What’s it going to be? Are you going to wear the ribbon?
KRAMER (nervously): No! Never.
BOB: But I am wearing the ribbon. He is wearing the ribbon. We are all wearing the ribbon! So why aren’t you going to wear the ribbon!?
KRAMER: This is America! I don’t have to wear anything I don’t want to wear!
CEDRIC: What are we gonna do with him?
BOB: I guess we are just going to have to teach him to wear the ribbon!

I didn’t see this episode of Seinfeld so I don’t what happened next, but I’ll bet it wasn’t pretty.

The gospel text today mirrors concern over Obama’s reluctance to wear the flag lapel pin or Kramer’s refusal to wear the red, AIDS ribbon. On the surface it all seems a bit juvenile; but, underneath there is a powerful and explosive clash of agendas. How can you be president if you are not patriotic enough to wear the flag pin? How can you be an AIDS activist if you are not committed enough to wear the red ribbon? How can you be the Messiah, how can you proclaim the kingdom of God, if you will not even wash your hands?

Now a little history is in order. During the Babylonian exile (586-538 B.C.), some 600 years prior to Jesus, the Jews struggled to maintain their national identity against the forces of assimilation. Jerusalem had been destroyed along with the Davidic dynasty. The temple was in ruins. The people were exiles under pagan rule. The prophets – before, during, and after the exile – attributed this Jewish plight to infidelity, to disregard of the covenant and the law. Israel had left YHWH, her true husband, and had played the harlot with the gods of the nations, worshipping them on every hill, in every sacred grove. The moral and ethical fabric of society had disintegrated; the rich and powerful neglected and abused the poor and disenfranchised; the priests and prophets practiced religion-for-show and faith-for-profit; the merchants schemed and cheated the poor and catered to the lusts of the opulently wealthy. For these sins God had abandoned his people, lifted his protection, and brought a foreign nation against his once-holy city. And now what? With no king, no land, and no temple, how would it be possible to retain a political and religious national identity? Only through a return to the roots of covenant and law, a return to the sacred stories and practices that originally constituted them as a people: circumcision, prayer, Sabbath – all the sacred rituals it was possible to perform without temple and in a foreign land. The synagogue developed – community houses of prayer not for sacrifice, but for worship and study of Torah. The Tanakh – the full collection of Jewish scripture including Law, Prophets, and Writings – was redacted: written, edited, compiled. The scribes – experts in the Law – expanded the Law, introducing and teaching oral tradition that simultaneously stiffened the requirements of the Law and paradoxically created clever loopholes in the Law. The Law’s purity code – external behaviors that made and kept one ritually clean – took on new and greater significance for a people governed and surrounded by unclean, gentile dogs. What you ate or refused to eat, with whom you associated, how you kept Sabbath, how you purified yourself through ritual washing: all these things became badges of identity and assumed significance disproportionate to their real importance.

Now, fast forward some 300 years – still 200 years or so before Jesus. The Jews have returned to Israel, resettled the land, and rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple. And yet they are not and essentially never have been free since the exile. Wave after wave of foreign powers had broken over Israel: Alexander the Great, Ptolemy of Egypt, and now the Seleucids – Syrians. These latest conquerors, the Seleucids – especially under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes – were determined to eradicate Jewish national identity and force gentile ways upon the Jews. The apocryphal text of 1 Maccabees records this dire time under the king Antiochus.

41 Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, 42and that all should give up their particular customs. 43All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. 44And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, 45to forbid burnt-offerings and sacrifices and drink-offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, 46to defile the sanctuary and the priests, 47to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, 48and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, 49so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. 50He added, ‘And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.’
51 In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. 52Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; 53they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.
54 Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-fifth year,
they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt-offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, 55and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. 56The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. 57Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. 58They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. 59On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt-offering. 60In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, 61and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.
62 But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. 63They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. 64Very great wrath came upon Israel (1 Maccabees 1:41-64, NRSV).

For these Jews – the ones who chose to die rather than to be defiled – purity was both a religious and political issue: a proclamation of covenant loyalty and national patriotism. There arose a zealous insurgency led by the priest Mattathias and his five sons, John surnamed Gaddi, 3Simon called Thassi, 4Judas called Maccabeus, 5Eleazar called Avaran, and Jonathan called Apphus – the Maccabees. They assembled the righteous ones in Israel and routed the Seleucids in a series of battles, for a time gaining independence for their nation. Though a new power, Rome, ultimately conquered the land – and the world – some 80 years later, the spirit of the those who died rather than sacrifice their purity, the spirit of the righteous ones who fought for their national identity, the spirit of the Maccabees gave birth to a new sect in Israel – the Pharisees – a sect devoted to strict observance of the Law and the traditions of the elders, a political and religious purity sect.

These Pharisees come to Jesus.

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat’ (Mt 15:1-2, NRSV).

This seemingly juvenile, trivial question is anything but. Why are you not patriotic enough to wear the flag lapel pin? Why are you not committed enough to wear the red AIDS ribbon? Why are you not faithful enough to the covenant of YHWH and the nation of Israel to wash your hands? This question is a direct challenge to the loyalty of Jesus to God and country. Just 200 years ago, their question implies, our fathers fought and died rather than sacrifice their purity, fought and died so that we might wash our hands this day, and you and your disciples trample on that privilege and responsibility. You trample on the sacred memory of those righteous ones. So again we ask, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

This is a clash of religious and political agendas that will end with Jesus on the cross. What can he answer? Only this: that the Pharisees have missed the true way; that their political and religious agenda is a dead end that will ultimately lead to the destruction of all they hold dear; that they have become blind guides of the blind; that their way of being Israel is not God’s way of being Israel; that the purity streaming forth from a man’s heart is the only purity that matters; and that what streams forth from their hearts is anything but pure. This seemingly silly confrontation over the minutiae of the Law is really a cosmic battle for the hearts and souls of man. Will it be the Pharisees’ way of law and tradition, of external purity and rigid exclusion, of national and religious isolationism, or will it be Jesus’ way of grace and mercy, of internal purity and radical welcome, of one family and one holy people – Jews and gentiles alike?

Why should we care about this, about all this history, politics, religion – about these agendas? Because agendas are never private, never purely abstract or theoretical. Because agendas ultimately impact real people – people like the Canaanite woman.

There are many ways to read Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman – and many ways to misread it. I suggest that in the present context we consider it a morality play – a drama about these two agendas – a drama in which Jesus plays two parts: first Pharisee, then herald of the Kingdom of God.

Following his clash with the Pharisees, Jesus heads to gentile territory, perhaps seeking refuge, perhaps seeking the opportunity to drive a point home to his disciples. A Canaanite woman – a gentile woman thoroughly unclean by the standards of the Pharisees – accosts Jesus with a plea for help. “’Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon’” (Mt 15:22b, NRSV). I wonder how many times Jesus had answered similar requests in Galilee or Judea? But here? He ignores the woman. He treats her as so thoroughly beneath contempt that her request – perhaps her very person – merits no acknowledgement. In short, Jesus treats her precisely as the Pharisees would treat her. It is also the way Jesus’ own disciples would have treated her: “And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’“ She fails their test of external purity.

When Jesus finally turns to her it is still in his role as Pharisee or disciple. ”’I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” And there you have it. This is where an agenda of political, racial, national, or religious purity always brings us – to treat people like us as children and those different than us, those we deem unclean, as animals – not pampered pets but dangerous, mongrels. With no further words, Jesus says to his disciples and to us, This is the path down which the Pharisees’ agenda will take you. Let me show you a better way.

The Canaanite woman is not to be deterred. For love for her daughter she accepts her unclean status before Jesus and cries out from her heart, “‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” And now, in a great role reversal, Jesus becomes the herald of the Kingdom of God, becomes truly himself. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” This outwardly unclean, gentile woman demonstrated more purity of heart and faith than the externally, ritually pure Pharisees could even begin to imagine. And that made all the difference. I can just imagine Jesus turning to his amazed – and just perhaps shamed – disciples as if to say, Look closely at this. This is my agenda; this is my way. Take up your cross and follow me.

So many agendas compete for our loyalty. The agenda of nationalism calls us to fear anyone with a middle-eastern name or complexion, or to build walls to keep out the Mexicans. The agenda of class calls us to disparage the poor, unskilled, and under-educated. The agenda of morality calls us to condemn the criminal, the addict, and the homosexual. The agenda of religion calls us to disassociate from the Catholics or Southern Baptists or Pentecostals or Episcopalians. And other powerful agendas beckon: power, sex, money. Each of these agendas ultimately calls us to look upon some person or persons as less than human: as objects to be used for our welfare or as dogs to be ridiculed or ignored. All of these agendas call us to be like the Pharisees who came to Jesus that day. “‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’”

This account is a clarion call to lay aside all these false agendas of purity and self-righteousness and self-interest and to embrace the one true, life-giving agenda. The only agenda we dare have, the only agenda we can have if we are to be faithful to the One who calls us his own, is Jesus Christ and him crucified; Jesus Christ the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; Jesus Christ, the head of the body, the church; Jesus Christ the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; Jesus Christ in whom dwells the fullness of God; Jesus Christ through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross; Jesus Christ who came to present all the unclean, all the impure – which is all of us – holy and blameless and irreproachable before his God and Father (cf Col 1:15-22).


[1] The Carpetbagger Report,, accessed 8/5/2008.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon: 14 Pentecost (17 August 2008)

Sermon: 14 Pentecost (17 August 2008)
(Gen 32:22-31/ Ps 17:1-7, 15/ Rom 9:1-5/ Mat 14:13-31)
Signs of Abundance

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand or the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is a hallmark event in Jesus’ ministry; all four Gospels include it: some, like Matthew, with bare-bones accounts and some embellished with unique and minute details. A miracle, we call it, though scripture is more likely to call such an event a sign or a wonder.

Does it make a difference whether we call it miracle or sign? I think so, yes. I think there is a real and important distinction to be made between the two and not just a quibbling over words.

Consider the image the word miracle conjures to the modern or postmodern mind. The world, and as far as we know the universe, operates according to fixed rules – laws of nature we call them: gravitation, conservation of energy, natural selection, and others – the stuff of physics, chemistry, and biology. There is no place or reason for God in this scheme. Typical is the attitude of the French scientist Pierre Simon de Laplace. When asked by Napoleon, Where is God in your theory of the universe? Laplace famously replied, “God is a hypothesis for which I have no need.” Or, if God is allowed even the smallest of places, it is as a watchmaker who has built the watch (created the universe including the natural laws), wound it (set it in motion with a fixed amount of matter and energy), and now simply sits back to observe its operation. If, as Laplace thought, there is no God, then there can be no miracles. Ordinary events are fully explained by the laws of nature; extraordinary ones will be explained by laws of nature we have yet to discover. If, just perhaps, there is a watchmaker God, then a miracle is an intrusion of God into nature, a trespassing in a place He is no longer needed and perhaps not even wanted. A miracle is a breaking of the rules, a violation of the laws of nature. It’s as if the watchmaker steps in to reset the watch or wind it or oil it or otherwise tweak it. Why would God do such a thing? Either the watch was poorly made from the beginning and requires adjustment – And what would that say about the attributes of God? – or else God intrudes to show favoritism – to heal this one but not that one, to divert needed rain from this area to that one, and so forth. What would that say about the fairness of God? Either way, miracles are problems for the absent God and the watchmaker God.

Even the faithful are not immune from grappling with these issues. How often do we Christians “hedge” over answered prayer? Well, that might have happened anyway, we say or think. How often do we Christians agonize over unanswered prayer – miracles apparently withheld? We pray and people are healed and we wonder if God really did it. We pray and people die and we wonder why God didn’t do it. Why? What makes the difference? Why does God grant a miracle in one situation and not in another? Miracles pose difficult – and I suspect, unanswerable – questions.

But what of signs? What images do signs conjure in the imagination? A friend and I spent a day hiking in the Smoky Mountains on a trail not familiar to either of us. We did know that this section of the Appalachian Trail forked with one prong leading to a strenuous hike to Mount LeConte and the other heading off toward a shorter and easier hike to Charlie’s Bunyon – our intended destination. When we reached the fork we were in such deep discussion that we simply didn’t notice it and, as luck would have it, headed toward LeConte. We walked a couple of miles before we realized our mistake. We were embarrassed and grumbled the whole time we were backtracking, “The trials should be marked better than this. There should be a sign.” Of course, when we reached the fork we saw that there were signs; the trails were clearly marked. The fault was ours. We failed to notice the signs.

The signs were there, not as an intrusion by the National Park Service, not as a breaking of the rules of hiking, but as aids to point the proper direction toward a desired destination. Though the signs were given in a special way to my friend and me that afternoon, they were equally available for all who passed that way and who paid attention.

In a similar way, the signs of Jesus are not an intrusion into nature without God or nature abandoned by God. Instead, a sign is a revelation of God’s continuing presence within His creation and an expression of His will for creation. A sign points in the direction of the new heavens and the new earth that were birthed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that are maturing in the proclamation of the gospel and the obedience of God’s elect to that gospel – the new heavens and new earth that are our destination. A sign is not a breaking of the laws of nature but an implementation of the grace of God. It is not favoritism for one, but mercy for all. A sign may be given directly to one person or one group of people, but it is given equally for all people. Though we did not feast on fish and bread that day, the sign of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is no less for us who feast on it spiritually this day. It may, in fact, benefit us more through the distance and reflection of two millennia. We have cause to notice it more and understand it better.

By their very nature miracles draw attention to themselves. Signs, to the contrary, point away from themselves toward a greater reality. When Jesus performed a sign, it was never to say, “Hey, watch this. Isn’t this a neat trick?” Instead, each sign said, “Look at what God is doing in and for the world, in and through me.” A sign always points toward the greater reality of God’s work through Jesus Christ for the redemption of His people and for the complete restoration of His creation.

Miracles may be scarce; like a skeptic, I’m not even certain they exist as we’ve discussed them – God breaking the laws of nature. But signs aren’t scarce; the world is replete to overflowing with signs and wonders for those willing to read them. Take human love as an example. As wonderful as human love relationships are – husband-wife, parent-child, friend-to-friend – they are never completely satisfying in themselves. The best of these relationships creates in us a wistfulness, a longing for a deeper, transcendent intimacy. It is not that human love is deficient. It’s that human love is a sign, never intended to be complete in itself, but always intended to point beyond itself toward what God is doing in and for this world, in and through Jesus Christ. Human love is a sign pointing toward divine love. Complete fulfillment is a burden human love was never designed to carry. The same is true for beauty and joy. Each awakens in us a deep hunger that may be satisfied by God alone. Each is a sign pointing beyond itself toward God. Signs are everywhere, if we will but open our eyes to see them.

What of the sign of the loaves and fishes – what does it point toward? It points in two directions, actually – backward toward the Garden and forward toward the new heavens and new earth.

As a consequence of human sin, creation and man’s relationship with it fell under the curse.

17And to the man he [God] said,‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the treeabout which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”,cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19By the sweat of your face you shall eat breaduntil you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3:17-19, NRSV).

A new economy was created by sin – an economy of insufficiency. Where before the ground had produced easily and abundantly, now it produces only grudgingly and sparingly. We have inherited this economy of insufficiently and wrongly consider it normal. Famine doesn’t surprise us, nor does drought. Starvation is merely an unfortunate fact of life. We operate daily on the basis of insufficiency. We believe there is too little – essentially of everything – to go around. We selfishly grab what we need, little thinking that we might be depriving others of what they need. I got mine: that’s the fundamental principle we operate under.

So when Jesus tells the disciples to feed a vast crowd, they are incredulous. What do you mean, feed all them? There’s really not even enough for us. There’s not enough to go around. Their reality is the economy of insufficiency. The first part of the sign of the loaves and fishes – Jesus’ command to feed the multitudes – points backward toward the Garden and its curse, backward toward the economy of insufficiency.

But the next part of the sign points clearly forward to the new heavens and the new earth, toward God’s restoration of creation, toward the economy of abundance.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more (Rev 22:1-3a, NRSV).

In God’s economy of abundance, there is more than enough to go around – a tree of life bearing fruit for eating and leaves for healing for all nations, with no trace of the curse to be found. And so Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes not as a miracle – not as a breaking of the laws of nature – but as a sign, a foretaste of the restored laws of creation, a restored economy of abundance. The sign of the loaves and fishes points backward toward the curse and forward toward the blessing and passes straight through Jesus on the way.

Each time we bless the bread and cup of the Eucharist, each time we break the bread of life and pass the cup of salvation, we proclaim not only Jesus’ death until he comes, but also the new economy he inaugurated – the economy of abundance. At the table there is life to go around for everyone – overflowing, abundant. I have come that you might have life, and life to the full, Jesus said. And here, around the table week after week, we glimpse and begin to believe that it just might be true. Through the grace of God I got mine and You got yours and there’s still enough left over for everyone else – twelve basketsful and more.

There is a challenge here, too. Having received abundantly ourselves, how do we take this sign of the loaves and fishes, which we enact around the table, and proclaim that economy of abundance to a world steeped in the economy of insufficiency? Where is Jesus saying to us, You give them something to eat, and we are still replying, But there’s not enough to go around? Is it real food – rice and beans and bread and water? Is it shelter and clothing? Is it education and health care? Is it dignity and hope? Is it the good news – the gospel of Christ who offers abundant life? Where are we still saying, There’s not enough to go around? You feed them was not just a command for the disciples that day, but a command for us this day and everyday.

An economy of insufficiency appears reasonable, doesn’t it? Our resources to meet the needs of the world seem so meager, and indeed they are. But the economy of abundance doesn’t depend on our resources; it depends on the power of Jesus Christ to bless and multiply those resources. The sign of the loaves and fishes points to this truth also: If in faith and obedience you bring to Jesus just what you have – however little and insufficient it may seem – he will bless and multiply it abundantly to accomplish his will. Who among us is sufficient for the task before us? Who ever was? Abraham – a childless, nomad with a nameless, invisible God and a barren wife? Moses – an 80-year old fugitive murderer with a speech impediment? Rahab – a town prostitute in a city reserved for total destruction? David – a murdering adulterer and dysfunctional father? John the Baptist – a bug-eating, camel-skin wearing, hell-fire and damnation preacher/prophet from the wilderness? Peter – a headstrong, cowardly, hillbilly peasant fisherman? No, none of these had sufficient resources to accomplish the tasks God gave them. No matter: God’s economy of abundance was not limited by their scant resources; nor is it limited by ours. Faith and obedience are the only resources we really need, and God will even supply those if we but ask.

It is time to ask. It is time for Trinity Church to follow the sign of the loaves and fishes, to present to our Lord Jesus the little we have – to present it in faith and obedience – and to look on with wonder as he blesses it, multiplies it, and shares its abundance with the hungry world.

I close with a prayer of abundance, a prayer Paul offered for his brothers and sisters at Ephesus (Eph 3:14b-21, NRSV), a prayer I offer for Trinity Church. Let us pray.

I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sermon: 12 Pentecost (3 August 2008)

12 Pentecost (Proper 13): 3 August 2008
(Gen 29:15-28/Ps 105:1-11, 45b/Rom 8:26-39/Mat 13:31-33, 44-52)
What Do You See There?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The parables of Jesus are like a man who visits his psychiatrist. After a few preliminaries the doctor hands the patient a Rorschach inkblot, asks him to look it over and tell him what he sees there. The patient examines it, turns it this way and that, and finally begins describing a very graphic scene of sex and violence. The more the psychiatrist listens the more upset he becomes until finally he interrupts his patient. “Is that what you really see? This is very disturbing.” “Tell me about it!” responds the patient. “You should be ashamed of yourself showing people pictures like this; you need some help!”

This old joke turns on an assumption about the Rorschach Test: that the ink blots are really just that – “contentless” blots of ink and not a picture produced to communicate anything at all. There is no meaning in the figure; what a person sees there is not what is there but what the person projects onto the figure. The blank slate of the Rorschach inkblot reveals not what is outside on the paper, but what is inside the observer.

The parables of Jesus function, in part, as verbal inkblots. They are not, of course, contentless; Jesus meant something specific with each of them in the context in which they were spoken. But, Jesus – and the church – also used the parables to draw out of those who really listen – those with ears to hear – new insights, new questions beyond the established boundaries of meaning. At the end of a series of parables Jesus once said to his disciples,

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mat 13:51-52, NRSV).

The parables are such treasure out of which we must draw the old – the meaning Jesus intended in his historical setting and theological context – and the new – the questions, hints, and insights the Holy Spirit draws forth from us in our historical setting and theological context. A parable can never mean less than what Jesus intended; that is certainly its true meaning. But it can mean more. That is why the parables are ever fresh, ever challenging, ever useful.

There is a word of caution to be spoken when using the parables this way, a word Peter gives us.

First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20-21, NRSV).

The trick with the parables – when we move beyond the historical meaning – is to know whether a particular new interpretation is a human projection or a divine insight. That determination is a matter for the church, not the individual: the whole church, the communion of saints in this and every time, in this and every place. That’s why we open scripture together, why we pull ancient commentaries off the shelf, why we do theology on our knees in prayer. We listen for Athanasius’ amen. We look to see if Augustine nods his head in approval. We bounce our ideas off Luther and Calvin and Wesley. We look toward Africa and Latin America and China – to the south and to the east – as well as toward Germany and England and the United States. We listen for a consensus of the voice of the faithful. It is fully orthodox to take the next step in the direction the church has pointed us; it is dangerous heresy to strike off in a new direction.

The proper direction is toward the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God). From the outset of his ministry Jesus came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The heart of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray is “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And the parables he speaks this day are similies of the kingdom: each begins with the formula, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” and continues with a comparison of the kingdom to ordinary and extraordinary things – seed and yeast, treasure and pearl, nets and fish.

What is this kingdom of heaven? Perhaps the closest we come to a direct answer is in the prayer Jesus taught us: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. These aren’t two separate requests as if we are saying, “Father, we long for your kingdom and we want your will to be done, as well.” This is parallelism, a traditional Jewish literary form in which the second line restates or amplifies or supports the first. So we pray, “Father, we long for your kingdom which is the perfect reign of your perfect will on earth as in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is not a place, but the reign of God in which his will is fully accomplished and his righteousness pervades all places.

Jesus’ contemporaries longed for the kingdom of heaven, so his proclamation of its immanent arrival was gospel – good news – indeed. Raised on the visions of Isaiah, these Jews knew exactly what the kingdom of heaven would look like: judgment and destruction of the nations who had oppressed Israel, vindication of God’s elect, the end of exile, the establishment of God’s reign of peace and justice and holiness, a new heavens and a new earth, the year of Jubilee writ large and writ forever. YHWH had promised.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God (Is 62:1-3, NRSV).

YHWH had promised and Israel was more than ready for YHWH to keep that promise.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence –
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil –
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2, NRSV).

Of this they were certain: when YHWH finally acted, it would be quick, decisive, and clear. Everyone would see and everyone would know, “as lightening comes from the east and flashes as far as the west” (Mt 24:27, NRSV).

Then Jesus speaks. It’s like this in the kingdom of heaven: a man hides a mustard seed in the ground and waits while it does its work in the silence and the dark. Or, it’s like this in the kingdom of heaven: a woman hides yeast in three measure of dough and waits while it does its work in the silence and the dark. And Jesus speaks not only with his words, but with the parable of his life. It’s like this in the kingdom of heaven: God hides the Word made flesh—his only-begotten Son, in the tomb for three days while God does his work in the silence and the dark.

In these parables of the kingdom – and in the living parable that was his life – Jesus emphasizes the hidden nature of the kingdom, a nature contrary to all expectations of his contemporaries: Pharisee, Sadducee, Scribe, Herodian, Essene, Zealot, peasant. The kingdom is a small thing, a hidden thing, a secret thing that works out of sight. The kingdom is death before it is life, burial before it is resurrection, cross before it is crown.

What do the scribes tell us about these parables when they bring forth the old treasures of God’s household? They tell us of a mystery hidden from the foundation of the world, now revealed to the saints in these last days – a mystery that God has now made known to all people – Jews and Gentiles – the mystery of Christ, the mystery of Christ hidden in us bringing us the hope of glory (cf Col 1:26-27). As a mustard seed is hidden in the ground or yeast in dough, so the mystery of Christ – the mystery of God’s plan to restore creation through Christ –lay hidden in the heart and mind of God from the first sin until the ultimate defeat of sin on the cross. And now the seed has sprouted; now the dough has risen. The church offers a home to all the birds of the air and provides them the life-giving bread of the most precious body of Jesus Christ.

What do the scribes tell us about these parables when they bring forth the old treasures of God’s household? They speak to us of patience and remind us that though Christ inaugurated the kingdom of God he has not yet completed it. The kingdom is already-but-not-yet: already present but not yet in its fullness. They remind us that we must still pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – even as we now live in the kingdom and do God’s will on earth. They remind us that God accomplishes his will in his own, good time – timing is of the Lord – and that God’s ways often seem hidden, inscrutable at the time; that sometimes all we can do – the very best we can do – is to wait and pray and hope, trusting that the seed will sprout and the dough will rise. Don’t lose hope, the scribes tell us; God works in hidden and mysterious ways.

What of new treasures? What new questions, hints, and insights might the Holy Spirit draw forth from us in our historical setting and theological context? Once again, hiddenness may be the answer. I wonder if it may be time for the church to be less open and more hidden.

Google Miley Cyrus and you will find this quote from her YouTube videos: “Jesus rocks! That’s why we do what we do. She (her friend Mandy) dances for Jesus. I sing, dance and act for Jesus! … Now that I think about it, I do everything for Jesus.” Of course, in the same Google search you will find pictures of Miley pulling up her shirt and pulling down her pants to show her boyfriend and the international teenage world her underwear. Did she make those pictures for Jesus, too? Frankly, I wish she had been more hidden – either in her faith or in her underwear. Placed side by side, those pictures and that proclamation don’t help us any.

George Bush is quite open about his faith. "My faith plays a big part in my life. And when I was answering that question what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my faith is a very, it's very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm's way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls.” Was that same faith the basis for a preemptive strike on a sovereign nation, a war of aggression justified by misrepresentation of facts and a campaign of propaganda, a war that may have rendered Christian mission to the Islamic world essentially impossible for generations? Frankly, I wish our President had been more hidden about his faith or his war rhetoric. Placed side by side, the war and his proclamations don’t help us any.

Evangelical Protestants are known for their opposition to same-sex unions. While they expound God’s intent for human sexuality and the sanctity of Christian marriage they are having affairs and filing for divorce at essentially the same rates as non-Christians. Frankly, I wish they were more hidden in either their faith or their behavior. Placed side by side, their proclamations and their own sexual behavior don’t help us any.

And if just one more driver with a fish or a cross on his bumper sticker cuts me off in traffic or blows by me at 90 mph in a 65 mph zone … well, you get the idea. Either hide the fish or obey the law. You’re not helping us any.

Maybe the parables are calling the church to a bit more hiddenness. Paul writes this to the Colossians.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your* life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry) (Col 3:1-5, NRSV).

Perhaps it’s time to hide from the world until we are hidden in Christ. Perhaps it’s time to hide our proclamations until we have hidden his word in our hearts that we might not sin against him.

Matthew follows the two parables of hiddenness with two parables of discovery. A man discovers a treasure in someone’s field, goes and sells everything he has, and purchases the field. A merchant searching for fine pearls discovers the one that excels all pearls, goes and sells everything he has, and purchases that pearl. That which is hidden is discovered and revealed.

What do the scribes tell us about these parables when they bring forth the old treasures of God’s household? Jesus is that treasure hidden in the field, that one pearl of great price. Some stumble across him as a workman plowing a field might accidentally uncover a treasure. Some search him out as a collector searches for a prize specimen. No matter: when found, Jesus is worth every sacrifice. Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me, Jesus once said to a rich, upright man who found him. You can have Jesus – or be had by Jesus – if that is what you really want; but, it may just cost you everything. Paul understood.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,* the righteousness from God based on faith (Phil 3:7-9, NRSV).

The translators are too nice, here; they feel a need to protect our sensitive ears. Paul really says, “I consider everything else as crap compared to Jesus.” And so it is.

What of new treasures? What new questions, hints, and insights might the Holy Spirit draw forth from us in our historical setting and theological context? Looking at these parables I think I understand the man who finds the treasure in the field. He’s an opportunist who’s just won the lottery. Sure, his behavior is less than upright – that’s not the point of the parable – but we identify with him in spite of some ethical shakiness; Finders keepers, losers weepers we all learned as children. (That’s not in the Bible, you know.) His life has expanded unimaginably; with this treasure, new vistas open before him. This man is the modern equivalent of the tax collector or sinner, the leper or prostitute, the Samaritan or Gentile. For this man Jesus is a way up or way out – the unexpected means to a glorious end. We can understand the shadiness of his actions given the desperation of his circumstances.

But the pearl merchant? That’s another story. This man makes his livelihood – and probably a good one – trading these gems. When he sees this pearl, this one beyond compare, he sells all his merchandise and buys it. His large, expansive life has now contracted to a point, to a single treasure lying in the palm of his hand. What now? Will he trade this pearl for profit? Having found it, can he part with it? Has he finally looked beyond mammon and glimpsed beauty? Has his heart been captured? Has this pearl become the end rather than the means to an end? If so, this pearl has ruined his life. Everything he had is gone, save for this pearl. This is St. Anthony, St. Francis, Mother Teresa, and countless other nameless saints – not nameless to God – who have sacrificed everything for the glory of God in the face of Christ. They stand witness against all of us with divided hearts and lives, against all who see Jesus as the means to an end and not the end itself.

A woman goes to see Jesus. After a few preliminaries Jesus hands her a parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like,” he begins. “Listen,” he says. Think on these things. Keep them in your heart and ponder them. What do you see there?