Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sermon for Proper 19

(This homily was delivered at my DEPO parish, Trinity Church in Yazoo City, MS, which I oversee on behalf of the Bishop of Mississippi.)

Exodus 32:7-14, I Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

If this were a classroom, instead of a church, there’s a certain game I would like to play with you. I would divide this congregation into two groups. I would ask Group One to read the following passage of scripture, from the prophet Joel:
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. 
I would also ask Group One to read a passage from the book of Revelation:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?"
I would then ask Group One to write a description of the nature of God, based solely on the information that they could glean from these two passages.

What do you suppose they would come up with? Words like “angry” and “vengeful” and “capricious” would probably come to mind quite readily. But if the members of Group One continue to reflect seriously on the question, they might arrive at a more positive adjective, such as “just.” God is just, even in his wrath.

A few minutes ago, we read a very dramatic narrative from the book of Exodus. Moses has been up on Mt Sinai for forty days receiving the Torah—the Law—from the hand of God. He comes down at last, and what does he find the people of Israel doing? They have forsaken the Lord, who had led them out of slavery in Egypt, and taken to worshiping an idol, a golden calf that had been fashioned by Moses’ brother Aaron. At that moment, God announces to Moses that he’s about to press the Reset button on this whole enterprise of a chosen people, and start from scratch. Moses alone will survive. Strictly speaking, it would not have been at all unjust of God to destroy those people. They had behaved shamefully, and deserved to be done away with.

Stories like this bring us up short. When we allow ourselves one of those rare moments of absolutely clear honesty, we realize that if God were to be absolutely just with us, we would deserve something along the same lines of what God had in mind for those ancient Israelites. We have, indeed, done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone those things which we ought to have done. We have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We deserve no less than the full wrath of God.

But what about the other half of the congregation, Group Two? I would also have some scripture readings for them. First, I would have them look at the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
I would also have Group Two look at those passages which long-time Episcopalians remember as the “comfortable words,” like John 3:16:
God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to the end that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. 
...and Matthew 11:28:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  
...and I John 2:1-2:
If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.  
Then I would put the same question to Group Two: Describe the nature of God,
based solely on these passages of scripture. I think it’s safe to say that the results of their deliberations would offer a much different picture than that presented by Group One. Phrases like “slow to anger,” “rich in mercy,” “faithful,” “caring,” “forgiving,” and “compassionate” would emerge.

So ... are we talking about two different God’s here? Is there one God who is wrathful and just, and another God who is merciful and forgiving? In the early years of Christianity, there were some who thought precisely that. There was a fellow named Marcion who taught that the Hebrew God of the Old Testament was a completely distinct being from the Christian God of the New Testament. But Marcion’s views were eventually declared to be heresy, and the orthodox teaching of the church has been that God is both wrathful and merciful, both completely just and utterly loving.

And this is, of course, a paradox that is virtually impossible for the human mind to wrap itself around. We can understand justice and we can understand love, but we also understand that there are situations when those two values conflict with one another, and one must be favored to the detriment of the other. We cannot comprehend both love and justice being perfectly upheld by one being at all times.

Yet, this is precisely what our Christian faith teaches us to affirm. When God declared his intention to manifest the justice inherent in his nature and destroy the idolatrous Israelites, it was Moses, of course, who stepped into the breach. He implored God on the people’s behalf. He reminded God of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of everything he had already invested in that people. Moses begged God to relent, to change his mind, to turn away from his anger.

Now, it’s pretty amazing for a mortal man to talk to God this way, and it’s even more amazing still that God listened! In response to the intercession of Moses, God did change his mind, and manifested the mercy that is also inherent in his nature.

Now, as we read the Old Testament through the lens of the Christian gospel, we see in Moses a pre-figurement, a foreshadowing, of Jesus. When Moses stepped into the breach on behalf of Israel, he bridged the gap between God’s justice and God’s love. What Moses did for one nation on that one occasion, Jesus does for all people for all time. As he stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, Jesus stepped into the breach between God’s justice and God’s love, and forever bridged that gap.

And when God’s justice is combined with God’s love, the result is like a strong chemical reaction. The resulting compound is alive and active. It makes all things new. It seeks out wounds that need to be healed, relationships that need to be reconciled, sin that needs to be forgiven, loss that needs to be redeemed. The gospel parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin illustrate the persistence and power of justice combined with love. The shepherd does not passively wait for the lost sheep to wander back to the fold—he takes the initiative and searches for it. The widow does not just sit back and wait for the lost coin to turn up someday—she sweeps every corner of her house until she finds it.

Because God is just, he will not let us off the hook for ours sins. Because God is loving, he will not let us perish in our sins. Because Jesus bridges the gap between divine justice and divine love, God seeks me out, seeks you out, like we were that lost sheep or that lost coin. He takes us who are, in the words of the General Confession from Morning Prayer in the older Prayer Book—he takes us who are “miserable offenders” and fashions us into his own very image and likeness. He makes us holy; he redeems. The combination of justice and love is redemption.

In his letter to Timothy, St Paul holds himself out as “Exhibit A” in the collection of evidence that God is a redeeming God. Paul was a sworn enemy of the cross of Christ and the chief of sinners. He was the most unlikely candidate imaginable to be made a herald of the gospel of Christ. But the risen Jesus—the same Jesus who stands in the gap between the demands of justice and the demands of love—actively sought Paul out and knocked him off his horse with redemptive power.

Justice … plus love… equals redemption.

And the only appropriate response to redemption, on the part of those who have been redeemed, is thanksgiving. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what the word “eucharist” means: thanksgiving. You and I now have the opportunity to respond “eucharistically,” by offering ourselves at this altar, by making ourselves available to a God who is fully just and fully loving. Let’s not hold ourselves back. We wouldn’t want to miss anything he has to offer!

Amen.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Holy Cross

Our train to Yazoo City, MS arrived at 10:00, just twenty minutes behind schedule, which, for Amtrak, at that distance from point-of-origin, is pretty good. Fr Woodliff, rector of Trinity, had seen to it that we were cleared for early arrival at the Hampton Inn, so we got settled in. An hour or so later, Fr George picked us up and we journeyed about an hour south and west to the historical community of Vicksburg. We enjoyed lunch at a rooftop restaurant with a spectacular view looking north and west, then toured the museum in the old courthouse (built just before the Civil War) and then the marked driving tour through the battleground and cemetery area. I was reminded how prominent Illinois troops were fighting for the Union in that conflict. Back to Yazoo and some down time at the hotel. Fr George and Jill picked us up for a 7:00 dinner at a place out on the Delta.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday (St Cyprian)

I'm writing this from the City of New Orleans Amtrak run that left Union Station in Chicago at 8:05pm. Our destination is Yazoo City, MS. Trinity Church there is under my oversight, per a request from the Bishop of Mississippi. We've had a happy relationship for six years now. Scheduled arrival is mod-morning on Saturday. Brenda and I have a sleeping compartment, so it's actually kind of fun. While much of the day was spent getting ready to be away for ten days (since, as soon as we arrive back in Chicago on Monday, we need to repack and hit the road by car to Minneapolis for a House of Bishops meeting), I did do the finish work on two homilies (for this Sunday and next), and stay on top of several administrative and pastoral situations.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Thursday

  • Per recent Thursday pattern, 8:00-9:00 at the chiropractor's office (massage, exercise rehab therapy, chiropractor's table). Home, cleaned up, and organized by around 10:30.
  • Worked on some clergy deployment and mission strategy issues ('tis the season, apparently).
  • Lunched on leftovers.
  • Took Brenda to her acupuncture appointment. Managed to process some email from my phone while she was essentially napping while needled up!
  • Another opportunity to spend quality time with biblical commentaries, this time in connection with preaching on Proper 24 (October 20 at St Paul's, Carlinville).
  • Roughed out the broad strokes of my address to synod.
  • Evening Prayer in our chapel.
  • After dinner (with a Bond movie running in the background): Made some final edits and revisions to my pastoral teaching document on sexuality and marriage, in light feedback from my vetting group. Ready for formatting now. Hope to promulgate in at the end of the month, on the feast of St Michael & All Angels.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Wednesday

  • Usual start to a working weekday.
  • But meat on the bones of my developed outline of a homily for Proper 21, turning it into a rough draft that can yet be perfected for use at St Stephen's, Harrisburg on the 29th.
  • Devoted the rest of the morning to working with my daughter and son and daughter-in-law in a project none of us anticipated or enjoyed: moving stuff out of the basement and stowing in temporarily in the garage so the rat exterminators we have engaged will have access to the space for cleaning and disinfecting. A rat infestation pretty much constitutes a near-emergency, I guess,
  • Lunched quickly on leftovers.
  • Headed to an appointment with my primary care doctor, following-up on the seven hours I spent in the ER Sunday nights into Monday morning with a kidney stone attack. I'm grateful to have been out of pain since I was released.
  • Dealt with issues pertaining to next month's annual synod, the Department of Mission, and clergy deployment (which is generally on the front burner now with as many vacancies as we have).
  • Took a 3,000-step walk with Brenda.
  • Evening Prayer in our domestic chapel.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Tuesday

  • Customary early AM routine
  • Worked my way through a thick stack of messages and situations needing a response--none were inordinately time-consuming, but there was a lot of them. It took the whole morning.
  • Stepped out to grab some KFC for lunch, which we ate at home.
  • Ran a healthcare-related personal errand.
  • Wrestled aggressively with my exegetical notes for Proper 23 and extracted from them a homiletical message statement for my visitation to St Christopher's, Rantoul on October 13.
  • Relived the stress created by such labor by taking an equally aggressive and longish walk on a sultry and warm afternoon. 
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Sermon for Proper 18

St George’s, Belleville--Philemon 1-21

It hardly ever happens that we get to read nearly an entire book of the bible all in one sitting. But today we do that with St Paul’s letter to Philemon; only a couple of lines at the end dealing with incidental details are omitted from the reading.

So let’s set the stage. Paul is in prison as he writes this. It’s a pretty humane imprisonment as that sort of thing goes; his friends and other visitors apparently have generous access to him, and he’s allowed to have a secretary to write down what he dictates. One of these visitors is a fellow named Onesimus, which, in Greek, means “useful;” that’s an important fact to know because Paul plays a little word game with that name at a really key point in the letter. Paul is instrumental in leading Onesimus to Christ, and becomes the young man’s mentor and spiritual father. They are very close.

But there’s a problem. Onesimus, it turns out, is a runaway slave. And, to make matters worse, the master he ran away from is also a Christian, and somebody whom Paul knows fairly well from his missionary work prior to this particular imprisonment, a guy named Philemon. One of those uncomfortable “small world” moments, right? Of all the people for Onesimus to connect with, he has to choose somebody who knows his boss!

So Paul wants to fix things. But before we dig in and begin to look at his strategy, which is very impressive, we have to do just a little bit of mental housekeeping, and at least be aware of, even if we don’t set them completely aside, the prejudices and assumptions that we bring to this story. One important reality we need to understand is that, while slavery is always slavery—one human being claiming to own another human being—slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world was often a much, much less brutal institution than it was in the American South prior to the Civil War, which is the mental model you and I are most likely to import into the mix between Paul and Onesimus and Philemon. Still, from the standpoint of pure justice, Onesimus was within his rights to run away. No human being has the right to own another human being. This may not have been as self-evident to Philemon as it is to us, or even as it was, I would suggest, to Paul. But it’s nonetheless true. From the standpoint, like I said, of pure justice, Onesimus didn’t do anything wrong.

So why didn’t Paul just give Onesimus a high-five and shoot an email off to Philemon, “You idiot! Christians can’t own slaves! What were you thinking?” Because, not only did he not do that, but he sent Onesimus back to Philemon with only this lousy letter for protection, all at some considerable risk, one might imagine, to Onesimus. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation! What’s going on here?

I haven’t formally studied mathematics for 51 years—and counting! But one thing I do remember from studying math is that it usually not enough just to get the right answer. You’ve got to get the right answer for the right reason. That’s why teachers make you show your work, rather than just fill in the blank with the right answer. Well, that’s kind of what’s going on between Paul and Philemon. The “right answer,” of course, is for Onesimus to be free, to no longer be a slave. The “right answer” is for Philemon to permanently set Onesimus free—to do so openly and legally, as only he was able to do. Paul wants Onesimus to enjoy freedom that is not tainted by being technically illegal and underground. He wants Onesimus to be free openly, transparently, not in the shadows. Onesimus deserved that much as a human being created in the image of God. For Philemon to liberate Onesimus was most definitely the right answer. It would satisfy the obvious demands of justice—obvious to us, at any rate, though probably not so much to Philemon and his contemporaries.

But even that is not good enough for Paul. He doesn’t simply want Onesimus to be free. He doesn’t simply want Onesimus to be legally emancipated by Philemon just because it’s the right thing to do. He wants Onesimus’ freedom to flow naturally from both Onesimus and Philemon having a mutual epiphany, a simultaneous “Aha!” moment. He wants them both to understand that the entire foundation of their relationship is no longer determined by Roman law, or by Greek social custom, but by the new identities they have been given by having both been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul wants them to know that their union in Christ trumps and transforms all other dimensions of their relationship.

But in order to bring them both to such a realization, especially Philemon, Paul has to persuade Onesimus to once again put himself in a very vulnerable position, putting his very freedom at risk. Paul wants Onesimus to return to Philemon and say, “I’m back. What’s next?” And he wants Philemon, in turn, to not merely come to his senses about the immorality of slavery, but to see Onesimus not as a slave, or even—and this distinction is critically important—not even as a former slave, but as a brother in Christ. “Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while,” Paul writes, “that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” And he wants it to be Philemon’s idea, not a matter of bowing to pressure from his old friend Paul. He says, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.”

Now, while human trafficking, sadly, does happen in our world today, it’s in the shadows, quite illegal, everywhere. Chattel slavery is no longer a legal institution in our world. So we might be tempted to admire Paul’s rhetorical skill in this letter, but then cast it aside as not really relevant. We would be wrong to do so. While we may not deal with slavery in our experience, we do deal with issues of identity. Even more than he wanted freedom for Onesimus, Paul wanted Onesimus and Philemon both to set aside entirely their slave-master relationship. More than wanting it to be over, he wanted them to see it as meaningless, moot, yesterday’s news. Our society invites us to claim our identity—in effect, to name ourselves—in a multitude of ways. Young … old … fat … fit … sick … successful … poor … gay … straight … American … disabled … educated … wealthy … depressed … beautiful … clever … illiterate … illegal … bright … addicted … privileged … and many, many more. We are every day sucked into defining ourselves, and therefore our relationship with others, whether we’re aware of it or not, according to these labels. Paul invites Onesimus and Philemon to cast aside the labels “master” and “slave” as categories by which they understood themselves and their relationship to one another, and to adopt instead “brother in Christ.” He invites us, through this letter, to do the same. He invites us to set all those other identities down on the ground—not necessarily as garbage, but simply as no longer necessary, no longer relevant—and keep on moving. He invites us to see our relationships with one another not as people who agree on something, or who share the same political views or the same taste in fashion or music, or whatever, but as sisters and brothers in Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever and sealed with the Holy Spirit in the waters of new birth.

Do we know who we are? Are we ready to live like we know who we are? Amen.

The Lord's Day (XIII Pentecost)

Yesterday until mid-afternoon was spent getting a haircut and dealing with rat drama. Apparently we have a "major infestation" in our basement and it will cost us $$$ to eradicate the critters But it will be nice to have done. Brenda and I headed south around 2:30 and pulled in at the Hilton Garden, O'Fallon five hours later. We grabbed a nice dinner at Bella Milano across the street and then hit the hay. Up early this morning, in time to preside and preach (as "supply priest") both liturgies at St George's, Belleville, and then meet with their Mission Leadership Team to discuss both the near and mid-term future, as they are in the early stages of a pastoral interregnum. On the road northward at 1pm, arrived home at 8:00, after a stop for lunch in Litchfield and in Springfield for some shopping (believe it or not, there are items we got accustomed to in Springfield that we haven't been able to find in Chicago yet).

Friday, September 6, 2019

Friday

  • Customary early-AM routine,
  • Traded emails with the rector of the host parish for next month's annual synod, mostly pertaining to worship details.
  • Edited, refined, printed, and scheduled for posting my homily for this Sunday (St George's, Belleville). The "printed" part of that sequence turned into a black hole, however, as I got sucked into technology hell trying to work out a relatively small kink. I failed, and had to eventually settle for the output I had. 'Twill serve.
  • Then, as I was returning to the apartment after placing the sermon text in the back seat of my car, as is my habit, I noticed a non-domestic mammal scurrying across the kitchen floor. We've had escalating rat sighting in the basement and the back stairwell of late, and were taking appropriate measures, but having one in our living space is another matter entirely. It consumed our attention for quite some time. We made some calls and arranged for an exterminator to come by "sometime after 3pm." We regretted no longer having a cat living with us.
  • So ... while we waited:
  • Lunched on some chicken taquitos that were in the freezer, purchased for just such as contingency as this.
  • Wrote a "friendly" email to the Eucharistic Communities of the diocese that have not yet turned in a Mission Strategy Report for 2019 (which is more than half of them).
  • Corresponded with the co-chairs of the Department of Mission about related matters.
  • Completed a review of my own ministry, using the same instrument that others have been asked to complete about said ministry.
  • Carefully read another in the catechetical pamphlet series from the Living Church Foundation. Two more to go.
  • Welcomed the exterminator, finally, at 4:45. He placed a couple of pro-grade traps in some strategic areas and carefully searched for the intruder, finding nothing. I'm choosing to believe the varmint got out the back door while we left it open all afternoon trying to create that very possibility.
  • Still feeling kind of traumatized, we let Evening Prayer slip through the cracks. Brenda and I ended up walking out for some Indian food. We returned feeling rather better.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Thursday

  • Save for some task-organizing time, the morning was consumed by healthcare appointments--first me, then Brenda. We grabbed a slightly early lunch from Subway and ate it at home.
  • Spent intensive quality time with commentaries on Luke's gospel in preparation for preaching on October 13 at St Christopher's, Rantoul. I very much enjoy an excuse to engage in this sort of close study of scripture.
  • Took a small but significant step in a difficult pastoral-administrative situation that is on the home stretch toward resolution.
  • Sat down to choose hymns and service music for the Mass and annual synod next month, This kind of thing invariably ends up consuming more time than it feels like it ought to.
  • Polished the draft of my review of Chris Arnade's Dignity and sent it off to the editor of The Living Church.
  • Wrote my column for the next issue of the Springfield Current, posted it to the website, and sent a link to the Communications Coordinator,
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wednesday

  • Customary early AM routine.
  • Took care of a couple of small administrative matters via email with the Administrator.
  • Did the hard work of developing a homiletical message statement for Proper 21 (September 29 at St Stephen's, Harrisburg) into a developed sermon outline.
  • Watched a set of videos about baptism being purveyed by the communications office of the Episcopal Church. I'm happy to say that the production values are great and they're a pleasure to watch, and I'm sorry to say that they are utterly vapid and devoid of meaningful theological, spiritual, or pastoral content. What a wasted opportunity.
  • Lunched on leftovers.
  • Participated in one more volley of pastoral care emails with a lay person of the diocese.
  • Took Brenda to an acupuncture appointment.
  • Drafted my review of the book Dignity (by Chris Arnade) for the Living Church. I will refine it and send it off to the editor by week's end.
  • Did a quick bit of synod-related work.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda. Fixed dinner just a tad on the early side so I could take a long walk before darkness set in.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Tuesday

  • Customary early AM routine.
  • Conferred with the Archdeacon by email over a couple of different issues.
  • Spent a not insignificant chunk of time drafting a memo to the Chancellor seeking his counsel on an administrative matter that feels like something from the old Terminator movies.
  • Did appropriate cosmetic surgery on a "pre-preached" sermon text on Proper 19 in anticipation of giving it a reprise when In visit my DEPO parish in Yazoo City, MS on the 15th.
  • Lunched on leftovers.
  • "Ran" a personal healthcare-related errand by phone.
  • Did some more homiletical cosmetic surgery, this time on a text for Proper 20, when I have no visitation but have accepted a guest gig at Ascension, Chicago.
  • Developed and polished an already-existing rough draft of my next-due post for the Covenant blog and sent it off to the editor. A few minutes later, at his urging, I performed a minor tweak.
  • Took an initial prayerful pass at the readings for Proper 24 and opened a sermon file for my October visitation to St Paul's, Carlinville.
  • Took my daily walk, racking up around 8000 steps.
  • Spent much of the evening, with the Cubs game in the background with no audio, working on a sensitive and difficult pastoral situation.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Lord's Day (XII Pentecost)

No visitation this weekend (I had kept it clear to be able to attend my 50th high school class reunion events), so Brenda and I sat in the pews at the regular 1030 Mass at St Paul's-by-the-Lake. Ran into a former ordinand and curate of the Diocese of Springfield and her priest husband, both now serving parishes in the Diocese of Oklahoma, who grew up at St Paul's. Small world. Spent some significant time in the afternoon polishing my pastoral teaching on marriage in light of feedback I've gotten from a vetting group. Then it was off to DuPage County for the main reunion event. The whole weekend has been an emotionally complex experience for me, but nearly completely positive. Therapeutic, even.