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August 16, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 15 Year B - William Porcher Dubose

 

Proper 15

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    There are cynics in the Episcopal Church who might define tradition as "something we've done twice." In that vein, it has become the tradition of this parish to take a brief summer vacation from the lectionary and turn to the calendar of saints to hear the stories of faith and witness of Christians throughout the ages.  

    For years and years, the list of exemplary saints were recorded in the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. A number of years ago at General Convention, the list of honored Christians was greatly expanded and the register was renamed Holy Women, Holy Men. Earlier this summer, General Convention updated the list and renamed it A Great Cloud of Witnesses. My hope now is that General Convention will leave well enough alone, because I personally love the title A Great Cloud of Witnesses. For me, it perfectly captures why we seek inspiration from the men and women who not just preceded us, but who, in their witness to the Risen Christ helped transmit the faith from one generation to the next. 

    I would encourage all of you, when it is published in the next few months, to take a yearly tour through the Great Cloud of Witnesses. You will find the classical saints, the apostles of Jesus, the pillars of the Church like Francis and Augustine. But you will also find more approachable saints, men and women whose faith was evidenced in the love of the Church. 

    On Tuesday, the Church will remember William Porcher Dubose. Dubose is an intriguing figure in the history of the Episcopal Church. Some historians believe that Dubose is one of the most significant voices in American theology within the Episcopal Church. Between 1892 and 1911, Dubose published six different books of systematic theology. And while we will delve into the particulars of his beliefs in a few minutes, what makes Dubose's voice so intriguing is the context in which he wrote. 

    Dubose was born in 1836 into a landed Southern Aristocracy. Surrounded by the practice of slavery, Dubose believed it to be part of the divine order. As a top graduate of the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, in 1855 Dubose would soon be given the opportunity to fight for his beliefs. During the Civil War, Dubose was wounded on three separate occasions; his horse was shot out from under him at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and he was held in a lice-infested POW camp for over two months. But it was after the Confederate troop were routed at Cedar Creek which served as the pivot of Dubose's life. 

    Lying awake at Cedar Creek, it dawned upon Dubose that the Confederacy would ultimately loose the Civil War. Such a thought had never previously occured to him, and the realization came upon him "like the shock of death," it was almost like witnessing "the utter extinction of the world."

    And while the Civil War would end a year later at Appomattox, the personal toll of the war would continue for Dubose. Returning home to South Carolina, DuBose found that both of his parents had died, and that Sherman had burned the family home to the ground. He would later describe this time as "unendurable and utterly hopeless." Tragedy followed Dubose after the war, as well. He buried two wives and a son, and in the face of such immense personal loss, DuBose spent the remainder of his life searching for answers: "How could he have been so wrong on slavery? Where is God in a world full of error, hardship, and grief? How does God bring unity out of division, renewal out of devastation, good out of evil, life out of death? 

    Those were undoubtably difficult questions—questions that often go unanswered despite a lifetime of searching, but Dubose would dedicate the remainder of his life to those questions and ones like it. Dubose had studied for ordination before the war, and he was ordained in 1886, just a year following the war. His ministry began  in the town of Winnsboro and Abbeville, South Carolina, but Dubose would soon find that he would be called to probe life’s difficult questions from within academia. In 1871, the Trustees of the University of the South called Dubose to serve as Chaplain. At that time, Swanee was little more than a mountaintop tract of land, but with the help of Dubose and others, the Episcopal University of the South grew faithfully. From 1871 until his retirement in 1908, Dubose served as Chaplain, professor, promoter, and ultimately, the dead of the School of Theology, a seminary which he helped establish in 1878. 

    Dubose helped to shape generations of clergy in the south, and as I said earlier, his influence in theology is quite remarkable. 

    While it would be impossible to sum his works in a sermon, there a few emblematic beliefs which capture much of his over-reaching theology. The first is his understanding of the Incarnation, of the nature of the person and divinity of Jesus Christ. 

    “Dubose accepted the traditional creedal statements about the person of Christ, but emphasized Christ’s human nature, to the point that some critics accused him, (wrongfully, I might add) of denying the divinity of Christ. He felt Jesus’ humanity had been neglected over the centuries, with costly consequences. Christ, DuBose stressed, was like us in every respect, save that he was without sin. That meant Christ shared all our weaknesses, including doubts, fears, ignorance of the future, and the temptation with the real possibility of choosing evil over good. Dubose did not deny that Christ performed miracles, but he downplayed their significance. Anything short of this would have meant Christ did not share human experience and therefore could not have been our savior. God could have disclosed himself to human beings and saved us only by becoming one of us, in every way, Dubose felt. 

    “Then there is the other side of the Incarnation—humanity giving itself to God. Jesus was not only “God’s absolute gift to the world,” but, through his wiling obedience, he was also the “world’s supreme gift of itself to God.” This gift is not yet fully completed or realized in every creature, DuBose admitted, but Christ represents all, and in Christ the world’s gift of itself to God is completed and realized, and the estrangement between Creator and creature healed. DuBose was adamant in rejecting the idea that Christ died as a substitute for humanity. He insisted instead that Christ was the representative of humanity. Had Christ died as a substitute, he would have done something for us, whereas Dubose believed that as a representative, he did something in us, changing not merely our status, from guilty to acquitted, but our very nature.”

    Dubose’s theology, like all academic pursuits, is never done in a vacuum. Much of his hopes that humanity would be reconciled to one another and to God obviously was a response to his experience in the Civil War, but his understanding of the Incarnation was not the only area of his theology influenced by the current events of the day. 

    Before the American Civil War, as DuBose was studying for the ministry, an English Biologist published a small tract, Evolution of the Species. Darwin’s approach to understanding the adaption of species to their environments can not be understated when evaluating Dubose’s theology. Unlike many Christian thinkers of his day, Dubose embraced Darwinism, a controversy in its own right, but especially when coupled with how that would influence his understanding of the Church. 

    Perhaps DuBose’s most controversial belief was his reluctance to embrace the creeds as the final statements of Christian faith. “Doctrinal statements must change, he argued, because we and our conceptions of truth are always changing.” DuBose believed that evolution had an important part to play in the Christian story. Christian beliefs themselves are evolving and “no truth out to be considered final and irreformable.” He saw all human statements as imperfect and felt the church teachings should be “taken out of their napkins” and allowed to take part in the give and take of ideas. Truth, he argued, needs no fortress to protect it. 

    Of course, when you open Church teachings to the marketplace of ideas, there is a danger that error might creep into the church. To his great credit, Dubose felt that this wasn’t a possibility, it was an absolute certainty. The Church might consider error, but there is no reason to be intimidated by it. “The Church should hear, test, and try every new idea, trusting that experience will separate truth from falsehood.”

    DuBose’s own experience of slavery becomes emblamatic of how evolutionary revelation can be. He wrote the following:

    “The world is constantly outgrowing and making sinful institutions which…were not so to it in the age or at the stage in which they prevailed. Polygamy was no sin to Abraham. Slavery was no sin in the consciousness or conscience of the New Testament. Feudalism was no sin in its day, but would be so now. Puritanism in forms where were once admirable would now be condemned. The time will come when war will be a sin. The South received and exercised slavery in good faith and without doubt or question, whatever we pronounce it now, it was not a sign at that time to those people. It was natural that we were were in it and of it would be the last to see its extinction as a necessary step in the moral progress of the world. Now that the judgement is passed, we join in it. Slavery we say, is a sin, and a sin of which we could not possibly be guilty.”

    DuBose’s beliefs were obviously grounded in the context of his experience and environment. Indeed, I think Dubose is all the more remarkable because of his self-understanding. He never feared change or reacted to change instinctively. There seems to be a bedrock belief in the role of the Holy Spirit in DuBose’s beliefs as he approached the questions of his day.

    When Dubose talks about the Incarnation, he is talking about the person of God in Christ. But the incarnation isn’t limited to a historical figure in ancient Judea. Dubose understood that the Incarnation is also present in the Body of Christ in the Church. “As the Lord assumed his fleshly body, so has he assumed the mystical body, the church, which became “the humanity of his larger incarnation.” “The church doesn’t merely proclaim Christ—it is Christ present in the world today. Christ does not guide the Church from outside, but fills it with himself. Again, evolution is key to his understanding of the church—wracked with divisions and infighting, the church is obviously not completely Christlike— not yet, but the process is underway, and Dubose defined the church not by what it is, but by what it is becoming.”

    I get the sense that in a world racked by pain and tragedy, that DuBose was comforted by a belief in God’s providence. That the troubles and evils of this world are merely preparing us for the greater glory which is to be revealed. DuBose knew his own place in this evolution of human knowledge of the Divine. He would no more hold up his own beliefs than the Historical Creeds as the summation of our understanding of God. His, like ours, is an evolutionary step, which precedes and progressed to that ultimate union with our loving God and Creator. Perhaps this knowledge of the future revelation is what gave him a sense of unyielding hope in the face of devastating personal loss. Writing just before his death in 1918, he said, “God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image but the Very Person of the Spiritual Man. We have not to ascend into heaven to bring Him down, nor to descend in to the abyss to bring Him up, for He is with us, and near us, and in us. We have only to confess with our mouths that He is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead—and raised us in Him —and we shall live.”

 




August 9, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 14- Year B

Proper 14

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

    If I were forced to say what the single biggest problem facing Christianity today might be, my answer would be domesticity. 

    I am not suggesting that the best church is a wild animal, nor am I suggesting that we are too tame in our proclamation of the Good News, it’s just, quite simply, we all too often forget how radical our message once was. After enjoying centuries as a dominant cultural force in the West, Christianity is perceived as a moderating force in society’s life. But the truth is that this conception of the Church and of Jesus’ message couldn’t be further from the truth. 

    Jesus was a spiritual radical. One of my favorite biblical scholars, John Meier reminds us that a happy-go-lucky spiritual guru will not find himself tried by the Temple leadership and crucified by the Romans. Only a dynamic preacher whose wholesale revision and upheaval of our understanding of God could ultimately cause enough of a disturbance to find himself the enemy of the religious leadership of the time. 

    That is an important lens with which to understand the Gospels. Anyone who has read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke becomes immediately aware that they are following a very similar outline of the events of Jesus life and contain many of the same incidents and speeches. That is why they are collectively referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. John, on the other hand, follows an almost completely different path. The events of Jesus life are arranged in a strikingly different pattern, and John quotes long speeches or sermons by Jesus which are not in the other three Gospels. So for centuries Biblical scholars have regarded the Synoptics as the more historically accurate of the Gospels, and have marveled at the beauty and poetry of John, but not taken his accounts as being all that accurate. Within the last few decades, however, this view has been changing and scholars are beginning to see far more historical accuracy and important information in John’s Gospel than they have previously been willing to grant. Many now hold that while John is indeed different than the others, perhaps he is using an independent, but nonetheless accurate source, that was unavailable to the other authors.

 

    So if we are going to try to deal with these very difficult and even somewhat distasteful sayings of Jesus, we ought to begin treating them seriously, as if Jesus meant exactly what he said. Just listen again to what he said to the Jews in the synagogue at Capernaum. “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

    Jesus continues this in what we will hear in next week’s gospel reading, “truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed...This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will life for ever.”

    Now…if you were trying to find a way to truly alienate all the loyal Jews in the synagogue that day, and probably confuse a good many of the disciples as well, you really couldn’t have done a much more thorough job than Jesus just did. In just a few sentences he has attack just about all the basic underpinning of the faith and practice of Judaism. Not bad for a morning’s work.

    One way to talk about a religion is to look at its foundational events, those events or actions which began the faith story and which become the tool by which all future events are interpreted and evaluated. In the history of Judaism there were really three: the  escape and Exodus through the divided waters of the Red sea: the miraculous feeding of the people with heavenly produced manna as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness; and finally the giving of the Law which would bind God and his people together forever. And in this little statement by Jesus, he has managed to totally dismiss and explicitly reject two of the three. 

    For the Jews of Jesus’ day, manna, that miraculous food which sustained them during their wanderings in the desert  was indeed “bread from heaven”, or the food of angels”. It was the miraculous God-given stuff which was at once the symbol and the tangible proof of God’s sustaining love for his people. It was indeed the bread of life. Now Jesus tells them that they have gotten it all wrong, that this “bread of heaven” may have worked wonders in the wilderness , but in fact was no guarantee of real or everlasting life. In short, what he was saying was that this heavenly food in which they believed so devoutly was worthless.

    It is somewhat like my great aunt who insisted on living on bran, fiber, and dried nuts, believing it seems that if she lives only on foods which have no flavor or give no pleasure she will live indefinitely. 

    (As an aside, it turns out that the flavor of repentance is eating a cake made without flour or sugar.)  

    What Jesus was saying to the Jews of his day would be as if someone were to tell this nutritionally fundamentalist relative of mine, that new studies have proved conclusively that the only foods that are really good for your are a Burger King Bacon Double Cheeseburgers, with a large side of french fries, washed down with a thick rich vanilla milkshake. It would be a scandal, all that she had been taught and believed, all that they had believed for thousands of years, would suddenly be thrown out the window.

    And as if that were not enough, Jesus went further. For even more horrifying than eating flesh, the idea of drinking blood would be completely abhorrent to any observant Jew. The Law of Moses utterly forbids consuming any blood whatsoever, and for anyone to violate this prohibition would result in their expulsion from the community. To the Jew, an animal, a person’s “life force” was contained in the blood, so it was absolutely prohibit for a person to drink the life principle of any other being.

    In fact, the Orthodox Jews, to this day, soak meat in water for thirty minutes, then salt it, and let it stand for an hour, then wash it again to draw out any residue of blood before the meat can be cooked and consumed. That is the law of Moses. And yet here is Jesus proclaiming that if someone wants eternal life, they must, emphasize must, eat his flesh and drink his blood. This was more than radical, this was pure scandal.

    So now that Jesus has their attention, in fact now that he has them really upset, what is he trying to say. I think what he is saying is really two things at once. First to the Jews of his day and to Christians of our day, he is saying quite bluntly that religion, true religion is not about following the rules, it is not about incremental moral and spiritual improvement. Then as now, we tend to think of religion or faith primarily in terms of following the rules, and trying very hard to do just a little bit better: to be little more generous, and little more compassionate, a little more faithful in our religious obligations and a little more compassionate toward our neighbor. 

    And what Jesus is saying is that that is nonsense, faith, true faith, is not about doing a little bit better at the edges, it is about a complete and radical change of heart. All week, I have been trying to think of just the right analogy to use at this point. and to be honest, I’m not the least sure that I have it yet. But the closest I can come is to say that it is something like marriage. Some people have whirlwind courtships and get married within a few weeks of their first meeting, and stay married for the rest of their lives. Other couples know each other for years, and date for month after month until they finally decide to get married and then they stay married for the rest of their lives. 

    Up until that point, you can be the most ardent suitor, the most trustworthy date, or the most faithful friend, heck, you can even live together, but nothing really counts until you are married in front of God and man and everyone.

    Then everything changes, whether you want it to or not. You have made a lifetime promise and commitment and the only question is whether the two of you will be able to keep that promise. Two people can live together faithfully and lovingly for years and decades, but in the final analysis it is only playing at marriage. Marriage is the risk, the commitment that comes when the promise of a lifetime is made. Then, somehow, everything is what it was while you were dating, yet somehow everything is totally different. It is the difference between a real commitment, real trust and love, and playing around the edges. It is the difference between the real thing, and non-dairy creamer. 

    It is what Jesus was trying to tell those people in this morning’s Gospel, it is the difference between an historical ritual and the faith it may engender, and a real, living commitment to God which undergirds all that a person does. It is the difference between the real, and the almost real. It is the difference between manna a wine, and the body and blood of Christ. As the German Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart put it in the thirteen century: “The bodily food we take is changed into us, but the spiritual food we receives changes us into itself; therefore divine love is not taken into us, for that would make two things. But divine love takes us into itself and we are one with it.”

    I think we all want to be close enough to God to be assured that he is around should we need him someday in an emergency, but most of us don’t want to get too close lest we be consumed by him or be overwhelmed by his love. But at some point, after a long or short courtship you have to decide, “Is he the one I trust, or not?” and if the answer is to be yes, then everything else is different and all that went before is mere pretense and pretending. At some point you just have to choose. Do I accept the gift, or not?




July 5, 2015, 12:00 AM

6 Pentecost

6th Sunday of Pentecost 5 July in the Year of our Lord 2015 

Morning Prayer and Sermon at Christ the King

Ezekiel 2:1-7                                                                             Psalm 123 Page 780, BCP                                                                 2 Corinthians 12:2-10                                                                Mark 6:1-13

      TO MISS THE MARK & FIND NEWNESS OF LIFE

For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life. Romans 6:4

 

A Russian literary critique of the early 20th century believed that “habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” The first taste of an exotic fruit is wonderful, over time its special quality may be muted. Some years ago I bought an Italian sport coat in San Francisco, I felt like a Spanish nobleman when I wore it. Today I rarely notice it in my closet. Married people who have made love to each other hundreds or even thousands of times go to counselors for help for they wish to regain the passion and joy they experienced the first few times. Good luck, unless you discover the Fountain of Youth. The point is that habit may kill our apprehension of reality. Let’s look at one case in the call of the prophet Ezekiel.

The Prophetic books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel imply that habit may indeed devour the fear of war, such as led Israel and Judah king’s to open revolt against the exponentially more powerful Babylon. After being shocked by a spectacular vision of four angelic Cherubim and an image of God blazing in light and fire, Ezekiel is told by God that he was chosen to prophesy to the people of Judah and Israel. He was to offer repentance to a defeated people in exile. 

Yet even in their humiliation and uprooting to a foreign land, they do not want change. God tells Ezekiel he is to speak God’s messages to them even though they are “a rebellious house … thorns and scorpions.” Yahweh was faithful to his covenant with “Abraham and his descendants.” He determined that even in desolation brought on by their unfaithfulness … He would give them an authentic prophet who would offer newness of life. Ezekiel will find that the Chosen People do not wish for renewal and hold to their old ways. And so Jerusalem will be destroyed and Israel remains in captivity for decades. Yet if we look to the end of Ezekiel’s prophesy, the LORD promises that His people will, in the future repent and again be blessed.

Habit may also preserve modern forms of sinful behavior. N.T. Wright says that all sin springs from the “primal fault, which is idolatry, worshiping that which is not God, as if it were” (Surprised By Hope, 179). Material idolatries that put possessions first and God after, white lies (that supposedly hurt no one), petty demonstrations of pride, evasions when Jesus calls us to some kind of service. 

And we cannot forget genocidal sins on a massive scale, true horrors of human decision-making. In each of the examples to follow some ideology took the place of God. Stalin’s Purges of 1932-1939 took 7 million lives: wealthy peasants who resisted collectivization, 90% of the officer class of the Military and countless political undesirables killed in Siberian Gulags.   Adolf Hitler’s Nazi’s killed 12 million Jews, Slavs and other civilians and abandoned 3 million Russian POWs to starvation. Hideki Tojo, the head of the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces oversaw the murder of 5 million civilians in occupied territories from 1941-1944. In Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution from 1958-1962, 45 Million Chinese were worked, starved or beaten to death. Chinese leaders love to take Tojo to task for his massacres in Nanking and other Chinese cities but their revisionist history is silent on the so-called Great Leap Forward’s genocide. These are just the most egregious examples of genocide in the 20th century. There are many more.  

We may be disappointed or even outraged at times with our leaders or practice of government. The way so many running for office are bought and paid for makes me ill. We cringe at examples of civilian barbarity such as happened at the Emanuel AME church of South Carolina last month. But I thank the LORD that our country does not have to carry the psychological burden of genocide on such a scale. 

Nearly all of the people I love in the world are Americans. I thank God for this country and have never wanted to live anywhere else. Happy 4th of July! But we are not finished.

A preacher’s message is not easily born. The readings for this morning did not coalesce for me until I thought about what St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans: since Christ is risen … so we may also walk in newness of life. Then the Old and New Testament readings shaped up for me around the idea of turning from the ordinary and habitual to “newness of life.” 

The word sin in the New Testament is hamartia, which means to miss the mark, our failure to will to reflect the image of God: such as led Adam and Eve to disobey. Repentance, as preached by the prophet’s, by Jesus and the Apostles leads to change, a return to true humanness, a renewal of life … not lockstep obedience to endless lists of arbitrary rules. Let’s have a look at the gospel lesson.

During his ministry, Jesus reached out equally to all: rich and poor, young and old, urbanites and village dwellers, saints and sinners.  At one point he decided to visit his family and hometown, and share his message with his fellow villagers. Today Nazareth is a small city of about 75,000 people, primarily Arab Christians but also thousands of Jews. Archaeological excavations have confirmed that the city was an agricultural village of about 500 during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. During the lifetime of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, village people knew one another, and like Jesus, lived, prayed and studied in the Jewish tradition. They gathered in the synagogue, meeting for prayer and holidays. Nazareth was home to Jesus in the same way that Quincy and the surrounding communities are home to many of us. Jesus was well known and respected enough to be allowed to teach in their local synagogue on the Sabbath. So I presume he had rabbinical status. St. Mark says that those who heard him were amazed and offended at the same time.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing?  Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Both the message and the healing ministry are seen to be notable: where did he learn all this wisdom, and how can he perform miracles? But what is the default position of the most vocal of the men present: he is no better than us, a common laborer. We know his family; he is no one special. We see here the insanity of unbelief: his fellow villagers are amazed at his teaching and admit to seeing miraculous healing, yet they reject his authority and message. Leave us be and do not speak to us of Good News and New Life.

Jesus is amazed: A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.

But he is not hampered by this set back; he left Nazareth and proceeded from Jewish village to village in Galilee, and sent out his 12 Disciples with authority to do the same. Preach repentance and heal the sick. Preach that we have missed the mark and failed to reflect the image of God in the way we live. Preach that we are offered through relationship to Jesus a way to walk in newness of life. Jesus counsels the 12 to follow his example: don’t be concerned about money or extra clothes but except the hospitality of those who embrace the message; if a town rejects the message, leave it the way I did Nazareth, my home town. There are always other villages and other people.

Anthony Doerr, in Four Seasons in Rome said, “the easier an experience, or the more entrenched, or the more familiar, the fainter our sensation of it becomes.” Habits are imbedded and we persist in them, even though the habitual patterns often dictate a grayer, less meaningful life. Yet to the reformer we say, “leave me be, it may be a drab life but it’s mine.”

Shall we apply these Scriptural insights to ourselves? Or do we wish to live in a habitual haze of the commonplace and the familiar? Do we choose the easy way of the faint hearted or grasp the hand of the Savior and seek through Jesus glory, honor and immortality!

As was true for the people of ancient Israel and Judah, and for the villagers of Nazareth, God knows where we stand and what we need. He will send us prophetic voices that convey a message offering newness of life, a message with the same currency that it had in ancient Israel and 1st century Nazareth. These messengers will speak with authority words of power and beauty that are consistent with the Scriptural revelation that is our lodestone. And on occasion, if we are paying attention, the word will go directly to the hidden needs of our hearts. As Jesus said, come to me, come to me, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

 

 

Quincy California

Joseph J. Muñoz

 

 

 

 




June 21, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 7 - Emmanuel AME Church Shooting

Proper 7

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

    One of my favorite books in the Bible is the story of Job. For several weeks, I have been taking mental notes about how to approach this morning’s sermon. Thoughts from when I spent a whole semester studying Job in seminary, to new insights gleaned from re-reading the book again a few weeks ago. Now, the Book of Job is a lot of things, butt its core, though, the book of Job is a meditation on the subject of Theodicy. Formally, Theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the manifestation of evil with a good and all powerful God. Theodicy tries to answer questions like “How or why does God allow or permit evil to exist?” Colloquially, the question is “why do bad things happen to good people?”

    The sermon I wrote on Tuesday approached the Book of Job and the topic of Theodicy from a very sterile and intellectual perspective. Yet, the events of Wednesday night, the horrific, cold-blooded murder of nine Christians gathered at a Bible Study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, men and women gunned down by an assailant whose hatred twisted his soul into committing these heinous acts makes any discussion about the presence and nature of evil more than academic.  We are no longer given the luxury of debating what our response to an imagined evil should be, instead, we are being called to model—to witness—who Scripture calls us to be in the presence of evil and suffering. 

    First and foremost, it needs to be understood that Scripture does not give us a guide on how to avoid or protect yourself from evil or suffering—it teaches us how to live with and in the face of suffering. Stories like Job, and especially the Passion of Jesus underscore this point fully: Innocence and righteousness are not shields from evil and suffering. 

    When it comes to an understanding of suffering, perhaps there is no greater spokesman in scripture than Paul. Paul was himself no stranger to suffering in his ministry to the church. He was imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, and often found himself as the object of scorn and derision in the early church. But more importantly, Paul never understood his suffering as evidence that he was separated from God’s love. In fact, quite the opposite. Paul was absolutely convinced that God is present with us and shares in our sufferings. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    Whether facing personal or national tragedies, we too, should remind ourselves of Paul’s bedrock belief that God is always present in our lives. That the God who bore the sins of the world upon the cross also bears our pains in his heart. 

    And because Paul was so absolutely convinced of God’s love and presence, Paul began to completely trust God’s ways, even when they didn’t make sense, especially when they didn’t make sense. Paul knew that God operates on a different, righteous plane of understanding. That while we may look at God’s action in the world, or even at God’s apparent inaction when it comes to preventing evil, that God’s purposes will never be thwarted. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. But we proclaim Christ crucified. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”

    This understanding of the Christ, and of Christ Crucified especially, is critical to our response to evil and suffering. Paul wrote that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was a “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” How could the Jewish God abandon his own anointed one, his own Messiah, his own Christ, to the profane and sacrilegious death upon a cross? Compounding that was the foolishness that Christianity must have represented to the Romans. How could the symbol for a religion be a powerless man dying upon a cross, hoisted there by the world’s most powerful empire? What power could this God ultimately have if he was powerless to save his Son?

    The answer, which by God’s grace we have witnessed this week, is that God’s power is not exercised through human scales of strength and power, but through humility and service. As early as Midnight Thursday morning, there were pundits, even religious leaders advocating that we secure and defend our sanctuaries. Those who would weaponize our clergy have abandoned the gospel of Christ. We can never insulate the Church from suffering or evil, for our charter is to be in the midst of suffering and to resist evil by the power of Holy Spirit. 

    These same observers were shocked that so many family members of the victims could pronounce their forgiveness to Dylann Roof at his arraignment on Friday. Yet that is the power of God, a stumbling bock to the world, and foolishness for those outside the faith. 

    Our media, in a critical dis-service to all of us, play into the power of fear. Shooters like Dylann Roof in Charleston, Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook, James Holmes in Aurora, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in Columbine, are drawn to the seductive power that violence pretends to offer. They foolishly believe that their brandishing weapons in the face of the unarmed makes them powerful, capable of instilling fear. But, to their great credit, and in a move undoubtably inspired by the Holy Spirit, the families of the victims Wednesday night demonstrated what real power is. Merely hours after their loved ones were killed, they said they forgave Dylann. When we balance the firepower of these assailants with the power which these families demonstrated in forgiving the one who so violently took the lives of their loved ones just a day after their deaths…where does the real power lie?

    There. Exactly that, is what we, as Christians are called to be. We are called to witness to the power of God in Christ—and that power is revealed not in physical strength but spiritual resolve. To be anchored in the faith that nothing, not even violent and truly senseless deaths will separate us from God’s love. 

 

    For most of this past half-week, I have been struggling to find a way to understand the problem of Theodicy. And in my early preparation, I neglected to look at this morning’s Gospel lesson. Since Wednesday night, I have felt, and maybe you have felt the same way—but I have felt like a disciple in that ship being tossed by the violent seas. I look at everything our culture is facing, and I want to turn to Jesus and ask, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

    There are a heartbreaking number of ways in which we are perishing—none of them metaphorical. Why doesn’t God seem to care…why doesn’t God do something to save us from the threats that surround us!? 

    For the people of the Biblical era, the sea was a dangerous and foreboding place. The seas were the manifestation of chaos itself. The sea, in many ways, came to represent everything that we can’t control. Yet what the Gospel of Mark makes absolutely clear, is that Jesus has total authority over the wind and waves. What is chaotic and fearful by human standards, is merely an opportunity for faith by divine standards. 

    When it comes to understanding the chaos of violence which thrashes the boat of our culture, what can we do to save us from perishing? For one, we are called to live faithfully as followers, as disciples of Christ. As such, we are called to rebuke the powers of this world. We must insist that power does not correlate with caliber. We must replace the existential fear that we can not insulate our lives from suffering with the faith that God will always be with us. 

    That, I think, more than anything else, is what drives our culture: fear. In turn, that fear inevitably leads to violence. As a nation, we must recognize the central role violence has played in our national history; why it permeates our society today, and then we must rebuke violence by preaching the gospel. This world cautions us to protect everything through force, if necessary; the gospel insists that it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

    The Christian life is inexorably linked with danger and threats. How did Jesus call his disciples? With these words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

    Those are the stakes. Imagine the gospel if, instead of peacefully allowing himself to be arrested in the Garden of Gesthemene, Jesus had escalated Peter’s attack on the guard. Jesus could have pronounced that he was merely protecting himself, as was his right. But the story wouldn’t end on Easter Sunday. That perversion of the gospel would have ended on Maundy Thursday, and where would we be as a result? 

    We are called to confound the powers of this world, not by returning violence, by through transforming power of love. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Love grounded in the faith that God will not abandon us to the powers of this world. 

 

    Those disciples, afraid and fearing for their own lives on that storm battered sea, did something remarkable. They stayed on the boat. They were not convinced that their salvation rested on their own self-reliance. They knew that they help was, and could only be, centered on Christ. In turn, Jesus modeled what we are called to do. As we respond to the horrors our culture manufacturers in an all too-frequent basis, we are not going to extend or magnify the chaos of the storms. We are called to be agents of stillness and peace. We are called to witness what true power in this world is. We are called to be disciples of Christ. We are called to replace our fears and insecurities upon the foot of the cross and put all our trust in a love which shall never be severed by the lesser powers of this world. 

    I ask your prayers for the victims at the Emmanuel AME Church. I ask you prayers for all the victims of violence. Pray for this nation, that it might have the courage to forsake the gospel of self-reliance in favor of the gospel of Christ. Pray for the courage of stillness. Pray for the Peace which only God can provide. Pray that like the disciples, we may all be brought safely to that distant shore where with the saints and martyrs we shall find our rest. 

Amen.




May 24, 2015, 12:00 AM

Easter 7 - Year B

Easter 7

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. Amen. 

 

 

    Preparing this week’s sermon was made somewhat more difficult by my indecision this week. Normally, I try to decide which of the four lessons might be the most interesting, but this morning I had to first decide which day’s lessons I wanted to preach about. Last Thursday marked the 40th day after Easter, a day also known as the Ascension of Christ. For the eagle-eyed liturgists among us this morning, you may have noticed that the Paschal Candle has returned to the sacristy, a small but important nod to our understanding that Christ, our new Paschal lamb, has returned to heaven. 

    We actually recognize this every week in our worship when we repeat the words of the Nicene Creed: “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The belief in the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God is one of the oldest and most oft repeated affirmations of the faith, and the Feast of the Ascension, last Thursday and forty days after Easter is one of the principle celebrations of the Church year.

    And yet…It is only in the Gospel of Luke that the Ascension of Jesus is mentioned at all. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that the period of Jesus presence among his disciples after his resurrection is delineated as being precisely forty days; and it is only in Luke that we are given a description of the place and the manner of Jesus’s departure.

    So the event, the fact of Jesus Ascension is, then, of particular importance to Luke, but why then is that so? For Luke, the Ascension was of such great importance because it came to symbolize and to mark to an essential transition in the history of the faith.

    For Luke, the Ascension of Jesus serves as a dramatic and final conclusion to Jesus’ ministry as a human being on this earth. Again, for Luke it is important for all Christians to understand that Jesus’ work here on earth has been successfully completed and that he will not appear again amongst us until, as the Creed says “he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead: and his kingdom shall have no end.” 

    It is not as if that at some point after Easter Jesus just vanishes, or that he fails to appear again. It is rather, that having completed his mission he purposefully leaves and we will not see him again, until time itself ends. For Luke, the ascension is the final validation of Jesus’ ministry here among us. He came down from God, was incarnate as a human being, as one of us, he taught, ministered , healed and saved and was put to death upon the cross for our sins. He rose from the dead, thereby opening the way to eternal live to all of us with himself and his father in heaven, to which he, himself, has now returned and waits for us.

    In short, Jesus job is now complete, his task is fully and finally finished and his ascension is the sign of his triumph and our invitation to follow. That is one of the reason Luke emphasizes the Ascension more dramatically than the other Evangelist.

    The beginning of the second reason can be found in the last words which Jesus spoke to his disciples before he ascended to God. He told the apostles: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”  And in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s sequel to his Gospel account of Jesus’ life, Luke gives us his schematic history of the first generation of the Church, wherein, the Church grew and expanded exactly as Jesus had predicted. 

    At the outset, the first converts to Christianity were Jews of Jerusalem who were so moved by the sermons of Peter and John that they asked to be baptized and become Christians. Next came the Samaritans who were first proselytized by Philip and then converted and baptized by Peter and John. 

    This was, in a very real sense, the Church’s first steps beyond the cradle of orthodox Judaism in which it was born. You may recall that during the reign of King Solomon’s successors, Israel became divided into a Southern and a Northern Kingdom: the North being called Israel, the South Judah. By the sixth century before Christ, both Kingdoms had fallen to foreign enemies and had many of their citizens deported. While many of the citizens of Judea were allowed by the Emperor Darius to return and rebuild their capital in Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom continued to languish for centuries, even loosing its name “Israel” to the re-established Judah. And the remnants of the Northern Kingdom became known as the Samaritans.

    But because the Samaritans, the people who lived in the area of Samaria, continued to practice the old religion and worship in the old holy places like Bethel, the Jews of the South held them in contempt, and it was considered impure for a Jew to have anything to do with a Samaritan. It was this Jewish contempt for the Samaritans that Jesus played upon in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and here in the Book of Acts, these conversions of Samaritans represent a giant step by the Church to reach beyond the bounds of its Jewish roots. And was precisely in line with Jesus prophecy minutes before his Ascension.

    Next came the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, who represents yet another step away from Christianity’s Jewish roots and towards the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. We are told that when Philip encountered the Ethiopian, he was reading the book of Isaiah, which implies that he was a serious student of Judaism, but according to the stricture of Jewish law, a eunuch could never become a full-fledged Jew. So first the Gospel is preached to the Jews of Jerusalem, then outwards to the Samaritans and now to a man, who though a student of the Jewish Law, can never become a Jew himself.

    The final step in the fulfillment of Jesus’ Ascension prophecy comes in two parts: the first is Peter’s conversion of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and his entire household, for here there is no Jewish connection at all. And finally with the conversion and then the ministry of St. Paul who, almost literally, took the message of Jesus and his Gospel to the ends of the earth, preaching and converting Gentiles through what we know as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Malta, and all the way to Rome. As Jesus himself had promised, “you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. Within on generation of the apostles, all this had come to pass. 

    This schema of evangelization becomes, in Luke’s talented hands, his own way of understanding, not only the life and accomplishments of Jesus, but the whole history of God’s creation. For Luke the history of the world is divided into three very distinct parts. For Luke, the first chapter of God’s saving history began with creation and includes the entire history of God’s dealings with Israel. From Abraham, the Exodus, Kings David and Solomon and on through all the prophets, the first chapter of this history is the story of God and his Chosen people. This first chapter ends with and is culminated by the witness of John the Baptist who recapitulates and embodies the teachings of all the prophets of whom he is described as the greatest.

    For Luke, the second chapter of the story is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From Jesus’ birth, through his public ministry of teaching, healing, and boundless love; his betrayal and death, and his resurrection, Jesus is the incarnation of God and his love among us here. He is the personification of all of God’s people, and God’s embodied call to each of us. This second period of history is then the real turning point, the fulcrum of God’s dealings with us. For Luke it is Jesus, himself, who is the very center of all history. And this center-point concludes with Jesus Ascension.

    Then finally, the third period of history which is inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and is the story of the Church. The Church, for Luke, has become now the new Israel, the inheritor of all the promises which God has made to his Chosen People throughout history. And this age will last until time itself runs out.

    Now any arbitrary division of history into different periods is always a little suspect, but I find Luke’s to be very helpful. It reminds us that the history of the Church continues and that we are a vital part of that story. We sometimes tend to think of the Church as a matter of Medieval and Reformation history, something that happened some time ago. But Luke reminds us that the Church is very much alive and still making new history, by God’s grace each new day. We are indeed the beneficiaries of a long and costly heritage and what we do, here and now, with our lives and at Christ the King will shape that history from now on.

    Reading the Agile Church this week, it became clear to me how appropriate it is that we reflect on the present challenges and future promise of our faith in our culture and community. Jesus told his disciples “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth,” yet that was not a static command to a group of historical figures. We have become Disciples of Christ through the sacrament of Baptism, and strengthened to continue to this work of discipleship every week through the sacrament of Communion. Their charge has become our duty, and by God’s grace we shall never fail in this endeavor. Amen.


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