Thursday, September 22, 2005

PENTECOST 19: RCL texts for September 25, 2005

FIRST READING: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
verses 3 and 4: "As I live, says the LORD GOD this proverb shall no longer be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die."

The proverb in question says that the Parents eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge. In another place in Scripture the same thought is stated even more deterministicly and theologically: The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children and the children's children to the seventh generation.

Here in Ezekiel we have one of the first hints of individual responsibility before God. Luther put it this way, "We are born alone, we die alone, we face God alone." and that is true. But between being born; and dying and facing God, we (for good or ill) live in some sort of human community.
And that human community plays a part in shaping us into people who understand that our actions in life have implications for others as well as ourselves and as much as possible attempt to take actions which benefit others as well as benefit ourselves. And some people are raised in communities which shape, or bend, them in the opposite direction, a direction filled with admontions that "it's every (person) for his/her self", "look out for number one", and"what's in it for me."

So, once again we find ourselves in the midst of ambiguity and paradox. On the one hand, as the poet and preacher John Donne said, "no man is an island," we are always in the midst of community, are shaped by community and are responsible to and for community. On the other hand, as the spiritual says, "you have to walk that lonesome valley" by yourself. WE are individuals, responsible for our own actions, accountable for our own behaviour.

And this text reminds us of this paradox and calls us to keep it in tension. May God help us.

SECOND READING: Phillipians 2:1-13
verses 6-7: " . .who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. etc."

Here's an idea: use this lesson, in particular verses 5-11, as the Creed or Affirmation of Faith this Sunday. It is, of course, an early hymn or liturgical worship piece, and using it with congregational participation would remind the congregation of this. Perhaps it could be broken into "half-verses" and read like a Psalm or "Responsive Reading".

This text is one of the best remedies to what I call "the abusive Father theory of the Atonement", otherwise called Substitutionary Atonement. In this theory God's Justice is pure and has been violated by each and every human being, which has aroused God's wrath and God's judgement must be "satisified" and God's wrath "appeased." Not not just any sacrifice will foot the bill here, the sacrifice must be "pure" and "perfect" and "without blemish." Ta Da, here's Jesus; the perfect, sinless human being, willing to be sacrificed to appease God's wrath, fulfill God's implacable judgement and justice, to stand in our place and accept our punishment.
Once Jesus dies, God's wrath is apparently spent and he now can love us. Thus, the "Abusive Father theory of the Atonemant." Everytime I hear this preached, I see an angry, abusive Father bent on beating the problematic children and just as he has worked himself up into a fit, the elder brother steps in and the Father beats the "Hell" out of him, and then he is so sorry and I love you all, etc. etc. (I know the technical theory is much more sophisticated than this, but...)

Philippians provides us with an alternative vison. A priviledged son of God, who was indeed "in the form of God' who voluntarily came into the midst of our troubled human lives to be with us and to serve us as a "humble slave", who sufffered what we suffer, and came not to assuage an angry God, but to show us the way through Death. To show to us that lives lived in fear of death are half lives, that the only way to live is to live each day fully and morally, trusting God with what happens after death.

And no, my father wasn't abusive. In fact, we preferred his spankings to those of my mother. He was a big man and I think he was afraid of hurting us.

GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 21:23-32
verse 31: "Which of these two did the will of his father?"
That aforementioned Daddy of mine was a somewhat old-fashioned guy. He really didn't understand the concept of disobedience. We lived on a farm and everybody worked in some capacity from the time they were 5 or 6 years old. And Daddy was the Foreman of this Motley Crew of children. When it came to the work, which was our livelihood, he brooked no opposition, he gave orders and expected them to be obeyed.

Thus, when he told you to do something, and he came back later and discovered it not to have been done, he was well, flabbergasted, and he said, "Didn't you hear me?" For to Daddy, no other explanation made any sense, the only way one of his children would not do something he told them to do was that they had not heard him.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus gets into a dialogue with the "chief priests and elders" about
religious authority and God's will and sinful people, etc. and Jesus makes the point that it is obedience in action rather than verbal assent that makes for faithfulness.

The chief priests and elders are the ones who have said to the LORD, "oh yes LORD, this which you command, we will do." and then gone about their business without doing it.
The "tax collectors and prostitutes" are those who have seemingly ignored God's commands, but after their encounters with Jesus, have begun to live lives of generosity and love.

And the Lord says to the hearers/non-doers, "Didn't you hear me?"
And the Lord says to the non-hearers/doers, "Well done, good and faithful servants."


I'm been trying to work this in, but I can't, so I'll just share it with you, under the category of "who says Church History is boring". While perusing Peter Day's A DICTIONARY OF CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS, I ran accross this item:

An ANABAPTIST sect of uncertain date, but whose origin was at Haarlem, in the Netherlands. The name derived from a young man's indiscreet and affectionate touching of his bride-to-be's breast, an act of tenderness that became voiced abroad among members of the sect. This elicted great disapproval amongst some of the members and they urged in favour of excommunication, while others took a more tolerant view. A split occured in the sect, with those who were willing to overlook the display of affection, who subsequently became known as MAMMILLARIANS,
separating from the hardliners. (Day, p.293)

I've read a lot of church history. I'd say that is probably the most legitimate reason for a denominational split I have ever run across ;-)



Friday, September 16, 2005

Pentecost 18

To those of you (and there are a few) who regularly check this site for sermonic musings, I apologize that there will not be much this week. I am in Houston, at The Hospice where my good friend Barbara is dying.
Her husband Jack and I were room-mates at Guilford College back in the early 70's. We were in each others' weddings, godparents to the kids, etc. etc. Jack and Barbara have been married almost thirty years.

Today's Gospel lesson is about fairness, God's fairness, our fairness with each other. And the difference between fairness and God's Grace.

When I was a kid, fairness was very important to me. I grew up poor in a family with 5 children. Life was full of adults with power making decisions for me. Parents, Teachers, Grand-parents, Pastors, etc.
The only defence a kid has is to appeal to fairness, to justice.

The thing that is important to me about my relationship with Jack is that it was in that friendship that I learned that while fairness was an important thing, it wasn't the only thing.

I suppose he had more money than me. But it seemed natural to him that we just shared what we had with each other. We kept a change bowl and ate out when there was enough money in it. We pooled our resources and bought extra snacks for the room. Etc. It's no big thing, but the subject of who put in what or how much never arose. It was about the relationship.

The has held true for his marriage to Barbara. Share and share alike. No calculations or concerns about "fairness".

Which leads me to think that its about relationships, this kingdom of God thing. And wherever we can find a way to trust, really trust, a relationship, then the contracts and fairness fade in importance.

Which is why the judicial image of God's saving acts toward us is not very compelling for me. We don't owe God anything and God doesn't owe us anything.

God loves us, and because God loves us, God bestows on us goodness.
In response we bestow goodness on others, not because they deserve it, but because they need it, and we are brothers and sisters in Christ with all creation, and so we are in "relationship" to all creation.

And, no it's not fair that a wonderful person and flamboyant artist like Barbara is going to die at 51, leaving a devastated husband and many heartbroken friends. But life isn't fair. Neither is the kingdom. As Mark Twain said, "Heaven doesn't go on merit. It goes on Grace. If it went on merit, your dog would get in and you would stay out."



Friday, September 09, 2005

Pentecost 11, RCL texts for Sept. 11, 2005

FIRST READING: Genesis 50:15-21

Verse 20: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.

So said Joseph to his brothers at the end of that cycle of stories. His brothers sold him into slavery, where he was in prison and in danger of losing his life, when a series of events propeled him into the office of "Prime Minister", Pharoh's right hand man. And, when a famine struck his homeland, Jospeh was positioned to help his family and his country in its time of need.

I wonder, how often does God manipulate my evil into good? Well, maybe not my "evil", but my indifferent, selfish, lacksaidaisical, non-directive, not-intentional behaviour into benefiting others and furthering his kingdom.

More to the point, how often does God turn my ordinary and not very inspired performance of my daily duties into a lifeline for someone in need? More often than I would think, I tink.

We often feel ourselves called to heroic measures for Christ and Kngdom, and, more often than not, our efforts prove to be less than heroic. But teh story of Grace is this: God is at work in us and through us, even when we're just skidding, sometimes even when we are consciously acting against it. God's hand is at work in us, through us and around us.

Martin Luther, in his small Catechism, said that when we pray "thy kingdom come," in the Lord's Prayer, we should be aware that God's Kingdom comes without our prayer or our effort. Our prayer here is that when it comes, we will be a part of it.

GOSPEL READING: Matthew 18:21-35

I knew two brothers. They're dead now. They grew up hard in rual NC during the depression. Tried their hand at a few things, truck-driving, tobacco farming, served in the Army in WWII. Not failures at any of it, but stilll just getting by.

After the War, they decided to start a dairy. They pooled their resources. They had the old family farm. One of them had a some cows, the other bought some. It was an unequal amount, but they never mentioned it again. 50 years went by. The dairy was a success. They each married, neither had any children. Their wives were difficult women, always feuding with each other or others in the community, but the brothers ignored them and worked on, made a success of their dairy.

After they turned 70, they decided to retire. Leased the dairy to a young farmer for a few years. Then they decided to let the young farmer buy them out. It was a half million dollar deal.

One night they got together to iron out some details. And the subject of the uneven amount of cows from when they started came up. A difference of about 15 cows in the original herd.
Harsh words were said, other hurts arose. After an hour, the older brother stormed out of the house. The next day he left for Florida to visit relatives. While there he got sick and was in the hospital for 3 weeks. And while he was in the hospital, his younger brother died. And they never had a chance to reconcile. And their widows kept it going after the older one died.
Emotional hurt, financial loss, lack of love, all over 15 cows. All because no one was willing to forgive the other.