Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving (BCP / RCL lectionary mix) sermon

Joel 2:21-27, Matthew 6:25-33

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

1. On Thanksgiving Day, I sometimes call to mind a list of things I’m thankful for...
- friends, relationships, family, etc...
- for plenty of food & drink...
- for a warm home to live in...
- for a measure of health enough to enjoy my days...
- for a nation that is, in many ways, stable and secure...

2. But sometimes it can make one a little uneasy to contemplate such a list...
- troubles that seem to encroach on our list of blessings
- our neighbors who may not have the same things
- contingency of what we do have...

Hubert Beck, Lutheran Theologian QUOTE

“I thank you, Lord, that I am NOT one of the homeless or the hungry or the
people who cannot find work or who are estranged from their family. I thank you,
Lord, that I do NOT live in ______________ (fill in the nation you do NOT want
to live in) etc., etc., etc.”

My thanksgiving is so frequently centered on what I have that it becomes
troubling when confronted with how many other people have little or nothing. My
health is to be treasured, to be sure . . . but not with a secret thankfulness
that it is not as troubled as somebody else whose health is in jeopardy. My
relative security in terms of money or home or family or diet is to be
treasured, without question . . . but not as though it placed me over against
those who are not blessed in the same way that I am.”

3. This kind of “catalogue” or “inventory” of what we are thankful for can make us uneasy or fearful...
- these ARE “goods”
- but we are paying more attention to what we are thankful FOR
- than what WHO we are thankful TO.
- all blessings, all goods flow from God
- and first and foremost, we should esteem God, then other goods,
not place other things above God in our hearts

The verse just before our Gospel lesson is:

‘No one can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love
the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God
and wealth.

4. The verse before today’s Gospel makes it clear that we are to value our relationship with God first and foremost, more than what we have. Thankful first for God and our relationship with God, not love our “things” more than God.
- When we are more concerned with what we have, we are thinking about ourselves
- places us in an untrusting stance towards God
- a competitive stance towards neighbors
- an idolatrous stance towards “stuff” / “wealth” / “Mammon.”
- This makes us anxious and fearful
- we see around us only lack and poverty, or the threat of loss
- instead of seeing the riches that God is raining upon all creation continually

5. It is just this sort of anxiousness and fear that Christ comforts in the Gospel
- “do not worry about your life... what will we eat or drink... what you will wear”
- instead, draws our attention to the richness and splendor of creation
- and our own relationship with God: “Are you not of more value than they?”
- In fact, in the Joel reading, God tells the creatures of nature themselves not to worry:
- Do not fear, O soil; Do not fear, you animals of the field...
- It is b/c they will also be blessed that the people of Israel will be blessed

6. When we concentrate on God, TO WHOM we are thankful, firstly, we are freed to be less anxious for WHAT we are thankful for
- to see how the rich the gifts of God are in all creation
- to see how the blessings and gifts given to all the earth
—to the fields, to birds of the air, to wild animals,
- these are ALSO things we should be thankful for
—how their blessings are also our blessings
- and especially to see how the blessings and gifts of our neighbors are as important as those which we ourselves have
- Just as God pours gifts of rain and food upon the wild fields and animals in an almost spendthrift generosity, we are enabled to ask not “What do I lack?” but “What can I do for my neighbor’s lack?” It even allows us to give thanks to the blessings that our neighbors have that we do not, so long as they did not gain it by injustice.

Let us praise the God who gives the rain in its season, and provides the
richness of fruits of the earth to sustain both the wild animals and humankind.
Let us pray that we may be faithful stewards of the earth’s bounty, not only on
our own behalf, but with an eye towards all who are in need, and an eye towards
the inherent goodness, in God’s eyes, of the earth itself; through Jesus Christ
our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, the
fount of all life and source of all blessings. AMEN.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Proper 28, Year B (BCP) Sermon

[Daniel 12:1-13]
[Mark 13:14-23]


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Okay, confession time:

Earlier this week, when I sat down to begin thinking about this sermon, and when I saw the readings appointed for this Sunday’s service, something popped out of my mouth that sounded like “Oh, fudge”. Oh no, I thought to myself: Apocalypse. And not just any Apocalyptic literature, but the really confusing bits that comes at the end of the Book of Daniel. I mean, this is really dizzying, almost hallucinogenic stuff. It includes the only really clear promise of a resurrection in all the Hebrew scriptures, speaks of anguish such as there has never yet been in all creation, lists numbers of days that don’t add up—even with linen-clad angels standing in rivers issuing cryptic responses like “A Time, Two times, and half a time.” What in the world is going on here? I am almost relieved when I get to the part where Daniel confesses: “I heard, but I could not understand.” Oh, good, I think. So it’s not just me.

Both the Daniel reading and today’s Gospel reading—which is part of what’s called the “Little Apocalypse” of the Gospel of Mark—talk about fearsome, world-shaking events. Apocalyptic literature warns of violent, catalclysmic overthrow, turmoil, suffering. The angel Michael warns Daniel of a “time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” Jesus similarly states, “In those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now.”

Apocalpses are “crisis literature.” Apocalypses speak to communities who are already in turmoil, during times of oppression or persecution. One such crisis was the oppression of the Seleucid king Antioches IVth, who set up the a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple; this is probably the “abomination that desolates” mentioned in Daniel. Out of this historical situation of crisis, the book of Daniel, and the Apocalpytic Book of Enoch both emerged. Another crisis which inspired the writing of several Apocalypses was the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. Similarly, the early Christians experienced persecution and oppression by the larger Judean culture which did not accept their Master’s teachings. It is in the context of this sense of crisis that Jesus’ words made sense. The “desolating sacrilege” he speaks of might refer to repeated Roman attempts to set up the imperial standard—which included the statue of an eagle—in the Temple, where such images were forbidden. These attempts had met with popular riots in protest. Or, the “desolating sacrilege” might allude to Emperor Caligula’s edict that a statue of himself be set up in the Temple—an order that luckily was never carried out.

There are several ways that apocalyptic literature speaks hopefully to these communities in crisis. For one thing, they express a dissatisfaction with the current order, and suggest that this order is temporary and subject to complete overthrow by God. “They allow their readers to see their own situations from the perspectives of the supernatural world and from the vantage point of life after death. This chance of perspective allows a different consciousness to emerge, thereby changing experience itself” (Fred Murphy, NIB VII, 7). So, to people in turmoil, this sort of discourse serves as a reminder that God is in charge, and offers the hope that the current intolerable situation will be overturned by God’s unimaginably powerful hand.

But Apocalypse does something else, too—especially for those of us who are not swept up in the tides of dramatic social crisis—it confuses. Apocalypses, with their strange images and paradoxical warnings, unnerves, confuses, makes us feel disoriented. Apocalypse turns the world on its head, and so it is no surprise that we find ourselves a little dizzy in the process!

This is heady stuff, a strange, potent brew of dreamlike vision and ambiguous warning. This is scripture not to drink on an empty stomach. This is scripture that you don’t operate heavy machinery for at least one hour after reading.

So, I think it’s only natural that we try to “figure it out.” I think there is an almost natural human impulse to react to this sort of literature by trying to “solve” it, to “decode” it, to figure out what each dreamlike symbol stands for. Perhaps if we can get a handle on it, it won’t seem to strange and threatening. The history of the interpretation of Apocalyptic texts is filled with attempts to find one-to-one correspondences between the ambiguous symbols of the text and real historical events, and filled with attempts to project a timetable onto history based on Apocalyptic warnings. I am put in mind of one American Christian sect whose leader, in the 19th century, led his followers up to a hill to await the coming of the Lord, because he has precisely calculated the date of the Second Coming! When the expected end-times did not materialize, he checked his figures, and pushed the date back one year! What is amazing, though, is that this impulse to “figure out,” to somehow tame Apocalyptic writings, is evident in those very writings itself!

Think about it: After Jesus warns his disciples that the Temple will be torn down, just a few paragraphs before today’s reading, the disciples ask him: “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Daniel, too, asks the angel Michael, “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” These readings are full of the themes of understanding, of knowing what it all “means.” But Apocalypse resists neat and clear interpretation, resists being nailed down. Jesus already told the crowds that he would give no sign to his own age. Similarly, the angel ambiguously answers Daniel’s “How long” question with: “it will be for a time, two times, and half a time.” When Daniel gets frustrated with this and demands bluntly, “What will be the outcome of these things?” he is rebuffed even more frankly, “Get going, Daniel, for these words are to remain secret until the time of the end.”

Perhaps Jesus’ and the angels’ reticence over giving too much detail is that our desire to “decode” Apocalyptic does more harm than good. “Despite the carefully developed warnings about false prophesy in Mark, sectarian groups continue to preach that the end of the world is near. Survivalist sects stockpile arms, food, and other supplies so that members of the sect will be able to fight off the displaced humans created in the end-time turmoil.” (Eugene Boring, NIB VIII, p. 690) I think also of the hysterical predictions of catastrophe and supply hoarding that accompanied the dawning of this millennium--- y’all remember, don’t you, how the Y2K bug was going to spell the end of the world? Or I think of how some fundamentalists aren’t bothered by wars in the Middle East, because conflict in the Holy Land must supposedly precede the Second Coming. Or how some Christians are not concerned with taking care of the environment, because the world is to end soon. You see how this kind of thinking is dangerous?

When hard times and turmoils come, instead of digging ourselves into trenches to ride out the storm, we should be looking for how we can be Christ’s hands in the world. In the end, that’s what Apocalypse should be strengthening us to do, anyway: to meet adversity boldly and with faith, and combat suffering and persecution today with the conviction that the current brokenness of the world will be overthrown.

May God strengthen us to do just that. AMEN.

In Memorial for the life of Allene Mauchenheimer

[I John 3:1-2]
[John 6:37-40]

For most of the history of Christianity, the vast majority of Christians couldn’t read or write. For illiterate believers, the visual arts were another sort of vocabulary that the common Christian could understand. Stained glass, along with sculpture, mosaic, icons, and panel painting, provided depictions of scriptural lessons which the average believer might hear read aloud occasionally, but could not read for themselves. Since it was only the wealthy who would usually have the chance to learn to read, stained glass and other pictorial arts were sometimes collectively called “The Poor Person’s Bible,” – that is, they provided a visual version of the Bible for the instruction and nurturing of the everyday Christian’s faith. The regular Christian could learn the “vocabulary” of these arts; how a saint would be usually depicted with particular symbols, how certain motifs had symbolic meanings, how this sort of arrangement represented the Last Supper, while that grouping over there represented the Ascension. Armed with this special sort of “literacy,” able to interpret the symbols and motifs of the visual arts, regular uneducated Christians could “read” the stories that nurtured their faith, and teach them to their children.

For those who could not read, stained glass and other visual arts were quite truly their Bible, the Bible that they could interpret. This is why Orthodox iconographers do not say that they “paint” icons, but that they “write” them—they are “writing” scripture in a different media, but it is a telling of the same good news, merely in a different language. For this reason, the artisans and craftsmen who made such Christians works of art were not merely skilled artists—they were evangelists. Just as surely as the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels, just as surely as the literate few who read the scripture out loud during services, these artists were also evangelists—“good news tellers,”—telling the scriptures in a language average Christians could understand—the universal language of pictures.

Even today, when the overwhelming majority of Christians in this country can read, stained glass speaks powerfully in ways that mere words cannot. Stained glass calls to mind stories that we know but aren’t thinking about. Stained glass can show forth lessons we think we know well in new ways, so that what seemed worn and familiar is suddenly fresh, even surprising. Even abstract windows evoke the grandeur, majesty, and glory of God. I think one of the terms traditionally applied to icons, “windows into heaven,” might be applied to stained glass windows as well.

Our prayer book reminds us that the liturgy for the departed is an Easter liturgy: It finds its ultimate meaning not in death, but in resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the death, we, too, shall be raised. Jesus promised, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’” Indeed, one of the ways that we “see the Son,” is in stained glass. When we see stained glass windows—like the ones Allene and her husband made—we see the Son, Jesus. We catch glimpses of all that God promises us, and we catch inklings and intimations of our future joy. Because Jesus was raised, we too shall be raised. So when we look up at a window depicting Jesus’ resurrection or ascension, we see also our own hope of eternal life.

Allene, was an evangelist, showing-forth the good news in her life and in her art. As different facets or panels of a window may catch an individual’s attention, you all may have seen different aspects of how Allene lived out the Gospel in her life. I myself, not having had the blessing of getting to know her in life, am concentrating on the way she shared the gift of her art with the church, but you all know better than me the many other ways in which she showed forth her faith in her life. But we do not yet know how much more radiant she has become now, that she stands before God face-to-face. In first letter of John, we heard today: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Saint Augustine describes, in the climactic end of The City of God, how the faithful departed stand perfected in the presence of God. The saints who have died in Christ are changed; Paul describes this by saying as a seed changes and grows into something new, so will we. Just as Allene’s windows help “show forth” the glory of God but cannot fully capture the reality they describe, the departed Saints are more fully holy, more fully themselves, even than they were in this life. But, Augustine assures us, both the living and the dead are one Church, one City of God. He writes:

For the souls of the pious dead are not separated from the Church, which is even now the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise they would not be commemorated at the altar of God at the time of the partaking of the body of Christ. Why do we do this, unless it is because the faithful are still members of this body, even when they have departed this life?

Today, we celebrate the life of Allene, and the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over death—a victory which she now shares, and which we will share. We celebrate not only for her, but with her. Jesus has been raised from the dead, and so shall we. And so, even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

All Saints, Year B (BCP) more notes

[Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14]
[Revelation 7:2-4,9-17]
[Matthew 5:1-12]

The Tomb of the Unknown Saint.

I was thinking about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as I read the propers for All Saints. Looking into the facts a little bit, I actually learned that there are two U.S. "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier"s, and that quite a few other countries have a similar Tomb.

The themes of publicity vs. anonymity, of being known and being unknown, or fame vs. humility, seemed to run through this week's lessons.

It made me think of how powerful a symbol it is for a nation to have a formalized remembrance of those who are not actually remembered by name.

It also made me think, conversely, of all the places where, in the early centuries of Christianity, an unknown skeleton would be unearthed beneath a Christian church and immediately acclaimed as the remains (relics) of some Saint or another. There was this urge, this drive, to identify and name the persons discovered in the catacombs. Some of these attributions are now considered pretty speculative, historically speaking.

Why this impulse: to identify the remains of the faithful as someone famous? Is it not enough to know that a Christian, who lived and died in hope, is buried there? Is it less meaningful if it was an 'ordinary' Christian?

It seems that, if having a formal symbol for those who are not known by name is a powerful symbol, then being able to attach a name to an unknown has a different type of power.

But still, I've got to playfully wonder, why can't we have a "Tomb of the Unknown Saint?"

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14

The Ecclesiasticus reading contrasts two category of "men" who are worthy of praise. There are those who are still remembered, and those who are now forgotten.

The passage is rife with "honor/shame" culture language and interests. The concern is largely on public perceptions and acknowledgements of worth. A rainbow of "fame"-related words is employed:
pride of their times

Clealy, public acclaim is something which is expected to attend a certain type of life. Whether this acclaim is something which God rewards the righteous with ("The Lord apportioned them great glory"), or something which they intentionally strove after (they "made a name for themselves") or something which the public itself controls ("Let us now sing the praises of famous men"), it is both good and somehow correlated to right-living.

The categories of people worthy of such admiration are catalogued as those who have the most "public" roles, who are the most visibly impressive before the eyes of all:
- rulers
- the valiant
- intelligent counsellors
- prophets
- leaders
- lore-masters
- wise instructors
- musicians
- poets/scribes
- the rich

In contrast to those whose memory persevered, there are those who are now unknown. It is ambiguous: Are these others who have left "no memory" formerly famous, and now forgotten, or were they always unknown? In a passage so concerned with public fame and glory, the opposite of publicity might be not shame but anonymity. Whether or not these others were always nameless or have fallen from fame, they are anonymous now-- nameless, faceless, "as though they had never existed... as though they had never been born."

After this passage's concern with fame, we expect the writer to go on to describe this as a fate worse than death, but our expectations are shattered: "But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten." So, perhaps the fame which tends to accompany godly living is not its reward-- in other words, public acclaim is not the reason to live righteously, but sometimes goes along with it anyway. The anonymous "godly men" are not considered somehow unfortunate or lesser because their particular name is not remembered; they lived and died well ("Their bodies are buried in peace").

So, perhaps the acclaim is for us; that is, it is for the onces "singing praises," not properly for the saints themselves. The praise and fame and acclaim train our eyes on wholesome examples. To recognize what is good and praiseworthy in the lives of others is to hold before our minds those worthy of emulation.

To this end, the author does spend more time praising those whose name remains known to us (for these are the ones whose example we can most clearly fix our attention on), but spends a few verses acknowledging those who left behind no memory or record of their good deeds. Indeed, these "unknown others" are, as a category, worthy of our memory: although we do not know their individual names, their "righteous deeds have not been forgotten... their glory will never be blotted out... and their name lives on generation after generation." That is, although we cannot honor them individually, we can honor (generically, as it were) those who lived godly lives but are not especially known to us.

Here's a blurb about the "unknown saints" who are among us now:

The Church must bear in mind that among her very enemies are hidden her future citizens; and when confronted with them she must not think it a fruitless task to bear with their hostility until she finds them confessing the faith. In the same way, while the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, she has in her midst some who are united with her in participation in the sacraments, but who will not join with her in the eternal destiny of the saints.

...But, such as they are, we have less right to despair of the reformation of some of them, when some predestined friends, as yet unknown even to themselves, are concealed among our most open enemies.

- Augustine of Hippo, City of God I.35, trans. Henry Bettenson

All Saints, Year B (BCP) Revelation notes

[Revelation 7:2-4,9-17]

The Apocalypse continues, “The souls of those who were slain because of their witness to Jesus and because of the word of God...” These are, clearly, the souls of the martyrs, their bodies being not yet restored to them.

For the souls of the pious dead are not separated from the Church, which is even now the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise they would not be commemorated at the altar of God at the time of the partaking of the body of Christ, nor would it be of any avail to have recourse to the Church’s baptism in time of peril, for fear that this life should end without baptism, nor to have recourse to reconciliation at such time, if it happens that one is separated from this body under penance through one’s own bad conscience. Why are such steps taken, unless it is because the faithful are still members of this body, even when they have departed this life?

-- Augustine of Hippo, from The City of God XX.9, Henry Bettenson, trans.

1. Augustine here locates the continuity between the living and departed members of the Body of Christ in the sacraments. The Church is “even now the kingdom of Christ,” and the sacraments show forth the communion between the members of the City of God who are still on pilgrimage (living in this world) and those members of the City of God who have entered into glory. Eucharist, Baptism, and Reconciliation are all mentioned here.

2. These three sacraments are especially appropriate points of contact with the departed saints: In the Eucharist the saints are commemorated and continue to “give thanks” with us; In Baptism, we enter into the same Body of Christ of which they are already members, and, as they have, wash our robes white in the blood of the lamb (today’s reading); In Reconciliation, we are pardoned from those offenses which have cut us off from the Body and so are reconciled not only to our living brothers and sisters but also to the saints in the “Heavenly City.”

3. As such a liturgically-oriented denomination, we Episcopalians can appreciate Augustine’s emphasis on the sacraments. In the sacraments, the “souls of the pious dead” who are “not separated from the Church” are fully present and active. They concelebrants with us in the work of the body of Christ which is “even now the kingdom of Christ.” The great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us not only encourages us, but adds its voices to our praise, and its petitions to our prayers.

(I am put in the Lutheran Book of Worship’s canticle “This is the Feast of Victory for our God;” every Sunday as I grew up in small ELCA parish, we added our voices to the cry of those “gathered around the throne” as we sang, “Blessing, honor, glory, and might be to God and the Lamb forever, Amen!” We have this song as Hymn 417 in the Hymnal 1982, by the way.)

For me, it always was, and still is, a powerful sort of sensation to know that we do not sing and pray alone, but “join in the hymn of all creation.”

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