Monday, October 27, 2014

With all your heart

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Proper 25A.  26 October 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail

 

 

Matthew 22.34-46

 

 

            What I just read for you is the end of a series of lections we have been reading on the conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership of the day.  The Pharisees are well known to us, though often construed as a caricature of religious fussiness.

 

            In fact, the Pharisees were simply the normal devout Jews.  These were the rabbis, and the Jews who went to synagogue each Sabbath and certainly for the major feasts and fasts.  The Pharisees in this lesson were leaders, perhaps members of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council.

 

            The tradition of rabbinical teaching was through question and answer, parable and allegory.  Rabbis and scribes liked to cite theologians in their teaching to give strength to their sermons.  Remember that Jesus did not teach in that way.  He spoke, as they said, "as one with authority," meaning that Jesus was able to speak of matters with total confidence and conviction.

 

            Some addressed Jesus affectionately as "Rabbi"—though Jesus was not trained as one.  Even more affection, to the point of absolute obedience was implied when they said "Lord."  But when someone called him "Teacher" as we have in today's lesson, there is no affection whatsoever.  In fact, it's almost impolite.

 

            Yet the question from one of them is an old chesnut among the rabbis.  "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  It was a common, though somewhat controversial, question.  Rabbis could give summaries of the law.  In fact, it's somewhat like preaching.  You can talk about this verse or that verse in minute detail, but, "Come on, clergy, give us the view from 10,000 feet.  Boil it down for us!"

 

            And a rabbi may opine on that.  He may give his own take on law from the perspective of his many years in the rabbinate, giving advice to people over many years of hearing people's problems and giving his thoughts.  He may be more strict in his interpretation and want to hold up the standard of the law.  "This is our line in the sand.  This is the Torah of God.  We may not like when it says this or that, but it's God's law, and though it may be difficult to follow, follow we must."

 

            Or a rabbi may be more disposed to the compassionate view of the law—more the spirit than the letter.  So his summary of the law may be more about God giving his people a rigorous standard, but we can't always measure up, and that is why we are waiting for a messiah, who will teach us more perfectly how to follow it. 

 

            So you see, you have different ways of thought among the rabbinate, just as you would among doctors and judges and any group that would receive a certain amount of education and practice in the real world—and can, therefore, form thoughtful opinions.

 

            The question to Jesus is abrupt, perhaps even aggressive and disrespectful, as indicated by addressing him "Teacher," and then asking a question that would have been common among those who had been more experienced. 

 

            It is rather like when an adult asks a 10 year old boy, "Are you married?  How's the wife and kids?"  Except that there is no humor in the question to Jesus.  One can almost hear the other Pharisees in the group stifling their laughter that someone has asked Jesus this question.

 

            But you see, I also said it was a controversial question, and that is because although a rabbi could give a summary of the law, it was understood that all the commandments were equal.  They were given by God, so to try to rank them or appraise them was considered a purely human endeavor, which could be considered arrogant, or even blasphemous. 

 

            The rabbis had counted a total of 613 commands in the Torah.  And that number is the sum of 248 positive commands, meaning "Do this," and 365 negative commands, meaning, "Don't do that."  Those numbers had significance.  The 248 positive commands correspond with the known parts of the human body; and the 365 negative commands correspond with the days of the year.[*]

 

            So Jesus is on the spot in a culture that rather likes putting rabbis on the spot!  He responds with the creedal statement of the Sh'ma, found in Deuteronomy 6, "The Lord your God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."  And then Jesus adds, "This is the greatest and first commandment."  Well, it is, literally.  It is certainly the first by mere order.

 

            And then he tacks on Leviticus 19.18, saying "And the second is like it, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 

 

            It's an interesting response for several reasons.  One, Jesus doesn't react to the disrespectful tone with which he was asked the question.  Two, he could have stopped with the Sh'ma—with just giving the commandment to love God.  It's a no-brainer, as it were.  And it would certainly keep him out of trouble. 

 

            But the Lord's addition of that next verse is the distinction between what Jesus is on about, and what the Pharisees are on about.  We forget that these are people with a common heritage and common sacred texts, but who see the nature of God's relationship with humanity in very different ways. 

 

            For the Pharisees it really is all about God—in fact, to the exclusion, if necessary, of compassion for humanity.  "God gave us a law, and people need to follow it at all costs.  Have we learned nothing from the Exile?  We were in bondage for 50 years.  People who remembered this land died waiting to return.  And when we returned and found Jerusalem in tatters, and the Temple destroyed, what did we do?  We said, `This must never happen again.'  If the law says that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned, then she should be stoned."

 

            But for Jesus, this way of thinking was ludicrous.  Obviously adultery is wrong, but women have no voice in this culture.  It isn't her fault that man forced himself on her.  And even if she was complicit, look at her—shaking like a leaf, publicly embarrassed in front of everyone.  You have to understand that the law is there to remind you what's right, but some allowances have to be made from time to time.

 

            And there you have it.  Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  You wouldn't hang yourself over your mistakes, so have some compassion.   (Pause.)

 

            But before you I let you go I just want to speak briefly about the tension of living with this teaching.  To love God and to love one's neighbor is not meant to be onerous, or to pit one against the other; however, it is difficult sometimes to strike a balance.

 

            Usually, devout people find one of those two as their strong suit.  They are good at being a compassionate listener, or running the food pantry, but they don't take much time to pray.  Or they are given to solitude, and don't really enjoy interacting with people that much. 

 

            I think for many years I have understood love of neighbor as an outgrowth of love of God.  And it certainly can be.  Love of God first, which then provokes love of neighbor.  After all, love of God is the first and greatest commandment. 

 

            But recently I was talking with Karin about this.  And what came to me is that loving God is sometimes very difficult to do.  I don't mean that I find God less than loveable, but it can be difficult sometimes to connect.  We get distracted, or we feel frustrated that prayer takes so much attentiveness.  We all know that there are seasons of the spirit.

 

            If you follow these two commandments only in their order, you may not get around to loving your neighbor, so I have come to the belief that they are meant to enrich each other.  That if it seems difficult to love God in your heart, try loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and it may be that loving God is found in that.  Likewise, when loving your neighbor is not fruitful, loving God in solitude may help.

 

            There are times I struggle with loving God—not because I don't, but because I'm not sure how to.  How do you give love to God?  Or how do you receive it?

 

            God is not someone on whom we can lavish physical attention as we might with our spouses or children.  God is spirit so the encounter is one of faith.  What do you say?  How do you bring out the love; or how do you gauge the depth of it?  I know what it is from time to time to receive the love of God as a sensation; but giving it back is something of a mystery. 

 

            One mystical author wrote that it is enough simply to be in God's presence, and he likened it to sitting with someone you know so well, that you don't have to say anything.  You can just be with them.  Presence is enough.

 

            I can tell you what sometimes works for me, and that is just to sit still and wait.  It may be a few minutes.  It may be more than a few.  It's as if I forget how to just be, and the time I need is time to remember that I am part of the world around me.  That God is fully present, but I am not.  My mind is too busy, or I'm absorbed in the transient needs of the day. 

 

            But if I can be still, and wait, the Lord will come, and when he does, I don't have to wonder how to give love to him.  It just happens.  (Pause.)

 

            Some years ago, at another church, there was a woman who started coming who sat at the back.  The first couple Sundays she left before I could really follow up with her.  She'd shake my hand at the door, but then quickly make her escape.  Sometimes people need to do that, you know.  

 

            There are people who hang on to their lives by their fingernails.  They are interested to see if we really believe what we say we believe, or they've felt something shift inside of them and they don't have language for it.  It's too raw, or it's too new, and the vulnerability can make them wonder if they are going crazy.  They worry that if a cleric or a church member were to look into their eyes, that we'd see everything, and they would feel terribly exposed.

 

            So, I just played it cool.  And whenever she started to talk, I listened.  I think it was about a year after she started coming that she told me, "I had the strangest experience one evening."  She said, "I was outside after dark, after I had put the children to bed, and I looked up into the night sky and I said, `God, are you really real?'

 

            And she said, "It was then that I heard back.  But the voice didn't come from out there."  She pointed to her heart, and said, "It came from in here!"

 

           

-o0o-

 

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[*] The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VIII, pg. 424.



Monday, October 13, 2014

Many are called, but few consider themselves chosen.


Proper 23A.  12 October 2014.

 

Matthew 22.1-14

 

            If you have been coming to church over the last three weeks, you may have noticed a decidedly chilly breeze coming from the Gospel lessons.  They have not been very happy readings, because the lectionary has held us in a little series of parables that Jesus told in judgment of the Pharisees while he was teaching and healing in the Temple. 

 

            Two weeks ago, you may recall, we heard Jesus say that the tax collectors and prostitutes were going into heaven ahead of the Pharisees, because the tax collectors and prostitutes recognized the Word of God in John the Baptist's preaching and repented, but the Pharisees could not discern it. 

 

            Last week, we read the parable of the stewards of the vineyard who refuse to listen the servants of the owner, and finally, to the son of the vineyard's owner.  It is a very brazen parable, and needs very little explanation.  Jesus is saying "You Pharisees have not tended God's vineyard well; you did not listen to the prophets, and now you are not listening to the Son of God. 

 

            This week is the third parable of judgment and it's about a wedding banquet that a king gives for his son's wedding.  Jesus is speaking of an ancient practice of kings giving banquets for their subjects. 

 

            Like the parable of the vineyard this one does not take much to interpret.  In fact, it might not even be much of a parable—in the sense that this story doesn't really tease our minds.  It's really more of an allegory: where this obviously equals this.  God is the king, the son is Jesus, and the wedding guests are the devout Jews, the Pharisees.

 

 

            When the guests do not come to the banquet, they are saying, we don't recognize this marriage.  Jesus uses some exaggeration to make the point.  One guest went to his farm, one to his business, and the rest took hold of the servants of the king who were issuing the invitations, and mistreated them and killed them.  The point is made.  Some just sort of benignly went about their lives, not really caring about the wedding one way or the other; but some actively persecuted the idea of the celebration.

 

            Well, the king is enraged, so he kills those guests, and invites those who were not worthy to attend.  So enter all the people who had not been welcomed before.  Enter the lepers, the poor, and the outcasts, and all those whom Jesus welcomed.

 

            Yet, there is a man who came who was not dressed for the party.  And king will not have him.  "Bind him hand and foot, and thrown him into the outer darkness."

 

  

            What shall we make of that man who was not dressed appropriately for the wedding?  If we go over to the Presbyterian Church and ask, they might say that the man was not predestined to go to the party.  He was invited, but he didn't have the grace to get in.  Is that what Jesus meant? 

 

            Or maybe he represents the people who didn't get the right Baptism.  You know, he wasn't baptized completely.  The wrong words were used.  He didn't go under the water.   Or he wasn't part of a congregation recognized by the bishop.  Is that it?  No.

 

            I think the problem with the man is that he came, but—like the Pharisees—he did not really want to be there.  Sure he'll show up to see everyone, and maybe even throw a little rice, but he doesn't really want to be there.

 

            Have you ever seen guests like this at a wedding?  Most of the time the people who fit this description are children.  Boys who show up in an ill-fitting suit with the tie askew, and the holes from the tags still visible on the jacket sleeves.  Petulant.  Wishing they could be wearing anything else, doing anything else.  And the better part of you thinks…well, there you are…boys!  That's just what it's like when you're a boy. 

 

            But every once in a while you see an adult who just can't seem to hide that they really don't want to be there.  And the better part of you thinks, well, we can't all be happy all the time. 

 

            Maybe she wishes she hadn't been asked to be a bridesmaid—wear this silly tent of a dress that does nothing for her.  Maybe she is jealous of the bride, or maybe she thinks they are making a big mistake. 

 

            If it's a man, maybe he'd rather be watching the game, or whatever.  Maybe weddings and funerals just aren't his thing.  Doesn't like churches.  Had a bad experience when he was a little boy.  Raised his hand to answer a question in church, and people laughed at him.  You know those things happen.  Or maybe he had heard a sermon about how God sees everything we do, and church just feels like a magnifying glass. 

 

            I know plenty of people who would never darken the door of a church except for a wedding or a funeral, and even then, they'll wait outside the door till the very last minute.  It's too much…something.  That's where the funeral for Soandso was, so it's hard to go to a wedding there.  I can understand that.

 

            Maybe, it's too emotional in another way.  Maybe they worry that if they sit in that church with their thoughts and feelings for more than a few minutes, they will begin to think about where their lives are, and where they had hoped they'd be.  And it's hard to celebrate a wedding with that stuff on your mind.  Second guessing your decisions—regrets, broken promises. 

 

            But you get invited to a wedding to celebrate!  It isn't about you; it's about the bride and groom! 

           

            So you look over at that person who isn't there to celebrate and, maybe a little like the king in the parable, you want to throw him out.  "Look, buddy, if you can't see that this is wonderful, you need to get out of here!" 

 

            And here we have the crux of the parable.  "Many are called," says Jesus, "but few are chosen."  It's an odd expression, though, when you think about it.  It sounds like many are called—like standing on a balcony calling out to a plaza full of people, "Hey!  You are all invited!"  But to say few are chosen suggests that the host doesn't really choose everyone he invited.  Yet, isn't everyone chosen by the nature of the call?

 

            I think it should read like this, "Few people are willing to consider themselves chosen."  And here is why I think it should read that way.  Consider this.  You get invited to things.  Weddings, parties, and maybe you just expect that invitation to come.  A lot of people were invited, and you were on the list…just another person on the list, you think.  Or maybe it's a party that always happens, and you always get invited, and you always go.  And you think there's nothing really special to this.    

 

            But does it change anything in your mind to think, I was chosen?  I am chosen.  (Pause.)  I am chosen to celebrate this wedding.  I am chosen to celebrate this birthday with that person.  What a profound difference!

 

            So going to it, and letting yourself let go of the reasons why you might not really like them, or want to be there, or whatever, can just fall away.  I have been chosen to celebrate this, because the host knows—God knows—I am part of these people's lives, and this is not about me.

 

            I think in this parable, Jesus says, "Look, God has chosen you!  If you still don't see that, and you show up to this big party called the kingdom of God as if this is all about you, and what you want, then you are not dressed for the party."

 

            "But if you recognize that you have been invited to consider yourself part and parcel of the kingdom of God—a vital, beautiful, treasured person in relationship with God, and the Church—then you can just celebrate it!  You can just enjoy yourself!"  It's all in how you look at it.

 

            In a sense, this parable is very close to the parable of the Prodigal Son, isn't it?  The person who isn't dressed for the party is the elder brother.  He stands there sulking in the corner, while everyone else celebrates.  And the father comes over to him and says, "You think I chose my younger son over you?  No!  I chose you both!"  (Pause.)  "This isn't about you.  Your brother was lost, but now he's found.  Dead, but now alive.  We have to celebrate!  You are chosen to celebrate with us."

 

            Can you join the party?  You have been chosen.

 

-o0o-

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The heavens are telling the glory of God.



Proper 22A.  5 October 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail

 

Psalm 19

 

            Every time Psalm 19 comes up in the lectionary, I hear—in my mind's ear—the beautiful setting of these words in Franz Josef Hayden's oratorio Creation, from which we also get Hymn 409.  "The heavens are telling the glory of God."  I have long desired to preach on this Psalm, but I haven't quite known how to get into it. 

 

            Several years ago, I attended a preaching conference that was led by the father of inductive preaching, Fred Craddock, and the title of the conference was "How to get into the text without breaking anything."  It's a funny title, but a very real problem with preaching.  Let me explain.

 

            Ever since the 3rd century, since Tertullian—an African Christian apologist, whose fingerprints are all over our classical Christian theology—the Church has understood the Bible to be our property.  That even though it is well and good for anyone to pick up the Bible to read it and be edified by it; that the primary function of the Bible is to be read out loud by the gathered Church.  It is our story, as a community.  The reading of the Bible is itself sacramental. 

 

            It is for the Church to read, and it is for the Church to explain.  That may sound harsh, but consider that your own family stories are meant for you to tell.  These are our family stories.

 

            I would guess that you could point to multiple times in your life when you have heard a lesson read on a Sunday morning, and even though the substance of it was not spoken of in a sermon, you heard it—perhaps afresh.  It stayed with you; it changed you; or it may have even changed the complexion of the community around you. 

 

            In fact, if you were to listen to the lessons being read attentively enough, you might not even need to hear any preaching.  Preaching is often needed simply to bring along the context into which the words were written so that we may hear the words in their proper light.  To read the parable of the Good Samaritan with no explanation is still powerful; but to be reminded that it was told to a culture where no one believed any Samaritan could be a good serves to reveal an even more powerful story. 

 

            Yet whenever a cleric begins to speak—no matter how objectively—we interpose ourselves between the text and the people.  So we have to be careful not to damage the text in the listener's mind as we attempt to get into it.

 

            Truthfully, the task is not too difficult with stories or parables, but when it comes to psalms and other poetry, it can be easy to break the text's beauty by attempting to explain it.  It's like explaining joke, which then robs the joke of its humor. 

 

 

            If we were to travel together to…well, frankly…we wouldn't have to travel anywhere for this to be true.   We are surrounded by beauty here.  But should we travel to the top of Great North Mountain, or the Skyline Drive, and look out over the Valley and into the sky, and were I to whisper in your ear, "The heavens are telling the glory of God."  You would not need me to explain what that means.  You may even silently be thinking the same words. 

 

            "The wonder of his works displays the firmament."  You would nod your head, even though you and I don't believe in the original meaning of the word firmament.  In the ancient mind, the firmament was the large dome of water, you know…that blue stuff in the sky that looks like a sea?  It's where we used to think the rain comes from.  We know that that's not true, but it doesn't hinder our reading of the psalm—it's poetry, after all.

 

            "Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard; their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world."  Again, poetry.  The writer speaks of the language of nature—a wordless communication between sky and sky, earth and earth, earth and sky, all telling each other that their Creator is great and magnificent. 

 

            Children playing notice with amusement the ant crawling on the blade of grass, and notice the tiny ripples in the grass—like waves of the sea—as the wind blows over it.  A child or adult walking barefooted notices the difference between the grass in full sunlight and the cooler grass in the shade of the tree. 

 

            The child delights, the adult delights in the filtered sunlight, sipping deeply of the joy of being surrounded by the green and woody world. 

 

            Suddenly the words of e.e. cummings make sense:

 

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

            Cummings and Psalm 19 use a poetical device called personification—attributing human characteristics to non-human creations.  We do it all the time.  "The car died."  "The lawn mower is angry with me again."  So it's perfectly fitting to say, "The heavens are telling the glory of God."  Not only is it beautiful, but there is something so very right, so very very right about saying it.  Surely the beauty of nature has its own language to use in relating to God.  It's unthinkable for it to be otherwise.

 

            If you've ever watched a documentary on the Grand Canyon, or stood on a high cliff overlooking the banks of mighty waters, and been moved by the power and the awesomeness of what God has wrought—has it not occurred to you that surely nature is praising God by its very existence.

 

            When I was in high school we sang the anthem by Alice Parker called "God is seen." 

 

Through all the world below God is seen all around,
Search hills and valleys through,
There He's found.

The growing of the corn,
The lily and the thorn,
The pleasant and forlorn,
All declare, God is there.
In meadows drest in green,
God is seen.

See springing waters rise, fountains flow, rivers run.
The mist that veils the sky hides the sun.

Then down the rain doth pour,
The ocean it doth roar
And beat upon the shore,
And all praise, in their ways,
The God who ne'er declines His designs.

The sun with all his rays speaks of God as he flies.
The comet in her blaze, "God", she cries.

The shining of the stars,
The moon, when she appears
His awful name declares;
See them fly, through the sky.
And join the solemn sound all around, all around.

 

            And after all this talk of nature's wordless praise, wordless declarations, the psalm moves in verse seven to talk about the "law of the Lord" being perfect and reviving the soul. 

 

            It sounds like a departure from the theme of nature, but it is actually a continuation!  From the creation's silent voice, the psalmist moves to the voice of the Creator who gave the law—who spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  To Moses from the burning bush, and then from Mt. Sinai.  Who led us to a land of promise, and made our footing sure. 

 

            The psalm calls the judgments of the Lord more to be desired that gold or honey (v.10).  Gold and honey were, and are, rare and precious commodities, and the psalmist calls the word of God even more precious.  He writes, "By them we are enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward."

 

            Have you noticed the over-arching theme of this psalm?  Words. 

 

            Words that are silent, and words that are declared by God, but look how the theme is concluded.  With a sudden recognition that words are also within our mouths.  That with our words we bless and curse.  With our words, like our Creator, we create.  With presumptuous, or ill-conceived words we damage or destroy ourselves and those around us.  Which is why the most earnest petition comes at the very end:

 

            "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord."

 

            From the grandeur of nature, and nature's wordless praise, to the Word of God, and now to you and me. 

 

            Shall we open them to join the rest of creation in praise—join the mountains and "the leaping, greenly spirits of trees, and the blue true dream of the sky, and everything that is natural, that is infinite, that is yes"?

 

            We shall do it when the ears of our ears awake, and the eyes of our eyes are opened.  When we realize that we are beloved, treasured, and no less a part of the world God has created.  When we wake up to join the worship service God that started with his own voice and has continued ever since.  God said, "Let there be light."  And light said, "Amen."

           

 

-o0o-

 

 

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