Sunday, November 24, 2019

Contrasts in Understanding Royalty

TEXT:                 LUKE 23:33-43

ONE SENTENCE:        The model of Kingship seen in the life and death of Jesus                            `        is one of sacrificial giving, as opposed to the regal                                                  trappings with which we are familiar.

            This past Sunday, television streamers were treated with the opportunity to watch the third season of The Crown. Nora and I have now watched seven of the new episodes.

            The series, of course, is a speculative, fictional account of life inside Britain’s royal family, with special focus on the Queen, Elizabeth II.

            The first two seasons focused on the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.  She was played by a wonderful young actress, Claire Foy.  Now, the years have moved to the middle of her reign, and age has prompted the role of the Queen to be played by Olivia Coleman.

            It is a fascinating – though speculative – look inside one of the abiding institutions of history – the British Royal Family and the House of Windsor.  Every scene includes glimpses of wealth, privilege, power, duty, protocol, and massive, glittering palaces.

            As a general rule, the public is fascinated by seeing behind the curtain.  We love to view the royal family as we assume they exist.  We, as a public, did the same with the movie, The Queen, written by the same screenwriter, Peter Morgan.

            The overall image is one of glittering life – replete with scores of functionaries seeking to do the Queen’s bidding; opulent living conditions; and a life of supreme privilege.

            It is not new to British history.  It has been that way for hundreds of years.

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            When the 13 American colonies broke away from the British Empire in 1776, the founding fathers were staunchly anti-monarchical.  The colonists had cringed under the power of the King for many years, and they wished to create something different – which they did.

            The ultimate structure, which was begun in the Constitution, was aimed at valuing the voices of all people.  We turned decidedly away from kings and queens and all their pomp, power, ceremony, and divine rights.

            Here we are nearly 244 years later.  We still blanche at the idea of a king or queen ruling this nation of 50 states. But, we are fascinated with the institution which rules over the land of Great Britain.

            That aversion and attraction is interesting to me.

            And, now, we are observing the Last Sunday after Pentecost – also known as Christ the King.

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            There is a profound and significant difference between Jesus as king and the Royal Family, portrayed in The Crown.  One has been worshipped through ages while the other has been saluted for centuries.  One wears a crown of thorns, the other is bedecked with glittering jewelry. One is executed on a rugged, wooden cross, surrounded by thieves, spectators, and Roman soldiers.  The other walks into any public function as loyal subjects sing God Save the Queen.

            Truly curious – how we can apply the idea of royalty to both.

            The power… the potency… is in how the royal substance is lived.

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            Several years ago, I attended the annual diocesan clergy conference in Mississippi.

            We were fortunate to have a well-known author and teacher as our speaker.  His name was Rabbi Edwin Friedman.  He was a leading teacher of a psychological theory known as Family Systems.  His book, Generation to Generation, had been wildly successful.

            He spoke to the group of Episcopal clergy about his theories – most of which I subscribe to, within certain limits.  A primary point he made pertained to self-definition – the idea that we are each responsible for our own beliefs and behavior, and how we react or respond to a conflicted situation.  We are not, for example, responsible for the actions of others.  We are to clearly define ourselves – basically, being responsible for #1, ourselves.  My summary greatly simplifies a very complex approach.

            The idea of each of us being responsible for our own actions, and bearing no responsibility for others, troubled me.  It seemed to fly against the message of the gospel.

            I raised my hand to ask a question, and Rabbi Friedman called on me.  “How, then,” I asked, “do you deal with the sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross?”

            He paused, thought for a moment, and then responded: “I am always interested in the portions of stories that people choose to emphasize.”  That was it.

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            My Bishop came up to me afterwards.  He said, “David, I had the same question.”

            The concept of sacrificial love – as embodied in the reading from Luke’s gospel today – is much more than a selected point of emphasis.  It is at the heart of our understanding of Jesus as king. To give and give and give again, what God has given thee.

            Jesus shows us, in his dramatic last act as a mortal, that the way to true kingship is through giving-of-self to others.  It is the core of the gospel, not a mere side note.

            Our attention is drawn to the British royal family because we love the glamor, the riches, the beauty, the majesty, and the drama of Queens, Kings, Princes, and Princesses.

            But our hearts and hopes are tied inextricably to the young rabbi, hanging on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.  In him, we see none of those typical royal attributes.  However, we see our highest aspirations and the model of perfect love – grace, mercy, forgiveness, lowliness of heart, true divinity, and sacrificial love, given readily for those who call upon his name.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

What to Expect

PROPERS:          PROPER 28, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 21:5-19; ISAIAH 65:17-25

ONE SENTENCE:        The “Day of the Lord’ is likely to be highly                                                         individualistic, and is to be anticipated and not dreaded.      

            During my high school days, I worked at a local drug store in downtown Meridian – Post Office Drugs.  In one corner of the front section of that store, there were several racks of paper back books.  They were for sale at a cost of 75 cents each.

            The owner of the store, Mr. Hammill, told me that I could borrow any book that interested me, and that I need only return it when I had finished it.

            There was one book, I remember, that fascinated me.  It was “The Late, Great Planet Earth” by writer Hal Lindsey.  It had one particularly vivid scene, I recall, that included a massive earthquake striking California late one afternoon.  The next morning, it was discovered that the bulk of California had fallen off into the Pacific Ocean.

            It was my introduction to apocalyptic literature.  Much later, I learned that Hal Lindsey was a leader of the apocalyptic visionaries of the 1960s.

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            It seems that ever since Jesus walked this earth there have been recurrent apocalyptic movements.  They have typically not ended well.

            Let me define what I am talking about.  Apocalypse means “hidden things uncovered.”  But in its popular use, it refers to the “end times”, and the various visions of that epoch.

            People have sought to interpret the Book of Revelation in various ways, to discern insights into the moment when the end will come.  Likewise, many folks have read into the words of Jesus – for example, in today’s gospel lesson – hints of his return. That has led to many contorted theories – drawing on broad interpretations of single passages.

            Various times in history have given rise to mass expectations of the end times.  Apocalyptic expectation was rampant in the time of Jesus – and many of his followers expected his imminent return after his resurrection. Paul addresses those expectations in his letters.

            The Essenes, to whom I referred in my last sermon, had a cloistered community on the shores of the Dead Sea.  They anticipated the coming end and wrote about it in the scroll The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness.  That scroll is now held in the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.
            Apocalyptic expectations also peaked during the time of the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague.  The same expectations have arisen around the years 1000 and 2000 – with proponents thinking those dates are indicative of end times.

            The Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors raised the expectations of many.  Televangelists John Hagee and Pat Robertson have promoted the theory that the end times will come in some manner associated with the victory of Israel over the forces of evil.

            Of course, you have folks like Jim Jones and his Jonestown followers that expected some sort of apocalypse, and the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh, who had the same expectations.

            Through that mix, add the various popular literature, like the Left Behind books, and you can see how the expectations have become popularized.

            There are all sorts of terms that are used to describe various approaches to the apocalypse.  Dispensationalism. Premillinianism.  Postmillianianism. Amillinianism. Take your pick.

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            Let me separate the wheat from the chaff.

            Jesus, in the gospel today, is talking about things to come in the near future.  The rebellion against Rome. The crushing defeat and destruction of the city of Jerusalem.  The fall of the sacred Temple. The persecution of his followers.  All of that was within his ability to envision.

            Many make these and other words more than they need to be.

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            Let me share two thoughts with you to illustrate what I am saying.

            When I was working as a curate at Trinity Church, Pass Christian, Mississippi, I was making my rounds at a local hospital.  I checked on one patient, and her room was empty.

            I went to the nurse’s station and asked, “Where is Mrs. Norris?”  The nurse told me, “She went home.”

            Soon I drove down to Trinity Church and walked in the office.  My supervisor was the rector, the Reverend Bronson Bryant, who is a dear friend to this day.  I told Bronson I had been by the hospital and that Mrs. Norris had gone home.

            “Oh, yes, she did!  All the way home!”  Meaning, of course, that she had died.

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            The second story is a bit of a personal confession.  I have shared with you the various eye-glazing terms that are used to describe philosophies of the apocalypse.

            I place myself and my understanding in a different school of thought – and it is that school of thought which informs my theology.  It is known as realized eschatology.  In other words, the Kingdom of God came in the life and person of Jesus and that his reign has continued since that time.  We glimpse it here and there, now and again – sometimes more fully than others.  But it is here.  We recognize that we are helpless to interpret things that we cannot know.

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            Each of us will be like Mrs. Norris – we will meet our end time and go home.  That is inevitable. We need not anticipate it with fear and trembling, or with visions of planes falling from the air.  

            The prophet Isaiah wrote of it so well 2,500 years ago, and we read his words as the first lesson today.

            Hear them again:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth; 
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind. 
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating; 
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people; 
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear. 
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; 
but the serpent-- its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Making Hard Choices

PROPERS:          PROPER 27, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 20:27-38

ONE SENTENCE:        The best guidepost for making important ethical                                                  decisions is to rely on the principles and grace, mercy, and concern for the other.

            The gospel lesson today tells us about Jesus’ conversation with the Sadducees.  I suspect there was not a whole lot of good will in their approach to the young rabbi.

            The Sadducees were one of the main parties among the Jews of that day.  There were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Essenes.

            I refer to the Pharisees as the lawyers of that day, and much like Episcopalians.  They were middle-class and comprised much of the mainline leadership of Judaism of that day. They embraced many of the sacred writings, including the prophets.

            The Zealots were the ones who sought the overthrow – violent or otherwise – of the Roman oppressors.  They were the ones which lit the fires of rebellion against Rome some 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, leading to the disastrous conquest of Judea, the destruction of the Temple and city of Jerusalem.  They were the ones which held out against the Romans in the desert fortress of Masada, until they all committed suicide before they could be captured by the Romans.

            The Essenes lived a solitary life away from other Jews.  They considered Jerusalem – some 30 miles to the west – a profaned city. They had a small community in which they lived, in the Dead Sea Valley, named Qumran.  There, the studied and wrote apocalyptic literature.  It was the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

            But the Sadducees were a whole different kettle of fish.  They were largely wealthy and well-connected.  They were connected to the Roman authorities.  They were very conservative – accepting only the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, as legitimate.  And they did not believe in the resurrection from the dead. (One way to remember that little tidbit is the saying, “They were sad-you-see because they did not believe in the resurrection.”)

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            So, that was the setting of the conversation between Jesus and the Sadducees.  The group concocted a complex scenario – what they believed to be a Gordian Knot – to challenge Jesus’ understanding of the resurrection.

            The challenge they posed was this: A woman marries a man, but he dies.  According to the Law, she is to marry his brother.  This continues as all seven brothers die – leaving no heir.  The woman marries each brother.  Whose wife will she be in the days after the resurrection?

            Jesus recognizes the trap and shares a different vision of the Kingdom to come – one that is not limited by the Law and the Sadducees’ limited understanding.

            The question is so indicative of life.  Jesus’ response is indicative of his approach.

            Where does that leave us?

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            My ethics professor in seminary was a brilliant, fiery, former Roman Catholic priest.  He taught us that we would face many complexities in the ordained ministry.  Many of those complexities would resist easy answers.  We could not give some simple, rote answer to such ambiguous challenges.

            Those ambiguities call us to go deep, to analyze possible responses and to examine motivations behind those possible responses.  He helped us build our own critical reasoning for dealing with such complexities.

            What is the good we are seeking to do? What are the overriding or even competing virtues behind our responses.  How do we arrive at the best possible solution, or maybe the least bad solution?  Sometimes there will not be a good solution, but one with what we may call a tragic remainder.  Those situations come when we analyze and reflect on our choices, and choose the one which perhaps damages, but maybe does the least damage of the available options.

            Let me be clear:  I am not talking about situational ethics.

            I am not talking about, for example, the decision process in the movie MASH.  In it, Major Frank Burns finds an attraction to Major Margaret Houlihan – and they find they are mutually attracted.  Even though they are both married, in the field they see that mutual attraction as God’s will.  Just before they consummate their relationship, they utter “God’s will be done!”

            To say they had not reflected on the course of action and had not analyzed their choices according to virtues and goods is a monumental understatement.

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            As you go through life, you will likely face complex situations.  You are forced to make a choice.

            There are those people who, like the Sadducees, who think they have the answer for all circumstances.  Such answers, in very complex situations, have a one size fits all approach.  You will know those situations when they arise, or you may already have known some.  You are torn between possible responses, and the facile solution does not account for all the considerations.

            We face those situations in matters of life and death, issues of family relations, and choices about vocation or location.  You can name you own.

            But in those moments of what I call raging ambivalence, you are called not to respond superficially or impulsively.  You are called to go into the deep – analyze your motivations, name what is the best course, and give your choice over to God.

            Thankfully, in some cases the course is readily apparent.  But in others you are to be guided by those God-given instincts which reflect holy love, giving of self, grace, and mercy.

            As the liturgy says, on these hang all the Law and the prophets.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Sacraments Pointing Elsewhere

TEXT:                 ROMANS 8:14-19,34-35,37-39

ONE SENTENCE:        We are reminded of the sacramental nature of existence                                       in the life of Barbara Simard.   

            We gather here today, as friends and family, to remember – to memorialize – a remarkable friend and family member.

            Barbara Todd Simard was not one to be contained by the boundaries of her native state.  Although she was reared in a remarkable family with three amazing siblings, the gifts with which she was blessed beckoned her elsewhere.

            Her parents were ahead of their times.  They inculcated into Barbara a love… a passion… for music that was with her throughout her life.  Her prodigious abilities as a flautist were recognized beginning in high school.  She received more and more encouragement at each step.

            Her journey led her north, to Oberlin Music Conservatory – no small step for a girl from Newton County, Mississippi.  Even there, her passion was undiminished and she traveled to Quebec, where she shared the wealth of her talents.  Her lack of knowledge of French was no impediment and it became not her second, but her first language.

            It was in that French Canadian city that she found the love of her life, Jacques.  And in that union of lives, she cherished and treasured his three children.  All of this points toward the fullness of life she had found.
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            I suspect all of us here love music.  Some folks’ taste may tend toward Rock and Roll, Country, Folk, Bluegrass or some other genre.  Barbara’s, of course, was Classical – and her abilities as a musician were prodigious.

            Even though our individual tastes may differ from others, I suspect we all have known the experience of being transformed by music.  The pieces of music we love take us to places we would never go otherwise.  Those transcendent experiences of being touched deeply and profoundly point us toward something beyond ourselves.

            Those experiences – those tunes – may change over the years.  I can look back on my days in high school and recall the incredible freedom I felt with Steppenwolf’s tune, Born to be Wild.  Not something befitting an adult or a man of the cloth.

            But as I have grown older – and hopefully matured – I have been touched by different music at various stages of life.  Now, I find beauty and emotion in hymns such as They Cast Their Nets in Galilee, written, I might add, by a Mississippian, William Alexander Percy.

            Most recently, I have been moved by the Pastoral portion of Handel’s Messiah.  I have found myself thinking, this must be what heaven sounds like.

            The point is this:  Music points us to something deeper; something much more profound.  In fact, it is something which is sacramental – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The very definition of sacrament.

            If Barbara was here bodily with us, I suspect she would agree with that assessment.  Music is sacramental – it takes us from the mundane, transforms our reality, and points us toward something which is much greater than we know in this limited world.  We are transported to a place of beauty, a place beyond the limits of human finitude. 

            We do that, too, as we sing together, and as we gather together around this holy table. It points us to something beyond this meager meal of bread and wine.  It points us toward the reality that Barbara now knows fully – a reality that we can only intuit in the silences and phrases of the prayers we offer.

            We encounter here the ultimate mystery – that which theologian Paul Tillich called the ultimate concern.  Another Paul, the Apostle Paul, described that mystery in the 8th Chapter of his Letter to the Romans.  It is, perhaps, the high point of the New Testament.  Hear his words again:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.

Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved 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.

            In other words, this life in which we live – and the life which Barbara lived – is the here and now, but it points to a reality beyond itself.

            Other than the obligatory, each of us is here because of our relationship with Barbara and our relationship with life.  We sense in her and in this world something that is beyond. We sense it in the beauty of music, in the grace of relationships, in the gentle touch of those we love, in the power of forgiveness, and yes, even in the grief of standing here memorializing one who was so dear. We come to know that there is nothing that can separate us from the essence of life.

            `The challenge for us is to find the meaning – the nugget of gold, the polished diamond – amidst the cacophony of everyday existence.  Barbara… music… the grace of prayers… the stillness of silence… those who we know and treasure… point to the ultimate reality for which we all yearn. They point the way.  They beckon to us.

            Let us heed their call.