Benediction Online

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Reading God's Word Across the Centuries
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, Luke 4:14-21

Today we hear of two occasions when the word of God was read, two occasions separated by some four or five hundred years. In the first reading, the people of Israel are those who have returned from Babylon and from other places to which their parents had fled, to rebuild Jerusalem and to start to live once again in Judah. They have gathered together to hear the Torah. It’s the first time they have come together in this way since they all returned and it’s a very emotional time.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is in his home town of Nazareth. He has been preaching in other places in Galilee and has gained a great reputation. Now he opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads to the people some of the promises given through Third Isaiah. This is not the first time these people have heard this reading. They know what it says. They have heard rabbis discuss it for years and years. They know what it means. Now the synagogue is packed with people come to hear this new young preacher who is said to be quite outstanding. They wait expectantly as he sits down to teach.

They aren’t expecting him to say, ‘this reading is about me’. That’s blasphemy. That’s saying that somehow he believes he is the anointed one, the messiah. No-one could claim such a thing, and as we’ll hear next week, the people were so enraged they threw him out.

As you know, there are those who want to throw the Episcopal Church out of the international Anglican Communion for a similar reason. Not because we think we’re the Messiah, but because sometimes we understand Scripture in a different way. Jesus brought a totally new interpretation of the passage from Isaiah. He didn’t just repeat what the rabbis had said but in a different way; he said something completely new.

The methods we use to interpret Scripture are not entirely new. The historical-critical method of looking at a passage in its own historical and cultural life setting has been around for over a century. For even longer, Christians have interpreted Biblical passages using their imaginations and their intellect. What is new and has only really developed in the last 85 years, is the idea that there is only one correct way to understand a Bible reading.

The people of Israel back in Jerusalem some four or five centuries before Jesus, listening to the Torah, needed an interpretation. We heard ‘they gave the sense so that the people understood the reading’. Perhaps many of them no longer spoke Hebrew and so needed an interpretation into their language, but I’m prepared to bet that it was also an interpretation which made sense of the ancient sacred text in the context of the rebuilding of Israel.

Whenever you hear something or read something you have to interpret it. It does not go straight from the page into your understanding without any interpretation. If it did, we would all agree on everything. There would be very few attorneys because every point of law would be totally clear. There would be few disagreements because we would understand everything in the same way.

Our minds are set up to interpret everything on the basis of past learning. One day I was driving along Los Osos Valley Road, and I came to the top of the hill just past the church here. As I looked down towards Los Osos I saw an orca. An orca? I looked again. I saw a man wearing a tuxedo standing in a very strange position. Finally I got close enough to see a pair of black and white goats. My perceptual system had not been able to interpret the unexpected goats on first glance and had given me its best guess, twice.

Even if we agree that objective Truth exists we are not all going to perceive it in the same way, because we have different perceptual screens. We interpret what we hear, see and read on the basis of past learning. If I ever see an orca on Los Osos Valley Rd I’ll probably think it’s two goats!

So we are going to read the same thing and understand it differently, unless we have already learned what it is supposed to mean. One of the most difficult things in reading the Bible can be letting go of your preconceptions. Even if you didn’t grow up going to church and Sunday School, chances are that you have a sense of what the Bible says, so when you hear Bible readings, you put them in that context. The people of Nazareth had a pretty good idea of what Isaiah said and it certainly wasn’t what Jesus was suggesting.

If we expect the Bible to always say the same thing then we are in danger of slighting the Holy Spirit. It is in the interaction between the Bible and our hearts and minds, mediated by the Holy Spirit, that we meet the divine and hear God’s word to us. It is in this relationship, us, the Word and the Spirit that we receive inspiration.

We serve a living God and so what we hear will change depending on what God wants us to hear. Those of us who get to preach regularly have the privilege of asking what God wants us to emphasize, how God wants us to interpret these readings this Sunday. We hear the Holy Spirit’s reply more clearly some weeks than others! If there wasn’t this vital interaction with the living God, I could just pull out the sermon I preached last time we had the same readings.

But God does have different things to say to us, and our understandings change as we grow and change in our experience of God. There are those who want to see the Episcopal Church disciplined because they say we no longer preach the true gospel of Christ, and that our reading of Scripture is wrong. I am less concerned that we might read it incorrectly than that we might listen with closed ears because we think we’ve heard it all before.

How can God speak to us if we think we already know it all? The folk in the synagogue in Nazareth thought they knew all there was to know about Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s son, so they could not hear the new teachings he brought. If we ask the Holy Spirit to interpret the Scriptures to us, we can trust that such errors as we may make will be corrected.

One of the most important things that a faith community must do is to engage with the Scriptures. Engaging with the Scriptures means bringing our minds, our hearts, our creativity and offering it to the Holy Spirit in this amazing process that can happen when we read the Scriptures and God reveals Godself to us. Every day becomes an epiphany. If we are to grow as a church, this is the most fundamental thing we must do.

I hope that many of you will take advantage of the workshop on February 3rd to experience the psalms in a new way as the basis for your own sacred writing. I hope that others of you will come to Vespers on a Tuesday evening when we get to informally discuss a passage of Scripture and its meaning for us. I also encourage you to come to Bible Study on a Sunday morning where we grapple with the big questions of our faith as we read our way through the Prophets.

The people of Israel had to come together to listen to Ezra reading from the Torah, as did the people of Nazareth have to gather to hear Isaiah. We have the remarkable privilege of having sacred Scripture on our homes. We can read the Bible every day, something that has only been a possibility for a mere 550 years.

However you do it, I urge you to engage with Scripture with open ears and an open heart. Dare to play with it, to consider new possibilities; allow the Holy Spirit to grab your attention and shock you with new insights. Let us allow God’s word to move us to tears, to celebration, to outrage!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Wine for the Wedding. John 2: 1-11

The gospel accredited to John is quite different from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels because they all have a similar view of Jesus’ ministry. John is quite different; it uses different language; it takes place mainly in Jerusalem whereas in the other three gospels Jesus goes to Jerusalem only at the end of his earthly ministry; all Jesus’ teaching is collected together in one part of the book and though he uses some familiar and important analogies, he does not teach in parables; and in addition, there are some stories which do not appear in the other three gospels at all.

The wedding at Cana is one of those. John does not describe it as a miracle but rather as a sign. In other words it’s a revelation of who Jesus really is - an ‘aha’, or an epiphany. Since the Gospel of John is often thought of as metaphysical or even Gnostic, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for us, in pondering its meaning for us, to think about this sign – the wedding at Cana – as one might think about a dream.

Firstly there’s a wedding taking place. As the first reading reminded us, the relationship between God and Israel was often described using the analogy of marriage, of the bride and groom, and later, of the faithful husband and faithless wife. Similarly the relationship between God and the soul has again and again been imaged as the relationship of lovers. Here the community is gathered to celebrate this relationship of sweetness and hope, to help the couple take their new place in the fabric of society, turning their love from a purely personal affair into something which will benefit all.

But, as is the way in dreams, something is not right. The wine has run out. The festivities are about to come to a premature end.

What does wine mean to us? If I ask you to come and have a glass of wine it feels very different from if I ask you to come and have a glass of water. Wine is rich and festive; it can provide an enjoyable altered state of consciousness which helps to create festivity. It is associated with food and hospitality. Drinking wine together is often a bonding experience. Within the Christian church we use it to symbolize God’s hospitality to us in the eucharist and our sharing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Traditionally wine has been considered to be an analogy for spirit. In this wedding it is as though the spirit of the relationship has dried up. It can no longer be celebrated. Something is needed to bring new life and new hope, new joy and new dancing.

It is the mother of God who names it. ‘They have no wine’ she says. This relationship has run dry. It doesn’t have any juice. It is the sacred feminine who shows us the problem, and points to the solution. ‘Do whatever he tells you’ she says. This is the turning point in our dream. The sacred feminine has exposed the dry dreariness of the old relationship which was begun with so much joy and looks to the Christ to bring the new.

But not so fast. ‘My hour has not yet come’, he says. We wait in suspense… will he turn away because he thinks it is not yet time? No, because this is the first of seven signs that will lead up to Jesus’ ‘hour’ of glorification in the events of Holy week and Easter. Jesus’ reference to the right time is a hint of things to come.

And what does the Christ use to bring renewal but jars which were used for the water for purification? These jars symbolize the old relationship, the old way of coming to God through keeping the law and through acts of purification. Now they are used to make the new wine, the spirit of the renewed relationship that comes through Christ whose blood is symbolized in wine in the Eucharistic feast. But it is not enough that the jars are filled with water, it must also be poured out and the new wine, the wine that is so much better than the other wine, must be tasted and enjoyed, and the celebration begins anew.

But here is a dramatic irony; only the servants and disciples, and those of us who are listening to this story know that a miracle has taken place. The people at the party have no idea! All they know is that finally the servants have gotten out another jug of wine and it tastes great! Yet we know that Jesus has shown the first of his signs and his disciples have believed in him.

And since we are his disciples, we too believe.

So what does any of this have to do with us today? Our faith tells us that objectively Jesus brought new life, Jesus turned the old jars of purification through the law into containers for new wine. Someone once calculated how much new wine there was, and it would have been enough to keep the whole village inebriated for days. Jesus turned the weak water of the old relationship with God into abundant new life in a while new love affair.

What is happening in your love affair with God? Are you like new lovers, longing to spend time together, eager for every opportunity to talk or just to sit together, or are you like the long time married couple who sit together in silence? I often look at couples in restaurants, eating together but not talking and wonder, is this the silence grown out of long lived intimacy where words are often unnecessary, or a silence born out of apathy, boredom and estrangement?

Has your relationship with God run out of juice? The hope of today’s Gospel is not only in the knowledge of the new life, the new dispensation, which Jesus the Christ brought, but in the possibility that this can happen again today in our lives. Where our walk with God has become arid, relying on outward form with little inward joy, Jesus can bring new wine, new joy, new life.
As we pray for the new wine in our lives as individuals and as a faith community, let us not forget that someone has to pour it out and drink it. To pray for renewal and not to open ourselves to receive it is like hoping to win the lottery without buying a ticket or to receive a gift and never unwrap it. So let us seek together and open ourselves up to a new relationship with God. One with the joy and excitement of young lovers but with the intimacy and faithfulness of mature love.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Why was Herod afraid?

I’m sure that Herod knew in advance that the wise men were on their way from the East, from some part of Persia, perhaps Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia – or even all three – but perhaps he thought they were coming to visit him. Until they told him something his own soothsayers had neglected to mention, that there was a new star, probably a comet, indicating that an amazing event had occurred – a royal baby had been born - the one who would be king of the Jews. King of the Jews. But Herod was the ruler of the Jews and he didn’t want any competition, not for himself and not for his sons who would succeed him. He was angry, he was ambitious, but why was he afraid?

I imagine that he was afraid because he knew that this would bring unrest. The most important thing for Herod was keeping things quiet so that the Romans wouldn’t decide to get involved. Keeping things stable. Now these so called wise men from who knew where had come with stories about a baby born to be king which tied in with the old ideas about a Messiah. Herod was afraid that whatever the truth of the matter, once people got wind of it this was going to rock the boat and upset his carefully laid plans. All he wanted was a comfortable, secure life for himself and his family. It wasn’t much to ask.

And if this really was a new king, or if enough people thought so, it would threaten his power. Giving up power is one of the most difficult things we get to do. In a few weeks Bob will be coming to the end of his term as Senior Warden. I know he can’t wait! But I also know that many Senior Wardens go through a time almost like a bereavement, when they keep thinking of things and then remembering they’re not in charge any more, or they start to feel left out of the communication loop. However much it may be a relief to give up responsibility, giving up power is tough.

Herod was not about to give up on any of his power. But this is exactly what God did in Jesus. God became human. God didn’t stop being God, but allowed Godself to become human with all the limitations and powerlessness we have. And God chose to be an especially powerless human. A carpenter, an itinerant preacher in a small country which had been ruled by the superpowers for longer than anyone could remember. A member of a nation whose members had emigrated again and again to avoid oppression and danger at home.

A strange king. Would Herod have been so afraid if one of his advisers had been able to tell him what was coming? if one of his advisors had told him that this king would be crucified after a quick and very questionable trial during which he put up no kind of defense and even told his followers not to fight? Perhaps he would have been more frightened because Jesus changed the rules. He didn’t play the human power game. He played a different, a new, an unfamiliar game.

It’s the game he calls us to. And even after two millennia it’s still a new and unfamiliar game. We’re still learning the rules. It’s a game where you are ready to lose all your cards. Not a game where the winner is the one who loses all their cards first, nor a game where the winner gets all the cards but a game where no-one wins until everyone wins. A game where the best defense is to admit that you have no defense, where the most powerful play is to admit that you are powerless. It’s a game that makes no sense in human terms.

Is that why Herod was afraid?

It certainly makes us afraid. When we begin to seriously engage with gospel values we discover a totally different way of thinking which threatens much that we hold dear. Our little egos are attached to bolstering our self-esteem, to making us feel good about ourselves, to helping us feel that we are powerful agents in our world. Our little egos and our culture are in a conspiracy to make us feel it’s a game which we have to win. There used to be a bumper sticker, ‘The one who dies with the most toys, wins’. Most of our lives are spent in competition with each other, building our own little empires and creating defense systems so that we won’t be attacked. Some of us specialize in attacking first - pre-emptive attack, so that we won’t be seen to be vulnerable.

That’s what Herod did. He became so alarmed that there was this small child who might grow up to be a threat to him that he determined to kill him. No knowing how to identify the child, only knowing that he was a boy in Bethlehem, he ordered his soldiers to kill all the boys of two years and under in the city. Of course it didn’t work, because the divine life cannot be killed like that, but it caused untold devastation and suffering for those families. Rather like the devastation we’ve seen recently in places like the Sudan, Northern Uganda and Darfur.

Our little egos do a similar thing. As soon as we start to get really serious about the gospel, as soon as we start to experiment with new ways of thinking, our little egos become enraged. They feel threatened, they’re ready to attack.

I want to give you an example of how this happens for us as a church.

Someone comes to us and asks for help with her rent and we are delighted to be able to provide assistance. Then she comes again and we feel a little less comfortable. Then she comes again and again and again…
What are we to do?
We feel threatened because here is someone whose need never seems to end. Someone we are afraid will take all we have to give and still be needy. Someone who will drain all our resources and prevent us from helping other people. We know that we are not the only people she goes to for help, which is good because we can’t meet all her needs, but it also makes us wonder if she’s not making an excellent living from begging. We think that there must be a more permanent solution, there must be state agencies that can help her and her family, there must be ways for her to find work. We think that if we continue to help her perhaps we are preventing her from solving the situation in a permanent way which would be better for her self-esteem, after all haven’t many of us had times when we’ve been down on our luck, but we’ve found ways to pull ourselves up by our own bootstrings? We think of possible solutions, but she doesn’t seem interested and she doesn’t want to tell us much about her life, she just needs the money.
We feel confused and threatened, and think that perhaps we should create a policy so that we will know what to do.

What are we called to do? For all we know, this person may be the Christ. Would we turn Jesus away? If Jesus came every Sunday asking for help, what would we do? Jesus’ teaching seems very clear that we are to share all that we have, and he doesn’t put time limits on it or dollar amounts. We are to give freely and trust that all our needs will be met. Jesus healed the sick and told them not to sin again but he never told a beggar to stop begging.

But, but we argue, that was a different culture and a different time…

I am not offering answers here. I want to use this as an example of how the radical demands of the gospel conflict with the way we usually think and when they do, we often feel threatened and try to use our minds to solve the problem. There is a dissonance between what Jesus teaches and they way we think. It’s not comfortable. Cognitive dissonance is never comfortable.

Herod solved the problem by slaughtering children. We don’t consider that an option. We are rather more subtle. Our little egos persuade us that the gospel isn’t really that radical – it’s just about being good people and being loving and that’s not too hard, and anyway when we confess our sins Jesus forgives them so we don’t need to worry. There’s no need to change. Or perhaps our egos take a more direct path and ‘Just Say No’ to anything that threatens to disturb our peace.

Which kind of sovereign do you want? Herod or Jesus?