Monday, January 13, 2020
Epiphany, January 6 , 2020 ~ St. Michael-and-All-Angels', Tucson
God is the Lord, Who has shined upon us
We have a lovely bird in the canyons called Phainopepla , Its black coat is glossy and its name means shining robe in Greek. Often, in flight, it displays flashes of white at the end of its wings. The phaino is Greek for shining. Same root is in epiphany, which we usually translate as appearance, but it too has the connotation of a flash or a sudden illumination. The literal meaning of epiphany is to shine upon – just like a star.
That may be one reason the Western Church decided to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany as a commemoration of the visit of the Wise Men, who were guided by a Star. We remember Christ’s first appearance to gentiles. The Wise Men represent all the non-Jewish people in the world. The same Western tradition also came to identify these Wise Men as Kings.
We three kings-a Vorien Tar. As a little kid, I wondered if vorien were a particular kind of tar, maybe the kind they used on the roads in the summertime, and you had to be careful not to get on your shoes! And I also wondered what it had to do with Kings. Well, my early confusion is only a more childish version of misconceptions that crept into our traditions about the Wise Men. The Gospel passage we have just heard says nothing about either kings or the number of them. It mentions three gifts, but there might have been more than three men. And they were only later thought to be kings, partly because they were rich enough to make a long and dangerous journey, and also because of the prophecy and psalm we just read we, referring to kings bowing down and offering gifts to the Messiah, especially exotic kings from the East: Arabia and Saba – countries that are not exactly east of Jerusalem, but south and east, along the Red sea.
The Gospel calls these mysterious visitors not kings but Wise Men, magoi, in the original text. That word is related to our word, magic, but the magi - as we often call them - were not wizards or sorcerers, they were the scientists of their time. They were very well-educated, scholars who were experrts in astronomy and in the interpretation of dreams. They mapped the night skies and noted the movements of the “wandering stars,” or planets. Unlike our modern astronomers, however, the ancient magi thought there was a meaningful connection between the stars and human events. The position and movements of the stars could signify earthly events. Nowadays, we call that astrology. Not scientific at all, but a pseudo-science that encourages a superstitious outlook. Well, the ancient world had a different view of reality, and the magi were respected as highly learned and knowledgeable. By the way, the fact that they also paid attention to their dreams may have saved them from King Herod.
These traditions were particularly well-developed in Persia – the modern Iran, so much in our news at the moment – to the east of Israel. Seven hundred years after Christ, the Arab conquest brought Islam to replace the old Persian religion, known as Zoroastrianism, which had emphasized the struggle between good and evil, symbolized by darkness and light. Fire was and is sacred to Zoroastrians, who wanted to identify with the Light. That is why they were so interested in the heavenly light of the stars. In Persia, the magi were religious authorities – priests – and they had to know about the stars.
Biblical religion, both Hebrew and Christian, takes a dim view of astrology, but it seems likely that the Wise Men of the Gospel were representatives of this Oriental tradition. They may not, however, have been Persian Zoroastrian priests. You see, a few centuries before their visit to Bethlehem, Persia had conquered its neighbors to the west, including the Babylonian empire, centered in modern-day Iraq. As it happens, there was a large Jewish community living there at the time. The upper classes had been dragged off from Jerusalem to exile and captivity about a hundred years before. The Persian conquerors let them return to Jerusalem, but many stayed on in Babylon, practicing their own religion, but at the same time absorbing the wisdom of the Persians, no doubt including some elements of Persian religion.
Some Persian influence, for example, might be detected in the light symbolism in the passage we read today, from the later chapters of Isaiah, which were probably written in Babylon:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
The Lord will “arise upon you,” like a star rises, and “shine upon” us. Epiphany means “appearance” but it also means “shining upon”, like a star. Anyway, the Magoi who visited Jesus may well have been Jewish astrologers from Babylonia, who had over the centuries absorbed some Zoroastrian influence, and who loved the light – both the natural light of the stars and the Divine light called the Glory of God.
That was the view of the late Latvian-American astronomer, Karlis Kaufmanis, who became famous in his adopted home, my native Minnesota, for his beloved annual lectures on the Star of Bethlehem. [There are copies of it available in the back.] Prof. Kaufmanis thought that the “Star” that guided these Magi was really a series of conjunctions of two bright planets, Jupiter and Saturn, in the year 7bc. Modern biblical scholars are used to thinking of the story of the Visit of the Magi as a lovely fantasy, included to identify Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies, but Prof. Kaufmanis showed that it might actually have happened!
Before getting into that, let’s review the question of the date of Jesus’ Birth. There are various theories, but everybody agrees that He was not born in 1ad. We now know for sure that Herod the Great died in 4bc, so the Gospel itself rules out any divine birthday later than that. We got our numbering of years in the Christian Era only five hundred year later, when a Syrian monk calculated it. The wonder is that he got the date as close to correct as he did! But it wasn’t 1ad. Astronomical evidence, on the other hand, points to 7bc. At least if we are willing to imagine some factual basis for the story of the Star of Bethlehem.
Modern scholarship confirms that Jewish scholars, exiled in Babylon, learned about Persian Astrology and adapted it to their own traditions, developing a system that identified certain stars and constellations with their own concerns. For example, Jewish astrology identified Jupiter with the King, and Saturn with the Messiah. Pisces, or the House of the Fish, referred to Israel. In 7bc, there were several appearances of Jupiter and Saturn together in Pisces. They were apparently spectacular, because they are mentioned in Persian and even Chinese sources, where tablets repeatedly record, Jupiter and Saturn in Fish. Modern astronomy can calculate the exact dates of the conjunctions, and they correspond to these records.
But for Jewish astrologers, these displays would have been momentous. The King and the Messiah, arising in the House of the Hebrews. Karlis Kaufmanis argues that:
“There seems to be little doubt that the [Visitors] were Jewish astrologers from Babylonia who had followed the planetary motions watching for the signs that would confirm the birth of the Messiah foretold by the prophets. But they had to wait for a long time. It was not until April 12, 7 BC, that ….Jupiter and Saturn [rose just before sunrise] in the House of the Hebrews. [As the Gospel quotes the Magi, “we have seen His star as it rose, and have come to worship Him”] When the planets met for their first conjunction, [very close to one another] on May 27th, [so close, possibly, as to appear as a single super-bright star] there could not have been any further doubt: the long-awaited Messiah had been born in Palestine.”
Let me interrupt Prof, Kaufmanis to address another misconception about “following the star”. There is no way that any star could have literally shown the way from the East to Jerusalem. If the Wise Men “followed” the star, it was in the sense that they were motivated by the meaning they saw in an astrological omen: Jupiter and Saturn in the Sign of the Fish, King and Messiah in the House of the Hebrews. That omen guided them in the sense that it prompted them to travel to Jerusalem to find Him. They knew where Jerusalem was; they didn’t need a star to guide them there. Kaufmanis continues:
“Since, however, the month of May marked the beginning of the hottest season in Palestine, it is likely that the astrologers postponed their trip across the desert [from Babylon] until the cooler months of fall. And when they had the second conjunction - on October 5 - even more impressive than the first one! -it must have encouraged them to leave immediately for Jerusalem.
“Having spent five to six weeks on their journey, the Wise Men could have reached Jerusalem by the middle of November. Their inquiries for the newborn King of the Jews brought them eventually to Herod, who asked them about the time the star had appeared.
“From Herod's conversation with his high priests and the astrologers, we gather that the star could not be seen at this time. That agrees with the astronomical data, for by midNovember the planets were far away from each other. [This must have been a big disappointment to the Magi. All that investment of time and money leading to a dead end. They probably didn’t feel like turning around and leaving right away. They might have had relatives to visit in Jerusalem, and a couple of weeks’ rest and reflection would have been welcome.] But while the Wise Men tarried in Jerusalem, the planets moved once more together, and on December 1st- for the third time [that] year! - came to a conjunction. [This time] after sunset, the stars of the Messiah and the King would be seen side by side south of Jerusalem in the direction of Bethlehem, which was only a few miles away.
[Only now, can we imagine the Star literally guiding the Wise Men, indicating the direction they should go to find the Child and] “If the Magi really did follow the star, in about two hours they would have reached a place where the road forked: [one to the south east going up into the hills, and the other to the] southwest. But by this time, the conjoined planets would have also turned westward and gleamed magnificently over the roofs of Bethlehem. Thus, the astronomical calculations agree amazingly with the message of the Gospel,"...and, lo, the star, which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was."
Kaufmanis goes on to note that this final conjunction was joined by Mars. This was not a good omen, however, because Mars represented the enemy of Israel. At the very least the “One Who is born King of the Jews” might be expected to be in for some serious trouble.
I feel a little sheepish about relating this suggestion that the Star and the Wise Men is anything other than a lovely story someone made up in order to illustrate a deeper truth, such as Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, or the commendability of trusting in personal illuminations or intuitions of Light, or the very important truth that God’s Act in Jesus was not for the Jews alone, but for all nations. That is, after all, why the Western Church associates the pagan kings with the Epiphany, the Feast of the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles. [The Eastern Church, by the way, commemorates Epiphany as the Baptism in the Jordan, and Christ’s first public appearance to the people of His own nation.]
Still, Prof. Kaufmanis’s observations invite us to consider the Star itself. He was a man of the old world – closer, perhaps, than we to the Hermetic sensibility that contemplated a unity of science and theology, the acknowledgement that “As it is above so shall it be below,” the startling recognition that there is a certain realism, something even more than symbolism and exalted poetry, in our exclamation that
The heavens declare the glory of God
And the firmament showeth His handiwork!
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Christian mantra ~ IAO
Hans Lietzmann mentions the use among gnostic Christians of what appears to be a mantra: IAO. It seems to me likely that there was Indian influence on popular religion in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Hindu and Buddhist practice of repetition of a sacred word, probably for the purpose of stilling discursive consciousness, found its way into Christian practice, especially in monastic circles. IAO might have been a Christian example.
Alpha and Omega, preceded by Iota (the smallest letter, close to the center of the alphabet) could refer to the conclusion of the ancient “Lesser Doxology: now, and forever unto ages of ages. This differs slightly from Eastern to Western use. The Western form adds a reference to “the Beginning” (Sicut erat in principio…) But if forever in the Eastern form be taken to mean from the beginning of time, the order of IAO can be discerned: Now, the Beginning, the End. As such, IAO could be an abbreviated form of the Lesser Doxology. It could also be understood as a reference to all-encompassing Divinity. IAO could also be interpreted as the divine conquest of time, an invocation of Eternity.
Ultimate Being is also the meaning of the Hindu OM. In chant practice, this word sounds like a-o-um (all vowels in their “long” sounding). Sometimes e-a-o-um. This sound comes pretty close to IAO.
Saturday, July 22, 2017
Sermon for Pentecost 7
Proper 11 ~ Lectionary Year A ~ July 23, 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
…creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
Weeds and wheat, Spirit and flesh and bodies, creation in labor. There is much to unpack here. But let’s start with the Prophecy: There is only one God. There is no other. The weeds in with the good grain are not due to some power or “enemy” that can oppose God. God has no equal. The point is that the garden is a process and the separation of the weeds from the grain is coming in the future.
Just as last week’s sower, the evangelist considers it necessary to add an interpretation to the parable. Unfortunately, like all interpretations these tend to narrow the meaning. Parables can have more than one meaning. The notion that the weeds are evildoers destined for punishment is not the only possibility. Reading the parable next to Paul’s letter to the Romans may stimulate our imagination in another direction.
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… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
So maybe the weeds symbolize what Paul calls the “bondage to decay” to which the whole material creation seems to be subject. At the end of time, the holy angels will destroy not individual human evildoers but a certain incompleteness in creation. It is not just individual righteous human creatures who are to be set free, but creation itself. Creation is groaning as if in labor to bring forth something completely new. Inseparable from creation, humanity too is groaning in expectation, as we wait for what Paul calls “the redemption of our bodies.”
Paul mentions the body twice: we have to put away the deeds of the body, but then we are to await the redemption of the body. He never speaks of the redemption of the flesh, but of the redemption of the body. This bodily redemption is part of the liberation of the whole creation from bondage to decay. To redeem is, literally, to “buy back” as in a pawn shop we redeem something borrowed against. Slaves could be redeemed – bought back – and set free. The bondage Paul speaks of is the whole creation’s slavery to decay and death, in which we also participate. But God has come in the Person of the Son to set us free from this slavery – and not only us, but all creation. The Son is one of us. And we are like him – children of God by adoption and grace, if not by nature, because He has taught us to call God Papa — Abba — as He does. The consciousness that we are, together, the children of God is the Spirit. The Spirit is never opposed to the body, but it is opposed to the flesh and there is a difference. Our bodies are to be redeemed — together. In fact, we already experience the firstfruits of this Redemption. The Spirit is the consciousness of intercommunion among apparently separate bodies. The flesh, destined for destruction, like weeds in the garden, is the insistence on individual separation. In fact, maybe as the weeds represent the flesh, so the good grain represents material existence in the body: living and material intercommunion in the Spirit.
What we hope for is not a disembodied or immaterial redemption. The opposition of flesh and spirit is not an opposition between matter and spirit. It is the opposition of communion and separation. The flesh is our will to go our own way and to imagine that we can be by ourselves. That tendency is to be destroyed — the orientation toward death is to be destroyed, the destruction of destruction. But our bodies are to be redeemed. Matter is to be redeemed. I take this to mean that matter is to become what God always intended creation to be: the expression of divine love and beauty.
Our current view about material reality is friendly toward this Pauline view. The Word of creation is "Let there be light." As far as I understand it, our modern creation narrative is that light is all there is: light organized in various ways. And all connected. The shape and behavior of space and galaxies on the unimaginably large scale of the observable universe is found to be uncannily similar to the shape and behavior of energy and matter in the infinitesimal first moments of the Big Bang. The pattern is repeated from the infinitesimal to the virtually infinite.
The Chinese just experimentally demonstrated the theory of quantum physics: some particles of light — photons — are “entangled” with one another, and they behave in a way that shows their connection, even at great distances. The Chinese have just managed to do this in outer space. What happens to one photon here on earth happens to its entangled sister in the satellite. There is some kind of sympathy, even though there is no apparent connection and the photons are separated by great distances. Changes imposed on the terrestrial photon happen also to the celestial one — simultaneously. Yet there is no possibility for the transmission of information from one to the other, by any means known to us. This strikes me as another way of saying that everything is connected to everything else, in ways we do not yet understand: like the mysterious connection Paul calls Spirit. In fact Einstein even called it “spooky action at a distance.” And it made him pretty uncomfortable.
St. Augustine would not have been uncomfortable, because he speculated that the Holy Spirit is precisely the connection between Father and Son. Spirit Is Connection, Life. Flesh Is separation, sin and death — all of which are excluded from the Being of God, whose children we are invited to become by adoption. Whatever matter is, whatever the cosmos is, everything is connected to everything else, eagerly longing for the revealing of the children of God — that is for creation’s own consciousness, ourselves — to realize the fulness of “the freedom of the glory of the children of God… [and]our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
The weeds are the illusion of separation. from which we suffer, just as the good grain has to grow — for a time — with the weeds. But at the end of time — that is when time has fulfilled its purpose — in what scripture calls the fulness of time – separation will disappear into its essential nothingness. As the Communion of the Holy Spirit is revealed to encompasses all creation — ta panta — in glory, then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.
COME, LORD JESUS
Sermon for Pentecost 6
Proper 10 ~ Lectionary Year A ~ July 16, 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
To set the mind on the flesh is death,
but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
At the end of the nineteenth century, a fascinating controversy went on between two well-known intellectuals, Sir Thomas Huxley and Prince Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin, over the meaning of Darwin and evolution. It illustrates a difference in what we have come to call paradigms.
From the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as the gladiator's show. … Life was a continuous free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence
So wrote Thomas Huxley in 1888. He developed his view of “nature” into a theory that has come to be known as Social Darwinism, according to which, since nature’s law is a law of competition, weeding out the unfit, it will not do to help the weak and unfit survive to reproduce. That is a recipe for the “degeneration” of the human race.
Kropotkin disagreed, to put it mildly. Here is the opening paragraph of his great work in response to Huxley, entitled Mutual Aid:
Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find – although I was eagerly looking for it – that bitter struggle for the means of existence among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.
“Don't compete!” Kropotkin concluded. “That is the watchword which comes to us from the bush, the forest, the river, the ocean. Therefore combine—practice mutual aid!”
Faced with the same data, the two scientists arrived at different conclusions. This illustrates how paradigms work. Stephen Jay Gould, in a recent article rehabilitating Kropotkin from his caricature as an anarchist crank, would say that the difference in paradigm included a difference of data, because Kropotkin studied sparsely-populated Siberia, while Huxley and the British concentrated on the crowded tropics. But Gould points out that Kropotkin was anything but idiosyncratic: he represents the mainstream of Russian evolutionary thought, which remains untranslated and almost unknown in the West. Prince Kropotkin seems singular to us only because he is the only such thinker who wrote in English.
Now this difference in paradigms ~ the lens through which we agree to look at the world ~ is what Paul is talking about, I believe, in his Spirit / Flesh dichotomy. The Huxley-Kropotkin controversy may serve as an analogy of the difference. It is very important not to misunderstand Paul. Spirit vs. flesh is not material vs. immaterial. Although many have interpreted it that way, such a dichotomy is, in fact heresy. Material creation is what the bible says God pronounced it to be: Very Good.
The heresy that holds that what is wrong with human beings is our material bodies and our lives in the world is NOT what Paul is talking about. He is talking about two different ways of viewing human life ~ two different paradigms, and the very different ways of life that proceed from each view of life. The flesh , rather like Sir Thomas Huxley, sees the human person as in competition with everybody else: the “war of each against all.” Therefore, my job is to advance my own interests, and get as much wealth as I can. The Spirit, rather like Prince Kropotkin, sees the human person as part of a great whole characterized by mutual aid.
This is a difference, which I have called a difference in paradigm, might also be called a difference in spiritual temperament. And what one perceives as reality depends greatly on one’s spiritual temperament; whether one sees reality as the dance of Cosmic Love or as gladiatorial combat ~ “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”. Remember who uttered those words: the murderous Macbeth, his soul deformed by his own ambition, one of the most frightening depictions of Pauline flesh in all of literature.
Prof. Gould rightly warns us against the trap of reading our own political preferences into nature, as both Huxley and Kropotkin most certainly do. But from the perspective of religious history, I think one may also conclude that Huxley’s fleshly conclusions naturally proceed from a prior inclination to view the world as competition. Kropotkin, on the other hand, grew up as a nobleman in feudal times, for the rural Russia of his youth was entirely feudal. It was also entirely Christian, and whatever Kropotkin’s conscious atheism, there is no doubt about the influence that Orthodoxy had on his consciousness ~ it was part of the paradigm by which he experienced the world. That is, it was spiritual in the Pauline sense.
For all its pain and death, the material world is beautiful, and human beings are the image of God, however distorted. And as his great compatriot, Dostoevsky, wrote: “the tragedy of humanity is that a paradise of beauty blooms around us and we fail to see it.” That failure to see is flesh. That is what brings death. The Spirit is the divine gift of seeing the Beauty and Love that in fact rule the world ~ what our Lord called the Kingdom of God. Anyone who has that gift is led by the Spirit, in Paul’s terminology. Like Prince Kropotkin, they may not be aware of it, but nevertheless, they are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
COME, LORD JESUS
Saturday, July 08, 2017
Sermon for Pentecost 5
Sermon for Pentecost 5
Proper 9, Year A July 9 , 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
+ In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
Thus St. Augustine summarized Christian ethics in a remark that serves as a charter for what is called the sovereignty of conscience. It is, in a way, a paraphrase of our Lord’s own Summary of the Law, to which today’s Collect refers, saying that God has taught us to fulfill the whole law by loving God and our neighbor. If we love God, we cannot help but love our neighbor, because our neighbor is like God.
And yet we all fall short of this simple standard. It may be simple but it’s not easy. Because loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength means not only refraining from the worst kinds of outward offenses, but it also means never thinking about anything but God, which means forgetting ourselves entirely. Like Paul, in his famous lament and to the Romans, we find that we cannot do that, however much we may wish to:
The good that I would that I do not,
and the evil that I would not that I do!
Whenever I read this passage, I remember the great Krister Stendhal, the Dean of Harvard Divinity school and later the Bishop of Stockholm, who came to our Episcopal clergy conference here in Minnesota in the early 70s. He had a terrific sense of humor even though, as he explained, he had been prepared for confirmation by Ingmar Bergman’s father! Stendhal was a noted Pauline scholar and he argued that this passage we heard today is not really the anguished cry of a tormented soul, but a rhetorical trope of the kind commonly found in classical literature. “There is no way out of my conundrum, but look! Surprise! There is a way out after all.”
This form may also be detected in today’s Gospel – a kind of bad news/good news joke. What we heard today was a series of sayings of Jesus — so-called “unattached logoi”, or sayings that seem to have been collected individually and piled up on the evangelist’s desk, and then selected seemingly at random, to be tacked on wherever there was room:
I piped in you did not dance &c,
John came fasting and you said he had a demon, I came eating and drinking and you said I was a glutton, there’s no pleasing you!
Thank God that all this is hidden from the wisdom of this world, and revealed to the simple. The Father is unknown to all but the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
It is a challenge to find any common theme here, but I’ll try! Maybe a key to interpretation can be found in Paul’s diatribe about feeling trapped, and the Collect’s reference to the Summary of the Law, which Augustine paraphrased as “love God and do as you please.” At first glance, Augustine’s advice seems to contradict St. Paul’s. Even with the best of will, Paul finds that his propensity to forget God is always close at hand — ready to pounce, as it were. Krister Stendhal’s studies led him to observe that Western European Christians are way too quick to identify this kind of expression with Luther and his famous spiritual struggles.
But there is little evidence that Paul’s temperament was much like Luther’s. The famous passage we heard today is not a cry of existential, Teutonic anguish, but a rather cheerful and humorous thanksgiving for liberation from this kind of pagan trap. When he wrote this, Paul was most likely smiling, not beating his breast! Sure, our condition is absurd, but thanks be to God, because of Jesus Christ there is humor in that condition, instead of despair.
So, we are like the little children: on the one hand, there is no pleasing us —
We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.
While on the other hand, the Good News is hidden from the sophisticated, and revealed to us infants. The Good News is that in Christ, God has overcome sin, and freed us from its death-house. Our decrepit will to do the right thing is not our only weapon in this struggle: thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.
The “body of death” in which we are imprisoned is not our physical body, but rather the sense of separation in our individual consciousness. This is the “law of sin in my members" which Paul laments, and ridicules. But Jesus Christ has overcome that separation — Thanks be to God. He has overcome it for everyone, although He had revealed the fact, for now, only to a few: to us whom He has commissioned to spread the Good News. No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.
This open secret, which we now shout from the rooftops, is hard to hear. Even public proclamation doesn’t necessarily reveal the secret. People can hear the words and not get it. Part of the secret is that the “yoke is easy and the burden is light.” Just the opposite of the anguish that Paul ridiculed. God knows that He is calling those who are weary and heavy laden. All God asks is that we love Him. God also knows that His adorability is infinitely greater than our capacity for love.
“Don’t worry about that,” He says, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. In other words, do your best to love Me. I will gradually increase your capacity to love. My easy burden and light yoke will gradually form your conscience — the secret place within your inner consciousness where you know Me and I know you. As for everything else, as My servant, Bishop Augustine of Hippo, put it: do as you please!
COME, LORD JESUS
Saturday, July 01, 2017
Sermon for Pentecost 4
(Sunday within the octave of
the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul)
Year A July 2 , 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
Anyone who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
The feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, June 29, commemorates the traditional day the Empire killed them. Tradition also reveres them as the apostolic founders of the Church in Rome. These two Jews, very different in background and social position, brought the Gospel to the Imperial capital. There’s lots of symbolic meaning here. Ancient Hebrew monotheism transcends its ethnic roots, extending to all nations, and polytheistic paganism embraces monotheism. Peter, the rough working-class Apostle, is joined by Paul, the Roman citizen of the Diaspora — not even from Palestine but from Asia minor, who spoke Greek as well as he spoke Aramaic possibly better, the disciple of the most noted rabbi of the time, Gamaliel. Peter and Paul represent the universality of the Church — They are the Catholic Apostles, par excellence.
The Sunday after the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul often falls around the time of our national holiday which makes it a good time to reflect on the relationship of church and state. I mean that in a broad sense, not in our usual legal, constitutional sense. All our scriptures make it clear that human political arrangements are temporary and instrumental. That is, when they promote God’s purpose of peace and justice among creatures, God may bless them, but when they work against those purposes, God shows them no favor. Among the worst kinds of idolatry, also among the most prevalent, is the identification of one’s own society, culture, or nation with the Kingdom of God.
One reason the Hebrew Scriptures seem authentic is the criticism they often level against the People whom God has chosen to be His own. The basic message is that the status of chosen people is not something any nation can claim, but only receive as the gift of God, and the chosen status can turn into judgment if the people ignore God’s commandments.
Today’s Collect identifies the Apostle and Prophets as twofold foundation of the Church. The prophets leave no doubt that God insists on our obedience to commandments: not so much commandments about ritual purity and religious observance, but commandments of social justice. If this is true of the descendants of Abraham by blood, how much more is it true of any other country or nation that thinks of itself as specially favored?
From the beginning, we Americans have thought of ourselves that way. Some even went so far as to dream that we could rebuild a whole new society here, free of Original Sin. A new secular order, as our motto on the Great Seal — found in the back of the dollar bill — proclaims. Deep in our national DNA is the notion of American exceptionalism: we are new and different. We are specially favored by God. Even as we killed indigenous people and enslaved Africans. But this is in fact a kind of apostasy, a blasphemy, a form of idolatry because it places the nation on the throne in place of God.
That is not to say that the United States — or any nation — may never be used by God. But it is a warning against the kind of national pride that easily turns into idolatry. Scripture threatens unpleasant consequences for that! As long as we — or any other nation —genuinely try to advance the cause of peace and justice on earth, we may have God’s favor. But whenever we begin to think that God favors us and so we can do whatever we want, we are in for a big surprise. I’m afraid that surprise may now be upon us.
I think of our present time as a “slow-motion crisis.” We have elected an incompetent, infantile man to be president. A Hebrew prophet would take this as the judgment of God, which we have called down upon ourselves. Of course the ancient Hebrews were not individualists: they did not think in terms of individual rights or deserts. It’s fine to quote H.L. Mencken and say that “democracy is the form of government in which the people get exactly what they deserve”, but what about all of us who didn’t vote for that nincompoop? Well, modern human rights law may take a dim view of collective punishment, but the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t. When the nation departs from the way of the righteous, everybody suffers – even the individually innocent.
All of this is important to remember in conjunction with our national holiday. I do not intend to turn it into a day of mourning by reciting our innumerable transgressions. I just want to observe that human empires sometimes serve God, and sometimes they don’t. The Roman Empire served to help spread the Gospel throughout the entire known world (at least that part of the known world mattered to anyone in that culture), and then having served that purpose, it declined and fell — or at least changed into something very different.
We remember Peter and Paul as the founders of the Church in Rome. According to tradition, both died there on the same day — one crucified, the other beheaded as a Roman citizen. Although the Empire may be an instrument, it is never the friend of the Church. The Gospel would spread under the protection of the Empire, and eventually conquer it, even though it killed the first apostles.
One important, underlying message of all this is that parochial or ethnocentric religion — religion too closely identified with one ethnic group — must become universal.
Anyone who loves father or mother more
than Me is not worthy of Me.
These difficult words we heard last week could well apply here: if you think God favors you particularly because of your nationality, if you love your own ancestry, your own blood more than you love Jesus, then you are not worthy of Jesus. The Gospel is for everybody, not for any particular bloodline.
The Roman Empire was universal, and the Good News that Peter and Paul brought to Rome was salvation for everybody, not only for the blood descendants of Abraham. As the Empire was universal, so would be the New Israel, the Catholic Church. All human classifications, all divisions, all categories would be transcended and abolished. Just as there was one Emperor, there would be one Lord and Savior of all peoples. Once that was firmly established, the Empire had served its purpose. The Empire became Christian, and more or less continued in Constantinople and Moscow right up into the last century (remember that Tsar means Cæsar.) But these Imperial tools eventually outlived their usefulness and disappeared. While the universal Church continued to prosper.
As our own nation and our own world Empire declines, dramatically, let us not be amazed. We cannot predict the future: it may be that the United States of America has served whatever purpose God intended for it — and we can all guess what that might be. [For my part, I think it has something to do with the promotion of universal human rights.] But then it may also be that God will repent, turn back our decline, cleanse us, and lead us in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.
It is possible, but don’t count on it. In the end, the Gospel is opposed to Empire. Sooner or later, the Empire will attack the messengers of the Gospel, crucify and behead them as Rome did to Peter and Paul. But the Holy Apostles will have the last word.
THE LORD IS GLORIOUS IN THE SAINTS
COME LET US ADORE