Advent 3 B, John 1:6-8, 19-28, 2017

A Prologue to Witness

In this gospel the status of John the Baptist is carefully defined by several negatives: 1) John is not the light. 2) He is not the Messiah. 3) He is neither Elijah nor the Prophet. 4) In John 3:29 he is not the bridegroom and 5) in John 3:30 he must decrease while Jesus must increase. 6) In 10:41 we are informed that John worked no miracles. A significant list of “nots”.

In addition, there is relative silence in John’s gospel about certain themes about the Baptist used in the other three gospels. There is no mention that John’s baptism is for repentance and the forgiveness of sins as in Luke, Mark and Matthew. (John does mention that he baptizes, but doesn’t specifically justify this baptism, just reports its occurrence.) There is no message of social justice as in Luke. In John’s gospel, there is a pointed emphasis on the Baptist’s role in one respect only: he is to witness to the light, to the coming of Jesus.

And this raises the question for us, what does it mean to witness to Jesus? And if it was the Baptist’s job to so witness, is it not also ours? Can we learn about witnessing by looking at the Baptist’s witness? Language about witnessing to Christ is popular language – Christians are constantly being asked to “make their witness” but what do we mean by it? Like many other terms, Lord, Savior, Son, we may be freer in using the terms than in understanding them. I’m not going to tell you what witnessing to Christ means because I can’t – but I will mention some occasionally ignored aspects of witness that need to be remembered if our witness is to be a spiritually healthy one

First, consider the season. It is Advent and Advent is a season of expectation, of preparation for the coming of Christ. Make no mistake about it, Christ has not only come into history 2000 years ago in Palestine, his coming continues in our hearts and continues to seek expression in our lives. To witness to Christ means to proclaim both his history and his presence, both the baby in the manger and the mystical presence in our hearts. And we hope for and expect his coming as judge and redeemer in the last day — as the collect for the First Sunday of Advent puts it, “. . . that in the last day, when he shall come in glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead we may rejoice. . .” So when we witness to Christ we witness to different layers of his coming. As the season of Advent presents to us a past, a present and a future Christ, so our witness to Christ needs to be to what Christ was, to what he is and to what he shall be; to baby in the manger and the man on the cross, to the enlivening of our hearts and to our hope for the future.

To witness on one level only is a witness inadequate to the fullness of Christ. To witness to a belief in the historical Jesus alone is clearly not enough. So the first point about witness is that we need to witness to the reality of a Christ who is as rich and varied as the Christ Advent presents to us.

Today’s collect tells us that because we are hindered by our sins we need God’s grace and mercy to help and deliver us. So a second observation on the meaning of witness to Christ is that such witness points to grace and mercy first. And to witness to grace and mercy first is a huge task in a world besotted with blame. If we do not witness to Christ’s love first, we have no right to proceed to proclaim his judgment – which is never the gift of God anyway. Now, hold on to your pews, some of you may be surprised by this. God gives only love and so love is all we can witness to if we witness to the truth of God. Judgment is what happens when we reject God’s love, so to witness to judgment is to witness not to God but to our own failure to accept his love. And it’s a cop-out to point to human failure to respond to God as primary. What we do, rejection, can only be secondary to what God does, inclusion. True witness always begins with a pointing to God’s love.

Not only does our culture move more easily to blame than to love, but we are also a prey to that dangerous myth that once we have found who is responsible for evil and punished that person or thing we have solved the problem. But we have not, we have only excused ourselves by showing how different those people are from me. For instance, it is all very well to talk about the importance of law enforcement, and it is also meaningless to talk about it unless we search for and struggle with the violence and dishonesty in our own hearts. We cannot witness to Christ if we say that those who oppose him are only over there, separate from me and I have nothing to do with their obtuseness, their blindness, their evil.

So, third point, the foundation of honest witness to Jesus is our self-examination, our awareness of our need for him –and we cannot be aware of our need unless we know our sin, our failure and our ignorance. And we must also be aware of our capacity to be changed by his love for us. Show me a life constantly open to being changed by love and I will show you a true witness. So it is not always easy to identify a true witness, one may have to live with a person awhile before their witness can be judged genuine. In the early church, the bishops found false witness a problem – in the form of people seeking martyrdom by provoking the pagan authorities into retaliation. Those who sought and even achieved martyrdom by means of provocation were judged to be false witnesses. The genuine martyrs were those who sought to preserve God’s gift of life by all means except a denial of Christ. It takes more to witness to Christ even than to say one is dying for him – one must first seek life from him, and accept death only as necessary to preserve the truth of one’s life.

You see, I have known Christians who seemed to be in competition with Christ. You can identify such folk by certain turns of phrase such as, “I converted so and so to the faith.” We, I, at least, have never converted anyone. God converts. I stand at the sidelines and share my rejoicing at the acts of God. For me to convert would be taking Christ’s place. Another phrase that gets my goat is “God spoke to me and said, do this or that.” Do not tell me what God told you to do – I know very well what the message of God is – to show a life marked by humility, by compassion, by patience, by intelligent thoughtfulness, by consideration before speaking, by a willingness to endure those with whom we disagree so that God may continue to work in them – not so that they come to agree with us, but so that their gift of love may be expressed more and more fully. If you show me the depth and breadth and length of a life like that then we can begin to talk about God telling you to do specific things. Begin, I say, because even good people can be mistaken. Let your goodness be seen by all men and that is witness.

Later on in John’s gospel the Baptist summarizes the attitude of the true witness. The Baptist says of Jesus, “I must decrease that he may increase.” And this is true in our relations with each other as physical beings in this world, as members incorporate in the body of Christ. In examining ourselves as witnesses to Christ, ask this question: How have I decreased today that the love, the reality of Christ, as expressed by other members of the body, might increase? What have I given of myself to enable their expression of the Christ in them? How have I pointed to the light within my fellow Christians without trying to be the light myself?

That loving humility is the very essence and touchstone of witness.

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Advent 2 B, Mark 1:1-8, 2017

A sense of time is terribly important in this gospel. It begins with open ended time: “The beginning of the good news.” Not the whole of the good news, or the conclusion of it, but only the beginning. And it is self-evident that this “first page” is the beginning. Why would the author tell us something so obvious? I think so we could ask, “And if this is the beginning, where is the ending?” But Mark does not answer that question. The proclamation of the news goes on, and on, and we have no ending. So the gospel as document, scripture itself, as written is only a beginning. And the written gospel of Mark ends, not in a nice completed, rounded off way, but with unfulfilled instruction. The figure the women meet at the empty tomb says, “He is not here. He is going on before you. Tell his disciples to go to Galilee, there you will see him.” The written gospel begins with a promise of what is to come and ends with a promise of what is to come. In the written gospel we don’t follow the disciples to Galilee, the text leaves the story unfinished. The resurrection is announced, but in Mark there is no meeting with the resurrected Christ and, therefore, no true ending of the story.

Time for a footnote. What I describe is the condition of a number of the earlier and better manuscripts of Mark. The situation was so disturbing to members of the early church that all kinds of special pleading developed to show that the author of Mark had intended to be more conventional, more like the other gospels and include stories of the resurrection. For instance, that the ending of the autograph copy of the manuscript was lost; that the earlier manuscripts were somehow mutilated, maybe Mark spilled coffee on his final page and died before he could copy it- all kinds of things for which there is not an iota of actual evidence. And my goodness, the endings written to supply the lack! Maybe if the forgers had had some restraint and only written one ending it would have passed, but different manuscript families have different endings and there are three basic patterns, which certainly runs a red flag up my pole. And in neither syntax nor vocabulary are the alternative endings like the rest of Mark’s gospel. But the belief that a gospel must have a resurrection narrative was so strong that for over a thousand years these spurious ending were accepted and, in many places, are still accepted today. But I am convinced that the family of older manuscripts lacking a resurrection narrative is correct. An honest approach to scripture tries to explain what we have been given, not change it to correspond with what we think ought to be there.

So in the ending of the best versions of Mark’s gospel, there is no story of the encounter between the disciples and Jesus following his resurrection – only the instruction to seek such an encounter. The gospel cannot be completed in the past of the reader or hearer, but only in the present, and that means that the written gospel, a story from the past, cannot complete the gospel the way Mark understands gospel. For Mark, the gospel can only be the good news of Jesus experienced, not good news heard about. We the reader, on the basis of the proclamation of the gospel, must meet the risen Jesus in our own hearts for the good news to be complete. This meeting requires the gospel to move through time, from an account of time past to the continuing experience of time present and hope for time future.

So Mark’s written gospel presents us with incompleteness. With a beginning but no ending. And it seems appropriate since the ending of the gospel cannot take place in the story of the twelve or the history of the first apostles, but only in our own hearts as the tendrils of the gospel reach out from the beginning Mark records and find endings beyond what he records, endings with us, with each new generation which in hearing the gospel and responding actually resolves in a meeting with the resurrected Jesus. And that story cannot be presented as a whole because it has not yet been completely told. For Mark, Jesus’s encounter with John the Baptist, Jesus’s miracles and teaching, his death and promised resurrection are only the beginning of the story. The prolog of Mark tells the strict truth: the beginning – and only the beginning – of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Mark wishes to emphasize the direct and powerful link between his story and the readers of his story. If the story does not find its meaning in us it has become a meaningless story. It is not the factual truth of the gospel as an objective third person observer would record it which gives it significance, but the gospel’s capacity to impact our lives. The gospel leads from Jesus to the heart of every hearer of its words. So in the intention of the gospel the past finds its meaning in the present and the present is always renewed as the gospel finds new hearers, new readers. The resurrection of Christ continues as we encounter the resurrected Christ anew. This is why Mark says he is only beginning the good news of Jesus and he leaves it, quite shockingly, to us to end it in ourselves.

So for Mark the good news is grounded in the past: hear the prophet Isaiah. From there is moves into broadly present time: John the Baptist appears as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, perhaps within the lifetime of the evangelist who writes Mark. But the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a forerunner by John the Baptist, that prophecy itself looks forward to the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And we are used to saying that the Baptist is looking forward to the coming of Jesus. But it is not so simple. Unlike the other three gospels there is, in Mark, no account of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. The fulfillment of the promise to baptize with the Spirit remains in the future just as the experience of the resurrection is not confined to the experience of the disciples but becomes the property of every Christian, of everyone who looks to Jesus in hope.

So for Mark baptism with the Holy Spirit is not a past event, but a foretold one. It is new every time I baptize saying to a person in our own time, in our own present, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” The end of the gospel is in that experience.

To recount the gift of the Spirit, to recount the resurrection as historical events, risks the capture of these things by past history. If they become past fact rather than present experience the good news is defeated. For Mark, Christ is always the foretold, always the present, always he who is to come. His gospel is more open ended than any other, deliberately, in my judgment, pointing beyond itself to the experienced relation between each and every Christian and his Lord. It is that experience that the church seeks for all her members. As we move through the church year again, that is what we are seeking, on the foundation of the past the actual completion of Mark’s gospel, the promised ending, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and encounter with the resurrected Christ. The gospel is finished when we journey to our own Galilees and meet Jesus there, in whatever form Galilee takes in our own lives.

As today’s collect says, the objective of the coming of Christ to us is that we may come to him with joy. The end of the gospel is not in the recognition of factual truth, important as that may be, but in the experienced joy of a meeting which overcomes death and our fear of it, which grants us the freedom to love because our lives are centered in hope for Jesus and not in our anxiety or fear, or greed, or envy. The end of the gospel which Mark begins today is a document written on the heart not with a pen on paper. And that is why I believe Mark proclaims a beginning but shows us no ending.

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Advent I B, 2017

Hymn 56 and the Great “O” Antiphons

Here at Saint Hilda’s we have the custom of singing two verses of hymn 56 (O come, O come Emmanuel, Hymnal 1982) as a processional every Sunday in Advent. Breaking this hymn into parts for use on different Sundays of Advent builds on very early custom. In some churches, each verse is also used as a chant before the reading of the gospel. The text, although its history is long and somewhat complicated, has been around as a unit since the 8th century at the latest and some scholars trace individual verses back to the 4th century or earlier. The liturgical scholar Amalarius of Metz, who lived from ca. 780 to ca. 850, wrote the first known commentary on the text. The tune is, in comparison, relatively modern, the first versions being traceable to the 1400’s. So the text has been around for about 1300 years and the younger tune for about 600. (But the two were not combined and led separate lives until the 19th century.) Both have been altered, of course, to keep them understandable, but the core of both music and words is pretty old.

The traditional name for this text is “The Greater Antiphons” or “O Antiphons”. “O” because each verse begins with an “O” of address to Jesus who is then designated by a different title taken from scripture. An Antiphon is a sentence, usually from scripture, sung before and after – sometimes interspersed with, the psalms and canticles of the daily office, Morning and Evening Prayer. In our Book of Common Prayer the Morning Prayer antiphons are found on pages 80-82 and in a number of other places. The purpose of an antiphon is to give us a hint as to the meaning and spirit of the psalm or canticle the antiphon brackets. In Anglicanism, scripture is believed to be the best interpreter of scripture, so think of an antiphon as a scriptural interpretative hint. In other words, the whole of Hymn 56 consists of a series of hints about how to understand the coming of Jesus. It is, thus, quintessentially Advent.

The original use for the verses of Hymn 56 was to be sung as antiphons before and after the singing of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, at evening prayer from December 17 through December 23. Its use was, therefore, primarily monastic. But these antiphons proved so popular that their use was slowly moved from the daily office to the Sunday Eucharist, from monastery to parish church and cathedral. The number of verses has varied – some churches introducing additional verses for saints days falling within the period the antiphons were used. Other medieval churches had 12 verses, adding among other variants: “O king of peace”, “O queen of the world” (obviously for Mary), and “O Jerusalem”.

So much for a bit of trivia and historical introduction. Now a few things to notice about the meaning of the text. First, the text is consistently multi-leveled in its meaning. This is contrary to the pattern of contemporary thought in which we want a sentence to mean one and only one thing. Take for instance, verse one. The exile in which Israel mourns is first the exile from Eden, second the exile from the Promised Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem and third, our continuing separation from God, our exile from his presence. In verse 2 the “wisdom from on high” who “orderest all things” is the word of God, who according to the first chapter of John’s Gospel is the means by which all things are made. It is also the wisdom of the moral law present in our hearts and which shows us the way to go if we listen for its direction – in other words, our conscience. Thus each title of Jesus is used to refer to several interrelated levels of meaning.

Note also that the hymn addresses the coming of Christ by making passages of the Old Testament point to the New Testament. The title Emmanuel, originally from the Old Testament book of the prophet Isaiah, is made to point to Christ. The Wisdom of God, a figure from the Book of Proverbs, is made to point to Jesus as the orderer and pattern of our lives. Verse four, “Branch of Jesse’s tree”, points to Jesus as descended from King David in the Old Testament, but also to our freeing from the power of death and sin by the humanity of Jesus, a humanity symbolized and presented by his human descent from David. (This theological approach is the origin of the Advent practice of the Jesse Tree and of the stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals depicting Jesse Trees.)

So as is appropriate for Advent, we can sense in the verses of this hymn a movement from preparation for to the expectation of presence. What begins in the Old Testament is finished in the New, what is finished in the New is to find expression in our lives. In each verse, except perhaps verse 3, what begins explicitly in the Old Testament ends up in our lives. And even in verse 3, which lacks an explicit petition, an implicit petition of enabling obedience to the law is present. We are the ones who are taught to go in the ways of wisdom; we are the ones whose path is closed to misery by the key of David. We are the ones who will be ransomed by the appearing of the son of God.

Notice also that in verses 2, 3, and 5 we are saved from sin and in verses 4 and 6 from death. Verses 1 and 8 describe the human condition more generally as separation from God, a separation addressed in detail by verses 2-7. The theology of the hymn is sound – salvation consists of being saved both from sin and death, and all attempts to see death as a natural part of life and therefore to be accepted without sorrow break on the Christian assertion that death is the sign of the universal presence of evil and is something which will no longer exist in the Kingdom of God. The presence of God excludes death.

So the basic pattern of each verse – with some variations – is first, an address to Christ using a title for him drawn from the Old Testament. Each title is followed by a petition to be granted the benefit indicated by the title. In verse 6, for instance, the day spring – or dawn – puts to flight the darkness of death. Our prayer is that death lose the capacity to control our actions, our lives. In verse 2 wisdom is asked to guide us in living our lives. The hymn is not a calm presentation of observed fact, but a petition that the implications of each title for Christ be active and present for us.

To finish, there is one verse to which I wish to draw your attention because it allows me to indulge that stream of grumpiness that occasionally surfaces in my interpretation of the church’s tradition. In verse 7, the title “desire of nations” is not found, as far as I know, in the Old Testament. But, that title was introduced in the Hymnal 1982 to replace the original text which was “king of nations” rex gentium in the Latin, or, as the Old Testament text would be more likely to phrase the idea, “king of kings”. Now granted that imagery involving kingship is of somewhat suspect usefulness in contemporary worship because we have no experiential rootage in the political system of kingship. But royal language has been allowed to stand in many other hymns and prayers in constant use in our worship.

The present title “desire of nations” raises the question of truth – do the nations desire the Christ and the unity he can bring or are they, in reality, oblivious or hostile to him? And it seems a bit farfetched to say that the verse is normative, describing the way things ought to be, that Christ ought to be the desire of nations. With the older title, king of nations, the petition was for Christ to exercise his kingly power in the realm of human politics and bring about peace. That is a clear notion, although not without theological problems. I find the present verse and the title it uses to describe Jesus somewhat lacking in clarity.

But taken all in all this is a great hymn, presenting as it does the relation between different aspects of Jesus and different aspects of our coming salvation, tying the Old Testament to the New and then to our current life. Thus past, present and future are brought into a single vision of Christian prayer and Christian life. I commend the hymn to your thought and meditation.

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Proper 27 A, Matthew 25:1-13, 2017

Today I’m going to attempt a magic trick. Most of the time I’ll be talking about the first verse of hymn 324, Let all mortal flesh keep silence, which we will sing later in this service. But then I want to touch enough on the gospel to see the two tied together. So, Hymn 324 first. You might want to follow along in your hymnals.

Christians have been singing these words, or at least something like these words given the necessary translator’s license, for something like 1,600 years. The origins of this hymn disappear into the historical mist about 450 and we don’t know how much earlier they were in use. So the hymn is old.

It is also used in Christian communities largely unfamiliar to western Christians – in the ancient churches of Syria, Armenia and Georgia – the one in the Caucasus Mountains. If we’re going to sing their hymns it seems only manners to know something about them. The first thing to say, is that the perception that the Middle East is an Islamic stronghold only becomes true in the 20th century, at least in a monochromatic way. In Iraqi before the overthrow of Sadaam Hussein every tenth person you’d meet on the street would be Christian. In Egypt it was every sixth person. In large parts of eastern Turkey Christians were a majority – in the old Kingdom of Armenia. All this Christianity is now threatened and in some places destroyed by war and persecution. And this destruction can be laid at the door of Islam largely, not exclusively, but largely, as Islam has been combined with the ideologies of modern totalitarian states. The root of the problem lies in the inability of modern dictatorships to tolerate variety.

Well, this hymn is a part of a Eucharistic liturgy called the liturgy of St. James used by these near eastern churches. By the way, these churches have, as far back as their liturgies can be traced, used multiple Eucharistic prayers. Our “discovery” of multiple prayers of consecration in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is simply the way these other Christian bodies had been acting since time immemorial. The Liturgy of St. James is also used by the Eastern Orthodox, – who many of these groups think of as western Christians – but only on one day of the year, on Holy Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. The hymn is a chant sung during the offertory, during the procession of the unconsecrated bread and wine to the altar. So it’s roughly parallel to our offertory hymn. Its technical name is the cherubikon, the song of the heavenly cherubs.

The opening of this verse is taken from the Old Testament book of Habakkuk 2:20 “Let the earth be hushed in the Lord’s presence “ The instruction to ponder nothing earthly minded is parallel in meaning – when we ponder earthly things there is the hubbub of different foci, when we ponder heavenly things there is the single focus of God. But the God for which we keep silence is not the all-powerful father or the creator – we keep silence, as the hymn says, for the God who descends into humanity, the Christ.

Now comes the main points I want to make. The offertory in the Eucharist Service is the presentation of our “Homage” to Christ. So it makes sense to reference our “homage” in an offertory hymn. If we were working with the full symbolic meaning of the offertory we would not be offering just money, but pictures of our grandchildren, the keys to a new house or car, the greeting card from an absent loved one, our report card from school, And as we approached death we might be offering a wedding ring or other symbols of what has made our life what it is. The point to the offertory is the offering of life, not of money as a thing. It is all this which is bound up with the symbolic action of the bread and wine moving forward through the congregation to the altar. The bread and wine of our lives is our homage, the offering of our lives, to Christ.

So this is the Eucharistic movement, the Eucharistic cycle. Our lives, our homage, offered to God and God’s life given to us. The Eucharist is not just God coming to us, the bread and the wine which are the body and blood, the life of Christ offered to us are first our lives, our homage, offered to him. What we have given at the offertory is accepted by God, infused with his own being and returned to us. It is in the Eucharistic action that the church is renewed as the body of Christ. But in becoming the body of Christ you do not become someone other than who you are. All that you have ever been, including the dark and private corners, becomes the body of Christ and in repentance the darkness becomes light and even sin becomes the servant of the kingdom. We are redeemed as whole people, not as the fragments of ourselves which are unqualified virtue.

Now, let me bring this to a close by bringing in today’s gospel. I wish we had time to develop certain sardonic aspects of this story – such as the fact that it is the advice of the prudent bridesmaids that gets the others into trouble. They are absent when the bridegroom comes because the prudent bridesmaids have suggested that they go buy oil. Sometimes the advice of the prudent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In addition, how can this be, as Matthew claims it is, a parable about watching when both the prudent and the imprudent bridesmaids fall asleep? Nobody is watching. But the point to the story is in the bridegroom’s statement to the bridesmaids outside the door. “I do not know you.” If we care more about fulfilling our roles – even our legitimate roles – than we do about meeting the Christ then we do not meet him.

So you have failed in your life. Bring your failure to the meeting! So you are full of anxieties – make them a part of the offertory. So you have no oil for your lamp. He is the light of the world, not you. There is enough light in Christ for the whole world to see its way. Your light can only be an offering to him and to make that offering you must be present to him and he to you. You do not have to be anything in particular to be acceptable to Christ except be willing to be present as you are. The tragedy of the foolish bridesmaids is that they valued their official role, the ability to do their job the way society told them it should be done, more than they valued the bridegroom and chose the risk of absence rather than the assurance of presence.

It is in the offertory that the encounter of our whole being with Christ is symbolized in our worship. Why do we have a confession just before the offertory? It is no accident. It is so we can know one smidgen more of who we are and, therefore, what we have to offer. Remember, it is scripture which says that all, all, all our offerings are acceptable through him. And all we have that is truly ours to offer to Christ is what our lives have become. When Hymn 324 says that Christ descends to demand our full homage he is talking about the fullness of our lives – success, joy, failure, pain, anxiety, hope, all the maelstrom of human existence is our full homage to Christ.

So let us fulfill the meaning of the offertory in seeking first to make a full offering of ourselves to the Christ who is present in this Eucharist. Let us not be like the bridesmaids, so full of anxiety about doing the right thing that they forget to care about the presence of the bridegroom.

After all, he only confirms in his statement from inside the door, the absence from him that they have already chosen.

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Proper 24 A, Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22, 2017

This rather confusing Old Testament lesson is a part of the fall-out from the incident of the Golden Calf, which you heard about last Sunday. If you remember, anxiety lay at the root of the incident, an anxiety caused by Moses’s longer than expected absence up on Mt Sinai talking with God and receiving the commandments and the law. As Exodus reports the Israelites saying to Aaron, “. . . as for this Moses . . . We do not know what has become of him. So make us gods.” Whether made by ourselves or coming from somewhere we must have gods and anxiety can cause us to change them.

In case this doesn’t seen relevant, some 3000 years later, I remember several incidents in which a well-liked clergy person was moving on from a congregation. And I was hearing things like: “I don’t know what we will do without Fr. So-and-So.” But in the modern world, it’s not so much that we must make a new god as that we don’t know what to do without the old one – but in the case of Father So and So the god is a golden calf, a god we have made for ourselves. If a congregation is truly Christian it knows exactly what it will do when a much loved leader – lay or ordained – dies or moves on. It will continue to do what it has always done – worship Gold and serve the creation. If it doesn’t know how to do that without Fr. So and So then he wasn’t doing his job or the congregation wasn‘t listening.

So it was anxiety fueled by absence, especially that of Moses, that motivated the ancient Israelites to create a false god. And that’s no rare situation. I have seen churches chose clergy on the basis of who can deal with their anxiety rather than who evinces the integrity required of a leader. This happens while selecting leaders outside the church also.

When today’s Old Testament lesson picks up the story, God has just told Moses that the Israelites are to leave Sinai and continue to the Promised Land. The question is whether God will go with them as he had earlier in the Exodus. In vs. 2 and 3 of chapter 32 God says he will not go up with the Israelites, because if he gets irritated with them again its curtains for them. But he will deputize and send an angel.

Well, the Hebrews don’t want to settle for second best, so Moses bargains with God to change his mind, and God does. He promises that he, himself, will go with the Israelites.

But what God promises to Moses is precisely what Moses asks for, God’s presence. He does not promise an absence of pain, or of conflict, he does not promise constant success, he does not promise an absence of anxiety.
Moses next request of God models true religion: he asks to see God’s glory. In modern language, this means to know God truly as he really is. I leave it to you as to how much contemporary Christianity is seeking a problem solving God and how much of it is seeking the God who will be our companion in our problems. The former is prompted by anxiety, the latter by love. To seek to know God truly is beyond problem solving.

This contrast has emerged all through the story of the Exodus. God promises his presence and the gift of an identity that comes with being his people. What the Israelites demand of God is the solution to particular problems: what shall we eat and what shall we drink. And these are important problems and God solves them: water springs from the rock, quails descend on the camp and there is manna in the wilderness. But all the while God is longing for the Israelites to seek his face, not just desire the use of his power. God desires those he has chosen to choose him in return.

In other words, God is to be known and loved in the midst of our insecurity, an insecurity ultimately based on the fact that we will all die. The value of a problem solving God ceases with our deaths. Whether it’s heaven or hell there will be no anxiety producing questions about our fate. But the value of a known and loved God is forever. Ultimately it is love, not power, that conquers death. Jesus may be raised from death by means of the power of God but he is raised from death because God loves him. And so are we all. Power may accomplish the resurrection, but it is love that motivates it.

Now, a quick word on the gospel. In the golden calf the Israelites were seeking a God they could see. (Our anxiety is relieved by the seen, not the unseen.) In today’s Old Testament lesson God says he is a God
who can be seen only partially. In symbolic terms, Moses seeks to see God’s face and ends up with a view of his back. But that is more than any other person had ever seen. Today’s gospel turns on a contrast between two images. One is on the coin Jesus asks for, the image of the emperor who claims the power to tax, to control. The other image is the image of God made invisibly resident in every human being at his or her creation, the image of God in which we are made. When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” the statement is radical, revolutionary. Caesar gets that with his image stamped on it and God is to get what is stamped with his image. And Jesus leaves his listeners in no doubt about where their primary loyalty should lie. Give to God what is God’s – the whole of our humanity touched with the divine image. And to Caesar the disks of metal stamped with his lifeless, unnourishing, power representing image.

In the long run that’s the choice Jesus offers, the choice we, also, face, and it runs through all subsidiary choices we make on church questions, on political questions, on questions in our relations with each other, on questions of our dealings with the natural world: do we opt for a God who solves problems for us with an exercise of power or a God who shares problems with us as an exercise of love?

For the Christian the death of Jesus delivers a definite answer. It is that answer we seek to emulate as we strive to realize the humanity of Jesus in our own humanity, to realize the image of God within ourselves and to seek its presence in those around us. In Christ God does not solve the problem of death for us. He accompanies us through death so that death is not a problem solved but an aspect of human existence incorporated into love because God loves who we are and we are creatures who die. Our everlasting life thus originates in the power of love.

But when we confuse the power of love with the love of power we become creatures of death. The death of Jesus is the supreme example of God’s rejection of power. He chooses to experience the negation of death in solidarity and love with all humans everywhere. He does not call twelve legions of angels to overcome those who capture him. He does not speak to vindicate himself before Pilate. He does not step down from the cross. And so we, who are his followers, are pledged in baptism to seek the course of love, the path of the imitation of Christ.

So seek his face in the finitude of human life. Seek his face in our ignorance of the right thing to do. Seek his face in loss and in suffering. Seek his face in your anxiety and the God who is love will receive you home after all your seeking because your seeking is the measure of the stature of your love. Not success, not even good deeds, not service to the church, not a pious life, not belief in doctrines, but accepting the presence of Christ in your suffering and your sorrow, your grief, and in your insecurity, in doubt and in hope, is salvation.

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  • Invite, Build, Serve through Christ

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    Holy Eucharist and Fellowship

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    Holy Eucharist and Fellowship