Archive for August, 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

August 31, 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Collect of the Day Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

When I hear the story of Jesus’ hygiene critics, I think back to 1985. I was a new priest in the Diocese of California, serving as assistant rector to a stickler of a priest. The poor altar guild came in for his special attention. God forbid there should be a finger print on the chalice or a wrinkle in the altar cloth! One Sunday during worship he actually chastised a member of the altar guild from the pulpit. Why? He detected a faint lipstick stain on the purificator.

He had another characteristic. He had a few favorites in the congregation and the rest of the people he scarcely spoke to. What did it take to become a favorite? Wealth. He gave occasional dinner parties for those few, but the others would knock on the door of the rectory in vain.

Jesus was not saying in response to his challengers that washing hands, food, and cooking vessels was not important. It was; but those are externals, and God does not measure us by externals; God looks into our hearts. In other words, I could scrub my hands and food and vessels, and as I did so I could be planning a bank robbery; I could be working out the lie I would tell my spouse in order to see my lover. Religion would be very easy if washing is what religion consisted of. Jesus was simply saying that true religion (as the Collect puts it) is about inner scrubbing.

There is more to be said about what is inner. Let’s turn now to Jesus’ difficult words at the end of the reading. He speaks of what defiles us and lists “evil intentions”. It’s a daunting list, and I doubt any of us can say: none of that applies to me.

Here is one of our biggest challenges. On the one hand we know that what the Gospel calls “evil intentions” lie within us. On the other hand, as the reading from the Song of Solomon tells us, God calls us “my love, my fair one.” Hasn’t God noticed those evil intentions? Is it possible that God only sees what is external after all?

Some years ago I was on a one-week silent retreat. Not only was there to be no speaking, we were to keep our eyes lowered at all times — no eye contact, no awareness even of who we were passing. The silence and forced inactivity made it impossible to ignore what was going on in my mind. I heard such thoughts as this. How rude she is! How self-important he acts! How pushy. Look how much food he’s taking! I discovered a zoo full of ugly, judgmental thoughts! Is God calling that “my love, my fair one”?

How do we get past the contradiction? Are we God’s love, God’s fair one? Or are we full of “the rank growth of wickedness” as the letter of James says? It depends on who we mean by “I”. Yes, my mind was full of ugly, judgmental thoughts; but there was also the one who was noticing those thoughts and who was saddened by what she saw. That one who noticed, the witness, that is “I”.

I cannot disavow those ugly thoughts, but I do not need to define myself by them. “I” am not my “evil intentions,” though I do have them. “I” am the one who notices them and notices the pain they cause.

I also notice this: as long as I identify with “the rank growth of wickedness”, I am not free; my “evil intentions” hold me in thrall; I’ll be locked in mortal combat with them as long as I live.

Yet if I define myself as the one who notices, I am free. I can look at those thoughts, I can see what a source of unhappiness they are, and I can choose how to respond. I can choose self-contempt; or I can choose compassion; I can choose love; I can choose to see them as the products of ignorance, fear, self-doubt, and treat them as I would a toddler who is up to no good. In short, I can see myself as God does, as “my love, my fair one.”

Think of it this way. When God says, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away,” God is calling us to come away from identifying with the rank growth of wickedness. It’s as if God is saying, You are not the “rank growth of wickedness.” It is there, but it is not you. You are the one who notices. You are the one who is free to choose how to respond. You are the one onto whom I have “grafted” my love. You are the one who lives eternally in the kingdom of God.

Is this denial? Like Holocaust denial, all those “evil intentions” never happened? No. It is simply self-clarification. If I act out my evil intentions I will suffer the consequences. No denial there. If I hurt other people I will feel pain and grief. No denial there. Self-clarification puts me into the only possible position from which I can deal with those “evil intentions” and make a change. Let me put it this way: the only effective weed-killer for that “rank growth of wickedness” is compassionate understanding on the part of the one who notices.

This is what true religion is about. I invite you to accept God’s invitation to, “Arise, my love my fair one, and come away.” This is a valid, tender form of prayer, just to spend time being the one who notices. Notice the “evil intentions,” the “rank growth of wickedness.” Surround them with your compassion as you would someone struggling under a needless burden. This is inner scrubbing and Jesus would approve.

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John 6:56 – August 23, 2015

August 30, 2015

This sermon is offered in response to the amazing work of our Bible study class in making a scale model of Solomon’s Temple.  Let me begin with a detective story.  Most of us like a good detective story, but you might gape if I told you my favorite.  It’s the Bible.  By this sermon’s end you might agree.

The detective in this case was named Jean-François Champollion, born in 1890 near Grenoble in southeastern France.  He was the youngest of seven children born to a notorious drunk for a father and an absentee mother.  Luckily his older brother, who had educated himself, cared for little Jean-François and taught him to read.  It soon became clear that he had a prodigy on his hands.

Jean-François began by learning Latin and Greek, then added Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean.  Then he added Coptic, followed by Persian.  At the age of 11 the prefect of Grenoble took an interest in him.  This prefect had been with Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, and showed Jean-François the hieroglyphs he had brought home with him, explaining to the boy that they were unintelligible.  Jean-François replied, “I shall succeed in reading them.”

At the age of 15, Champollion presented a paper before an academic body in Grenoble, arguing that the language of the ancient Egyptians, in which they wrote the hieroglyphic texts was actually related to Coptic.  The members admitted him into the Academy on the spot.

In Paris at the age of 17 he first began working on the Rosetta Stone.  The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and bore three languages — Hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek.  It proved to be the key to solving the mystery of the hieroglyphs.

Many had tried to solve the mystery of the hieroglyphs before Champollion, but without success.  Champollion, uniquely, approached the task with a method, and on September 14th, 1822, he finally solved the mystery.  He discovered the key which opened the door into the vast, hidden treasures of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.

How does Champollion’s detective work relate to the Bible?  Let’s call the Bible a spiritual Rosetta Stone.  Like Champollion, we will approach our Rosetta Stone with a method.  This method, which involves four steps, has been used for over 2,000 years, so we’re on well-tried ground here.

The first step is the literal interpretation; we could call it the simple historical narrative.  I’ll give you all four steps here, then go back and give examples.  The second step is the symbolic interpretation, where details in the narrative can stand for something else.  Third is the comparative interpretation; this calls for pairing up this text with a similar one to seek a broader and possibly deeper meaning.  Fourth comes the mystical interpretation, in which the meaning comes through revelation.

Now let’s be our own detectives, put ourselves in Champollion’s place, and take for our text the reading from First Kings.  We can picture the action, thanks to the model of the Temple that the Bible study class made.  First, the literal approach tells how the priests brought the ark of the covenant to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.  And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.

Using the second, the symbolic, approach to that same text, we might note the presence of the cherubim.  They could signify the divine protection of the ark of the covenant; or they could signify what great importance God attaches to the covenant; or how holy the inner sanctuary is, and how full of awe and wonder.

Applying the third approach, the comparative one, to that same text — offers lots of possibilities.  Let’s pair this up with  another instance when a cloud darkens the daylight.  Exodus chapter 24 springs to mind, that great pivotal day when Moses sealed the covenant between God and the people.  After doing that Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  For me, this expands my sense of that day when the ark was installed in the inner sanctuary.  It suggests that   God was not only enshrining  the ark, but the stone tablets, the Law.  They could almost be one, God and the Law.

Finally, let’s try the fourth approach.  The fourth approach calls for scarcely any work on our part.  We must simply wait in the presence of the text to discover if God has anything to suggest to us through it.

I can only tell you what I received, and you have to decide if that seems true for you or not.  I reflected on the construction of the house — how detailed the instructions were, involving much hammered gold and beauty of design.  I reflected on how the Bible is not just another book of information, but (to speak poetically) a love letter from God, addressed to me personally — to each of us personally.

Then it came to me that the house is God’s way of holding up a mirror to me.  I am that house, a temple, where God dwells within.  However much the world may tell me I am flawed; God is telling me I glow with beauty and hammered gold.

What about the inner sanctuary, the most holy place?  Don’t I have such a place within myself?  A meditative place where I go, apart from all my thoughts and concerns, just to be in communion with God?  Just to be renewed in God’s spirit?

The presence of the cloud agrees with this interpretation.  Again and again in Scripture the cloud is synonymous with God’s presence.  The cloud is mysterious and paradoxical, sometimes brilliant and filled with fire; sometimes so dense as to create utter darkness.  Remember the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s Gospel?  Paradoxically, it speaks of a bright cloud overshadowing the disciples; and from it God spoke.  It seems to be the nature of the cloud to separate us from our heads, from our thinking and perceiving minds, because the only way we can come near to God is with our whole being, where in whole-hearted trust, we simply abandon ourselves into God’s loving presence.

Notice that the four steps never contradict each other.  They only build, one upon the other.  If we just stopped at the literal level, already we have learned a lot.  That is, God is not distant in the heavens; God dwells among us.  Then at the second level we add to that the understanding that God values immensely our mutual covenant.  Add to that the third step, and we learn that God cares mightily about how we treat each other, and gave us Ten Commandments to teach us how to live.  Finally, add to that the fourth step and the whole array flips.  What was external to us, now also becomes internal.

Let’s step back now and ask what is the result of our detective work?  By means of the Rosetta Stone, Champollion discovered the key which opened the door into the vast, hidden treasures of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.  By means of the Bible we have discovered a far more important key.  Champollion’s key was about there and then and them; our key is about here and now and us.  Our key opens the whole vast realm of the hidden treasures of the kingdom of God to us.  We can apply that key again and again to passages throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Each time we do, a new door opens before us — a door into freedom, peace and love.

Let’s resolve to become detectives on a regular basis.  Let’s find a place in our homes for the Bible — not stuffed into a bookshelf, but laid in a special place.  Let’s remember that it is not an object to be handled, but a cloud to be entered.