Sunday, July 26, 2009

Saved by Grace... nothing else.....

In the most recent issue of "The Lutheran" (which is the ELCA periodical) the editor - Daniel Lehmann - concludes his article with these words, which are a quote of another ELCA Pastor. These are words I think we all need to hear - whether we are Lutheran or Episcopalian.

"We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. We are not saved by our sexuality, our opinion about abortion, gun ownership, economic policy or any of the other hot button topics. Secure on the foundation that is Jesus we can engage in civil, respectful, and honest debate with one another, free from personal attacks and without thinking we have to pick up our hymnals and go to another church where people agree with us. If the church follows the culture in dividing up along social and political issues it is no longer the church.

“Creating such a community of moral discourse is important for the church’s sake. In doing so, we ‘discern the body,’ as Paul admonishes us. The body consists of all those the Spirit of God has called to faith by the gospel.”


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Crisis - Sermon for Pentecost 6B - July 12, 2009

Sermon – Pentecost 5B
St. Mark 6:14-29 / Psalm 85

Pastor S. Blake Duncan – St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church – 7/12/09

Herod Antipas had it tough. The 2nd son of the brutal Herod the Great had managed to survive his father’s murderous ways, but instead of taking over the reigns of government when his father died he saw the Romans cut the territory in 4 parts and divvy it out to his other brothers and half brothers. What a drag! So he was not a King – he was a measly tetrarch (which means ruler of a quarter). But the worst part was that he had to constantly be looking over his shoulders towards Rome and wondering and worrying about his relationship with them. If there was too much trouble – if they got put out with him, he could be removed at any moment –so, his job was primarily to keep things quiet and not make waves.
So imagine his discomfort when he finds himself constantly the subject of searing criticisms by that trouble making eccentric prophet John the Baptizer. And as John’s popularity grew, so did Herod’s discomfort. And to make matters worse, his new wife is on the warpath against John. Now Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great and thus a niece to her new husband Herod Antipas – not only that, Herod was already married to someone else, as was Herodias. But power has some privilege and so they didn’t let a little thing as the law stop them – after all – he was Tetrarch – he was the civil law. But JB didn’t see it that way – this whole sordid affair was a breach of the torah and JB let the pseudo-royal family have it. Herod might have just brushed it aside, and shrugged it off in order to keep peace, but Herodias was incensed, insulted and furious. She wanted blood - literally. Poor Herod – caught between his wife on one hand, the hardcore religious fanatics on the other and overshadowing it all is Rome, gazing a critical eye on all of these goings on in his little quarter.
This was the crisis. And what does Herod do? He throw’s himself a birthday party. And not just any birthday party – he throws a wild party! It’s as though he is saying that the best way to deal with this mess is to ignore it – to immerse oneself in entertainment and alcohol and food and dancing and music and sex. Herodias, however, is not so easily placated – but she sees an opportunity: the opportunity to get what she wants. As her husband becomes immersed in the escapist pleasures of this debauched party she can take advantage of this and silence this insulting menace of a prophet once and for all. For her the crisis is dealt with by silencing all critical, contrary voices. If the problem is beheaded – the problem is eliminated. Well not really, but that is her view. So the Herod family way of handling stress and crisis: 1. Escape into diversion or 2. Silence the voices you don’t want to hear for good.
The title of this sermon is “Crisis” and at this point I want to make it clear that the crisis to which I am referring is not the kinds of personal crises that unexpectedly come our way from time to time, such as sickness, death or accidents. The crises to which I am referring is the kind when stress and expectations begin to build up pulling us one way or another; or when our values are severely challenged; when we have to make crucial decisions – especially moral ones or when we feel that life is on the edge. We have all experienced this in one manner or another – and perhaps many of us feel that we are in the midst of this kind of experience right now. How do we choose to deal with this kind of crisis? How we answer that question can have serious implications for our lives.
I had a student once who was right on the edge of passing my class – he needed around a 70% on his final in order to pass the class. And if he didn’t pass the class he would go on academic probation and possibly loose his scholarship. On the day of the final he did not show up – so he failed the course. Later he wrote me to tell me that the reason he missed the final was because he had been so worried about the final that he decided not to study extra hard – but rather to go to a party the night before the test where he got completely wasted and ended up sleeping through the test. We might dismiss this example as simple immaturity, but I think it is representative of how many of us choose to deal with this kind of crisis. This young man’s approach to dealing with crisis is the Herod way approach #1 – escape into entertainment; escape into substance or porn or something; anything to avoid dealing with the issue.
We see this on a national level too. As a culture we have an overwhelming appetite for entertainment. Sometimes watching the news and TV one gets the impression that nothing else important ever happens except the dysfunctional relationships on Desperate Housewives and the strange experiences of a variety of “Reality” TV celebrities. Even in our political forum we see the Herod Way alive and well – but there it is mostly approach #2 – silence your critics. Put down, belittle, humiliate, behead anyone who disagrees; create truth that supports my view of the world and make sure that I can yell louder than the next guy. In this approach there is no room for compromise, no room for diversity of opinions, no room for pluralism.
So do we just accept this as the status quo – this is the way it is, nothing we can do; no other way. The problem is that the Herod Way of dealing with crisis leads to alienation and loneliness and separation, it leads to conflict, to broken relationships and sometimes it leads to violence. But there is another way….

Psalm 85:
1 You have been gracious to your land, O LORD, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

2 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.

3 You have withdrawn all your fury *
and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.

4 Restore us then, O God our Savior; *
let your anger depart from us.

5 Will you be displeased with us for ever? *
will you prolong your anger from age to age?

6 Will you not give us life again, *
that your people may rejoice in you?

7 Show us your mercy, O LORD, *
and grant us your salvation.

8 I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.

9 Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.

10 Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

11 Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

12 The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

This beautiful Psalm is in three parts – Verses 1-3 make up part 1: Israel has been restored and has been returned from exile, but troubles remain – how is community and national life to be structured? How can we deal with all of the stress and pressures of life in an Israel that needs to be rebuilt from scratch? Part one looks to the past – what God has done for us: God has restored us over and over; God has forgiven us over and over; God has shown us abundant grace in the past. These first 3 verses bid us to remember that God has always been present with us in the midst of every crisis.
Verses 4 through 7 constitute Part 2 – and these verses are a prayer, a plea to God for help. Based on the remembrance of God’s continual presence, part 2 brings us into the present crisis, without ignoring or blaming or discounting the current difficulties. Part 2 is a prayer spoken from the heart - “Lord, I know that you have always shown us your love and grace – but we are in crisis now – continue to grant us your wisdom, your presence to help and guide us; help us to sense you and feel you with us as we struggle through this situation.”
Then we come to part 3 – the remainder of the Psalm - and right there in verse 8 – God’s amazing promise to us is restated – “you, dear Lord God, speak peace to your faithful people and those who put their trust in you.” This is the promise – this is the future of life lived in God’s loving hands = peace / shalom! The Hebrew word “Shalom” is almost always translated into English as the word “Peace.” But to understand what the Psalmist is saying to us we need to again remind ourselves that the English word “Peace” is not able to hold all that “Shalom” coveys. Shalom is more than the absence of conflict or the absence of stress – when God promises us shalom, God is promising us complete well-being; God is promising that our future destiny is not the divisiveness of the present – but harmony and intimacy between us and God and creation and in all our relationships. Everything else – righteousness, faithfulness, salvation, grace, love – these are all contained in the peace of God which God will bring to us – and through which Jesus is available to us now, to experience in our lives now. It is still incomplete – but we can taste it now and this can strengthen and empower us in our lives; empower and enable us to deal with the crises and stresses that confront us in constructive and creative ways that build the future instead of tearing it down as happens in the Herod way.