Saturday, July 27, 2013

Whoredom and The Holy Spirit

Hosea 1:2-10 (the focus of the sermon, and the place where you can find the usage of "whoredom" that makes the first sentence of the first reading so spectacularly awful)
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

Proper 12, July 28th, 2013

My apologies to the first reader this morning...that was quite a sentence to start out with wasn’t it?!  

In my defense, the readings we hear each week in church are not chosen based on the whims of a preacher, nor are they meant to reflect the particulars of any one congregation.  They do not echo the theological agenda of the rector and they certainly are not chosen with an eye towards the social mores of any given time or place.  As members of the Episcopal Church, we hear the readings partnered and in the order presented by the Revised Common Lectionary.  

The Revised Common Lectionary was compiled by representatives from a variety of denominations, including the Episcopal Church.  Each Sunday, the Gospel reading provides a thematic focus and the other texts generally reinforce the Gospel’s theme--but not always.  In Ordinary Time, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two sets of readings for the lessons from the Hebrew Bible. The first set proceeds semi-continuously, and in Year C (the third year of the Revised Common Lectionary cycle) we “enjoy” readings from the Prophets.  

Prophets in Israelite society served as a means of criticism and opposition to abuses--both political and religious.  Prophets pointed out the injustices in society when warranted, and gave warning and challenge to the powers that be.  When needed they offered comfort and encouragement to the oppressed and those in exile.  Needless to say, the texts we have heard this past month have not been meant to be of comfort or encouragement!  And, when the congregation said “Thanks be to God” this morning in response to the reading I could almost hear the reluctance in many of our voices.  

Do we truly feel thankful for the words of the prophets?  Many congregations choose the to use the biblical phrase “hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people” rather than “the word of the Lord” at the conclusion of a reading.  This use of a verse from Revelation (2:29) offers us another way to understand what it is we are being called to do in response to the reading.  Rather than accepting the words of the text without inquiry or challenge, we are encouraged to see the presence of the Spirit within the text.    What does the text say to us in the here and the now?  How does God continue to speak to us?  

These scripture offerings are not merely words with changeless meanings, rather they carry within them an ever transforming understanding of God’s relationship with all of us.  As we hear the text, we are called to understand that the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, guides us and calls to us as we discern as a community what the Spirit is saying to us in these particular passages.  

Both Amos, who we heard last week, and Hosea represent a shift in the prophetic understanding of who the intended audience for the prophecy is.  Rather than addressing a king or monarchy, these prophets address what they see as the social, political and religious abuses of the people as a whole.  Hosea’s intense focus on infidelity reflects his concern over Israelite worship of Canaanite gods.  He senses that his community is no longer being faithful to the “God who brought them out of Egypt” and his words are meant to remind the Israelites of their principal commitment to God. The metaphor he chooses is one of the faithful husband, understood to be God, to a faithless wife, the Israelite people.  Taken literally, and without an engagement with the context of these words, this text is wildly problematic.  

Hosea describes a God that comes across as an abusive husband who is justified in his abuses and the people Israel as a promiscuous woman who deserves such abuse.  As a modern listener, this metaphor tempts me to throw out the entire text, to stop listening as it were, and to turn towards texts that more easily reflect my general theological understanding that we serve an all-loving and forgiving God of faithful promise.  But, if I were to simply ignore this text, I would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater--not giving the spirit the opportunity to address me in the here and now. 

So, what might the spirit be saying to us in this text? 

I am able to see that Hosea’s goal was to point out in the strongest way he knew how, his people’s betrayal of God and God’s continuing love despite that betrayal.  And, if we hear the text addressing us as inheritors of the promises God has made to Israel, we are challenged to look at the ways in which we have proven unfaithful to God.  

Because, if we are unable to hear what God is saying to us in these harsh prophetic texts, we can miss the possibility for the kind of intense engagement and self critique that the prophets themselves called for.  This text can give us an opportunity to do what in Hebrew is referred to as shuv, to return to God--or, more often translated as “to repent”.  And, in that repentance we deepen our relationship with the God to whom we have returned, who loves us beyond all times and places, despite our sins and our abuses--a God who calls us to move beyond ourselves and into the kingdom that has been proffered.

In the case of this text and this prophet, I find myself wondering...What other gods do we worship in our world?  Is it the god of success?  The god of money?  The god of pleasure?  

Now I am not saying that success, money or pleasure are inherently bad--but when we lose sight of God in favor of our pursuits of these things, we are committing the very acts that Hosea is accusing his community of.  When we make an idol out of things, we begin to worship things instead of God, and by extension if we worship things, it becomes far to easy to see each other as “things” as opposed to beloved children of God.  

A God that we are encouraged to address directly and without hesitation.  A God, who parents us with an unending love.  A God who is faithful to us and worthy of our praise.  A God who forgives us and fills us with good things, the bread we need.  A God who encourages us to look beyond ourselves and engage with the other--and in that engagement forgive.  A God who invites us to to ask, to search and to knock--entering into relationship with God.  A relationship that has the power to engage us, capture us, and transform us in ways that no other idol, thing or object can.  

A God whose spirit speaks to us even when we think there is nothing worth listening to.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I'm b-a-a-ck!

After a LONG hiatus (known as having a new baby) I'm back in the saddle again!  I am Preaching tomorrow as I begin the first Sunday covering a colleagues four month (!) sabbatical!

The readings:

The sermon:

Proper 11C / Ordinary 16C / Pentecost +9
July 21, 2013

Every sermon is a lived experience.  Shaped by the moment, by the priest, by the priest’s preparation, by the gathered congregation--influenced by such things as that imprudent third or fourth cup of coffee, visitations by neighborhood cats, and even the weather (we are all grateful for shorter sermons on hot days in unairconditioned churches), and the acoustics of the space!  When asked for texts of my sermon (and I always text them) I am well aware that the text does not have the life, the breath, the energy, of the preached sermon.  

There is a wholeness and a dynamic that only exists in relationship and in the moment--in the call and response (in the Episcopal church that is often the body language I notice in the pews!), in the nodding heads and folded arms.  There is an element of movement, of sound and of life that I find lacking in the solitary, silent reading of someone’s sermon.    The come holy spirit come, that races through my mind in the moments before I step into a pulpit or into the center aisle--the sermon lives.  

Which is part of the reason that I find this story of Mary and Martha so compelling.  So much of what we experience of Jesus is through the written word--the scholarly study of scripture, the reading of the text--this commentary, that commentary.  But, it is the application of the story to life, to life lived in the here and the now that brings life--and whenever I read this text I am well aware of the power of the living story.  

When I was undergoing my first unit of clinical pastoral education--a required component of my seminary training in which I served as a student chaplain on the geriatric psychiatry ward of Maine Medical Center--I met a woman who was there because of the severe depression she had fallen into as her Parkinson’s disease progressed.  A vibrant woman, her life had centered on the doing--caring for her husband, children and grandchildren; participating in the life of her church; working and volunteering, fixing and preparing.  

And yet, bit by bit, as her disease progressed, she was no longer able to “do”.  As I grew to know her, I was stunned by her passion, her concern for others, and her desire for God.  And, in a moment that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit, it occurred to me...she was in the midst of a Mary time.  

Throughout our lives, our callings and our ministries shift and change--times of doing and times of listening.  Times to be active and times to be still.  And, for this woman, after a life in which she had been very much a Martha (doing things that needed doing and appreciated for what she was able to do), she had the opportunity to sit as Mary--listening to Jesus and being present to his teachings, his story.  She embraced this image, and found meaning in it.  Her eyes lit up, and it was this moment that turned her literal weeping into joy as she began to see that Jesus was still speaking to her, she only needed to listen to hear his voice.  

And, in that I can see the reality that Christ is indeed in the world.  That Jesus is still speaking and that the world offers to us the opportunity to encounter Christ again and again.  From the page and lived in the flesh--what we learn in the listening matters in the world.  

Our world emphasizes the action--indeed, an entire book of scripture exists in praise of the Acts of the Apostles!  That said, why, why does the author of Luke feel that this story needs to be included as part of the Gospel?  What is so important about listening?  

If we think about it, without those who listened, who set aside their tasks and agendas to just listen...where would Christianity be?  How far would Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God have travelled if folks had not listened?  

Jesus lived in an oral culture, grounded in stories that conveyed messages and meanings beyond themselves.  We exist as a community of faith because somebody listened to the stories.  

Whether it was those who received the prophecies of Amos or Paul’s description of himself as a “servant of the Gospel”, or the moments woven throughout salvation history in which the Israelites appeal to God and God listens and responds--it is clear, that the act of listening is central to the biblical narrative.

In the afterword to the collection of essays, “Listening is an Act of Love” the editor, Dave Isay describes the reaction of a man who’d been interviewed about his experiences living in one of the last flophouses in the United States.  Upon seeing his words in print, the man started dancing around wildly, proclaiming “I exist! I exist!”

Listening gives meaning and shape--gives “realness” to anothers life in a way that nothing else can.  Listening gave life to our faith and it enables us to give life to each other.  And, I wonder if that was part of what was so important to Jesus about Mary’s presence there as a listener--if in being listened to, he was being given the gift of knowing that he exists--that his story and his legacy, would continue.

When we listen to others we are given the chance to move beyond the written and into the real.  The real moment of connection, of life lived, of relationship--listening is an act of love.

And while our deeds may is the love that remains.  Scripture is clear, love never ends--and perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he described that “which will not be taken from her”.  Love.  

This brings me back to the halls of the geriatric psychiatry ward--and it occurs to me, that in being given the chance to listen to that woman to understand her and grow to know her, I was given the chance to sit at the feet of Christ.  In listening, in presence--she and I found a love and purpose.  And, I hope, that on some level she knew, that her ministry would be remembered.  

And, as a thank you for sticking with actual picture, of our actual baby!