Read Martha’s Sermon from August 18th
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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Pentecost 13C Pentacost
August 18, 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Isaiah 5:1-7; Ps. 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
You Had to Be There
All religion is born in primary experience. It is not born from a bunch of men sitting around a table thinking up doctrine and creeds. It is not born from people writing or telling stories that come from mostly from their imaginations in a made-up sort of way, or dreaming up explanations for phenomena they don’t understand. And it certainly doesn’t come first from an institutional structure. What comes first — what always comes first — is an experience of God, direct and personal, which people come to believe is both real and authentic. It is a “there was before and there was after” sort of moment. It leads to new dimensions of life and new understandings, and ways of seeing. All religion is born in this kind of experience (1).
And then there is the next thing. And that is that people who have these experiences need to explain them, to tell other people about them.(2) They know they are not just meant for themselves alone. So the stories get told, and they get written down. They are put into words filtered through that person’s culture and language and understanding. In the case of the New Testament, that would be first century experience, culture, language, and understanding. In Greek. For example, you may have heard the opening words “Jesus said ‘I came to bring fire to the earth. How I wish it were already kindled!'” And you may have thought he was talking about some great immolation. First a flood, now a fire. In fact, “bring[ing] fire to the earth” refers to the lighting of an outdoor oven. It is an idiom for getting things started. Jesus came to get things cooking. (2) That rather changes the meaning, doesn’t it?
And as we know the Gospel accounts were written decades after the death of Jesus, and are not first-hand. They are experiences of the community of the followers of Jesus, people who experienced God through Jesus, and they knew it, and it changed everything. So these experiences, written down, are determined to be authentic and chosen to be part of our canon, our sacred text. Experience of God distilled into words. In this little book. Have I made a sufficient case against literalism?
In the words of John Spong, “The experience and the wordy explanation are never the same. If the experience is true, it is timeless and transformative! The explanation, however, is always time bound, time warped and finite. Every explanation freezes the experience in the vocabulary of the explainer. The explanation reflects the world view of the explainer, the explainer’s level of knowledge and the explainer’s time in history.”
Have you ever had a profound experience, even the kind that are common life experiences like falling in love, having a baby, experience profound loss, or seeing the Grand Canyon, and then tried to describe it? To take that actual experience and put it into words? This is of course why we have poets, and music, and other ways of expressing ourselves. Words themselves are always a contraction. And now think about how to describe in words your experience of the living God.
So, to get to the heart of what religion is all about is to be a witness to each other’s experiences of the holy. We do this in order to recognize the living God at work in our own lives. This is why we need — why we are surrounded by — a great cloud of witnesses. What are they witnessing to? The experience of God. So the project, if you will, that we are about here is to listen deeply to the texts for the human experience of God that gave birth to the words.
Getting at the experience under the words is mighty challenging with today’s readings. Because what can also get in the way of Christians as we enter into the text to tease out what it has to show us is our theology and forms of expression which are heavily influenced by 13th century — yes, medieval — thinking. This thinking still heavily pervades our liturgy, way more than you may think. Human life was not held in high regard back then. People died early and often. And this is where we get language of deep sin, fallenness and unworthiness. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table.” and so on. this may be a particular challenge with biblical language like today’s that sounds heavy with judgment, wrath, punishment, and apocalyptic language. And — heaven help us — it may evoke memories of an angry or highly critical parent whom we could never please.
So first I would suggest trying to listen with full awareness of how you might be receiving this language, and open up the possibility that it might mean something else. One way to do this might be to see if anything connects with your own deep experience. The passage from Isaiah describes a vineyard keeper who lovingly tends this fertile vineyard. It should have produced abundantly. Instead it brings forth nothing but wild grapes, bitter and useless. And we hear the vineyard keeper’s grief and disappointment. Maybe you have a child that you have raised with love and care. Who seemed to be given every opportunity to live a happy, productive life. And yet, despite everything, she is bent on a path of self destruction and lives a life of misery. Over the years you’ve picked her up, bailed her out, kissed the bruises, told her you love her and you will always be there for her. And you mean it. But perhaps you see that your safety net is what is enabling her to continue on her chosen path. And you wonder if she will have to hit rock bottom if she is going to turn her life around, and you know that ultimately she will have to be the one to make that choice, you can’t make it for her. And with that experience, you might see in this passage, not an angry, punishing God, but a loving God who provides abundantly and yet sees what destruction God’s people wreak upon each other, and weeps. You begin to understand what James Carroll is talking about when he refers to “the mystery of God’s submission to human freedom.” That it is in the nature of God to provide for us, and to let us make our own choices about what we do with the blessings we have received. And that some of our choices are highly self-destructive. And that God wants it to be otherwise.
And then we have this very tough passage from the Gospel of Luke, one that has been so misunderstood and misused. On the surface it can sound like meeting violence with violence: fire, judgment, rending families apart. But this passage is not a warrant for a war-like self-righteousness in Jesus’ name, or an excuse to avoid the tough work of forgiveness and reconciliation. If it were it would be contradicted by much of the gospel.
So we hear these words “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? no, I tell you, but rather, division. From now on five in one household will be divided … father against son…” and so forth. What experience are we being invited to share? These are strong words, and its the preachers job not to domesticate Jesus. Thats why they call it a sermon. But we always need to remember context. What is Jesus’ ministry about? The stage had been set for us at the beginning of Luke. The first words of Jesus’ public ministry were the quote from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
If this is Jesus’ mission, as followers of Jesus it is ours too. Jesus’ mission was not and is not cosy. It was and is controversial. It’s not easy to have our lives transformed. It doesn’t just happen. Jesus did not come to validate existing social institutions, or family structures and loyalties, or their values, but rather to initiate the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. And because those ties to family and culture are so strong, sometimes it takes strong language to get us to wake up and pay attention. This is not comfortable. It is necessary. To see the difference between Jesus and the all-to-human institutional church. To distinguish between God and our mother or father. Our father may want us to take over the family business he has so carefully built. And your heart’s desire may be to dance with the American Ballet Theater. We need to recognize the difference between God and societal values. Between God and country. Society doesn’t necessarily want to hear good news to the poor! All the structures and systems that have striven from day one to extract from us a measure of obedience. All of which, from time to time, seek to invoke God for their own purposes. Sometimes we find God in those places. In fact, I hope we do. But we need to not confuse them with God, and we need reminding that they are not God. That God, that the realm of God, transcends all of it, and sometimes needs to break it open so that we may see with true vision.
And this gets me back to our need to trust our own deepest, truest experience of the holy. Our ancestors of the faith sometimes had to go against everything they knew in order to follow Jesus. But they knew Jesus from the inside; this was their experience. As for us, who knows by what route the person next to you is finding his or way to Christ, and what they’ve had to claim for themselves in order to do that. Jesus’ mission is one in which God’s entire human family, and the earth, are reconciled and renewed. Jesus is passionate about this, and we should be too. The good news of Christ leaves out no one, will suffer no barriers. It is God’s universal, life-giving grace. If we are open to our own experience, we will know this to be true. Amen.
(1) Bishop John Shelby Spong, from his blog post for August 15, 2013 at www.johnshelbyspong.com.
(2) Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rorhbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 279.