Monday, February 14, 2011

Sixth after the Epiphany, 2011

Year A: Ecclus 15: 15-20; Mt 5: 21-37

Grace and peace, friends. After almost a quarter of a century in Pennsylvania this California-born guy still shakes his head when he hears the weather forecast of a “warm up” into the mid-30’s. So much of this past week we have been perhaps humming the tune to that great Frank Loesser song, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” I love the original Johnny Mercer/Margaret Whiting version, and thinking about that the other day because she just died last month, so that was on the radio a few times. And of course in the wake of last Sunday evening’s sad conclusion we would feel drawn down even further into the depths of winter. Though I notice it is staying light later, and we are as well perhaps warmed by thoughts of Valentine’s Day tomorrow, flowers and candy--and even more as some of us have the day circled on the calendar, February 14, and pitchers and catchers report to the spring training facility in Pirate City, Bradenton, Florida.

And while it’s absolutely clear there’s no way in the world to be sure whether in the end what we’re seeing in Egypt is the beginning of something wonderful or horrible or something in-between, certainly there was something heartwarming about the enthusiasm of the young people in the streets of Cairo on Friday as they celebrated what they and we might well hope to be the harbinger of the dawn of a new era of freedom and political and social health. We’ll hold our breath, no doubt. With continued prayers. No matter the remnants of snow and ice here, in any event, summer is on its way, never fear. It will be here before we know it.

In the news on Wednesday in that context that Ross Ohlendorf, who, some of us will remember all too painfully, managed only 21 starts last season , injured his back, and finished with the breathtaking record of one win and eleven losses, won his arbitration hearing and next season will have his salary quadrupled to over 2 million dollars. That doesn’t have anything to do with my sermon this morning, but sometimes it just seems like something needs to be said!

On the calendar of the Church Year this season after the Epiphany is a time of transition, a shifting of attention, moving from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the Manger to the Cross, and that pattern of transition just seems to fit with the whole environment of this midwinter time.

Also in the news this week, a story more relevant to the readings this morning. Some of you will have heard me talk about the fact that while I’ve generally been such a slow adapter to technology that we’ve hung on to the rotary wall phone in our kitchen, now in these first days of 2011 I’m somewhat surprised to find myself the new owner of an Apple iPhone. Which is still a telephone that you can use to call and talk to people, but also works as a device to check e-mail and tour the internet and update Facebook and check the news feed from the Post Gazette or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or, I discover, Al Jazeera English--which is pretty amazing. Also a number of other “app’s,” software applications. I have the Book of Common Prayer and the Sunday and Daily Office lectionaries, for example.

And the story this week that made the network news as well is that there is now an iPhone Application with somewhat tentative approval by the Conference of American Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to help folks prepare to make their Confession. Did you see that? I didn’t spend too much time looking at this, but from what I could see it’s organized in kind of an interesting way. The Ten Commandments, and a number of different categories of sinful behavior, with a space under each one so that the user can keep a convenient, in real time and contemporaneous diary of sinful acts. Seemed mostly in the “things done,” department--I don’t know if there’s a category for “things left undone.” That’s sometimes a little harder, though I suppose at least you can chart the times you didn’t go to church on Sundays and other days of obligation. But the idea anyway is to provide a convenient way to organize your week’s transgressions in order to make an accurate and efficient confession on Saturday afternoon. No more wasting of time trying to collect your thoughts at the last minute . . . .

In any event, it’s fascinating. A few years ago the whole concept of sin seemed to be going out fashion, like rotary dial phones and network television, I guess--and I had read that the numbers of Roman Catholics making weekly confessions has been declining pretty dramatically in recent decades, but perhaps now the cool factor of this iPhone app will turn that all around. Like my black wingtips: sooner or later what goes out of style becomes cool again . . . .

People thought it was pretty funny I think when Jimmy Carter confessed in Playboy magazine that he had many times committed adultery in his heart, and perhaps that was partly because it seemed odd to have this Baptist Sunday School teacher interviewed alongside the Miss September centerfold--but as we move on through these weeks in the Sermon on the Mount perhaps we begin to sense that our smiles when we hear something like that may be masking some deeper discomfort. Do we still even function within those categories of thought? I mean, what happens if the wife or your kids pick up your iPhone by mistake? Is the thing password-protected? Will they be able to scroll through to see what dad has been up to? Murderers and thieves and all the wrong-doers of the world seem conveniently located out there, with perhaps the occasional appearance on the 10 o’clock news. But do we even have room anymore personally for a troubled conscience?

The author of Ecclesiasticus doesn’t want to let us off the hook, in any event. We have all these strategies of evasion. Conveniently short memories, for one thing. I wonder if there will also be a feature in the program for rationalizations and mitigating circumstances.. To say “the Devil made me do it” is one way to go, but we have lots of strategies. His fault. Her fault. My socio-economic context. My DNA. The dysfunctionalities of my family of origin. So just to note that the author of this great volume of the Bible’s Wisdom literature isn’t buying any of it. “Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” I think that was the message of the old NIKE advertising campaign. “No excuses.” Don’t do the crime unless you’re willing to do the time.

Which tells us a lot about responsibility and accountability, which is absolutely important. Also not so stylish. Back in the late 1970’s Karl Menninger wrote a famous book called, “Whatever Became of Sin?” In which he said: “Whatever Became of Sin?: "The very word, 'sin,' which seems to have disappeared, was once a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared - the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn't anyone sin anymore? Doesn't anyone believe in sin?"

The author of Ecclesiasticus clearly does in any case, which may be why he makes us more than a little uncomfortable. And Jesus here as we roll along through Matthew 5. He clearly is a believer in sin too! A lot of greeting cards and framed works of calligraphy focus on the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, but when you get down into the body of the sermon, where we are today, maybe we find ourselves turning the pages a little faster and looking for something that doesn’t pinch quite so sharply.

There are lots of ways in which the social context of First Century Palestine is different from the world we live in today, but one thing I guarantee is the same, which is that those who heard these words from Jesus didn’t like them any more than we do. The way to popularity for preachers and politicians in any and every age is going to be to talk a lot about the shortcomings of those who aren’t in the room with you, while at the same time leaving those within earshot feeling good about themselves. The General Confession that we prayed this morning is certainly still a rich and important and meaningful prayer, but I am every time I pray it struck by the phrases that the revisers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer decided we didn’t need to say anymore. Phrases we Anglicans had been praying together since 1549. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. “

I’m not sure if the message was that after all these centuries of Anglican prayer, we discovered that we were wrong about this. Or whether we just kind of decided that we’d had enough and didn’t want to be reminded of it anymore. Not much room in the culture of self-esteem for a bunch of “miserable offenders” who keep talking about how morally unhealthy they are. Which in a way is why this iPhone App is so newsworthy. I smiled myself when I heard the story, and some of the news stories actually seemed to find the whole idea nothing short of hilarious.

Though of course, often our laughter is just exactly the signal that the tickle has found its target. We laugh so that we don’t have to think about it—which might send us running out of the room in terror. And we’re left pretty much along with St. Paul in the 7th chapter of Romans, because this is the plain truth about us. “I do not understand my own actions,” he says. And he’s got that right. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” And then of course with his conclusion, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Who indeed?

The Confessional App may help me get a better handle on where I go wrong, keep me from an overly convenient lapse of memory and offer a few categories for introspective reflection--but as the newstories pointed out, there isn’t a feature yet to help us do something about any of this. No place to click for an Absolution. No GPS to pick us up and turn us around and direct our feet to the paths of righteousness and amendment of life. No program to heal the heart.

We’re on this journey in these winter weeks after the Epiphany, again as we would say, January, February. The Wise Men head home to Persia, and we pack up for the journey to Jerusalem for Holy Week. And the point is that this isn’t a road that we see from a distance. We aren’t spectators. In the Superman movie a few years ago an exasperated Lois Lane turns to Superman and says, “you don’t understand, the world doesn’t need a savior.”

Which is of course the one great lie that we are so tempted all the time to confess ourselves. Everything is fine. Which we say, over and over again, amazingly, despite what we read day by day in the morning paper—despite what we see in reality in the bathroom mirror, and in the back rooms of our minds and hearts. No “miserable offenders” here: no sir, no, not one. Even though of course we know, deep down, what the truth is, you and I this morning, that Lois Lane is wrong. We do need a savior. This journey with Jesus from the Manger to the Cross is our journey. And he is, as we would affirm with all our hearts and minds this morning--he is the only way out of the mess we’re in.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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