Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sixteenth after Pentecost

(Proper 19B2) Is. 50: 4-9, Mark 8: 27-38

Good morning, and grace and peace to you as we are here at least technically speaking at the last Sunday of the summer.  The autumnal equinox next Friday.  The promise of cooler air this weekend, and I imagine that by next Sunday the leaves will be down and there will be morning frost on the lawn.  Susy and I had dinner last Sunday afternoon with friends over at the Union Grill in Oakland, before attending Compline at the Heinz Chapel, and the restaurant was decorated for Halloween, so I guess the Trick-or-Treat season is well along.  Merry Christmas, also, by the way, and Happy New Year! And it will be Shrove Tuesday before we know it.

Not that we don’t get into the spirit of these things, of course.  The Grinch that Stole Christmas was clearly not an Episcopalian. I remember in High School reading about our Massachusetts Bay Colony  ancestors and how they would put people in “gaol” for celebrating Christmas or decorating a spring Maypole.  Not an Episcopalian in the bunch of them either, I guess.  We enjoy our parties, festivals, celebrations, holidays, whenever they happen to fall on the calendar.  As you know, it almost seems a hobby of mine to excavate ancient liturgical occasions for some long-lost seasonal custom or solemn observance.  Any excuse for a gala reception in Brooks Hall . . . . 

So sometimes maybe it seems a little odd to see Jack o’Lanterns in August or Christmas decorations in September, but we most of the time will roll with the flow and enjoy.  The world we live in, and welcome to it!  Here come Santa and his Reindeer now!  

Back in the middle of the last century the theologican H. Richard Neibuhr wrote a wonderful little book called “Christ and Culture,” charting out how over the centuries and in different corners of the Christian world there seem to be certain recurring patterns of relationship between the Christian community and the surrounding society.  He begins with what he calls the pattern “Christ against Culture.”  Think Baptist Youth Groups in Arkansas having big rallies to throw Elvis Presley records onto a bonfire; or Amish families in Central Pennsylvania.  On the other end of the spectrum, there is “Christ of Culture.”  Where Christians simply assume that there is no difference at all between the two.  Sometimes expressed as what is called “civil religion.”  Perhaps the deep down belief that God is an American, or that there really is no difference of meaning between the Cross and the Flag.  Just a banner to mark identity.  

On one hand, Santa comes down the chimney to visit the Bethlehem crèche, with Bing Crosby and Alvin and the Chipmunks rolling along all mushed together in the background.  Or to assume that what being a Christian is really all about is the promotion of a social or political agenda.  The "Church of What's Happening Now," as someone has said.  Left side of the aisle or right side.  Read some Facebook postings these days and you might think the whole point of the Last Judgment scene of Matthew 25 might have something to do with Voter I.D. or Immigration reform.  The sheep and the goats.  On the other hand, close the curtains, turn off the lights, try not to notice what's going on outside.  Resist.

And there are “Christ and Culture” types in the middle.  Christ and Culture in Paradox.  Christ as Transformer of Culture. 

Of course the reality is that we Anglicans and Episcopalians have indeed more often found ourselves at least drifing into the “Christ of Culture” section of the Neibuhr typology.  Plenty of nuance, no question about it, but in broad brushstrokes.  To find Christian identity we might say in “Englishness.”  Or in the patterns of life and the social and moral values of the old White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment.  Downton Abbey Churchmanship.  The spirituality of Jane Austen.  Or in modern times sometimes the social and moral values of the Birkenstock and latte crowds of college towns and upscale metropolitan neighborhoods on the East and West Coasts.  A comfortable congruence with the world around us.  Comfortable congruence.  Fitting in.  The nice thing about Episcopalians being that we’re unlikely to rock the boat, whatever boat there is that might be rocked, or do or say anything on television that would embarrass you in front of your friends.  Or so we hope, anyway.  We’re surprised when that sort of thing happens.

Again, that’s with a broad brush, and it doesn’t capture the picture perfectly at all.  It misses the Evangelical heroes of the 18th century and the Anglo-Catholic heroes of the 19th century, for one thing.  We have our monks and our t.v. evangelists.  But some truth to it.  A comfortable kind of Christianity, we might say, anyway.  Respectable.  A new friend hears with some surprise that you attend Church on Sunday morning and suddenly has a kind of worried look.  Then you say, “I’m an Episcopalian,” and she is visibly relieved.  

That’s fine.  I was worried for a minute that you might be involved in something weird.

So anyway, these readings this morning fall over us with some strangeness.  Maybe just a little.  This bit from the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes called one of the “Servant Songs.”  The prophet speaks as the personification of Israel, in the midst of exile and oppression, deep estrangement, in the midst of suffering and an almost unbearable loss of home and identity.  Grief and pain.  “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.  I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  This Prophet’s song about standing firm, holding on, giving witness, even when everyone is against you, about clinging fast to your faith and identity and loyalty to God when everyone around you is doing all they can to rip it away.  About finding yourself not by getting along but by standing apart.  All a little strange.  Everyone against you, mocking you.  I stick out like a sore thumb, and everyone around me mocks me and insults me.  Not the sort of thing we would any of us expect to experience, anyway, while loading our groceries into the car down at Whole Foods.

And then Jesus, with all this about the Cross.  His and ours.    Perhaps I told you of the a young girl who lived across the street from Susy’s parents in California.  Susy had taken care of her several times when she was young.  Now a teenager.  Nice kid, great family.  She saw what Susy was wearing around her neck, and she said, “O look, I have one of those too.  My ‘T’.”  My “T.”  A little peculiar, even in a the more secular Bay area.  But perhaps not really too far from the mainstream.  All the pretty jewelry, with none of the gruesome backstory.

There’s a phrase that Biblical scholars anyway occasionally use, when they talk about the importance of a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”  Probably all scientists and researchers have the same principle in play: if the evidence seems to confirm your expectations, makes you feel more comfortable, that’s a good sign that you may be misreading it.  At least, be very, very careful. 

Not that the call of our Lord can’t from time to time lead us to fresh meadows and along pleasant paths, with the gentle and comforting assurance that the life we would choose for ourselves, the work we would choose for ourselves, our values and principles and major life decisions—that these are all indeed exactly what he would choose for us as well.  But if it seems to be so, the scriptures would say to us this morning, we’d better be careful.  A hermeneutic of suspicion.

So all that.  Where this all took me this week.  We’ve talked before about the story of Deitrich Bonhoeffer.  That’s who came to my mind this week as I read and prayed over these readings.  A few years ago in fact our Adult Programs Committee sponsored an evening with a film about his life.  The German scholar and theologian who had landed a nice post teaching in the U.S. in the late ‘30’s, and who left behind tenure and the comforts of academic life on a leafy campus to return to Hitler’s Germany and undertake secret work in the life of the underground Church.  Work which would lead him eventually to be arrested and then executed as a part of a resistance plot that might have resulted in the assassination of the Nazi leadership, including Hitler himself.  One of the books he wrote that has meant the most to me over the years, and that I would highly recommend for our reading and prayerful reflection, “The Cost of Discipleship.”  Can’t help thinking about this book and about Bonhoeffer, and can’t help giving my own life a once-over with all that in mind, as I read these lines from Mark 8.  Not to push any particular reading on anyone else, but to see what questions it makes me ask myself.  Here’s a bit from that book:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” 

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