Sunday, July 15, 2012

God in--and out--of the box

A sermon from July 15, 2012

There aren’t many Gospel lessons in the lectionary where Jesus doesn’t appear. But when Jesus isn’t in a Gospel story, it’s usually because John the Baptist is being a stand-in for him—a preview, if you will—as in the stories about John the Baptist’s ministry that we hear during Advent. John is the one who points the way to Jesus, and it is still true in today’s story. John’s interactions with Herod point the way to where Jesus’ interactions with the Hebrew and secular authorities will go. It’s not pretty.   

But my favorite verse of today’s gospel is this about Herod’s feelings towards John: “When [Herod] heard [John], he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” I think that just about sums up our relationship with God for many of us. Herod has John in prison, but he brings him out periodically to listen to him—and he likes what he hears. He likes the feeling of being provoked and perplexed, the new insights and ideas that John brings to him. John tells Herod the truth—probably about many things, although the passage only focuses on Herod’s unlawful marriage with his sister-in-law—and how often would the people surrounding Herod have told him the truth? John’s voice of dissent must have been refreshing. But when the conversation is over, Herod always sends John back down to the prison. He doesn’t let him out. He doesn’t free him. He doesn’t let John change him.  

How many of us want to keep God in a box like Herod does with John? We like God, we like being in the presence of God, we like the insights God gives us because honestly, in our heart of hearts, we know they’re true… but we want it on our terms, on our own timeline. We don’t really want God to change us. So we’d like to be like Herod. We’d like to have a little God-box that we could carry around with us, and whenever we felt like we needed God or wanted to have a chat we’d take God out of the box, but when we wanted to do other things, or when God pushed us too far, we could put God back in the box, close it, and move on. 

And I am here today to remind you that we are right to be worried about what will happen to us if we let go of the illusion that we can confine God to only certain areas of our lives, at certain times, in certain relationships. Because if we do start to acknowledge what is already true—that God is all in all and dwells in every crevice of our being and lives—we will be changed. 
And if we are changed—if we live fully and completely in touch with the Gospel and God every moment of every day, what would be different? Wouldn’t we live our personal lives, our political lives, our professional lives differently if we really and truly followed the Gospel in every way? And I say this as someone who would have as much to change or more than anyone else here—I’m your priest, but I am not a perfect role model.

David steps outside the box of propriety today, too. If you ever want to start reading the Bible, start reading 1 and 2 Samuel, because they’re like a good telenovella. At this point, Saul has died, and David has become King, and they are bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to reside in its new tent. David dances, wearing only a linen ephod. What’s an ephod, you may ask? Based upon the descriptions, throughout scripture, it sounds like an ephod was something like a cross between a tunic and an apron and a breastplate, made of linen. But it was not a garment worn by itself, and it’s not a garment that would necessarily have covered up, um, all the important parts of a man to cover up while he’s dancing. 

His wife Michal—who is also Saul’s daughter—is disgusted at such a display. It is undignified, an action unbecoming a king. You can almost hear her thinking, “My father would never have done that.” In today’s terms, it probably looked less like the royal wedding than the Pride parade. A few verses later, she confronts David, saying, “how the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” David retorts, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”

 David is urgently pointing out to Michal that those maids… not even his servants, but the maids of his servants, they get their relationship with the Lord. It was the Lord who asked David to dance, and if he looked unconventional or at odds with her image of what a king should look like, then it was her image of kingship that needed to change, because he knew he was the anointed king who was listening to the Lord and following his instructions to the best of his ability. And if the maids of his servants know that better than his wife, so be it—he will continue to listen to the Lord, and not change the Lord’s instructions just to make her more comfortable. 

David is willing to face ridicule to follow the Lord. And isn’t that—at some level—the same thing that holds so many of us back from following the Gospel in all areas of our lives? Being told that what we’re doing is not smart, or wise, or realistic, or practical or appropriate? And that such disappointment and ridicule of us could come not from some outside source who we can just write off, but from those closest to us: family members, co-workers, friends. “You can’t come to brunch with us because you’re going to church?” “You can’t go on vacation with us (or buy X) because you’re giving how much money away to the poor?”, “You’re campaigning for who?” We will be changed, and the people around us will notice it. 

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church just ended—the huge behemoth of a legislative assembly that involves 400 lay deputies, 400 clergy deputies, and somewhere around 150 or 200 bishops from every diocese in the Episcopal Church which meets every three years to make decisions about our worship, our programs, and our relationships. Some of the decisions at that General Convention have met with ridicule in the news media—some described accurately and others containing gross factual inaccuracies, as the Wall Street Journal piece yesterday. But here’s some of what General Convention really did in trying to balance our desire to not put God in a box, but also to give ourselves the necessary structure to make the Gospel accessible to people:

We passed a resolution that will create a task force to look at restructuring our church and our decision making process; wondering if perhaps the methods used 220 years ago might be made more efficient by 21st Century technology and ease of travel.

We officially created provisional rites for blessing same-gender couples, which we’ve already been doing at this church and many others in the US for many years.

We added “transgendered” to the categories of people who cannot be discriminated against in our church.

We voted to encourage church assets to be invested in companies that contribute positively to bringing about development in the Palestinian territories; and specifically did not pass a resolution that would have encouraged church assets to be divested from companies that did extensive business with Israel.

We delayed the implementation of a denominational health plan and pension plan for all lay employees, but continued to require full participation within six years in the interests of justice and parity between clergy and lay employees.

We approved rites for the burial of animals as a pastoral response to decades of requests of people who felt that their grieving over animals could be made easier by recognizing their loss through prayer.

 We passed a balanced budget for the next triennium that was structured around the five marks of mission and that devotes much of its money to mission among the poor and dispossessed at home and around the world, including on Native American reservations, $2 million for starting new congregations, $1 million for making sure that every young Episcopal adult who wants to spend a year in a service program can do so, . 

The five marks of mission, the framework for that budget, are: 
• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
• To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
• To respond to human need by loving service
• To seek to transform unjust structures of society
• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

Now some of those decisions are more out-of-the box than others; some were unanimous, and some were not; some will be permanent changes and some will not; but they were all made in good faith, democratically, by lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops. And really—when you’re up for ridicule, isn’t this what you’re going to be willing to be ridiculed for? Go ahead and ridicule us that we proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom! Go ahead and ridicule us that we teach and baptize and nurture new believes! Ridicule us because we respond to human need—and there is a LOT of need—by loving service, and not by passing the buck on the backs of the poor and the oppresed! Ridicule us when we seek to transform the unjust structures of society—and there ARE structure that are still unjust and it takes all of our voices, our votes and our money to change them. And finally, go ahead and ridicule us when strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth—the earth upon which we live and which we depend upon for our very lives. 

Because David was ridiculed and was the most faithful king Israel ever had. Because John was ridiculed and lost his head but pointed the way to Jesus and helped make his ministry possible. And because Herod was not willing to be ridiculed—he knew killing John was wrong but didn’t want to lose face with his family and his courtiers and he felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. And finally because Jesus was ridiculed and died on a cross. But that is never the end of our story—of THE story. So let go of God in the box, and hang on to God on the cross and outside the tomb, and let God carry us forward together in faith, wherever it is that God is calling us to go.

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