Live! From Glen Ellyn!

Well, not live exactly, but I’m pasting the text of yesterday’s sermon into the “extended” part of the post below. Everything went very well, I had the honor of serving alongside Rodney Clapp (who was a last-minute fill-in acolyte), and renewing acquaintances with some of the people who came out for the da Vinci Code extravaganza in the spring.

The whole weekend was colored with the experience of being able to think well for a while, an experience much rarer than I would wish. At the beginning of the Conflict of the Faculties, Kant describes the way his intellectual functions fluctuate, comparing his frustrating days with the feeling of having cold in the head. His thought becomes congested, as it were, and his ideas can’t breathe (I don’t have my copy at hand, and it’s not online in English). I’m in the middle of reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, which reports that Wittgenstein went through similar experiences. I would tend to name this experience as a species of depression (or a related phenomenon), but I bring this all up to note that it’s a relief to remember that some pretty high-powered thinkers went through phases of this cognitive-stuffy-nose feeling.

Anyway, this weekend I broke clear of a stuffy mind and was breathing freely, and it felt great, and it helped me pull the sermon together as I wanted to. I’m thinking moderately productively today too, and I’m hoping to have a nap and move on in strength. I’ll post some of the queries and notions that occurred to me, but later.

St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn
Dt 8:1-10/Ps 72/Eph 3:1-12/Matt 2:1-12
Proper 14 B — August 13, 2006

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Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — Amen.

Are any thieves among us this morning? If so, please take note of the verse from this morning’s epistle: “Thieves must give up stealing.”

We might ordinarily anticipate hearing that sort of message in congregations that meet in grimmer surroundings, with jingling keys and clanging doors, with very watchful ushers who perhaps occupy themselves more with keeping the congregation in than with helping worshippers to and from their pews. Here at St. Barnabas we find no cells, no guards, no barbed-wire fencing, so we might take these clues as an indication that you don’t need a preacher to remind you that disciples of Jesus ought not steal.

Of course, in some sense everyone harbors a smidgen of the criminal deep inside; when we envy another’s good fortune, we commit what Jesus might describe as “thievery in our hearts.” The Fathers of the Church long ago indicted their wealthy congregants for having stolen their riches from the poor who urgently need the money that we spend on self-indulgence. They teach us that all wealth, all plenty, belongs to God, and God pours out abundant resources for all people to thrive — so that anyone who keeps more than is necessary for himself, has in effect taken that from someone who lacks. When the revolutionaries say that “property is theft,” they simply echo in a sloganeering way the point that our wise forebears proposed hundreds of years before them. God’s creation overflows with the resources by which all can share in comfort and health and strength, and none of us has a claim on property that takes priority over the destitution of our neighbors.

On the other hand, if we say that everyone’s a thief, then the word doesn’t accomplish any useful work for us any more. Certainly we’re all tangled up in envy, as even the saints would be quick to remind us; but that doesn’t erase the differences between those who rob you with a six-gun, and those who rob you with a fountain pen, or between Jean Valjean (who stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family) and Al Capone, or for that matter between the criminal and Inspector Javert or Eliot Ness. Theft is a many-textured thing, and those of us who do not break into people’s unoccupied houses or threaten them with a knife will quickly, justifiably, tune out a preacher who refuses to see those real, important differences.

Those differences come to the fore when we read the warning to thieves from the Letter to Ephesus in the context of our liturgy this morning, in conjunction with the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy, the Gospel lesson from John, and the patterns by which our worship acknowledges our sins and prays for forgiveness. The liturgy doesn’t ignore the problem of our deliberate naughty behavior; we occasionally read the Ten Commandments as part of the liturgy, and the Great Litany incorporates a humbling assortment of the kinds of sin we’re likely to commit. More often, though, we bypass the question of exactly which transgressions we have recently committed. We bracket the question of exactly how bad it is to drive a low-gas-mileage car rather ride a bicycle not because we’re soft on sin, but because the more specific we make or liturgical denunciations of sins, the more we invite our imaginations to let us off the hook: “Well, I didn’t do that,” or “How dare they call that a sin?!” Such argumentative distinctions don’t befit the context of a gathered community praying that its sins, of whatever sort, be forgiven by God’s patient, generous grace. When we read Ephesians in church, we warns thieves to give up their felonious way of life not in the context of a code of licit or illicit modes of acquisition, but in the context of a bunch of sisters and brothers praying that this week, at last, they may make some faltering progress toward holiness.

So in the rest of the reading from Ephesians, the letter emphasizes qualities and behavior that enable a community of disciples to dare to reflect God’s own character, to be imitators of God. Where God is Truth, we show our fidelity to God by speaking truly, speaking in love. That rules out wrangling and slander — even if we aim to uphold true claims about God, we would render them false by presenting them in manipulative, injurious ways. “Let no evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.” We would belie our claim to be proclaiming something of God’s good news if we devoted ourselves primarily to winning; winning is not one of the marks of the church, the characteristics by which we identify sound teaching and right action from unsound, wrong-headed efforts to live as the church. God comes to us not as a coercive enforcer, but as the patient, generous, overflowing fount of the sort of truth that cannot in the end be denied — and God is willing to wait till the end.

Were we to fixate on winning, we would align ourselves with the powers of this age that failed to recognize God’s glory at work among them. When Jesus came preaching peace and forgiveness, when people rejected him and his message, he specifically refused the apostles’ suggestion that they command fire to come down from heaven and consume the hostile villagers. When men couldn’t take the chance that Jesus was right tried to suppress his teaching, and had him tortured to death, Jesus responded by urging God to forgive them. When God reversed the judgment of death on Jesus by raising him to new life, God did not purge the earth by fire or flood it with water, but God turned poured out the Holy Spirit to deepen our faith, to bring us to recognize our frailty and sin, and to learn in the Spirit to live by grace, by confident trust in God’s power, by joyous affirmation of holiness and righteousness. Our triumphs and setbacks matter here only to the extent that we refuse ever to allow the course of this world’s events to blind us to the promised eternal triumph that belongs to God alone, a triumph wrought in endurance, in constancy, in trust and in charity.

The lesson from Ephesians condemns thievery not solely as a transgression of a rule, but as a kind of behavior emblematic of the hunger for one’s own-ness that corrodes community. The same principle applies to politicking, to relationships, to general ethics: if it serves my purposes and injures you, I have not yet attained the quality of truth that God offers as nourishing bread (even when my purposes are utterly high-minded). If I place my own comfort and satisfaction before yours, any insight, any deserts I might claim have been nullified by my hard-heartedness toward you. If I determine that God stands on my side so as to justify coercive violence against you, I align myself with Caiaphas and Pilate, with the persecuting emperors Decian and Diocletian, and in my very effort to stamp out error I cast my opponents in the role of the suffering martyrs whose blood cries out from the earth against their tormentors. Instead of winning, the epistle lesson reminds us, God teaches that our well-being consists in giving, and God does not simply send those words graven in tablets of stone, but goes further to embody those words, to live them out and to die for them, in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Bread of Life fills us with a Spirit of gratitude that overflows to the benefit of all around us, a Spirit of joy in sharing that foretells the ultimate sharing of all bounty, all joy in God’s Kingdom. The Bread of Life isn’t like anything we’ve tasted before; it inhabits us, a power for transformation and renewal, a power for endurance and hope, a power for peace and truth in response to violence in action and in words. The Bread of Life, broken for us, effects in us a victory more important than any battle on earth, and if we will let it, the Bread of Life will raise us up to wake from our dreams about power and satisfaction, and unveil before our eyes the overwhelming majesty that God will make perfection from weakness, will make a unity out of fragments and ruins, will make a harmony out of our discord.

God will bring about this grand transfiguration of all creation, and as God’s church we are called to mirror that new creation as best we can. Where God will make perfection out of weakness, we can be honestly humble about our weakness, and rely on the strength of one another. Where God will on the last day make unity from scattered separate scraps, we can exercise all our fragmentary wisdom to keep the pieces big and sound, to prepare them to be fit together anew so that of all that the Father entrusted to Jesus, nothing should be lost. Where God will make harmony from discord, we can practice singing together, sometimes restraining our voices so that others may be heard, sometimes braving stage fright to venture a solo, but always bearing in mind the beauty and integrity of the whole composition — for we are members of one another, beloved children of God.

Thus indeed, thieves, give up stealing. Stealing is wrong on the face of it, but even more wrong because stealing weakens the network of trust and collaboration that enables God’s people to demonstrate, bit by bit, gesture by gesture, slow and wavering testimony to God’s love. Stealing, scheming, sneaking, slandering, all undermine the work of generations of saints, to strengthen the whole body of Christ, joined and knit together by every ligament of loyalty as each part, working together properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. For the Bread of Life cannot be stolen; it has always been and always will be God’s free gift to us, a living word of grace and truth. And we speak that Word with lives that honor love, that bespeak truth, that join us with one another in grace.

Amen

4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. The da Vinci Code… Well, that was much ado about nothing! Awful novel by the numbers from somebody who knows next to nothing about religion turned into a film so bad it’s already faded from people’s memory (despite all the free advertising it got from outraged Christians). I predict in a couple of years this will be as utterly forgotten as The Celestine Prophecy.

  2. I’m sure no one cares, but I read the entirety of Monk’s book while was on “jury duty”, such duty consisting of sitting quietly in a room full of strangers until 3 pm and then being sent home so they could call a new jury the next day. I felt really bad for the folks there who had no intellectual interests and no other pastimes on their persons.

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