glory of god

glory of god

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Lutefisk, Princess Torte, and Resurrection: A Wedding Sermon

Well, there are some things that you just never expect to do in life. And one of them is marrying your mother, or rather, officiating at your mother’s wedding. Then again, I’m sure that just a few years ago Mom and Jerry wouldn’t have thought that they would be getting married again, after having lost their beloved spouses in the space of just a few weeks. But here we are, and in an Episcopal Church in Massachusetts, no less. They even had to go to a Massachusetts court room to ask a judge for permission to marry. Mom and Jerry are living witnesses to the fact that life is always full of crazy twists and turns, with something new and unexpected around every corner.

And as it happens, those new and unexpected experiences can happen at any moment, even in the weirdest of circumstances—like a church lutefisk supper. I don’t know why, but somehow, lutefisk—that smelly, toxic Scandinavian delicacy made of codfish soaked in lye and then smothered in butter or cream--always seems to want to make an appearance when I start talking about Minnesota Lutherans, or at least when I talk about my mom, and she says doesn’t even like the stuff (though I have witnessed her eat it on more than one occasion). And today is no different since, as it happens, Mom and Jerry first took notice of each other when they and a group from their church were out on a field trip checking out other churches’ lutefisk suppers (why, I have yet to understand). By chance they ended up sitting next to each other, and looking down at their “appetizing” plates of white fish, white sauce, and white potatoes, my mom said to Jerry, “It’s never a good sign when the fish jiggles.” Flirting over lutefisk. Only in Minnesota.

So, it was lutefisk that brought Mom and Jerry together initially, and in a way, it’s lutefisk that brings them here to Emmanuel this afternoon. Now, of course, they had been planning to get married for some time, but they also really wanted to get out of Minnesota, since this weekend their church is holding its own second annual lutefisk supper (they were here last year for the first annual lutefisk supper, as well). That’s what Lutheran churches in Minnesota do for fundraisers. Now you know why I turned Episcopalian. We have wine tastings; they have lutefisk suppers. And as we approach Thanksgiving and then Advent, the Minnesota Lutherans are entering lutefisk season big time.

Garrison Keillor says, “Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, ‘Just have a little’.” Advent Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, where Mom and Jerry are active members, likes to beat the rush by holding their lutefisk dinner in November, so as not to conflict with other churches’ suppers. But since my mom is mostly Swedish and Jerry is mostly German, they aren’t so thrilled about this largely Norwegian custom. (Even my godmother Sara, who’s also here and is Norwegian, won’t eat the stuff). So, now you know what they gave up (or are escaping) to be married this weekend.

And I bet you thought you were safe, didn’t you, Mom and Jerry? What you don’t know is that we have a tasty surprise waiting in the parish hall! Actually, we don’t have any lutefisk here—you can tell by the fact that people aren’t running out of the church from the smell. But the women’s group seriously did offer to make it (along with a Jell-o-salad)! However, instead, the only Scandinavian delicacy, which really is a delicacy that everyone will enjoy, is a fabulous three-tiered Swedish Princess Torte. That seemed like a much more pleasant way to celebrate a wedding. And in honor of Jerry’s German roots, you’ll notice that most of the music in today’s ceremony is German—Bach, Pachelbel, Handel, Beethoven.

As much as we like to joke, more than lutefisk bringing Mom and Jerry together, it would seem more likely that it was God who brought them together after they each suffered the devastating loss of their beloved spouses—George and Jeannie--in December 2008. Who else but God could have arranged such a thing? Now, I have no doubt that if Mom and Jerry hadn’t met they each would have survived just fine. They both have lots of wonderful people in their lives—friends and family—who wanted to help them get through the trauma of loss. But, of course, life is not only about surviving. Life is really about living.

For Christians, for those who set their trust in Jesus, life is about living the promise and the joy of the resurrection each and every day. And, as we have to be reminded again and again, the resurrection that Jesus promises us is not only something that we experience after we die (though I certainly believe that Jeannie, George, and my Dad--Peter, are experiencing that joy even now), but resurrection is also, and just as importantly, something that Jesus wants us to experience each and every day on this side of life as well. That’s why he said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

And anyone who has seen the joy in Mom’s and Jerry’s eyes over the past few days can’t help but feel that together, in their relationship, they are experiencing the joy of the resurrection even now. Their happiness and love for each other is obvious—to their family and friends who have flown here to Massachusetts for this special weekend, as well as those back in Minnesota; to the judge at the courthouse in Quincy who was delighted to approve their marriage license request; and even to people sitting at the next table in an Italian restaurant in the North End. In a very real way, Mom and Jerry are living witnesses to the power of the resurrection.

Of course they know that every day won’t be as perfect as a beautiful fall day in New England. Much as we (and they) may like it to be, life together isn’t all smiles and Swedish Princess Torte wedding cake. Some days will probably feel a lot more like smelly old lutefisk. Because that’s just the way life is. But that’s also when that same resurrection faith will give them the strength, patience, and courage they will need to work through whatever problems they face, ever confident that joy is stronger than sadness, and that hope is always more powerful than despair.

So, here we are in another day on a twisty journey through life. And it’s a beautiful day. It's warm, the leaves are vibrant in their rainbow of colors; joy, love, and resurrection is in the air. I have no doubt that for Mom and Jerry, as for all of us, there will be many sharp curves, bumps in the road, and plenty of unexpected things around corners, maybe even a lutefisk supper or two. But the good news for them, and for us, is that they will have the love and support of each other as they walk along, arm in arm, strengthened and supported by their families, by friends, by faith communities here and in Minnesota, and most especially by the God who is constantly bringing us new and abundant life, the God who is the source of all love.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jesus, Judaism, & the Pharisees: A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

For the past several Wednesday evenings our adult education sessions have been dedicated to discussing the book Yeshua: A Model Moderns by Leonard Swidler. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think that for the most part, people have enjoyed it; although, it’s not without its challenges. The purpose of the book is to uncover and present anew the Jewish roots and context of Jesus’ life and ministry. It’s something that I think we Christians know intellectually, but which we don’t understand as deeply as we could. So, this book, in its way, tries to help us grow to a deeper understanding of who Jesus was, who the people around him were, and how his life and teaching fit in his time and his society. Since everyone can’t be with us on Wednesdays, I thought that this morning I would share a bit of what we have learned.

The first thing you notice is that the author always refers to Jesus as “Yeshua,” the Aramaic version of his name. Yeshua is what people who actually knew Jesus would have called to him. I said quite a while ago, when I first mentioned this book in a sermon, that calling Jesus “Yeshua” all the time is a little annoying. I even wrote that in an essay in college, and now others at our adult ed sessions have started to agree. But I think the author’s purpose is positive—it helps to strip away all that we think we know about Jesus, so that we can discover more about the real life Jewish man who lived in Nazareth in Galilee some 2,000 years ago. By starting with calling him Yeshua, we have a clean slate for fresh, new discovery.

And what have we discovered? Well, first, what the name Yeshua means. It’s sort of a contraction: the “Ye” is an abbreviation for God’s proper name given to Moses: “YHWH.” The “shua” is the Hebrew word for salvation, which is not so much about going to heaven, but more about holiness and wholeness. For the ancient Israelites to attain salvation is to lead a full and whole life. So, if we put it back together again, Jesus’ name, Yeshua, means “YHWH [or God] is salvation; YHWH is wholeness.” And what’s especially interesting, really, if we are thinking about the Jewishness of Jesus, is the fact that through him, so many millions of people who are not Jewish have come to believe in YHWH, the God of Israel, the God who spoke to Moses on the mountain and who through Joshua (whose name is the older Hebrew version of the name as Yeshua) led the chosen people to salvation into the promised land, as we heard in our first reading this morning. Both Joshua and Yeshua/Jesus lead God’s people to salvation.

Second, we’ve been reminded in our study that like many other reformation figures, Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new religion. Jesus was Jewish. His family was Jewish. His friends and his disciples were Jewish. And really, almost everyone he encountered in his day-to-day life was Jewish. So, the focus of his ministry was not to abolish or supercede Judaism. Rather, he saw his ministry as being about helping people live Jewishly, as best they could. Jesus studied the Torah, the religious law, as well as the teachings of the prophets, and he interpreted what he studied so that people could understand and live in a more faithful way. In some respects, Jesus was more liberal than many (for example, healing on the Sabbath) and in other respects he applied a more strict interpretation, teaching that divorce in any circumstance is unacceptable. What’s more, if we read the gospels carefully it’s clear that Jesus’ mission was focused on the Jewish community, and not really on non-Jewish Gentiles like most of us. But from time to time Jesus did encounter Gentiles and for the most part engaged with them, and even healed some. But he didn’t focus on them. So, it was up to the disciples and early church leaders to debate on how to accept Gentiles into the new Christian community, since Jesus left no direct teaching on the matter.

Finally, we’ve learned that Jesus was born at an exciting time in the development of Jewish religion. Various lay teachers, who became known as rabbis, were emerging, helping people to better understand and live their faith. One such figure was Hillel, who taught in Jerusalem from 30 BC until his death in 10 AD. He was known for his relatively liberal interpretation of the faith. He recognized brotherly love as the fundamental principle of Jewish moral law and said to a Gentile who asked him to give the essence of Torah: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” This teaching is reflected by Jesus, who taught that the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.

In fact, the author of our book even suggests that it is possible that Jesus himself learned at the feet of Hillel. Most scholars think that Jesus was born in about 5 BC. He would have been considered mature in the faith at 13 or so--by the year 8 AD, so we know for certain that Jesus and Hillel overlapped in time. And given the gospel story of Jesus going to the Temple in Jerusalem as a youth with his family, then at the very least it’s within the realm of possibility that the young Jesus encountered an aged Hillel there. But even if he didn’t directly learn from Hillel, Jesus almost most certainly would have learned from others influenced by Hillel. There are too many similarities in their respective teachings for it to be merely coincidental.

We’ve also learned that there was another Jewish leader and teacher at that time, whose name was Shammai. He lived from 50 BC to 30 AD and was stricter than Hillel in his interpretation of the Torah. He believed that only those deemed worthy could study the Torah and that Gentiles could not be converted into Judaism. In fact, he tried various ways to separate Jews and Gentiles and taught that those who went into a Gentile household would be deemed unclean. Hillel was more inclusive and thought anyone should be allowed to study religious teachings and Gentiles could convert if they chose.

Well, both Hillel and Shammai had followers, who formed schools grounded in their respective teachings and interpretations of the Torah. And, what’s especially interesting is that the teachers trained in these two schools of thought were known as “Pharisees.” As you’d expect, the followers of Hillel were more liberal. The followers of Shammai were conservative. But whether liberal or conservative, the Pharisees were laymen, who studied the Torah. While the gospels portray the Pharisees as hypocrites, that’s probably an exaggeration, at least sometimes. Because in some ways the Pharisees were quite avant-garde, in contrast to the more traditional Temple priests and Sadducees, accepting several “modern” ideas, like demons, angels, and the resurrection. The Pharisees urged people to live faithful, holy lives, especially after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when there was no longer a need for priests. And just as Christians speak of the “Priesthood of all believers,” the Pharisees believed in the “priesthood of all Israelites.”

Recently, some Jewish and Christian scholars have suggested, in studying the teachings in these schools of thought, that Jesus himself may have been a Pharisee, or at least very close to them--but firmly in the tradition of Hillel, not Shammai. That sounds weird and perhaps unsettling to Christians, I know, since the gospels almost always portray the Pharisees as the bad guys, hiding behind the shrubbery, ready to jump out to test and challenge Jesus at any moment. But, before we buy into a caricature, let’s keep an open mind and remember a few things.

First, as human beings we tend to get into the most heated arguments with those who are a lot like us—with members of our families or with people whose religious beliefs are fairly close to ours. Episcopalians and Hindus rarely have theological arguments; there’s just too much distance between us. But, liberal and conservative Episcopalians might really slug it out, because we share so much and feel that our opponent’s faulty views is some how hurting the faith we hold dear. The same was true of Jesus and the Pharisees.

Second, in Jesus’ time, the conservative Shammai Pharisees were more prominent, and the Hillel school was in the minority. Hillel’s thought later became dominant and is the grandfather of the rabbinic tradition in much of Judaism today, placing justice at the heart of their religion, but not until after the gospels were written. So, when the gospels write negatively of the Pharisees, they almost certainly refer to the Shammai group, while the occasional “good” Pharisees, like Nicodemus, are probably followers of Hillel. Of course, ultimately, whether Jesus is rightly identified with the Pharisees is speculation, but there’s no question that he shared much in common and better relations with the liberal Hillel group—including similar teaching, and antipathy towards the conservative Shammai school. We find a good example of Jesus’ arguments against the conservative Pharisees in today’s gospel, when he tells his disciples to do what the Pharisees tell them, because they teach the same things as Moses, not what they do, since they set very strict standards for everyone else, but then don’t do anything to help people live out these requirements.

You may have noticed in this morning’s gospel that Jesus mentioned phylacteries and fringes. Just to be clear, these aren’t special priestly garb, but actually were (and for some Jews still are) normal spiritual attire. The phylacteries are the small black boxes that Jewish men tie on their foreheads and arms with leather straps for morning prayers. They contain tiny scrolls inscribed with verses of the Torah. And the fringes Jesus mentions are just the tassels on prayer shawls. Sometimes you’ll see Orthodox Jewish men with fringes hanging out from the backs of their shirts. So, he was criticizing the Pharisees for being outwardly hyper-observant in following the religious law, really publicly obvious even, but failing to help the poor. And what’s more, since the Pharisees taught a kind of priesthood of all, it seemed wrong that they would then seek seats and titles of honor, especially in synagogues where all adult men were supposed to be equal.

One of the questions all this information raises is what was unique about Jesus? Why is Jesus so well remembered when other teachers are not? And if Jesus were really one of many wise Jewish teachers, how is it that people come to believe that he was the Son of God? The answer is simply that we don’t know for certain. But it’s clear that there was something so remarkably special about Jesus and the way he spoke and taught that people were drawn to him. People left their jobs and their families to be his disciples. They were drawn to his interpretation of the law and his unique, and I would say nearly fearless, approach to life. They sought him out for healing. They wanted to be touched and held by him. Even those who disagreed with him—the Shammai Pharisees—were somehow attracted to him and wanted to hear what he had to say, hiding behind the shrubbery to get a good glimpse of what he was up to.

And within a generation, significant numbers of Gentiles were so inspired by Jesus’ teaching and his story of life, death, and resurrection, that they risked their own lives to be baptized and claim faith in him. Because, of course, they realized that in teaching people how to lead faithful Jewish lives, Jesus was also teaching people how to live faithful human lives—to love God and love our neighbors, to heal the sick, to help those who are poor and in need.

Well, that’s some of what we’ve learned and discussed on Wednesday nights. It’s interesting stuff. It challenges our assumptions. It makes us think about our faith differently. And it encourages us to take Jesus and his teachings all the more seriously as we look to him, and ultimately to God, for salvation and wholeness of life.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Looking Back and Looking Forward: A Sermon for September 11

I don’t know how you are feeling today, but I am a little conflicted. On the one hand, I am excited about the start of another wonderful program year here at Emmanuel, full of promise and hope for all that we will learn and accomplish together as God’s people in this wonderful place. But then, on the other, we can’t escape the fact that today is also the 10th anniversary of the day that we have come to know as “September 11th,” and all that that dreadful day has meant and still means for us, for our nation, and for the nations of the world. So, somehow it seems that we are being called to hold or balance this conflicted mixture of thoughts and emotions in our hearts, thinking back on a tragic day seared in our collective memory, while also looking ahead to what we hope is a bright future.

You know, we often hear it said that September 11 changed the world forever. Certainly it has made a dramatic impact on the last decade, here in the United States and in many other countries and continents. Our faltering economy, heightened security concerns, especially for air travelers, and two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have cost too many lives, are all signs that the events of September 11, 2001 are still impacting us in various ways. But in other ways, those of us who haven’t lost loved ones in the attacks or in the subsequent wars have probably moved on, not returning to where we were before, for sure, we can’t go back to life on September 10, 2001, but to a new “normal.” More alert perhaps, a little more suspicious of those around us unfortunately, but still picking up with our lives, raising families, going to Red Sox games, coming to church, smiling, embracing, loving, giving thanks for the gift of life, while perhaps a little more aware of its fragility and uncertainty.

Most people who were alive in old enough in 1963 say that they remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was killed. I think that’s true with regard to September 11, too. In September 2001 I had just started a new job. I had been working as a parish administrator in an urban church for a couple years after seminary, but that summer I applied for (and actually was hired) to be the Office Administrator for the Episcopal City Mission in Boston, at the headquarters of the Diocese of Massachusetts. I took up my duties right at the beginning of September. And I remember that I was swamped the first week, as the position had been vacant for some time. I thought I would never make it. But after a week it got better and by Sept. 11 I was settling in a little. And that morning, I got an email or phone call from a friend, saying that a plane had flown into the world trade center. Well, it sounded terrible, of course. But I thought it was a small plane that had an accident. But then, of course, more news came that another plane had it. And that they were large passenger jets, and that they had come from Boston.

I don’t remember how it happened, but just about the entire staff at the diocesan office gathered on the top floor in Bishop Tom Shaw’s office to see the news on TV—Bishop Shaw was on sabbatical in Turkey, but it was the only TV in the building. Of course we watched in shock as the towers fell right there on live TV. And then we heard about the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania. How do you even begin to make sense of all that? There was a Eucharist in the cathedral that noon, presided over by Bishop Barbara Harris. I have no idea what she said, if anything. And after that, at 1:00 p.m., we were told we could go home. I remember that I felt safer in the diocesan office than I did on the subway to Jamaica Plain, but eventually I left. People on the subway cars were absolutely silent, reading special afternoon editions of the Globe and Herald, perplexed about how this could happen here, and perhaps like me worried that the subway, too, would find itself under attack. I was so thankful when I made it home safely. I didn’t want to go out ever again; although, I don’t know that I had ever felt the distance from my family in Minneapolis so greatly as I did that day. We had a prayer service at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain that evening, but I don’t remember anything about it really.

It’s interesting how seeing the news footage again, after all these years, brings back emotions that I had tucked away. I suspect the same is probably true for you. So much of it we haven’t seen in years, and you kind of forget how awful it really was. I’ve seen news clips of live coverage of the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, and it seems like the mood of shock, disbelief, and fear was much the same. Was it just one (or a few) people who would do these things, or was it something much wider and deeper? We’ve been told that in the case of President Kennedy’s assassination, it was just one man acting alone (though many question that). But in the case of September 11, of course, we have learned that it wasn’t just a few, it wasn’t even just the hijackers themselves, but an international network determined to bring western culture and civilization to its knees.

On the one hand we can be very thankful that our nation and the nations of the west have largely resisted the attempts to force us to succumb terror. We are more cautious, yes. But life, for the most part, has not come to a screeching halt. In that way, the terrorists have failed, and presumably will continue to fail, over and over again. The human spirit is just too strong and too courageous. But then on the other hand, we have entered into wars that seem to have no ending and that at this point make little sense, at least to me. I was watching the PBS Newshour not too long ago and they had an interesting piece about Afghanistan and what, if anything, the people there know about what happened here 10 years ago. Amazingly, really, few did. Their nation has been torn by armed conflict for a decade (actually much longer than a decade, but 10 years involving the United States), and yet many of the ordinary citizens have no idea what caused it, our part of the world is so far from theirs. When soldiers showed ordinary people pictures of the World Trade Center towers enveloped in fire and smoke, the Afghanis had no idea what it was, or even where it was. One man even asked if it was a photo of Kabul, since that was the only city he had ever even heard of. The solider narrating the piece joked: clearly the man had never been to Kabul, if he thinks it looks like New York City.

So, how do we make sense of that? How do we make sense of on-going wars that have brought so much destruction? It is believed that 2,977 innocent people were killed on September 11. It was horrific and we will never forget so much death and destruction brought in one wretched day. But in the 10 years since, 2,606 coalition forces have been killed in Afghanistan. About 24,000 Afghan forces have been killed. And anywhere between 14,000 and 30,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. I was not opposed to going into Afghanistan in 2001. I thought we should go after the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden. But now, a decade later, enough is enough. That’s more than 50,000 lives lost. Sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, spouses, friends, whose faces will never be seen again, whose voices will never be heard again, whose touch will never be felt again. I usually shy away from politics in my sermons. But sometimes, we just need to say, enough is enough.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in today’s gospel lesson Jesus calls us to forgiveness. And not just once or twice, but over and over again. Not 7 times, but 77 times, or in some translations, 70 x 7 times (that’s 490 times, for each offence). In other words, an infinite number of times. As people of faith, Jesus tells us, forgiveness has to be at the center of our lives. Forgiveness has to define who we are. And why do you think that is? Well, we could say it’s in part because it’s what God wants. And that’s a pretty good reason. But I think it’s also because Jesus knows that it’s good for us. He knows that unless we embrace forgiveness, we will live forever torn apart, consumed by hurt and anger, and possibly revenge. If we don’t forgive, we can’t move on. If we don’t forgive, we can’t live.

I think that’s the point in the harsh parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. One who forgives is able to go on with his life. But one who isn’t, who can’t forgive, is forever tortured. In the gospel it suggests that God does the torturing, but I don’t think that’s exactly how it works. I think we simply end up being consumed by our own anger and hard heartedness. God doesn’t need to do anything to us, because we’re plenty good enough at torturing ourselves, sometimes without realizing it. And sometimes I wonder if our nation has fallen into that same trap, as much as many of us do individually.

But let’s be honest. Certainly, I have had trouble forgiving slights more times than I would care to admit, and I suspect that you, too have at least once or twice lingered too long over some offense and missed the love and grace extended by others. It’s what we all do. But you know what, maybe Jesus calls for such extravagant, infinite forgiveness because he knows that it will take some of us 77 or 70 x7, or even an infinite number of times for his message to really sink in. But when it does, when we understand how to forgive, how to let go, how to move on, how to look forward, and not only backward, we experience again the grace and love that allow us to live. We are set free. In a very real and present way, we experience the power of the resurrection, over and over again.

So, today, in our thoughts and prayers we, of course, remember the events of that September 11 a decade ago--when hijacked airplanes killed thousands of people, and set into motion a chain of events that we couldn’t have anticipated on September 10. We remember the lives lost. We remember the courageous souls—firemen, policemen, and ordinary citizens like you and me, who put their own lives at risk to save others. We remember also those who were left behind, grieving for fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, partners, and friends. We hold them all in our hearts, and we trust that they are held in God’s heart, as well.

And while we are remembering that day, let’s also take time to remember a little further back, 2,000 years ago, when Jesus, God's Son, looking onto a world of broken lives and hurting hearts, looking onto a world as burnt and scorched as ours was on September 11, chose to embrace forgiveness, not revenge, and thus opened for us and for all people a future shaped by mercy, hope, healing, love, and new life. Because that's what forgiveness can do. That’s its power. It frees us to live. It frees us to look ahead, and not just back. It frees us to live now and in the future, full of hope and promise, full of new opportunity, full of resurrection.

May God give us all the strength, the courage, and the hope to forgive, and love, over and over again, so that we can live and grow, now and in the age to come.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Finding Hope in Norway

With people the world over, I have watched the news coming out of Norway with horror. Friday's bomb attack on the government's buildings was terrible and surprising enough in a country as peaceful and progressive as Norway. But the calculated, cowardly, and simply inhuman slaughter of more than 80 youth simply leaves one without words. These youth, members of the Labour Party (equivalent to the Social Democrats in other European countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Germany) were Norway's future leaders, gathering for inspiration, skill development, and camaraderie. Their loss is a senseless tragedy for their families and friends, and also for the whole nation for generations to come. To put this situation into some perspective, Friday's death toll is in fact a higher percentage of the Norwegian population than the September 11 terrorists attacks in the United States.

Since Friday a picture of the terrorist has emerged. Not Islamic, a foreigner or anything of the like, Anders Behring Breivik is a 32 year old blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian. And yet in a way, he seems to be the Norwegian mirror image of the terrorists who have become all too well known in recent years, embracing an anti-immigrant and fundamentalist world-view, willing to kill indiscriminately in support of their twisted outlook; although, in this case Breivik's fundamentalism is Christian not Muslim. It can be just as dangerous.

In particular, Breivik seems to have been concerned that in opening its borders to those seeking a better life, Norway was losing its cultural identity. Thus he sought to silence voices of tolerance and progress, not only for today but for tomorrow as well. His ultimate goal was to incite a Norwegian revolution, to make Norway truly Norwegian again. Like the murderous fanatics in previous generations, he looked to the day when Europe would be cleansed of its ethnic and cultural diversity.

In a 1500-page manifesto recently posted on-line Breivik wrote: "Multiculturalism is a tool of Islam; it is a disastrous ideology of false 'nice' that is used to stifle critical thought and open debate. Multiculturalism is a complete failure as it is used by our enemies to destroy us. Multiculturalism must be destroyed." Despite his apparent hatred of Islam, he ironically identifies with al Qaeda elsewhere in his "manifesto" when he writes, "Just like Jihadi warriors are the plum tree of the Ummah, we will be the plum tree for Europe and for Christianity."

While Anders Behring Breivik has taken matters to a horrific, deadly extreme, his views regarding immigration and multiculturalism are becoming increasingly common throughout Europe. In 2010 the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing anti-immigrant party, were elected to the Swedish Riksdag for the first time ever. While still a very minor party, they hold more seats than the Christian Democrats and the Left Party. In Denmark, the Danish People's Party (likewise a right-wing, anti-immigrant party) has enjoyed a much closer association with the ruling coalition and has steadily increased its vote share to become the third largest party in the Folketing. The Finnish True Finns Party has likewise risen to prominence. In 2011 the party won over 19% of the vote (up from just 4% four years earlier) and earned 39 seats to become the third largest party in the Finnish parliament. The True Finns differ somewhat from their anti-multicultural Scandinavian counterparts in that they embrace a leftist economic policy, while still strongly conservative on social issues.

Thus it is that under the progressive, social democratic surface, the Scandinavian/Nordic countries are struggling with what it means to be increasingly diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic societies. Observers of Scandinavia know that this has been true for some time, since at least the 1960s; however, the tempo has heightened in recent years with the rise of the internet and concern that welfare states do not have the economic strength to adequately support new immigrants as well as "ethnic" Scandinavians. Of course the vast majority of Scandinavians engage this struggle in the public sphere through respectful conversation and debate, abiding by the democratic process. However, combined with religious fundamentalism, and no doubt mental instability, the same struggle over what it means to be Scandinavian in the twenty-first century has led to deadly consequences beyond human imagining or comprehension.

The goal of a terrorist like Breivik is to generate such great fear that an open society like Norway closes itself off. This was the tactic employed by Hitler as well in his attempt to create a pure Europe, and thus far less successfully by right-wing extremists in the United States. But just as it ultimately didn't work for Hitler, it won't work for modern-day thugs like Breivik, either. Because for all of Breivik's apparent respect for Norwegian culture and Christian belief, he doesn't seem to understand that at the heart of the Norwegian (and Scandinavian) society and Christian theology is a profound respect for others, care for those who are less fortunate, and dedication to building a peaceable society in which there is room enough for all.

Alfred Nobel, the nineteenth century Swedish chemist who invited dynamite, was distressed when he realized that he would be remembered for discovering a faster way to kill. Thus in his 1895 will he established the various Nobel Prizes to celebrate and honor positive human accomplishments, and to be awarded without regard to nationality in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and peace.

Nobel was especially impressed by those who worked against militarism and war, and looked to make a contribution for the peaceful solution to international conflicts. Thus, he stipulated that the prize for peace should be awarded in Norway (at the time in political union with Sweden) because its history was decidedly less militaristic and more peaceful than Sweden's. In particular, at the end of the nineteenth century Norway's Storting (Parliament) was involved in efforts to resolve conflicts through careful mediation and arbitration. Nobel was impressed by this commitment and left a lasting legacy for the Norwegian people to honor and support it.

Speaking at the Oslo Cathedral on Sunday morning, Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's Prime Minister said:

"In the middle of all these tragic events, I am proud to live in a country that has stood firm at a critical time. I am deeply impressed by how much dignity and compassion I have seen. We are a small nation, but a proud people. We will never abandon our values. Our reply is: more democracy, more openness, and more humanity. But never naivity. No one has said it better than the AUF [Labour youth league] girl who was interviewed by CNN: 'If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together'."

It is this legacy and commitment to peace, and not fear-mongering murderous attempts to terrorize, that will give hope to the grieving people of Norway and the world in the days, months, and years to come.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Meanwhile in Massachusetts

One of the pleasures of living in Massachusetts is the opportunity to welcome friends from other parts of the United States, Canada, and even Europe to this place so rich with history and meaning. Among my favorite destinations is always the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. The way it uses artifacts and video footage to describe Kennedy's legendary presidency is nothing short of awe-inspiring. But that, of course, is because for many the Kennedy presidency itself was awe-inspiring, in its ability to speak to people across the world, in its ability to inspire young Americans, in its hope for a more free and just society. Kennedy's vision is as relevant today, 50 years after his inauguration, as it was then. Today, my friend Heather and I visited the museum and we were especially inspired by a moving poem written by Jacqueline Kennedy on the occasion of their first anniversary.

"Meanwhile in Massachusetts"
By Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

Meanwhile in Massachusetts Jack Kennedy dreamed

Walking the shore by the Cape Cod Sea

Of all the things he was going to be.

He breathed in the tang of the New England fall

And back in his mind he pictured it all,
The burnished New England countryside
Names that a patriot says with pride

Concord and Lexington, Bunker Hill

Plymouth and Falmouth and Marstons Mill

Winthrop and Salem, Lowell, Revere

Quincy and Cambridge, Louisburg Square.

This was his heritage -- this was his share

Of dreams that a young man harks in the air.
The past reached out and tracked him now

He would heed that touch; he didn't know how.

Part he must serve, a part he must lead

Both were his calling, both were his need.

Part he was of New England stock

As stubborn, close guarded as Plymouth Rock

He thought with his feet most firm on the ground

But his heart and his dreams were not earthbound
He would call New England his place and his creed

But part he was of an alien breed

Of a breed that had laughed on Irish hills

And heard the voices in Irish rills.

The lilt of that green land danced in his blood
Tara, Killarney, a magical flood

That surged in the depth of his too proud heart

And spiked the punch of New England so tart

Men would call him thoughtful, sincere

They would not see through to the Last Cavalier.

He turned on the beach and looked toward his house.

On a green lawn his white house stands

And the wind blows the sea grass low on the sands

There his brothers and sisters have laughed and played

And thrown themselves to rest in the shade.
The lights glowed inside, soon supper would ring

And he would go home where his father was King.

But now he was here with the wind and the sea

And all the things he was going to be.

He would build empires

And he would have sons

Others would fall

Where the current runs

He would find love

He would never find peace

For he must go seeking

The Golden Fleece

All of the things he was going to be

All of the things in the wind and the sea.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hairy Esau, Tricky Jacob, & the Purple Puzzle Tree: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

I grew up in a fairly (one might even say very) religious household. There were two big disadvantages of that upbringing: one was a fear of the angel of death in the movie the Ten Commandments and the other was that I could never watch as many cartoons on Sundays as I would have liked. There were never very good cartoons on a Sunday morning anyway, usually just old “Hercules” cartoons from the ‘60s, but then I wasn’t too particular. When I was really lucky, “Speed Racer” was on. But it was never really possible to enjoy it, since our house—probably a lot like yours—was a flurry of activity on Sunday mornings, with everyone trying to get cleaned up, dressed, maybe a bowl of cereal or peanut butter toast, and then piled into the car.

But our crazy religious upbringing was more than just church. My brother Andy and I had religious toys and books, too. We had a great Noah’s ark with lots of animals and Noah & Mrs. Noah (my favorite toys before there were Star Wars figures), who engaged in all sorts of adventures, often involving the bathtub, unexpected whirlpools, and calamitous encounters with Mr. Bubble. We also had a great set of children’s books called The Purple Puzzle Tree. The books were kind of tall and skinny, and came with a record narration. The reason for the name, Purple Puzzle Tree, is because the books say that after humanity’s fall into sin, the world was like a jumbled up purple puzzle that has to be sorted out and put back together. They covered many of the major stories from both the Old Testament and the Gospels; although, I only had the earlier Old Testament ones—up through Moses, I think.

Of them, the one story that stands out very clearly for me is Jacob and Esau, about whom we heard in our first reading. I haven’t seen the actual book in a long time (probably 30 years), but I can still picture some of its fantastic artwork. This week, as I was remembering it, I went on line to see what I could find and, what do you know, the stories are reprinted (and modernized a bit). You can even buy them on DVD. The one about Jacob and Esau was called “How Tricky Jacob was Tricked.” Here’s how it begins:

Now an old man called Isaac and his clever wife Rebekkah were very special people in God’s purple puzzle tree. And one day they had twins. The first twin was hairy, just as hairy as can be. He almost looked like a monkey or a chattering chimpanzee. So they called him Hairy Esau. The second twin was a clever kid and people said, 'He's a trick.' But the tricks he started playing were a dirty cheating game. That's why they called him Jacob, a name that means 'He cheats,' or maybe 'He's a stinker,' because he lies and steals.

And of course it goes on from there. This morning’s reading from Genesis tells the first half of Jacob and Esau’s infamous sibling rivalry, how Jacob forced Esau to give away his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. But it doesn’t tell the second half—the more dramatic story, of how tricky Jacob covered himself in fur and tricked their blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that was meant for Esau. Do you remember that story? Here’s how the Purple Puzzle Tree tells it, in a more creative way than I can:

Now Isaac was a very old man and his eyes were very blind. So Jacob and his mother planned to trick the poor old man and try to get the blessing, a very special gift from God meant for Hairy Esau. Listen to Rebecca as she whispers in Jacob’s ear: ‘Jacob, make your hands all hairy, and put on Esau’s clothes. If you can trick the old man’s eyes, I sure can trick his nose.’

Then Rebecca cooked a juicy goat just the way that Isaac loved it, wild and hot and spicy. Next she took the best clothes that Esau kept at home and dressed up Tricky Jacob as if he were his brother. When everything was ready Jacob went to see his father who was very, very blind.

Then Jacob knelt at his father’s feet and let him feel the hairy skin wrapped around his hands and neck. ‘You know,’ said Isaac, ‘Your voice today sounds like the voice of Jacob. But your hands feel just like Esau’s hands, so I’ll bless you anyway.’ ‘My blessing,’ said Isaac, ‘is a promise from God to me that you will be the next important piece in God’s purple puzzle tree. You are now the chosen man in the puzzle of God above. For you will one day rule a nation and show them God is love.’

There’s more, describing how Jacob himself is tricked, but that concerns readings that we’ll hear over the next few weeks. I loved these books for their ability to share important biblical stories and make the characters come alive in ways that a four or five year old me could understand. I suppose it’s a funny thing to imagine kids reading Bible storybooks for fun, but my brother and I did, when we weren’t too busy watching “Hercules” and “Speed Racer.”

What I didn’t realize then, of course, are the various themes or threads that run through the Bible. How the stories are really very similar, even if the characters and details differ. And one of the ways they are similar, especially in these dramatic Old Testament stories, is how the one who is chosen, the star, if you will, like Tricky Jacob, is not who you would expect. In particular, you would expect, because it’s the normal way of things—thousands of years ago and probably still today to a degree—that the oldest son would be the hero or star. Certainly it was the case in ancient society that the eldest son would inherit the best and be shown his father’s favor.

But have you ever noticed that time and again in the Bible it doesn’t work that way--even going all the way back to the first brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain was the older of two, but God favored Abel. So much so that Cain grew jealous and killed Abel. Later, Abraham had two sons—Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, the older son, is sent off to die in the wilderness, while Isaac is cherished. Isaac, too, has two sons—Esau and Jacob. Isaac favors his oldest, Esau, but Jacob tricks his brother and his father so that the birthright and blessing are his. Jacob has several sons, but his favorite is the younger—Joseph—whom he honors with the famous coat of many colors. His brothers are so jealous that they sell him into slavery. Later, Moses, a descendant of their family, is the younger son—behind Aaron and their sister Miriam. King David is the youngest son of Jesse, and Solomon is a younger son of David.

If it didn’t sound so irrational, I would say that many of the Bible’s stories were written by malcontent younger children, getting back at their older siblings for having to endure years of hand me downs, and being jealous of having to stay at home when big brothers and sisters got to go out with friends. I, of course, am biased, as an oldest child. But the evidence seems clear: while younger children in the Bible trick their fathers and get birthrights that belong to their older siblings, first children are often portrayed as jealous murders or hapless idiots who sell their birthrights for lentil soup. They sell their younger, more popular brother into slavery and are subject to the angel of death.

So, what’s up with that? Coincidence, or something more? If there really is a theme running through these stories, what is it? What does it mean?

Well, I think it means that the people God chooses to help put the jumbled up puzzle of our world back together again are not who you would expect. God doesn’t make the obvious choices. God doesn’t pick the ones with the best resumes or all the obvious advantages. He doesn’t pick the ones with special training who are being groomed for greatness. Rather, he picks messed up, ordinary, average people. People a lot like us.

Throughout the Bible we read of some really bizarre, messed up characters, who help to bring God’s kingdom to life. Some, like Jacob, are tricky tricksters. Others are less than faithful to their wives (sometimes they are even unfaithful to their many wives). They are often jealous. They betray their loved ones and make disastrously bad choices. But that’s all okay. Because God sees in them something positive that those in the world around them don’t see. God believes that through these very flawed, very human people, new life will come and grow. As it happens, Jesus thought the same thing about his rag tag group of disciples—both those disciples 2,000 years ago, and his disciples here and now today.

These crazy, unexpected stories running through the Bible remind us that even though God chooses us, and has hopes for us, he doesn’t expect us to be perfect. God knows that we are going to make bad choices and find ourselves feeling jealous sometimes. We won’t always be as fair as we should. It’s probably not the way it should be, it’s not how it would be in a perfect world, but then the world is not perfect. It’s jumbled up, like the purple puzzle tree. However, so long as we know that we can trust God and put our faith in him, he will put his faith and trust in us, to help him put that jumbled up puzzle back together.

Here’s how the story of tricky Jacob ends in my old children’s book:

But God loved lousy Jacob, despite his rotten tricks and gave him twelve strong sons. And God gave Jacob that blessing to be his chosen man in the very special plan called the purple puzzle tree.

May we, likewise, be leaves, or branches on that tree that gives life to the world.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrating independence, 235 years later

It probably comes as no surprise that Anglicans in the American colonies were conflicted when it came to the prospect of independence. Clergy, in particular, were forced to choose between the vows they had solemnly made at their ordination as priests of the Church of England and the hope of independence of their friends and neighbors. Many ended up fleeing to Canada or England. Some who stayed supported the struggle for independence, but others ministered to loyalists and even the king's armies. One such loyalist priest was Samuel Seabury, who ministered as a chaplain to the king's army. After the war, this former loyalist would be consecrated as the first bishop in the new United States.

The first American Book of Common Prayer was proposed in 1786. Strongly influenced by Latitudinarianism, it was unique in that (among other things) it omitted the Nicene Creed in the Communion liturgy, altered the Articles of Religion (reducing their number to 20), distilling the psalms to just 20, and including prayers of thanksgiving for American Independence. This Prayer Book was adopted by various dioceses, but never by the Protestant Episcopal Church as a whole. Indeed, it came under strong criticism for its deviation from the 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England.

When the first Book of Common Prayer was adopted by the full Episcopal Church in 1789, many of the innovations of the proposed book were reversed. Notably omitted were the prayers in thanksgiving for American Independence. Many Episcopalians, and especially clergy, felt that they could not in good conscience offer these prayers, as they had been opposed to the Revolution. In fact, prayers for the Fourth of July were not added to the American Prayer Book until the 1928 revision.

235 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it probably is safe for Episcopalians to give thanks for the blessings of this still young nation. In honor of this day, the following prayer from the proposed Prayer Book of 1786 is offered. Many of its sentiments and hopes are as appropriate today as they were in the days following the War of Independence.

O God, whose Name is excellent in all the earth, and thy glory above the heavens, who on this day didst inspire and direct the hearts of our delegates in Congress, to lay the perpetual foundations of peace, liberty, and safety; we bless and adore thy glorious Majesty, for this thy loving kindness and providence. And we humbly pray that the devout sense of this signal mercy may renew and increase in us a spirit of love and thankfulness to thee its only author, a spirit of peaceable submission to the laws and government of our country, and a spirit of fervent zeal for our holy religion, which thou has preserved and secured to us and our posterity. May we improve these inestimable blessings for the advancement of religion, liberty, and science, throughout this land, till the wilderness and solitary place be glad through us, and the desert rejoice, and blossom as the rose. This we beg through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Who's Testing Whom?: A Sermon on the Binding of Isaac

When I started seminary back in the stone ages of 1995 I became aware of a book that has shaped the way many read the Bible, or at least certain passages in it. It’s called Texts of Terror and was written in the mid-80s by a feminist scholar named Phyllis Trible. It focuses on biblical stories in which women are victimized, seemingly with the blessing of God. For the most part, these are stories that we don’t hear read in church, because they are so shocking, so far from how we would expect people of faith to act, and certainly far from how we would expect God to act.

Trible’s book has had a profound impact. She gave people license to wonder about whether the God that’s represented in certain stories really can be called God, or whether it is the construct of a people who valued (or disvalued) women and life in a very differently than we do today.

Trible doesn’t address the story of the Binding, and near sacrifice, of Isaac that we have just heard this morning, but I think it’s fair to say that it, too, is a “text of terror.” As you probably know, the customary interpretation is that God was testing Abraham, to see how much he loved God. God knew all along that he wouldn’t allow Abraham to kill Isaac (it says at the beginning of the passage that it’s a test), but he had to be sure that Abraham was worthy and that his faith was unflinching enough to become the father of God’s people. At least that’s what I’ve always been taught. But for a long time, I never gave it much thought, to be honest. Of course I knew that it was a difficult passage, but I was never too invested in it, one way or another.

But over time, my perspective about the Abraham and Isaac story has changed. I’ve moved from indifference to horror. Today, I am appalled by the suggestion that the God I am supposed to believe in behaves like a tyrant, playing with people and their emotions, testing their true loyalty, terrorizing them. Rather than love and compassion, rather than justice and hope, the God we find here is a lot like a medieval king, or maybe even the Southie mobsters in the news lately, demanding that people do whatever horrible thing they think up, to prove their faithfulness and allegiance. I know it sounds harsh, but it’s honestly the way I feel hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac.

And I would imagine that those of you who are parents feel just as strongly and probably exponentially more so. Just think: if anyone today were to act in the way that Abraham appears to have, claiming that God commanded that he kill his son, and attempting to do it, he would be locked up for life and we’d see coverage his trial on CNN. What’s more, it’s passages like this—calling people to swear unflinching allegiance to a god no matter what—that give rise to all sorts of fanaticism, in people like Jim Jones and his followers in Jonestown, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and most recently, of course, Al-Qadea.

The good news, though, is that the traditional interpretation of this passage is not its only or even its definitive interpretation. In fact, there is no definitive interpretation of any story in the Bible, because they are just that—stories. It’s up to us to figure out the meaning. So, maybe, there’s another way to read this story: a way that is less offensive and a little more hopeful.

Some of you may recall that when Anne Minton, your former interim priest, came back to Emmanuel last fall to lead a couple adult education sessions on Islam, she suggested that Christians and Muslims tend to read our respective scriptures in a way that our Jewish brothers and sisters don’t. We tend to accept things at face value, “what the Bible says is what it says” in a literal kind of way, while in contrast there’s a long tradition among Jewish rabbis of struggling with the text and finding new, different, and hidden meanings. It’s called “Midrash.” That Midrash tradition is really wonderful in that they are not afraid to argue with the text, to propose unusual readings, and even to wrestle with what it seems that God says. They try to fill in the gaps and imagine what was going on in the characters’ and God’s minds. They break a passage apart, especially a tough passage like today’s, so that some rays of sunlight can shine through.

Since the story of Abraham and Isaac was first a Jewish story, I thought we might look at what Jewish interpreters have to say. Now, many rabbis read it in much the way we tend to, as a test of Abraham’s faith. But others have suggested that there’s more, or perhaps that the test was different than we might first think. For example, some have suggested that Abraham must have been hallucinating if he thought that God would demand such a thing; others that it was God’s punishment of Abraham for abandoning his older son, Ishamael; some that Abraham really did kill Isaac, but that he was resurrected. And others still have argued that human sacrifice was so common in the age in which Abraham lived that the fact that God interceded to prevent it is what makes this story so profound, marking a shift in the way humans thought about God—toward a God who is appalled by senseless killing and human sacrifice, rather than demanding of it.

A contemporary Jewish scholar named Lippman Bodhoff, in Midrashic fashion, employs some creative thinking and suggests that perhaps God and Abraham are really testing each other—but not in the way you might think. To understand his point, we have to go all the way back, almost to the beginning of creation, and the story of the brothers Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons. You remember that Cain, who was jealous, killed Abel. God is appalled and decrees killing wrong. After the great flood, God reiterates that to Noah, saying: "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that one's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

Moving ahead several generations, today’s hero, Abraham, holds God to that standard when he intercedes for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah on the grounds that God’s plan to destroy the towns would have the consequence of killing innocent people. Abraham argues with God so persuasively that God promises to spare the towns if even five righteous people are found within them. Apparently there weren’t five righteous people, since God destroyed the towns anyway, but he did lead to safety the few who were righteous--Lot and Lot’s wife, and their daughters, though Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back against God’s command.

That brings us to this morning’s passage in which it seems that God is requiring that Abraham show his fealty by sacrificing his beloved son. This really puts Abraham in a bind, since he knows that what God asks of him is actually against God’s laws, as declared to Noah. Does Abraham comply with God’s order, horrific as it is, or does he follow God’s law? Bodhoff suggests that Abraham knows that he can’t kill Isaac, but he also doesn’t feel that he can argue with God again. He doesn’t want to test his luck and insult God, but he hopes that God will change his own mind.

And so, Abraham puts God to the test. He thinks to himself, I have found God and my tradition and experience have revealed Him and made Him known to me as an all-powerful, all-knowing, just and compassionate God. But I need to be sure that this is the God to which I truly wish to dedicate myself and my progeny and my followers for all time. If the God I have found demands the same kind of immorality that I saw in my father's pagan society, I must be mistaken. I must look further. To obey such a God is not a moral advance at all.” What he doesn’t know is that God is testing him, too. Only God isn’t really testing him to see if he’ll sacrifice Isaac, rather God’s testing (or tricking) to see if Abraham will refuse to do it, as he should.

After God’s command, Abraham is in no rush and takes his time getting around to it (he’s stalling, in other words). He has men accompany them on their journey, and when they get closer to the mountain he asks the men to wait for their return. Notice Abraham doesn’t say for “me” to return, but for “us” to return. It seems he planned to return with Isaac all along. As he and Isaac are making their way, Isaac asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice and Abraham responds that the Lord will supply it. Even at this late stage he trusts that God will not make him go through with this horrific plan.

Meanwhile, God watches in horror (just as we do) as Abraham makes his preparations. God wonders when Abraham will call it all off, when Abraham will fight back, like he did for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham stalls for as long as he can, waiting for God to call it all off, wondering what kind of God he had come to believe in, what kind of covenant he had agreed to follow. It’s a divine game of chicken, really, with poor Isaac caught up in the middle.

Ultimately, God flinches first. He tells Abraham to stop, to drop the knife, untie Isaac, and sacrifice a ram instead. God knew, of course, that he would never let Abraham take things too far. God appreciates and honors Abraham’s loyalty, but is also perhaps disappointed that Abraham didn’t fight back, that he didn’t protect Isaac, that he didn’t reiterate God’s law against murder. In a sense Abraham actually failed that test.

But not really, because God didn’t know that Abraham was testing God at the same time. You see, Abraham had no intention of killing Isaac. To do so would break one of God’s laws. If God had not intervened when he did, Abraham planned to drop the knife and abandon this cruel, false god, in favor of the true God who is actually loving and caring, the God who is life-giving not life-taking. But Abraham never really thought it would come to that. And he was right. In the end, both Abraham and God passed the test, in spite of themselves, so much so that God blessed Abraham and Isaac, and their descendants became greater in number than the stars in the sky.

Well, is this Midrashic interpretation any better than the traditional one? I don’t know. But it is in keeping with an ancient understanding of God—who did not read human thoughts, but who could be bargained with, and who put people to the test. Really, he’s a smaller, more human-like God than we tend to believe in today. In any case, it helps us to consider this passage in different way. It’s no more official than any other interpretation, but maybe it’s less offensive, since we know that neither God nor Abraham were willing to see Isaac killed.

Like Abraham and Isaac, throughout our lives we are asked to make choices and swear allegiances. We are told that some authority, perhaps even God, wants us to act in a certain way, when deep down we struggle with how this could possibly be true. If you heard any of the debate about marriage equality in New York this week you might have noticed that several Roman Catholic lawmakers said that they struggled with their church’s teaching on the one hand and what they thought to be right in terms of justice and equality on the other. While senators came down on both sides, several bravely said that they ultimately chose justice and equality over the church. It doesn’t mean that they love God any less, but perhaps that how God speaks to them may be different than they have traditionally thought. In a way, that’s what this new interpretation tells us that Abraham did as well. He wanted to know if the God he had come to follow was truly a God of love and compassion or not. He wanted to know if God would support him, sustain him, and bring him abundant life, and not only him, but also his son Isaac, and for all who would follow them, or if the god he had come to believe in was no better than all the other false gods that people before him had followed. In the end, both he and God chose right.

And that, I think, is our test, too. It is up to us to decide if something is of God, or some other authority, telling us it is God speaking, urging us to do or believe something, but is actually far from what the true living God would want. Sometimes we may even find those other voices speaking to us through the church or the Bible. Often, those voices seek to divide and hurt us, and those we love. But here’s the thing. We like Abraham, like the prophets, like Jesus, believe in a God of love, a God of compassion, a God of hope, and we can know with confidence and assurance that the true God will never terrorize us or ask us to make choices that call us to hurt those we love; rather, the only commands that God gives us will come from love and result in love, they will come from compassion and result in compassion, they will come from hope and result in hope. We know that because that’s who God is, it’s how God acts, and it is who God wants us to be. That’s the God I believe in, and I hope you do, too.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Belief, Doubt, & the Nicene Creed: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Some of you may remember that a few weeks ago I talked about how when I was applying for the rector’s position here I was also a candidate in a couple other searches. Those who are new to the Episcopal Church may not be aware that we follow a call process, by which the congregation selects its priest, rather than an appointment process where the bishop makes the decision for you (here the bishop has to approve the congregation’s choice, but doesn’t actually select the rector). You also may remember that I said I was disappointed when I was turned down for a glamorous position in Newton, after a somewhat disastrous phone interview.

Well, as it happens, that interlude was just as Emmanuel’s search process was picking up. So my distress didn’t very last long, because as I read Emmanuel’s search profile materials I started to be intrigued by this parish and most especially by what I read about your interest in focusing on adult education. That is such a rarity in so many churches, where there’s a strong education focus for children’s ministry (as there should be), but the adults are pretty much content with what they learned in church school or confirmation 20, 30, or 40 years earlier. But here, at Emmanuel, there’s a desire to learn and grow in faith. That’s why we came up with the tag line, “Come and grow with us” that we have plastered all over our building and printed materials. Because our deepest desire is to grow, not only in numbers, but also in understanding, in relationship with God, in community life.

So, a mission of mine has been to focus on adult education (along with worship and pastoral care). And we’ve had a variety of approaches and courses over the past three years—most recently on the Gnostic gospels. What I especially appreciate about these sessions is how open everyone is coming to a deeper understanding, not needing to agree with other necessarily, but certainly wanting to learn together and from each other.

Interestingly, conversations often veer back toward the Nicene Creed, I suppose since we recite it together every week. What does it mean? Why do we say it? Do we have to believe all of it? What if we don’t believe all of it? Since today is Trinity is Sunday, and since it’s really in the Nicene Creed that we find the Trinity articulated, I thought I might say a bit about the creed: where it comes from, why we say it, and what it might mean for us today. This might be a little dry, or a bit like an adult ed session (though unfortunately less interactive), but hopefully also interesting. And if it’s not, you can mentally work on your Father’s Day barbecue menu.

The Nicene Creed was formulated in the fourth century—the 300s—to articulate what Christians believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. It came about as a result of debates and disagreements over whether Jesus was fully divine—in other words equal to God—or maybe not quite equal to God. And whether he was fully a human being, or maybe just looked like a human being. Emperor Constantine was concerned that Christians were so divided over these issues that told the bishops to figure it out and come to an agreement, and that’s what Christians would believe. It’s an understatement to say that it was an exercise of top-down authority. Ordinary people like us had no say.

So, the creed was worked out in the much the same way that Congress passes laws. It didn’t descend from heaven on a cloud and it’s not written in the Bible. In fact, the only place in the Bible that mentions the Trinity in the way we do as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is this morning’s gospel. The bishops debated and argued and changed some words here and there to appeal to various groups, and then debated some more, and eventually came to the greatest agreement they could, with as many people as possible agreeing to live with whatever they decided on, but everyone was not always exactly happy.

The original version of the Nicene Creed was decided upon in the year 325 and was quite a bit shorter than the one we know. There was no mention of the Virgin Mary or Pontius Pilate. It actually didn’t even say Jesus was crucified. Or much of anything about the Holy Spirit. In it’s earliest form, it was simply an attempt to emphasize that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. But that wasn’t enough, and people started arguing that maybe the Holy Spirit wasn’t equal to God, so they called another council to deal with that issue, as well as to flesh out the finer details. They added those portions that we know, and finally approved it in the year 381. With that, the doctrine of the Trinity was born. And we’ve had it mostly as is ever since.

The purpose of the Nicene Creed was two-fold. First, it unified Christians, articulating what they believed (or should believe), especially about Jesus. And second, it was meant to exclude teachings, like Gnosticism, which the majority of bishops decided were wrong. For example, the Gnostics believed that the world was created bad, not by God but by a lesser being (obviously in contrast to this morning’s reading from Genesis in which we heard that God created everything and called it very good). The orthodox Christians won that debate and enshrined their belief in the creed when it says that the one God is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. The creed also excluded those who didn’t believe that Jesus was fully divine (Arians) and also those who didn’t believe that he was fully human (Docetists). In fact, anyone who couldn’t agree was thrown out of the empire entirely. I guess that’s one way to enforce unity, if a bit draconian.

In the 1630 years since the Nicene Creed was adopted Christians have been reciting it week by week all over the world, in our various languages. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans all say it every Sunday morning (and in some churches they even sing or chant it). As it was in the year 381, so today the creed is the single defining statement of the Christian faith. Everything else, really, is extra.

But here’s the thing: I know that some of us are able to recite it and believe every word, and some are not, feeling like they have to cross their fingers or take a deep breath during certain portions. Thankfully, it is no longer the case that any of us will be thrown out of the empire if we can’t agree to all of it. Nor will any of you be thrown out of Emmanuel Church if there are portions of it that you have a hard time saying. Even so, there are some find the creed to be exclusionary, because it tells us what we are supposed to believe, sometimes things that are very hard to believe. People even leave church because of it.

In my younger days I didn’t like it either, and I, too, had a hard time with several passages. But then, when I thought about it more deeply, I realized that in its own way the creed is actually kind of inclusive—or at least it can be. You know, when people come to Emmanuel, we don’t ask them what they believe or don’t believe. We don’t make any one sign a statement of faith. All we do here to confess our faith is recite the Nicene Creed. But if someone has a hard time with a portion of it, or if they don’t say part of it, that’s completely up to them. It’s no one’s business but his or her own. Maybe through reciting it together he or she, or you, will come to a greater appreciation and deeper understanding, and maybe not. But that’s okay, because if you’ll notice, it’s not necessarily saying that it’s what I or you as an individual believe, but what “we” as a church community together believe. What’s more, in the Episcopal Church there is no authoritative or official teaching to go along with the Nicene Creed. The Roman Catholic Church has a large catechism to explain everything, but we don’t. So, how we believe that Virgin Mary conceived or how the resurrection happened is open to a lot of interpretation. If you think about it, there’s actually a significant degree of liberality in that.

But just as important is the fact that what the creed covers is really very minimal. It basically addresses the Holy Trinity—who God is and how God relates to us—and that’s all. None of the other things the church gets so fussed about it is covered in any way. In 1996 the Episcopal Church determined that the Nicene Creed establishes the core doctrine of the church, which means that anything that falls outside the scope of the creed is open to debate, dialogue, and diverse belief and practice. This came about when some conservatives brought heresy charges against a retired bishop for ordaining a gay man to the priesthood. Well, the court of bishops who heard the case ruled that anything not related to the Nicene Creed could not be considered a matter of heresy. And of course the creed certainly doesn’t discuss who can be ordained (or married or anything like that), so the case was thrown out as without merit. It’s actually kind of ironic that the Nicene Creed, which was once used to exclude people, some 1600 years later was the basis for the church becoming more and more inclusive, and it has been ever since.

And so over the years, I have come to appreciate it more and more, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Today, I think of the creed as the skeletal structure of our faith. We each have bones and frames that look more or less the same, but the way we flesh them out, the way we bring them to life, is different for each of us. Some of us are tall, some short. Some thin, others not as thin as we’d like. Some have a deep rich skin tone and others like me are pasty white. And so it is with our faith. We take what has been handed down to us for nearly 2000 years and we interpret and express it in a multitude of ways. In fact, I would imagine that there are as many interpretations and expressions of the Christian faith as there are Christians in the world, and as there have been since Jesus called his first disciple. What unites us is not believing all the same things (because we never will), but sharing that common structure, that frame, the bones, which are really just beginning of a much deeper, richer, and livelier faith.

And you know what, that’s just as it should be. Because it is only together, when we all share our various and unique insights and perspectives, that we can truly come to who God is and how God is active among us. In fact, that’s why we have the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place, since God is known to us in diverse ways as Father, Son, and Spirit, as Creator, Redeemer, Giver of Life, as Mother, Liberator, and Friend. No single image is sufficient. We need them all.

So, the Nicene Creed is a wonderful start, expressing an ancient faith shared by Christians across time and space. But it’s always up to us to bring that faith to life in our own time and place. And that’s what we do here, when we pray and worship together, when we serve our neighbors, and when learn from each other. When we grow together in faith, spirit, and community.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell