Monday, January 25, 2010

February 7, 2010. The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

© 2010 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Thank you, O God, for setting us free from the bondage of our sins. Thank you for the liberty we already have in the abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns ... etc.

One of the ways we can most surely remain in bondage to our sins is continuing to confess the same ones over and over again as if we believe that Jesus’ action at Calvary was not enough to cover them.

Once you get the knack of it, feeling worthless or of no account is easier than being a joint heir with Jesus Christ.

Today might be named “’Called by God’ Sunday. Isaiah is called. Saint Paul is called. Jesus calls his disciples.

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]

Isaiah’s call is not one for the faint hearted: hot coals cleanse his lips.

The message he is given to preach is no less dramatic, even if less well known:

`Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed."

Sometimes it seems that this prophecy has already been massively fulfilled, that the mind of this people is indeed dull, that their ears are closed and their eyes shut.

Isaiah begins by talking to the people, but immediately distances himself to talk only about them. He tells the people, "Keep listening...."; then he tells God, “Make the mind of this people dull.” That’s the way curses are expressed. The ones cursed or condemned are forced to become eavesdroppers.

Isaiah’s prophecy demonstrates that it is perfectly all right for us to get exasperated with the world order -- its politics, our ecclesiastical structures….. God does too.

The rhetorical strategy is to try to prompt repentance by suggesting that it is no longer possible. “God has already given up on you” is meant to rally the one addressed to say, “God has not given up on me. I will show you….”

Yet how often can the prophet say the sky is falling without becoming Chicken Little?

How often can one use this rhetoric before it loses its efficacy?

How long can we demand repentance of our collusion with Global Warming? Are the dire conclusions now inevitable?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is not a ‘theory’ nor a prophecy per se; it is a ‘law.’ Laws are inexorable.

But for the time being, might the prophecy of doom lead to behaviors that postpone the doom, as Jonah’s prophecy did for Nineveh?

Psalm 138

I love to watch for shifts in grammatical point of view in the psalms. The first four verses of Psalm 138 are pointedly in the first person singular:

I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise….

Verse five shifts to the third person plural:

All the kings of the earth will praise you, O LORD, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth. …

Verse seven shifts to the third person singular:

Though the LORD be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.

The psalmist has noted that the high and mighty from everywhere will praise God, but then notes that God is not impressed with the high and mighty, certainly not if they are stuck up.

Next, without warning, as so often in the psalms, verse eight shifts to the second person point of view, so that the psalmist, or any reader, moves into direct conversation with God.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; *
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.

If you are a Marxist looking for how the opium works, you can point to how the reader is suckered in, how unawares the reader moves from commentary about God to conversation with God.

If you are a believer, you can point to the same rhetoric as a tool for the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Saint hedges a bit here from his claims elsewhere that our salvation has already been accomplished. Here the form of the verb is ‘progressive,’ ongoing, with a hint that it may not remain so for the one who stops believing it:

I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain.

Even when some translate the verb as “are saved,” the final clause, “if….” sets some conditions on whether the action of salvation is an irreversible act, or whether we have properly concluded that someone is saved if later the person does not hold firmly to the message.

Next Saint reviews the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, concluding with an abbreviated reference to his Damascus road conversion (also told three times in the Book of Acts: 9:1-19; 22:6-16; 26:12-18).

Saint indulges in a bit of double-speak. He does not want to boast (“For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” but he wants to make it quite clear that in comparison with the other apostles, he “worked harder than any of them.” Then he backtracks “--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Then, aware that he’s not speaking too clearly while on the witness stand, he muddies his testimony: “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.”

How good that Saint did not have a PR person on staff. Even if you don’t like it, his humanity keeps sticking out, often in spite of himself.

Luke 5:1-11

We would pack our congregations for every service if we could pull a trick like this one to draw them in. We would not need to take out ads in the big newspapers; the big newspapers would be carrying the story as news. It would be shown, live if possible, on the 7 o’clock news. “St. Swithin’s helps fishermen catch more fish than they have ever caught before, helps doctors heal more patients than they have ever healed before, helps teachers to have more pupils who win the biggest prizes……."

Note how the story does not end. They do not take their huge catch to the local market and multiply their usual profits. They do not set up franchises for The World’s Best Catch all over the Mediterranean. Instead, “they left everything and followed him.” Jesus is true to the word he spoke to Simon: “From now on you will be catching people."

“From now on”…. like right now too.

In all three great “Call” texts today, those called are sent with a teaching mission. Isaiah prophesies “Make the mind of this people dull” in the hope of quickening them. Saint makes disciples among the gentiles all over the Mediterranean. The original twelve also fish for disciples.

At General Convention in Anaheim, we participated in a project called Public Narrative, by which each deputy and bishop practiced the art of telling her or his call story. Each of us told those gathered at our table about an experience that drew us to Jesus and then took us to the world. As we told our own narratives and as we listened to the narrative of others, we reconnected to the most important dynamism of mission, the movement of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, in our own time. We treasure the “old, old story” much more vitally when we experience God’s presence in our own narratives.

Jesus came not only to save us; he came to save the whole world.

As a child I learned two important hymns in primary Sunday School: not just “Jesus loves me, this I know….” but also “Jesus loves the little children, all the children just like me [No!] all the children of the world, red and yellow black and white, we are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” All of us!

That’s quite a gospel to sneak into a Baptist church in 1936 deep behind the Cotton Curtain in apartheid Alabama. My hometown, Anniston, Alabama, was later the site for burning the freedom rider bus.

That’s quite a gospel to sneak into an Episcopal Church when the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained in 1974.

That’s quite a gospel to sneak into the Anglican Communion when +Gene Robinson was consecrated in 2003.

See also

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