August 9, 2020

Pentecost 10 - Year A

 

You'll find a video of the entire service at

https://www.facebook.com/StStephensSLO/videos/2985761238217399/

 

Click here for the Worship Booklet  and Hymnal & Psalter for August Sundays after Pentecost.

 2020 Aug9_FrIan

Proper 14 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

Deception – the Bible is full of it. Jacob’s life is told by recounting one deceit after another. The beginning of the Joseph story is another one of deceit.

 

Deceit/Deception makes a good story. It makes good films: Shakespeare in Love (and many of Shakespeare’s plays in general) and even noble stories like Schindler’s List. Deceit is even a theme in children’s films: Pinocchio (of course), The Lion King, and even the beloved Frozen. Both daytime and prime time soap operas require deceit, otherwise we would be watching overly affluent characters living the same mundane lives that we are except with bigger houses and domestic staff. And if you watch your favorite prime time comedy, you may very well see that each week’s story line is based around a deceit of one or more of the characters. The situations around not getting caught produce the comedy. Reality TV thrives on deceit!

 

The story of the great and powerful Nation of Israel that will dominate the rest of the Old Testament and lead to the present-day Israel is unfolding in today’s First Lesson. Joseph is the next instrument in the fulfillment of the promise made to Jacob. And like Jacob’s story, Joseph’s story begins with deceit.

 

Deceit in the Bible, books, TV and movies, and in real life is usually related to gaining power or covering up inadequacies or both. We all have examples of this in our own lives and in what we read in the news. During normal times, there are persons, organizations and institutions which deliberately try to deceive the general public, and the vast majority of us can navigate our way around that.

During the pandemic, the drive to deceive us has only gotten stronger. Much of this deceit is intended to divide us as a nation. Where do we find reliable information about systemic racism? About wearing face coverings? About who can contract and transmit the coronavirus? Whether or not schools should re-open? About going to your favorite restaurant? There are indeed reliable sources out there, and there is a proliferation of obvious junk. But there is also the occasional tidbit that is just enough to sow the seeds of doubt.

 

The United States has one of the most, if not the most, unrestricted free speech rights in the world. It is a right that I cherish and often defended abroad. As a result, we no Federal hate speech legislation, and we have a very difficult time curbing lying and deceit in social media and the news media in general. Personally, I think the latter is linked to the trend in America of not trusting science.

 

Let’s go back to a talk I referenced a couple months ago by UC Santa Barbara History Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Burton Russell entitled “The Myth of the Flat Earth” delivered on August 4, 1997 at the American Scientific Affiliation Conference at Westmont College.

 

The [myth of the flat earth] was established, almost contemporaneously, by a Frenchman and an American…One was Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848), an academic of strong antireligious prejudices who had studied both geography and patristics and who cleverly drew upon both to misrepresent the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers (1834). The American was no other than our beloved storyteller Washington Irving (1783-1859)

 

The flat earth myth was invented to deceive people that Christians didn’t believe in science and therefore could not be trusted…and it stuck. Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, similar myths and the concept of pseudoscience in the United States proliferated. This, of course, was a time of great scientific advancement in both Europe and the United States. It was a time when many believed that religion and science were amicable bedfellows, but scientific advancement was challenging that. So, in comes pseudoscience as a way to maintain a legitimate link between science and religion, and thus the proliferation of some very bizarre ideas.

 

But why? And why here? Because we’re a nation founded on democratic principles where power, knowledge and innovation should not and cannot be concentrated in an elite few. But real science in the 19C was limited to a small few, and political and social ideology made it easy for “scientists” on the margins to generate a raft of postulations, and pseudoscience was born. Quoting then-Harvard doctoral candidate in History Robert MacDougall [1] on the egalitarian approach to 19C science, we see how pseudoscience is uniquely American:

 

Let the people judge the truth
they said, not the elite few.

 

Fortunately, a Pew Research survey last year showed that trust in scientists is up, and 86% of American adults have confidence that scientists act in the interests of the American public. Though, I personally wish it were higher…and I suppose it depends on what the science is intended for.

 

So, that tangent into the flat earth myth and pseudoscience was to illustrate how, not only is deceit part of our daily lives, there is an uniquely American history of deceit that is much more insidious than the bold-faced lie. As in the lives of both Jacob and Joseph, the deceit is credible.

 

So, if we are surrounded by deceit, how do we have faith not only in our institutions, but in our God? Was Peter’s doubt, his lack of faith in Jesus’ promise, borne out of having been deceived repeatedly throughout his life? That would seem a reasonable excuse for Peter’s inability to accomplish what was asked of him. Was Jesus illustrating to Peter – or Matthew illustrating to us – that Jesus is the only person who does not have the potential to deceive us? That would seem a fundamental pillar of our faith as Christians.

 

Today’s Bible readings have us wedged between two seemingly competing narratives. The first is that we are moving deeper and deeper into the story of God’s Chosen People, Israel. This is a tribe that is exclusive of others all throughout its history. There are particular physical, spiritual and ontological characteristics by which a person of this special tribe can be identified:

  • Circumcision (for men)
  • Monotheism
  • Living Torâh

Additionally, it’s a system of matriarchal lineage: a person is most often born into Israel, not a convert.

 

The second is that we are being called to put our entire faith in the Divine Person of Jesus Christ, the characteristics of which are not visible: repentance, Baptism and faith. Membership is not necessarily blood-related.

 

Which is the real faith?
The tangible one or the
intangible one?

 

Paul’s very confusing Ch10 – which actually begins at the end of Ch9 – attempts to bridge these two pathways to God – or justification or salvation. Paul is basically trying to have it both ways while at the same time illustrate mutual-exclusivity. This chapter, referred to as “Israel’s failure explained”, has scholars confused and conflicted. But one thing is clear: these descendants of Jacob, Israel himself, are not being deceived by Jesus, and their choosing not to believe in, confess and call upon Jesus as the Messiah will not go unnoticed by God.

 

So, are we being deceived? Is not following The Law because it has been fulfilled by Christ a deception that will leave us unsaved? Would following The Law to hedge are bets leave us without enough faith to accomplish what Jesus has in store for us? Or do we blend it all up into one big pseudoscientific theory?

 

Let me bring in Professor Russell again:

 

The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?” But that is not the truth.

 

Both Matthew and Paul were trying to untangle something of that nature in the conflict between the unconverted Jew and the Jewish Christians, and following The Law or Jesus, respectively. A lot of “pseudoscience” was being made up about these new followers of Jesus.

 

For us today, we have the benefit of not only 2,000 of scholarship, but 2,000 years of prayer, contemplation, reflection and very importantly, interfaith dialogue. We know that quick fixes, feel good gatherings and prosperity Gospel are snake oil, flea circuses and false prophets.

 

What Jacob, Joseph, Paul and Peter had in common was a faith in God, one that was so strong, that they stayed committed even when times go rough. Being an Israelite, a Jew or a Christian has never been and is not easy. It is a journey of constant discernment. It requires fostering one’s relationship with God, which includes fostering relationships with God’s people. It involves being authentic and vulnerable.

 

Jacob, even in his repeated deceptions of others, remained vulnerable. Joseph in his trials and tribulations in Egypt remained vulnerable, as did Peter and Paul. Being vulnerable does not mean being weak. According to fellow Episcopalian and Endowed Chair at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, Brené Brown, you can’t have courage without vulnerability. She states:

 

“What most of us fail to understand...is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.

 

Our society thrives on deceit. But we don’t have to be a part of that.


Our faith in Jesus calls us to open
ourselves and to be vulnerable…
vulnerable to God’s
immeasurable love.

 

Then together, we can pick out the seeds of deceit that litter our path to love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. And once we can push away the murkiness and see our path clearly, perhaps we, too, can walk on water.

 

Some source materials:

 

https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/12/key-findings-about-americans-confidence-in-science-and-their-views-on-scientists-role-in-society/

 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7141687/

 

https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science

 

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/21stC/issue-3.4/macdougall.html

 

[1] Robert MacDougall is now Associate Professor of History at Western University https://history.uwo.ca/People/Faculty/macdougall.html

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