July 19, 2020

Pentecost 19 - Year A

 

You'll find a video of the entire service at

https://www.facebook.com/StStephensSLO/videos/285094606048238/

 

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

2020 July19_Berkeley

 

Proper 11 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley D Johnson III

 

Good Morning! This pre-recorded video sermon represents another first for me in what has become a series of firsts over the past several months.

 

As many of you know, my thirteen-year tenure as your Canterbury Chaplain is coming to a close, and I can now share with you the expectation that my successor will start on Aug 1st. Things have not quite been finalized yet, but that is my understanding, which means this is likely my last sermon in my capacity as Canterbury Chaplain. But Fr. Ian has been very generous about inviting me to preach, so I expect this relationship to continue into the foreseeable future. Thus, you may still be stuck with me for a while longer.

 

In terms of recognizing and honoring the work Canterbury has done over the past thirteen years, obviously, we won’t be able to meet in person to celebrate that. What we will do however is gather virtually on Zoom, and invite former students and anyone else who would like to join us to share stories and remembrances of this ministry. As we’ve seen with other endeavors during this pandemic, meeting virtually will in fact allow more people to join us than would have been possible had we just tried to meet in person; and it’s my hunch that this lesson is one we will continue to incorporate into future planning sessions and meetings even after we get through this difficult time.

 

Turning to today’s readings, like many of you, I’ve heard sermons over the years on the well-known story of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis and Matthew’s famous parable of the wheat and the tares in the Gospel.

 

I’ve also had two opportunities to preach since the pandemic began, and Fr. Ian has been doing some pretty prophetic preaching as of late as well in response to all that our society and world is currently going through.

 

Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to focus on the second reading from the 8th Chapter of Paul’s famous Letter to the Romans, as it contains some beautiful kernels for us to contemplate, as well as what I find to be a perplexing, potentially problematic verse about the creation being subjected to futility by the will of the one who subjected it (a Paul-ism if ever there was one), which I will seek to address later.

 

But the main image I want to
leave you with today from this
lesson is the already/not yet
tension we see throughout
these verses.

 

So often, we think of salvation as a future event only, and not something that has already occurred. I think it can drastically alter not only our understanding of salvation, but hopefully the way we live our lives and relate to one another and creation, if we can also understand salvation as something that has already been accomplished and has already taken place.

 

To be sure, today’s Gospel lesson can strike fear and anxiety into us: Are we the wheat? Will the angels come to collect us? Have we been good enough? Or are we going to be thrown into the furnace of fire and end up weeping and gnashing our teeth?

 

So it’s interesting that we have this lesson from Paul, which tells us that in and through Christ we have already received – past tense – a spirit of adoption; that in and through Christ we already have the first fruits of the spirit; and that in hope, and through Christ, we were saved.

 

So I want to encourage us to try that on:

let’s try living and responding
and perceiving and encountering
creation and others as if these
words are true, and we believe
them, and that through Christ’s
work we already possess these
divine gifts and attributes.

 

How does that change the way we live and interact with each other and the world? If it is in and through Christ that we have already received a spirit of adoption, then why would we put on a spirit of slavery and fall back into fear? I mean, it’s a legitimate question, right? And yet, there we are, at many times in our lives, wondering if we’ve measured up, as if there were something, anything we could do, to earn God’s favor.

 

Of course the fear some people have, if you tell them this, is that well, then, are you saying it doesn’t matter how we act, if we’re already saved? I guess we can do anything we want with that freedom since it doesn’t matter, because we’re already saved.

 

Which is where the “not yet” tension creeps in; because we are indeed still awaiting something; we are indeed groaning inwardly as we wait for adoption and the redemption of our bodies; and we most certainly are now suffering with Christ while holding onto the hope that one day we may also be glorified with Christ.

 

So if you’ve never read the epistles from the perspective of looking for that already, but not yet, tension, I would encourage you to do so and to keep an eye out for it; because if our actions are based solely on our hope for a future reward – salvation – instead of seeing how we live and how we treat creation and the people around us as our grace-filled response to our salvation in Christ – then I worry that we will always be perceiving ourselves as falling short.

 

And in saying this, I am reminded of the Dennis the Menace cartoon, where they’re sitting in church, and the plate is being passed, and Dennis’ father is putting the envelope into the plate, and Dennis is pondering the whole situation and looks up and asks, “So Dad, is this buying us a ticket to heaven?”

But what of the difficult verse I mentioned earlier? And if you don’t have the text in front of you, the problematic portion, for me, anyway, of verse 20 reads…”for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it…”

 

Did anyone else stumble over this? Did anyone else wonder, well who is the one who subjected the creation to futility? And the three choices seem to be God, Adam (or one of the other participants in the creation story), or Satan. And the majority interpretation is that it must be God, because of the clause that follows, which says that it was subjected “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” and only God could or would have subjected it in that hope.

 

And I have to tell you, the reason I am struggling with this verse, I mean, you have heard me preach a number of times and I don’t usually, if ever do this; but if, as the majority of interpreters suggest, Paul is saying that God subjected all of creation to futility because of what Adam did, then I’ve gotta tell you, I have trouble standing here and preaching that message. To me, that rings of God’s retributive justice. And while I acknowledge that strand of scripture exists, you all know I stand much more in line with John Dominic Crossan, who emphasizes God as a householder who is concerned with distributive justice.

 

And taken a step further, the idea that innocent beings, created or brought into existence through no volitional act or will of their own, are being subjected to futility and decay because of the actions of another, is beyond even the idea of retributive justice, since they didn’t do anything wrong, and it is thus contrary to any redeemable theology, isn’t it?

 

Indeed, the passage reads like the subjection of creation to futility and decay is a response to, or punishment for, something that happened, namely Adam’s transgression or disobedience. Thus, it reads to me, like the very reward/punishment theology we often see out there that doesn’t square with reality, or even with Job, for that matter.

 

One thought I had as I struggled with this verse is that perhaps it’s Paul’s somewhat less than helpful attempt to address the question of theodacy, or why bad things happen in a world that was created by God and deemed to be good.

 

In other words, it’s an explanation of why things are the way they are.

 

Oftentimes, when I am sitting with hospice patients, the subject of reward and punishment comes up, especially as people wonder if something is happening, or has happened to them, as a punishment for something they did.

 

So, I am adept at untangling that reward/punishment theology we impose on ourselves – which people do largely understand and accept is contrary to what the Bible teaches (especially in Job) and doesn’t really conform with reality – and replacing it with the idea that things more or less happen as a result of our actions or inactions; that God in Christ is certainly always present and acting in our lives, but exactly how that happens remains a mystery, represented in the space between God’s and Adam’s fingers in Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

 

So, result of, rather than reward or punishment for, is usually how I state it.

 

And perhaps that is the better way to read what Paul is saying here: that things are messed up as a result of our behavior, our disobedience, our neglect, our sinfulness, our greed… the list goes on….Certainly, we can see this pandemic as the result of environmental degradation we have caused, and Black Lives Matter as the result of white supremacy.

 

That’s why, I believe, Gospel lessons such as we have today can invite that reward/punishment anxiety to creep in, and cause us to wonder, question, or worry whether we are going to be harvested as wheat, or kindling for the fire; whereas real spiritual maturity, and a deeper reading of these lessons, leads us to understand that we already have been saved, that we already have received the spirit of adoption, and now we just need to go out and live like it and into it. And doesn’t that just change everything about our perspective and how we might live our lives, how we might interact with others and creation, and the choices we might make along the way.

 

“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

 

Amen.

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