« Sermon for Proper 11 Year B First Option 7-22-18 | Main | Homily for Philip Burnham's Burial, 7-14-15 »

Sermon for Proper 10 Year B 1st option 7-15-18

Click here to listen to the sermon. 

Proper 10 Year B 1st option 7-15-18

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ps. 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

The earth is yours, O Lord, and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein. For it is you who founded it upon the seas and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep. Therefore, we will be stewards of the whole of it, in your name. AMEN.

This morning I preach to you from the ridiculously “long, loose-limbed & exalted” opening sentence of gratitude which makes up our passage for this morning from the Letter to the Ephesians, which our translators have broken up with punctuation, but which in Greek is all one long thought [L. William Countryman, New Proclamation Year B 2003]. The heart of the matter for this writer, who was probably an apostle of Paul’s, is: We are blessed with every blessing by God – no matter what we may feel or experience in the moment. The rest is all elaboration on how that blessing expresses itself. The writer piles clause upon clause to open for us “a vast world-historical, even cosmic context for God’s engagement with [and empowerment of] the Christian community” [ibid.]. God chose us “before the foundation of the world,” he says. God chose us to be “holy and blameless in love.” God destined us for adoption as God’s own beloved children, through the “grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved, [Christ our Lord].” That grace does not remove our capacity for wrong-doing, but it does promise us a liberating and empowering forgiveness, a release from our past. And if we set our hope on Christ, we will access “the word of truth,” God’s own wisdom and insight, revealing the mystery of God’s loving will for us and for all of God’s Creation, “things in heaven and things on earth.” We’ve been marked by the “seal of the Holy Spirit” to live “for the praise of his glory,” and participate in his “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is the hope – both cosmic & intimate – by which we are to live as followers of “the Beloved.” Nothing more and nothing less.

I’ve said in previous sermons that I am, in a sense, consolidating what I feel is most important to pass on to you in these, my last few sermons as rector of St. James’s, before my retirement on July 29th. Today, in service of this radiantly cosmic prayer of gratitude and adoration in Ephesians, so illumined with a promise of hope for a time in which it is tempting to give in to hopelessness or at least helplessness, I want to speak to you about my call, responded to over 10 years here and 17 before that as a priest in other parts of this Church, to be a “public theologian.”

I’ve never liked this term, “public theologian.” After all, what is its antithesis, a “private” theologian?!? Aren’t all theologians “public” in some sense: probing the nature of God in order to illuminate what we can of the mysteries for anyone who longs to come closer to God? To be spokespeople for the claiming of God’s blessing? But the more I read about the term “public theologian,” the more I’ve thought it apt for what the Ephesians writer is calling us to, and what I do instinctively: to bring my faith and its traditions into constant dialogue with the society, the academy, and the church, with science, economics, law, the market, the arts, and the media, and with other religious communities, in the conviction that that very grounded (and often messy) practicality can stretch for the full scope and reach of God’s plan for the fullness of time. That in fact theology MUST enter the mess and practicality of all of society and all of humanity – and indeed, all of the natural world – if it is EVER to work for and reach for the promised Kingdom – the Realm – of God. In other words, I cannot to let “religion” become a thing divorced from public life, but must recognize in Jesus a fellow “public theologian,” one who always saw the implications of what he taught both for the most particular person in front of him in their most particular context, and at the same time, for the widest possible society, all of it, without exception, held in God’s love.

Public theology has six characteristics:

1)    It is always incarnational: based in the conviction that Jesus in his humanity highlighted the dignity of all human nature by drawing attention to the spark of divinity at our center, we human siblings of his, which we all are by grace. Jesus’ divinity is GROUNDED in our humanity, so our humanity is holy, redeemed by God.

2)    Public theology is never meant to be confined to the church, but meant to be relevant to all people – all “publics!” Theology must always be concerned with all aspects of human society, and must be visible in the public sphere, not merely behind church walls.

3)    It is interdisciplinary, drawing from any and all fields of study. Nothing is outside its purview.

4)    It invites dialogue and critique with and from both church & society. Because there IS NO SECULAR WORLD. ALL IS SACRED.

5)    It takes a global perspective, because many issues of tremendous moral and spiritual import – immigration, or climate change, for example – affect many countries across borders.

6)    And public theology is PERFORMED, not merely PROCLAIMED. It develops and evolves as it expresses itself in action in the world. I cannot merely say “Jesus saves me;” I must live his commandment to love others as I love God and myself, and do so in active, visible, dare I say, “political” ways. [adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_theology]

So public theologians of a caliber entirely beyond my own, exemplars I would emulate, include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, Dorothee Soelle, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr.

As a public theologian, then, I cannot overlook our terrible Gospel story for today, no matter how much I might like to concentrate only on blessings in the Letter to the Ephesians. We can’t claim those blessings without grappling with this story, and this story is too resonant with events in the present to let it pass unexplored. A corrupt and vulnerable politician, the Roman puppet Herod, falls victim to the schemes of an even-more vulnerable politician, his wife Herodias, and gets maneuvered into the position of further violating any instincts – let’s not dignify them with the word “principles” – any instincts he had that John the Baptist, whom he was holding prisoner in the first place for being a rabble-rouser and disturber of the peace but whom he protected because he liked to listen to him, might be speaking truth in his condemnation of a corrupt society. At the mercy of everyone in this story is Herod’s daughter, also named Herodias, the little dancer at the story’s center. She’s in a classic “#metoo” bind: made to dance for the drunken king and his courtiers (one can only imagine the dance). Then, when the king, pandering to his “courtiers and officers and Galilean leaders” (who, in turn, are toadying him and fail throughout the story to make any objection to anything the king proposes) over-praises his daughter leeringly, the daughter has no idea what to do and asks her mother for advice. The mother sees her moment of opportunity to vanquish the critical John, and her gruesome request is transmitted back to the king by the hapless daughter. What trauma does that child suffer when, like a scene from “Game of Thrones,” John the Baptist’s head is delivered to her on a platter?!? No one comes out of this self-serving story looking good except poor John, head on platter and body delivered to his disciples for burial.

As a public theologian, it’s my responsibility to make clear that this horrific story – exposing dynamics that still plague us, from self-serving and short-sighted Chief Executives to fawning courtiers abandoning any responsibility for moral leadership, to the scheming of those who feel powerless, trying to use what little power they can leverage regardless of the consequences, to the sexploitation of women & young girls by those in the highest echelons of power – has far too much pertinence in our own day. And to point out its jarring contrast with the way of living implied in Ephesians’ beautiful opening blessing prayer: nothing here speaks of a life lived holy and blameless in love. Nothing hints at the operation of grace to redeem our faults. Nothing contributes directly to God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Except for one thing, which belongs not to this passage in Mark chosen for the lectionary today but to its wider context in the Gospel, Mark’s embracing Good News: and that one thing is that John’s death, horrific as it is, a gut-wrenching testament to the evils of unaccountable power, is not an end in itself, but is the signal to Jesus to step forward, full of the power of his baptism, and take up John’s cry for repentance, turning it into a mission of transformation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:15]

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God’s Realm is right to hand, my dear friends at St. James’s. You have been adopted into God’s own family to participate in that Realm fully, and NOW, by God’s grace. Wherever you have come from, whatever faith you may or may not have espoused, knowingly or unknowingly (because often we misinterpret our earthly willingness to love and to sacrifice, to admit wrong and turn again and try again to live in a way that serves the well-being of others as well as our own, as “mere secular conviction” when it’s as clearly the working of faith as anything done consciously in the name of Jesus Christ), whatever your past, whatever your appearance or orientation of being, YOU ARE BLESSED to be part of God’s greatSHALOM. As Philip Burnham – whose life we celebrated in his burial service yesterday – said in one of his very last poems, called “Liminal,” written only days before his death, open the portals of your heart to the “word of truth,” “the mystery of God’s will,” and “the Good News of your salvation” already achieved in Christ and merely now to be lived. And then, put your feet in motion to enact the mystery of love you find inside your heart’s doors, concretely, in the world. Is it to join our Sanctuary team and support the little Ecuadoran family at University Lutheran as the mom seeks to gain asylum? Is it to study climate science, in an era when our government wants to shut it down? Is it to support a prisoner with a life sentence as she seeks a college education? Or to lobby your legislature to undo the effects of mass incarceration, removing onerous fees or restoring driver’s licenses or the right to vote? Is it simply to show up for your fellow congregation members when they are ill or grieved and in need of company and a meal? Or sing in the Choir?!? Then learn what you need to learn from that action to amend your awareness of what love means and what love demands. And put your feet in motion and try again. By God’s grace. AMEN.