The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons (Track 1)

Today our readings intersect with the Fourth of July. Which has the preacher wondering: how might the readings inform our celebration? The operative word is ‘wondering’; if these reflections prompt your own reflections, that’s more than enough.

In the collect we prayed “Lord God Almighty, who hast made all peoples of the earth for thy glory…” (BCP 207). That captures the surprising divine hopefulness in our readings, hopefulnesss in the face of profound human ambiguity.

David: throughout his career—most of which the Sunday lectionary necessarily skips over—his enemies have a habit of conveniently dying, David, like Pilate, always having clean hands. The text never accuses David, but it does give us enough information to force us to wonder about those clean hands. In today’s reading those hands are busy taking Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem? It gives David a power base independent of the decisions of the tribal elders: it is his city. Equally pragmatically, it, like Washington D.C., is a suitable national capital precisely because it’s not integrated into the tribal territories.

But what God hopes for in Jerusalem is reflected in Psalm 48: a very human city that witnesses to God’s protection, God’s loving-kindness, God’s justice. Humanity in God’s image: despite a very ambiguous human history that is already very long before David takes Jerusalem—Jericho was founded some 8,000 years earlier—God has not given up on human cities imaging God’s character.

And that human ambiguity has been equally on display in Corinth and Galilee. The Corinthian Christians: quite ready to trade in Paul for a newer, shinier model. Galilee: Jesus’ hometown has Jesus amazed at their unbelief. Nevertheless, Paul keeps engaging with the Corinthians, Jesus sends off his disciples to cast out demons, heal, proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.

God remains hopeful despite the human ambiguities—and that’s perhaps a model for us. God knows, there are enough profound ambiguities in our history, so much so that there are multiple arguments over how sanitized a version to present in our schools. But if the Old and New Testaments are any guide, we do not need to whitewash our past to be hopeful about our future. God, eyes wide open, retains hope, and so might we—also on this July Fourth.

From the Gospel: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” Repentance, absolutely necessary, gets tricky very quickly. We all have our lists ready-to-hand of what our opponents need to repent of. Calls to repent, to wake up, etc. easily become favored weapons in our rhetorical arsenals. But one of the many interesting things about Scripture is that it often treats the content of repentance as something needing discovery. Take Paul’s well-known words from Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So that you may discern

As a contribution to that discernment, let’s circle back to Paul. If we wonder why Paul is having problems with the Corinthians, recalling the social context helps. Three elements. First, honor (or glory—one’s reputation) was key in the empire. Honor (glory) is necessarily comparative: if you have more, I have less. So there’s a constant jockeying for honor. Second, honor is closely tied to occupation. Working with the mind is more honorable than working with the hands. Third, the social order was organized by patronage: wherever you were on the social scale, you sought to be a client of a more honorable (powerful) patron. You gave the patron honor, the patron gave you protection. And in Corinth all three of these elements seem to have been on steroids.

Had Paul conformed to this world, he would have become a client to one of the powerful local Christians. This would have meant not having to work, all the skids well-greased. Instead, he refused patronage and worked with his hands. The stench of his profession probably never completely disappeared. So his competitors—at one point he calls them the “super-apostles” (11:4) are eating better, dressing better, don’t stink, and certainly have more time on their hands.

That’s the trade-off Paul faced. Accept patronage, and any number of doors open easily. But accepting patronage in that context meant exempting society’s glory game from criticism, a game that placed too many in the category of poor, foolish, weak, and expendable, a game in which “Blessed are the poor” is absurd.

And that’s the trade-off Paul couldn’t make. He’d come to Corinth proclaiming “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). If that’s the starting point for envisioning God’s glory, then it’s our notions of glory that need revision. So Paul talks of having “this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7). And in today’s reading “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

God’s glory and our notions of glory: oil and water. So Jesus in the Gospel of John: “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? (5:44)

That’s a trade-off that we constantly face. Satan is, I suspect, quite happy for us to focus on inner peace and how-do-I-get-to-heaven-when-I-die if that leaves untouched the ways honor/glory are allocated here. Satan would have been quite happy for Jesus to have a long and peaceful career had Jesus been willing to leave the current honor/glory arrangements unchallenged:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” (4:8-10)

That’s the hard part about that prayer “who hast made all peoples of the earth for thy glory:” God meddles with our assumptions about God’s glory, about what glory looks like. ‘Meddles’ is maybe too weak a word. “Blessed are the poor;” “whenever I am weak, then I am strong:” what habits does the Spirit need to nurture among us to make these self-evident?

So, repentance. Our July Fourth celebrations typically celebrate the new thing that this nation claims to be. Perhaps repentance means wondering if we’ve taken “new” seriously enough. Perhaps there’s no road to something genuinely new that doesn’t pass through encountering Christ crucified as the starting point for our notions of glory and where to look for it. Otherwise, same old, same old. Been there, done that. Isn’t it time for something new? Let’s give July Fourth the celebration it deserves!

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