Sermons by Katherine Ragsdale

Occasional Sermons by Episcopal priest, Katherine Hancock Ragsdale.

Location: Massachusetts

you can always google me at "Katherine Ragsdale" OR "Katherine Hancock Ragsdale"

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Advent III, 2006 (Dec. 17)

One of the older heresies of the church is Marcionism (not “tian” but “cion”). Marcion asserted that there were two Gods – the "Old Testament" God and the "New Testament" God. The Old Testament(sic) God, he said, was a god of wrath, judgment, and vengeance and violence while the New Testament God was a god of love and mercy and salvation. And Marcion insisted,the New Testament God had prevailed over the Old Testament God and, therefore, we ought not even to be reading about the dead, overcome, Old Testament God.

There’s nothing like today’s readings to turn Marcionism on its head. Listen to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,

(Zephaniah 3:14-20 NRSV)

And from today’s psalm (85):

You have been gracious to your land, O Lord,*
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
You have forgiven the iniquity of your people*
and blotted out all of their sins.
You have withdrawn all your fury*
and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.

No love? No mercy? No joy? No salvation? Really? And that’s the God Marcion said was only about judgment and wrath. Listen to what that God promises.

And then, on the other hand, we have the reading from the New Testament, which is supposedly full merely of the love and mercy and joy and kindness of God. We get, from the Messiah’s herald, John the Baptist, “You snakes. You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come? It will do you no good, for even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree, ready to chop down all those who do not bear good fruit – the fruit of repentance and righteousness – and cast them into the flames. The axe is there and ready to go. You are doomed. God is coming back to gather the few faithful and the rest are destined to be burned as on a trash heap.”

This is what we get today in the New Testament – where we don’t have to encounter a God of judgment and wrath! But, ok, having demonstrated the fallacies of Marcionism, let’s put it away and see if we can figure out what all this means for us. Because the reason Marcionism was deemed a heresy in the first place was that the Church, in its collective wisdom, determined that the truth is to be found not in any one simple message but in the bringing together of these different, often complex, sometimes contradictory messages and trying to make sense of them as they fit together.

So let’s look just at these readings appointed for today and see what we might learn from trying to fit them together.

First, we have Zephaniah saying to the people who had been suffering and outcast and were now entering the reign of one who was allowing them to worship God and to keep the law, “ Rejoice, Israel. Look, I am bringing you home where you will be allowed to keep the law, allowed to be the people I created you to be, allowed to bear the fruits of righteousness, allowed to be my people.”

And we have John saying, “We are called to bear good fruit.” After screaming “You brood of vipers, the axe is laid at the foot of the tree” to the very people who were following him around looking for hope, they looked at him, a bit dumbfounded I’d guess, and said, “Well, ahhhhh, uhhhhhh, what should we do?” And to the whole lot of them he said “ Well, for starters, you who have plenty, share with those who don’t. If you have two coats – you can only wear one at a time; give the other to someone else. And if you have more food than you can eat, share it with someone else. If you have more than you need, share it, because until we all have what we need, none of us can be saved.”

That’s the basic message – for the general public. But then the scourge of the earth were also there seeking the way – the tax collectors. {A boo, hiss from the congregation. Preacher laughs and responds – sure go ahead, a little rehearsal for Purim over here – boo the bad guys.} And these were the bad guys. The tax collectors weren’t just the IRS – collecting taxes that we resent paying sometimes, but know they’re going to help other people… no these tax collectors were private contractors of the Roman Empire. (Some of this may sound familiar to you in other, more modern contexts).

The Roman Empire occupied Israel. They had come in and defeated them, abolished their government, and were occupying their land. And they levied taxes against them. But, rather than collect those taxes themselves, they sub-contracted out to private enterprise. And those private contractors, oddly enough, made as much money for themselves on the deal as they possibly could. They went in and were allowed to charge anything they wanted, exorbitant amounts, as long as Rome got its share. So the tax collector could for example go to Courtney here, whose taxes Rome had assessed at $1 and require her to pay $50, send the $1 to Rome, and keep the other $49 for themselves – the cost of doing business. (I know it sounds absurd to imagine that private enterprise would do something like that – but that’s what they were doing.)

And they were despised for it. So they asked, “How about us?” For who would expect that the God of Israel would save them at all after what they’d done? And John said simply, “collect what is owed and don’t use your position to take advantage of others. That’s enough.” And then the soldiers came. Not soldiers of Israel; Israel had no army. The soldiers of the occupying force. The soldiers of Rome came – the occupier – and said, “How about us? Can we possibly be saved?” And John said, “Don’t use your superior strength to bully, terrorize, or extort. It may even be true that you are underpaid but take that up with Rome. Where you are, as the occupier, settle for the wages Rome gives you. Don’t steal, Don’t take more from people who are completely under your control and your power.”

John said, the axe is lying at the root of the tree but there are things you can do to change your lives to get salvation. Because John kept coming back to salvation. John echoes for us Revelation, that apocalyptic book that says the world as we know it is coming to an end. But he also echoes that part of Revelation that says, “and Empire cannot save us.” And self-absorption cannot save us. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us and God has saved us. We have only to claim it and, in doing so, to produce the fruits of righteousness.

But that’s a hard message. For, in the very act of saving us, God severs us from the false gods of empire or self – which can be uncomfortable and frightening. Empire causes, not resolves, the violence, injustice, and oppression which hold us in bondage – in hell --and which God’s wrath will destroy. And self isn’t big enough to save the world – and to save merely ourselves is intrinsically impossible. Self-fulfillment will make us neither happy nor fulfilled. When God’s new life brings an end to injustice and oppression, to idolatry of empire, power, money, celebrity, pleasure… those of us who depend on those things will lose our foundations.

That’s the warning. The Good News is – those were never stable foundations anyway and we’re offered an alternative. There is Hope in John’s promise. But it’s a promise that leaves us nothing to rely on but God and, as we talked about last week, it’s hard to rely on God in the period of waiting. We can adopt optimism (let me ask you to remember what we talked about last week -- the difference between optimism and hope – and we’ll probably talk about it again before the season is over) we can adopt a Pollyanna-ish optimism that ignores the awful things that are around us – sometimes in our own lives, always somewhere in the world. Always there is someone who has a heart that is broken too badly to be mended with simply an upbeat attitude. Always somewhere there is destruction and oppression and catastrophe too great to say simply, “Oh, well, that’s horrible, but eventually it’ll all work out for the best.” Optimism won’t address the really big stuff. Only hope in that which is unseen can get us through. But how do you hold on to that hope?

Well, the truth of the matter is we’re given some advice on that in today's reading from Paul. Paul says:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In rejoicing, in holding onto Hope, we will be given a peace that surpasses all understanding and that guards both our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. But how? How do you do it? You know, the truth of the matter is, it’s not easy but it has something to do with focus. Whether it’s driving a car or a golf ball, aiming a bow and arrow or a camera – whatever it is, you tend to get what you look for and at. You tend to do what you see and you become what you do.

As a friend and as a counselor, I have encountered people, (you probably have them in your lives too) people who have been hurt in their lives -- abused, abandoned, they have suffered greatly – until that has become their life’s story. And it doesn’t matter what else happens, it doesn’t matter how amazingly they may be blessed, their life story remains one, in their own minds, of their damage. They, in fact, drive happiness away. They would murder love before they would embrace it because it interferes with their life story.

And those stories are also based on truth. I’m not saying to ignore the painful facts of our lives. Any therapist will tell you, you ignore them at your peril. That which you ignore is apt to bite you from behind. You have to face them, and you have to deal with them, but they don’t have to become the focus of your life. They don’t have to become the only thing you look at. They don’t have to become your life story. They don’t have to define you.

I spend a great deal of time telling people – people I counsel, friends – you get to choose. You don’t get to choose all the facts of your life – the disasters and the griefs that befall you, but you get to choose the story you tell about them. You get to choose the memories you hang onto. You don’t get to choose all the ones that stay with you – some always will. But, but, if you choose to focus on rejoicing, then the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus and minimize the damage that those things can do.

So much comes down to the stories we choose to tell. We’re told that our story is one of Hope. We’re told that our story is one of faith in that which is beyond our imagining, faith in a promise that we will be saved and that the fruits of righteousness can blossom in our lives no matter how much we have suffered, how much we have been damaged, no matter how much pain we have experienced, the fruits of God’s love can blossom in every one of our lives. We can be the instruments that bring about the promise of God.

How do you do that? How do you focus? Here’s more from Paul in Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

You will become what you do and where you look. You will go where you look, and do what you see, and become what you do. So, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things... and the God of peace will be with you.


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