A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
The First Sunday after Pentecost
June 16, 2019
In this hour, at this time, in this place, may God’s word be spoken; and God’s word only be heard, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today is the First Sunday after Pentecost, also called Trinity Sunday … and according to our liturgical mandate, we are to proclaim the good news. In fact, as I’ve said many times before, the task of the preacher on any occasion is simply to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That certainly makes sense when we gather together as a community of faith, and it follows that we need to understand as clearly as we can what the good news is all about that we are called to share with our neighbors.
Let’s pursue this line of thought a bit further. The Gospel message when it is literally translated means not only “GOOD NEWS” with capital letters, but even more to the point, it means good-news specifically that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Furthermore, assuming that’s true, it follows we need to pay special attention to the teachings and sayings of Jesus; such as, the first shall be last and the last first, love your neighbor as yourself, judge not that ye be not judged, bless those who persecute you, and so on… for when we do that we obtain a deeper understanding of what life is all about. Living a Christian life is marked by reading the Bible and following the teachings of the Master. Pretty straightforward.
But hold on. It’s not quite that simple. There are dangers that lie ahead, and traps that could lure us in. The first of these is the matter of “interpretation.” This is where we come face to face with our friends who call themselves Biblical literalists. How do they read the Bible, or more to the point perhaps, how do we all read the Bible? Do we read it like an encyclopedia? Like a dictionary? Like a good mystery novel – from beginning to end? Do we cherry-pick and choose different parts? Or is the Bible more like poetry with free association of ideas, images and symbols? The point is that we are engaged in the complex task of interpreting the text, and there are no simple right-or-wrong ways of doing that.
In this regard, I am especially grateful that the Episcopal Church has sustained its focus on Christian studies as a means of interpretive learning, and I particularly salute those who are challenged by developing relevant Biblical curricula for all our people; mindful that the church is an intergenerational enterprise and that we are instructed to live out our faith and beliefs with integrity.
Yet a note of caution remains in place here. Scriptural matters can get even more complicated, linguistically, as we try to understand the authenticity of Jesus’ actual words and remarks. Where were they said, for example? What language was used? Who heard them? What was the setting? What time of year was it? And so on. Scholars have been divided for centuries over the accuracy of the teachings of Jesus. Some of course say there’s no problem at all. It’s already been written down, black and white, as the Word of God and our task is simply to read it and obey. Others claim we need to appreciate the spirit behind the text and view all Biblical writings and sayings as the inspired Word of God. That view of course has great merit as well, and deserves to be acknowledged.
Yet scholars, being curious sorts, insist upon digging into the cultural realities of the past. So let’s be fair, give some credit to their work, and go along with them for a moment. When Jesus spoke it was in an ancient tongue that has long since died out. Jesus was not filmed or recorded for the evening news. And he’s not on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Instead, what he left in his confusing wake of remarks after the resurrection, it seems, was an oral tradition of stories and open-ended parables – the first of which was put to parchment, not paper, by the Gospeler Mark, the earliest recorded Evangelist nearly 60 or 70 years after Jesus’ death. How accurate does common sense say those writings are, and how true are they to the specific words Jesus actually spoke?
Well – you be the judge.
Now it’s important that we keep a critical eye on our task. The Gospel needs to be proclaimed, but it is the theme of the Gospel – proclaiming the good news of love and justice – that should be emphasized, not necessarily the specific words of Jesus all by themselves. I admit, this is perceived as what some academics call “vague-hermeneutics;” but the good news is you are free to determine your own beliefs all by yourself. That is clearly your right, and you will be honored and respected whatever you decide. Speaking only for myself, I want my faith to be as historically accurate as it is theologically believable. Blind-faith in my view is no virtue; in fact, it’s an oxymoron. To take a page from philosophy: it was Socrates who said – ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ – and I would add in the religious realm that an ‘unexamined faith is not worth believing.’
So where does all this take us in today’s 21st century world? Recently I have attempted to understand more clearly what drives and sustains our Christian ethical values over time. The best evidence that I can come up with are narrative accounts that integrate our own experience with the quest of our religious heritage and tradition. For example; and I’ll end with this illustrative story about ‘aging’ which is told by a feminist from the 1950s and 60s, Betty Friedan. It’s in her final book, and connects the process of ‘aging’ with insight, values, wisdom, and ultimately the spirit of righteousness.
Betty Friedan’s last major published work before she died in 2006 was a careful and lengthy reconsideration of aging. The book entitled ‘The Fountain of Age’ explored the unexpected depth and strength that is hidden within ‘life’s third age,’ the so-called golden years. In one of the book’s most engaging chapters, Friedan tells of being challenged to rappel down a 300-foot cliff during an Outward Bound-type expedition. She declined the invitation. Such a refusal would burden most adults with powerful feelings of guilt and shame. For Friedan, it was just the opposite. As an elder, she experienced her refusal as evidence of a new kind of freedom, the power to say “no.” She understood that, finally, “I don’t have to compete to prove myself – I can live with the fact that I’ll never rappel a 300 foot cliff and that failure doesn’t really matter one way or another.”
This leaves us with a tantalizing and provocative conclusion. Ultimately...Ultimately - Who are we trying to impress? … God; Ourselves; Family; Friends; Neighbors; Rivals; Competitors? It’s a tough question, and one that I will put to you in the same way that Betty Friedan was challenged by it.
Will you consider rappelling down a 300-foot cliff; and if so – Why would you do that? On the other hand; if not, Why not? What is the basis of your hesitation? God is interested in your answer, as you make an accounting of your life, particularly this first Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, the closest Liturgy we have as our Trinity Church patronal feast....
And we ask and ponder all these concerns…
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Betty Friedan: Fountain of Age. 1993, Simon and Schuster