This sermon was preached on August 21, 2016 at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (13th Sunday after Trinity, 14th after Pentecost, and “Proper 16”). It represents a few preliminary thoughts I have on an old question that seems perennially relevant: the tension between “official” religion and its local expression; or, reduced even further, between authority and experience. This is a starting point, nothing more, with a lot of work still to be done!
Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, merciful God, that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:
One of the ways that archaeologists think about ancient religion is to mark a division: between official, institutional religion and the more common, everyday ways in which people live their lives of faith.
One good example is the pyramids of Egypt and the tombs of the pharaohs, compared with the household shrines in individual people’s houses. The two are very different, both in scale and in style. The literature of the court is what has survived, and so when we think of Egyptian religion we think of the grand mythic cycles, monumental temples, and golden sarcophagi. But most people lived much simpler lives than that. They had small clay figurines in their homes representing their favorite gods, and perhaps also a few representing their ancestors. They made small sacrifices to them, and said their prayers as best they could manage. When trouble came, they may have gone to a temple to consult a highly educated priest, but they may also have gone to a wizened neighbor who specialized in folk remedies and who had known them their whole lives.
The official clergy weren’t always happy with this folk religion because it tended to water down the official message — usually some variation on the pharaoh himself being a god and the official state apparatus being the answer to all their problems. They did not approve of the kind of rough-hewn, messy, backlot religion that flourished in villages and neighborhoods all over Egypt, because it was so difficult to control, and because it was so unsophisticated.
Archaeologists see the difference between these two religions — the official, dogmatic line, and local folk variations, as being highly instructive for understanding all kinds of tensions present in ancient societies.
But archaeologists are not the only ones who notice this kind of division present in religions, nor are ancient societies the only ones who suffer them. Our Old Testament lesson today as well as the Gospel reveal that the same tension was present both in the ancient Israel of the Kings and Prophets, and in the Roman Judaea of Jesus’ day.
Isaiah and his fellow Israelites would have known two different kinds of prophets, roughly corresponding to the two sorts of religion. The first was a set of courtly advisers, well-educated scholars who made it their business to know all the goings-on both of the Temple and its priesthood, and the king and his court. They were the whisperers, masters of rumor and gossip, who delighted in dreams and visions and divine showings. (Something like a religious version of Lord Varys from Game of Thrones, if I can say so from the pulpit!)
Whenever a king wanted a word from God, these prophets were his first port of call. Many of them were very holy people, who served with faithfulness and distinction. One of the most famous was Nathan, who held King David accountable before God for his sins and trespasses, and who helped to crown his son Solomon king after he died. Ezekiel is another, and Ezra, both authors of their own books in our Bible.
Many others, though, were charlatans, plain and simple, who enjoyed their lives of ease and influence, disingenuously giving false advice and fabricating visions to suit what they thought the king and his people wanted to hear. Often it would happen that the king, in order to appease some new diplomatic partner, would install altars to their gods in the Temple of the Lord, and would worship them himself. More often than not, this set of prophets went along with it, and happily kept their jobs and their livings, usually with promotions to match the new wealth now coming into the country. These prophets were powerful people. Though most were not among the most righteous of Israelites, they were the spokespersons of the official religion.
The other group of prophets Isaiah would have known were people like himself. People a little on the edge, not as well-educated, who forged their reputations and their influence by their radical faithfulness to God, by speaking words which came true, and by performing miraculous signs which confirmed the truth of their message. These prophets were never very safe characters for the king or for the temple elite. They were full of criticism for the way things were, and often, from positions of loneliness and exile, they would cast a vision for a better way, a better world, in which the people turned back to God and lived according to his law, his promise, his generosity, rather than according to their own designs.
In today’s passage, Isaiah is a paragon of this type of prophet. More back-woods than polished, he represents the religion of the people rather than the official line, and calls the powers-that-be to account. Too long have they lived according to their own vision of success. Now he presents them with a better world, far above their own ability to scheme or devise, and locates that world not far off on some distant shore, but firmly within the realm of the people in their very midst whom they had so long ignored.
Elijah is another famous example of this kind of prophet, with Amos and Jeremiah too. But not all of them are as altruistic as these. Plenty of these types of prophets were also charlatans, and led the people into ill-conceived rebellions and wars which devastated the countryside and decimated the population.
In the Gospel today, we see Jesus seemingly behaving as this second kind of prophet. He faces a scenario in which the local instrument of official religion, the synagogue, is so scrupulously enforcing its laws that a woman is criticized for presenting herself to be healed on the Sabbath. The officials have certainly read the law correctly, there can be no doubting their scholarship. In the Ten Commandments God does order the sabbath to be kept holy, and in dozens of further regulations both in Scripture and in other religious literature, complicated rules governed just how to do that. From the official point of view, the woman was clearly in the wrong. But just as Isaiah had done so many centuries before, Jesus takes her side against the institution.
It’s not that the official religion is wrong, but simply that it had lost the true object of its mission. What is that religion’s mission? Not to make people masters of its own ordinances and moral processes; certainly not to enrich or ingratiate the powerful who ran it; but rather to help people live into the vision of a kingdom where God rules and life is his supreme policy. So Jesus heals the woman, in direct contradiction to the official religion, and shames all their vaunted expertise by his mercy.
But before you start to think I’m advocating some kind of folk revolution in religion, let me make a further observation, from today’s Epistle. Archaeologists think of “Official” religion as being high and lofty, full of principle and abstraction, concerned with complicated matters of doctrine and eternity. “Folk” religion they think of as being low and gritty, concerned with the everyday worries of everyday people, and not very interested with philosophy or consistency. That distinction probably holds true very much of the time, all over the world and no doubt in Christianity too. Think of all the times you have heard about controversy between bishops and clergy, or clergy and lay people, or between mainline and charismatic churches. Today’s reading from Hebrews, however, inverts the whole dilemma: ‘you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, a mountain, darkness, a terrifying voice; but rather you have come to the city of the living God, to millions of angels, to the souls of the just now made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant and himself the final sacrifice.’ To Jesus! The author of Hebrews insists that this Jesus, whom we have just witnessed in the Gospel aacting as a hero of folk religion, breaking laws left and right in order to heal and restore; this Jesus, here in this passage from Hebrews and throughout the whole letter, is spoken of in transcendent language: the great high priest, and mediator of a new covenant. Here is official religion again, with a vengeance: high and lofty, higher than all the heavens. Here is Jesus, enthroned in eternity.
What to make of it all? What to make of Jesus, both folk hero and crown prince of heaven? Simply that, for us Christians, the criteria by which we adjudicate the tension between authority and experience; the standard according to which we discern between right and wrong; the bread and butter of our daily lives of faith as well as the great fulfillment of all our most poetic hopes; all of these things begin and end with one name, Jesus. Jesus meek and mild, Jesus in a manger; Jesus high and lifted up, judge both of the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. One and the same!
For us Christians, everything depends not on how well we master the metaphysical intricacies of our theology, nor on our cultural integrity as people of a certain type; but rather on Jesus himself, and his mission to free us from every bond, to make us citizens of his kingdom forever.
This is a new kind of religion, make no mistake about it! The altar to which we are about to come is both the altar of Jesus’ sacrifice, the place where the authorities executed him to eliminate the threat he posed, where he offered himself to his Father for our sakes; and it is also the table of his heavenly kingdom, where we share with saints and angels in the never-ending banquet of God. This altar is both the grittiest, most down-to-earth place we can imagine, as well as the throne from which the very stars are governed. The communion we are about to share, communion of his body and blood, is communion which brings together both kinds of religion and turns them on their head. Here heaven and earth come together: no longer mediated by impersonal ordinance, no longer constrained by local experience: but here we are visited by God himself and recognized for his very own.
Come to this altar and be forgiven of your sins.
Come to this table, and eat the bread of angels.
Meet Christ here and see him enthroned:
over all the starry host,
and in your heart.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.