Perspective

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be heard here.

A few weeks ago, George Clooney received the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes.  For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Clooney is a film actor, director, and producer who is generally considered one of Hollywood’s elite.  He was also regarded as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, that is until his marriage in September to Amal Alamuddin, a lawyer with an international reputation and an impressive resume.  imgresAt the Globes, host Tina Fey introduced Mr. Clooney’s bride, saying “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three person U.N. Commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip.  So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.”  This joke is effective not only because it exposes the ludicrousness of awards ceremonies in which celebrities give golden statues to one another, but also because it puts the entire enterprise into perspective.  Though George Clooney is among the most celebrated people in Hollywood, his accomplishments seem trivial when compared with those of his spouse.  Tina Fey’s one liner highlights the importance of perspective, the necessity of making sure that our priorities are oriented correctly.

In our epistle reading this morning, we hear Saint Paul highlight the importance of perspective.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is among his more practical: he addresses specific issues pertaining to community discipline, attempts to mediate disputes among members of the community, and makes discrete suggestions about how to live faithfully.  The portion of the letter we heard this morning comes from a much longer passage in which Paul takes up questions about marriage.  From the misleading brevity of this passage, we might assume that Paul does not regard marriage as a worthwhile enterprise.  In these three verses, Paul comes across as a Stoic philosopher, appearing to suggest that we ought to be completely unencumbered by worldly attachments.  Indeed, this is how many of the Corinthians understood the path to holiness.  Their sense was that the pleasures of the flesh, even within the bonds of matrimony, prevented one from being spiritual.  As a result, certain members of the Corinthian community would abstain from marital relations, often without first consulting their chagrined spouses.  This approach to spirituality was actually fairly common in the first century.  In certain circles, ascetics were held up as spiritual athletes; those who abstained from worldly pleasures were celebrated and believed to have charismatic authority.  For these groups, the more one abstained and the more temptations one resisted, the more spiritual power one acquired.  Apparently there were some Corinthians who thought that this correlation of abstinence and spirituality was a characteristic of the Christian life.  Moreover, they supposed that Paul, the confirmed crotchety old bachelor (probably never as eligible as George Clooney), would endorse this path to holiness and praise them for their temperance.  The snippet of text that we heard this morning might lead us to assume that the Corinthians supposed correctly.

But in fact, Paul has very little patience for this Corinthian approach to holiness.  While he concedes that some people are called to live single lives, Paul affirms that those who are married ought to behave as though they are married.  His rationale for this is striking.  Paul tells the Corinthians that spouses should give each other their conjugal rights because “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.”  A statement like that is precisely what we might expect from a man living in a patriarchal culture.  But Paul immediately provides a corrective: “Likewise,” he writes, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”  Paul describes a mutuality of relationship that was unheard of in the first century.  In describing how marriage ought to be, he implies that none of us is our own master, that we are all subject to the sovereignty of the God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Ultimately, this is why Paul refuses to endorse the ascetic path to holiness.  While the Corinthians believed that they could abstain their way to spiritual power, Paul insists that true holiness comes only from what God has done through Jesus Christ.  While the Corinthians believed that spiritual charisma was something to acquire, Paul affirms that it is a gift given by the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  For Paul, the resurrection is the standard by which we measure every aspect of our lives.  For Paul, the resurrection reorients our priorities and changes the way we experience the world.

This brings us to the passage we heard this morning.  Paul tells those who are married, those who mourn, those who rejoice, and those who have dealings with the world to live as though none of these things were true.  Though it may seem like Paul is being dismissive, it’s pretty clear from his earlier meditations on marriage that he believes these states of being to be incredibly important, vital elements of the Christian community.  Far from encouraging the Corinthians to ignore their marriages or their livelihoods or their emotions, Paul is exhorting the congregation to put these into the proper perspective.  Now for George Clooney, proper perspective is viewing his achievement in light of his wife’s accomplishments.  imgresFor Paul, however, the proper perspective is viewing everything in light of the resurrection. This is essentially Paul’s primary purpose in writing first Corinthians.  The whole letter builds to a soaring, comprehensive meditation on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event Paul affirms is so significant that it dwarfs every other event in history and every other concern of humanity.  For Paul, the resurrection exposes the triviality of the Corinthians’ petty squabbles, claims to spiritual authority, and economic differences.  For Paul, the resurrection tempers earthly sorrows and joys, because it allows us to experience the fullness of God’s glory.  For Paul, the resurrection empowers us to live our lives unchained from the uncertainties of this life and to put our trust in the God who has defeated the power of death.

There’s no question that we live in an uncertain world.  From terrorism to economic malaise to questions about the fairness of our justice system, there is much to be anxious about.  But I would also contend that we live in a world that lacks perspective.  Our culture tends to respond to every event in a very predictable way: first we are shocked, then we are outraged, and then we forget.  Far from encouraging understanding, this pattern leads us to privilege novelty and ignore issues that are actually important.  Living in light the resurrection allows us to shift our perspective.  It enables us to disregard the ephemeral and recognize that which is of lasting importance.  It equips us to participate in God’s transforming work as we build for a future that has been and will be redeemed.  It liberates us from worldly anxiety and encourages us to put our trust in the faithfulness of God.  Above all, living in light of the resurrection empowers us to look at the world with a new perspective, one shaped by the knowledge that through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new.

Advertisements

On Mozart, Baptism, and Changing the World

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Kansas on the occasion of my goddaughter’s baptism.  To view the scene from Amadeus, click here.

Every once in a while, a scene in a movie perfectly encapsulates the rest of the film.  In Amadeus, it is a scene that illustrates how Mozart’s outsized talent completely dwarfed that of his contemporaries.  For those who haven’t seen it, Amadeus is the Milos Forman film that chronicles the deadly rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.  Though the story is largely fictional (Salieri and Mozart were actually friendly), it accurately depicts Mozart’s incredible talent and demonstrates how his work in many ways represented a new musical language.

During the scene in question, Salieri and several other courtiers have been summoned by the emperor, who wants to commission an opera from the young Mozart.  Salieri, who is the court composer, tells his employer that he has written a “March of Welcome” in Mozart’s honor.  As the talented young composer enters the room, the emperor doggedly stumbles through Salieri’s pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable piece on the piano.  After negotiating the commission, the emperor reminds Mozart not to forget the manuscript for Salieri’s “Welcome March.”  Mozart demurs, claiming that he has already memorized the piece.  Incredulous, the emperor insists that the composer prove himself.  Of course, Mozart proceeds to play the piece flawlessly.  It is what he does next, however, that sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Mozart improvises a variation on Salieri’s piece that is compelling, memorable, and brilliant.  It incorporates the themes of the original piece but transforms them into something completely new.  In one scene, the movie illustrates that Mozart was not just talented, but transcendent.  In one scene, Amadeus reveals that Mozart was not just making music; he was changing what music could be.

The lectionary this morning gives us a similar scene from the gospel according to Mark.  It was only a few weeks ago that we heard about John the Baptist’s ministry by the banks of the Jordan.  This morning, we return to our old friend, who is still up to his old tricks: wearing camel hair, eating bugs, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Once again, we hear John predict that one more powerful than he is coming after him.  This morning, however, we hear about how that promise is fulfilled when Jesus of Nazareth is baptized.  The baptism of Jesus is one of the few events that is attested to by all the gospel writers, and all of them imply that it is enormously important.  As Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, we get a sense that the gospel writers see this moment as turning point in the life of Jesus and the life of the communities to which they wrote.

In spite of the weight that the gospel writers and the Church give to the baptism of the Lord, it is a little difficult to discern why it is so significant.  Even though the evangelists treat it like a major biographical touchstone in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of his ministry.  In fact, the fact that Jesus was baptized by John never comes up again.  Even when John reappears in the gospel narratives, his baptismal relationship with Jesus is not addressed.  If the baptism of John is as important as the evangelists imply it is, it stands to reason that they would mention it more than once.  Instead, the baptism of Jesus by John is a non sequitur; it feels more like a piece of trivia than anything else.  Not only that, it’s hard to know why Jesus was baptized in the first place.  As we all know, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins.  But if Jesus was sinless, as the Church claims, being baptized seems a little redundant.  Matthew, of course, attempts to deal with this problem by describing that byzantine exchange between John and Jesus: “You should be baptizing me,” “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness,” “No, after you, I insist,” etc.  While this exchange acknowledges the tension, it doesn’t do much to resolve it.  And so we’re left in a bit of an awkward place: the evangelists and the Church insist that the baptism of the Lord is crucially important to our understanding of who Jesus is, even though it seems to have minimal impact on the rest of his life and work.

Part of the reason for this is that our image of the baptism of Jesus tends to be very static: Jesus rising from the water, the Spirit descending beatifically as a dove, and the voice of the Lord resonating from heaven.  It is a scene almost tailor-made for a Caravaggio painting, one that can be hung in a museum and forgotten.  But if we look at the language that Mark uses to describe the baptism of Jesus, it is anything but static.  Mark is notoriously straightforward, even abrupt, and we get a sense of that in this passage.  Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and there is no polite exchange between John and Jesus; Jesus comes from Nazareth and is baptized during the course of one sentence.  As he emerges from the water, the heavens are literally torn open when the Spirit descends.  It’s a dynamic, violent image, one that recalls Isaiah’s plea that God would tear open the heavens and come down.  It is an image, in other words, that points to something utterly new.  And indeed, Mark tells us that the life and ministry of Jesus represent a complete departure from what has come before.  Just a few verses after the passage we read today, Mark tells us that Jesus also begins preaching repentance.  While Jesus drew on the same themes as John the Baptist, his proclamation of repentance is fundamentally different from that of the one who baptized him.  John the Baptist preached repentance as a way for sins to be forgiven; Jesus preaches repentance as a way to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  For Jesus, repentance is less about being sorry for one’s sins and more about living a transformed life.  Through his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus inaugurates a new way of being, one that is shaped by the reality of God’s presence among us.  Just as Mozart changed the way people thought about music through one improvisation, Jesus changes the way we understand repentance, sin, and grace through his baptism.  This event at the Jordan is less a significant moment in the life of Jesus and more the announcement that this world has been and will be transformed by the grace made known to us in Jesus Christ.

In just a moment, we will baptize Kason and Eirnin into Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  Our hearts will melt as one Fr. Funston welcomes a new member to his parish, while another Fr. Funston baptizes his granddaughter.  Babies will coo and cry, parents will beam, and if history is any indication, godparents will fight back tears.  It will be a beautiful moment, one that will be captured on our cameras and in our memories.  But we must not be distracted by the loveliness of this moment.  Just as Jesus’ baptism is about far more than his immersion in the Jordan, Eirnin’s baptism, Kason’s baptism, our baptism is about more than the moment someone pours water over our head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As we baptize Kason and Eirnin today, we are affirming that something new is happening in their lives and the lives of their families, that they are citizens of God’s kingdom, that God is empowering them to live transformed lives of grace and love.  Baptism is not an isolated event, a piece of trivia that gets added to our biography; baptism is the acknowledgement that our lives have been and can be fundamentally changed through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a celebration that God is changing what the world can be.