Read Sermons Author: The Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield

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June 04, 2017

In a sermon years ago during Advent, I told a congregation that we need not be so purely Protestant that we forget the power of image as an aid to evangelism. So, for Advent, I wanted a powerful symbol for chasuble and altar frontals: a bulldozer. That’s right: a big, yellow bulldozer, representing the coming in judgment of all of God’s power to change the face of the earth, lowering mountains and filling in valleys, making the way level, bringing an equality to all humans regardless of whether they grew up on the safe hills overlooking town or in flood-prone lowlands. If there is one thing the church can easily do, it is to remind us through liturgy and symbol of our call to reconcile one human being to another.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, a principal feast in the life of the church that may also be crying out for even wider ways that we see liturgical symbols in an age in which the idea of evangelism is so fundamentally changing. For example, we no longer see it as our goal to go evangelize the unchurched so that we can help them become more like us. That sort of evangelism, for example, led to the subjugation of Native-Americans in our own country and the destruction of their cultures. And I want us to be able to see the fire of Pentecost day as more than just flames. Subconsciously, flames can play into a narrative of destruction, because fire destroys, and we have destroyed much. Even our sense of fire as purifying agent has resulted in modern purity codes, which have kept so many people away from Christianity’s Holy Tables. We need to be focusing on real issues of everyday hurt.

But I do know that something holy and vital for today’s church is going on in the lesson from the Book of Acts. The amazement and astonishment on Pentecost is when people listen to the many and varied voices. Not tongues of fire, but honest to goodness tongues. Perhaps it is time to look at the outlines of fire on the altar frontal as also representing an oscillogram of sound wave, a remind for us to listen.

I have just returned from a meeting of the House of Bishops theology committee. We had not met in over a year, and as you know, a lot has occurred in this nation in the last twelve months. We were trying to determine exactly what the church can do to help overcome the tension that exists even inside congregations over political loyalties. How can the church address the selfishness of our actions? And then there is the environmental struggle to care for creation, and more broadly, the isolation that results when the only voices we hear are chosen for us by unseen algorithms designed to reinforce what we already believe. Everything I read or listen to mirrors my worldview, and there is something unholy about that fact. What we know is that right now we are in a world of hurt. This world is broken and sin filled. I think the anxiety that almost everyone feels every day is proof enough of the reality of that statement.

The story of Pentecost gives us a chance to change the status quo. The change can come from the admission that it is amazing and astonishing, to use the words of the writer of the Book of Acts, to listen, to open one’s ears to new voices. Good news comes from listening as much as from talking. That is certainly a change from how we have looked at evangelism.

Pentecost is as good a day as any to talk about the mission of the church. After all, we like to say, somewhat truthfully, that the church was born on this day. Any entity needs a mission, or it will soon die. Our mission is no less than the reconciliation of God with humanity and human being with human being. Authentic reconciliation can become reality when we listen, when we converse, when we engage.

When our theology committee started taking a close look at what it means for the body of Christ—and its members—to use the body’s ears to listen, we realized that it is not something that we can do while sitting in church buildings. Churches are fairly quiet places. Come here any weekday and experience the silence. Rather, listening and conversation and engagement take place when the church gets out of its buildings and puts its ear to the ground for a real Pentecost experience. Hear the multiplicity of languages, hear the stories of people who disagree with us, hear the stories of the least and the last who have never been in this room, even hear the story of the earth itself as creation—and the earth’s varied peoples—continue to groan under our poor stewardship.

Active listening will be painful, but if we can so talk about tongues of fire coming down on people, which seems rather painful to me, then we can push through the experience of the pain of listening to stories that make us uncomfortable about our own complicity in the evils—both small and large—that make up so much of life.

This is holy pain, and such holy pain can lead to repentance, and repentance—not simply an apology, but a turning around to a new way to live—starts to make real the hope that we Christians have that ultimately we will be reconciled to one another and in that process be reconciled to God.

The church that is born on Pentecost is not about having as its primary focus bringing more people in to its buildings in order to make them like us. If anything, people coming into our buildings ought to teaching us a few things about what the world is really like. The church that is born on Pentecost is about good news, and good news first and foremost must be presented to people who feel that they have no good news in their lives, whether due to skin color or lack of opportunity or ill health or broken relationships or crushing debt or any accident of birth. We who are inside this church sometimes will find ourselves in one of those groups. And thus we need to listen to each other.

And for all those people outside the church, we have to go stand beside them and listen to their stories and talk with them and engage them so that good news breaks forth even in the midst of a broken and sinful world. It is then that the kingdom of God becomes current reality.

On this Pentecost listen to the writer of the Book of Acts when he tells us that it is amazing and astonishing when we hear the Medes and Elamites and Pamphylians of the 21st century. Whose voices are they? That is exactly why Holy Scripture is still holy; it is still speaking to us right now, the Pentecost story being lived out today.

Whose voices, whose languages, will we hear? If we want to experience the good news, then listen to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people. And when we listen, we will be well on our way to finding eternal life. Amen.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.