18 B Pentecost: Admitting to Iconoclasm

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Reflection on the readings for 18 Pentecost (Revised Common Lectionary)

I apologize
but you are going to have to pay attention
if you want to follow this sermon.
It is a sneaky, snaky,
winding road of switchbacks
before landing at the end.

But it isn’t that long either,
if you want to start making your shopping list.

I say my own version of “Let the words of my mouth,
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you…”
every week before I preach.
I do it as an act of reverence.
Not because God needs my preparation or openness
to do what God is going to do.
But because I need the reminder.
I need the humility.
I need the willingness to step-aside.

That psalm
strikes me as the Psalmist
desperately trying to convince himself
that what he has been taught,
and what he has been taught to teach others,
and how he has been taught to see reality…
is absolute true.

It is a shield against doubt.
It is a shield against arrogance.
It is a shield against the brain worm
let loose in his thoughts
by an experience that he is pretty sure
goes against
what he was taught.

Now I raise a doubt on behalf of the Psalmist
with the voice of biblical scholars scowling at me
in my own head.
The thunderous wisdom
of Walter Brueggemann
delivering the Psalmist’s context
and point of view,
and reminding us that is our job
as preachers is likewise to open the text.

But instead
I am psychoanalyzing the long dead poet
unable now to speak for him or herself.
Standing over the open casket
I am pontificating on what the Psalmist thought.
In seminaries,
at least the academic ones,
we are taught to enter Scripture
with certain tools in hand:
Form criticism
to identify the period and source of a text;
Literary criticism
to analyze the voices and purposes of a text;
and Historical criticism
to raise up awareness of the world behind the text.

I am no scholar.
I have always leaned on the critical work
of other people.
But I have developed my own tool
with which I come to the text.
I call it NOW criticism:
how does our current worldview —
our Sitz im Leben (situation in life)
as academics would call it —
read the text?

How does ”who we are”
shape what we receive from the text?
I reverse the telescope
to listen to the text through our ears
and through the filters of our context.

Clearly the Psalmist today
was affirming the statutes of God.
Torah is “perfect

Now I should just stop and say
that this is considered a big-deal-psalm.
According the commentary I referenced*:
C. S. Lewis thought Psalm 19
was the greatest hit of them all.
And while those famous German biblical scholars
of the mid-20th century
decided it was really three separate psalms
written in three different periods
and stitched together over time,
NOW it is seen to be one psalm
with three movements,
the middle movement we read today.
*Working Preacher, 9/20/12

You see, I am a little out of my depth here.

I do not know much about the psalms
even though I took a whole semester course
on the psalms, taught by the very popular dean
of my seminary.
Everyone swooned over getting into that course.
I was bored to tears.
All I can remember about it
was how hard it was to keep my eyes open.

That could have been a hint to me
way back then,
about NOW criticism.
Beautiful metaphors
and rhythmic strophes
can’t make up for post-modern

I am an iconoclast. I own it.
It is what my experience,
living life in our world, has made me.

Literally, iconoclast means “image destroyer.”
But more deeply
it means someone who challenges
settled beliefs,
and who opposes the veneration
of religious images and icons.
That sounds like me, right?

Iconoclasm gets a bad wrap
because of figures like Oliver Cromwell
(whose wife, by the way, may be in my family tree)
but my take is that reality —
our experience — is the great iconoclast.

It is our experience, reality itself,
that contradicts the theoretical notions
we have about how the world,
and God work.
Whatever image we have
of the nation
the law
the bible
love…it will be broken
because not much in life
conforms to what we believe about life.
So the Psalmist in Psalm 19,
wonderful poet that he was,
was prescribing a formula
into which he declares all of life fits.
No, there is not one crack
in this form, he declares.
Not one porous glitch
through which doubt can leach.

Oh, but wait.
He does ask, “Who can detect errors?”
To ask may be to acknowledge
that some doubt exists.
But immediately he pleads to be forgiven
from this hidden crevasse in which the smallest doubt
may be wedged.

He pleads to be healed
and not given over
to the dark, questioning voice deep inside.
The Psalmist, and much of religion,
offer a hardened sarcophagus
of the Lord’s laws and decrees
into which we all fit
and will be protected
from the unreality of doubts
and counter-narratives.

But you see, I think the world
has been turned
inside out
since the Psalmist lived.
It is now the voice of faith,
if that is what we wish to call it,
that is hidden deep inside
like a piece of gold tooth
broken off
and lodged into a fold of tissue.

All around us,
reality is now defined by cynicism,
and grief practiced as a kind of vicious nostalgia.
Petty beauty,
grandiose humanism,
unconscionable wealth,
previously unheard of gluttony,
holy worship of science and technology,
and militarism as if from a nightmare —
all now describe the world
in which the Psalmist once lived.

To doubt our reality —
prescribed by social media
news media
political rhetoric
and commercialism — is to be an iconoclast.
To doubt reality
as it is prescribe today,
is to be that niggling voice
buried deep inside the gut
that has a counter-narrative
written in the heart.

I say, “whoever is not against us is for us.”

Now I could make sense
out of Jesus’ barnstorming diatribe
about cutting off hands
and plucking out eyes,
but only if I stand on my head
while balancing two trays of tea and crumpets.
In other words,
it is not worth it.

To make sense of that snippet
in a gospel given over to a God of mercy
more than a God of justice,
requires all kinds of rationalizations
and biblical criticism
that I just do not think is worth it.
At least not today.

Instead, I want to address it
through NOW criticism.
NOW criticism would remind us
that the gospel is not a verbatim court recording
of Jesus’ words and actions.
Some of what is in it
does not make sense
and some of it simply does not
match up with our experience of the world.
Not only that, it is not our job to make sense of it all.

Instead, looking at those readings today,
I will remind us of “who we are.”
We are people who have not just one lens,
not only two lenses,
but three lenses.

We have the ancient texts
we explore for the wisdom
that can be mined within it.
It isn’t all gold,
but it has gold in it.
Ancient sacred texts are our first lens.

We have a second lens,
which is tradition.
It is what have we learned together as a community
over time — over millennia in fact.
It is a reflective lens
through which we also mine wisdom
via the text of historic community.

Finally, we have a third lens,
which is reason and experience.
What does our ability to think
and imagine
and wonder
and learn
tell us about our experience?

These three lenses —
scripture, tradition, and reason or experience —
offer us a vision of reality
given by our theological tradition
in The Episcopal Church.
The Psalmist had his lens
and Mark, the first gospel editor, had his.
We have ours,
and it allows us to be an iconoclastic community
with a counter-narrative
to the one prescribed —
whether by ancient poets and preachers
or by the world all around us

We are not stuck
with what we hear from social media
and news media
and political and ideological rhetoric
and scientific or technological over-reach.
We have lenses through which to process all of that
and break it down.
Break it down,
strip it away,
dig beneath the assumptions
and find the gold.

But we do not swallow any of it whole —
not the Psalmist, not the gospel,
and certainly not
the cultural and political miasma.
We are not limited to what we are told
by the loudest voices around us.
We are not limited to scripture alone.
We are not limited to prescribed ancient traditions.
We are not limited to what we see and hear
in any given moment.
Instead, we have a generous spectrum
through which to see and view
the vast landscape of life all around us.
We need to use it all.

And then, once we do,
and we have exhausted ourselves
at any given moment
with the search for gold,
we step back.
We take a slow deep breath.
We ask God to bless the words of our mouths
and the meditations of our hearts,
so that some little gold nugget of truth
may be known
in us
and through us.

Well, I warned you it was a winding road.