Sermon for St. John's, Brownville Junction and St. Augustine's. Dover-Foxcroft
Sunday, July 25, 2010
The Rev. Amelia Hagen
I returned from a trip to the UK earlier this week. The primary purpose was to attend a gathering and retreat of the Society of Ordained Scientists. Of course, I also spent some personal time going to some places I've always wanted to see, York (not Maine), Whitby, the Isle of Iona and Durham. Like many people I'm drawn to the early saints of Ireland and England. My own sense of adventure, which is one of my core values, is why I love doing interim work. Iona was founded by St. Colomba and 12 followers by getting into little boats and sailing from Ireland to the Scottish Islands. From there Christianity came into Scotland and northern England. And then of course, Whitby is associated with St. Hild and the Council of Whitby where a decision was made on how to calculate the date for Easter (among other things), and then St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in Durham.
But back to the gathering of The Society of Ordained Scientists. Our retreat leader used science fiction as a peg to talk about theological subjects. You'd be surprised at the number of members who are closeted sci-fi fans. One of the short stories was by Arthur C. Clark written in 1953, called The Nine Billion Names of God. In this story some Tibetan monks are trying list all of the possible names of God. They believe that once the naming is done, the universe will be complete and God will bring it to an end. The monks had been working on this for three centuries ever since they created an alphabet that could encode all the names of God, and an algorithm to throw out the nonsensical ones(they believed that all the names had less than nine letters). They had been doing this by hand and had estimated it would take another fifteen thousand years to complete the work. To speed things up, they decided to use a computer. So they hired two western computer programers and rented a computer.
The computer programers don't believe that listing all the names of God would do anything, but it's a job. The monks take the print-outs and paste them in the books they've been putting together for the last 300 years. After about three months the job is about ended and the programmers were worried that the monks would blame the computer, and them, when nothing happens. They bid the monk goodbye, who, by the way, gives them a strange look, and the programmers leave just before last print run. As they ride down the mountain path on ponies, under clear star-filled skies, they stop briefly. One of the programmers looks at his watch and says that it must be just about the time that the monks are pasting the final printed names into their books. As they gaze at the stars, they notice that one by one, the they went out.
In some cultures, to know God's name is to know God's nature. So what nature of God, does today's gospel reading, with Jesus teaching his disciples the Lord's prayer, point to? So when we pray to "Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name," what kind of Father pops into our mind. You know all of our names for God are metaphors. God is like a Father who is both strong and caring, that is maternal as well as paternal. For Moses, God is the Great I Am (Will Be) who is present and promises to be present always with God's people. The New Zealand Prayer Book in an alternative Lord's Prayer says it by using lots of metaphors: Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven.
We really get a clue to the part of God's nature, Jesus is talking about, in the second part of the gospel reading. It is about generous hospitality. Some people think it's about pestering God until you get what you ask for, but there are other translations of the word that we get today as persistence. Shamelessness or impudence are two of them. (thanks to Bosco Peters for this idea) The neighbor asks only once, so persistence doesn't really seem to fit too well. We know that hospitality is important in that first century culture, and still is, in the Middle East. And avoidance of shame is also extremely important in that culture. These first century people lived hand-to-mouth and the extravagant hospitality expected to be given to strangers could put a family in real economic trouble, yet if they didn't show hospitality they would be shamed. Quite a predicament. But, I would suspect that it's really not about us, although it could be, as much as it's about God. It's about Jesus showing us what kind of God, the Father is.
We know that Jesus, the icon of the Father, was himself a radically hospitable person. Just remember the feeding with the loaves and fishes, his healings, and his welcoming of sinners to the table. Jesus points to a God who really is a Mothering-Father; who wants good for all of his creation. In the words of one of my favorite scientist/theologians, John Polkinghorne, "A creator who is rational, joyful, good and holy." Jesus points to a God who is not only rational, joyful, good and hospitable and generous and holy, but a God who is the source of hope. Hope to those who have so little; whose daily bread is not assured. Hope to those who are not welcomed and know nothing of hospitality and generosity. We are called to put our hope and anticipation of God's kingdom come into action every day of our lives.
We are to be the impudent, shameless ones who ask, knock, seek and find until all of God's children have the bread they need for the day.