Sermon for Lent 5 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

On one of the first dates on which I ever took Annie, I arrived to pick her up at her parents’ house and was dismayed when I found they were watching the 1964 John Huston film Night of the Iguana. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the film, based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, stars Richard Burton as a disgraced Episcopal priest, the Reverend Doctor T. Lawrence Shannon. Shannon had been defrocked for “conduct unbecoming a man of the cloth” after having had sex with a parishioner and had taken a job as a cut-rate tour guide in Mexico. After the opening scene, which shows perhaps the worst sermon ever committed to film, and which I heartily recommend “youtubing”, we see Shannon leading a group of Baptist ladies from Texas to Puerto Vallarta.

One of these tourists becomes convinced that Shannon is attempting to seduce her sixteen-year-old niece and threatens to call the tour company (which we learn has already placed Shannon on probation), at which point Shannon hijacks the tour bus and drives to a hotel run by an old friend’s young widow (played by Ava Gardner) which he mistakenly believes has no telephone, and there does battle with his weakness for both sex and alcohol. At one point, he gets so roaring drunk and belligerent that the cabana boys have to truss him to a hammock. Anyway, you can imagine that as a young episcopal priest picking somebody up for a date, this is the last movie you want to find her parents watching.

Anyway, during the sermon-cum-rant opening scene, Shannon would loudly shout in self justification a claim which he would repeat at another low point later in the film. “I am the son of a clergyman and the grandson of two bishops.” He assumes, you see, that these are the sort of bona fides that should silence his accusers, which, of course, they are not.

I was reminded of this rather weak argument upon hearing the justification of one who actually understood just how unimportant such facts should be in the economy of the Kingdom of God.

Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

Here, Saint Paul does one better than the Reverend Doctor T. Lawrence Shannon. Not only does he have the proper family background. He has followed through with the proper education, an ardor in performing the actions which he believed his religion demanded of him, and an impeccable record of righteous behavior.

But how does the Apostle regard his impressive pedigree and even more impressive commitment to the Law? What does he see when he looks at all the items on his curriculum vitae? “[I] count them but dung,” he says. Now, that’s a pretty gross word, isn’t it? The New Revised Standard Version (which we use here outside of Lent and Advent) says “I regard them as rubbish.” Other modern translations use the word “refuse” or “filth” or “garbage.” On this point the Authorized Version which we are using this season gets us closer to the meaning, but not quite.

Let me apologize in advance for this, but the following is a little bit “PG rated”, but it is in the Bible. The word Paul uses here is σκύβαλον, which is neither an agricultural nor a medical term. We encountered the agricultural term for manure (also translated as “dung” in the Authorized Version) a couple weeks ago in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in Luke’s Gospel, in which the gardner asks leave to spread κοπρός around the tree not bearing fruit. The medical term περίττωμα would have been used by the ancient Greek equivalent of a gastroenterologist, and Paul chooses not to use that one either. There is even a Greek word equivalent to the mildly rude, childish word “poop”–κακκή–which Paul doesn’t use here, and which has survived as a more-or-less inoffensive term in various modern languages and can probably be traced back to Prot-Indo-European, meaning that a dirty word has survived linguistic evolution over five or six thousand years.

No, σκύβαλον is a much more forceful word, and I will not say its closest English equivalent in the pulpit. Suffice to say, it’s one of the words that until fairly recently the FCC would fine a broadcast television or radio station for allowing on the public airwaves. And this is the word Paul uses to describe his pre-conversion bona fides.

Why does Paul use such a strong word here? I do not believe he merely attempting to scandalize the reader (we know how Paul feels about stumbling blocks being opposed to the work of the Gospel and Christian community). I suspect that this is an anticipation of a potential objection by the Apostle’s adversaries in the ongoing controversy between the Judaizers and Gentile converts in the nascent church.

As a reminder, the former are attempting to convince the latter that they must be circumcised and follow all the ritual laws of the Old Testament, that is, that they must become Jews in order to become Christians. Having settled this debate in several churches, it now appears as if these Judaizers may have permitted the Gentile converts to forgo circumcision and the rest, but likely still see themselves as a superior faction within the local church. One wonders if this might take the form of a disingenuous appeal to unity and equality within the church (“All Christians are equal but some are more equal to others!”) or if it would take the form of what on online fora they now refer to as “concern trolling” (“I’m just worried that if these Gentile converts don’t get circumcised, they’ll feel like they’re not equal, even though we insist they are!”).

In any event, I think Paul anticipates such a response here by saying something like “well, your religious pedigree has now grown from something merely indifferent vis-à-vis the Gospel to something actively counter-productive.” No doubt this is a stumbling block Paul had to overcome himself, which is why he has to use such strong language about his own background. No doubt Paul had to struggle with his own conscious or unconscious feelings of superiority because of his history in Judaism, and thus reject any pride he felt as being contrary to trusting fully in the salvation provided by Christ Jesus alone in no uncertain terms.

Paul was a great pastor, a great spiritual shepherd (terms which the Reverend Doctor T. Lawrence Shannon also applied to himself, quite falsely, in that horrifying sermon scene I mentioned before). He was a great pastor because he recognized what was and was not edifying for the Christian soul and the Christian community, not because he was a know-it-all, but because he struggled with it mightily himself in his own conversion. Quite frankly, I’ve got no time for these modern, feel good exegetes who try to pit Jesus against Paul (you know, nice sweet Jesus vs. raving stodgy Paul), and I often wonder if any of them have read the New Testament with any charity or objectivity, but now I’m becoming the raving preacher myself.

The point here is that like Paul and like his adversaries in Phillipi, if we are to make spiritual progress in this life, personally or communally, if we are to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” then we may need to leave behind that which distracts us and makes us feel superior and tempts us to place our hope for salvation in anything other than the blood of Jesus. We may need to count that which we reckon our greatest gains, our greatest successes, that of which we are most proud, as loss, as worthless, as less than worthless, because there is just one thing that can save. The name of Jesus, the desire to serve him, the conviction that we cannot do it based on anything that we are or have accomplished, and the great relief that Grace is available. These are where salvation is to be found. This conforms us to the death of Christ and provides hope for the resurrection. This is where our hope must be founded.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.