Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Sunday after Christmas

                   John 1:1-18


Just a few days ago, we passed the shortest day of the earth’s annual trip around the sun. This is a dark time of year. For most of us, it’s dark when we get up in the morning and dark when we come home in the evening. And for that very reason, it’s also a time of year that is full of light. Whether we use candles, or oil lamps, or incandescent or flourescent bulbs, we go to great lengths to surround ourselves with light in the midst of the pervasive darkness. Most of the houses and lawns that have brightened our neighborhoods with their multi-colored lights will continue to do so for a few more days. The lights on our Christmas trees adorn our living rooms and dens. We are entranced, in an almost mystical way, by the power of light shining in the darkness.

When the ancient people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, the Lord led them to their eventual homeland through an extended period of wandering in the desert. The Israelites were at that time a people who walked in darkness—figurative darkness all the time, literal darkness about half the time. During the hours of daylight, they were led by what the book of Exodus describes as a “pillar of cloud.” It must itself have been luminous, glowing like a winter fog across Indiana cornfields glows when you can tell it’s going to burn off in another hour or so. During the night time hours, the Israelites were led by a “pillar of fire.”  This was surely a sight to behold! They began to associate light with the presence of God in their midst.

In due course, Moses, their leader, erected a special tent, called the Tent of Meeting. Within the tent there was a place called the Tabernacle, which means, literally, to “encamp,” to “pitch a tent” in a particular location. Moses alone would enter the Tent of Meeting and commune with God at the Tabernacle, receiving instruction and wisdom for his demanding leadership duties. When Moses emerged from the tent, his face glowed with the very glory of God, such that he actually had to wear a veil in order for his countrymen to be able to look on him. The tent itself was luminous with the glory of God—one might say that it “lit up like a Christmas tree.” It was experienced by Israel as the place where the Lord dwelt among             them, the place where his glory abides.

You and I, in our natural human condition, are just as lost as the ancient Israelites. The universe is a dark place, an “old” place, terminally ill, in bondage to the power of sin and death. We are, in a profound spiritual sense, homeless within it. We are, in fact, homesick for Heaven, even though we’ve never been there. We are born refugees. We yearn longingly for a far country that we know is our true and lasting home, but we’ve forgotten where it is, or how to get there. We desperately need a light, a pillar of fire to illuminate the darkness, a luminescent tabernacle that glows with the glory of God.

Blessedly, there is just such a source of light available to us. St John tells us about it in his marvelous prologue to the Fourth Gospel. He tells us of the eternal Word of God, who was with God in the beginning, and who is, in fact, himself God. Of this Word, John says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” He is the “true light that enlightens every man.” And then, in that climactic fourteenth verse of the first chapter of John, we read that “the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

When John says that the Word “dwelt among us,” he uses the same Greek word which also translates the Hebrew for “tabernacle.” Jesus, the Word made flesh, is our tabernacle, the dwelling of God in our midst, the place where his glory abides.  Jesus is, in effect, our ticket home. He knows the way, and if we hang out where he hangs out, we’ll eventually arrive at that far country that we long for with such intensity.

After his resurrection from the dead, of course, Jesus ascended, in thee words of the creeds, back to “the right hand of the Father.” But his presence with the Father does not mean he is absent from us. He has left us the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, a sacrament which nourishes and sustains his people with his very presence every time they gather to dine on his broken body and poured out blood. In fact, the place where we put the “sacred leftovers,” the consecrated bread and wine which is reserved for the communion of the sick, is, in fact, called the taberncle, and a lamp is perpetually lit near it, signifying the presense of God’s glory in our midst. This is the house of God, the place where his glory abides. Bending the knee before his tabernacle is an entirely fitting and proper act of reverence. We are as privileged as Moses, and if we realized just how privileged we are, I wonder how much more brightly our faces would glow
as we emerge from this Tent of Meeting back into the world.

Now, I could quit right here, because there’s unspeakable good news in what I’ve already said, more than ample reason to “make Eucharist,” which is to offer thanksgiving. But there’s more. There is, as they call it in Louisiana, lagniappe, something extra, an unexpected bonus. Out of this tabernacling in our midst, we not only see God in his glory, but we also see, in the light reflected from the face of Jesus, our own true selves. In Christ, we know ourselves more completely than we ever could before. We see ourselves to be simultaneously a people walking in darkness, miserable offenders, struggling under the grievous memory and intolerable burden of sin, and also as a people who have seen a great light, forever united to the One who has so mercifully “pitched his tent” among us by assuming our human flesh and human nature.

The very fact that we are at all able to live under Grace, the fact that we are able to pray, able to love, able to forgive—this is all made possible by the marvelous light of Christmas, the light of the incarnation, the light of the Word made flesh. So keep the lights turned on. It’s Christmas. The Lord has shone forth his glory. Come, let us adore him. Amen.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve

How are you tonight? No…I mean, really. How are you tonight? Are you feeling a little under the weather, perhaps? There are a lot of bad bugs flying around this time of year. Or maybe you’re feeling pretty good, but you know that all is not right with your body, and you’re facing some pretty daunting physical health challenges. Perhaps you even know that you’re dying—not just in the abstract, but within a particular time frame. Are you lonely? Maybe you yearn for a certain person to be with you for Christmas, but you’re here, and they’re…wherever they are—not here. Are you afraid? Perhaps you live in dread of an e-Mail or a letter or a phone call or a knock on the door that will bring news you very much don’t want to hear. Are you wounded in your spirit? Has a loved one let you down, or outright betrayed you? Are there painful memories that seem to just always weigh you down emotionally, and you can’t ever really get past them? Are you angry? Maybe someone treated you unfairly or rudely and it just makes you boil.  Are you upset with the policies of the government, or with those who are upset with the policies of the government? Are you bored? Are you uncomfortable being in church, and are here out of a sense of obligation—either generally or to a particular person? Are you cynical about what’s happening in this place at this hour? Do you wish you were somewhere else?

Well…I don’t mean to depress you. I’m just trying to encourage honesty, and the truth is that, amid the festivity of the season and the joy of this liturgical celebration of Christmas—all of which is completely well and good and meet and right and legitimate—even as we rejoice, we are, each one of us, broken people. We are broken in multiple ways, and when dried up Christmas trees litter the curbs—in a couple of days or a couple of weeks, depending on how one keeps the feast—when life gets back to normal, “normal” will include our brokenness, and we may even be a bit more acutely aware of it, just for having been through this season of mandatory joy.

My wife has a nine-year-old border collie, with whom she has formed a mutual admiration society. I would really rather not have a dog, but I have so far avoided giving Brenda an ultimatum—“It’s either the dog or me!—because…well, let’s just say, I’m smarter than that. So I somewhat reluctantly share my living space with a four-legged creature named Lucifer—which, as Brenda reminds me, means “light bearer.” Lucy, as Brenda calls her, is, like most of her kind, quite fond of raw meat. But she has a fear that outweighs even her appetite for a nice, fresh chicken thigh or a piece of beef heart. She suffers from a compelling and overpowering fear of abandonment. Lucy is certain that, if she lets Brenda out of the house—or, worse yet, both Brenda and me out of the house at the same time—there’s a high probability that we will not ever return. The mere sight of a suitcase sends her into a depressive tailspin. So Lucy can know that there’s fresh meat out in the yard, but unless Brenda goes out there and stays within sight of Lucy while Lucy eats it, she may not even go out the door. The dog has serious abandonment issues, and I suppose may need expensive therapy before she can get better. I don’t know.

Well, one feature of our individual and collective brokenness is that we, as a human race, also have serious abandonment issues. We are afraid that, not only are we miserable, but that God has abandoned us in our misery. We are afraid that God has given up on us. We are afraid that sickness and death are all there is, in the end. We are afraid that fear and anger have the final word. We are afraid that loneliness and boredom and cynicism have the last say in the matter.

Christmas is the therapy we need to deal with our abandonment issues. The birth of Christ, the incarnation of the Eternal Word of God in the infant whose parents were instructed to name him Jesus, is a sign of hope that God has not abandoned us in our state of misery. Because a young woman named Mary had the courage to say Yes to a very strange vocation, and give birth in the uncomfortable squalor of a barn, and set the baby down in a feeding trough, because an honorable man named Joseph had the courage to say Yes to the very strange vocation of raising as his own a child whom he did not father—because of all this, you and I have hope that God has not abandoned us in our misery, but is, in fact with us—that he is, in fact, one of us. Because of Christmas, God knows. God knows. Whatever we’re feeling, God knows—not just because He’s good, but because He’s been there.

Are you sick? God knows, and the birth of Christ makes it possible for you to share God’s eternal wellness and wholeness and health.

Are you lonely? God knows, and Jesus’ nativity makes it possible for you to participate in the very life of God, to share in the perfect community of the Holy Trinity,

Are you afraid? God knows, and Christ’s birth makes it possible for you to know the deathless love of God that banishes all fear.

Are you angry? God knows, and the birth of Jesus makes it possible for you to see God’s own vision of a world where justice reigns, where crime doesn’t pay, and all wrongs are put right.

Are you wounded in spirit? God knows, and what we celebrate at Christmas makes it possible for you to receive the consolation and love of one who is known as the Man of Sorrows, and is acquainted with every human grief.

Are you bored, cynical, unbelieving? God knows, and Christmas can be a sign to you of hope that there is an alternative way of looking at your own life and the whole human condition.

Are you dying? God knows, and the birth of Christ is a sign of God’s intent that death not have the last word, but that it be swallowed up in the victory of life.

Christ is born, the Word is made flesh, and God knows. Come, let us adore him. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Year A: Advent III

Matthew 11:2-11
            Isaiah 35:1-10


There was once a man—we’ll call him “Fred”—who lived in a      cabin in the woods in a low-lying area. (Some of you, I’m sure, have heard this story, so just bear with me.) Fred was a very religious man: He prayed every day and never missed church on Sunday unless he was too sick to get out of bed. 

One day it started to rain, and it rained all through the night, and all the next day, and all night again. The flood waters began to rise, and the message came over the radio that the entire area of the county in which Fred lived was to be evacuated. About that time, Fred was in prayer, and he had a deep sense of assurance from that Lord that the Lord would take care of him, that he would not come to any harm, and that God’s faithfulness would see him through this crisis. 

Just then, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door. “Fred, come on, get in my car, I’ll take you to high ground.”  But Fred replied, “No, you go on, the Lord will take care of me.” A few hours later, the entire first floor of Fred’s house was covered with six feet of water.  So Fred went up to one of the upstairs bedrooms. When he looked out the window, he saw his cousin in a rowboat, rowing toward him as fast as he could. “Fred!  Don’t worry!  Get in the boat and I’ll take you to safety.”  But Fred just smiled and said, “Why cousin, that’s awfully kind of you, but the Lord is going to take care of me.” 

By daybreak the next morning, Fred’s bedroom was covered with six feet of water, so he climbed up onto the roof. About that time, a National Guard helicopter hovered overhead, and a rope ladder was lowered.  Someone with a megaphone shouted, “Climb on to the ladder and we’ll pull you up.” But Fred just shook his head and shouted back, “No, thanks, the Lord will take care of me.” 

A short while after that, Fred was covered with six feet of water, and he drowned. 

When Fred arrived at the Pearly Gates, he was in something of a huff. Before St Peter could even say “Welcome to Heaven”, Fred blurted out, “The Lord said he would take care of me! How come I drowned?”  Peter replied, “Well, Fred, we sent the sheriff with a car and your cousin with a rowboat and the National Guard with a helicopter. What more did you want?” 

After pondering this, Fred probably went and looked up John the Baptist, because they had alot in common. They were both confused by a discrepancy between their expectations of what God would send, and what God actually sent.  John the Baptist expected the Messiah to be an axe-wielding chaff-burning purveyor of divine wrath. 
When Jesus arrived on the scene, John publicly announced his arrival.  “Pay attention to this guy. He’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. He must increase and I must decrease.” 

But Jesus never does live up to all of John’s expectations, so he begins to wonder, “Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe Jesus is not the one.”  So, from prison, he sends his own disciples to put the question to Jesus directly.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

John—and Fred, for that matter—is not unique, is he? We can all see something of ourselves in his moment of doubt. We are all prejudiced to one degree or another by what we expect God to do, or by what we expect God to say, or expect God to approve of, or condemn, or whatever. And our expectations then sometimes blind and deafen us to recognizing Jesus for who he is. It’s often difficult for us to really experience Jesus as the one who reveals—breaks open, manifests, shines the light on, announces, ushers in — the Kingdom of Heaven. 

It reminds me of many of the stories I’ve heard over the years—the sort of story I always enjoy hearing—of how married couples “found” each other. What a mysterious process courtship is!  Our “normal” expectation is that two people, when they meet, have at least an inkling of whether they’re attracted to one another, and they think, “Maybe this is the one”. And then a stressful experience of trial and error finally reveals whether “this one” is “the one”.  But, as often as not, the story goes something more like this:  “At first we were just friends. I didn’t think she was my type”, or “I didn’t think I had enough in common with him”, or however the failure to meet expectations in defined. “But as we worked together, or went to church together, or hung out in a group together, we found that we loved each other in a way that neither of us anticipated.” In the experience of relationship, the true identity of this person as “the one” was revealed. 

Jesus’ identity as “the one we’ve all been waiting for” is authenticated in the same way.  When the disciples of John the Baptist pose the question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”, he doesn’t answer them directly.   He simply invites them to observe what was going on around him. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Tell John all this and let him draw his own conclusion.”

Jesus’s advice to John applies equally to us. We may not be able to observe and report all the same signs that John’s disciples were able to observe and report, but we’re not lacking for experiential data on which to base a conclusion about Jesus’s identity.  St Anne’s church is our local manifestation of the presence of Jesus. What do we see? 
We see a place where the revolutionary values of the kingdom of God are preached, and sometimes even practiced. We see a place where sin is forgiven, and people are supported in their desire to repent and sin no more. We see a place where fear and despair give way to trust and hope. We see a place where people give and receive love and spread it on one another’s sorrow like soothing ointment on open sores. We see a place which people support with hours of precious time and thousands of dollars of hard earned money. We’re not perfect—we announce the kingdom, we try to model it, but we’re still a mere shadow of the reality. Yet, the parish church, the body of Christ in a particular place, is by definition a place where the blind see, the lame walk, and the hopeless hope. 

As we move into the heart of the Advent season, and the celebration of Christmas looms over the horizon, our invitation is to look around us at these signs and see Jesus for who he is: The hope of Israel, the desire of nations, the one we’ve all been waiting for—the sheriff in his car, Fred’s cousin in his rowboat, the National Guard in its helicopter.  Our only alternative is to conclude that Jesus is not the “one who is to come”, and to continue to search for our Messiah among the false gods worshipped by our neighbors in this world: political or social or economic ideology, “good causes”, success, health, or status of race or class.  These are false gods, who will desert us in our hour of need, and leave us hungering for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is it not infinitely preferable to experience the hope, the peace, the purpose, and the joy of simply falling at the feet of Jesus?—the Jesus who opens our eyes and ears with his words, the Jesus who appeared in our own human flesh in a Bethlehem cattle stall, the Jesus who will come again to judge the living and the dead?
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A: Advent II

           Romans 15:4-13
Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

When the Roman Empire finally crumbled in the latter half of the fifth century, western Europe was plunged into an era which has been widely referred to as the Dark Ages. Life in the Dark Ages has been described with three brief adjectives: nasty, brutish, and short. We like to think that we have made a great deal of progress since the Dark Ages,  but I wonder whether the essential core of human experience is really all that different. You don’t have to do anything more than pick up a newspaper to be reminded that life,  for a great many people, is still nasty and brutish. Disease and depravity and disappointment abound, at home and abroad. And, although we’re living longer, life still seems short. The older I get, the shorter it seems. Way too short to fulfill all the hopes and dreams that the human spirit is capable of conceiving; way too short to repair all the regrets that human behavior is capable of producing. It’s called by many names: alienation, soul-sorrow, existential angst. The New Testament calls it the “power of sin and death.”

Whatever you call it, though, it’s a universal human experience. Our “default” condition, that which we naturally slip into in the absence of any other intention, is one of radical doubt and fear which is both personal and cosmic. We are doubtful and fearful about our own personal existence in particular, and the universe in general. We want to know—when all the dust settles, will there be justice on the earth? Will wickedness be punished and righteousness be rewarded?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, these are the really deep questions. They bother us. They are the ultimate source of that low-grade anxiety that every man, woman, and child carries around twenty-four hours a day. This anxiety has consequences. They’re all around us. Among them are depression, denial, dysfunction, destruction, death, and despair.

Let’s take those one at a time.

Depression
There seems to be a virtual epidemic of it. I wish I could go back in time about 25 years and buy stock in some of the pharmaceutical companies that have marketed anti-depressants. If I had, I would be taking more exotic vacations than has been my custom!

Denial
Our culture is descending more and more into godlessness—or, I should say, the denial of the true and living God who has revealed himself in history in exchange for a number of lesser gods who reveal themselves only in our desires and imaginations. This is a denial of reality itself.

Dysfunction
Only recently are social scientists beginning to document what Bible students and theologians could have told them decades ago, and that is that no-fault divorce as an easy way out of marital and family dysfunction is inflicting incalculable damage on generations of the children of those families.  But dysfunction is not limited to the domestic scene. Our political and social fabric is also unravelling before our eyes; Americans are more polarized than ever before.

Destruction
The century we left behind only a decade ago may indeed be remembered as the true “dark ages.”  It was the most violent in the history of the human race.
There were more victims of war, political    repression, and crime, both organized and casual, than at any other time. When art and literature depict the future, it is more often than not a grim, apocalyptic picture that is painted.

Death
The late Pope John Paul coined the phrase “culture of death” to describe the prevailing viewpoint in the western world. Life seems increasingly cheap, at both ends now, perhaps in the middle not too far from now. Whatever your politics are with respect to abortion or assisted suicide, the sheer number of abortions being performed, and an ever more casual attitude toward assisted suicide, have got to be alarming. We are indeed a culture of death.

Despair
Despair is loss of hope, and for this reason, is the ultimate sin, the summation of all the deadly sins. Despair is radical unfaith, throwing in the towel, surrendering to alienation, normalizing the sub-normal. Pride is the source of all sin, and despair is the culmination of all sin. What pride starts, despair finishes. And it’s all around us.

What then can we say in the face of all this anxiety? What can we say in the face of depression, denial, dysfunction, destruction, death, and despair? If we are stunned into silence in the face of so great a mystery, thank God that St Paul, at least, is not. Listen to his words, handed down to us through the fifteenth chapter of his epistle to the Romans:

 “...whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.”

That we might have hope. Hope is the opposite of despair. And what does Paul suggest is the medium of this hope? The encouragement of the scriptures, which were written in former days for our instruction. Before the most recent round of Prayer Book revision, the “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” collect that most of us are familiar with, and which we used three Sundays ago, was appointed for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, and it was chosen specifically in the light of this epistle reading from Romans. The first step in combating the cosmic anxiety of this age is to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the encouragement that is ours in the words of holy scripture.

In particular, the lectionary readings appointed for the season of Advent are especially helpful. We hear in them an invitation to abundant hope. Even passages like today’s gospel, which sound somewhat harsh on first hearing, are filled with hope if we read between the lines. Yes, John the Baptist is speaking words of judgement, words of warning. But in words of warning, there is marvelous hope. There is yet room for repentance, room to change behavior. When the “low fuel” signal comes on in my car, that’s a word of warning, an invitation to repentance. I know that I’ve got only about fifty miles before I run out of gas, and that I can’t just keep on driving indefinitely. I’ve got to change my behavior or suffer the consequences. I am grateful for that warning. Before such technology, I did run out of gas from time to time. Since then, I don’t. It’s a source of encouragement, a reason for hope!

St Paul concludes this selection from Romans with words of blessing:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the holy spirit you may abound in hope.
It’s important to remember the distinction between wishing and hoping. When I wish for something, it may be pure fantasy, highly unlikely if not impossible. For example, I wish that I might win the lottery, but I don’t hope that I do, because it’s  highly unlikely that I will. Hope, on the other hand, is grounded in a solid foundation. I hope that I will get through the rest of this sermon, and the rest of this liturgy, without any major mishaps. I don’t know that I will, because any number of things could happen at any moment. But I hope that I will, and my hope is founded on such things as prior experience in similar situations, and a conviction that God is glorified when he is worshiped decently and in order.

Well, all of our hope as Christians is founded on the amazing historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from from the dead. From that fact flows all of our hope—hope that all the private wounds of my inmost spirit will be healed, hope that sins which I have confessed and repented of are forgiven and put away as far as the east is from the west, hope that relationships in my life which have been marred and soured by failure on my part and the part of others will be restored and strengthened, hope that the physical and emotional ailments which can be so discouraging and crippling are not the last word in our lives and in God’s plans for us, hope that the poor will not remain poor forever, hope that violence and war will themselves be put to death, hope that injustice and fear and oppression and hatred will be banished from the universe.

The scriptures, once again, give us a glimpse, a sneak preview, of this glorious vision in the wonderful scene described by the prophet Isaiah:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed together; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the the adder’s den.

Try finding that on the Nature Channel!

The hope that is ours, the encouragement that is ours, on this Second Sunday of Advent, calls us to live in the light of God’s truth, to agree with God rather than our own limited experience and intuition, to choose courage and responsibility rather than denial and dysfunction, to choose peace over violence and destruction, to choose life over the culture of death, to choose faith over doubt and despair. Having received in our hearts a down payment on Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, we are able to lead lives filled with purpose, peace, and joy.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A: Advent I

        Matthew 24:37-44
Isaiah 2:1-15
Romans 13:8-14


Having raised three children into adulthood, I’ve had many occasions on which to reflect, over the past several years, on the differences between the environment in which they were raised and the environment in which I was raised. In many respects, my children and I were raised in very different worlds. But there is one experience, at least, which they and I share. We’ve all had some version of the following conversation—I with my parents, my children with me: “Why do you want to do that?”  “Because all the other kids are.”  “Well, if all the other kids were jumping off a cliff,  would you want to do that too?” And the conversation usually breaks down at about that point with a sigh and rolled eyes. Peer pressure wasn’t new yesterday and it won’t be old tomorrow. It’s part of growing up, a universal experience that young people have to deal with.

But what we may be less aware of is that peer pressure is not just for young people anymore. All of us—whether we’re seven or seventy-seven, or any other age—we all experience a tremendous amount of sometimes subtle but always present pressure from our peers in the culture around us. Pressure from our cultural surroundings is intense, virtually irresistible at times. I was raised in a Christian subculture that was opposed to social dancing. (If you’ve ever seen me on a dance floor, this fact becomes painfully obvious.) When I was in first grade, my teacher decided that, on the last day of school, we’d have a dance. She told us to bring our favorite records. When I conveyed this request to my mother, she had a fit! She instructed me to tell my teacher that dancing was “against my religion.” My mother and I experienced peer pressure from our culture. I can’t say I was crushed by having to be a wallflower at my first dance. But I didn’t quite get it either. Dancing seemed pretty normal to me—people did it on TV all the time. Later, when I was in high school, I was a little more wistful about it. I was aware that being the kind of Christian that my parents had raised me to be placed me outside the norm of the larger culture. What was normal for most people was not normal for me.

We all want to be normal. We want to fit in. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves by being odd or quirky. And most Christians like to think that it’s possible to be a Christian and still “go with the flow,” to be a Christian and still be quite “normal.” Episcopalians, in particular, seem to be invested in not calling attention to ourselves by our religiosity. We don’t want our piety or our prayer or our religious language to cause us to stand out in a crowd. We want to practice Christian religion in the most “normal” way possible, along with being “normal” voters and drivers and homeowners and parents and grandparents and patriotic citizens.

We have much in common with some of our prehistoric ancestors, those who were around in what Jesus refers to as “the days of Noah.” Now, when you read the book of Genesis, it’s quite clear that the reason God destroyed the earth with a flood in “the days of Noah” was because of rampant violence and evil in human society. But Jesus, curiously, doesn’t mention anything about that violence and evil. When Jesus talks about the “days of Noah,” he mentions eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage—all pretty normal, boringly normal, stuff. It was, in fact, their attachment to those and other perfectly normal activities that caused them to be blindsided by divine judgement when it arrived in the form of a flood.

I fear that we in our society are also allowing ourselves to be set up to be blindsided by divine judgement. We want to eat and drink and marry and give in marriage, and go to school, and travel, and work, and make friends, and save for and enjoy a comfortable retirement, and have some fun along the way, and—some of us, at least—to even be a little religious along the way, as long as we don’t make too big a deal out of it. Until relatively recent years, our society has fostered the notion that being a good Christian is really just an extension of being a good citizen—live by the golden rule and attend the church of your choice on Sunday. All very normal. Until it starts to rain and the flood waters rise and we realize, too late, that we should have been paying more attention to that kooky fellow named Noah (nothing normal about him) who spent so much time building a boat in his backyard.

However, it’s not only our attachment to the normal that will blind us to the impending judgement of God, but also our seemingly endless capacity to normalize that which is really ab-normal or sub normal. There are several examples I could point to, but one in particular impresses me just because of the work that I do. I would suspect that, forty or fifty years ago, an unmarried couple who were living together, but wanted to do the right thing, and get properly married, would probably expect that the priest whom they hoped would officiate at their wedding would require them to first move to separate addresses, and probably also ask them to plan a low-key and informal wedding. There was an element of appropriate shame involved in the whole process. Thirty or forty years ago, the same couple would at least try to conceal the fact that they share sleeping quarters, and if they couldn’t conceal it, to at least smile shyly and act duly apologetic and embarrassed. Nowadays, and for the last 25 years or so, the same couple wouldn’t even think to either conceal what they’d been doing or be embarrassed about it in the least. It strikes them as eminently normal, simply the way things are done—and they’re right, it is the way things are done. You meet somebody, sleep together, live together, and then, if everything works out, you get married. You may even have a child or two first!

We have indeed normalized the sub-normal, in this and in so many other ways. And in our attachment to the normal—whether it’s true normality or false normality—the last thing we want to hear is the message of Advent, which is a message of consequences, a message of responsibility, a message of judgement. It’s a message that confronts us, of course, all throughout the year, but in Advent it takes on a tone of urgency. Jesus says, “Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your lord is coming.” Right there is a challenge to the normal. It’s not normal to be always watchful, always vigilant, always aware that cataclysmic radical change may arrive at any moment.

But that’s the attitude that Jesus urges us to have. And if we’re looking for comfort on this first Sunday of Advent, we won’t find it from St Paul. His message is just as pointed at Jesus’:  
“...you know what hour it is, how it is full time for you now to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...”.  
Advent is God’s alarm clock waking us from our complacent attachment to the normal. It’s time to wake up and smell the coming of Christ!  It’s time to get up, and lay aside what’s normal  and make a radical decision, a radical commitment to Christ, lest we find ourselves in the position of those who lived in the days of Noah, but also died in the days of Noah, because they weren’t on the ark when the rains came. It’s time for us normal Episcopalians to start doing and saying things that risk getting the attention of those around us, things that might relegate us to the margins of our culture, for the sake of Christ and the gospel of Christ. We need to learn from the experience of some of our Christian brethren in other traditions—traditions we may have looked down on as marginal or fanatical or a little odd—but traditions which have maintained a healthy critical distance from the prevailing secular culture.  We may not agree with them in the details—I, for one, don’t think the dance floor is the beginning of the road to Hell—but they have learned a point of view, a habit of the heart, that we would do well to imitate. Dancing may not damn us, but an attachment to being “normal” just might.

Jesus says that when he comes again in power and great glory to judge the world, people will be found doing normal things. Two men will be working in the field, two women will be grinding at the mill. We might add signs of normality that are more appropriate to our experience: two men on the same factory floor, or on the same putting green; two women working in the same office, or taking their children to the same park. At first glance, one is indistinguishable from the other. But Jesus says, at the moment of his coming, they will look very different indeed. One will be revealed as among those who have been co-opted, seduced, by normality, who have persistently excluded God from their lives, and will therefore be allowed to reap the fruit, the natural consequences, of those choices. The final portion of the Godless is to be without God. The other will be revealed as part of the community of the redeemed, the company of those who have yielded their hearts and lives to the Lord of history. They will enjoy the vision of universal justice and peace which Isaiah, the prophet of the Advent, writes about so movingly: “...they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Are we willing to risk being a little bit “different,” a little bit “abnormal” now, for the sake of being numbered among those who are “taken” rather than “left” on that great day? Now is the hour of decision, the crisis is now. Jesus wants to do business in your heart, in my heart, today. But he can’t do the work he wants to do if we don’t let loose of being normal. Are we ready to give it up? The phone’s for you. It’s Jesus. He’s on hold, waiting for your answer. What’s it going to be?

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

C: Christ the King

     Colossians 1:11-2
Luke 23:35-43
Jeremiah 23:1-6


As many of you know, my father was born and raised in Brazil. He immigrated to this country when he was in his twenties, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen when he was about forty. Being Brazilian, of course, he knew nothing about that quintessential American pastime—baseball.  I, on the other hand, was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, so, despite my Brazilian ancestry, I was keenly interested in baseball. When my dad, being the dutiful father that he was, took me to my first big league ball game, he brought along a news magazine to keep him occupied! There’s a certain subtlety and relaxed sophistication to the game of baseball that causes those who are not brought up on it to find it boring. When you’re raised on soccer, a baseball game must seem like nothing’s going on most of the time. That isn’t true, of course, but it seems that way. Until you reach a certain threshold of knowledge and experience, baseball can be both confusing and dull. But when you cross that threshold, a baseball game becomes a work of performance art, always a potential masterpiece in the making, a thing of beauty and a source of joy. 

I cannot help but reflect that there is a similar dynamic at work in the liturgy of the church, the worship of Almighty God. There are those who attend church—certainly the majority of our “Christmas and Easter” friends, but even many who attend more frequently—for whom the liturgy is like a baseball game for my Brazilian father fifty years ago. There are those for whom being in church is something to be endured—patiently much of the time, but often with a good bit of fidgeting and even resentment. Their minds are not challenged by the mystery of the gospel, their hearts are not uplifted in praise to the God of all creation, and their wills are not moved to obedience and sacrifice in the cause of Christ. Our response to being present at Christian worship is commensurate with our experience of the living God. Experience shapes perception

Imagine for a moment that you work for the newspaper, The Daily Planet, and one of your colleagues is a reporter named Clark Kent. You’re likely to think of him as a nice enough guy, a good reporter, good-looking, perhaps, and a decent human being. But if I were to suggest that you should be in awe of Clark Kent, respectfully silent in his presence, because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you would think I’d gone round the bend. And your opinion of my suggestion would be based on your experience of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.

Two of our readings from scripture today lead us to perceive our Lord Jesus in the same light in which a reporter for The Daily Planet might perceive Clark Kent. Jeremiah describes a wise and righteous king whom the Lord will raise up to rule over his people. The church has always understood this passage to be a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. But the king that Jeremiah describes is not a conquering hero, not overflowing with machismo, not enthroned in royal splendor. Rather, this righteous king rules over his people with the gentle care of a shepherd. Talk about a mild-mannered profession! A shepherd-king is not likely to evoke a sense of awe and wonder.

The reading from Luke’s gospel is even less flattering. Jesus hangs on the cross, in abject weakness. The guards and the soldiers and the temple authorities are mocking his claim to kingship as he hangs there bleeding to death. Every indication is that they will indeed have the last laugh. This scene is poignant, and it may evoke pity. But taken by itself, it does not present us with a picture of the kind of king we would want to pay homage to.  Experience shapes perception, and the experience of a mild-mannered shepherd king, and a young man dying in weakness on a cross, does not lead us to a perception of Jesus Christ as a king worthy of our adoration and worship. We are like the foreigner who finds baseball confusing and dull. We have not crossed the necessary threshold of knowledge and experience.

The epistle reading appointed for this last Sunday of the Christian year comes at the mystery of the kingship of Christ from an entirely different direction. Listen to the words of St Paul to the Colossians:

          He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.

This is no docile shepherd, no dying figure on a cross. This is the Lord of the universe, the be-all and end-all of everything that is. This is Ultimate Reality.

So why aren’t we shaking in our boots?

We remain unmoved because it seems so far away. If the portrait of Christ painted in the letter to the Colossians were the only one I had, my attachment and devotion to him would be about as profound as that which I feel toward the manufacturer of my iPhone. It is intricately designed, with a great deal of sophistication that is beyond my comprehension. But one of these days it will break or wear out, and be beyond repair. It will then be unceremoniously thrown away, and the person or persons who made it will neither mourn nor even know of the demise of their handiwork. If our perception of Christ is like our perception of a cell phone maker, it is no wonder that our minds and hearts and wills are left cold and unmoved by worship. We have not yet experienced an object of worship that is worthy of free-flowing praise and adoration.  It is only when we combine the images of Jeremiah’s shepherd-king, and Luke’s dying savior, with Paul’s pre-eminent cosmic Lord of all creation, that we begin to get a clue. It is when we bring those visions into coherence and focus that we leap over that threshold of perception that moves us from boredom and confusion into wonder and awe.

And the clue that makes this movement possible is this: it is precisely through—not in spite of, but through—his suffering servanthood that the cosmic Christ demonstrates his worthiness of our praise and adoration and thanks.  This is the mind-bending, heart-warming, action-inducing paradox of the gospel. This is the mystery which, if embraced, will make regular worshipers out of Christmas and Easter churchgoers, and devoted followers of Christ out of complacent pew-warmers. There is no illustration that can do justice to this paradoxical mystery of divine kingship revealed through suffering servanthood. But there are any number of telltale traces in our experience; it’s as if Christ our servant-king has left markers all over the place which, if we will observe them, will lead us to him.  In the early 1980s, when Great Britain mounted a successful military campaign to oust Argentine forces from the Falkland islands, many were impressed that the Queen’s own blood was on the line, in the person of her son, Prince Andrew, who was the pilot of a Royal Navy helicopter. More recently, one of the Queen’s grandsons was for a brief while in harm’s way as a member of the British military in Afghanistan. The sight of royalty putting its own neck on the block is ennobling, and stirs the spirit. It is a marker that points us to Christ the king who was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 

Every Holy week, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of Rome, spiritual father to a billion Christians, humbles himself to wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation in St Peter’s Basilica. Of course, the pope is himself waited on hand and foot the rest of the year, but his actions on Maundy Thursday nevertheless are a marker that points us to Christ the King, in all things pre-eminent, in whom and through whom all things were created, but who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. When we follow these and other markers that God, in his mercy, has left in our path, we come to know Christ the King. We cross that vital threshold of knowledge and experience that elevate us from grudging observers of worship to full-throated participants.

In time, my father learned the game of baseball. At the meal following his funeral, we all wore Cubs hats specifically in his honor, because he had become a true fan of both the Cubs and the game of baseball. And if my Brazilian father can become a baseball fan, that, to me, is a sign of abundant hope that, even as we are here today in the very courts of the Most High God, the scales can be lifted from our eyes and we can catch such of glimpse of his glory that our hearts will burn within us and our voices will shout with praise to Christ, who is our tender shepherd, and our crucified savior, and our heavenly king. All hail the power of Jesus’ name, who alone is worthy to be crowned with many crowns. Alleluia and Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

C: Proper 28

 Luke 21:5-19
II Thessalonians 3:6-13


I’m the oldest of seven siblings. The one who’s closest to me in age is my brother Phil. Phil is a prankster. He loves to play practical jokes. And he discovered very early that his older brother is a really easy mark. When I was in college, and he still in high school, Phil had me on the phone to an auto parts store inquiring about the price of a quart of “piston slap.” His biggest offense, for which it took me a long while to forgive him, was when he coaxed me to put my high school class ring into a length of pipe that he presented to me, on the pretense of “show[ing me] something,” and then going outside and tossing the ring around with a friend of his until it fell into a flower bed. I have to think it might still be in that flower bed, because we never found it.

It’s no fun to be tricked, no fun to be deceived, is it? I occasionally look at the comic strip Close to Home. Recently it depicted a drug store pharmacist holding up a bottle and saying to a customer, “The bad news is, it costs $700 and your insurance won’t cover it. The good news is, it will absolutely cure you of being gullible.” I have to admit, I had a moment or two of identifying with that poor customer! In the Great Litany, which we will pray at the beginning of Mass a couple of weeks from today, there’s a petition on behalf of “all such as have erred, and are deceived.” It’s not only not fun to be deceived, taken, swindled, conned, led down the primrose path; sometimes it can be dangerous, and downright deadly.

Today we are with Jesus in the last few days before his passion. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph, and now he’s with his disciples in the temple. A couple of years ago, I walked in that same area. There’s only one wall of that temple still standing, and that was impressive enough. But I did get to see a large scale model of the way in looked in Jesus’ day, and it was stunning. It had a ground footprint, and took up an amount of airspace, comparable to a major professional sports stadium today. It was massive. Somebody remarks to Jesus about how beautiful it is, and Jesus immediately predicts its destruction. So they ask, in effect, “When? How are we going to know that this is about to happen?” And Jesus says—and, again, I’m paraphrasing—“Watch out! People are going to try to con you. People are going to try to tell you that they speak for me, or are me. People are going to give you all kinds of ‘evidence’ and try to get you to go along with them. Don’t do it!”

Apparently, it didn’t take too long for people in the earliest Christian communities to illustrate exactly what Jesus was talking about. St Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians are probably the earliest written documents in the New Testament; we’re talking barely twenty years after Jesus walked on the earth. Already there are those who are laboring under the impression—or not laboring, actually, which is the point—the impression that Jesus has already returned to this world and inaugurated God’s heavenly reign. So there’s no need to work. It’s time to just kick back and let God run the show. “Not so fast!” says Paul. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Got it?” He actually had to be a little stern with them. Some of the Thessalonian Christians had been deceived—led astray, hoodwinked—by false teaching. They had allowed to happen to them what Jesus warned against that day in the temple.

What makes this so difficult—at least for gullible people like me—is that it’s pretty darn easy to be deceived. I’m a terrible liar, and I’m terrible at spotting liars. How can I know that I’m not being taken for a ride—especially when it comes to what’s true about Ultimate Reality, about God? How do I avoid ending up like those poor Thessalonian slackers that St Paul was yelling at? I suspect that many of you have had moments when you’ve asked yourself the same question.

So what I need to do now, I’m afraid, is talk some serious theology with you. In his message to the Thessalonians, Paul tells them—commands them, actually; quite strong language—to “keep away from any brother or sister who is living in idleness, and not in accord with the tradition that you have received from us.”

Not in accord with the tradition that you have received from us.

Here’s the clue we’re looking for, I think; the cure for gullibility. Only it won’t cost us $700 a bottle. The word “tradition” might be a little scary at first. It might call to mind frozen attitudes, antiquated ideas and procedures, or something that is of human rather than divine origin. Some of us would walk over glass in bare feet before hearing ourselves labeled as “traditionalists”!  So I offer you this image: Think of a relay race at a track meet. A team of runners participates in this event, but they don’t all run at the same time. At designated points during the race, one runner passes a baton to another runner on his or her team. In order to prepare for this exchange, the new runner starts out and picks up speed so that the handoff of the baton can take place without breaking stride. For a little while, both teammates are running side by side. Then, after passing the baton, the first runner drops away and the second runner continues the race.

The New Testament Greek word that gets translated as “tradition” literally means “handing along.” It refers to precisely what takes place in a relay race when the baton is passed. Possession of the baton is the outward sign, the guarantee, that the race is being run in an orderly fashion. The holder of the baton is the legitimate representative of his or her team. And you don’t get to hold the baton unless you hang out with the team, unless you participate in the community that is the team. If you don’t operate as part of the team, you’re not in the right place at the right time, and you miss the handoff of the baton.

My friends, the Catholic Church is the team. (Sadly, it’s still necessary to qualify a statement like that: I’m not speaking of the Roman Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church of the creeds, the body of which Christ is the Head and all baptized persons are the members, the visible body of which we, as Anglican Christians, are a part.) And the content of our faith—our tradition—is the baton.  Possession of the baton is the outward sign that we’re running the race in an orderly fashion, that we have received the faith from the previous generation, and they from the one before theirs, and so on back to the generation of Paul and the Thessalonians.

And what is this “baton” that we have received, and which we will hopefully pass on, made up of? There are many ways we could answer that question, but here’s one that is probably as good as any other. Back in the 1886, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Chicago, adopted a statement of principles on which this church would base its conversations with other Christian bodies. A couple of years later, this statement was adopted, with minor modifications, by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world. It became known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, because it has these four points:

1.     The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2.     The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
3.     The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, using the words and elements ordained by Christ himself.
4.     The Historic Episcopate—that is, the line of succession of bishops, a visible sign of continuity that can be followed back to Christ and the apostles.

There is certainly more that we would want to say about the content of our faith, about the “baton” that we are presently holding as we run our leg of the journey, but these four points give us a base from which to operate in our relations with other Christians. I would suggest that they also give us a base from which to insulate ourselves from the danger of deception. If we don’t every stray too far from the scriptures, the creeds, the sacraments, and the ministers of the sacraments, it’s hard for me to imagine that we would fall victim to false teachers or false prophets or just garden variety sloppy theology.

The “baton” of sacred tradition has been handed off to us from previous generations. Some of us are just now getting up to speed to receive the baton. Some of us are in the midst of the race. Some of us are approaching the handoff point and are looking for the next runner. Together, we are all awaiting the appearing of our Savior, not resting from our labors until we hear him call our name, and greet his return, not with shame or fear, but with great joy. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

All Saints (2010)

I’ve always been particularly fond of the opening words of the Prayer Book collect for All Saints’ Day: “O God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord…” Knit together. It’s such a homely image; “homely” in a good way—comforting, familiar, “warm and fuzzy.” I don’t myself knit—hopefully you don’t find that too much of a shock!—but I’ve watched people knit—well, not “watched” actually, but been casually in their presence while they’re knitting—and I’ve always found the process rather amazing, almost magical. There’s a skein of yarn on the floor, with a line leading up to a person sitting in a chair wielding a pair of needles, usually looking quite relaxed and contented and able to carry on a more-than-decent conversation and possibly even follow the plot of a TV show at the same time. And then, pretty soon, I’m looking at a pair of baby booties, or a sweater, or a shawl, or some other product that has been “knit together.” It’s something tangible and coherent and useful. A ball of yarn is just a ball of yarn, but a sweater is … something.

So, according to the Prayer Book at least, God knits. God has knit together his elect, his chosen ones—and that would presumably include you and me—God has knit us together—we who are just a ball of yarn on the floor—God has knit us together in “one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [his] Son Christ our Lord.” It’s important to keep two things firmly in mind here: First, the “one communion and fellowship” into which God has knit us includes both those whom we would call “living” and those whom we would call “dead.” The line in the creed about the “communion of saints” means, among other things, that the membrane separating this world from the world to come is an awfully thin one. Second, the phrase “mystical body” is biblical and theological code language for the Church. Through the waters of baptism, we, the living and the dead, have been knit together in the fellowship of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. We’re going to baptize a couple of little ones today, Isaiah and Mallory. Together, we are going to be God’s knitting needles, and take these two precious children from being part of a ball of yarn on the floor to being part of the one communion and fellowship that God is continuously knitting together. It’s an exciting moment when we stop and think about it!

I take the trouble to remind us of these facts because it is of the nature of our actual human experience in actual human life to make us forget them. Instead of feeling like we’ve been knit together into anything, we’re more likely to feel like we’re unraveling. Unexpected misfortune happens—our favorite restaurant or store closes, our favorite team loses, the elections don’t go the way we think they should, the stock market tanks, the real estate market capsizes, energy prices force us to change our lifestyles, seniors are forced to choose between the medicine they need and the food they need, we get an acid stomach when the first news we hear in the morning is of more casualties in Afghanistan, or floods and volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. The people in our life, from restaurant servers to spouses, let us down and fail to be what we need them to be. Too often, the people we need the most abandon us twice—first in their living and then in their dying. We experience loneliness and isolation and quiet desperation in abundance as we negotiate the hazards of life in this “broken and sinful world.”

In the end, we become depressed and cynical en route to terminal despair. This is the default condition of our society, my friends, and I’m not just talking about those who are on the margins—the poor, the homeless, those whose lives have been trashed by addiction. I’m talking about people who hold respectable jobs and live in respectable neighborhoods and who give every appearance of having their act together, of being on top of their lives. If 21 years of pastoral ministry have taught me anything, it’s not to automatically trust the fa├žade. I’ve seen behind it too many times. Americans are endemically lonely. And it’s no wonder; we are the descendants of people who made some very risky individual decisions, leaving countries where their ancestors had lived for generations and heading into uncharted territory. Without a strong sense of individualism, they would never have made it. But there’s a cost. They passed on their individualistic DNA to us, and we’re lonely. Medieval Europeans knew something about being “knit together.” Theirs was a communitarian society, and in many ways it was a more natural fit with the Christian notion of being “knit together in one communion and fellowship” than ours is. So we’re lonely. And loneliness leads to cynicism, and cynicism leads to desperation and despair, and desperation and despair lead to violence and all sorts of other mayhem. So much of the world’s suffering is the result of violence, and so much violence is the result of desperation, and so much desperation flows from cynicism that is rooted in loneliness, a sense of being disconnected, unraveled, no longer knit together, no longer knit together in one anything, let alone one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And so we come back to the objective fact of our baptism, which Isaiah and Mallory remind us of in a very tangible way. They are signs to us of our connection, our being a part of something—not a skein of yarn on the floor, but a sweater, or a shawl, or at least a pair of baby booties. We have been knit together—knit together with Christ, and knit together with one another. We have been knit together with the communion of saints, the assembly of God’s holy ones, gathered around the heavenly throne waving palm branches and wearing white robes that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. We are no longer lonely, because we are connected to the mystical body of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Church—the Church Militant feebly struggling on earth, the Church Expectant being led from glory to glory in Paradise, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven, those whose heroic witness to Christ we especially honor today. We are no longer lonely because we have been knit together into a fellowship of love and prayer. People may let us down, but we have been knit into Christ. Troubles may multiply, but we have been knit into Christ. We are part of the one communion and fellowship of all the saints, a fellowship of love and prayer that forms a support system in this world and a celestial cheering section in the next. This provides us with abundant hope in this world and unending joy in the world to come. All saints, all holy men and women of God, pray for us. Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

C: Proper 26

Luke 19:1-10

I don’t know if you’ve even heard the expression “post-modern,” but it’s a term that has been cropping up more and more over the last several years. Those whose business it is to make wise and penetrating observations about the evolution of our culture have coined the phrase to describe the way people of certain generations tend to think. Post-modernism as a thought process is largely absent from what has been called the “World War II generation”—those who were children during the Great Depression. It begins to become visible among “Baby Boomers”—that is, my own generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. But in the succeeding generations—so-called “Generation X,” people who are now in their 30s—as well as what many refer to as “Millennials,” young people who are presently in their 20s—among these younger generations of adults, post-modernism is not only one visible thread in the fabric, it’s the dominant thread in the fabric.
Without taking the time to describe all the features of the post-modern way of thinking, let me just say this: People who are around my age and older are conditioned by a fairly large dose of scientific skepticism. Therefore we don’t naturally accept spiritual claims and spiritual assertions at face value. We tend to want to see some proof for what people say about spiritual reality. This is the “modern” way of thinking, and has been in vogue for about the past 300 years. The post-modern way of thinking, by contrast, is completely open to a wide range of notions and beliefs about spiritual reality. In fact, there seems to be no end to this openness. Post-modernism is accepting of just about any sort of spiritual claim, with the sole criterion of authenticity being that the person who makes the claim finds it useful or comforting or even perhaps just vaguely interesting.
So, the hallmark of the post-modern generations is a pervasive spiritual restlessness—a deep hunger for spiritual experience and a sense of purpose and direction in life, combined with a willingness to try just about anything. But at the same time, there seems to be a widespread difficulty in actually sticking with something for an extended period. All around us, there is this massive hunt for truth going on, but those who are chasing the truth seem to be alarmed by the possibility that they or anyone else might actually catch it! So often, the assumption seems to be that truth is by nature inherently difficult to find and hold onto.
But while the younger generations are spiritually restless, middle-aged and older Americans are, to a large extent, spiritually deaf and blind. We are heavily conditioned to value such things as personal independence and rugged individualism—the “I did it my way” philosophy of Frank Sinatra’s song. And, as I mentioned before, we are also conditioned to be “scientific” in our attitudes. It seems quite clear to us that any knowledge, any claim about truth—physical, emotional, or spiritual—any knowledge worth having results from, and only from, rigorous investigation. Maybe you’ve noticed how popular certain TV shows are that deal with crime scene investigation. The heroes of these shows are not street cops who rely on instincts and hunches based on years of experience, but, rather, science geeks who solve crimes in laboratories and surrounded by millions of dollars worth of scientific testing equipment.  Truth that can be had too cheaply doesn’t interest them. Only if it’s a scientific smoking gun is it worth taking to court. Oddly, then, for different reasons, these shows appeal both to modernists and to post-modernists.
There was once a fellow named Zacchaeus who was neither a modernist nor a post-modernist, but whose attitude combined both perspectives. St Luke the Evangelist tells us about Zacchaeus, and mentions two very salient facts about him: a) he was a tax collector, and b) he was short, noticeably shorter than the average adult male of his day. The first of these meant that he was considered beneath contempt, a social outcast. The second guaranteed that he was the object of a lot of laughing behind his back. Somehow, Zacchaeus got word that Jesus was going to be visiting Jericho, the town where he lived. He was determined to meet Jesus. It was really, really important to him to meet Jesus. So he did what it took to make that happen. He was willing to risk turning himself into a spectacle, a laughingstock. He climbed up into a sycamore tree along the route he figured Jesus would take, and edged himself out onto the branch overlooking the roadway.
Zacchaeus didn’t have the confidence that Jesus would even give him the time of day, let alone stop for a chat. It was up to him to make the encounter happen, if it was to be at all. Very often, people take a similar attitude in their relationship with God and God’s love. If the encounter is going to happen, they figure it’s up to them to make it happen. We flit from spiritual fad to spiritual fad. We try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, hoping that we might stumble across God in the process, just based on mathematical odds, if not our own wisdom and skill. In the end, though, we are swallowed up either by false pride for having “found” God on our own, or by despair for having failed to do so.
Fortunately, Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus shows us a different path. Indeed, Jesus’ route through Jericho does take him right under Zacchaeus’ perch. At that point, though, everything takes an unexpected turn. It’s time to think outside the box, to draw outside the lines. Not only does Jesus stop and chat with Zacchaeus, he invites himself home with Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus get yourself down from that tree; I’m comin’ to your house right now!”  Zacchaeus had thought he was looking for Jesus. The stunning truth, however, is that it was Jesus who was doing the looking; Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus.
There is a tremendous lesson for us here, whatever generation we’re a member of. It demonstrates to us that God’s love, far from being merely passive and responsive, waiting for us to make the first move—it demonstrates to us that God’s love is proactive—seeking us and pursuing us and finding us. And God’s love is tireless; it even seeks out the “hard cases.” It’s easy to love cute little kids and sweet old ladies. But funny-looking tax collectors like Zacchaeus? Well, that’s a love worth sitting up and taking notice of.
We need to work a little bit to understand just how impressive it was that Jesus publicly announced his intent to invite himself over to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. You see, Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, and not only short, but he was also rich. And it would have been presumed that his gains were mostly ill-gotten. Now, Jesus has already established, earlier in Luke’s gospel, that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, what does Jesus say about Zacchaeus? What does he say for all to hear? “Today salvation has come to this house…”  Wow! It sounds like a camel has just squeezed through the eye of a needle! It’s a veritable miracle, a miracle of God’s proactive love, love that doesn’t wait for us to seek it out, but, instead seeks us out, hunting us down relentlessly, and never giving up the chase.
What a blessing this is, my friends. God’s proactive love means that we can really rest spiritually. Of course, this is the complete opposite of the spiritual restlessness that consumes so many in the younger generations. It’s also the opposite of the spiritual blindness and deafness—a poisonous skepticism and callousness—that consumes so many in the older generations. When we come to terms with just how determined God is to love us, we begin to experience the truth of one of my favorite prayers from the Daily Office, from Morning Prayer on Thursdays, to be specific: “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life, we may not forget you, but…” – and here’s the kicker – “…that we may not forget you, but remember that we are ever walking in your sight.”  To be “ever walking in [God’s] sight”—this is both a comfort and a challenge—sometimes, we would rather not be walking in God’s sight, right?—but even as a challenge, it’s a powerful bit of evidence of Divine love, love in which Jesus seeks us out and invites himself into our hearts, even as he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home, love that we don’t have to climb any trees to find, and which we can never outrun. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.