Monday, February 8, 2010

C: Epiphany V

Luke 5:1-11

I Corinthians 15:1-11

One of my favorite scenes in all the movies I have ever seen is toward the end of The Godfather. Michael Corleone is attending a baptism, standing literally as his nephew’s godfather. With solemn organ music in the background, gradually increasing in volume and intensity, the priest asks him to renounce—on behalf of the infant candidate whom he is presenting—the priest asks him to renounce Satan, and all his works and all his ways. The godfather looks the priest straight in the eye, and firmly responds, “I renounce them.” While this is happening, Mr Corleone’s colleagues are executing a raid on several of the family’s “business rivals.” They methodically murder about a half-dozen people in the process, and later that day, Corleone orders the murder of his own sister’s husband, the father of the child who had just been baptized. The action cuts back and forth between the baptism and the raid, with the same music accompanying both activities. And the viewers ask themselves, “How can this be? How can Michael Corleone renounce the forces of evil with a straight face even while murders which he has orchestrated are being carried out at that moment? What a hypocrite!”


You and I might think so. But I don’t believe Michael Corleone felt he was being hypocritical. In fact, he probably thought of himself as being quite religious, and left a generous offering at the church following the baptism. He was simply keeping everything in its place, everything in its proper sphere. Business is business, family life is family life, recreation is recreation, and religion is religion. Each one is necessary. Each one has its own appropriate time and place. There is no inherent conflict between them because they don’t touch each other. It’s only when the boundaries between business and family and recreation and religion get blurred that trouble arises. Keep them separate, and everything should be OK.

To my knowledge, no member of this congregation has a relationship to the Mafia! Yet, we are not entirely unlike Mr Corleone in our capacity to compartmentalize our lives. We all do it, but particularly so when it comes to religion. It isn’t hostility to religion that I’m talking about here; quite the opposite. Many people see church attendance and other religious observance as an essential part of a healthy balanced life, almost a part of one’s civic duty as a good citizen. I remember watching children’s TV in the ‘50s and being solemnly reminded, in a parental tone of voice, “Boys and girls, be sure and worship in the church of synagogue of your choice this weekend.” It went right along with, “Be sure and eat well, get plenty of sleep and lots of exercise.”

This all serves to foster the notion that it is possible to be a good Christian, a communicant in good standing in your local parish church, have your children baptized and pay a modest pledge, and still otherwise lead a “normal” life in the larger society—send your kids to school, participate in a service club, get politically involved, be successful in business—all without calling attention to yourself. Religion is for Sundays and other special occasions, everything else is in its place, and there’s no reason it has to get all mixed up. When the compartments of life start to leak into each other, trouble happens. When Christian faith starts to affect our politics, or our living arrangements, or the way we pick our friends, or who we date, or the way we spend our time and money, or our business practices, that can be disturbing. It upsets the status quo, and makes everyone feel uncomfortable.

Our first instinct is to try and plug the leak as quickly as possible. One way to plug the leak is to label any behavior which springs from Christian faith, but which is outside its proper Sunday morning sphere, as “religious fanaticism.” Well, nobody want to be a religious fanatic, right?

So there’s tremendous pressure to cool it, to put religious talk and religious behavior back in its proper compartment. But if we allow ourselves to attend to the witness of holy scripture, it is possible to gain another perspective. Rather than assuming that our own contemporary experience sets the norm for what constitutes a healthy balanced life, and anything different is a variation from that norm, perhaps we ought to consider the possibility that the exact opposite is indeed the case. Perhaps we ought to consider the possibility that the experience of those people we meet in the pages of the Bible who found themselves unmistakably called by God to a particular task—maybe their experience is the norm against which we should compare our own. Maybe by taking seriously the experience of those whom we might even call “religious fanatics,” we can gain some insight into our own tendency to put God in a box and keep him on a leash.

Simon Peter was minding his own business one day, which happened to be fishing, along a lakeshore. He and Jesus were not yet well acquainted, but Jesus commandeered Simon’s boat, which was idle at the moment, as a stage from which to address the crowd that was gathered on the shore. When he was finished, he told Simon to put out into the deeper water and let down the nets to catch some fish. Well, Simon didn’t want to be impolite, but it was after hours. He had already put in his shift—and it was the all night graveyard shift, at that. And he had brought the boat back in with no fish to sell to the wholesaler, so he wasn't even in a very good mood. Still, Simon humored this strangely attractive character named Jesus and his net was filled with so many fish that he was barely able to make it back to shore. From then on, Simon would not be calling fish to their death, but men and women and children to new life. Simon would just as soon have been left alone, but he was called by God, and his priorities got re-ordered.

A decade or so after this incident by the lakeshore, Saul of Tarsus, an educated and zealous Jew, a member of the strictly observant party of the Pharisees, and also a Roman citizen, was doing his utmost to control the damage being done to the fabric of Jewish society and doctrinal truth by a band of heretics known as Christians, followers of a discredited rabble-rouser who had been put to death by the Roman government. On his way to Damascus to round up some of these Christians and bring them to trial, Saul had a close encounter of the scary kind with this discredited rabble-rouser who had been put to death, but who apparently had not been polite enough to remain dead. There was a bright light and a voice from heaven, and in that moment, Saul was called by God. He joined the group he had been persecuting, and, known by his Roman name of Paul, he would one day write a letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth, in which he recounted the appearances of the risen Christ to over five hundred witnesses, then, “last of all,” he says, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Paul was called by God, and his priorities got re-ordered.

Now, if these experiences—just to pick two of the possible three; I didn’t even mention Isaiah— that we find in today’s lectionary—if these experiences constitute some kind of norm to which we should conform our own attitudes, then there are serious implications for our instinct to compartmentalize religious behavior, to keep it polite and tame, to “fit in” to the world and not be too conspicuous. Simon Peter was not inconspicuous. Paul was not inconspicuous. They all had a real life, and a measure of contentment in that life. None of them were looking to have that status quo disrupted. In that respect, they were “just like us.” But if their experience is at all a pattern for ours, if the way God dealt with them is anything like the way he wants to deal with us, then there is one inescapable conclusion we can draw, and it is this: when God calls us, and we answer, our priorities get permanently and radically re-ordered. Things don’t stay the same. There is no guarantee of comfort.

And, dear friends, guess what? If you’re baptized, you’re called. This isn’t some hypothetical “somebody else” we’re talking about here. It’s me, and it’s you. And you may end up not feeling too kindly toward me for telling you that, because, as they say, ignorance is bliss. As long as we don’t know God has called us, we can persist in the illusion that it’s possible for a Christian to lead a normal life, to be balanced, to not let religion leak out into any of the other compartments, to be unconcerned with growth in Christian knowledge, growth in prayer, growth in personal holiness. But once we know otherwise—and now you do!—we can never rest until we answer that call. I hope, I pray, that one or more of you are finding yourself so disturbed by what I’m saying, so upset to hear that God has a call on your life, that you will lose sleep until you answer that call. It may not even be a call to do anything different than you’re already doing, but simply a call to do it differently, to think of it differently, to know that you are not your own, but are bought with a price, and that your life is his with God in Christ, to be willing to surrender your priorities, your attitudes, your conceptions of what constitutes a “balanced” life, over to the Lord who may indeed call you to become what others might see as a religious fanatic. When Christians answer God’s call, people become holy. And when people become holy, families and parishes and institutions and work environments get transformed. Wounds are healed, sins are forgiven, grace happens. Let it be so. Amen.

No comments: