Sunday, December 30, 2007

The First Sunday after Christmas, 2007

John 1:1-18

You may have observed, because you've frequently heard me refer to him and quote him, that the British scholar and writer C.S. Lewis has been one of the primary influences in my own faith journey. If nothing else, you may have read or seen the movie version of his children's series, The Chronicles of Narnia. One of the most popular of Lewis's works is a short and deceptively comical book—I say deceptively because it's really deadly serious—The Screwtape Letters. It's a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Satan's army, and his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil, who has been assigned to “win back” to the cause of “Our Father Below” a man who has recently become a believing and practicing Christian. Screwtape offers Wormwood the wisdom of his experience in dealing with such difficult situations.

In his preface, Lewis declares, “I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. ... The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has learned the knack; but ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me.”

Well ... I am pleased to announce today that I, the humble rector of St Anne's Episcopal Church in Warsaw, Indiana, after years of secret and painstaking research, have "learned the knack" that Lewis talked about! And even more amazing than that: This discovery has led me into the possession of a file of top secret security memos from the very highest echelons—or, I guess we should say, the lowest echelons—of Hell, the private files of the one they call “Our Father Below.” The code name for this highly sensitive file is, Operation Christmas. Today, only at St Anne's (wait till word of this gets out!), I am going to share with you some excerpts from the Operation Christmas file.

The first is a memo from the director of the S.I.A., the “Sub-Terranean Intelligence Agency”, and the date, as nearly as I can figure, refers to a time roughly two thousand years ago:


FROM: Beelzebub, Director, S.I.A.

TO: Our Father Below

RE: Recent Developments

Boss --

Our intelligence assets behind enemy lines are sending signals that something very serious and potentially alarming is afoot.

Ever since that incident with the apple in the garden, as you know, we've had the upper hand. The Enemy has had some limited success with a tribe of nomads called "Hebrews" (the more up-to-date name would be "Jews"; those humans are forever changing names), but in the meantime, in most other areas, we have made significant gains for our strategic position.

However, it appears now that the Enemy is taking action to seize the initiative. Our best reports from our most reliable sources all indicate that he has sent an extremely high-level emissary—some say that it's actually his own son, although we haven't confirmed that yet—who has actually become a human being! Just what the Enemy has in mind with this move, is not clear, but the possibilities, especially if this "ambassador" turns out to really be his son, are sobering to contemplate.

Some response on our part is clearly called for. I suggest that you immediately convene an emergency session of the I.S.C. (Infernal Security Council) to discuss the matter.

I am obsequiously yours, and I await your reply.


DATE: January 1, 304 A.D.

FROM: Mephistopheles

S.I.A. Station Chief, Rome

TO: Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director

At long last we appear to have a Roman emperor who is not only thoroughly converted to our side, but is also possessed of the requisite determination and fortitude to do something once and for all about these "Christians" who have been plaguing us. Emperor Diocletian has ordered a coordinated and uncompromising campaign aimed at nothing less than the total elimination of Christianity.

At the same time, we can help our own cause by continuing to foster nostalgic affection for the traditional pagan religions of the empire. In particular, the Festival of the Unconquered Sun, which is celebrated on the 25th of December each year, seems especially appropriate to our purposes. Many humans are very attracted to the Enemy by that scandalous turn of events of two and a half centuries ago when Jesus, just when we thought we were rid of him, somehow rose from the dead. We have, of course, always tried to conceal this fact, but with only limited success: Humans find the idea irresistible. Here's where the Festival of the Unconquered Sun comes in: They want a god who dies and rises? Here's one who does it every year—the Sun! If we can turn December 25th into a holiday that's celebrated fondly throughout the empire, then we can make sure that once Diocletian wipes out Christianity for the present, it will stay wiped out for the future.

(By the way, it's been a long time since I've had a promotion and a raise. Maybe this idea will earn me one?)


DATE: December 25, 451

FROM: Prince Darkness, Infernal Security Advisor

TO: Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director

This is to confirm our conversation earlier today in which I directed you to terminate your operative in Rome, Mephistopheles. His idea about promoting the Festival of the Unconquered Sun has backfired on us so completely that the original disaster has been compounded.

If this agent had done his research properly, he would have learned that it is the custom of the Enemy's followers to adopt and adapt the religious observances of the surrounding culture for their own purposes. Thus, what they have done with December 25 is entirely true to form: They have turned it into the remembrance of that very sneak attack which reversed everything we had accomplished in the Garden of Eden. Humbug! The gall of it!

See that Mephistopheles is immediately removed from Our Father's service.

P.S. I like your idea about trying to capitalize on the popularity of this Bishop Nicholas of Myra. Gift-giving and generosity are not qualities we normally seek to encourage, but these are not normal times. Anything that can distract people's attention from remembering the Enemy's visit to earth cannot but work to our advantage. Besides, once he's dead and gone, we can work on corrupting the memory of this "Saint Nicholas" into that of a harmless mythical hero. Who knows, if people begin to think of Nicholas this way, maybe we can train them to think of Jesus in the same way. Have your people flesh out a plan for me to look at.


DATE: January 20, 1981

FROM: Prince Darkness, I.S.C. Advisor

TO: Our Father Below

Your Most Corrupt Excellency:

This is in response to your request for an updated status report on Operation Christmas.

I am pleased to be able to tell you that, on the whole, the major objective of this operation is being met: i.e. neutralizing wherever possible the effect of the Enemy's Sneak Attack. As a percentage of total population, the number of the Enemy's followers has been steadily decreasing, particularly in the more developed nations.

The coming decade seems especially promising for our cause. Our S.I.A. station chief in the United States of America reports that the wholesome values of materialism, conspicuous consumption, envy of neighbor, and greed appear to be flourishing. Status symbols have never been taken more seriously. More to the point: We have been particularly successful in associating these values with the celebration of Christmas. Our operatives, both overt and covert, have arranged for the retailing industry to no longer merely respond to demand, but to create and control the demand for material gifts, and, moreover, to set the terms for the celebration of the season: when it starts, when it ends, what decorations are used, and what music is heard. We have made great strides is obscuring Christmas as a commemoration of the Sneak Attack.

Still, it is a year-to-year, day-to-day, person-to-person battle. Remembrance of the Sneak Attack is obscured, but not erased. The enemy's position is compromised, but he is still powerful. We must not let our guard down for a moment.


DATE: December 25, 1991

FROM: The Father Below

TO: All staff

I am taking this opportunity to communicate to each and every one of you my sincere gratitude for your superb and ongoing efforts in the execution of Operation Christmas.

As you are well aware, nearly two thousand years ago, on a day that will live in infamy, the Enemy himself, in the person of his own Son, actually became a human being, one of the pitiful creatures who descend from the ones we successfully recruited to our cause in the Garden of Eden. The events of the subsequent thirty-odd years are both too familiar and too ugly to bear recounting. Suffice it to say that the resurrection of the one whose name I still cannot bring myself to speak was such a blow that I wondered whether we would ever recover. It even still threatens our very existence. And when one of our own incompetent agents actually helped the Enemy's followers turn the anniversary of his birth into the most beloved and emotionally powerful holiday in human history ... well, what can I say? We got rid of him!

Yet, we struggle on, thanks to all of you. We successfully corrupted the memory of, and devotion to, Bishop Nicholas of Myra into the cult of a jolly old man who, like a powerful magnet, draws the attention and affection of human beings, especially children, away from the original basis of the festival. We have successfully corrupted the spirit of generosity and the impulse to gift-giving into a materialistic orgy of out-doing and out-spending last year. We have successfully engineered the celebration of the holiday to begin a month before the event, so when Christmas actually comes, people are so tired that they don't have the energy to pay attention to the reason for celebrating. And, thanks to the efforts of a secret task force whom I cannot yet name without jeopardizing their security, we have fostered the rise of what humans call "New Age" religion, which may yet reclaim December 25 as the Festival of the Unconquered Sun!

My friends, there is yet one more important task that I will call you to. This, I hope, will be the fatal blow to the remembrance of the Sneak Attack and the termination of this long and drawn-out Operation Christmas. There are those human beings who, for whatever reason, are just not vulnerable to the temptations of wealth or power or prestige. The are amused by the Santa Claus myth but don't pay much attention to it. They manage to not be consumed by the frantic pace of the season. What can we do to reach these people for our cause? There comes a time when it is necessary to tolerate, even encourage, good on a small scale in order to avoid good on a large and disastrous scale. I believe we must capitalize on people's innate goodness, to turn their strong points—unselfishness, generosity, loyalty, love—into their weak points, turn their advantage into our advantage. If we can foster the notion that the real meaning of Christmas is about love and patience and kindness and gentleness, about magical moments of generosity and human togetherness, of family and friends and traditions and values and doing a good deed for someone who's poor or lonely or hungry ... if we can spread the idea that these things, distasteful as they may be, are what Christmas is all about, then we can divert attention from the idea that Christmas is about the Enemy becoming a human being in order to win them all back from our side. To the extent that people remember the Sneak Attack at Christmastime, then everything we work for is in danger. We must not allow it! If we have to accomplish this by encouraging love and generosity, then so be it. In the end, victory will still be ours.

Merry Christmas, my demons, merry Christmas.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God ... and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve 2007

There is certainly no more emotional, no more feeling-laden time of year than Christmas. These feelings are evoked, as it were, on cue, stimulated by any number of powerful symbols: red and green sweaters or table decorations, fake snow in a department store display window, toy soldiers and nutcrackers, George Bailey fighting to save his Building & Loan in Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye trying to arrange one more tribute to the General Waverly at the ski lodge, or any number of tunes which we’re likely to hear in virtually any public place beginning the day after Thanksgiving.

Intense feelings are aroused by Christmas traditions unique to particular families, even if the meaning has long since been forgotten. I recently heard about a family for whom Christmas doesn’t happen until a blob of peanut butter is spread on somebody’s nose—nobody can say why anymore. For another family, it was a solemn Christmas ritual to slice of an inch from the top of the ham before putting it in the oven. This went on for years before somebody eventually explained that, decades earlier, in an apartment none of the family lived in anymore, the oven was exceptionally small, so they had to cut the top off the ham!

For each of us here tonight, this complex of feelings and symbols supplies us with a very personal signal that Christmas has officially arrived. For me, it’s when I here the last verse of the hymn “Once In Royal David’s City,” with a certain organ accompaniment and vocal descant. It’s like a remotely-triggered bomb in my heart: When my ears hear that music, the bomb goes off, and, for me, Christmas is here. And the feelings associated with Christmas are, of course, positive ones: love and peace, good will and good cheer, cooperation and courtesy, festivity and joy.

Joy, in fact, is why we are here at this hour, doing what we’re doing. Holy Mother Church bids us rejoice tonight, with an intensity that is matched only by the Great Vigil of Easter. St Anne’s is decked out in its most splendid finery—vestments, flowers, silver, and polished brass. Our most treasured music and our richest ceremony is on display tonight. We hear scriptures that speak of Good News. We sing “Gloria” and “Alleluia,” two of the most ancient and universal Christian shouts of joyful praise. In everything we do, we are proclaiming, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her King.”

But as we all know, Christmas also has a dark side. Ask any mental health care provider and you will learn that this is the time of year when their client load reaches its annual peak. People who are estranged from their families, or prevented by geography and finances from being with them, experience a profoundly painful form of loneliness at Christmastime. The incidence of suicide tends to spike upward during the month of December. And it is during this season that those who are already vulnerable to economic exploitation are in an even more precarious position than usual. The urge to provide children with exactly what will make their eyes light up on Christmas morning is virtually irresistible for a loving parent. This urge is responsible for a mountain of credit card debt that can take literally a lifetime to get free from.

So, maybe you don’t really much feel like rejoicing tonight. Maybe your credit cards are overworked getting ready for tomorrow morning. Maybe you’ve already eaten enough junk food at grazing parties to ruin your health for months to come. Maybe you’ve suffered a loss this past year that makes any Christmas joy fade into the background. Perhaps you are facing a crisis that requires a difficult decision, and you just don’t know what you’re going to do, and Christmas is, at best, a temporary distraction from that oppressive anxiety. Maybe you are aware of a personal moral or ethical failure on your part that makes Christmas rejoicing seem hypocritical. Perhaps you are bitter about a relationship gone sour, or fond hopes that never quite seem to materialize, remaining just beyond your grasp. I could go on all night—there are plenty of reasons why any one of us is not prepared for the demand that we rejoice on this feast of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What, then, is the Church’s response to those who don’t feel like rejoicing? Well, there are two. The first one is a bit of a horse pill. We’re going to need a lot of buttermilk to wash it down. Put simply, it’s this: “It doesn’t matter how you feel. Rejoice anyway. It’s your job.” Have you ever noticed how sublimely apathetic the church calendar is toward the feelings of those who gather for worship? There is no set of instructions in the front of the Prayer Book that says to the priest, “Use these prayers, or these readings, or these hymns if you think people are in a good mood, and these others if you suspect they may be a little cranky.” The ushers didn’t take a survey at the door when you arrived tonight, and say,“Pessimists to the left, optimists to the right.”

The liturgy is not like eating at a five star restaurant, where you can order anything you’re hungry for off an extensive menu. No, it’s more like Aunt Betty’s Boarding House, where, if it’s Tuesday, meatloaf is what’s for dinner. If this is December 24, it must be Christmas Eve, so rejoicing is on the menu tonight, regardless of whether you or I are in the mood for it. And the reason is pretty much that same as why Aunt Betty serves spinach with her meatloaf— “Because it’s good for you!” God knows, the Church knows, that rejoicing is good for us, so we are commanded to rejoice.

Public worship isn’t really about sharing our moods with God, anyway. There’s certainly room for that in private prayer, but that’s not what corporate worship is for. Worship is about God sharing his moods with us. If it’s Advent or Ash Wednesday, we confess our sins and ask for the grace to repent. If it’s the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, we just keep on keeping on; everything’s normal. If it’s Easter or Christmas . . . we rejoice. In the end, it’s God’s mood, not ours, that’s important, and we do well to put our souls in phase with the rhythms of God’s heart. The liturgy is what helps us do just that.

But there’s another response that Holy Mother Church makes to those who don’t feel like rejoicing tonight, and this one is much softer and more sympathetic and understanding and appealing. To quote the medieval English mystic, St Julian of Norwich, “All is well. All is well. All manner of things shall be well.” And that isn’t just a 14th century version of “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s much more profound than that, because it’s based on the solid foundation of the very reason for our rejoicing: God is with us. The Word has become flesh. The gap between heaven and earth has been forever bridged. Alienation and fear and despair do not have the last word. God has the last word, and that word is reconciliation, that word is hope, that word is love, that word is—yes—joy. We are invited to rejoice because there is more than enough reason to rejoice, no matter what else may be going on in our lives.

Christmas may be full of feelings, but Christmas joy is not merely a good mood, or sentimentality, or being happy that you got a raise, or rekindled an old flame, or solved a problem or because of any other conceivable circumstance in our concrete experience. Christmas joy happens, not only in spite of, but in the face of, all the other “stuff” that happens. In fact, the more such “stuff” our lives are full of, the more clearly we can see
both our need for rejoicing and our reason for rejoicing. So, if you’re happy tonight because things are going well for you, then I give thanks with you. If you’re sad tonight because things are going poorly for you, then I weep with you. But in either case, I’m going to rejoice tonight, because it’s good for me, and I invite you to do the same, because it’s good for you, and because “All is well, all is well, all manner of things shall be well.” The Word is made flesh: Come, let us adore him. Amen.

Year A: Advent IV (23 December 2007)

Matthew 1:18-25
Romans 13:8-14
Isaiah 7:10-17

My wife and children, if you were to ask them, would readily verify one characteristic of the way I behave, and that is that I don't really like surprises. Good news, of course, is always welcome, whenever it arrives; that's not the kind of surprise I'm talking about. The situation that I find...emotionally the one which asks me to make a last-minute, unanticipated change of plans. It has a tendency to make me...just a wee bit...grumpy.

It's a good thing my name is not Joseph, living in first-century Palestine, in the village of Nazareth. I don't know that I would have coped very well with finding out that my fiancée, with whom I myself had so far behaved as a perfect gentleman, was pregnant—and by the Holy Spirit, so she says! Indeed, it appears that Joseph did not exactly take the news lightly. But he did keep his cool. He didn't make a scene. He just decided to quietly break off the engagement and get on with his life.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that Joseph just assumed that if Mary was pregnant, and he was not responsible, then some other man was. Going through with the marriage, then, was out of the question. He would never be able to look at his wife or child and not see and feel the presence... of someone else, an interloper, a usurper. Joseph would have been within his rights to publicly humiliate Mary. Indeed, the punishment for her presumed offense under Hebrew law was death by stoning. So his decision to keep everything quiet is seen as a noble and gracious act.

But there's another way of looking at this strange set of circumstances. The text of Matthew's gospel, which is the only account we have of these events from Joseph's perspective, gives us no reason to suspect that he did not simply take Mary at her word when she said that her pregnancy was by the Holy Spirit and that there had been no other man. Maybe Joseph felt overshadowed by the same presence which was with Mary when she was visited by the angel Gabriel. “The Holy Spirit!? How could I possibly ever be worthy of living as a husband with someone chosen by the LORD to be the mother of the long-expected Messiah?” He had the legal right to enforce the marriage contract, of course, but figured this was one right it would be best not to exercise. If the Almighty wanted her, the Almighty could have her!

Any way you look at it, though, Joseph is the odd man out. There is someone else in the picture. Something or someone is present with him, whether it's one of his fellow villagers in Nazareth, or the Holy Spirit of God. Whichever it is, though, forgetting about this marriage idea seems the only prudent course to follow.

Have you ever felt that something or someone is with you, but not be able to identify who or what it is? Have you ever experienced the nearness of a reality that you can't detect using any of the five senses that you learned about in grade school, but nevertheless feels profoundly and disturbingly close by? Have you ever felt a chill go down your spine ... at a mere thought? I have not yet met a human being who has attainted the age of reason and reflection who cannot testify to some such glimpse of the eternal, even if only for a fleeting moment. Yet, the way we respond, more often than not, is to just go on with our lives, to quietly break off from these moments of engagement with ultimate reality or with the kingdom of heaven or with whatever or whoever it is that's tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “I'm here.” We would rather remain ignorant than ask questions that might lead us to experience more anger or fear, or shame, or unworthiness.

The circumstances that Joseph found himself in were, to say the least, peculiar, but his sensation of presence, his knowledge that someone was with him, either for good or for ill, was as common a human experience as getting goose bumps watching a sunset. Joseph figured that the one who was with him was either a source of shame and embarrassment, or the source of such awe-ful glory as might well kill him with its brilliance. If he had gone through with his original plan to quietly break off his engagement to Mary, Joseph would never have learned that the right answer was “none of the above.” And when we disengage, when we break off our "engagement" from the presence that is with us, we forfeit the only chance we have of finding out who it is, the only chance we have of experiencing true and lasting hope, purpose, and joy. We spare ourselves the pain, but we don't get to enjoy the gain. All we get is more of the same!

Well ... The LORD, in his mercy, was not inclined to let Joseph off the hook without making one more effort. So he sent an angel to re-assure him that everything was going to be alright. Mary was indeed pregnant by the Holy Spirit, so he didn't have to be ashamed. But he also didn't have to worry about being unworthy, or the odd man out. God had chosen him, just as god had chosen Mary, to play a critical role at this critical point in the outworking of God's plan for the salvation of the human race. In that dream, the presence...made himself known. The one whom he had experienced as with him...was none other than God! The one who is present with us also makes himself known, not ordinarily through angelic visits in our dreams, but in the words of holy scripture, in the sacraments, and in the testimony of generation upon generation of saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs and ordinary everyday Christian believers. That which we first experience as "with us", is then revealed to us as “God.” The Hebrew word “Emmanuel”—Emmanuel for whom captive Israel mourns in lonely exile, Emmanuel whom we know to be the long-expected Jesus born to set his people free from their sins and fears—the name "Emmanuel" is normally rendered “God with us.” This translation, however, doesn't reflect as accurately as does the Hebrew word itself the way we experience “God with us.” Emman is the Hebrew preposition “with.” The suffix -u turns it into "with us". Joseph first experienced the presence with him. We first experience the presence with us. Then the identity of the presence, the one who is with us, is revealed. El is the generic word for "god" in almost all the semitic languages, including Hebrew. Emmanu-el—with us, God!

With us...God. In his dream, Joseph was empowered to follow the divine vocation which he had received. He went ahead with the wedding plans, and when the time came for the child to be born, he did as he was told by the angel, and named him Yeshua, or, as it comes to us through the Greek, Jesus –which, in any case, means “God saves.” According to Jewish custom, when Joseph named Jesus, he gave him the legitimacy of his own family lineage as an heir of King David, and fulfilled the ancient prophecies that the Messiah would come from David's line. Joseph probably didn't realize it at the time, but his naming of Jesus was the final link in the chain of God's plan to personally enter human history in order to save us from the power of sin and death.

You and I may not realize it even now, but our willingness to name Jesus, to recognize that the one whom we know to be “with us” is indeed “God”, to acknowledge that he alone is our strength and consolation, the hope of all the earth, the desire of every nation, and the joy of every longing heart—naming Jesus is the final link in the chain of our preparation for Christmas, the culmination of the waiting and hoping and anticipating that has been our vocation during the season of Advent. Jesus—our Emmanuel—with us, God. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A: Advent II (2007)

Matthew 3:1-12
Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an immensely popular children's story by C.S. Lewis. Many of you, I'm sure, are very familiar with it. The action takes place in a land called Narnia. Narnia is ruled by the cunning and vindictive white witch, who rides around in a sleigh, terrorizing her subjects. As long as anyone can remember, it has always been winter in Narnia —“always winter, but never Christmas,” to be precise.

But yet, there is a collective memory among the residents of Narnia, a memory of a time when Narnia was a happy place, alive and green and growing, a time when it was ruled by a wise and kind lion named Aslan. Aslan has not been seen or heard from for a long, long time, but there are rumors. Rumors that Aslan is going to return, very soon, to melt the snow, banish the witch, and restore tranquility and happiness to Narnia. The trees and the animals of the forest whisper to one another, "Psst! Aslan is on the move".

Aslan is on the move.

The season of Advent brings similar news to those sons of Adam and daughters of Eve such as ourselves who are not fortunate enough to live in the enchanted land of Narnia. You and I live in a transitional moment—a moment to God, at any rate, though it's taking several centuries from the perspective of human time. Winter is on the verge of melting into spring—as ridiculous as it may sound for someone who lives in the upper Midwest to say that! Night is on the brink of turning to dawn. The grand drama of creation and redemption is about to enter the final act. Pssst! God ... is on the move! on the move.

The blunt message of an unruly and obnoxious John the Baptist rings in our ears: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Time as we know it is going to come to an end. Relationships and institutions that we have invested our lives in are gong to exist no more. There is going to be a new universal order. Advent, it appears, is about some pretty remarkable stuff!

But I wonder whether very many of us take it with the seriousness it deserves. We are caught in the trap of ordinariness, enmeshed in the routine of life-as-usual, functionally blind and deaf to what God is doing, either within that ordinary life, or beyond it. Some years ago there was a PBS mini-series dramatizing the life of Winston Churchill. I remember being particularly impressed, not so much by Churchill's leadership of Great Britain during the dark days of World War II, which is what he is best known for, but by his role as an opposition Member-of-Parliament during the 1930's. The Prime Minister at that time, Neville Chamberlain, had a grand vision for improving economic and social conditions in the British Isles. Chamberlain wanted to strengthen public education, provide jobs for the unemployed, improve working conditions, and bring his country out of the Great Depression, which, along with the rest of the industrialized world, it was in the midst of.

These were good things. Life-as-usual is a good thing. But Churchill saw that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi empire were positioning themselves to cross the channel and overrun England. And what good would all of Chamberlain's social programs be if the German flag flew over Buckingham Palace?

Winston Churchill was the impolite voice of John the Baptist, saying, “Repent! Change your priorities! The end of life-as-usual is at hand!”

John the Baptist's call to repentance is as timely for us today as it was for his original audience on the banks of the Jordan River. But we are probably more resistant to his message, more difficult to arouse and move, than they were. We are probably more obstinate than the government of Neville Chamberlain in the face of Winston Churchill's call to pay attention to what was going on in Germany. We persist in our besetting sins of placing undue value on wealth, health, status, and productivity, not to mention indulging violence, injustice, sexual immorality, and dishonesty, either directly and personally, or through membership in a society that encourages these sins.

Psst! God is on the move!

Oh yeah?

Well, if God is on the move, then most of us are apparently in no condition to welcome that news with, “Great! It's about time.” Rather, our response is more likely to be, “Now? I'm not ready yet!”

In two weeks, some of us, having not finished our shopping or cookie-baking, might be saying, “Christmas is here? I'm not ready yet!” We may not realize what a true word we speak. Our hearts will not be in any condition to receive the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

A life insurance company used to run a series of cartoon ads. Each one pictured an individual happily going about life-as-usual: relaxing, swimming, playing golf, eating dinner...whatever. What he or she could not see, was that life-as-usual was about to come to an abrupt conclusion ... courtesy of a falling grand piano, an erupting volcano, a tidal wave, a shark, or some such product of a cartoonist’s imagination. The one-line caption was always the same: “My insurance company? Why, New England Life, of course.” I guess the point of these cartoons was that their subjects were insured against the impending disaster, but it's equally obvious that they were not in any other sense prepared for what was about to happen. Neither are we, if we're not in an attitude of repentance. We're not going to be very excited to hear that Aslan is loose, that spring is coming, as long as we live in an ice house on which the White Witch holds a mortgage! But repentance is the only condition in which to joyfully receive what God is bringing about.

So what's going to become of us?

We need to repent, but we're just a little bit too stubborn or complacent or wrapped up in our lives to do a very good job of it.

The consistent witness of scripture is that God loves us too much to simply abandon us in our sins. But it's also fairly clear in the Bible that he didn't make us as puppets, that he could control just by pulling strings. God is not going to coerce us into his kingdom. So he's going to have to be a little bit resourceful if he's going to get us to respond. One of the clichés that comes to us from animal training is that of the "carrot and the stick". The idea is that animals—including people—can be motivated either or both by the fear of pain or the enticement of pleasure. Today's liturgy is a sign that, in his desire for us to repent so he can save us, God is not beyond using the “carrot and stick” approach. The “stick,” in this case, is John the Baptist. One writer has called John the “patron saint of Christian nightmares.” “You brood of vipers! (You snakes!) Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming?! Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire! The one who's coming after me has his pitchfork in his hand, ready to gather his grain into his barn, but the chaff . . . (which might be you) . . . He will burn in an unquenchable fire!” If there was ever an excuse for an Episcopalian to preach “fire and brimstone,” this is it! During Hurricane Andrew in 1992, I saw on TV a very large, crudely-built sign that someone had constructed on the southeast Florida coast just after the winds had subsided: “Ok, God, you've got our attention. Now what?” Sometimes God just needs to get our attention, and a stick is an effective way of doing it.

The “carrot”—the pleasurable enticement—today is the prophet Isaiah. I don't know about you, but I find this vision of the “Peaceable Kingdom”—a vision that has been the inspiration for a good many artists over the centuries—to be one of the most exciting and alluring passages in all of scripture. "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.” Imagine all these carnivorous animals suddenly becoming vegetarians! And the most incredible part of all: babies and young children can play on top of snake holes, and even stick their hands down in them, and not be bitten! This is not anything you're ever going to see on Wild Kingdom or on a National Geographic special, or hear about from your high school biology teacher! Now I'm not … a vegetarian. I enjoy my position on the food chain! Nonetheless, I'm tremendously attracted by the vision of paradise regained, of Eden restored. This passage gives me goose bumps, and it might even give me the motivation I need today for the repenting that I need to do today.

And repentance is not feeling sorry, an emotion of regret. Repentance is a constant movement turning—turning away from sin and toward God. And the movement of repentance is one in which our actions and our words are consistent with one another. The liturgies of Advent say a great deal about “preparing the way,” of making ready “a highway for our God.” We “prepare the way” within our own hearts and lives to remember our Lord's first coming when Christmas arrives, and we prepare the way within our own hearts and lives to welcome him when he returns to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to inaugurate the Peaceable Kingdom, when the lion lies down with the lamb.

The carrot ... or the stick. Whatever it takes, God wants our attention. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Monday, November 26, 2007

C: Christ the King (25 November 2007)

Luke 19:29-38

One of the frustrations of life in this technological age occurs when something goes obviously wrong with us, or with one of the things we use, but it’s not at all obvious what the problem is. That strange feeling that you get when you turn your neck to the left needs to be diagnosed. That strange sound that your car makes when it’s backing up needs to be diagnosed. But diagnosis is more of an art than a science, and often involves a good deal of plain old trial and error. I know this is completely irrational, but sometimes I feel like we should declare a day when all the auto mechanics report to the clinics and hospitals, and all the physicians report to the garages and repair shops, and we could see whether the diagnostic outcomes are actually any different!

But I’m sure the frustrations of these professionals to whom we entrust our bodies and our cars—I’m sure the frustration of these professionals is compounded when the patient or the customer has already done the diagnosing and prescribing and is only showing up to get the treatment. I’ve done it myself. I’ve walked into an emergency room and announced that I had a kidney stone and needed an intravenous dosage of a particular narcotic analgesic. Now, it happens that I was absolutely right, both in the diagnosis and the prescription. But I’m happy to say that they didn’t just take my word for it—they ran the proper tests first. To do otherwise would have been irresponsible on their part, and for me to insist that they do otherwise would have been foolhardy on my part.

Today is the feast of Christ the King … and if we are not careful, we might very easily find ourselves in the position of that foolishly know-it-all consumer of medical services or automotive care. Even those who are blessed with sufficient wisdom to avoid diagnosing their own physical or automotive symptoms are still susceptible to the temptation to prescribe just what kind of king we need and expect Jesus to be. If our eyes are open only to the sort of king who might more accurately be described as a dictator—one who prescribes everything we must think and feel and do, leaving us with no personal discretion, then we will simply not see a king who entrusts us with vast freedom, and therefore vast responsibility. If our minds are open only to the sort of king who will rule and direct the lives of others—keeping them in line, because it’s clear they need some help in that department—a king who rules others, but leaves us pretty much alone, then we will simply not recognize as a king anyone who takes a direct interest in our lives and wants to have an intimate daily relationship with us. If our hearts are open only to the sort of king who throws his power around to “fix” things—and fix them our way—then we will not respond to a king who groans with his kingdom and weeps over it and suffers repeatedly at the hands of its citizens. If we have already diagnosed the ailments of this world and prescribed the kind of king it needs, then we will probably be disappointed in Christ the King.

We will be like the multitudes of first century Palestinian Jews who thought the time was more than ripe for a king who would be a political savior, one who would lead them in throwing off the oppressive yoke of the Roman Empire and restore the nation of Israel to the glory days it enjoyed under the kings David and Solomon. They thought Jesus might be that king, and when he entered Jerusalem, it had all the symbolic earmarks of a triumphant royal procession, a conquering hero who was entering the city to take possession of it. They acclaimed him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Five days later, Jesus was being mocked and crowned with thorns and given a fake scepter and a fake royal robe by the soldiers who beat him within an inch of his life, and then the same crowd that had welcomed him into the city on Palm Sunday shouted “Crucify him!” as he was led away to his death. He was not the kind of king they wanted. He did not fit either their diagnosis or their prescription, and they were not in a mood to be forgiving for leading them on falsely.

People who are newly married learn quickly about this clash between expectation and reality. Even before we meet the person we eventually marry, we carry around in our imaginations an idealized conception of what this person will be like. While we’re dating and while we’re engaged, we tend to feed this ideal, and see only those characteristics in the one we’re with that conform to that ideal, filtering out those that clash with it. After being married for a while, however, we can no longer afford that luxury. Sooner or later, we have to face the concrete reality of the actual person we are married to. This is not easy. It’s dangerous territory, and it’s a place where many marriages crumble. But couples that make it past this crisis find that there is a dimension of depth and connection in their relationship that is far more satisfying, far more rewarding, than the ideal for which they struggled so hard. What they end up with is actually better than what they had to reluctantly let go of.

The same can happen with the kingship of Christ. If we are prepared to receive Christ as the king he actually is, then we will discover that he is the very king we need. We will discover a king who is indeed a ruler. His rule, however, is not harsh like that of a tyrant. Rather, it is loving and gracious and tender, like that of a shepherd. We will discover a king who provides order and discipline for our lives, and gives us a map—a paradigm, an interpretive framework, if those terms mean anything to you—a map by which we can negotiate the spiritual geography of this crazy world we live in. We will discover a king who stands ready to help us grow into the fullness of what it means to be a human being. We will discover a king who is also a physician, and who knows where it hurts before we even open our mouths to tell him. We will discover a king who connects with the depth of our woundedness, who entrusts us with responsibility that we never knew we could handle, and who kindles in us a passion for his justice and his righteousness. We will discover the king Jesus actually is, not our idealized conception.

Like those who welcomed Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we will welcome and cheer his arrival. We will welcome and cheer the arrival of the infant Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, at this very altar on Christmas Eve. We will welcome and cheer the arrival of the risen and ascended Christ on that same altar, and in our midst, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, both at this celebration, and every celebration we attend in the future. And on that great day when Christ the Redeemer returns as Christ the Judge, we will welcome him as he comes with power and great glory. All hail King Jesus! Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

C: Proper 28 (18 November 2007)

Luke 21:5-19
Malachi 3:13—4:2a,5-6
II Thessalonians 3:6-13

One of the blessings of our Anglican and Catholic tradition is the church year. It systematically takes us through the mysteries of our faith, and if we pay attention to it, and allow it to spill over into the rest of our lives, it draws us closer to Christ in the fellowship of his Church. If you have been an unusually attentive observer of the subtleties of the liturgical calendar in the past, you may know that we are in that time during the year when our attention is drawn to that article of the Creed in which we profess our belief that the same Christ who came as a vulnerable infant two thousand years ago will come again in glory, this time to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end. When he comes, all wrongs will be put right, all injustices will be corrected, and all tears will be wiped away. Justice, peace, and love will prevail throughout the created order.

In the meantime, though, things are in a bit of a mess, aren’t they? Ice is melting at both poles, which means that little organisms called krill are losing their breeding grounds, and since krill are pretty much at the bottom of the food chain, their decreasing numbers have ramifications all the way up to the top, which is the position you and I are privileged to occupy. Civil war and ethnic oppression are causing anarchy in southern Sudan, with a huge cost in suffering and lives. AIDS continues to rage virtually unchecked across the African continent, creating a huge generation of orphans. Iran seems resolved to develop nuclear weapons, daring the rest of the world to try and stop them. And, of course, there’s Israel and the Palestinians—creating an environment that is the incubator of 98% of worldwide terrorism.

And on top of these global catastrophes, ordinary bad stuff still happens every day to ordinary people. We get sick, we get old, we die. Along the way, we make stupid financial decisions and mouth off to the wrong people and try to hang on to jobs that we find boring at best because somehow we’ve got to pay the bills. In my case, a bad day is defined by how well the technology I depend on works. If I have computer or internet connection problems, it sucks up huge quantities of valuable time and energy.

With all that’s going on, globally and locally, it can be exceedingly difficult to find faith and keep faith. We say we believe that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords, to rescue the downtrodden, reward the righteous, and crush the oppressor. We say we believe in the communion of saints and the life of the world to come. But it is awfully challenging to maintain those beliefs in the face of everything that confronts us.

We may be forgiven for assuming that, since we have the benefit of twenty centuries of experience since the first coming of Christ, we have a unique perspective that the earliest generations of Christians didn’t have. That may be, but we are by no means alone in our inability to cope with the need to wait, to hope, to persevere, to keep on keeping on. We are not alone in our desire to just have it be done with. The very earliest generation of Christians was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was going to happen …pretty much…next week, or the week after, at the latest. Some of them decided to quit working, to no longer invest time or energy in the long-term fabric of their earthly lives, because, after all, what’s the point? If Christ is coming very soon, why break a sweat over a roof that isn’t going to actually start leaking until next winter? St Paul, in his letters to the new Christians in Thessalonica, had to gently reprimand these folks and tell them, If you don’t work, don’t expect to eat!

The Jewish community 500 years before Christ also had to deal with their own version of the same problem. Their world was just as chaotic and just as unsettling to them as ours is to us. They were waiting for the Lord to send his long-expected Messiah—in Greek, the Christ—who would restore the national glory that they enjoyed under King David another five centuries or so earlier. Listen to how cynical they were getting as they waited:

It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape.

This sounds like the voice of a people who have nearly reached the end of their rope, and we empathize with them.

Even the very contemporaries of Jesus felt the pressure. They were going around with him day by day. Many of them had sacrificed their livelihoods and put their personal lives on hold in order to follow him. They had high hopes that he was indeed the Christ, the one who would deliver them from the yoke of Roman oppression. In the days just prior to his crucifixion, Jesus and his followers are looking at the magnificent Jerusalem temple, and he says something quite remarkable: “…the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” As you might imagine, that got a conversation going, and Jesus took the opportunity to explain that things would definitely get worse before they got better:

…when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once….Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony.

Quite a bit to look forward to, isn’t it? Very often, we’d just rather not. Can’t we just “fast forward” through that stuff? Isn’t there a pill we can take and have someone wake us when it’s all over? The fact that we have company in our misery may or may not be comforting, but we do: Christians have been waiting for 2,000 years. The Jews waited for the first coming of the Messiah another thousand years before that. And the whole human race has been waiting since before the dawn of recorded time. We read about the first promise in the Book of Genesis: As the Lord is banishing Adam and Eve and the serpent from the Garden of Eden, he tells them that a descendent of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. The Church has always considered this the first promise of a divine Savior, the first premonition of the gospel. And now we wait. We continue to wait.

And Jesus encourages us in our waiting. He tells us that, as we bear witness to him until he comes again, he will supply our needs—in this case, particularly our need to know what to say when the world challenges our faith in all the ways it does. On the surface, this means that the Spirit will give us words in moments of direct confrontation. Underneath the surface, it suggests that the Spirit will give us words to repeat to ourselves in moments of doubt and fear and frustration:

I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.

By your endurance you will gain your lives. This is God’s good news to us today as we mark this season of special attention to the second coming of Christ to put all things right, the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem as a bride adorned for her husband. “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Hang in there. I will meet your needs as they arise. Not before they arise, but as they arise. Trust me. Be faithful. Your perseverance will be rewarded. And, believe me, what’s coming is well worth waiting for! In the words of Malachi’s prophecy:

Behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

May we not grow weary, by brothers and sisters. May we not lose heart. Christ is coming. Our salvation is at hand. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sunday in the Octave of All Saints (4 November 2007)

Many years ago—more than three decades, actually—when my parents lived in a New Jersey suburb of New York City, and Brenda and I were visiting, we spent a large portion of one Saturday afternoon touring the vast Cathedral of St John the Divine on the upper west side. At one point we noticed a commemorative plaque in the floor that made reference to one or more of the saints. My mother, who knew that Brenda and I had then only recently become Episcopalians, curiously inquired as to what role the saints play in Anglican faith and worship and piety. I can’t remember precisely how I answered her, but it was a good question, and it’s still a good question. So, on this All Saints Day, let’s try and answer it.

In the creeds, we say we believe in “the communion of saints.” The Greek word that lies behind the word “communion” is koinonia. It has a very strong meaning. It denotes a very deep connection, a profound intimacy. This is the kind of bond there is between the saints.

But who are “saints”? Again, it’s time for a language lesson. The Greek and Latin words which lie behind the English word “saint” simply mean “holy.” The saints are “the holy ones.” But that word “holy” can throw us off, because you and I are apt to understand it as describing only those who are of outstanding moral character, the ultra-good. At its root, however, “holy” simply means “set apart” or “dedicated” to a particular purpose. In the New Testament, the word “saints” — or “holy ones” — became a euphemism for any and all Christians. In baptism, we, as Christians, have been set apart, dedicated to the particular purposes of glorifying God, following Christ, and bearing witness to him in the world. So there is a very real and important sense in which all of us who have been baptized are saints, whatever the current status of our moral and spiritual development is. This is the way the word is used in the New Testament.

As Christianity became two and three and four generations old, however, the word “saint,” without losing its general meaning, also took on a more focused meaning. These early Christians, because of state persecution, had to spend a good deal of their time in hiding. In the city of Rome, these hiding places were literally underground, in passageways known as the catacombs. They would celebrate the Eucharist in the catacombs and bury their dead in the catacombs. We know from the way these graves were decorated and inscribed that there was a deep devotion and rich prayer life centered around the faithful departed—first, loved ones who were actually known and remembered personally, and later, those who were not personally known, but who were remembered by the whole community because of their particular heroism or strength of witness or holiness of life. Special liturgies were held on the anniversary of their death, and the word “Saint” was put in front of their names in an official way. Later on, formal procedures evolved for deciding who would be put into this category.

During the Middles Ages, the number of Saints—and therefore Saints’ days—grew to the point where it was impossible for all of them to be observed in all places. So, in an effort not to leave anybody out, the Church decided to designate one day on which all the saints would be commemorated—hence, All Saints Day. This custom began in England and Northern Europe, where an already existing pagan holiday dedicated to the spirits of the dead was “baptized” and co-opted into the new Christian observance. (The same thing had already been done with Christmas, taking over the pagan winter solstice festival and making it the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.)

But . . . we digress. Let’s get away from history and back to theology. I’m going to offer you an image, a mental picture, that I hope will make it easier to understand the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. But remember that it’s the doctrine itself that’s important, not the image. If the image doesn’t work for you, it won’t hurt my feelings if you trash it. OK?

Imagine, if you will, a large mansion. This mansion represents the Church, and it includes all Christians who have ever lived. It has three stories. You and I, and every other Christian who is presently drawing breath and maintaining a temperature of around 98.6°—we all live on the first floor of this mansion. We make up what is called the Church Militant, the saints on earth. The word “militant” connotes the fact that we are in a battle—a battle against the world, the flesh, the devil, against disease and dysfunction and death, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places. As we sang in the opening hymn today, “We feebly struggle...” As we are engaged in this battle together, we have the privilege of supporting and encouraging and helping and praying for one another—those we live with and know intimately, and those who live halfway around the world and whom we have never met. We have the opportunity to experience and practice koinonia—close fellowship and communion—with other Christians in this world. This is an important instance of the communion of saints. It is in the context of this mutual struggle that we actually become what we are—that is, holy. In the daily grind of life’s joys and sorrows, through faithfully taking up our cross, we assume the character and likeness of Jesus, who is our model and example.

What we don’t know, however, is when death will come, and how far along in that process of becoming holy, of becoming like Jesus, we will be when that moment arrives. This is where the second floor of the mansion comes into play. The souls on the second floor make up what is known as the Church Expectant. If the first floor is a battlefield, the second floor is a hospital ward. It is populated by those who are still very much in the process of having their holiness perfected. It is a place of intensive treatment and therapeutic healing, administered by a very loving physician. Just as we prayed for these people when they were on the first floor, we can still pray for the members of the Church Expectant. They would appreciate our prayers on their behalf, I’m sure, because, while their reservations for a third floor apartment are being held for them, they need to get well before they can move upstairs. They have no complaints about the care they’re getting in the hospital, but they’re eager to move on, and anything we can do, through prayer, to hasten that process along, is to their benefit. And they can certainly also still pray for us. Why should their departure from the first floor deprive them of that privilege which they enjoyed while they were here?

The third floor, as you can probably surmise, is the ultimate destination for everybody within the mansion. The residents of the third floor make up the Church Triumphant. These are the ones we sang about right after “We feebly struggle ... they in glory shine.” The image of Christ has been perfectly restored in them. The distortion and damage of sin has been completely repaired. They are holy, not only because they have been set apart and dedicated, but because they, through grace, have been delivered from every taint of sin. The Church Triumphant truly has no further need of our prayers on their behalf, but we certainly have continuing need of their prayers on our behalf, and it has been the custom of the Church Militant, since earliest times, when gathered for worship, to invoke the prayers of the Church Triumphant. Strictly speaking, we do not pray to the Saints, but we ask them to pray for us. Are their prayers more effective than the prayers of “saints on earth”? We can certainly speculate that they might be, given the advanced state of their holiness. But more important than effectiveness, I think, is the realization of our essential unity with them. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.” It is in this awareness that we sense the true koinonia of the saints, the “one communion and fellowship” of which today’s Collect speaks.

The Church Militant on earth—where we pray for one another, the Church Expectant in Paradise—where we pray for them and they pray for us, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven—where they pray for us; this makes up the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the communion of saints into which we have been baptized, and which we celebrate on this feast of All Saints. “The Lord is glorious in his saints: Come, let us adore him.” Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Year C: Proper 25 (28 October 2007)

Luke 18:9-14

In a few minutes, we’re all going to confess our sins—no, not our specific individual sins, but the fact of our sinfulness, the fact that we are a community of sinners. Both corporately and individually, we have rebelled against God and done what He doesn’t want us to do and failed to do what He does want us to do. In our words and in our actions, we consistently fall short of the glory of God. We make a collective confession of this sort routinely, more or less at every celebration of the Eucharist outside of festival seasons. Of course, there are also occasions, both formal and informal, for private confession of specific sins. This is a spiritual discipline that enables us to face our lives with a clear conscience, over and over again, on an as-needed basis.

Now, when we think of “sins,” we understandably think of bad things. We think of entering an intersection on a yellow light and leaving it on a red, of losing our temper with a co-worker, of gossiping about a neighbor. We think about lying to our spouse about why we were home late from work, about not being quite straight with the IRS when we fill out our income tax forms, about downloading pirated music and movies from the internet. We think about insider trading and racism and extortion and murder-for-hire. We think about the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, greed, and sloth.

The first of these—Pride—deserves some special attention. There’s a reason it’s at the head of the list. Pride is, in fact, the root and source, not only of the other six “deadly” sins, but, through them, pride is the root and source of all sin. What makes the whole thing particularly confusing is that sinful pride is not an altogether different thing from what we might call “good” pride—as in taking pride in a job well done, being proud of your children for their accomplishments, having enough pride to bathe and wear clean clothes and mow the lawn in front of your house. Sinful pride flows from the same source, but becomes lethally corrupted—distorted and disfigured—along the way. The sin of pride is grounded not in our desire for evil, but in our desire for good. The incubator of pride is virtue itself—virtue that is undisciplined by humility. Sinful pride stems from the good things we do, even our practice of Christian religion.

Today, Jesus tells us a very compelling parable to dissuade us from trusting in ourselves and despising others. There are two characters—a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now, as Christians who have read the gospels and heard them talked about countless times, you and I are conditioned to regard Pharisees as pretty suspect characters—full of arrogance and superiority. And tax collectors, of course, are in the class of people that Jesus preferred to hang out with. So, with our Christian eyes and ears, we are likely to label the tax collector in this parable as the “good guy” and the Pharisee as the “bad guy.” But if we’re going to understand it as Jesus’ original hearers did, we’ve got to put on different glasses. To an ordinary Jew in first century Palestine, a Pharisee would have been presumed to be a model of virtuous and godly living. It would have been simply assumed that the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was upright in his relationship with God and with his fellow human beings. And it would have been likewise simply assumed that the tax collector was a scoundrel—dishonest, conniving, and a traitor to his people. Only when we look at these characters in the light of their native surroundings, then, can we grasp the full power of what Jesus is doing in this brief vignette.

Jesus is standing contemporary Jewish social morality on its head, because, by the end of the parable, it is clearly the Pharisee who fails in his effort to be in a right relation with God, and the tax collector who succeeds. All the religious observances that the Pharisee enumerates in his prayer are good and worthwhile, not vain and empty. Moreover, there is no reason to suspect that he was lying. There is, on the other hand, every reason to believe that he was speaking the truth, that he was, in fact, scrupulous in his prayer and fasting and almsgiving, and that he engaged in those activities with pure intentions. So it is a rather stunning reversal of roles that Jesus is laying on us here.

So where does the Pharisee go wrong? Apparently, he was highly advantaged to begin with. One commentator has remarked that “The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax-collector rather than toward him.” The Pharisee’s major mistake—in other words, the principal component of his own sinful pride—was to compare his health to the tax-collector’s sickness. That was, of course, unfair. He was ignoring both the tax collector’s virtues, such as they might have been, and his own shortcomings. From our perspective, of course, this is pretty easy to see. It becomes more difficult, however, the closer we get to our own situation. It becomes tempting—and, let’s face it, a great deal more fun, at times!—to confess other people’s sins instead of our own, to talk to the doctor about our neighbors’ symptoms, rather than focusing on what’s ailing us. Of course, when we do this, we are indulging in the sin of gossip, at the very least. And, more importantly, we are falling into the trap that the Pharisee fell into.

The example that Jesus commends, of course, is that of the tax collector. In our culture, the social equivalent might be a drug dealer or a junk bond trader or the worst example of an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer or an internet spammer. That’s the one who Jesus says left the temple right with God. And what was his prayer? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” No attempt at spin control or any other form of self-justification. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man simply humbled himself before God. His humility was transparent, and his humility was unpresumptuous. And in that state, he was the furthest a person can get from the sin of pride. Transparent humility before God protects us from the deadly sin of pride. If we are humble, we cannot be proud. And if we are not proud, it is all the more difficult to be angry or lustful or envious or gluttonous or greedy or lazy. Humility is like a vaccine that offers us immunity from the grip of the deadly sins.

So, let us continue to abound in good works, but have that mind, as we saw in a parable three weeks ago, that we are only doing our duty, and are unworthy servants. Let us continue to abound in good works, but at the same time see ourselves not as the righteous Pharisee, but as the sinful tax collector. Our Eastern Orthodox friends have an element of their spirituality that we could do worse than to adapt and adopt. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and you will recognize the gist of it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (repeat) This prayer is usually said as a sort of Christian mantra, over and over, repeatedly—much in the way that the Hail Mary is used in the western tradition. (repeat Jesus Prayer) Imagine how our lives might change if enough of us made this prayer part of our daily converse with God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Year C: Proper 24 (2007)

Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30
Luke 18:1-8a

As I’ve been at St Anne’s now for just over a couple of months, it has been my privilege, little by little, to be allowed into the lives of the people of this wonderful parish. We have already begun, in small ways, to develop a “history” together. Stuff has happened—stuff that has called for that difficult-to-define activity that we call pastoral care. And as I’ve attempted to provide pastoral care, I have, along with many of you, had to face once again some really hard, really critical issues of faith and life: How can I have doubts and still believe? Why doesn't God answer my prayers? How come bad things happen to me when I'm really not such a bad person? These encounters have caused me to realize in a fresh way how much the shape of our lives is determined by the difficulties and the adversities we face. It's a universal human experience: We all have problems. Some seem to have more than their fair share, and some seem to have less, but we all have problems. And most of us, at one time or another, find those problems to be a very important element in our prayers. We pray about the things that bother us. We ask God to fix them, to make them go away, or to give us the strength to endure them with dignity.

The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, I think, applies here. We pray, and seek answers to, our personal problems. These usually have to do with matters of health and safety, with household finances, with educational and marriage and career decisions, and the like. We also pray about the things that worry us on a more public and collective level. We pray for our city, for our nation, for peace and prosperity and justice throughout the world. As Christians, we pray for the church. As Episcopalians, we have more than ample motivation to pray for our own church.

We are spending so much energy struggling among ourselves that we are distracted from focusing on the real mission of the church. Many of us pray, "How long, O Lord, how long? How long will it be until we can worship you and proclaim your gospel in peace and with a united voice?" But our prayers seem to be unanswered, because the conflicts continue. After decades of praying for racial reconciliation at a national and local level, we are dismayed to discover just how deep the remaining rift is. How long, O Lord? How long will our prayer go unanswered? Many of you have been bringing the same physical ailments and emotional wounds before the Lord in prayer for years and years. How long, O Lord, how long?

We can only conclude, it often seems, that all these unanswered prayers are a sign of something terribly wrong. Either God is not really all-powerful, or we're praying in the wrong language, or we don't have enough faith, or something. We assume, of course, that the measure of God's love for us is the degree to which our life is "smooth sailing." If we're living in God's favor, he will smooth out the bumps in the road. So if the bumps are still there, that's a sign that something's amiss. If my prayers aren't getting answered, then God must be mad at me, and if God's mad at me, it must be because of something I did, or failed to do.

I wonder whether human beings tend to project on to God the expectations for ourselves that we are unable to meet. Our natural inclination, of course, among those of us who are parents, is to provide our own children with as bump-free a road as we possibly can. We go out of our way to shield them and protect them from the various hazards of life. We desperately want to spare them from pain and heartbreak. But we can't, of course, and we realize that. But God is omnipotent, so we're told, and so he can spare us, his children, from bumps and bruises, and if he doesn't . . . well, that's where we get the idea that something's wrong. We can forgive ourselves, sometimes, for our failures as parents, but we expect more from God. He is, after all, God. We hold him to a higher standard.

In reality, however, I would suggest that God's fatherly care for us is not defined by the standards that we set for it. In many ways, it is more like human parental care than we might think. The ancient and mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with … well, who was it he was wrestling with anyway?

It's hard to tell, at first, but by the end of the narrative, it becomes apparent that Jacob is actually wrestling with none other than the Lord himself. This event took place at a watershed moment in Jacob's life. He was about to be re-united with his twin brother, from whom he had parted several years earlier on something less than amicable terms. He wasn't sure what sort of mood Esau would be in, and he feared for the safety of himself and his family. He went so far as to separate himself from the rest of his household, so as not to provide a united target. And it was while he was thus alone, in the middle of the night, that a shadowy figure engaged him in a wrestling match.

Does it seem strange that God would express his love for one of his children by appearing in bodily form and picking a fight with him? Indeed, it does. The first thing we must acknowledge, of course, is that God was under no obligation to do so. So, even though the experience was a struggle for Jacob, it was an honor, at least, to have God's focused attention for that long a time! But the nature of their activity—wrestling—is also significant.

I am not a particular fan of cats, but, alas, I love and live with one who is, so my home, over the years, has served as a maternity ward and nursery for several generations of felines. I have observed that one feature of feline parenting involves an activity that can only be described as wrestling: wrestling between mother and offspring, and wrestling between kittens. We would probably classify it as "play", and no mortal wounds are inflicted, but it does have the character of struggle; there are winners and losers. It is, course, a rehearsal for life outside the comforts of the living room, practice for the real world of the great outdoors. The wrestling match has a very serious and very practical purpose.

And we realize, of course, that mature parenting resists the temptation to "fix" everything for kids.

Mothers and fathers know that, sooner or later, they will have to give their offspring the freedom to make choices that will result in suffering. Hopefully, this takes place in small doses and in a relatively safe environment. And sometimes this means that parents themselves are the ones who are the source of this perceived, and hopefully minor, suffering. What relationship between a parent and a child does not sometimes feel, to both parties, like a wrestling match, a wrestling match somewhat less playful than that between two kittens?! Yet, to deny children this experience will rob them of the tools which they will need to cope with serious adversity later on in life.

And in this aspect, God's parental care is very much like human parental care. An important sign of God's love for us is that he is available to wrestle with us. I would go so far as to say that a relationship with God that doesn't include wrestling is an immature relationship. Human parents don't wrestle with newborn infants because they're too fragile, and they're not yet capable of learning from the experience. If God avoids wrestling with us spiritually, it may be for the same reasons: We're too fragile and not capable of learning from the experience. Those Christians throughout history whose holiness and devotion was so heroic that the larger church calls them "saints" are invariably experienced spiritual wrestlers. Their walk with the Lord has not been easy or mild or filled with unmitigated joy. They have struggled with God in prayer.

This is the notion behind Jesus' admonition to his disciples to "pray always and not to lose heart", and the parable he told about the woman who simply pestered a government official until he granted her request. God, apparently, doesn't mind if we pester him—or, to describe it another way, if we wrestle with him! He even invites us to do it!

So what are the qualities of a good spiritual wrestler? Looking at the example of Jacob, I would suggest three:

The first is honesty. Jacob was afraid of his meeting with Esau, and he was honest about that fear. It was the whole reason he was alone on the riverbank that night. It won't do to be anything but brutally honest with God. He knows what's in our hearts anyway, so it's not like we can put one over on him! It is best to tell it to him like it is. If you're angry, be angry, and don't disguise your feelings with polite piety that you think God wants to hear. Remember who you are trying to impress; he can see right through you. If you're depressed, be depressed. If you're fearful, express that fear, name that fear. And if you’re happy, don't try to restrain your joy; let it all out! A good wrestling match is an honest wrestling match.

The second quality of a good wrestler is vulnerability. Jacob didn't shy away from the fight. He didn't even know with whom it was he was wrestling, at first, but he got right in there. You can't wrestle unless you are willing to take the risk of engaging in the struggle. You can't just circle the ring; you've got to get down on the mat and mix it up with your opponent. Sure, it's a risk, but it's a greater risk not to.

The third quality of a good spiritual wrestler is tenacity, stick-to-it-iveness. Jacob persisted for hours, well past the point of fatigue. It was the Lord himself who called "timeout" and suggested a way of breaking off the struggle. Tenacity means we don't judge the fruits of our efforts by their short-term results. Too often we quit doing something good and healthy because we don't see any immediate benefits from it. Spiritual growth, whether it's the spiritual growth of an individual Christian, or a parish church, or a segment of the universal church, such as the Episcopal Church—spiritual growth, like organic growth, is rarely a "right now" proposition. There can be long delays between sowing and reaping, between planting the seed and harvesting the crop. If we have the discipline, the tenacity, to stick with what we know is right even when we don't feel any great benefit from it, we will be good wrestlers.


Jacob finally agreed to break off the struggle with his divine opponent when he was wounded; his hip was put out of joint. But before doing so, he managed to extract a concession from the Lord—a special blessing, the blessing of a new name, the name by which his descendants would be known: Israel. So Jacob emerged from his night of wrestling with two souvenirs: a wound and a blessing.

We need to know that if we take the risk of wrestling with God, we will be changed by the experience. It will be demanding of all our resources. It will, at times, hurt. But the experience of Jacob tells us, and the words of our Lord Jesus tell us, that the blessing is worth the pain. God the wrestler is ready in the ring. That's the good news today! God loves us enough to make himself available to wrestle with. There are some hard knocks waiting for us in the match, but we will come out of it stronger, better. Are we going to keep God waiting, or are we going to get down on the mat and mix it up with him? Amen.