Sunday, February 24, 2008

A: Lent III (24 February 2008)

John 43:5-42

Exodus 17:1-7

Some time ago I found myself watching, on television, the last of the three Indiana Jones movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's the one where he and his father join in the same search that lies behind the legend of King Arthur: the quest for the Holy Graal, the chalice used by our Lord at the Last Supper. The final approach to the cave where the Holy Graal had lain hidden for the past several centuries required the seeker to solve a complex riddle. Only by successfully solving this riddle could he avoid falling victim to a series of deadly booby-traps.

What a wonderful metaphor this is for the way most people—including most Christians—conceive of their relationship with God. Much of the time we behave as though God's grace—God's favor, God's benevolent disposition towards us—is like the Holy Graal—the object of a quest, the reward for solving a riddle or jumping through hoops. If you've hung around me enough, you know that I think this is a false point of view, a dangerous misconception. But it is so deeply ingrained in the way we think and feel that, try as we might, we don't let go of it very easily. To borrow a metaphor from the computer world, it's the “default mode” of our imaginations, the way we're naturally inclined.

There is, of course, a perversion of the gospel in the opposite direction. I don't think this tendency is as common as the one we've just been talking about, but it's equally dangerous. In this view, God's grace is not like the Holy Graal, a reward for great effort, but like the beads, doubloons, cups, and other trinkets that are thrown from a New Orleans Mardi Gras float. God doles out his grace whimsically and capriciously. If I happen to be standing where some of it falls, then “lucky me”. But I just have to take it when it comes; I can't plan on it or count on it.

The problem with either of these theologies is that they describe a God who isn't there when you need him! When adversity strikes—and let's face it, we live the majority of our lives in some form, some degree, of adversity—when adversity strikes, we want to know where God is! We need his grace and favor. But if God's grace and favor is something we need to jump through 99 hoops to earn, and we've only jumped through 98, we've got a problem. And if God's grace is just scattered randomly, then we've also got a problem.

We've got the same problem that the people of Israel had when they'd been in the desert for a little while, and the supply of water that they'd carried with them in their flight from slavery in Egypt began to give out. They were hot. They were thirsty. Their lips were beginning to crack. The children were starting to complain, and the sheep and goats were getting antsy. They were fearful, and they grumbled.

One can certainly understand their feelings. Water is something so basic that we take it for granted ... until, that is, we have to do without it. Then we get real grumpy real fast. Living in the upper Midwest, we don’t worry too much about drought. Neither did the people in Georgia or Tennessee—until fairly recently. Now they’re about ready to go to war over water rights! When I lived in California, we watched such things very closely. It hardly ever rains a drop between May and October, so we depended on melting snow in the mountains. When we had a dry winter, the anxiety level rose very quickly.

Jesus walked into a Samaritan village one day and sent his disciples off to run some errands. It was warm, and he was tired and thirsty. He made his way over to a well, and asked the woman he saw there for a drink. Now, even if you didn't pay attention to this story when it was read from St John's gospel a few minutes ago, you probably noticed that it was long. And if you did pay attention, you noticed that it was complex, a conversation that changes directions several times. It's an incredibly rich narrative, a veritable goldmine of insight into the nature of the gospel and God's ways with humankind.

Perhaps you and I will have a chance, someday, in a setting other than a Sunday liturgy, to mine some of this gold together. But, for today, let it suffice to say that the bottom line of this rich and complex dialogue is that God's grace is as ubiquitous to our spirits as water is to our bodies.

I love that word —”ubiquitous”. It's one of those words that was never on my high school English
vocabulary lists, so I made it into adult life and earned two college degrees without ever really knowing what it meant. I finally looked it up! It means “ever-present”, something we're always running into whether or not we want or intend to do so, something that's so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.

Water is ubiquitous. Thirst is a powerful sensation, more powerful even than hunger, because we can survive without food a lot longer than we can without water. But when we're thirsty, water quenches that thirst completely and nothing quenches thirst like water, despite what our children might tell us about needing soda pop or Gatorade or some other fashionable sports drink. Water is basic. Spiritual thirst is also a powerful sensation, and the living water of God's grace is ubiquitously present to quench that thirst.

Water is not only useful when we're thirsty, but also when we're dirty. It washes away that which is not permanently a part of us and exposes that which is. Sometimes it lets us know just how much dirt was there that we weren't even aware of. Have you ever used a carpet cleaner, and been horrified by the opaque blackness of the water when you dump it at the end of the job? I've thought, “I knew the carpet was dirty, but I had no idea it was that dirty!”

The living water of God's grace does the same thing. It not only washes our sins away, but it exposes them in the process, letting us know just how serious they are. In the course of their conversation, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman to go get her husband. She replies that she's had five husbands, and he says, “I know—you’ve had fine husbands, but the man you're with now isn't one of them!” God's ubiquitous grace gently calls us to face and deal with those issues in our lives, those barriers of our own making, which are separating us from his love.

Water also renews us emotionally. The people of Israel were not only thirsty and dirty in the desert. They were frightened and despondent. When Moses struck that rock with his staff, and streams of water gushed out of it, my bet is that they not only drank from it and washed themselves in it, but that they played in it, laughed in it, splashed around in it. The water from the rock raised their morale and lifted their spirits. It gave them the emotional strength to continue their journey.

The living water of God's ubiquitous grace gives us the spiritual strength to continue our journeys. It renews our hope. It gives us the confidence that, even in the middle of our troubles, even in the midst of adversity, God is present, aware of our needs and faithful in meeting them.

Finally, water sustains our lives. You know, our bodies—all living things, for that matter— are mostly water, aren't they? Compare in your mind's eye the relative sizes of a grape and a raisin, or a plum and a prune, and you'll see the difference that water makes. In order to sustain the life of the body, we need to drink water frequently and abundantly. The same applies to the life of the spirit.

When the Samaritan woman went and told her friends and family about her conversation with Jesus, St John tells us that many of them “believed in him because of the woman's testimony...”. Eventually, they went right to the source and met Jesus himself, and their faith was confirmed: “...we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” They had tasted the living water for themselves, and they knew that it would be available frequently and abundantly to sustain their lives of faith not only on that day, but through all their days.

When we encounter Jesus, and recognize him as the source of our lives, we tap into the stream of God's ubiquitous grace of which the water from Moses' rock is a wonderful foreshadowing. Then we know God's grace to be not like the Holy Graal, something we must solve a riddle to get. We know God's favor to be not like Mardi Gras beads, something that we may...but probably will lucky enough to be standing under when it falls. Rather, we know God's benevolent disposition toward us to be like water: ubiquitous, all around us, impossible to escape from. Then, when we enter the desert of adversity, whether it's the adversity of a flat tire or the adversity of a terminal illness, we will know that God has not abandoned us, and will be with us as we pass through it until we reach the oasis on the other side. And while we're there in the oasis of prosperity and peace, we'll know that that too is none other than the product of God's ubiquitous grace, the living water that quenches our thirst, exposes and rinses away our sin, lifts our spirits, and sustains our lives. We will know that, in adversity and in prosperity, our lives are hid with God in Christ, and that all will be well. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A: Lent II (17 February 2008)

John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-8

At St Alban's Chapel, on the campus of Louisiana State University, on the wall of the office, was—when I lived in that area—a very peculiar framed poster. In beautiful calligraphy and vivid colors, it contains the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of every book in the Bible that has a sixteenth verse of a third chapter. It is, of course, a humorous attempt to recognize the special status of the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of St John's gospel.

John 3:16.

There was a time in the not too distant past when it was difficult to attend a major sporting event and not see at least one large placard with that biblical reference on it. Martin Luther called this one verse of scripture, “the gospel in miniature.” Many of us learned it by heart before we were old enough to read. In the language of the King James Version, which is how I learned it, “...God so loved the world...that he gave his only begotten Son...that whosoever believeth in him should not perish...but have everlasting life.” This verse is the climax of the gospel reading for today's liturgy. I think it's safe to say, though, that the context in which John 3:16 occurs is somewhat less universally familiar than the verse itself. It's part of a curious conversation between Jesus and a gentleman named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem.

He came to Jesus at night, as if wanting to avoid the public spotlight. We're not given very many details, but it seems reasonable to speculate that Nicodemus came to Jesus in response to a deeply-felt personal need to find out for himself just who Jesus was, to find out whether Jesus might be the one who could relieve the deep spiritual ache, the deep spiritual hunger, which he experienced ... but which his prominent position kept him from discussing openly. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus reads between the lines and understands Nicodemus to be asking, “How can I get in on whatever it is you have? How can I enter the kingdom of God?”

This is just one version of a universal question, perhaps the primal human concern. In the sixteenth chapter of Acts, the Philippian jailer, speaking to St Paul, puts it, “What must I do to be saved?” Others have said, “How can I find the meaning of life?”, or “How should I behave?”, or “What happens after I die, and is there anything I can do to affect my fate?”. There are as many versions of this question as there have been inhabitants of this planet, but they're really all the same question. How can I enter the kingdom of God?

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees, as we know, were avid students of the Law of Moses. A Pharisee would be inclined to believe that one enters the kingdom of God through a kind of moral perfection...that can be attained by carefully studying and learning what God requires of us and by persistent striving to live by these requirements.

This approach is not unique to the Pharisees, of course. It represents a broad popular consensus, among many professing Christians, as well as among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and the adherents of most of the world's religions, from the most sophisticated to the most primitive. It reminds me of an experience from my childhood. I was eleven or twelve, probably, and saw an ad in Boys Life or some such magazine. It proclaimed a golden opportunity to earn a new bicycle, or camping equipment, or something else that would appeal to a twelve-year old boy, an opportunity that could be fulfilled simply by sending away for some attractive boxes of Christmas cards which you could take around to your friends and neighbors, who would eagerly purchase them. Well, it sounded great to me, and I promptly talked my mother into allowing me to send away for the Christmas cards. I was sure I could do it, and wouldn't have let anyone tell me otherwise. Those of you who have ever been or ever had a pre-adolescent child can probably identify with some aspect of this experience. The majority of the time, though, there never is any new bike or camping equipment. In my case, the only one who bought any Christmas cards... was my mother, who bought the whole lot of them—at wholesale, of course—to get me off the hook with my supplier.

Such youthful financial plans are guaranteed to go awry most of the time. But any plan to enter the kingdom of God by means of human moral perfection is guaranteed to go awry all the time. We cannot do it. We're doomed from the start. St Paul tells us in the third chapter of Romans that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We will never be able to sell enough Christmas cards to earn ourselves a place in the kingdom of God. Yet, at times, particularly in the late Middle Ages, it has seemed to the Christian faithful as though the Church indeed teaches that we earn our way, we qualify, for Heaven on the basis of our good works. So, in the great turmoil that we now call the Protestant Reformation, there was a quite justifiable reaction against this notion. The Reformers condemned the idea of “salvation by works” as a distortion of the gospel. The real good news, they claimed, is that God offers us salvation freely, on His own initiative. He invites us into His kingdom, not because we earn it, but because He loves us. God is like my mother, who purchased my freedom from the Christmas card company by buying up the cards.

This reminds me another childhood experience. There was a rather short-lived television show from the late '50s or early '60s called The Millionaire. Every week a handsome fellow named Michael Anthony would be summoned into the office of his anonymous employer, who would present him with an envelope and instructions on whom to deliver it to. The envelope always contained a certified check for one million dollars — (which was actually serious money back then!). Mr Anthony would then travel far and wide to deliver the check to its unsuspecting payee, someone who had neither asked for it nor earned it, but always someone who badly needed it. All they had to do was accept the check. They didn't have to pass a test or remember a password, or promise to change their ways or endorse a line of athletic shoes or even verify a winning number at the lottery office. It was all done for them.

It's an idea that might have made for entertaining television, but it's not very good theology. It's one thing to sing, as we did on Ash Wednesday, that God accepts me “just as I am.” But it's quite another to suggest that God is content to leave me there, just as I am. “How I am” is the problem! “How I am” is what led Nicodemus to interrogate Jesus about entrance into the kingdom of God. God accepts us just as we are, but He's not interested in letting us remain in that state. To believe that those who enter the kingdom of God are the passive recipients of God's universal and non-discriminatory acceptance distorts what the Protestant Reformers were trying to say. It is tantamount to belief in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It's a kind of salvation that certainly has no need for the Son of God to die on a cross.

So, if salvation is based neither on our activity —qualifying by obeying a set of rules, nor on our passivity —simply accepting a gift with no strings attached, the question remains: How does one enter the kingdom of God?

The first clue that today's liturgy supplies us with is found in the Old Testament character of Abraham. Abraham was living quite happily and prosperously and, as far as we can tell, inconspicuously, in the land of his birth, minding his own business, when the Lord “said” to him, in whatever way the Lord says things, “Abraham, I want you to fold up your tent and pack up all your belongings and gather up your household and move —about 500 miles to the southwest, to a place called Canaan. In that land, I am going to make of your descendants a great nation, a nation which I will bless, and through which all the nations of the world will themselves be blessed.”

Now, in no place are we told that Abraham was particularly qualified for this honor. Nowhere are we told that God was paying Abraham back for some good deed, or even alot of good deeds, that he had done. God simply chose Abraham for God's own reasons. But neither was Abraham passive, like a puppet on a string. Abraham responded to the Lord with trusting faith, trusting faith, moreover, that was demonstrated by concrete behavior: he indeed did pick up and move to Canaan. He obeyed God. And in the process of obeying God, Abraham was changed. As a result of his obedient faith, Abraham was transformed in his inner being. St Paul says that this faith was “reckoned” to him—credited to his account, so to speak—as righteousness, as being just, as being in proper relation to God. From our New Testament vantage point, we would say that Abraham was granted entrance into the Kingdom of God.

In today's passage from St John's gospel, we get another clue, another insight into this whole mystery. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You've got to be born from above, born anew, born all over again, get a fresh start. You've got to receive from the Holy Spirit a new lease on your life with God. You've got to turn your eyes to the Son of Man lifted up—lifted up on the cross, lifted up in resurrection from the dead, and lifted up in ascension to the right hand of the Father. In a word, Nicodemus, you've got to be transformed. God does the transforming, but it happens in you, and you've got to let it happen.”

This is my own parable now: The kingdom of God is like a limestone quarry, from which the materials are being dug for the construction of a great cathedral. One piece of limestone is taken and left just as it is, because it's going to rest in an obscure corner of the foundation where it will never see the light of day or feel the admiring gaze of a human eye. The piece next to it, identical in every respect, is chosen to form the intricately carved crucifix that will be set in the reredos behind the high altar. This second piece of stone did nothing to earn or deserve such a glorious destiny, but before it can take its prominent and honored position, it must be born again. It must be transformed through submission to the skilled and patient chisel of the master stone mason. God so loved the world—that is, every person in the world—that he gave his only begotten Son—which is to say, his very being, his very self—that whoever believes in him—whoever responds to him with the obedient faith of which Abraham is an example—should not perish, but be transformed within by being born again by water and the Holy Spirit, and thereby have eternal life, which is to say, entrance into the kingdom of God. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A: Lent I (10 February 2008)

Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:4b-9,15-17,26–3:7

I am the oldest of seven siblings, so Brenda and I were also the first to present my parents with grandchildren, and to make uncles and aunts out of my brothers and sisters. When our kids were young, our own home was, of course, “child proofed”—anything that was dangerous, or especially valuable, was placed more than four feet off the ground and off the edge of the counter. But when we would visit one of my siblings who was married, but as yet childless, it was always a little bit stressful, because their homes were not similarly attentive to the strange idea that you have to put something in your mouth before you can be sure it really exists. And among all the forces of nature, an unattended two-year old has more destructive capacity per pound per minute than anything else I can think of! So Brenda and I would always be on edge, lest the natural curiosity of one of our offspring should lead to disaster or embarrassment.

Those days are long gone, of course, and we were long since been able to turn the tables on my brothers and sisters—as well as on some members of Brenda’s extended family who have from time to time been in our house—as we watch them squirm while their small children—and now, even my brother’s grandchildren— prowl around our decidedly non-childproof home! But it occurs to me that, while most of us grow up to know how to behave ourselves in polite company, there is a sense in which we are still marauding toddlers, roaming around in search of something poisonous to put in our mouths or something expensive to break. Only in our case, it’s not the poison that goes into our mouths that causes the trouble, but the poison that comes out. And the things we break are not made of porcelain or crystal, but of intangible qualities like trust and hope and affection and security. And they’re not expensive because of the rarity of the materials, but because of the costly effort that goes into building and sustaining a relationship between two human beings.

As individuals, we wound one another with our words, spreading poison with gossip and innuendo, creating webs of deceit and treachery that are beyond imagination in their complexity and subtlety. As a society, we consume natural resources with scarcely a second thought for the effects of our behavior on future generations. Surely God must see us sometimes the way a parent sees a two-year old loose in grandmother’s living room.

Now take that image, and put it on a mental shelf, because I want to come back to it. But for the moment, shift gears with me, and try on another scenario in your mind. Think of your favorite sweater. Now imagine that you snag it, gently but firmly, on a rose bush or a low hanging tree limb. The snag starts out small. “Maybe no one will notice,” you think to yourself, because you really like the sweater. But every time you move, the snag gets bigger. It starts to spread. Pretty soon, you’ve got six inches of loose yarn dangling from your sleeve. But you notice that there really isn’t a discernible hole, so you think, “Why not just take a pair of scissors and go ‘snip’ here and ‘snip’ there, and all will be well?” So you cut off both ends of the offending loop. But your attempt at sweater surgery only compounds the problem. The hole you couldn’t find rapidly appears, and grows whenever you look at it. You realize, to your horror, that your favorite sweater is both unwearable and beyond repair.

Have we not all felt at times that this unraveling sweater is a perfect description of our lives? We make a small mistake. We experience a lapse in judgment. We certainly didn’t mean to, and would be more careful if we had it to do over again. But we don’t know quite what to do, and there doesn’t appear to be any tremendous harm done, so we do nothing. But the damage grows, and grows, and before we know, we’re neck deep in a disaster, and we feel desperately hopeless.

Once again, I invite to take your sweater with the dangling yarn, and put it up on that mental shelf next to the rampaging toddler. Then move with me to one final image. You’re a lover of antiques, and you acquire a fine oriental ceramic vase that you place on a pedestal in the corner of the entry hall in your home—the entry hall with the polished slate floor. But one day, the cat, who normally lives outside, gets into the house, which utterly delights the dog, who normally lives inside. In about 1.5 seconds, the dog and the cat do what dogs and cats do, and your antique vase is in a thousand pieces evenly distributed over the area of your polished slate floor.

In one sense, I feel safe about this, because I don’t own anything as expensive and fragile as that vase, though we do have a hard floor in our entry way, along with a cat who prefers to be outside when the weather permits, as well as a dog who goes outside only under supervision. But figuratively speaking, I have personally broken a number of these vases myself—with no help from anything four-footed —and have witnessed the destruction of many more. I have seen relationships—between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters—relationships bearing such a load of bitterness and resentment that there doesn’t seem to be enough forgiveness in the whole universe . . . to cover it. I have seen dreams of a lifetime shattered beyond recognition, indefatigable hope drowned in disappointment.

Now, take the shards of your antique vase, and scoop them up, and make a pile on your mental shelf next to the unraveling sweater and the curious toddler. What I’ve been describing, of course, can wear many different labels—alienation, estrangement, enmity, corruption, perishability—but ultimately, it’s just garden-variety Sin. Garden of Eden variety, that is. Sin is a condition, an experience, a tendency, that we are all born with. We are both victims of it and perpetrators of it. The time-honored story from the book of Genesis paints the picture for us in bold and unambiguous strokes. Adam and Eve chose to trust themselves more than they trusted God. They attempted to become gods unto themselves. For all the ceramic vases that we break, for all the dangling sweater yarn we try to neatly clip away, for all the two-year old tantrums we throw, we are simply giving expression to this fatal flaw that infects human nature: We want God to hand over the controls—until we fly into a tailspin, that is, at which point we will beg Him to take over long enough to set everything right.

God is, of course, in the business of setting everything right, though rarely according to our specifications. Jesus came to save us from the “garden variety” Sin that will otherwise be our undoing. The very name “Jesus” means “God saves.” This is much more easily said, however, than done. We should not underestimate the gravity of the task, or think that it was somehow “easy” for Jesus just because he’s, you know, the Son of God, that all he had to do was somehow “will” it to happen, to really want to save us, and then endure a few painful hours on a cross, and that’s that, and we all live happily ever after.

To understand the price of our salvation, to truly comprehend what saving us costs Jesus, let’s look back at that mental shelf where we’ve been setting things. When Brenda and I lived in California, and were able to have her extended family over to our house during holiday times, it was pretty much a full-time job to keep track of each one of the pre-school children who were there. They are miniature destruction machines, and a parent or grand-parent or benevolent volunteer from a neighboring branch of the family tree has to hover over them like a guardian angel, preventing disasters from happening and cleaning up the ones they can’t prevent. Meanwhile, the child is essentially oblivious to the work it takes to provide this escort service, and completely uncooperative in trying to make the task less of a burden.

Part of Jesus' ontinuing saving activity on our behalf is to hover around us to prevent . . . and clean up after our destructive behavior. Where Adam and Eve disobeyed, Jesus obeys. Where you and I disobey, Jesus obeys. We still may get swatted on the behind when we throw a tantrum, but it is done always in love and never in anger. The important thing is that even if we spill grape juice on the cream-colored carpet, Jesus knows how to get the stain out. What we make bitter through our sin, Jesus can turn sweet with his obedience. The grudges that we hold on to because of our sin, Jesus can pry loose from us because of his obedience. The trust that we lose though our fickleness, Jesus can recover through his faithfulness.

Now let’s deal with that snagged sweater. Before taking scissors to that offending loop of yarn, why not take the sweater to a master weaver? Jesus is a master weaver. He can painstakingly trace the snag to its source, and then re-weave the yarn with unimaginably complex labor and great skill. This is a slow process, so we’ll need to be patient. And it takes a professional—it’s not something we should try at home. But Jesus’s saving ministry on our behalf includes patiently and laboriously re-weaving the fabric of our lives after it has been snagged by Sin. It’s something we could never do ourselves.

But what about that antique vase, shattered into a thousand pieces? If the shards are entrusted into the care of an expert, the vase can be not only restored, but made stronger than it was in its original condition. But every tiny piece must be carefully collected, examined, sorted, cataloged, and finally re-fitted into its precise location. And when it is a human life that is shattered, no one but the Creator of that life has the expertise to put it back together. When it is hope that has been shattered, only the Source of that hope can reconstruct it. When it is love that has been shattered, only the Author of love, the one who is himself love in his very nature, can restore it.

So let us never use the expression “Jesus saves” as a mere slogan. That trivializes the cost of our salvation. Saving us is a tremendous labor of tremendous love. The nature and extent of that labor is illustrated for us on this First Sunday in Lent through the gospel account of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness right before the commencement of his public ministry. The first temptation, at first blush, seems harmless enough. Jesus had been fasting and he was hungry. If he had the power to turn stones into bread, why not do it? The second temptation seems rather fanciful. Satan wanted Jesus to jump off a high building just for the exhibitionistic thrill of watching a pack of angels come to his rescue and set him down gently. The third temptation is a no-brainer: Why would Jesus want to fall down and worship Satan for the sake of a few kingdoms that weren’t Satan’s to give in the first place?

But the real significance of the temptations is not in the temptations themselves, but in Jesus' replies. In each case, he quotes Old Testament scripture, and each quotation refers back to a particular act of disobedience that the people of Israel had perpetrated during their 40 year wilderness sojourn. In responding to the Evil One this way, Jesus is going about his arduous task of laboriously piecing back together what human sin has shattered, of systematically undoing the damage that sin has done, of going back and finding every petulant “No!” that has been shouted at God, and substituting an obedient “Yes” in its place. Jesus doesn’t save by executive decree, by waving a wand, by telling his aides “Make it so,” but by getting down and taking care of the messy details himself, one at a time. Every time I make a mess by my apathy, Jesus is there to clean up with his compassion. For every wound that I inflict through angry or sarcastic words, Jesus is there with the soothing ointment of forgiveness and reconciliation. Every time the fabric of human society starts to unravel through violence, Jesus is there to weave it back together through peace. I cannot put it any better than St Paul does in his letter to the Romans:

“ one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

And as we sing in the hymn text by John Henry Newman:

“O wisest love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail.”


Friday, February 8, 2008

Ash Wednesday (6 February 2008)

The beginning of Lent, for most of us, triggers a series of associative responses from the past. This chain of associations is rarely the same for any two of us, since we each come with our own unique perspective. I was brought up in a Baptist household, so Lent was something other people did. But I did live in the suburbs of Chicago, so I went to school with a lot of kids whose last names ended in s-k-i or w-i-c-z, and whose Roman Catholicism was constantly, if quietly, evident. I remember them showing up at school on Ash Wednesday with curious black smudges on their foreheads. I also distinctly recall looking at the food supplement of the Chicago Daily News and noticing a lead article on “creative ideas for Lenten meals”, and feeling rather out of the cultural mainstream.

If you were raised Roman Catholic, you probably remember a noticeable change in the menu in the school cafeteria and at home, and a fair amount of pressure from various authority figures to identify just what it was you were giving up or taking on as your Lenten discipline. Now if you're one of the few, the proud, the cradle Episcopalians, then there's no telling for sure what Lent might mean to you. There's a good chance it meant being in church on Ash Wednesday, though there's an equally good chance that the only ashes to be found were on the wicks of the altar candles after they were snuffed! If nothing else, it meant that church services were a little more somber, with hymns sung more slowly and lugubriously than usual. Whether or not Lent affected your home life depended on the level of churchmanship that your parents and your parish adhered to.

But anyway ... here we are, gathered together in Saint Anne's Church, in Warsaw, Indiana, on February 6th, 2008—gathered together with our various backgrounds, associations, experiences, and pre-conceptions. This year, I myself don’t feel quite ready for Lent, perhaps because it's so early in arriving—it seems like Christmas was just last week. In other years, I’ve been more than ready, already in Lenten mood by the time Ash Wednesday rolls around. But time, as we learn sooner or later, waits for none of us, and the rhythm of the year unfolds in glorious ignorance of the rhythms of our personal lives. For some of you here this evening, Lent could hardly have come at a more appropriate time, for you are truly experiencing desolation in your life. I may not know who you are, but you do. The tone of your life is dark and austere, and the austerity and restraint of our liturgy this evening is an altogether appropriate expression of the condition you find yourself in.

Others of you come to this service with an acute sense of your own sinfulness. You know exactly what it is that you should justly be feeling remorseful for, precisely what it is that is separating your soul from God this evening. I may not know who you are, but you do. And when, in a few minutes, we pray the Litany of Penitence together, and, then, after receiving the ashes, pray the fifty-first Psalm, what flows out of your lips will truly fit with the condition of your heart: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses."

Others who worship with us this evening, however, find that, while the calendar tells them it's Lent, their hearts tell them it's Christmas or Easter—or at least Valentine’s Day! Maybe life has never been better for you than it is right now. Maybe you've just achieved a long-cherished goal, and are still savoring the sweetness of accomplishment. Maybe you're overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and joy over the many blessings that God has showered upon you. I may not know who you are, but you do. You want to cry out "Alleluia!" just when that word is supposed to be banished from our vocabulary for the next several weeks. For you, what we do this evening will be slightly jarring, slightly unsettling. It's not that you'll be able to disagree with anything that's said, but it just won't be ... from the heart.

And then, there are those who are here, who may not have a very clear idea at all as to why they're here. Perhaps you're a young person, and were not given a choice in the matter. Perhaps you were assigned something in particular to do and showed up in fulfillment of your duty. This time, I may indeed know who some of you are, but … what I can only suspect, you are certain of. For you, tonight's liturgy may be confusing and/or boring, something you'll have no trouble forgetting the moment you walk out the door. Then again, maybe you'll have an "Aha!" experience, and see something you've never noticed before. Maybe you'll always look back on this Ash Wednesday as the starting point of a lively and authentic relationship with God. Stranger things have happened.

But ... what I want to tell you … is that, in the larger scheme of things, the way any of us feels about tonight's goings-on is of passing small importance. What is important, is that we're all here, doing what we're doing. Now I wonder whether it strikes you as a little bit odd to hear me say that? I know it strikes me as odd! It challenges two of the fundamental presumptions that you and I are conditioned by.

The first of these presumptions is that what we do, we do primarily as individuals. Even when we do something as part of a group, we assume that the group is neither more nor less than the sum of its individual parts. This view doesn't square, however, with the way God seems to deal with mankind. When the world was destroyed by flood, the sure route to salvation was by being on board Noah's ark. The ark escaped the flood, and thereby the individuals who were on it. Under the terms of the old covenant, the fundamental basis of one's right standing before God was membership in the community of Israel, the nation with whom the covenant was made. The words of the prophet Joel that we heard read a few minutes ago spoke of the need of the entire nation to repent and return to the Lord. And under the terms of the new covenant, the covenant we have with God through Christ, we are saved by participation in the body of Christ, which is the community of the church. It is into this body that we are born in the sacrament of baptism.

And, you know, it could not be more appropriate that we are saved as individuals by sharing in the life of a group, because we are also sinners by virtue of being part of a group. Sure, many of the sins we commit are quite personal and individual, and those are the ones that are likely to make us feel the guiltiest—but, remember, tonight isn't about feelings! Pay close attention to the Litany of Penitence that we are shortly about to pray together. Most of the sins that we will confess are not offenses that would be of any interest to the vice squad of the Warsaw police! They're sins that we're guilty of as a whole society.

Who's responsible for the plight of the hungry and the homeless? No single individual, but all of us as a society. Who's responsible for the pollution of our air and water? No single individual, but all of us as a society. When I first moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana about twenty years ago, I very righteously decided to boycott Exxon in protest for the Alaskan oil spill. But then it occurred to me that that was the height of hypocrisy! I was biting the hand that fed me! My protest had not a shred of moral authority. I may never have spilled a drop of oil on God's green earth, but as long as I cashed my paycheck twice a month—a paycheck that is was as dependent on the Baton Rouge economy as the Baton Rouge economy was on the petroleum-refining industry, then I was just as guilty of environmental pollution as if I personally dumped toxic waste into the Mississippi River. There is such a things as social sin, and it needs to be repented of as surely as does individual sin.

So the Ash Wednesday liturgy challenges the presumption that the only behavior that counts is individual behavior. But there is another presumption—an even more important one, I believe—that is called into question by what we do here this evening. You and I are conditioned, in a multitude of ways, to perceive the exterior as an expression of the interior. In other words, what I do and say is a reflection of what I think and feel. This is by no means a false assumption, as far as it goes. In fact, it's probably the ideal situation, where our actions and our words are harmonized with our thoughts and feelings. But, it can also work in the opposite direction. Energy can flow from our actions to our beliefs and emotions, from the exterior to the interior. And this is one of the supreme benefits of liturgy, and of the cycle of liturgical time, with its alternation between feasting, fasting, and just ordinary living.

Tonight, the body of Christ, the community of the church, is repenting, expressing corporate remorse for things done and left undone. Any one of the particular cells of the body may or may not "need" to repent in the particular way and for the particular sins of which the body is repenting. But the body still needs the contribution of those cells. There are those weak cells, who, as individuals, need to repent, but are unaware of their need, or lack the ability to do so, and require the assistance of stronger voices confessing and stronger knees kneeling. For those weak cells of the body, tonight is a school of repentance. They will learn by doing, with the rest of the community acting as spiritual training wheels. In time, by participating in liturgies such as this one, the exterior words and actions of the "weak" cells will transform their thoughts and feelings, so that their outward aspect and their inward aspect will be in harmony. And the stronger cells, whose, who, as individuals, have no overwhelming need of repentance now, prepare themselves for the time when they will need to turn yet again toward Christ. By "going through the motions" this evening, even though the words spoken may seem to overstate the actual condition of their lives, they maintain their spiritual fitness the way an athlete keeps in shape by running or lifting weights during the off season.

So join me in this solemn assembly, and let us keep this fast together, regardless of whether we're ready for it, or in the mood for it. Receive, with me, the mark of our mortality on our foreheads, and share with me, once again, in taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the sacred gifts by which this mortality is defeated. Amen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A: Last Sunday after Epiphany (3 February 2008)

Matthew 17:1-9

I want to begin today by being a bit more autobiographical and personal than I usually am in a sermon—not, I hope, for whatever gratification may come from talking about myself, but because the main insight I want to leave you with emerged from the gradual process that I’m about to describe.

As most of you know, I came to the Episcopal Church as a young adult, in my early twenties. The tradition in which I was raised happens to have been Baptist, but it could easily have been any of a number of different free-church evangelical faith communities. I am grateful for my upbringing. It taught me to love our Lord Jesus, to study the Scriptures, and to honor their authority. When we got together on Sundays, the place we gathered in and what we did there looked rather different than what we experience at St Anne’s and in other more liturgical churches. Rather than the altar being the focal point of the room, there was a raised platform in the front, with an imposing pulpit at dead center. Behind the platform were raised pews for the members of the choir. Behind the choir, discreetly hid from view, was a large tank where baptism by full immersion could be performed. In our church, there was a large wooden cross on the back wall—not a cruxifix, certainly, but just a plain cross—but there was virtually nothing else in the room by way of overt Christian symbolism. Even though our pastor tried to get us to call it a “sanctuary” rather than an “auditorium,” we certainly thought of it in functional terms, as a comfortable meeting place, not as the venue of an encounter with the Sacred.

As people came together, there would be soft organ music in the background, but instead of a reverent hush, there was a good bit of visiting and socializing in the pews. The service itself usually began with the choir singing a short “Call to Worship,” followed by a congregational hymn. Then there would be about twenty or thirty minutes of an informal routine of announcements, a reading from Scripture, a musical solo and/or choir anthem, and a long prayer improvised by the pastor. But this was all pretty much just a warm-up for the main event, which was the sermon, lasting anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes. This was the high point, the real reason we came to church. After the sermon, there would usually be a closing hymn, often something kind of slow and sentimental, hopefully motivating us to continue to take to heart the pastor’s message. Then there was a benediction, and then the organ played again—more loudly this time—as everyone left the church.

This routine . . . does many things well. I learned a great deal from the sermons delivered by the pastor who served that church during the mid-to-late 60s, while I was in junior high and high school, and I am very grateful to him to this day. My heart was stirred . . . and my devotion aroused by guest preachers, many of them fresh from the foreign mission field, who challenged me with the invitation to commit my life totally to Christ, to surrender the aspirations of my own ego and to yield completely to the biddings of the Holy Spirit. I marvelled at, and was inspired by, the example of their sacrifice, and gradually began to see myself as destined for—as they would have described it—“full-time Christian service.”

At the same time, I also knew, albeit “pre-consciously,” that there was something missing. Even now, I can scarcely find the right words to name what was going on in my soul, but there was, deep within me, a desire and longing to connect with the Eternal, the Transcendent, to know God in His surpassingly beautiful glory. But as a child and teenager, I wouldn’t have been able to use those words. I wouldn’t even have known that the yearning I felt was religious in nature, that it was God who was seducing me with His glory. The only outward sign in my experience of what I intuitively felt within myself was the pomp and pageantry associated with royalty and the military. So I was drawn to stories and moves and TV shows that depicted such ceremony. I fantasized about living in a country with a monarch who required that his subjects prostrate themselves upon entering his presence, and leave the throne room walking backwards, so as to never turn their backs on the sovereign. I fantasized about being in combat, and following orders with such abandon that I did not care an instant for my own safety.

What I was looking to do, of course—though I certainly didn’t know it at the time—was to worship the Almighty and Everliving God, to give appropriate expression to my avowed intention to serve and follow Him. And I was looking for it because what I experienced in church on Sunday mornings did not give me that opportunity. We were good at talking about God, but we didn’t have a clue how to actually worship God.

Now, lest you continue to wonder where I’m going with all this maudlin self-disclosure on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, it’s because of the Transfiguration. In all three years of our lectionary cycle, this Sunday before the beginning of Lent confronts us with the Transfiguration of our Lord. This year we hear about it from Matthew. Jesus takes Peter and James and John up to the top of a mountain, and sometime during the night, he starts to glow—Matthew tells us, “like the sun,” so it was no mere nightlight—and two of the heroes of Israel’s history, Moses and Elijah, show up for a while beside him. In that moment, in that mountaintop experience to define all mountaintop experiences, the three disciples found, concretely and tangibly, that which the youthful Dan Martins was unknowingly looking for. What I have seen, what most of us have seen, only in shades and intimations, fleeting shadows and sidelong glances, Peter and James and John saw straight on, dead ahead.

And what, we might ask, was their first response? What did they do before they even had a chance to think about what they should do? “Lord, this is wonderful. Let’s make three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now, in their accounts of this incident, Mark and Luke give the impression that Peter’s offer was inappropriate—he didn’t know what he was saying. But not in Matthew. The way Matthew tells the story, it was a perfectly plausible response. The word which most translations render as “booth,” and which I have just quoted as “tabernacle,” and which we just heard read as “dwelling,” is the same word which, in the Old Testament, was used for the special tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant during the wilderness wanderings of the ancient Israelites. It was the place where God’s glory dwelt, the place which Moses would enter to commune with God, and when he came out his face would glow so much that he had to wear a veil in order for anybody to look at him. Later, when they settled down permanently in the Promised Land, they built a temple in Jerusalem, which became the permanent home of the Ark. The Psalmist would say of it, “Lord, I love your house, and the place where your glory abides.” A tabernacle serves a very useful purpose. It transforms God’s glory into an intensity which might not actually kill us if we look at it, the way an electrical transformer takes power from the high-voltage lines and turns it into something you can use to light your house without exploding your breaker panel.

And what, we might ask yet again, was the disciples’ second response to the Transfiguration? They hit the deck. They fell to the ground prostrate, noses in the dust, lost in utterly pure and abject worship. It’s the response my young heart wanted to make, but didn’t know how. It’s the response we all would want to make if confronted with such an overpowering vision of majestic glory.

How, then, can we begin to approach the experience of God’s glory—glory that virtually compels us to prostrate ourselves in front of it? Well, God has given us a gift which enables us to take the next step. He has given us a transformer. We call it the Liturgy. In my Baptist youth, as you might imagine, liturgy was not a positive word. It was used disparagingly of those pseudo-Christians who don’t know how to really pray so they have to use a book. Needless to say, I was conditioned to be suspicious of liturgy. But as I grew into my college years, that suspicion began to melt, and that melting, over time, turned into a warm and joyful embrace. I discovered that the liturgy—and I refer here to the whole complex of words and actions and material objects that symbolize our encounter with the Transcendent and Holy God—I discovered that the liturgy supplies both the experience of Divine Glory and the transformer, the “tabernacle,” which enables us to bask in the light of that glory.

Some years ago, I was shooting the breeze with the rector of a parish nearby to the one I was working in at the time, and he told me about a conference that one of his parishioners attended—at a nearby seminary of the Episcopal Church, no less—at which the idea was put forward that the churches that are really enjoying substantial growth have a very informal and passive worship style, with music that was written only last month, where every Sunday is Praise Band Sunday, and that if Episcopal churches want to grow, then we need to do the same thing, and sit very loosely to the Prayer Book and make the inside of our church buildings much plainer and simpler,
and let go of the traditional music that we’re accustomed to. My clergy colleague and I agreed in our reluctance to accept this advice. It’s not that we don’t think new music in a popular style has any place in our piety and worship—it does, and it certainly does at St Anne’s—but we were both of a mind that, rather than blurring and downplaying the edginess of our liturgical inheritance, we need instead to accentuate it. Rather than trying to be who somebody else is, and do a poor job of it, we need to be who we already are, but do a better job of it.

People are, I am convinced, hungry for a vision of God’s glory, yearning for an encounter with the awe-inspiring majesty of God. They want an experience that will induce them to fall down flat on their faces, and then get up and walk out of the room backwards so as not to show any disrespect to the Holy One. Ought we not to employ every means at our disposal to encourage and facilitate such an encounter? We have this wonderful treasure in the Liturgy, and it is capable of both evoking and providing the vehicle for responding to the glory of heavenly beauty. This is done through architecture and the arrangement of sacred space, it is fostered through an environment of worship that invites reverence, it is nourished by the finest music—old and new—performed with excellence and attention to detail, it is encouraged by the artistic use of glass and paint and fabric, it is accomplished through movement and posture and symbolic gesture, and it appeals richly to all the senses: taste and touch and vision and hearing and smelling. It is our liturgy, the true “work” of the people of God.

“The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come, let us adore him.” Amen.