Sunday, December 20, 2009

C: Advent IV

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-49

When I traveled to England in 2005, I needed to live for three weeks out of one carry-on size suitcase. So I bought some of those special plastic bags that allow you to put articles of clothing in them and then squeeze all the air out and compress the contents so they take up a lot less space in your suitcase than they normally would. The same sort of thing happens when you download software over the internet—it comes in a “compressed” format, and before you can install the new program onto your computer, you have to “unzip” it, and let its contents expand into a usable form, just like you have to unzip the special plastic bag and fluff up the sweater before you can put it on.

We actually see the same thing in nature, only in a much more complex and wonderful form. Imagine a simple acorn. It’s a small thing, kind of a nuisance, actually, if you’re trying to maintain landscaping in the vicinity of an oak tree. Yet, within each acorn is the genetic blueprint and the initial raw material for every detail of a great oak tree. An acorn is, in effect, a “compressed” oak tree that is waiting to be “unzipped” and “installed.”

These images provide a sort of interpretive lens through which to view a very special meeting, a meeting between two pregnant women, Mary the expectant mother of Jesus and Elizabeth the expectant mother of John the Baptist. Mary, who has just learned of her pregnancy, makes a rather arduous journey to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who is nearly into her third trimester. As Luke’s gospel tells the story, when Mary came into Elizabeth’s presence, the fetal John the Baptist did a little dance inside his mother’s belly. It was a moment of great symbolic spiritual importance.

Pregnancy, of course, is an experience that focuses the attention of everyone concerned on how a complex and unknown future is “compressed,” miniaturized, in a developing pre-born infant, which is the palpable (if not yet visible!) sign, a sort of model, of a life that will soon be “unzipped.” A parent looks at that first ultrasound image and sees a toddler taking her first step, a kindergartener on the first day of school, a Little League ball player, a teenager with his first car, high school and college graduations, and a bride walking down the aisle—all of that compressed into the growing fetus, the way an oak tree is compressed into an acorn.

The visit of Mary to Elizabeth, then, is that much and so much more. It is that much written in block capital letters and blazing with neon. The visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth is not just about the two mothers and their unborn sons. It’s about the future of the human race, the fate of the entire world. We will sing an ancient hymn after Holy Communion that speaks of God being moved by “sorrow that an ancient curse should doom to death a universe…” The whole initiative that God takes, and which we celebrate during this holy season, is about rescuing us from that curse, delivering us from the certain doom that is ours if no action is taken. And “jumping John the Baptist” is a sign—to his mother, to Mary, and to us—a sign that recognizes and celebrates God’s gracious action on our behalf.

Now I’m going to ask you to take this mental picture of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth—this meeting that means so much more than what it literally is—take your mental image of the meeting and lay it to one side for a moment, and turn your attention with me to the epistle reading from Hebrews, and then we’ll come back and tie the two together. The author of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 40 these words: “a body you have prepared for me.” A body you have prepared for me. He was using that quotation to help support the intricate argument he was making about the high priestly ministry of Christ, pleading on our behalf—your behalf and mine—pleading our case before the Father as both priest and victim. But when we set this quotation from Hebrews side by side with the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, we’re able to see something quite wonderful going on here. The body of Christ is being formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All that we understand by that expression “body of Christ” is compressed in the womb of a Jewish teenager from an obscure village in Galilee.

So let’s unzip the file, shall we? What do we see?

First, we see the physical Body of Christ being formed. It is a body that will be the vehicle through which many, many people are blessed, but, more than anything else, it is a body that will be offered in sacrifice. One of the gifts that the Wise Men brought to the infant Jesus was myrrh. Myrrh is a fragrant spice, and its principal use in the ancient world was to anoint dead bodies prior to burial. So, virtually from the very moment of his birth, the body of Christ was marked for sacrifice. The physical “body of Christ” fulfills its purpose in nothing other than being offered as a ransom for many. In an oblique way, the calendar of the season confronts us with just that reality. Three days after Christmas is the feast of the Holy Innocents, the young male children of Bethlehem who were put to the sword by King Herod in a vain attempt to exterminate the one he perceived as a threat to his kingdom. In the midst of our Christmas rejoicing, blood is shed, and we know that the body of the One whose birth we celebrate will have the blood drained from it on our behalf.

The second thing we see when we unzip the file of Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth is the mystical Body of Christ being formed—a body to manifest and display the Incarnation until the “day of the Lord,” until the end of history. That body is, of course, the Church. In the Christian spiritual tradition, Our Lady is said to be the “prototype” of the Church, since the “body of Christ” was, quite literally, formed in her. I love what this says! It’s a wonderful reminder that the church is not a voluntary association of individuals who happen to believe the same things. Rather, it’s organic; it’s a family. Nor is the church purely optional, like we can have our own relationship with God and go to church to strengthen that relationship. No, the Church is that relationship! Our catechism defines the Church as the Body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members. There is no connection to the head except through the body.

Finally, when we unzip the compressed image of Our Lady’s visit to her cousin, we see that the eucharistic Body of Christ is being formed in her—a body which displays the sacrificial offering of the physical body and feeds the mystical body until the end of time. If Mary is the prototype of the Church, then she is also the prototype of the Eucharist. Christ is the sacrament of God; he shows us the Father, he is the visible face of an invisible God. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of Christ, extending the Incarnation, so to speak, across space and time so that those of us who are not first century Palestinian Jews can also hear his voice and feel his healing touch. And that makes the Eucharist—the liturgy we are presently celebrating and the meal we are about to share—that makes the Eucharist the sacrament of the Church. It is in the Eucharist that the Church is most clearly and explicitly herself. We offer this Mass in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the one at whose presence John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb. With Mary, our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God our savior. The Lord has done great things for us, and holy is his Name. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

C: Advent II

Luke 3:1-6

Philippians 1:3-11

Baruch 5:1-9

My oldest daughter majored in Psychology when she was in college. Ever since she graduated, I’ve sometimes wondered whether she’s trying to diagnose me with some sort of disorder or another, but I’m probably just being paranoid. Anyway, I learned from her during her college years that one of the curious details of being a psychology major is that, at some point along the way, you are given the opportunity to spend quality time with furry rodents with long tales—lab rats. No doubt, some college students think that rats are cute, and others think them repulsive, but they had both better keep their feelings to themselves, because part of that exercise is to learn the discipline of scientific research, and part of that discipline is that the researcher does not get personally involved with his or her subjects. The idea is to create certain conditions, and then stand back and watch how the rats respond. You set up the maze or other test of intelligence and observe how they try to solve it, or what combination of genetics or environment motivate them to try harder or be more successful. But you don’t intervene on their behalf, or point them the other way when they make a wrong turn.

Have you ever felt like you are a lab rat and God is a researcher? Have you ever felt like you’re constantly being tested, but you don’t really know what the purpose of the test is, or what is the desired level of performance, and it sure would be nice to get a helping hand once in a while from someone who can see the whole maze? When we put ourselves and God in the positions of lab rat and researcher, we are engaging in a kind of theology called Deism. It was very popular about 200 years ago. The most frequent illustration of Deism casts God as a watchmaker, who assembles the intricate mechanism known as creation, establishes the laws by which it will operate, then stands aside and lets it run. If a spring breaks, that’s too bad. It the works get gummed up, that’s too bad. The deist God is an absentee landlord, and does not intervene, or get involved, or, for that matter, even care, once the mechanism is up and running.

The problem with Deism, aside from the fact that it has all the emotional appeal of a canker sore, is that it is entirely speculative, entirely rational, and takes no account whatever of how the God in question has chosen to reveal himself to us. It reflects, not so much an inadequate understanding, but no understanding at all, of the witness of scripture or the tradition of the Church’s teaching. In such a universe, you and I are the most hapless of creatures. We are lab rats in a maze, left entirely to our own devices to find our way out. No kind-hearted researcher is going to lift us out of our predicament and show us how to reach the hunk of cheese at the end of the line. As human beings, we are left to be our own saviors, to confect our own deliverance from the fear and alienation that so often feel as though they’re going to swallow us whole.

If you have been attentive to the scripture readings over the last several Sundays, you have noticed a consistent theme, a repeated emphasis on last things, on the end of history as we know it, when the trumpet of the Lord sounds and time is no more, when wrongs are put right, lives judged, perfect justice dispensed, and the total sovereignty and majesty of God completely unchallenged. Listen to the words of Baruch, a prophet to the Greek-speaking Jewish communities scattered throughout the Mediterranean world before the time of Christ, as he writes about a time when God’s people will be re-gathered in the holy city of Jerusalem:

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height and look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east, at the word of the holy one, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God's command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

Does this God sound like a dispassionate watchmaker? Does this God sound like a laboratory researcher? Now listen to St Paul, who writes constantly about the Christian hope as flowing from an expectation of God’s continuing involvement in the actual lived experiences of men and women and children, as he raises the subject once again, this time in his letter to the Philippians: is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul was convinced that this “day of Christ” would indeed come, and he wanted his spiritual children in Philippi to be ready for it, to be “pure and blameless” when the Lord of history re-enters history, not as an obscure infant redeemer this time, but as a just and righteous judge. And then there’s the bracing, attention-getting testimony of John the Baptist. And when we hear John the Baptist mentioned in the liturgy, we think, “Aha! It’s beginning to feel a lot like Advent!” and the adrenaline starts to rush, because if Advent is here, then Christmas can’t be far behind. And, of course, it isn't. The whole ministry of John the Baptist is to be a sign, to point away from himself, and direct our attention to Jesus. And as the Church has received John’s ministry for liturgical purposes, he draws our attention to the feast we are preparing to celebrate in two-and-a-half weeks, the feast of the most astonishing intervention in human history that could ever be conceived, the feast of the Word made Flesh, the feast of Emmanuel, the feast of God not only one with us, but one of us. Nothing could be further from the detached God of Deism than a God who is so passionate about his creation that he becomes intimately involved with—in effect, joins it.

John the Baptist and the other prophets of the Advent proclaim the good news that the One who is running the experiment is not an objective researcher, but a loving Father. We are not lab rats, but children, and the mess we’re in was never intended to be a maze in the first place. The burden of being our own savior, of confecting our own salvation, of devising our own escape from the vise grip of sin and alienation and death, of finding the path to forgiveness and reconciliation and life—that load is taken off our shoulders; it doesn’t belong to us. The One showing us the route to the end of the maze is One who loved us enough to enter the maze solely because he loved us, and who solved it on our behalf. That’s something no laboratory researcher would ever do!


Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

C: Advent I

Luke 21:25-31

I Thessalonians 3:9-13

One of the great cinematic cliches that helps define the movie genre “western” is the arrival of the cavalry. The wagon train has formed into a circle as a defensive measure. But the Indians outnumber the settlers and are attacking relentlessly, wave after wave. The settlers are fighting bravely, but they’re getting tired and several of them are wounded. They’re running out of ammunition, and don’t know how long they can hold out. Then, from a distance, a trumpet sounds. An American flag appears from over the rise, and the mounted soldiers in blue uniforms swoop down to chase the Indians away and rescue the beleaguered pilgrims. That bugle call and that flag and those blue uniforms are signs: signs of hope, signs of imminent deliverance, signs of salvation close at hand.

At least, that’s the way the story goes if you’re one of the settlers. But what if you’re an Indian? That very same bugle call, and that very same flag, and those very same blue unifroms are signs of frustration, signs of well-laid plans gone awry, signs of imminent danger, signs of humiliation, defeat, and disaster.

During the week leading up to his crucifixion, as recorded for us in St Luke’s gospel, Jesus spoke to his disciples about the importance of reading the signs of the times.

…there will be signs…in sun and moon and stars … when you see these things begin to take place, look up … look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves, and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

People in our time and place like to read signs of the times. Books that attempt to explain and interpret what’s going on become best-sellers. Films about someone’s notion of the end of the world do very well at the box office; this year it’s the movie 2012, which is the last year in the calendar of the ancient Mayans. But if you read these books or watch these films or just listen to people talk, there’s an awful lot of anxiety about the whole subject. One of the most insightful “signs of the times” is a literal one—a bumper sticker I saw some years ago: “Jesus is coming soon, and is he ever…[angry].” The image of Jesus returning physically to earth on a cloud, in power and great glory, is a sign of death, disaster, shame, and defeat for a great many, if not most, people who call it to mind. It is a source of considerable anxiety and fear for many—even many church-going Christians—and the more they think about it the more anxiety and fear they have.

In the spring of 1995, when my family and I were living in a rental house in California, we got a phone call from our rental agent to tell us that the owner of the house, who was living in Virginia at the time, wanted to visit and inspect his property. With sufficient notice, it was his legal right to do so. This was not a welcome sign! It was a source of great fear and anxiety for us. It’s not that we weren’t taking decent care of the place, but you never know what people expect to see. We cracked the whip on ourselves for several days and got the place looking about as good as it could look. We were expecting a serious and business-like visit, at best, if not a downright gloomy and stressful experience. The signs of Mr Jensen’s coming were greeted by us with apprehension and worry. But we didn’t know Mr Jensen. He turned out to be smiling and friendly, and he had no complaints at all about the way we were taking care of his house. Our fear of his visit was misplaced, because it was rooted in ignorance. (Now, to be honest, we did get kicked out a couple of months later, but not because of anything he saw on the visit; he wanted to rent the place to his son.)

There’s a parallel here. Those who are fearful and apprehensive when they contemplate the second coming of Christ are operating in ignorance of what God has revealed about himself, about his basic nature, about the meaning and purpose of human life, and about his plans for creation. It is rooted, curiously, in a self-image as an Indian, not a settler. In the western cinematic analogy, the cavalry is Jesus, the Indians are the world, and the settlers are the church, those who have put their faith in Christ and been baptized into his dying and rising. That us, folks! From our perspective, the second coming of Christ is like the cavalry appearing over the hill. The signs of his coming—the bugle call, the flag, the blue uniforms—are signs of deliverance and restoration, signs of comfort and hope. Jesus said, “…when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Life lived under the lordship of Jesus Christ is marked by hopeful expectancy of what God is doing. For the faithful Christian, Jesus’ return cannot happen soon enough. Our constant prayer is “maranatha—come, Lord Jesus.” Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation. Actually, it is Advent, rather than the long “green” season after Pentecost, that we should call “ordinary time,” because Advent is the most like real life—hopeful, expectant waiting for the coming of Christ. It is a time of hope and expectation because we are grounded in a secure knowledge of God’s revelation of himself.

I recall a cartoon. A man wearing a crown is saying, “Earth, this is God. I’ve decided to rent to other tenants. You’ve got thirty days to clear out.” That cartoon makes an interesting point, but it’s nothing God has ever actually said. Quite the opposite is the case. To put it simply: the landlord is in love with the tenants! Unlike Mr Jensen, he won’t even kick us out to rent the place to his son, because his son already died to secure our right to remain on the property!

What great news this is! It stirs in us a desire to please him all the more, to take even better care of the assets—our bodies, our relationships, our time, talent, and treasure—all the assets that have been entrusted to us. St Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, expresses this desire as a petition to God that “…he may establish [our] hearts blameless in holiness before our God and father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.”

This is in contrast to the way of the world, in which fear of the Lord’s return leads to a futile search for ultimate meaning and transcendent significance in all the wrong places. Lives are dissipated in addiction and obsession. Within western culture, our core spiritual tradition is abandoned as insuficciently exotic, and we embrace New Age or Asian mysticism or the occult instead. Or, more innocently, so it would seem, but, I believe, more dangerously, we cling to some of the peripheral trappings, the plastic shrinkwrap, of Christianity, and bypass the thing itself. The commercialization and secularization of Christmas into “the holidays” is a flagrant case in point. We have sentimentalized and trivialized the bracing scandal of the incarnation, the wake-up call of God taking human flesh.

Today, at the beginning the Advent season, is a good time to renounce such a paltry surrogate for the Church’s real celebration of Christmas. Resolve to be a settler, not an Indian. Resolve to be among those who lift their heads and take heart when the cavalry’s trumpet sounds. Resolve to keep a good Advent. Make time to keep quiet. Make time to ponder the mystery of the coming of Christ in your heart. Don’t just pull out all the stops into an all-out celebration of Christmas long before it arrives. Let the anticipation build gradually until it bursts forth in holy joy on Christmas Eve. This way, when the last trumpet sounds, you can hold your head high, and greet the appearing of your Savior without shame or fear.


Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Year B: Proper 28 (11/15/09)

Mark 13:1-8

Hebrews 10:11-25

Although the objective definition of a “Christian” is “one who has been baptized,” in practical terms, we presume that a Christian is, or at least wants to be and tries to be a disciple of Jesus, a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately, you and I carry around some cultural baggage that makes it difficult for us to wrap our minds around that concept. Quite apart from being a disciple of Jesus, being a disciple of anybody is, for us, a strange and foreign idea. It’s not something we can readily identify with. We are accustomed to programs and processes and procedures, but discipleship is about a person. It isn’t registering for a course and reading a certain list of books or watching a series of videos or passing tests or writing papers. Discipleship is a personal relationship, a relationship in which the disciple, more than anything else, spends time with a Master, listening and learning. Yes, there is eventually an attempt to emulate the Master to the point of achieving a certain level of proficiency. But this grows naturally and organically out of the personal relationship between Master and Disciple. For us, living as Christians is about following Jesus as much as it was for those who followed him bodily around Galilee and Judea. The life of the Church—yes, all the programs and processes and procedures—the life of the Church is meant to enable and facilitate the practice of faithful discipleship, and is really impoverished and ineffective if it fails in that mission.

The problem is, sometimes it’s difficult for disciples to discern the true voice of their Master. There are competing voices in our environments that claim to be the voice of Jesus. They don’t all say the same thing. In fact, very often they say contradictory things. “Listen to me,” they say. “I speak for Jesus,” or “My voice is the voice of Jesus.” What’s a faithful disciple to do? It’s easy to be deceived. How are we supposed to know what voices to listen to and which ones to ignore?

If you’ve paid a little bit of attention to the gospel readings on Sundays for the last several weeks, you’re aware that we’ve been on a journey, a road trip, with Jesus as he makes his way from his home area of Galilee—actually, from Caesarea Philippi, another 50 miles or so north of there—slowly south to Jerusalem, and we know what happens in Jerusalem. Two weeks ago, we met him in Jericho, just a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, with blind Bartimaeus. Last week, he was in the courts of the Temple, commenting on the offering made by the poor widow. We continue with the story today, presumably shortly after the incident with the widow. One of the disciples remarks to Jesus on the grandeur of the temple. Less than a year ago, I was on that spot, and I saw the remaining foundation stones of that temple that make up the western wall. They are massive! In its day, it would have truly been an impressive sight. But instead of just politely agreeing, Jesus makes an astonishing response: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” Gulp! Not only was it mind-blowing to think of the Temple being destroyed because it was so huge and complex, but, more than that, because it was the Temple—the very seat and symbol of Jewish national and religious identity. For Jews at that time, it carried all the symbolic weight of the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Pentagon all rolled into one. Do you remember how we felt as Americans when those structures were under attack eight years ago? That’s some indication of how a faithful Jew would have responded to Jesus’ words.

So, after this little exchange in the shadow of the Temple, Jesus and his disciples exit the city through one of the gates on the east wall, cross a dry stream bed called the Kidron Valley, and climb up a hill covered with olive trees—the Mount of Olives. From the mountainside, they can turn and look back toward the west and see the entire Temple complex laid out right in front of them. With that panoramic view, Peter and James and John and Andrew and Jesus pick up their conversation where they’d left off earlier. The disciples are eager to know, “When’s all this going to go down? What clues should we be looking out for? Earthquakes and famines and rebellions and wars, maybe?” And Jesus says, “No, even if all that stuff happens, don’t be fooled. This won’t be the end; just the beginning of the beginning.” And then, the most chilling prediction of all: “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.

Interestingly, even today some of the competing voices among which we must discern are still announcing “the end”! And it is indeed challenging for disciples to discern the true voice of the Master, the true voice of Jesus, in the midst of the cacophony. I don’t know about you, but for me, the most troubling part of this whole reading from Mark’s gospel is when Jesus talks about the high risk of being deceived, of being led dangerously astray. Most of us here are old enough to remember Jonestown, where a thousand people were deceived by a religious leader into committing mass suicide. This is, of course, an extreme example, but we can see the same thing happening in a smaller font size, as it were, all the time. We could be easily forgiven for being consumed with fear that we might someday choose wrongly. This is the kind of fear that builds on itself, and can be quite crippling. You’ve probably seen Christians who seem to forever flit from church to church, looking for the perfect one. It doesn’t exist, of course, so they keep on flitting. This is not to say that there are not sometimes good reasons for making a transition within the household of faith. I’ve done that myself, and I suspect many of you have as well. What I’m talking about is the person who is perpetually in a state of transition, lacking the faith to put down roots somewhere and flourish, all for fear of being deceived, fear of making the wrong choice.

The antidote, my friends, to fear of being deceived is quite counter-intuitive: The antidote to deception is make a commitment, to persistently be a disciple—imitating Jesus, doing the things Jesus has taught us. Disciples know Jesus their true Master, discerning his voice amid the chorus of pretenders, precisely in the exercise of faithful discipleship. The more closely we follow Jesus, the more we act like disciples, the more adept we will become at recognizing his voice, and the more protected we will be against deception.

In particular, faithful discipleship often includes bearing witness to the gospel even in the face of persecution. Just this past August, in Sudan, over a hundred Anglican Christians gathered in their church in the village of Wernyol for Morning Prayer on a Saturday. They were led by Archdeacon Joseph Garang. Islamist militants under the control of the Arab-dominated government in the north burst into the church and shot everyone, killing 43, including Archdeacon Garang. I could take you to Pakistan or other places and encounter similar stories. Christian martyrdom is not only the stuff of ancient history; it’s still going on.

You and I, of course, are not likely to face quite that challenge, but we do live in a culture that is becoming secularized—not just religiously neutral, but actively hostile toward Christianity—at an exponential rate. For us, “persecution” doesn’t mean looking down the barrel of a gun. It means staying awake and following the Master as a faithful disciple, and doing so not just routinely and casually, out of habit, but proactively and intentionally. You know, I’ve been told that if you want to boil a frog, you don’t just throw it into a pot of water that’s already boiling, because it will just jump right out. You put it in cold water, the kind it’s used to. Then you keep turning up the heat very slowly. By the time the frog realizes he’s in danger, it’s too late; he’s already cooked. As contemporary disciples of Jesus in North American society, the greatest risk we run is becoming a community of boiled frogs. We are constantly tempted to “go along to get along” in the larger secular society, making a little compromise here and a little compromise there, listening to voices other than that of the Master, allowing ourselves to be slowly and subtly deceived until somebody says, “Here, drink this Kool-Aid.”

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has these words for us this morning:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

This particular community gathered at this particular altar is where we receive the formation to be that kind of faithful witness, to be disciples who cannot be deceived. Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints' Day (2009)

John 11:32-44

Wisdom 3:1-9

Revelation 21:1-6a

Psalm 24:1-6

So it’s All Saints Day … the actual day, this year, instead of the Sunday following. I don’t know precisely where “All Saints” ranks among the most popular names for Episcopal churches, but it’s in the top five, I would bet. This parish shares Kosciuscko County with an “All Saints” church—the congregation up in Syracuse. The word “saint,” of course, means “holy one,” and one of the ways it’s used in the Christian tradition is to refer to all Christians, all those who have been set apart in baptism and thereby made “holy to the Lord,” to borrow a phrase from the Old Testament, regardless of their particular moral character. But the way we’re using the word today, it has a more specific meaning. It singles out a minority of Christians, all of them now having passed out of this world, who are deemed worthy of remembrance by all, people who get churches named after them, and appear in stained glass windows, and have their own days on the calendar. So, how does one get to be on this list? What are the qualities of those who have “Saint” put in front of their names?

The Psalmist gives us a clue when he writes

3 “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? *

and who can stand in his holy place?”

4 “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, *

who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,

nor sworn by what is a fraud.

Like I said, a clue. But it’s kind of an intimidating clue! Who of us can hope to meet that qualification? –basically, never done anything wrong and never wanted to! But the fact is, by virtue of our baptism, we are all called to be saints, and not just the generic kind but the special kind, the kind we’re celebrating today. In words that will cross our lips several times during our closing hymn at this liturgy: “…and I mean to be one too!” Nonetheless, it looks impossible and we are understandably discouraged. We are all very much “works in progress,” and sometimes the progress doesn’t seem that impressive.

When we look at today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Wisdom, it doesn’t appear to offer us any help. The portrait of the “righteous” that the author paints doesn’t seem to have room for most of us in it:

God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.

When ore is removed from a gold mine, it has to be refined before it can be of any value. And gold is refined by putting it into a furnace and subjecting it to intense heat, and this separates the impurities from the real thing. We might say that gold “suffers” in the process of being refined, of having its true nature and character revealed, just as the righteousness of the people the passage from Wisdom talks about is revealed as a result of their suffering. And this invariably confronts us with an uncomfortable realization, which is that there is a disconnect—sometimes a huge disconnect—between the character that is revealed in the suffering of the saints and the character that is revealed in our own suffering. The gap between the two can be quite sobering, and lead quickly to despair: How can we possibly be saved when there is such a gulf between our sinfulness and God’s holiness?

There are generally three common theological responses to this question. One of these responses recognizes—correctly, I would say—that we have no righteousness of our own, that God alone is righteous, God alone is holy. Jesus lived a completely sinless life in thought, word, and deed and then offered himself on the cross, satisfying the just demands of God’s holiness. Christ’s righteousness is then “imputed” to us—that is, we get the credit for the life Jesus lived. We don’t deserve it, but when we respond in faith, God gives us that credit anyway. God overlooks our sins, and sees only the blood of Christ, and applies that righteousness to our account.

Another way of understanding the business of how God saves us combines the sovereignty of God—God’s absolute freedom to do whatever He wills—with the grace of God—that is, God’s underlying inclination to shower good things on those who He has made—and sees the moment of our death, the moment of our passing from this world to the next, as a moment when God miraculously and instantaneously fixes everything that’s wrong with us. All our flaws and foibles suddenly disappear, and we wake up in the likeness of Christ.

Yet another approach solves the problem of the disconnect between the righteousness of the saints and the righteousness of us ordinary Christians by redefining “righteousness.” We are not really captive to the power of sin and death, but have been deceived into thinking and acting as if we are. In truth, each one of us still bears the full and undistorted image of God. Salvation lies in simply remembering and reclaiming this reality.

There is, I believe, an element of truth and hope in each one of these accounts, but I also believe that each one is ultimately a dead end. In each case, both grace and salvation are cheapened in ways that don’t go the distance. They give us short-term spiritual relief without solving our long-term spiritual problem. One of our problems is that we have an innate and habitual desire for quick fixes and shortcuts. It stems from the same impulse that leads to clean our house for company by indiscriminately gathering up all the clutter, throwing it into a spare room, and shutting the door. It creates the impression of a job getting done without the job actually getting done.

By contrast, the path to sainthood is a journey of actual change, not just throwing the clutter in a spare room. It is important, and a fact for which we should be immensely grateful, that God “imputes” righteousness to us on the basis of what Jesus accomplishes on our behalf. But it’s only a stopgap. It gets us onto the playing field, but we still have to actually play the game. It is important, and a fact for which we should be immensely grateful, that God’s grace is an unmerited gift; we do not, and indeed cannot do anything to earn or deserve it. But it’s never magic, and it always requires our active cooperation. Spiritual therapy is in that respect no different than physical therapy, and anybody who’s had physical therapy can tell you that the therapist is there to help you and guide you and help you, but you’ve got to be the one to actually do the work. And, yes, we have all quite forgotten who we are as creatures in the image of God, and we do need to recall and reclaim our identity in God. But the Fall of humankind, my brothers and sisters, is real, and we only deceive ourselves and others if we ignore that abundant evidence that we live under the power of sin and death just in the interest of making everybody feel better about themselves.

Consider, for a moment, that dramatic and emotionally-charged moment when Jesus calls a very dead Lazarus out of his tomb. After Lazarus complies, what does he instruct those around him to do? He says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” So Lazarus is not only risen from death, he is unbound and let go; the symbolism of that secondary act should not be lost on us. In our reading from Revelation today, God says, “Behold, I make all things new!” The Saints are those who have been made new, who have fully put away the “former things” that they have been, who have been unbound and let go from everything that was holding them captive. The author of the Book of Wisdom tells us that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God because God has tested them and found them worthy. Well, I suspect they have been found worthy because they have been made worthy.”

So the whole experience of faith in Christ, the whole journey of following Christ as a disciple, the whole process of salvation, is about having our souls taken apart and rebuilt, with the eventual result that the image of God in which we were made, but which has been distorted by sin, is perfectly restored. This begins when we initially come to Christ in faith and are “covered” with his righteousness “credited to our account.” It continues as we cooperate daily with God’s free and abundant grace as we worship and study and serve in community with others who are on the same journey. It concludes when we have fully remembered who are, when we can look God in the eye and not instantly turn to dust, because we “look like” Jesus in every respect. Then we will have joined the company of the saints in light whose heroic witness to the gospel we celebrate today. Praised be Jesus Christ in his angels and in his saints. Amen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

B: Proper 24 (2009)

Mark 10:46-52

As Bill Cosby put it so well in one of his comedy recordings from the ‘60s: “I started out as a child.” The one thing I can safely say, is that every one of us either is a child, or once was a child—there are no exceptions! Childhood carries with it both blessings and curses.

Children themselves tend to see the curses—they’re smaller than adults, physically weaker, and are forever having grownups tell them what they can and can’t do. It’s really a pain.

Adults, however, tend to be nostalgic, and dwell on the blessings of childhood, the chief of which is that if you get yourself into a jam, your parents will get you out of it—unless, of course, it’s your parents you’re in a jam with, in which case, if you can’t play one off against the other, you’re cooked! But if you’re in trouble at school, or with the neighbors, or you get lost somewhere or forget something, your parents fix it. You don’t always know how; you probably don’t want to know how, but somehow it happens. It’s just magic.

Eventually, though, we have to grow up. And one of the measures of adult maturity is the realization that there is no magic. Getting out of a jam costs somebody something. There is no free lunch; somebody pays the tab. Some people who are physically and legally grown up cannot face this fact. Intellectually and emotionally, they are still children. They cannot face responsibility for their own actions; they try to shift blame and shift adverse consequences for their behavior on to other people. They expect a Sugar Daddy to come to the rescue, to bail them out.

I suspect that it’s this sort of arrested moral development that lies behind many of our social ills, from crime to drug abuse to poverty. Many of us, however, who are well-adjusted adults, and make our way in the world fairly well, nonetheless revert to childish attitudes and behavior where our relationship to God is concerned. Children are always asking for things, telling parents what they want. Have you ever noticed how much we equate prayer with asking God for something? Of course, God invites us to make our requests known to Him. But that’s not the be-all and end-all of our relationship with God.

In our catechism, there are seven different forms of prayer defined. Petition—which is asking God for something on our own behalf—and intercession—which is asking God for something on behalf of someone else—are two of these seven. But the other five—which are praise, thanksgiving, confession, adoration, and oblation—the other five do not involve asking God for anything at all. Yet, how much time do we spend on those categories of prayer in comparison with petition and intercession?

Even our liturgical prayer—which is probably more balanced than our personal prayer—even our liturgical corporate prayer is filled with petition. In particular, we are frequently asking God for mercy— “Lord, have mercy … Show us your mercy … Have mercy upon us.” Asking for mercy has been a consistent feature of the liturgy, both in the east and in the west—but particularly in the east; if you’ve ever been to a Greek or Russian service, you know what I mean—asking for mercy has been a consistent feature of Christian worship since the very earliest times. And what is mercy? It’s a rich and all-encompassing word that includes, but is not limited to: pity, blessing, favor, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, patience, and understanding. This is what we’re asking from God when we ask Him for mercy.

In the tenth chapter of St Mark’s gospel, a blind man named Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He had a hard time getting Jesus’ attention, but he eventually succeeded, and it became clear that he had a very specific kind of mercy in mind. He didn’t want just general blessing and favor. He didn’t even want money. He wanted to be healed of his blindness; he wanted to be able to see. Bartimaeus, apparently, was not blind from birth. He knew exactly what he was missing, and he wanted it back.

Well, Jesus grants Bartimaeus’ petition—immediately, fully, and without the drama and complication that accompany some of his other healing miracles. He just does it, accepts Bartimaeus’ grateful thanks, and continues on his way. But if we close the book there— “…and Bartimaeus lived happily ever after” —if we close the book there, we miss a very important point. The timing of this account within the larger structure of St Mark’s gospel narrative is critical. It takes place just as Jesus is nearing the end of his slow trip from Galilee to Jerusalem and the final drama which awaited him there.

Because of this timing, then, there is tremendous symbolism in the healing of a blind man at this point. Bartimaeus’ gift of sight enables him to see. But he sees more than people and trees and sheep on the hillside. He sees Jesus enter Jerusalem, and he sees Jesus go to the cross. For Mark, this is significant, because the cross is absolutely central to his purpose in writing his gospel. Fully one-third of the entire length of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the three days of Jesus’s Passion and Resurrection. Some scholars have called it a “Passion narrative with an extended prologue.” For Mark, everything Jesus ever said or did falls under the shadow of the cross; nothing about Jesus has any meaning apart from the cross.

So, the healing of blind Bartimaeus, when understood on a spiritual and not just a literal level, tells us that God’s answer to our repeated requests for his mercy, even as Bartimaeus had begged for his mercy—God’s answer to “Lord, have mercy” is none other than the cross of Christ. If we look at Jesus but don’t “see” the cross, then we are as blind as Bartimaeus was before he was healed. The gospel of “Christ crucified” is the cure for our blindness. Those who would follow Jesus, those who would want to imitate him or emulate him, those who would ask themselves “What would Jesus do?”, those who would call themselves Christians, cannot avoid the cross, because Jesus does not avoid the cross. The cross is a scandal and a source of shame, a place of suffering and grief, but there is no knowledge of God in Christ apart from facing that scandal and shame and suffering and grief. These are the conditions from which we need to be healed, and the cross is the place of healing. Those who imitate the persistent faith of Bartimaeus—acknowledging his wretchedness, calling out for mercy, calling out for Jesus’ attention—those who imitate Bartimaeus in this way will share with him in the miracle of enlightenment, illumination, restored sight.

As long as we think of God as a Sugar Daddy, one who magically fixes things for us whenever we get into trouble, we will be disappointed. Of course, God is our Father, and we are His children. But that fact does not absolve us of responsibility for becoming spiritual adults, for becoming God’s grown-up children. Child-like trust in God is positive; child-ish spiritual immaturity is not. If our spiritual development is arrested, we are susceptible to one faith crisis after another. We get sick, and pray, but don’t get better, so we question whether God hears our prayers. We encounter financial hard times, and we ask God for relief, but things go from bad to worse, so we question whether God really loves us. We are horrified by the wars and conflicts that are going on all over the world, and we pray for peace, but the violence escalates, so we question whether God even exists. This is what happens when we look past the cross, when the cross becomes optional in our understanding of how the universe fits together.

But if we embrace the mystery of the cross, if we enter into that mystery, our eyes are opened along with Bartimaeus, and we know the cross to be not only an instrument of shameful death, a symbol of humiliation and defeat, but a source of light and restoration, and the very way of life and peace.

Yes, we started out as children. God invites us to see the light and grow up.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

B: Proper 23

Mark 10:17-31

There’s a rather inane movie from the early ‘90s called The First Wives Club, that I probably wouldn’t even know about, except for the fact that it has Diane Keaton in it, and I’ve had kind of crush on Diane Keaton since the ‘70s. At the end of the film, after they've supposedly got their lives and their relationships with men all straightened out, the three members of the club sing a hit song, from the ‘70s—You Don't Own Me.

They were referring, of course, to their former husbands, who had all behaved rather badly, and in that sense they may have been correct. But these three ladies, whether they realized it or not, were very much still owned. One was owned by an obsession with her own good looks, and went to more than extraordinary lengths to preserve them as her years inexorably advanced. Another was owned by an idealized vision of the perfect mother and perfect wife living with her perfect family in their perfect home. The third was owned precisely by the lack of any vision of who she was as a unique human being. And all three were owned by—possessed by—a desire for all the creature comforts and material perks they could get their hands on.

In that aspiration, they probably represent the majority of us who are gathered here in this church, and the majority of those in our surrounding culture. North Americans and Europeans just after the turn of the third millennium tend to over-focus on the accumulation and preservation of material wealth. When I was in grade school, futurists were predicting that the major social problem my generation would face as adults is what to do with all our leisure time. Technology was going to make human labor obsolete, nuclear energy too cheap to even run through a meter was going to drive the cost of living down, and everybody would enjoy an abundance of freedom to pursue hobbies and become citizen-philosophers. Instead, the average work week, after bottoming-out sometime around 1970, has crept steadily upward. Yet, average income, adjusted for inflation, has gone down. True, more and more households enjoy that elusive “middle class lifestyle,” but we do it with two full-time paychecks instead of one.

And the list of standard equipment for that hypothetical middle-class household keeps growing. Cell phones and personal computers, which were luxuries for the elite when my children were young, are now considered normative, essential. Yet, when Brenda and I were married thirty-seven years ago, cell phones were still the stuff of science fiction (remember Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio?), and the internet, such as it was, was the playground of egghead scientists.

The bar keeps getting raised, as we're working longer hours at less per hour to continue to be able jump over it. Oh, sure, there are “the rich,” the “well-to-do,” the “financially independent.” But do you know what my working definition of “rich” is? Anybody who has a dollar more than I do. And I would suspect that that's the definition for everybody here, although the amount will vary according to how much we have. Most of us have the feeling of being just behind the curve financially. How much would it take to feel like we're ahead of the game? Not much. Just a little bit more than I'm bringing in now. That would give me some breathing space. Only when we start to make that little bit more, that amount that we had in mind, it still isn't quite enough. How much would it then take to get ahead? Just a little bit more.

You can see how this plays out. Whether we're living on twenty thousand dollars a year or twenty thousand dollars a month, it isn't quite enough. If you're living on that lower figure, you probably find that difficult to believe.

But if your income is in the neighborhood of that higher figure, you're probably thinking to yourself that I've called it correctly. But wherever we are in relation to those two figures—below, above, or, as is most likely the case, somewhere in between, we are probably in a position where we can truthfully say that we don't own our possessions, because our possessions, in fact, own us. We may be able to sing You Don't Own Me to our spouse, or our parents, or our children, but we cannot sing it to our bank account or our mutual funds or our living room furniture or the clothes hanging in our closet or the books lining our shelves or the paintings adorning our walls or the trees and shrubs and flowers in our yard or the car sitting in our garage. In fact, when we reflect on it, these things do own us, just as surely as if they had recorded a lien on our lives down at the county courthouse.

When Jesus said that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he wasn't talking about Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Warren Buffet. He was talking about us—you and me. The young man who approached Jesus wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life discovered, to his great sadness, the extent to which he was owned by his possessions. Indeed, he was faithful in keeping the commandments, and Jesus commended him for this. But even in his exemplary conduct, the young man was fearful.

Perhaps he was once poor, and didn’t want to ever be poor again. Many who are alive today who lived through the Great Depression, which makes this recession that we’re in look like a walk in the park, share a similar fear with this young man in our gospel story. Perhaps the young man had an insecure ego, an under-developed self-image, and very much enjoyed the social prestige and recognition that came along with his wealth. You and I know people—don’t we?—who fret interminably over what significant social events they get invited to, or don’t get invited to. Someone whose financial star is rising is presumed to be of more personal substance, and one who has fallen upon hard times is presumed to be somehow unusually flawed.

So the rich young man who was so good about keeping the commandments was also afraid of losing the material and social security that his wealth afforded him. And when Jesus paid him the highest possible compliment, and invited the young man to follow him, to become a disciple, he could not accept the invitation. One of the consequences of following Jesus—and in this case Jesus actually spelled it out clearly—is to dis-connect ourselves from anything that might distract us from that one all-important obsession, the obsession with discipleship. In the case of the rich young man, this involved a garage sale of monumental proportions, and he didn’t have the heart, didn’t have the strength, didn’t have the consuming will, to go through with it. He may have wanted to find his security and fulfillment in following Jesus, but he couldn’t make the leap. He couldn’t let go of that which would have become an intolerable weight on the road of discipleship. He could not bring himself to sing to his worldly goods, “You don’t own me.” He did not realize that Jesus was offering him freedom. By saying to Jesus, “You do own me” he would have been empowered to say the opposite to the wealth which hung about his neck like an albatross.

As the scriptures teach us, to be a slave to Christ is to be free from every other form of bondage, which is a pretty good deal, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Following Jesus enables us to be a steward of our wealth rather than a slave to it. A steward operates under a different emotional dynamic than either an owner or a slave—in fact, both the owner and the slave have more in common with one another than either has with a steward. A steward knows he doesn’t own the property he manages, therefore it can’t own him. When I write a check from my personal checkbook, I wince a little bit—or a lot sometimes—because there’s some pain involved. When I ask for a check to be written from the Rector’s Discretionary Fund, it feels much different. I might have a little anxiety if it’s running low, or over whether I’m making a wise decision about who I'm helping, but I don’t get nearly as emotionally invested as I do with my own bank account, because it’s clear that I’m just a steward of the Discretionary Fund. I don’t own it, so it can’t own me.

Now, the fact is, of course, the exact same thing is true of the checks that say “Daniel H. Martins” across the top as the ones that say “St Anne’s Church.” In both cases, I am a steward, not an owner. When I electronically send my pledge payment to St Anne’s every month, I am not giving away “my” money. I am exercising the primary duty of my stewardship. And it’s a generous deal: I get to keep the great majority of the assets that are entrusted to me! What other steward can get away with a 90% expense ratio without getting audited—and then fired?! When I look at tithing, not as having to give away 10% of my money, but as getting to keep 90% of God’s money, it becomes something else entirely.

Stewardship season is upon us. The Estimate of Giving cards will soon be mailed. This morning’s gospel invites us to ask ourselves whether we are slaves or stewards. Either we are slaves to our wealth because it owns us, or we are stewards of it because we recognize it all belongs to the Lord. Will we succumb to fear as did the virtuous young man who could not bring himself to have that garage sale? Or will we follow the lead of the disciples who left everything to follow Christ? Even they had some anxiety about the whole thing. Peter spoke for them all: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus responded with a re-assuring promise:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands…and in the age to come eternal life.

Being a steward of the Lord’s assets is a well-paying job! He promises to meet our needs—not all our desires, necessarily, but our needs—in this life, and to exceed all that we can ask or imagine in the life to come. So which is it, slave or steward? I will pray that you make the right choice. Please pray for me, that I do the same. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

B: Proper 22

Genesis 2:18-24

Mark 10:2-9

Very often, subjects which we think we’re the most familiar with turn out to be the ones we actually know the least about. I suspect that the subject of marriage is in this category. Today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis, and the gospel passage from Mark, certainly do not exhaust what the Bible has to say about marriage, but any Christian reflection on marriage has to deal with this material. It is absolutely central to an informed Christian understanding of what marriage is.

I have three main points I want to share with you today on the subject of marriage as it is illuminated by these scripture readings. It will help if you can visualize a garden plant—a sunflower will do very nicely. It has a root system, which is unseen, but which anchors the plant in the soil and without which it couldn’t live. It has a stem, or “shoot,” which is the main body of the plant and which gives the whole organism is height and standing in the world. And on top of it all is what we might call the “fruit” of the sunflower—the flower itself, which contains those wonderful seeds which are good either for roasting, salting, and eating; or—better yet, from a biological point of view—for producing more sunflower plants. The production of this “fruit” is the whole purpose of the sunflower’s existence. Root…shoot…fruit. I want to talk about the root, the shoot, and the fruit of the institution of marriage.

The root of marriage is that it is a gift from God. We learn this from the virtual beginning of the beginning of the Bible, the oldest material in scripture, the book of Genesis, chapter two. The Lord is with the newly-created man, Adam, in the Garden of Eden, and decides that it’s not such a good idea for there to be only one of him. It would be better if he had a partner, someone to share his life with. So he parades all the animals in front of Adam, hoping to find a suitable candidate. Adam thinks they’re all splendid, and he gives them names, but he is not impressed with the potential for any of them to become his partner—not even the dog, apparently, despite what we have since come to say about “man’s best friend.” So the Lord reverts to Plan B, and puts Adam under a general anesthesia, removes one of his ribs, and fashions the woman, Eve. After waking up, Adam takes one look at her and tells God that, this time, He got it right! The author of Genesis then tells us: “For this reason…” —that is, “in order to enter into this sort of relationship”— for this reason, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh.”

Therefore, we can affirm that God invented marriage. It is not merely a human invention, an institution that human societies have evolved and adapted, and will continue to evolve and adapt however it seems appropriate and desirable to them. Marriage is God’s idea, not ours. The fact that we first encounter it in the book of Genesis, and not in Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament, is extremely significant. This tells us that marriage is part of the order of creation, part of the very fabric of universal human existence. It is not merely part of one of the succession of covenants that God made with humankind. It is more basic than even the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law of Moses. Marriage is from the beginning. Marriage is a gift from God. This is the root of marriage, and when we ignore the roots of something, then we don’t really understand it properly.

So if the root of marriage is that it is a gift from God, then the “shoot” of marriage is that it enables human beings, both those who are married and those who are single, to share in the very life of God, the love that exists within the Blessed and Glorious Trinity. I’ll try not to digress too much into complicated Trinitarian theology, but we need to remind ourselves that, contrary to the way we may often think of Him, God has revealed Himself as a “complex” Being. We might even say that God is a “community” —a community of three “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as long as we’re careful not to extrapolate from that the idea that there are three Gods. The Church believes that there is one God who subsists in three co-equal “persons” who are in a relationship—an ordered relationship—with one another. There is an essential unity among the Persons of the “Godhead”—they are all equally 100% God. But they are also distinct, and not to be confused with one another. They have their own unique characteristics. Now this is hard to wrap our minds around, I know. It’s a paradox, not really “logical” in the way we think of logic. There is a sort of tension between the “unity” of God and the “community” of God, between the essential sameness of the Persons of the Trinity, and their distinctive differences.

The theological and spiritual significance of marriage is a reflection of this same kind of paradox, this same kind of logical tension. When Adam lays eyes on Eve, he exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” He was rejoicing in the sight of someone who was like him, an equal, a peer. Yet, it was obvious that there was also something mysteriously different about her. She was like him in her essential humanness, but at the same time undeniably and distinctly different. This tension between sameness and difference is reflected in our very language: In the Hebrew of Genesis, the word for a male human being is ish, and the word for a female human being is both the same and different, ishah. We see the same thing in the English words “man” and “woman.” A marriage, then, both for those who are in the marriage and for those who are observing the marriage, those whose lives the marriage touches in some way—a marriage is a living icon of the Holy Trinity. In it, we see something of the nature and life of God. This is where marriage “happens,” the daily “living into” the paradox of sameness and otherness. My favorite prayer from the wedding liturgy asks that the marriage which is being blessed will be a “sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” So the “shoot” of marriage, the main body and life of marriage, is to be a sign, a sign that points to a deeper and higher reality.

Root…shoot…now this brings us to the “fruit” of marriage. The fruit of marriage, is the experience of responding to a call out of and beyond ourselves, into the ideal which it represents. Jesus’ blunt words to the Pharisees are still echoed in traditional Christian marriage services: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Marriage is an ideal, and Jesus’ words affirm that ideal. In the meantime, though, we are sinful human beings. All too often, we fall short of our ideals. When that happens in a marriage, the courageous response is to admit failure, make amends, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, repent, and move on. Hopefully, “moving on” means doing so together. God hates divorce. But sometimes the damage is too great and the wounds too deep, and “moving on” means doing so separately. The cowardly response to failure to attain the ideal of marriage is to conform the ideal to what is supposed to be real—in effect, to abandon the ideal. If we can’t jump over the bar, then we just lower it until we can. That way there’s no failure, and no need to repent. This might make us feel better temporarily, but it’s dishonest, and in the end it’s a deal with the devil.

A true ideal, by contrast, invites us to extend ourselves, to stretch, to grow, to risk, to have the gall not to accept the unacceptable. Estrangement is the norm of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to unity. Guilt is the norm of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to forgiveness. Despair seems to lie at the end of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to hope. Marriage is an ideal that is desperately needed by all of us. We need to be reconciled with that mysterious Other who is also like us. In our human experience, we generally recognize the mysterious Other in the opposite sex. But ultimately, that is a mere shadow of a veiled Reality. Ultimately, the mysterious Other with whom we seek union is God Himself. The purpose of marriage is to prepare us for Joy: consummated union in bliss with the One who is the true object of all desire, the One who is both the same and “other,” and whose very name and life is Love. Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

B: Proper 20 (9/20/09)

Mark 9:30-37
Wisdom 1:16 - 2:1, 12-22
James 3:16 -4:6

Refrigerator door and bumper sticker slogans are usually good for a chuckle, and are often profound. One of my favorites is also ironic and insightful: “I’ve given up my search for truth, and am now looking for a good fantasy.”

Anyone who would make a remark like this is probably expressing sarcastic frustration with real life, and does not intend to be taken literally. It is, in the cold light of self-evident logic, ludicrous to prefer any fantasy, no matter how appealing, to what is actually true. Truth is, ultimately, inescapable. It is what we are, in the end, accountable to. But what is ludicrous to our minds is still often the choice of our passions. Human beings do sometimes prefer an appealing fiction over an unpleasant truth.

The evil men in that we hear about today in the Book of Wisdom did not want to face their own wickedness, and they shamelessly plotted the murder of the righteous man, whose goodness was a constant reminder to them of their lack of it. By doing away with him, they could continue to indulge their fantasy, and not come to terms with the truth.

The disciples of Jesus also fit into this category. As St Mark’s gospel relates it to us, Jesus point-blank tells his disciples that he will be arrested and tried and put to death, and rise from the dead three days later. One would think that a prediction so startling would freeze them in their tracks, and that after recovering their composure they would bombard him with questions about when and how and where and why this would all take place. But Mark tells us that they decided instead to just keep quiet about it. They were more comfortable with a fiction of their own making—“He can’t really be serious; we didn’t really hear what we think we heard”—they were more comfortable with such denials than with the horrifying truth of what Jesus had told them.

But Jesus, who is the incarnation of the God of truth, and who is himself the truth, insisted to his followers in Mark’s gospel that they know him as no Christ but a crucified Christ. This is what lies behind all the instances in the gospel of Mark where Jesus commands people who come to faith in him as the son of God to keep quiet about it. Mark does not allow anyone in his gospel to publicly proclaim Jesus as the son of God until the Roman Centurion does so at the foot of the cross, on which Jesus has just died! So critical was the cross to Mark’s understanding of who Jesus is.

Some time ago I saw a news story about a very special summer camping program for children and youth. The setting—the buildings, the activities—were all standard summer camp fare. But the campers themselves were quite special. They were all young people who had been critically burned, and were substantially disfigured as a result. The aim of the camp was to help these kids along in the process of accepting themselves as they are, disfigured in ways that would make most of us want to avert our eyes. What fire has done to their appearance is an unpleasant truth, but it is the truth, and anyone whose life is touched by one of these kids can know them in no other way than as someone whose appearance has been radically altered by fire. You and I can know Christ only as one who has suffered and died on the cross. It is disturbing, but true, and to evade this truth is to indulge in fantasy, not reality.

It is, no doubt, easy for us, with our 20/20 hindsight, to be critical of those first-century followers of our Lord who were scandalized by the prospect of his being crucified, who did not want to recognize the utter centrality of the cross. But I’m afraid that they have company, and that company is us. Yes, twenty-first century Americans—even twenty-first century American Christians—want a Christ who is untainted by the shame and scandal of the cross. The cross stands as a horrifying sign of human sin and suffering, because all human sin and suffering was fastened on to it when Jesus died there. It is a manifestly unpleasant truth, a truth we would just as soon avoid if we could, a truth we would gladly trade for any number of more appealing fictions. We would trade it for the fiction of a religion that makes no demands: no demands on our time, no demands on our money, no demands on our affections, no demands on our minds. We would, in the proverbial “New York minute”, trade it for the fiction of a religion that does not presume to exercise any judgment on our behavior, or hold us accountable to anything other than our own whims and desires. We would enthusiastically trade it for the fiction of a religion that is really more magic and glitz than faith and holiness, a religion that promises to cure us from every disease and deliver us from every adversity simply upon demand. We want a God we can be proud of, not one who empties himself of his glory, takes the form of a servant, and dies the shameful death of a criminal.

And this is one instance where our theology has immediate practical implications for us. Because of our reluctance to accept the scandal of the cross, because we prefer the fiction of a savior who protects us from suffering over the truth of a savior who makes us whole through suffering, we follow in the steps of Jesus’ disciples who got to wrangling with one another over who occupied what spot in the pecking order. And as St James tells us in his epistle, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” When we as a church, the Christian community, lose sight of the centrality of the cross—the cross of Christ, and the cross that he invites us to take up and follow him with—when we lose sight of the centrality of the cross, we descend into intellectual and moral and spiritual disorder. We find ourselves cultivating relationships with other people, not in joyful recognition of the image of God in that person, but in view of the ways he or she might benefit us. We find ourselves attaching strings to our generosity: I’ll give you this...or do that … if … We find ourselves attempting to control and manipulate members of our families, friends, co-workers, and, yes, even the church to which we belong!

The cross of Christ is a scandal, because it’s just . . . there. It’s true. We can ignore the truth, but we cannot for long evade it. It isn’t going anywhere. We can only go through it. And when, in faith, we do follow Jesus through the way of the cross, our experience is that of the peace that passes all understanding. We come into contact with what James calls “the wisdom from above”, which he describes as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” It is the ability to sleep at night with a clean heart and clear conscience, a sense of purpose and ultimate security, because we are grounded, not in any ephemerally appealing fantasy, but in the truth of the saving and redeeming cross of Jesus Christ. To him be all glory throughout all ages. Amen.