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.