Monday, February 22, 2010

C: Lent I

Luke 4: 1-13

(Homage to CSL)

Once upon a time, there were four passengers on an airplane: a pig, a cow, a squirrel, and an eagle. As they were cruising at 30,000 feet over the Himalayas, the pilot suddenly clutched his chest and slumped over ... dead. The plane didn’t go into a sudden nosedive, but it was clear that, with mountain peaks looming on every side, the passengers were in some danger.

The pig and the cow looked at the squirrel and asked, “Do you know how to fly?” The squirrel replied, “Well, some of my cousins are ‘flying squirrels’, but, no, I don’t know how to fly.” Then the pig said to the cow, “Do you know how to fly?” The cow shook her head sadly, and said, “I’m told I have an ancestor that once jumped over the moon, but, no, I don’t know how to fly.” Then the cow and the squirrel said to the pig, “How ‘bout you? Do you know how to fly?” The pig exclaimed, “Me? Fly? Haven’t you ever heard the expression ‘when pigs fly’? It means ‘impossible: never gonna happen’.”

Throughout this conversation, the eagle had been silent, just taking it all in, and glancing out the window. Finally, the cow, the pig, and the squirrel all turned to the eagle and said, “What about you? Do you know how to fly?” The eagle took a deep breath, looked them all in the eye and calmly said, “Sure, I can fly. In fact, this very moment strikes me as a good time to do just that.” And before the other animals could respond, the eagle opened the door of the passenger cabin and jumped out of the plane, flying gracefully down toward an outcropping of rock that, to him, looked just like home.

You and I, and every other human being that walks the face of the earth, are in trouble, just like the animals on board that plane with a dead pilot. Somewhere, some time, some way, in the mist of our pre-history, something went wrong. The human race contracted a fatal inclination toward ignoring the one who made us. In the once familiar language of traditional Anglican liturgy: “We have erred and strayed from [his] ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much that devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against [his] holy laws (laws which were established for our benefit), we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” “We have not loved [him] with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” And once in a while, the remembrance of it all is “grievous unto us, and the burden of it is intolerable.”

We’re sinners—there’s no other word for it. We quarrel with and wound those we love. Sometimes we kill each other. And as a society, we fight wars—wars that are sometimes just and necessary—but which nonetheless kill thousands of innocent people.

There are sins, and then there are sins. Which is to say, there are symptomatic sins like shoplifting and gossiping and adultery, and then there are root sins, fundamental sins, like pride, envy, and lust. The ancient people of Israel spent forty years or so wandering in circles through the Sinai desert before they finally entered the land that had been promised to them. One of the reasons, so the scriptures tell us, that they spent such a long time travelling such a short distance was that they were judged severely by the Lord for indulging in some of these fundamental, root sins. When they were only a few days out of Egypt, having been led miraculously through the waters of the Red Sea, they began to bitterly complain to Moses, not because their stomachs were empty or they were starting to drop dead from hunger, but because their taste buds craved the richer and more varied cuisine they had gotten accustomed to—they desired the “fleshpots of Egypt.” They sought food apart from the Lord, the God of their ancestors, food other than what was provided them by the one who had rescued them from slavery and who had promised to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, food for its own sake, in and of itself, life apart from the giver of life, who is life itself. There’s an expression for this fundamental sin: it’s called “biting the hand that feeds you.” A little later, it looked like they were going to run out of water. They were getting thirsty. And they told Moses to tell God that they want water, they want it right now, and they want it right here. Or else. They put God to the test: “If you are who you say you are, prove it!They collectively had a temper tantrum characteristic of a two-year old: I want it, and I want it my way, and I want it now! Then, when they finally got close to the Promised Land, they ran into other peoples, who worshipped other gods. Some of the Israelite men found some of the Canaanite women rather attractive, and one thing led to another, and, well, you know how some men are willing to change their religion, or look like they’re going to, in order to make points with a woman.

What did the Israelites need to do in each of these cases? They needed to stick with, to adhere to, to follow unswervingly, the God who had led them out of slavery and who promised them a bright future. They needed to turn away from their ingratitude, their petty temper tantrums, and their chasing after the bogus gods of their pagan neighbors. There’s a word for this kind of basic, essential turning, and it’s repentance.

What do we need to do? The same thing! We need to repent, to turn away from our ingratitude and our pettiness and unfaith and shallow values and unworthy objects of worship —toward the one who made us and delivered us from the power of evil and death and promises us a bright future with him. This is what we need to do. But how well do we do it? Are we any good at it? Not really. In fact, human beings, by and large, are lousy at repentance. We’re in the same shape as the cow, the pig, and the squirrel on board that airplane with a dead pilot: they had the need to fly, they recognized the need to fly, but they lacked the ability. We have the need to repent, we recognize the need to repent, but we lack the ability.

Only one being in the universe has the ability to repent: to resist temptation, to “just say no” to both the fundamental and the symptomatic sins. This being is the one we call “God”. The only problem is, God is also the only being in the universe who has no need to repent. He’s like the eagle in the distressed aircraft: he was the only one who knew anything about flying, but he was also the only one who had no need of the plane. So, we have the need, but not the ability. And God has the ability, but not the need. “What do to?” Is there a plan?

What if—you guessed it—what if God, without relinquishing his divinity, without sacrificing his “god-ness”, therefore retaining his ability to repent—became one of us, a human being. What if God took on our need in order to share with us his ability? And what if this God-Man, the one in whom the need to repent and the ability to repent co-existed in a single person, went into the desert to face and do battle with the power that made the whole thing necessary, the power that introduced sin and evil and sickness and death into the world. What if all this happened—what would we have? What we would have, of course, is the good news for the First Sunday in Lent: Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. What we would have is a cosmic boxing match: In one corner, the power of Sin and Evil, represented by the tempter. In the other corner, God’s plan for the world’s redemption, represented by Jesus. The Power versus the Plan.

Ding! Round one begins. The Power strikes the first blow, trying the same opening gambit that had been used against the Israelites twelve centuries earlier. “You’re hungry! These stones could feed you. Why don’t you try them?” But Jesus knows just the right counter-move: “Sure, I could eat these stones and fill my belly. But that wouldn’t satisfy me; it isn’t what I’m here for; it isn’t what my Father calls me to do. If I ate them, I’d be denying his care and concern for me.” The tempter backs off. Ding! Round one to the Plan. Round two begins, and the tempter comes out charging. “You’re powerless. Worship me and I’ll give you everything.” Jesus repels this move even more directly and efficiently than before: “No! You are powerless. Your power is an illusion, a lie. You are not a worthy object of worship. Only God is powerful; only God is God.” Round two goes, once again, to the Plan, no question about it.Ding!Round three. The tempter opens the attack once again: “You’re thirsty for recognition. You’re all alone out here. You’ve been away from civilization so long people have forgotten you exist. Why don’t you jump off the pinnacle of the temple. Surely your Father will send angels to catch you. People will think you’re a great guy and you’ll get all the recognition you need.” But Jesus responds as quickly as ever: “If I jump, I will be denying the wisdom of God. He’ll determine when the time is right for me to get recognition. I trust him.” Round three—the Plan. The devil gave Jesus every opportunity to do what the eagle in the airplane did, to fly away, take care of his own needs, and let the other passengers perish. But Jesus didn’t do that. He “repented” perfectly. He kept his focus centered on the Father, and adhered perfectly to his identity and his mission: who he was and what he was called to do. Jesus was the perfect penitent. In that desert battle with Satan, he charted the course of his ministry, an unswerving course of obedience, obedience unto death, even death on a cross.This wasn’t the final battle between the Power and the Plan, between diabolical evil and divine redemption. The tempter returned, as Luke tells us, “at an opportune time”. But Jesus’ victory in the desert paved the way for his victory in the garden, on the cross, and in the tomb. Game, set, and match to the Plan. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your victory over temptation you did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In your victory is our victory. Amen.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ash Wednesday

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

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

But anyway ... here we are, gathered together in Saint Anne’s Church, in Warsaw, Indiana, on February 17, 2010 —gathered together with our various backgrounds, associations, experiences, and pre-conceptions. This year, Lent has kind of snuck up on me, perhaps because it’s relatively early in arriving. In other years, I’m quite ready for it, because any change is welcome by then. But time, as we learn sooner or later, waits for none of us, and the rhythm of the year unfolds in glorious ignorance of the rhythms of our personal lives.

For some of you here this evening, Lent could hardly have come at a more appropriate time, for you are truly experiencing desolation in your life. I may not know who you are, but you do. The tone of your life is dark and austere, and the austerity and restraint of our liturgy this evening is an altogether appropriate expression of the condition you find yourself in. Others of you come to this service with an acute sense of your own sinfulness. You know exactly what it is that you should justly be feeling remorseful for, precisely what it is that is separating your soul from God this evening. I may not know who you are, but you do. And when, in a few minutes, we pray the Litany of Penitence together, and, then, after receiving the ashes and, pray the fifty-first psalm, what flows out of your lips will truly fit with the condition of your heart: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”

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

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

But what I want to tell you, is that, in the larger scheme of things, the way any of us feels about tonight’s goings-on is of passing small importance. What is important, is that we're all here, doing what we’re doing. Now I wonder whether it strikes you as a little bit odd to hear me say that? I know it strikes me as odd! It challenges two of the fundamental presumptions that you and I are conditioned by. The first of these presumptions is that what we do, we do primarily as individuals. Even when we do something as part of a group, we assume that the group is neither more nor less than the sum of its individual parts. This view doesn’t square, however, with the way God seems to deal with mankind. When the world was destroyed by flood, the sure route to salvation was by being on board Noah's ark.The ark escaped the flood, and thereby the individuals who were on it. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, the fundamental basis of one's right standing before God was membership in the community of Israel, the nation with whom the covenant was made. The words of the prophet Joel that we heard read a few minutes ago spoke of the need of the entire nation to repent and return to the Lord. And under the terms of the New Covenant, the covenant we have with God through Christ, we are saved by participation in the body of Christ, which is the community of the Church. It is into this body that we are born in the sacrament of baptism.

And, you know, it could not be more appropriate that we are saved as individuals by sharing in the life of a group, because we are also sinners by virtue of being part of a group. Sure, many of the sins we commit are quite personal and individual, and those are the ones that are likely to make us feel the guiltiest—but, remember, tonight isn’t about feelings! Pay close attention to the Litany of Penitence that we are shortly about to pray together. Most of the sins that we will confess are not offenses that would be of any interest to the vice squad of the Warsaw police! They're sins that we’re guilty of as a whole society. Who’s responsible for the plight of the hungry and the homeless? No single individual, but all of us as a society. Who’s responsible for the pollution of our air and water? No single individual, but all of us as a society. When I first moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana some twenty years ago, very righteously decided to boycott Exxon in protest against what I perceived as greed and negligence in allowing one of their tankers to spill millions of gallons of crude oil on pristine Alaskan wilderness. But then it occurred to me that that was the height of hypocrisy! I was biting the hand that fed me! My protest had not a shred of moral authority.

I may never have spilled a drop of oil on God's green earth, but as long as I cashed my paycheck twice a month—a paycheck that is was dependent on the Baton Rouge economy as the Baton Rouge economy was on the petroleum-refining industry, then I was just as guilty of environmental pollution as if I personally dumped toxic waste into the Mississippi River. There is such a things as social sin, and it needs to be repented of as surely as does individual sin.

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

Tonight, the body of Christ, the community of the church, is repenting, expressing corporate remorse for things done and left undone. Any one of the particular cells of the body may or may not “need” to repent in the particular way and for the particular sins of which the body is repenting. But the body still needs the contribution of those cells. There are those weak cells, who, as individuals, need to repent, but are unaware of their need, or lack the ability to do so, and require the assistance of stronger voices confessing and stronger knees kneeling. For those weak cells of the body, tonight is a school of repentance. They will learn by doing, with the rest of the community acting as spiritual training wheels. In time, by participating in liturgies such as this one, the exterior words and actions of the “weak” cells will transform their thoughts and feelings, so that their outward aspect and their inward aspect will be in harmony.

And the stronger cells, whose, who, as individuals, have no overwhelming need of repentance now, prepare themselves for the time when they will need to turn yet again toward Christ. By “going through the motions” this evening, even though the words spoken may seem to overstate the actual condition of their lives, they maintain their spiritual fitness the way an athlete keeps in shape by running or lifting weights during the off season.

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

Monday, February 8, 2010

C: Epiphany V

Luke 5:1-11

I Corinthians 15:1-11

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C: Epiphany IV

Luke 4:21-32

From the mid-1970s until the mid-‘80s, Brenda and I and our kids lived in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which is known for, among other things, abundant rainfall. In 1989, after three years in Wisconsin for seminary, we moved to south Louisiana in June. It felt like we were in south Asia during the monsoon season, so abundant was the rainfall. Five years later, in 1994, we moved to central California, which is known for being rather arid. But a weather phenomenon called El NiƱo decided to move to California at the same time, and we had a series of unusually wet winters, with a fair amount of flooding not far from us. Then, in 2007, the week after we arrived in Warsaw, we had five inches of rainfall in one day, and the basement of the rectory got soaking wet. And then, the following winter, there was flooding all over Kosciusko County. All of this is to make the point that I have developed a healthy respect for water and the power of water!

Water, like fire, is absolutely essential to our lives, but has the potential to put our lives in danger as well. It has tremendous power, and often, it seems, a veritable will of its own that can triumph over the most ingenious of human devices. I have often observed, with fascination, while hosing off a driveway or watering a garden, how water is determined to find the quickest and most efficient route downhill to the sea. If it can move a leaf or a twig or a pebble or a log out of its way, it will. If water can’t move an obstacle in its path, it will break it apart. And if it can’t break it apart, it will wear it down. And in the meantime, it will go around it. If water finds a low spot, it will settle there and form a puddle or a lake. But the second it rises above the low spot, it seizes the opportunity to resume its relentless downhill journey to sea level. Since water is both dangerous and necessary, human beings try to find ways of taking advantage of the fact that it will do what it’s going to do. We build levees and dams to keep water out of populated areas. Or we dredge channels and dig reservoirs to deepen and collect water for human use.

What a wonderful metaphor water is for the way we experience God. God is absolutely essential to human life. He can sometimes be a nuisance. And his power cannot be resisted; he will flow where he will flow. But the human race has learned ways of shielding itself from God when we think he might be a bother and we’d prefer not to deal with him. We have become adept at building spiritual levees and dams that “protect” us from God. Consciously or unconsciously, we do things that block the effect on our lives of God’s power and presence.

And this is exactly what the people of the village of Nazareth were doing when Jesus came to pay a visit on his hometown. You will recall, last week we read “part one” of the story of this visit as recorded for us by St Luke, and today we read the conclusion. Jesus shows up in the synagogue, and reads a passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah about captives being set free and the blind recovering their sight and good news being proclaimed to the oppressed. Then he sits down and calmly declares that he is, in his own person, the fulfillment of this passage. At first, the folks were kind of proud of a hometown boy who made good on the outside. But then the implications of what he is saying begin to sink in, and their pride turns to anger. “Wait a minute! We know this kid. We watched him grow up, just down the street; his dad was a carpenter. He’s a nice kid, but let’s get real — messiah material he’s not! If he thinks he’s such hot stuff, why doesn’t he do one of those miracles here like he’s been doing in other places, huh?!” But they didn’t really want Jesus to perform a miracle. They just wanted to trivialize and marginalize him, to blow him off. Jesus was so familiar to them that they could not accept him as he really was.

You and I are by no means immune from similar behavior. We might not have watched him grow up in the house down the block, but he is surely a familiar enough name and personality —certainly if we ourselves were raised in the church, but probably even if we weren’t; if we were just raised in this culture. The people of Nazareth were so familiar with Jesus that they couldn’t stand the idea of him actually affecting and changing their lives. So they tried to do away with him by throwing him off a cliff. We may not be quite so bold, but we do nevertheless try to “tame” Jesus, the way a dam “tames” a wild river. We build levees to keep him where we can see him, but from a safe vantage point, without running the risk of having him flood our lives. If we let Jesus flood our lives, then we may actually have to change something. We may have to break a bad habit or two, or cultivate a couple of good ones. We may have to deal honestly with our own “pet” sins, the petty grudges and prejudices that we nurse along and rationalize because they make us feel so good. We may have to look at our politics in the light of the gospel, rather than interpreting the gospel in the light of our politics. We may need to do something about the clear teaching of scripture that the water of baptism is thicker than the blood of any human family ties, that the church is our family, and we are called to relate to that family with intense loyalty and affection. We may need to change a whole lot of our priorities. All this and more may happen if we let Jesus flood our lives. So we invest appropriate energy in protecting the integrity of our dams and levees, and, if necessary, pile on sandbags.

But water, as we know, will go where it will go. If it is blocked in one place, it will find an alternate route. And Jesus, who is himself the water of life, will flow where he will flow. If he is blocked at Nazareth, he can always go to Capernaum. And if he is blocked in Israel, he can always go to the Gentiles. What really got the Nazarenes worked up was when Jesus made reference to two examples from the history of Israel when God revealed himself to and through Gentiles: when a hungry prophet Elijah was miraculously fed by a poor widow in the neighboring land of Zarapeth, and when Elijah’s successor, Elisha, was used by God to heal Naaman, a Syrian army commander, of leprosy. The implication was that Jesus was not going to let himself be restricted by the dams and levees built by the citizens of Nazareth, or by the nation of Israel.

Neither will he be restricted by the dams and levees that we put up. The living water will seek out thirsty ground. If I put up a dam, Jesus will work on wearing me down, but in the meantime, he will flow on by me to you, and to the next person. If St Anne’s puts up a levee, he will flow on to All Saints, or Sacred Heart, or—horror of horrors—WCC! If the Episcopal church in the United States isn’t ready to receive the ministry of Christ, he will spend that energy elsewhere, like in Africa, where the typical Anglican diocese baptizes and confirms more new members in a month than the whole Episcopal church does in a year. Maybe Africa is to us what Capernaum was to Nazareth. Jesus is motivated by his relentless active love for those who are weighed down by the stresses and anxieties of this life, those who are prisoners of the power of sin, those who are blind to any hope for the future. He will find the most direct and efficient route there is to those who are ready to receive his love, those who are ready to accept his ministry. Like a roaring wave, Jesus will sometimes crash through the barriers that we erect. But he will not flow uphill. He will not forcibly invade the hearts of those who do not recognize their need for him and have no desire for him. He will just move on to the next town, to Capernaum, where his ministry is received joyfully.

But how much better it is not to build barriers — dams and levees — in the first place. How much better it is, instead, to dredge channels and dig reservoirs, to invite Jesus to flow and to fill and, indeed, to flood our lives with his love. We dredge channels for living water when we are faithful in Sunday and holy day worship, when daily prayer is one of the habits of our heart. We dig reservoirs for the water of life when we study the scriptures and commit ourselves to a life of service within the community of the church. To prevent floods from melting snow, dams and levees are a good idea. But with the wild and untamed ministry of the son of God, they don’t work so well. There’s no use trying to tame Jesus. He won’t be tamed. If we allow him to flow freely, it may be a wild ride at times, but we won’t drown. On the way, we will see some marvelous signs and wonders, as the people at Capernaum did. And in the end, we will be restored to health and life and wholeness. It’s a ride I do not want to miss. Flow, Jesus, flow. Amen.