Sunday, March 21, 2010

C: Lent V

John 12:1-8, Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14

Even before I moved to Warsaw in 2007, I was aware that this is a community that is visibly and overwhelmingly Christian—more so, perhaps, than any place I’ve ever lived. If you randomly pick somebody behind a shopping cart at Owen’s or Marsh, the chances are they could tell you what church they go to, or at least the particular church that they don’t go to! So it may be a little difficult for us to wrap our minds around the fact that Warsaw is becoming more and more the exception in this regard, rather than the rule. In the Pacific Northwest, where I once lived for ten years, those who have any church affiliation, let alone attend regularly, are a distinct minority of the population. Not only in the United States, but in the western developed world in general, Christianity no longer enjoys the privileged status it once took for granted. In fact, mounting evidence suggests that Christianity is in a period of decline, quite rapid decline, in fact. (Interestingly, this is in contrast to the developing world, the so-called Global South, where Christianity is still expanding at an impressive rate). As a result of this more and more noticeable decline in the west, there’s a veritable industry that has sprung to life that is devoted to making “church” on Sunday attractive and interesting, so that the Christian community might attract people whose default prejudice is that Christianity is boring, or irrelevant, or untrue, or all three.

I follow this “church growth industry” fairly closely, as you might imagine, and, in fact, try to incorporate many of its insights into my ministry as a church leader. They have many good ideas. But I’m more and more convinced, as I ponder the issues, that there is one underlying widespread misconception that, if we don’t deal with it, will undercut anything else we might do to turn around the decline of Christianity in America. This misconception is something to which I apply the label “ethical theism.” But that’s probably pretty opaque to you, so let me break it open. Ethical Theism is the notion that what Christianity is after you strip away all the packaging and boil it down to its pure essence is this: Believe in God and try your best to be a good person. This is certainly what a great many, if not most, non-Christians in our society think Christianity is. And, I would suggest, it’s also what a great many Christians in our society think Christianity is. If we were to have that focus group conversation with randomly-selected Warsaw grocery shoppers, I would wager very heavily that their perception of Christianity could be reduced to Ethical Theism: Believe in God (however you think of God) and try your best to be a good person.

Now, let me be honest with you: To the extent that I am able to put myself in the shoes of a non-Christian, if I thought that Christianity were about nothing more than believing in God and trying my best to be a good person, I would have no interest in it whatsoever. Anyone whose perception of Christianity is stuck at level of Ethical Theism, even if that person is a nominal Christian, or even tries to be a practicing Christian—anyone who thinks Christianity is about believing in God and trying to be good probably finds the claims of Christianity—and Christianity makes some pretty extravagant claims about a whole lot of things— and the practice of Christian religion—which can get pretty demanding, particularly at this time of year—that person probably finds the claims and practices of Christianity to be dreadfully, oppressively, irrelevant and boring, or, at best, simply old and tired and worn.

But there’s a line we can cross, I think, that enables us to see it all differently. Different people approach this line in different ways, from different angles, in different seasons of their lives. I might call it the “getting it” line. Some people “get it” at a very young age, in childhood. Others “get it” as young adults, or in middle age, or in the autumn of life. We cross this line when we look at the world and look at ourselves and feel profound sorrow—sorrow at the core of our being—over the way things are. When we “get it,” we are in touch with what Christian theology calls the “fall” of creation, that the entire cosmos, from the largest planet to the smallest sub-atomic particle, is infected, distorted, out of balance. Because the world is fallen, children get leukemia. Because the world is fallen, young women get murdered while they’re jogging in the park. Because the world is fallen, we can’t find better ways than war to solve our conflicts. Because the world is fallen, the least bad way to run an economy depends on human selfishness. Because the world is fallen, tectonic plates shift and cause earthquakes. I could go on, but I hope you see my point. Until our awareness of the fallenness of creation reaches a certain threshold, and our sorrow over that fallenness reaches a certain threshold, we’re like a person who has a very mild headache, not quite intense enough to get our conscious attention. But once we cross the line, once we “get it,” when we understand the true size and scope of the human predicament, we then realize that the human race has a collective “headache” that is the mother of all migraines.

So it’s when we hurt bad enough, and pretty much only when we hurt bad enough, that we can see and appreciate what God accomplishes for us in Christ. Two weeks from now we’ll be singing the Church’s ancient song about Christ trampling down death, and all that death signifies, which is nothing less than the fallenness of creation. Death is the ultimate sign that we are fallen. Yet, we will sing that Christ tramples down death … by death. Jesus takes the fallenness of creation into the tomb with him, and leaves it there. He introduces something entirely new—new ‘DNA’, we might think of it—something entirely new into the created order. The prophet Isaiah calls this to our attention today:

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
God is doing something completely new, something completely outside that which we could even imagine, beyond what our minds can fathom. And in doing what he’s doing, God is connecting to our brokenness, our fallenness, in an unimaginably direct way.

There’s a great hymn by Charles Wesley that begins, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” It’s almost as if Wesley were admitting that he once found Christianity irrelevant and boring, but something happened that gave him an unexpected “interest” in “the Savior’s blood,” an interest in the “new thing” that God is doing, the new thing that is the precise medicine for the deep sorrow we feel over the fallenness of the world. He apparently reached that threshold where the mild headache turned into a raging migraine; he cross the “getting it” line, and was suddenly interested in what God has done to remove the source of our pain, what God has done to trample down death by death and bestow life to those who dwell in the tomb.

If the “headache” doesn’t bother us that much, actions like that performed by Jesus’ friend Mary when he visited her home in the village of Bethany make no sense at all. She took a jar of very costly perfume, perhaps worth up to $20,000 in today’s money, and poured the whole thing over Jesus’ feet. A practical and prudent person would say, “What a waste!” on many levels. But Mary had crossed the threshold. She “got it” in a profound way. She was in touch with the “new thing” that God was doing in and through Jesus. She was acknowledging that it would be “by death” that Jesus would trample down death, and was anointing his body for burial in advance. If the “headache” doesn’t bother us much, then and language like St Paul’s when he writes to the Philippians seems annoyingly excessive. After counting all the many blessings of his life, he exclaims,

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

Unless we have crossed the “get it line,” this seems totally out of proportion to whatever reality these words signify, kind of like using morphine to treat an ordinary headache.

But if we know that we have no ordinary headache, but a super-migraine, we realize that a completely radical response is always appropriate. We realize that Mary wasn’t crazy for pouring that jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet; she may indeed have been the sanest person in her village. When we know that the world has no ordinary headache, but a super-migraine, we realize that St Paul’s language was not over-the-top when he effectively called the immense privileges of his birth and education so much garbage in comparison with knowing Christ, but that he actually couldn’t find language that was excessive enough to describe the vastness of God’s accomplishment in Christ. In the words of the twentieth century poet Ursula Vaughan Williams: “Never since the world began, such a light such dark did span.”

Do you get it?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

C: Lent IV

Luke 15:11-32, Joshua 5:9-12, II Corinthians 5:17-21

If there’s one piece of scripture that most Americans—even unchurched Americans—can cite chapter and verse on, it’s John 3:16. They might not know what it says, but they can cite chapter and verse, because, for a while there, it was almost impossible to attend a public sporting event, or watch one on television, without seeing someone holding a poster board in the air with “John 3:16” written on it. Those who hold up the sign, of course, are hoping that someone who sees it will get curious and find a bible and look it up. (It seems to me that if someone knows how to find John 3:16 in a bible, that person probably already knows what it says, but be that as it may.) It’s generally agreed that John 3:16 is perhaps the purest distillation of the Christian gospel—the good news—to be found anywhere in scripture: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” It would be difficult to get any clearer or more succinct than that. It establishes the fundamental Christian conviction that God loves the human race that he created.

That’s a simple statement but it’s a complex reality. There are two vital characteristics of God’s love as the church has discerned it that are essential to keep in mind here. First, God’s love is not based on feeling, but on will. If we think back on all the people we have loved—those we have fallen or grown “in love” with, and those we have fallen or grown out of love with—we’ll be duly thankful that God’s love is not grounded in the fickle whims of emotion. Second, God’s love is not a debt. He doesn’t owe us love, or anything else, for that matter.

The jealous older brother in this parable of the prodigal son made the mistake of understanding love —both his father’s love for him and his for his father—as a debt, an obligation, something morally due. God, however, chooses to love us, freely and without reservation.

As I said, this is a simple statement, but a complex reality. It’s difficult for us to accept and understand, because we have very little in our concrete experience of life that reveals and models for us this kind of love. The great majority of our experience of love, love that we give and love that we receive, is in some way conditional, predicated ultimately on the object of love fulfilling some expectation. This is true of the love that others have for us. Even the love of a mother for her newborn infant, which is perhaps the purest form of human love that there is, is wrapped up tightly, even if sub-consciously, with the expectation of that child growing to maturity and gratefully returning the love of his or her mother. But this quality of conditionality, of expectation, is also true of the love we have for ourselves. We don’t value ourselves. We don’t like ourselves. Our self-love is conditioned, conditioned on meeting a list of expectations, the precise contents of which varies from person to person, but which all have one thing in common, and that is that they’re impossible to fulfill! Jesus told us the second-greatest commandment, after loving God, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. The assumption is that our self-love provides the model and the wellspring for our love of our neighbors. If this is true, then our neighbors are in a world of hurt!

So the bulk of our experience of love—others’ love for us and our love for ourselves—is of conditional love. It’s not a very long leap, then, to make the same assumption about God’s love. It is altogether easy for us to fall into the notion that God’s love requires our meeting some minimum standard of goodness or worthiness before it takes effect. We might think that if we can just get rid of a particular bad habit—smoking, gossiping, sniping, swearing, you name it—then we’ll be fit for God’s love. Or we may think that if we can mend a particular broken relationship, or be healed of a painful memory, or own up to a major sin that we’ve never really dealt with, then we’ll be in a position to accept God’s love. Or, we may think that if we can just make ourselves start coming to church more regularly, or hear a voice from heaven, or just start feeling in some way more “religious”, then God will really want to love us.

Of course, all these conditions that we put on God’s love are silly, because they don’t exist—they certainly don’t come from God! But they’re more than silly, they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous because each of us, in our heart of hearts, knows that we’ll never be able to meet those conditions. The way things are currently headed, we’re not going to kick that bad habit or fix that relationship or confess that sin or start feeling more religious. The whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every teacher knows that if you think a child is stupid, and tell him he’s stupid, and treat him as though you expect him to be stupid, his academic performance is going to be below par, no matter what his I.Q. actually is. So if we tell ourselves we’re not worthy of God’s love, and act as though we’re not worthy of God’s love by depriving ourselves of his grace available in the sacraments, in the word, and in the fellowship of the church, guess what??!! That’s right—we’re going to effectively cut ourselves off from God’s love. The transmitter will still be broadcasting the signal on 50,000-watt clear channel power, but we’ll have sabotaged our receivers. We’ll have succumbed to the deadliest of the deadly sins, the sin of despair, the sin of hopelessness, the sin of putting conditions on God’s love that God himself doesn’t put on it.

This parable, the one we call the parable of the prodigal son, is a parable of God’s unconditional love. It’s a parable of God’s love that is present for us and with us and to us and at us even while we are yet in our sins. St John tells us that “we love him”—how does it finish?—“because he first loved us.” St Paul tells us that God “commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were yet sinners.

The father in the story loved his younger son, the son who thoughtlessly demanded his share of the estate before his father was even on his deathbed, and then squandered his inheritance, as the King James version puts it so quaintly, in “riotous living”. The story focuses on the father’s love for that son at the moment of his penitent return. But it is essential to understand that the father also loved that son before he left home; why else would he have agreed to prematurely divide his estate? And the father also loved that son while he was gone; why else would he have been looking for the son’s return? The father was overjoyed at his son’s return, but he wasn’t surprised. In fact, it was the prodigal son’s experience and knowledge of his father’s love that enabled him to come to his senses. Even after behaving as offensively as he had, the young man trusted his father’s love enough to return home and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy to be called your son—treat me as one of your hired servants.” The son’s repentance enabled him to enjoy the benefits of his father’s love, but the father’s love was not dependent on the son’s repentance. The young man was accepted unconditionally, not on probation. Most of us would think it entirely appropriate if the father had said, “Son, you have really offended me! You can have a room in the attic, but you’re going to be on probation around here until you’ve demonstrated that I can trust you again.” But the father didn’t do that. He said, “Bring this boy a robe and a ring and a pair of shoes —he’s being restored to all the rights and privileges of being my son. Kill the fatted calf; we’re going to have a party, for this my son who was lost is now found, and this my son who was dead is alive again!”

As we know, there’s another son in the story, one who had served his father faithfully while his brother had been living riotously, and now he was in a jealous rage at the gracious reception his penitent brother had received. Over a lifetime of hearing this story, I’ve generally felt pretty sympathetic toward this older son. But the father comes out to meet him in the field—notice how the father went out to meet both sons, taking the initiative in love—the father goes out to meet the older son in the field and says, in effect, “You have been a faithful son to me, one that I am very proud of. I am grateful for all you’ve done for me, but you have not earned my love! I love you not for what you’ve done, but just because I love you!”

“We love him because he first loved us.”

Our sins cannot keep God from loving us, and our righteousness cannot make him love us. God loves us just because he loves us! Just as the prodigal son’s trust in his father’s love enabled him to come to his senses in the pigpen and return home, our trust in our Father’s love for us enables us to come to our senses and turn to him in repentance and participate in the “new creation” and the “ministry of reconciliation” that Paul talks about in Second Corinthians. God’s love precedes us, accompanies us, waits for us, and follows us, just as it did the people of Israel in their journey toward the promised land, and on that day when they finally crossed the Jordan River into their inheritance. Today, as we enter the home stretch of our Lenten pilgrimage, and begin to catch a glimpse of our promised land, we lift up our hearts to our Heavenly Father in joy and thanksgiving for his love that is absolutely unconditional, love that is just because it is. Praise God!