Sunday, August 29, 2010

C: Proper 17

Sometime during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, I had a career as a Boy Scout. It lasted all of about one month. The brevity of my own time in scouting, however, is no reflection of my opinion of the organization.  I have particular respect for Boy Scouts who make it to the rank of Eagle. Having served on an Eagle Scout board of review, I am very impressed with the strength of the requirements, and the strength of character needed in any young man who would attempt to meet them.  It’s a demanding process that many begin and few finish.  It’s not easy, but it is doable.  It can’t be done absent-mindedly or half-heartedly, but it can be done. The required steps are clearly laid out in the Boy Scout manual. Boys who attain the rank of Eagle Scout do so as a direct result of their own initiative and dedication.

Many times, Christians think and act as though our standing before God, the process by which we achieve a right relationship with God, is the same sort of process as that by which a boy becomes an Eagle Scout. If a person can muster enough initiative and dedication, and follow the path of moral virtue that is clearly defined in places like the Ten Commandments, then he or she can earn God’s favor, can deserve, by right, to be accepted and approved by God.  The problem is, the more “successful” we become at cultivating such moral virtues, at deserving such favor and approval, the more prideful we become. After all, look how much we’ve sacrificed and how much we’ve accomplished, to have reached such a point. And the more prideful we become, by definition, the more we are alienated from God. It’s an ironically treacherous cycle that feeds on itself and grows until it catches us in its trap.  The more we “improve”, the more we appear to deserve God’s approval, and the less we think we need it! Here we are—just and charitable and prudent and wise, all as a result of our initiative and dedication. So who needs God now? What started out as growth toward God ends up in separation from God. We become like many religious people in Jesus’ time who were punctilious about observing every last detail of the law in an excruciatingly correct manner.  Time and again he warns them of the danger of pride and arrogance and that their very ability to keep the law is itself a gift from God.

Perhaps Jesus was familiar with the story of a certain Rabbi Simeon, who had lived about a hundred years earlier. Rabbi Simeon was invited to a royal dinner party, and took the liberty of seating himself directly between the king and the queen, remarking that someone who had cultivated wisdom as much as he had deserved nothing less than to be seated among royalty! Wisdom may have been among Rabbi Simeon’s virtues, but humility was apparently not.

This may even be the background for the advice Jesus gives to his own disciples when they were invited to a dinner party given by a local dignitary. When you enter the dining room, take the least desirable position. Perhaps the host will then invite you to come at sit at the head table. But if you seat yourself at the head table, you run the risk of being embarrassed when you’re asked to make way for someone the host would rather have there. Now this advice that Jesus gives is neither particularly original—very similar versions are found in other literature of the time—nor is it particularly profound—its merit is rather obvious. But generation upon generation of men and women have found it extremely difficult to put into practice!

Humility does not come naturally or easily to most of us. It’s a virtue that is scorned by our peers as often as it is admired. We Americas in particular, with our heritage of self-reliant frontier individualism, are apt to get a lump in our throat when we hear Frank Sinatra sing I Did It My Way.  This is the opposite of humility: arrogant pride, the rebellious assertion of one’s independence from God. Such pride is the root, the wellspring, of all other sin, because it cuts us off from God.  Real virtue, however, is grounded not in pride, but in humility, the kind of humility that is the only possible result of walking closely with God.

If you drive by just about any school playground in America on a Saturday afternoon when the weather is mild, there’s a good chance that you’ll find young people there playing basketball.  And at each of these informal games, there will be one or two players who stand out among their peers for their ability, who set the standard of play to which everyone else aspires.  But if LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were to show up and offer to go two-on-two against whoever the local hotdog basketball players in that place are, what do you think is going to happen? In the presence of real basketball ability, any local schoolyard hotdog is going to be humbled.

Your Rector takes a certain amount of satisfaction in his accomplishments as a cook. I’ve dabbled with Chinese food for 25 years, and picked up some Louisiana cuisine about 20 years ago when we lived there. More recently I’ve been trying to learn Mexican cooking, and even venture a bit into barbecue.  But if, say, Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay were to step out of the television set into my kitchen, I assure I would not be talking about my cooking ability.  I would be humbled.  In fact, the hotdog basketball player, and the amateur chef would all be the first to acknowledge their own insignificance in the presence of authentic excellence and greatness.  They would attempt to focus attention away from themselves and onto the source of such greatness.

I would like to think that, having had chef Paul Prudhomme in my kitchen, I would want to have him back again and again, just to delight in the beauty of what he does with food.  Having once witnessed and experienced cooking excellence, I would want to participate in it again and again.  And while my attention is focused on the master chef, not thinking of myself at all, I would probably, in the process, become a pretty terrific cook!

When we walk closely with God we experience such authentic holiness that we can see clearly that we have none of our own.  We’re humbled to the point where we can see how un-humble we are, how inadequate our humility is. But humility is a virtue that we can’t aim for directly.  In fact, a humble person is never aware of his or her own humility, because to be aware of it is to lose it.  Humility is the habit of looking to God alone as the source of our self-esteem.

So growth in humility cannot occur if we focus on growth in humility.  We cannot aim for it and work toward it the way a Boy Scout aims at the rank of Eagle. Growth in humility is a side-effect, an indirect result, of our walking closely with God, of making him our focus, our delight, and our joy. If I want to become a good cook, my chances are much improved if I hang around a good cook, and simply take delight in that person’s mastery of the art.  If I want to become humble, my chances are much improved if I stop thinking about becoming humble, and concentrate instead on enjoying and adoring and serving Christ, the model of humility. This is the way we derive our self-esteem from God, by hanging around him, in prayer, in the sacraments, and in the communal life of the church.
When a soldier displays heroism on the battlefield, the only thing going through his mind is the task at hand: accomplishing the military objective, and saving the lives of his comrades. The one thing he is not thinking about is receiving a medal for his valor.

If we follow this path of humility, if we reach the point where taking the least honorable seat at the dinner party becomes second nature to us, then we will eventually, in the ironic economy of the kingdom of God, be granted that which our arrogant pride would have sought but not found.  We will be granted the respect and admiration of our peers. We will hear the voice of the host of the banquet saying to us, “Friend, come up higher.”  And in the act of walking to the head table to accept the honor, we will, once again, be humbled.  Amen.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

St Mary the Virgin (8/15/10)

Since the feast falls on a Sunday this year, we chose to avail ourselves of the Prayer Book rubrics that allow use of its collect and readings, without technically supplanting the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The principal liturgy was observed according to the customary of this parish for major feasts.

When the Virgin Mary made a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth while both women were pregnant—Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and Mary, of course, with Our Lord—Mary is reported by St Luke’s gospel as having broken out into an extended canticle of praise, during which she exclaims,  “All generations will call me blessed.”

All generations will call me blessed.

Those who pray the Daily Office, Evening Prayer in particular, repeat these words from Mary’s Song daily.

All generations will call me blessed.

These words have at times been controversial. For about the last four and a half centuries, Protestant Christians have tended to think that Catholic Christians take them a little too seriously, and pay too much attention to the mother of Jesus. Catholics have tended to think that Protestants don’t take these words from scripture seriously at all, and pretty much ignore Mary altogether.  Among others, the notion of every generation calling Mary blessed has been given lip service, but without any concrete follow-up behavior. I have to say, this is kind of an Anglican thing. We say or sing the Magnificat—the Song of Mary—every time we offer Evening Prayer. But in most Anglican communities, that’s pretty much it.  

All generations will call me blessed.

What does it look like for any given generation to call Mary blessed? Devotion to the mother of Jesus arose fairly early in the history of Christianity. There’s a legend—not reported in scripture and not particularly supported by any outside historical sources, but an enduring tradition nonetheless—that Mary never experienced physical death, but was assumed bodily into heaven, after living for some time in the city of Ephesus, surrounded by all the apostles. In western Catholicism, this event is known as the Assumption of Our Lady. In the Eastern tradition, it is referred to as the Dormition—literally, the “falling asleep”—of the “God-bearer.”  The Greek word for “God bearer”—theotokos—is extremely important in Christian history. It’s an affirmation of the Nicene Creed, which teaches that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, of one being with the Father.” As incredible as it may sound, the child to whom Mary gave birth is … God; hence, it is appropriate to speak of Mary as the Theotokos, the God-bearer. It may be somewhat unfortunate that theotokos got translated into Latin as mater dei, which means, literally, “mother of God.” This expression has caused confusion and conflict because it seems to say that Mary pre-existed God, which is obviously ridiculous. In actuality, however, it’s an affirmation about Jesus more than it is about Mary.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, life was harsh and difficult for most people.  In that atmosphere of constant danger and despair, people began to develop a style of  Christian devotion that saw Mary as “Mom,” and as we all remember from our experience of being children, and perhaps raising children, Mom is more likely to respond to our concerns with understanding and gentleness than “Dad” typically is. So they started to frequently voice their petitions to Mary. To most of the Protestant reformers, this sounded like idolatry, like it was putting Mary on the same level as God, a sort of “fourth person of the Trinity.” So they overreacted, and expunged Mary from any place in either public worship or private devotion. Of course, all along, we see the Blessed Mother appear in great works of art—paintings, statues, poems, songs—both before and after the Reformation.

But is any of this “cal[ling Mary] blessed?”

All generations will call me blessed.

Devotion to Mary can certainly be overblown. There’s story about Jesus walking into St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In one of the side chapels there was the proverbial “little old lady” on her knees in the front pew praying the rosary. Jesus tried several times to get her attention, but without any success. Nonetheless, he persisted.  Finally, the lady turns around and looks at him in irritation and says, “Can’t you see I’m talking to your mother?”  Yet, I would say, the tradition of Marian devotion and piety is overwhelmingly good. And Anglicans, by and large, are certainly not in any danger of overdoing it.

All generations will call me blessed.

If we look at the context of where the phrase comes from—that is, from the Magnificat—we are left with a much different notion of what calling Mary “blessed” might look like. The Song of Mary is an intensely political text, and it’s all about reversal—reversal of fortunes, reversal of expectations.

If you’re familiar with the major stories of the Old Testament—and we might presume that Mary was herself—you can’t help but notice a striking resemblance between the Magnificat and another song offered by a woman who became a mother under strange circumstances—Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Both her song and Mary’s talk about the expected winners turning out to be losers, and the expected losers turning out to be winners. The proud are scattered and the mighty are cast down, but the lowly are lifted up. The rich are sent away empty, but the hungry are filled.

You and I tend to interpret reversals like these through a particular cultural lens. About a hundred years ago, when silent movies were packing people into theaters, there was a sort of melodramatic formula that told the same story a hundred different ways: A poor widow is being hounded by evil villains wearing black hats. They tie her to a railroad track in the hope of causing her certain death. The train approaches and poor widow struggles to get free. Finally, the good guys, wearing white hats, ride their white horses into the scene. They free her from the tracks at the very last moment before the train comes barreling through, and then chase down the bad guys and give them what they so richly deserve while the movie audience cheers. Come to think of it, a number of contemporary movies and TV shows follow that same formula, don’t they?  

But, by interpreting the reversals of the Magnificat through the lens of a silent film melodrama, we deprive ourselves of its true impact.  In the time of Mary, wealth and power were seen as presumptive signs of God’s blessing on righteous living. If somebody was rich, it was because God had rewarded them for living right. Poverty and weakness were seen as presumptive signs of moral inferiority. If someone was poor, it was because they deserved to be poor. They were nasty people. So, for God to favor the poor and weak at the expense of the rich and powerful is an astonishing reversal of expectations. It was like saying Democrats favor giant corporations over labor unions, or Republicans favor government programs over private enterprise.

But the point is not a merely moralistic—“God loves the poor and we should too”—as true as that may be. It’s more radical than that. The point is this: God’s modus operandi, God’s default way of doing business, in any given situation, probably runs counter to our expectations.  We may as well assume that whatever God does, it’s going to surprise us in a way that we can’t anticipate, and that will seem illogical or foolish, something we would never have advised Him to do!

In the second part of C.S. Lewis’s adult science fiction trilogy, a novel called Perelandra, most of the action takes place on floating islands. There was dry land on the planet, and the island dwellers could visit dry land during the day, but they could never spend the night there. Life on the islands was challenging, because they were floating, The action of waves in the water was transferred to the surface of the island. The ground was always sifting under their feed. So the island dwellers of Perelandra had to learn to let go of any need to control their environment. They had to learn to literally “go with the flow.”  This is a wonderful image for our relationship with the Son of Mary, the one who was born of her as God. It describes, in fact, the way in which we continue to call her blessed in our own generation. It is by learning to go with the “flow” of God’s wild and untamed grace—grace that turns up in unexpected ways and unexpected places. We call Mary “blessed” when we understand that the gospel of her Son is likely to upend some of our conventional expectations.

Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death. Amen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

C: Proper 14

  Luke 12:32-40                            
Genesis 15:1-6
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Whenever the summer Olympic Games roll around every four years, one of the events that I always find a joy to watch is diving—both men’s and women’s, both springboard and platform. Sometimes, though, I have to say, I’d rather watch the diving competition with the sound turned down. I find that my enjoyment of the event is diminished by the non-stop commentary of the announcers, who are usually retired divers themselves.

Before each dive, they describe in detail what it’s going to consist of, and how difficult it’s considered, etc, etc. And immediately after each dive, before the diver is even out of the water, they analyze and critique it, telling us precisely what was done well and what was done poorly, what worked and what failed. 

I have a confession to make.

Unless they belly-flop, or hit the platform on the way down they all look the same to me!  They’re all beautiful to me.  They all leave me breathless with awe at what a human body can be made to do.  But it is next to impossible for me to distinguish the stupendous 9.9s from the not-so-stupendous 6.9s.  I simply don’t have the eyes to see the difference. 

Eyes to see. 

A hard-driving business executive suffers chest pains, and wonders whether this is indeed “the big one”.  He rushes off to the doctor, but tests reveal that it’s not a heart attack, but a pre-ulcerous condition that can be best treated by altering his stress-filled work-addicted lifestyle.  The man takes this as a warning that could spare him a more serious problem in the future.  Is it happy coincidence, or something more? 

Eyes to see. 

The security of a marriage is threatened by the “seven-year itch”, and the wandering eyes and wandering fantasies that go along with it. But one of the partners is offered an attractive job in another part of the country, and they decide to accept it and relocate. 

Once they’re removed from the immediate sources of temptation, they realize how close they came to disaster, and they resolve to devote renewed enthusiasm to their relationship.  Is it a happy co-incidence, or something more? 

Eyes to see.

A depressed teenager swallows a dose of sleeping pills that should have been more than enough to complete her suicidal intentions, but through some inexplicable fluke of body chemistry, it isn’t, and she’s found, and revived, and gets the help she needs.  Is it a happy coincidence, or something more? 

Eyes to see. 

I’m sure that if you and I were to sit down and share the memories of our lives and the lives of those we have loved, we could come up with countless other examples of just being at the right place at the right time, or with the right person, situations where the same question could be asked: Is it a happy coincidence, or something more? 

Eyes to see. 

In the time just before everything began to happen on a computer, there was a training technique that tested the learner on the content of the text even in the course of reading it.  This was done through the strategic placement of blanks in the narrative, blanks which the reader should be able to mentally fill-in if he or she has been paying attention.  On one margin of the page was a column that, to the naked eye, looked like a jumble of nonsense characters printed in red ink.  But if the reader comes across a blank in the text for which the missing word doesn’t come readily to mind, he or she could take a piece of red-tinted transparent plastic and place it over the column of nonsense characters.  In the margin, next to the mysterious blank, the correct answer shows through.  The red plastic filtered out the nonsense, providing the “eyes” necessary to see the hidden answer. They provided a way of seeing that which would otherwise be invisible. 

Eyes to see. 

For Christians, they eyes with which we are invited to see are the eyes of faith. 


The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us this morning that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  The difference between providence and coincidence is faith.  Faith is a way of seeing, a quality of vision that looks at a happy co-incidence of circumstances, but sees—do you understand the difference between looking and seeing?—sees God actively present in our lives. 

Throughout human history, women and men and children have had such faith, such a way of seeing.  Abraham and Sarah looked at their advancing age—heck, they weren’t advancing in age, they were old—Abraham and Sarah looked at the fact that they were old, but, through the eyes of faith, what they saw was God’s ability to fulfill his promise and bless them with a child, an heir born of their own flesh. 

Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, Jacob, looked at a youth of quarreling with his twin brother, an adulthood of being continually cheated by his uncle, and an old age of being victimized by famine, but through the eyes of faith, what Jacob saw was God beginning to fulfill his promise to make him the father of a great nation, a nation that would bear his own name, the name God had given him: Israel. 

Jacob’s son Joseph looked at his being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but through the eyes of faith, what he saw was God present with him, even while he languished in a dungeon, preparing the way for him to assume such power in Egypt that he answered only to Pharaoh himself. 

Generations later, the people of Israel looked at themselves wandering in circles through the desert wilderness, but through the eyes of faith (the faith of some of them, at any rate) what they saw was the land flowing with milk and honey which God had promised to lead them to. 

The disciples of Jesus looked at their abandonment of their trades and professions, their only known means of livelihood, in order to follow him, but, through the eyes of faith, they saw the inestimable riches of participating in God’s plan for the salvation of the human race and restoration of the created order. 

Christians today look at the changes and chances of this life.  Seeing through the eyes of faith is what enables us to see the hand of God equally present in both the happy “coincidences” and the painfully tragic moments of our lives.  And we, who live after the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and with two thousand years of collective Christian experience behind us, have a tremendous advantage that our ancestors in faith did not have. We have seen the tangible first fruits of God’s work of redemption.  In the hearing of the word, in the celebration of the sacraments, and in the fellowship of the Christian community, we see this redemption in progress. 

The patriarchs and prophets of the old covenant, as the author of Hebrews tells us, “died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”  You and I, at least, have a clearer and closer vision of our common destination and home than they did. Our eyes of faith enable us to look at personal wealth, and see spiritual danger.  Our eyes of faith enable us to look at human need and suffering, and see an opportunity to serve our Lord Jesus by cultivating the virtues of charity and generosity. 

Our eyes of faith can look at the delay in our Lord’s return and see an opportunity to become more fully prepared to give an accounting, as stewards, for that which has been entrusted to us. And our eyes of faith, a few moments from now, will be able to look at bread and wine, made from wheat and grapes and fashioned by human skill—we’ll be able to look at these ordinary elements and see the broken body and poured out blood of Jesus, through which you and I become once again the Body of Christ—taken, blessed, broken and given for the life of the world. In every Eucharist, we have an opportunity to not merely look, but to really see. Amen.