Monday, February 23, 2015

Crossing the chasm and the carnage of the flood . . .

     The story of Noah is one of those stories that even those that are unchurched feel they know.  In fact, many cultures have a flood narrative in their history.  My guess is that if I asked you to raise your hands if you discussed this story in your Sunday School classes as children, nearly everyone here present would raise their hands.  I see the nods.  Good.  That means we can have a bit of an interactive sermon today.  What provoked God to flood the earth?  Come on.  There is no need to fear a wrong answer.  I bet most of us were taught a wrong answer in our youth.  Teach us who He is from the choir.  Power from the left side.  How about if I suggested wrath?  Righteous anger?  Fury?  How many of us were taught that?  That’s a lot of hands.  I am going to give you all a bit of homework this week.  It is Lent, so we should all being a bit more intentional in our walk with Jesus.  Go back and read this story beginning in chapter 6 and count how many times God is described as angry, furious, or wrathful.  Please do.  With that Russell Crowe movie out there, you might be able to tell a much better story that Hollywood when your friends and neighbors ask you, their “churchy” friend,” what you thought of the movie.

     For those among us who struggle as parents of adult children, re-reading the story might serve as a great source of encouragement.  I will not be specific as that group operates in confidentiality, but one of the weights that parents of adult children feel is the judgment of others.  Parenting is tough work, is it not?  Those of us with children sometimes commiserate that it was only by God’s grace that our children survived until adulthood.  As parents, we can’t see and know everything nor keep an eye on our children all the time.  And even when we a screw-up is coming, we know our children are likely to ignore our warnings.

     A great example in my household was electrical outlets.  Any of you ever have any children bound and determined to see what is in those sockets?  I see a few hands.  What do we tell those kids?  Do not stick your finger or paperclip or spoon or whatever in there.  It’s going to hurt.  That always works as a warning, doesn’t it?  I’m not saying you all were a mean dad like me, but maybe there came a time when you finally let the child stick the finger or whatever in the socket and get that zap rather than warn them yet again.  How did they respond?  How did you?  That hurt, didn’t it?  Don’t do it again or listen to me next time.  One of mine got even.  He left the penny in the socket so that a flame scorched the drywall until dad pulled it out.  He stuck the penny in there, but dad had to get it out, risking a shock and a burn.

     As our children grow up, though, the lessons are harder and more lasting.  Blow off your homework in high school and it may cost our children the college of their choice.  Party too hard in college and it could cost a career or result in an unexpected family or even death.  As parents, we often see the end result long before our children.  We tell the truant children to quit skipping school.  We warn those drinking far too much or doing drugs of the dangers.  And do they listen to us?  Do they believe we know what we are talking about?  I see lots of no’s.

     Sometimes, as a pastor, I hear people talking about other children in disapproving tones.  That Johnnie/Susie is luck I am not his/her parent.  I would punish them so that they did not know what hit them.  I would cut them off so quickly they would be shocked into sobriety.  I would kick their lazy butts out of the house so fast they would be begging for a job and to get back into my house.  As parents, we have heard those comments from others, have we not?

     The problem, of course, is that the children in question are not the children of those making such statements.  First, they are our children.  They are not strangers.  We birthed them.  We fed them.  We changed their diapers, kissed their booboos, held them during storms, nursed them back to health when sick, listened to their dreams, and picked them up when they got knocked down.  They are our flesh and our blood, the generation that comes after.  And here is the kicker, we think we know why a child acts the way he or she does.  She turned to sex because I did not love her the way she needed.  He turned to drugs because I failed him.  She skipped school because I did not teach her the value of an education.  He loafs because he has had a hard life.  Guilt and parentage are powerful when combined.  As parents, we tolerate a lot of nonsense that we never would with the child of someone else.  Just like God whom we worship today.

     Those of you who do your homework will discover the emotion that causes God to flood the earth is not wrath or fury or anger.  God sees the evil and it grieves Him.  Grieves Him.  There are places in Scripture, to be sure, where God is described as full of divine wrath and fury, but this is not one of them.  For my money, like Jesus standing outside the tomb of His friend Lazarus, this gives us the best insight as to the motivation of God.  God is grieved by sin; He cries over our deaths.  His plans for us were so much better; and we, like willful children, rejected His wisdom and love.

     Lest you think I have hit a discordant note here, how do our children respond to our discipline of them.  Tell a child he or she cannot play hopscotch on a road because of traffic, and we parents are the killjoys.  Tell a child he or she must do homework, and we parents are the meanies.  Insist our son or daughter must grow up and take responsibility for their own decisions, and we parents are unloving or unsupportive.  How do we rail at our Father in heaven?  Do we not sound like willful or petulant children?  Are we not, to use the words of Rick Grimes this week, the true “walking dead,” convinced we know better than Him even those our paths all lead to death?

     The flood narrative, of course, captures two seemingly disparate characteristics of God.  In the beginning of the narrative, we see that He hates sin.  Hates.  You and I and often the wider Church forget that God hates sin.  How many of us, and be honest, how many of us think Jesus may have gotten an extra thorn in His crown because of our sins, but He did not need to die for our sins because they were not so bad?  As a righteous and holy God, God can no more tolerate the presence of sin than you and I can refuse to blink or breathe very long.  Speaking in anthropomorphic terms, God’s autonomous nervous system destroys whatever sin it encounters.  Why, do you think, does God not let the prophets in the Old Testament see Him face to face?  Why do you think Israel trembles at the sound of His voice on Sinai?  Why must angels bear His messages?  Why does the reflection of His presence, as found on Moses, terrify His people?  Because, at a fundamental level, they understand their danger when their sin encounters the holy, righteous God who created all things.  Israel understood an encounter with God was to be their death.

     The danger of discounting the cost of sin is to create a predictable, tame God.  If our sin is “not so bad,” we have no real reason to fear judgment.  If our sin is of the “garden variety,” well then God should be glad we chose to worship Him.  If our sin is “garden variety,” then we can wait to decide until later whether to become a disciple of Christ or not.  The problem with that way of thinking, of course, is that the fruit of any sin is death.  Whether it is the white lie of a spouse or the umpteenth murder of a psychopath, all sin leads to death.  Even our Sunday schools downplay the cost of sin when teaching us about this story.  I remember the only cautionary tale I ever heard about the Flood was about the pride of the unicorn.  We had to learn some stupid song about how the unicorns would not accept God’s offer to be saved on the ark, and so were killed in the Flood for their prideful folly.  Ever been around a big flood?  Ever notice the critters that wash downstream?  Raccoons, squirrels, opossums, and deer.  Imagine what this flood looked like those first few days.  And all that death was seen by God.  Sin and death mar His beautiful, magnificent creation!  How were those behaving before the flood?  As if death, the consequence of their sin, was far off!

     The other, seemingly untenable, characteristic of God we see in this narrative is His desire to be loved as our loving Father in heaven.  Better than the best parent, God wants us to love Him, to follow Him, to obey Him, to trust Him, and to serve Him.  He wants us to do these things, and do them well, so that others might want to become His children.  That special relationship He claims with each one of us, He would like nothing better than to claim with all of humanity.  How can He embrace us as a loving Father, though, if we do not always listen to Him?  How can we even be in His presence, knowing His autonomic response to sin, given the way we are?

     And make no mistake, God is not surprised by our unwillingness to change.  It is not as if God expects us to be sinless from this time forward.  In fact, He knows the future will prove us to be just as sinful.  Noah and the family are barely off the ark and what happens?  Sin is still part of this righteous family He saved.  What counselors call “dysfunctional,” God will have to work with as normal.  Similarly, when you and I are baptized, we don’t just flip a switch and stop sinning.  It is in our nature now, and He knows that.  And His promise is that, when (not if) our evil grows, He will not destroy the earth and all flesh in a Flood.

     Those of us unfamiliar with the story might be surprised by the references to “all flesh.”  We should not be.  Paul teaches us that Creation groans under the consequence of sin and looks for its re-creation.  What God created in the beginning was good.  It was our sins that cursed nature.  Weeds sprung up, cataclysmic events like earthquakes and tornados and tsunamis happened, and death entered the world because we sinned.  And nothing will be as it was until He recreates the heavens and the earth.  So that bow, which can be seen by children in a city canyon fire hydrant turned on, which can be seen by a suburban wife watering her flower boxes, which can be seen by an adult or child looking over the hills of Tennessee, reminds us that God had in mind a solution to His great pastoral problem.  How could God be intolerant of sin and yet give unfettered access to those who were sinners, His children?  How could God destroy sin and yet give life to sinners?

     We who are gathered here this icy morning, we who have braved the elements of ice and freezing fog and bad drivers know the solution to His problem.  How does God show grace to sinners?  By imputing the righteousness of His Beloved to us.  Brothers and sisters, make no mistake about the horror of the passion of our Lord.  I know we like to believe that our sins were not so bad, that God does not really mind small sins, that the God of the Old Testament is the wrathful or volcano God while the God of the New Testament is the “loving” God.  But that is the very nature in those “righteous” who survived the flood that caused them to sin that is lying to us.  Lent is that season when you and I are called to remember our need for a Savior.  You and I are called to a season of self-examination where we, once again, are called to remember that our sins, yours and mine, caused Jesus to descend from heaven and die on that Cross that we might be saved!  Put in different language, God takes sin every bit as seriously as He did before the Flood.  It took His Son to bridge that chasm between God’s righteousness and God’s grace,we created so long ago, when we rejected our loving Father in the Garden.  It took His Son to restore life to us!

     This season, however, although serious, is not meant to be a season of woe, a season of death.  You and I are called to be a renewed people, a people who know their joy of their salvation, a people who jump for joy rather than walk as dead, as a people who know a real love story far better than Hollywood!  We call to mind those sins for which He died, that we might share with the world the love He has for us and for them!  We remember each and every time we eat this flesh and drink this blood that God remembers His covenant with us each and every day of our lives!



Thursday, February 19, 2015

Removing our Masks on Ash Wednesday . . .

     Does it ever strike you as a bit incongruous that we mark ourselves publicly with ash in the shape of a cross on our foreheads when the Gospel lesson from Matthew says to do all our acts of piety in secret?  My thought is that there had to be several other lessons in the Gospels that would have allowed the liturgy without condemning the practice.  I see by a couple nods that I am not the only one who has had that thought.  We read that we should not make a show of our fasting and prayer, and then we mark ourselves.  Why?  Why would the Church ignore Jesus’ teachings so blatantly?

     I suppose the real focus in this passage ought to be on the difference between the real worshipper of God and the true disciple.  Jesus spends some significant time in this passage, but throughout Matthew’s Gospel, talking about those who make an outward show of righteousness while their hearts are anything but.  Matthew uses a famous word in this passage.  Actually, he uses the word some thirteen of the seventeen times it is found in the New Testament.  The word is hypocrite.  I know, today it is an unsavory word.  We think of hypocrites as bad people; nobody wants to be judged a hypocrite.  In the Greek culture, however, the term was used to describe the actors in the plays.  Part of the difficulty was that there were so few “professional” actors.  Playwrights would compose scenes in which only three or four actors might be necessary at a time.  During a break, the same actors would become a different character.  In particular, actors on the Athenian Broadway would place masks over their faces to show the audience which character they were portraying.  Naturally, the actor was expected to act like the character on the mask, rather than himself (sorry, ladies, there were no actresses in these days).  Some interpretation by the actors was expected, but the mask is what helped the audience remember who the actor was playing at that moment.  Imagine Johnny Depp playing a half dozen characters in Pirates of the Caribbean.  How would we ever tell which character he was playing at any given moment?  For us, Johnny Depp is Jack Sparrow, not another pirate, nor a British Marine, nor a civilian.  For the Greeks, this problem was solved by use of the mask.  The mask told the audience who the character was, even if the underlying acting was bad.  So, here is Jesus comparing the acts of the Pharisees to hypocrites.  Why?

     Those whom Jesus condemns in this passage are simply acting.  He speaks specifically of three acts of righteousness which were incumbent upon those who claimed to worship God.  Jesus notes that when giving to the poor, some would call attention to their giving.  Essentially, the Pharisee/hypocrite would put on a mask and shout “over here, I am playing a generous to the poor person today!”  When praying, the Pharisee/hypocrite would put on a mask and shout “are not my words spiritual and religious and flowing?  God cannot help but lend an ear to my voice!”  When fasting, the Pharisee/hypocrites would call attention to their behavior by putting on a mask that said “look at me and how I suffer for God.  Are you not impressed?”  You see, the hypocrites of whom Jesus spoke were engaged in a performance for an audience.  They hoped that those around them would be impressed by their generosity, their fancy words, their willingness to suffer for God and judge them holy.

     The problem, of course, is that God sees into our hearts.  Those who were giving for show, praying for show, and suffering for show did not impress God.  In fact, it angered Him.  God expected His people to live righteously for real.  Righteousness was not meant to be a mask that was worn at certain times of the year, like Christmas and Easter today.  Righteousness was supposed to describe His people all the time, in all their dealings, and most especially in their hearts.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

     In many ways, the human response to God has not changed much, has it?  People still like to make a show of being righteous, but their hearts are far from Him.  Where is your heart?  I suppose that our ashes might serve as a good judge of how people see us.  When you head back to work, head out to eat with your group, head home to your family with ashes on your head today, how will those in your life react?  Will they nod, not at all surprised that you had ashes imposed this day?  Or will they raise an eyebrow in or give voice to their surprise?  You are a Christian?

     Brothers and sisters, Lent is not about judgment or about suffering or about these outward signs of which we speak.  Lent, in truth, is a reminder that we need to keep our hearts focused on God.  But it is an acknowledgment that we need His grace in order to do just that!  Had He not been willing to die for our sins, and had He not been willing to send us the Holy Spirit to lead us into righteousness, we would have remained estranged, at enmity with Him.  We would be like horrible actors, wearing masks, pretending to be righteous while rotting in our cores.  That cross of ash that I will place on your head in a moment reminds us of that truth.  It slips through the veneer of our lives, it brushes aside the ego of our psyche, it pierces the masks we all wear when facing the world, and reminds us from whence we came and where we are headed.  We came from dust.  We will return to dust.  The season of Lent reminds us that we should intentionally take stock of our own spiritual inventory and discern where we are actors rather than disciples.  Better still, even if we discern that we are more Oscar worthy actors than cross-bearing disciples, we still stand not yet condemned.  Such is His mercy that He would have us simply repent of the acting and pray for the empowering holiness that is made possible only through His death and Resurrection, and begin again as His disciple.  Lent truly is a season that reminds us of pardon and absolution!

      Brothers and sisters, our Lord calls you this day, as He does each and every day of all our lives, to quit acting, to quit dying, and start living, that your story many not end in dust, but glory everlasting . . .