Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Willing and unwilling servants

     Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of His salvation -- Our collect for this week was certainly appropriate. Our Gospel lesson dealt with Mark's retelling of the calls of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. And our Old Testament lesson was about God's call upon Jonah. In a sense, we are given four wonderful examples and one anti-example of responses to God's calls on the lives of individuals. Simon and Andrew leave when Jesus calls them, an act which in itself was unusual, for rabbi's never called students. Students chose rabbi's. And James' and John's acceptance is even more astonishing! Once again, Jesus calls them. Unlike Simon and Andrew, however, who seem to be working for themselves, James and John are mending nets for their father, Zebedee. As unlikely as it was for Andrew and Simon to walk away and follow Jesus, James' and John's decision to follow Jesus is extraordinary. They are abandoning the seeming needs of their father! They are walking away from the family business. Often, Jesus' calls on our lives are not without costs. His call can cost us jobs, worldly power and honor, money and even relationships. Of course, the rewards for faithful obedience far outstrip any worldly benefits.

     God's call upon Jonah, however, probably speaks more to our relationship with God. In chapter three, we hear that Jonah preached to Nineveh and that the people of Nineveh repented. Jonah's call is heard, and God is moved to put off the calamity which He was going to bring down on that enormous city. What we do not see, unfortunately, is more of the call of Jonah. We all know from Sunday School classes in our youth that Jonah spends three days in the belly of the fish. And many of us are taught that Jonah's entombment in the fish belly presages the time Jesus will spend in the tomb. What we often forget, however, is what led Jonah to that fish belly.

     When God first calls Jonah, Jonah runs away. Jonah does not want to preach to Nineveh because He knows God is merciful. Jonah fears that if he preaches, and Nineveh hears him, God will relent of the punishment which He intends for Nineveh. Israel hated Nineveh. Who wants their enemies not to be punished? So Jonah flees from God. He boards a ship and sets sail as far away from Nineveh as he can get. God sends a storm. After some time, Jonah perceives that He cannot flee God. So, he tells the shipmates to toss him overboard. That is when he gets swallowed by the fish. While in the belly, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh.

     After our reading from this weekend, Jonah goes outside the city to sulk. The Scriptures describe Jonah as displeased and very angry. Jonah whines that he knew this would happen. I preached, they repented, and God forgave them their iniquities. Jonah is so upset, so exceedingly angry with God that he asks God to take his life. And God simply responds with a question, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

     While Jonah is sulking and waiting to see if God will destroy Nineveh, God causes a bush to grow. The bush protects Jonah from the heat of the sun. And Jonah loves the fact that it is there. But, the next day, God sends a worm to destroy the bush, and He sends a sultry east wind to tire Jonah. Once the shade is destroyed and the elements weigh on Jonah, Jonah's response is predictable. He begs God to kill him. And God reminds Jonah that he did nothing to get the bush, so he should not be angry that it is gone. God asks Jonah why he should be so concerned for a bush and He not allowed to be concerned for a city with more than 120,000 people who have not heard His message of salvation?

     One of the Gospel lessons for each of us this week is just how powerful and merciful God truly is. God is able to work through both the lives of those who willingly and eagerly embrace His call upon their lives, and He is equally able to work through the lives of those who do their best to fight His call upon their lives. From a worldly perspective, Jonah does not deserve to be remembered as a faithful servant of God. Some prophet. He fought God every step of the way, and when God won, Jonah complained all the more! Who wants to be like him? Yet so often in our walk with God, we are every bit the Jonah and less the James and John. We want God to work on our terms rather than for us to work on His! And, in spite of our attitudes, in spite of our discomforts, He is still able to accomplish His purposes. No matter how much we fight, how much we kick, how much we scream against what He intends, He will still accomplish all that He wants to accomplish. We can either be willing, loving participants, or we can suffer the just punishments of our Father in heaven.

     Think of Jonah. For all his whining, all his anger, all of His response to God, why should his ministry ever be committed to the memory of Scripture? Further, given his responses, why should God have ever caused one of the largest cities in the world ever to hear the message of such an unwilling prophet? Yet that precisely informs us of God's mercy. He can take an unwilling servant and cause amazing miracles to occur. Jonah does nothing other than preach. By worldly standards, he certainly did not deserve to be remembered as the prophet that called Nineveh to repentance. Thankfully, and mercifully, God does not work by worldly standards. The same all-powerful God is exceedingly merciful. Though God might rightly be exceedingly angry with each one of us and allow us to perish in our sins, He chooses over and over to call us into right relationship with His through His Son.  And that, after all, is the true hope of the Gospel.  When we did not even realize we needed a Savior, still He came, still He called, still He redeemed!


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Flickers of light in a dark world . . .

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. -- As I shared with the second service this weekend, I was reminded of an early teaching my freshman year. We were reading something in Aristotle (probably his Politics), when one of my classmates commented to our professor that Aristotle was just like Hobbes or Locke (whichever it was, they go together in my mind like the Captain & Tenille or Starsky & Hutch or Abbott & Costello). Dr. Arieti, in all seriousness and solemnity, agreed with the young student. "Aristotle," he said, "was an anticipatory echo of (whichever political philosopher of whom the student had spoken)." Anticipatory echo? "Yes, an anticipatory echo is when someone has a great idea, but someone uses it much earlier in history. For example, this philosopher had a great idea, and Aristotle simply used that idea of his 2000 prior to his life."

Why bring up the anticipatory echo? As I was searching for a a pastoral need this week, I was reading commentators. I was somewhat bemused at the number of commentators who seemed to grasp the political savviness of Paul vis-a-vi more modern political philosophers, such as the famous Hobbes and Locke. "All things are lawful for me" seems to have been a slogan of the people in the church at Corinth. Maybe it was a bumper sticker that they placed next to their magnetic fish signs on their ox carts. Apparently, they had grasped an idea that they were no longer slaves to the law, but their understanding, as is ours, was simply distorted. Who can say? After all, this is the church that did not condemn a leader for sleeping with his father's wife! But many of the commentators seemed amazed that Paul could grasp such an understanding without the foundations of modern political thought.

Yet, Paul picks up on that slogan and, in an amazing twist, reminds them of their obligation and of what ought to be their governing ethic. Paul recognizes that we cannot all purportedly be absolutely free. If everyone were free, none would be, because everyone would be threatened by the freedoms of others. Put another way, Paul had a wonderful grasp of the Incredibles. Near the end, when the villain thinks he has done away with Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and the kids, he tells them that he will sell his gizmos to all the regular people so that they can be super heroes, too. "And once everyone is super," he thunders, "then no one will be." Paul reminds his readers at Corinth and us of this eternal truth later espoused by Disney Pictures (another anticipatory echo). If everyone is free, then none really are, at least not in the sense that the world understands it.

Paul substitutes freedom with beneficial, and look at the resulting switch. Can we do anything without fear, if we are Christians? Absolutely, Paul would say. Christ has died for all sins, so in a sense, we can do anything. But, as Paul reminds us in this section, we have a Lord. The disciples of Christ were bought with a price. They (and we) owe their (our) freedom to Jesus, who purchased their (our) salvation. Consequently, their (our) lives ought to reflect the thankfulness of a purchased salvation by imitating the life of our Savior.

The past few weeks, we have been looking at the ideas of manifestation (Epiphany) and baptism. We have heard teachings such as "dying to self," and "raised to new life in Christ." If those words are not manifested in our lives, as Christians, then they are just empty words. They lack any real power. They lack any evidence of transformative grace in our life. You and I are called to lives that reflect Christ's work for us. We are called, by virtue of our baptism and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, to live a life that glorifies Christ. And through that resulting lives, others will be drawn to His saving embrace. We are free to do what we want, but we are called to want what our Lord Jesus wants. We are called, as Christians, to examine whether our action are beneficial to others. Does what I am doing usher in the Kingdom for another life? -- that, according to Paul, ought to be our governing ethic. That, according to Paul, ought to be the question we ask of ourself in whatever we do.

Until we lay down the entirety our lives before the throne of God, we have no real freedom. We each suffer for wants and perceived needs. How many of us wander whether we can pay our bills, as if God does not understand our needs and does not meet His promises? How many of us are tempted to take (steal) a few things from work to supplement what we think we deserve in pay? How many of us, when confronted by a family member who loves to fight with us, join in the fight by picking at them, too? How many of us are given eyes to see a need or ears to hear of a need, and assume that someone else will meet it? How many of us understand before we act that what we are going to do is wrong, and then we do it anyway? The list can go on and on because, as Paul understood quite well, all of humanity is quite selfish. We are too much in the world. We are, far too often, of the world.

Yet, Jesus came that we might be truly free. He came and lived, and died, and rose that we might have true freedom, eternal freedom. And it is only through an imitation of His life that we can begin to be transformed. Is it easy? Absolutely not. Is it possible? With God, all things are possible? Even you and I can be changed. A penitent heart, a willing spirit, that is all He demands of us. Even you and I can be transformed into the faintest shadow, the barest imitation of our Lord. And yet, in a world so full of darkness, in a world so full of selfishness, even the merest flicker of light can illumine others. You were bought with a price. Show forth God's glory, then, in how you live your bodily life.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Pools of Water

     Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water. As I mentioned to the congregations present this weekend, I had a hard time discovering a collective need in our readings this past week. I found plenty of words for myself and for individual situations of parishioners, but it was more of a buffet than a feast. So, I tried to take some time away. Of course, as people came to talk to me, I realized how much we each individually seemed to be suffering. Some are worried about their financial well-being. Others were worried about their physical well-being and are confronted with some scary diseases and prognoses. A few were upset about old wounds. The holidays can often do that to us because no one knows our wounds and pressure points better than our families. Some, of course, were worried for Karen and the kids. Some were worried for the mission of St. Alban's. And a tapestry was woven before my eyes.

     So many times we get deceived by the secular world about the meaning of the Christmas season. A number of people were concerned how family members would react to less money being spent on gifts, less travel, less things. And, all of us love to show loved ones how much we care for them, how much we love them, so the gift-giving in and of itself is not bad. But when we as Christians begin to feel bad about the season, we need to re-examine our motivations and feelings.

     The joy of Christmas for us ought to be that we are reminded that God became man. He became one of us! Rather than existing "out there" in terms of time and space, He chose to dwell among us. He shared our joys, our sorrows, our fears, our hopes. He did not have to do this, but He did it out of love for us. You see, you and I cannot enjoy the awe and wonder of Christmas without the implicit understanding that this beautiful babe will grow to walk the road to Calvary. His Incarnation makes possible His death and Resurrection and, as the Prayer Book reminded us yesterday, our possibility to share in "the divine life of Him who humbled Himself to share our humanity." And, for all the glorious wonder of Christmas, much of our work is in the desolate valleys of life.

     You and I are called to bear crosses for His glory. We are called to die to self that we may live in Christ and so witness the love of God which knows no bounds. You and I are commanded to be His hands, His feet, His voice in the desolate places of this world. And we can walk those valleys, those desolate places confident in our faith that we do not walk alone and secure in the knowledge that He has walked there ahead of us.

     Think of our reading from Matthew this weekend. Is there a less likely place that God's Son should have gone than Egypt? Egypt was where God's people had been enslaved. Egypt was where God's people had been chained by Pharaoh. And, still, God sends the Holy family to that very place. Imagine the response to this part of the story. The nation that oppressed the ancestors of God's people was the nation where God's Son was sent to preserve His life? You have got to be kidding! And, yet, looks what happens.

     Certainly the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is full of symbolism. Jesus is obviously meant to remind us of Moses. Herod should no doubt remind us of Pharaoh. The death of the Innocents reminds us of Pharaoh's opposition to God's chosen people. Yet, the comparison is shadowy. Jesus is far above Moses. Jesus frees God's people from a punishment worse than enslavement. Jesus acts as the Son when Israel so often fails in its obligations and duties as a son of God. But Jesus is sent to the very place that many would not want to have gone, and He returns to save His God's people. The desolate valley has become a spring of life.

     You and I living on this side of the cross, on this side of the Incarnation, can look at life's desolate valleys with confidence. Yes, the journey will be painful. Yes, the journey may be tiring. Yes the journey may require sacrifice. But the promise is that there are pools of water in the valleys. We can face untimely deaths knowing that the end of life as we know it is merely a comma and not a period. We can face a disease knowing that the Healer can heal all diseases. We can look at old wounds recognizing the wounds He bore for the sake of all of us. We can face financial insecurity confident that He will provide as He has so many times before. And we can walk those valleys where He has placed us knowing that they, too, can be conquered just as He conquered death. And we can do all this with joy! If He is risen, if His story is true, we have no reason to fear anything this world throws at us. We have no reason not to expect to conquer in His name.

     And who better to face those valleys in His name than you? Each of us has been shaped by our walk with Him for particular ministry in His name. Who better to show His empathy than one who has experienced His grace in a particular situation? It is one thing for us to speak about God's redemption, but to speak to how He has redeemed our lives provides a testimony and joy that cannot be ignored by another. It can be rejected or accepted, but it cannot be ignored. You may hate living with a disease, but who better to talk of His strength and His grace in such a situation with another afflicted by the same disease? You may hate financial insecurity, but who better to testify to God's provision than one who has experienced His provision in the darkest moments of life? You may hate death, but who better to testify to His power over death than one who can make an alleluia at the grave? Yes, brothers and sisters, there is a lovely promise in the beauty of Silent Night. Before we ever get to experience that beauty and that peace, however, we must first walk the road to Calvary and throw ourselves at His merciful feet. And then, when that transformation truly begins, when we realize that we have been made a son or daughter by adoption, then we can experience the true joy of the season and face the valleys of life with the ability to see His pools.