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 . . .



Monday, February 16, 2015

Grant that we may be changed into His likeness . . .

     It may seem a bit weird that we jump ahead some seven chapters from last week and focus our attention this week on the Transfiguration just as we are about to enter the season of Lent.  After all, we have spent five weeks reminding ourselves that we are called to pray during the season of Epiphany that Christ will be manifest in our own lives so that we will be a light to the world.  Wednesday, I will call us all to observe a holy Lent through fasting, prayer, and the practice of additional spiritual disciplines.  What did the lectionary editors have in mind when they put the Transfiguration here?  Why on earth do we pay attention to it now of all times?  There is a day in August when we celebrate the Transfiguration, so why do we need to remind ourselves of it now?  Our Collect might give us a bit of insight as to why we focus our attention on the Transfiguration before plunging into Lent.

     O God, who before the passion of Your only-begotten Son revealed His glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of His countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into His likeness from glory to glory . . . Does the prayer of Archbishop Cranmer give you more insight as to what is going on today?  We have spent five weeks reminding ourselves that we are called to manifest Christ’s glory in the world around us, that all those in our daily life and work will be drawn into His saving embrace.  Beginning Wednesday, of course, we will begin a holy Lent.  We will spend a season of the church reminding ourselves of our individual and corporate sins, our individual and corporate need of forgiveness, and of our Lord’s willingness to atone for our sins, that we might have eternal life.  In the vernacular of the 60’s and 70’s, things are about to get “heavy,” culminating in our Lord’s death on the Cross and the seeming victory of evil over good, of darkness over light, and of death over life.

     Who does not like mountaintop experiences?  How many of us would prefer to live our lives of faith without suffering, obviously blessed, and secure in the knowledge of our redemption?  Perhaps you have been blessed to have a disease that doctors could not solve mysteriously leave your body.  Perhaps, when you were struggling with questions of provision, you received a timely refund check, a bank error in your favor, or a gift that met the need.  Maybe you were told you were unable to conceive children of your own, only to find yourself blessed with a baby.  Maybe you longed for a convenient parking place and, just as you prayed to God, the driver of the car in the perfect spot ran out to leave and give you that long-for spot.  Perhaps you have been the instrument for someone else.  Maybe you have prayed for someone sick and seen them healed.  Maybe you have prayed for provision for someone close to you, and you have seen their need met.  Perhaps you have prayed for the softening of hearts in a loved one’s relationship and have seen the Holy Spirit work in ways no less miraculous than the chariots and horses of fire from our OT reading today.  I see a few nods.  We love it, don’t we, when God answers prayers in ways that match our desire?  We love it even more when the one being prayed for, the one being blessed, is ourselves.  We love the mountain top experiences of our faith.

     You know, in many ways we are not at all unlike the Apostles whom Jesus chose.  In many ways, we are not unlike those men whom Christ selected to be the first bishops, the first overseers, of the Church.  Peter, James, and John wanted to stay on that mountain.  Peter is given the voice to utter what they desire, but make no mistake.  They wanted to stay on that mountaintop with their Rabbi, with the Lawgiver, and with the Prophet.  They were in the company of the spiritual Hall of Fame.  Only Father Abraham could possibly add any value to this experience in their eyes.  So terrified are they in the presence of these spiritual elites that they ask to erect a tent.  They ask to make three dwellings because it was good to be there, on the mountaintop, basking in the glory and blessings of the Lord!

     Their life and questions will teach us later that they are much like us.  We do not read the next verse, but it tells us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus meant by the words “rising from the dead.”  Upon their descent back into the valley, we see their failure to cast out a demon in Christ’s name.  We see them arguing over who is the greatest disciple.  We see them trying to forbid one outside their group from casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  We see them rebuking parents for bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing.  We see them reminding Jesus they gave up everything to follow Him, as if He was unaware of what they had done, walking away from net-minding or lounging under a tree, when He called.  We even see them asking to sit at His right hand and at His left, thinking to earn some temporal reward and power for their willingness to follow.  The love the mountaintops, but have no desrie to labor in the valleys.

     The problem, at least from the human perspective, is that God’s glory is best demonstrated in suffering.  The Apostles and early disciples, just like us, want so hard to get to the glory and power part.  Who wants to suffer?  Who wants to pick up a cross?  And yet, with God, suffering is the path that leads to glory.  We see it in the work in person of our Lord Christ, in the work of His Apostles, and even in our own lives.  Put a different way: when do we, when do you best manifest God’s glory to the world around you?  When do people ask you for an accounting of your faith?  When things are going great in our lives, do people ever challenge us about our faith?  No.  It is in the trials of life that our faith seems most vulnerable and most appealing to those around us.  How can you believe in God if He gave you cancer?  How can you believe in God if you are hungry?  How can you believe in God if you are poor?  We believe precisely because we understand how God works.  God uses our suffering to teach others about Him, just as He used our Lord’s suffering to redeem us.

     We love to remind ourselves that we are His adopted children, that we are entitled to the first-born double share of inheritance.  But, and here is the heavy “but” that confuses the world, ought we not expect to share, to inherit as it were, a portion of suffering in our lives?  After all, if His blessed Son suffered for our sakes, does it not make sense that God might use our suffering to reach into the lives of others?  Might He not use our struggles with disease, with privation, with hurt, with death, or with anything against which we seem powerless to fight on our own to manifest His healing grace, His power to redeem, in the world?  Prosperity gospellers love to proclaim the glory of God and our share in them.  The problem is that God leads us back down into the valleys from the mountaintops and calls us to pick up our crosses and follow Him.  Put in the words of Paul, before we can share in His glory, we must share in His death and suffering.

     Over the season of Lent we will focus a great deal on our sins, on our suffering, and on our need for a Redeemer.  We will speak of how Jesus atones for our sins, redeems our suffering, and reconciles us to God.  But before we head into those “heavy” discussions, we remind ourselves of the end.  For just a moment, before we head into the shadows and sufferings and valley of life, we bask in the glory and radiance of our Lord.  We remind ourselves that one day, one glorious day in the future when all of this has passed, we might well share in His glory, and be changed into His likeness, transfigured, and conversing with the saints who have come before and after, and dwelling with Him for all eternity!  For just a moment, we remind ourselves that the end makes the journey worth any hardship, so long as we bear it and share in it to His glory, mindful of the promise He has made.



Thursday, February 12, 2015

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

     Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Those who have made it to my blog and those who pay attention sometimes to my prayer before the sermon understand that I have a great fondness for Isaiah.  It probably comes a no surprise to them that I chose to preach on Isaiah the first time it came up in our readings together, though some of you sorely tempted me to look at Mark today.  Before I tease a few of you, let me make myself clear:  I love, absolutely love, when people take the time to come in or call and really discuss any sermon or lecture that I give.  I know it drives some of my Roman counterparts nuts, but we Episcopalian/Anglicans like a good argument.  For all the wrestling we do with God, Jacob should be our patron saint!  I tell people that it is sometimes challenging to get a point or two across with no misunderstanding in only fifteen or twenty minutes.  We come from different experiences, we have different foundational understandings, we priests can get caught up in stuff that bothers us but not our congregations, and things like that.  When sermons make sense or are considered powerful, it simply means the Holy Spirit showed up!  When they don’t make sense, there is a problem.  As a pastor, the only way I can ever address a problem is to learn that there is a problem.  Sometimes the fault lies with the priest and his or her communication or discernment; sometimes, though, the listener gets a spiritual wedgie for a good reason.  Our conversations, I hope, help me to express better what I was trying to say and for those of you visiting to understand better what I think God is saying to you—at this time in your life, at this place in your spiritual journey with Him.
     That all being said, and y’all just knew there had to be a “but,” several of you came by to try and figure out what I meant by spiritual warfare in light of the reading from Mark last week.  A couple were disappointed to learn that I believe there is a battle raging around us that we usually cannot see.  Most, though, were simply trying to reconcile what they had been taught about such things with the fact that Jesus sure seemed to teach the demon as real last week when He cast it out.  As you all are getting to know me and how I work, and as some of your chuckles acknowledged, I was sorely tempted to do another sermon on spiritual warfare this week on Mark.  Sorely tempted.  It’s in there, right?  Those interested can just visit again this week for round 2!
     Isaiah’s passage represents some of his best poetry in the entire book.  Those who have studied the book understand that it is rather large, comprising some 66 chapters!  And, in the infinite wisdom of our lectionary editors, we jump right into the fray in chapter 40.  It is actually a rather good place in which to jump as we begin to wind up this season of Epiphany.  Isaiah is speaking to a group whose Exile is about to end.  Israel has spent the better part of fifty years in Exile.  World powers of the time, Persia, Babylon, and Assyria, had taken their turns beating up on Israel and leading the people, God’s supposed people, into Exile.  I have explained how many in the ANE thought that events on earth reflected the cosmic battles of the heavens.  To any discerning mind, Yahweh lost a big battle to the gods of Persia, Babylon, and Assyria.  His holy city was in ruins.  His Temple was torn down completely.  The vineyards and farms lay fallow.  His people had been carried off into Exile and slavery.  If Yahweh really was whom Israel claimed Him to be, they would be resting comfortably in their own homes, in their own lands, and worshiping Him in His Temple!
     We understand that kind of mockery, right?  Have you ever heard someone question whether “your God” was loving and just and good?  People will wonder why there is cancer, natural disasters, crime, racism, all kinds of evil if God is really good.  To better challenge us, they will often point out His perceived shortcomings in our lives.  If your God loves you, why do you have financial problems?  If your God loves you, why do you struggle with disease?  If your God loves you, why does He let people stab you in the back at work?  If your God loves you, why are your relationships so screwed up?  And, let’s face it, we earn many of those challenging questions.  How many times have you seen Christians declare they don’t worry about such things because they have found Jesus?  Yes, our world is not much different than the world in which Isaiah ministered.
     You would think, would you not, that the ending of the Exile would take care of all the problems facing Israel?  God’s people are about to head home!  All their problems are solved, right?  As Isaiah will mention immediately following our passage, there is a lot of work to be done.  Jerusalem must be re-settled and rebuilt.  Farms must be plowed.  The Temple must be rebuilt.  Being returned to the Promised Land, really, is just the beginning of their work.  It is so bad that when the Exile is officially ended, the Jews will bless those who make the choice to return and do the work.  Israel blessed those who left the Exile first!  To complicate matters a bit more, the rebuilding will be but a shadow of the former glory.  Ezra/Nehemiah will tell us that the elderly will wail over the size of the new Temple because it is nothing like the Temple that was torn down.  So there will be this blending of youthful excitement over the accomplishment and elderly rue over failed comparisons.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?
     In many ways, our baptism inaugurates a similar set of emotions in us, particularly if we are engaged in what other denominations call “believer baptism.”  There is excitement over the impending rite.  Families and friends will often come to the service to celebrate and show their support.  We expect things to be different when that water is poured over our head or we find ourselves immersed in His death and raised into His Resurrection.  But in many ways life seems to go on just as it did before.  Diseases still assault us.  Friends still betray or hurt us.  Money remains an issue.  Even if we really pour ourselves into discipleship, what happens?  The more we learn about God, the more we learn how far short we have fallen!  Think of the writings of your favorite saint or saints.  You admire them and their life; they probably taught you that they were undeserving of God’s grace, that they had doubts, that there was still a lot of work to be done.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?
     Isaiah’s message to Israel is a great reminder for us in Nashville.  We live in a world which struggles to convince us that we are crazy to believe in God.  And even if there is a God, we are nuts to think He gives a whit about us.  Isaiah captures that tension between the transcendence of God and the Immanence of God quite well.  God is so big that He stretches the heavens over Himself like a canopy.  His knowledge is such that he can name the stars.  His existence is such that even the rulers of the great empires wither like stubble at a blast from His nostrils.  We, human beings, must appear as little more than grasshoppers before His might and majesty.  We hear and see the same arguments all the time.  The Hubble Telescope is pointed at a dark square inch of the sky and what does it see?  Hundreds of galaxies!  Each with millions and billions of stars.  Sociologists tell us that more human beings live on planet earth today than have lived combined in history.  Nature, if you have friends along the coasts or living in the Northeast, seems out of control.  And we have the audacity to proclaim God!  And we proclaim not just a god, but The God who loves us, who came down from heaven and saved us!  We proclaim God who holds all of that and even that unseen in His hand!
     Like Israel, we need to be reminded about the character of God.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard? We gather each week to remind ourselves, through the Liturgy of the Word, of the saving, wonderful acts He has done.  We gather each week to remind ourselves, in the meal we call the Eucharist, that God in His transcendence came down from heaven to incarnate a baby who would grow into the full stature of the man, the Adam, and obediently go to the Cross to save us.  God is truly with us in ways ancient Israel could never have hoped or expected when they were in Exile.  Unlike ancient Israel, you and I know, know, that the chains of sin and death which bound us have been broken.  Death might reach out to grasp us, but it can no more hold us than can a pregnant woman stop the contractions of labor!  He has claimed us.  He has placed His seal upon us.  He has sent us out into the world, to use Epiphany language, as manifestations of His love, His power, His hope.  Like those returning to ancient Jerusalem, the task at hand is of immense size and scope.  The hungry must be fed, the poor must be clothed, the broken need to be healed, the prisoners must be set free.  Yet the Lord who gives us these tasks, the Lord who assigns us as workers, understands the size and scope and, even better, the need.  And for that specific work He wants accomplished, He sends you and He sends me.
     Were it not for those saving works, were it not for His voice, we would have no way of knowing that the God who created all that is, seen and unseen, cares about us.  Isaiah is correct to point out that our significance should be like insects.  Time and time again God has proven we are of infinitely more value and notice than an insect.  And through the words of Isaiah, He is reminding us of that truth yet again.  We may feel insignificant to the problem when sent by Him to feed the hungry in His name, we may feel utterly powerless when sent by Him to speak words of comfort into the lives of those who feel anything but special and loved by God, we may feel impotent when called to face any of the darknesses that try again and again to overcome His light in our lives, yet it is God who sends and God who equips us to manifest His glory in the world.  God, throughout history, gives to His people whatever is needed to accomplish His will.
     We spend a great deal of time in the season of Epiphany discussion our baptism, and rightly so.  But as we begin to wind up the season and head to Lent, we are reminded, for just a moment, of the glory of our inheritance.  Each week when we gather around that table, we eat of His flesh and drink of His blood mindful that we are His adopted children.  That meal, brothers and sisters, is part of His pledge to us, a constant reminder that He wins in the end.  I wonder, however, whether we consider the scope of the pledge He has made to us?  The God who created all things and who sustains all things, has promised to share with us His eternal glory!  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  God desires nothing more than to share with those who are weak and weary of His strength.  God desires nothing more than to share with those who are faint and fall exhausted of His renewal.  God desires nothing more than to share with those who are dying of His eternal life.  God desires nothing more than to manifest through you, you who are tired, you who are wearied, you who are exhausted, His glory in the world around us.  And so He drafts men and women like you and me, ordinary, mistake-prone, amateurish, and whatever other weakness you would use to describe yourself, and uses us to accomplish great things in His name!  That God who transcends time and space knows us.  He knows our weaknesses.  He knows our failures.  He knows our sins.  He knows our needs.  Better still, He has promised that whatever we ask in His Son’s name, to His glory and His honor, He will bestow upon us.  In that way He takes ordinary men and ordinary women, ordinary girls and ordinary boys, and makes saints in the lives of others.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?
     It is appropriate, as we begin to end this season and launch into Lent, that we remind ourselves of His promises and of His character.  We are, to use the language of Isaiah and Ezra, those who have agreed to lead others to the Promised Land.  We have, by virtue of our baptism and willingness to serve in His Name, committed ourselves to the growth of His kingdom.  Our thankful service in response to our own salvation is to walk in the shadows, to serve in the shadows, proclaiming His hope and His peace and His love to a world often deaf to His offer.  As He has throughout history, though, He promises that He will be with us, He will empower us, He will share His glory and power with us, that His will might be fulfilled.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  It is an amazing thing, a wondrous thing, is it not?  The God who fashioned all that you see, all that you know, has called you by name, just as He did those disciples on the shores of that sea.  Like them, He has promised you that you will accomplish great things, miraculous things, in His name.  And to make sure that you accomplish what He purposes, He has promised to share with you from all that He has!  And that is but one of the offers we have to those who use the scope and seeming power of the darkness to question or mock what we do!  Have you not heard?  Have you not seen?  Most of us gathered here have, and that is why we are here.  Our job, our commission, is to tell and to show that others might hear and know of His power and His love!


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Knowing versus knowledge of . . .

     I was torn this week between focusing on the Psalm and focusing upon the Gospel lesson from Mark.  For those attending for the first time, I have remarked on the challenge of trying to learn the habits, interests, sins, and the like of a new congregation in a very short time.  I was leaning toward the Psalm, simply because the Adult Bible Study, led by Larry and Tom, seems to be leaning to doing that book in the Bible next.  I thought I might help do some foundational work for them and remind you that God has something to say to you through that wonderful book.  Then I had the chance to seek advice from Gregg, our Treasurer.  I asked him how quickly he thought we would be starting the Psalms in the class.  Gregg gave that thoughtful look, considered all the variables he knew existed, and then answered. “2018.  2017 if we really push hard through Colossians and don’t have any distractions.”  So, I used Gregg’s advice to discern that I should be preaching on Mark.

     The passage from Mark comes immediately after Jesus has called His Twelve.  As I mentioned earlier last month, Mark loves to use the word “immediately.”  In our passage alone, Mark uses the word three times.  By the time one gets done reading Mark, one feels as if he or she has been sprinting a marathon.  Jesus has called His Twelve, which in itself was unusual because disciples usually sought out rabbis, and now He takes them to synagogue to worship.  Mark gives no account of what scrolls were read or what Jesus taught.  People are amazed, however, as He taught as one having authority.

     Such a description might be difficult for us to understand.  But the difference is the difference of knowledge about and knowing God.  The rabbis and scribes and priests taught using citations or footnotes, though their teaching was more oral than written.  Whenever the rabbis or scribes taught something, they would cite all those impressive gentlemen (sorry, ladies, no women served in those positions) who agreed with them.  Picture the character played by Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham.  She was always pulling quotes out of the air and then citing the author.  William Blake.  Robert Frost.  Who cares?  It is a horrible way to teach and to learn simply citing someone else’s opinion, whether that opinion is in the mainstream of accepted thought or not.  In many ways, though this would be a lecture for another day, such a way of teaching is evidence of dead knowledge, of inaccessible knowledge, of simply knowing about a subject.

     Jesus, of course, strolled into the synagogue that Sabbath and began to teach with a distinct advantage.  He knew the heart and mind of God in ways the scribes and rabbis and priest never could.  As one person of the Trinity, Jesus was uniquely equipped to teach those who listened to Him.  Jesus knew the mind and heart of the Father.  He did not have to examine what this rabbi or that scribe or that priest had to say about God.  Mark knows this.  So do we as readers.  What happened during Mark’s account of our Lord’s baptism?  We were made privy to that private conversation between the Father and the Son where the Father said to Jesus, “You are My Son, whom I love.  With You I am well-pleased.”  We know where Jesus gets His authority.  He is God.  He is God’s Anointed.

     It is, however, not yet time for the world to know Jesus’ true identity, nor is the world ready to accept Him.  Not too surprisingly, an unclean spirit declares that it knows about Jesus, too.  And the unclean spirit wants to know what Jesus is going to do with all of them.  “Have you come to destroy us?”  In a different way, the unclean spirit has knowledge about God, but it does not know God.  It correctly identifies Jesus, but it is unwilling to bend the knee.  Jesus, of course, is not in Capernaum to tussle with demons.  He is not in Capernaum to identify His true purpose yet.  So He commands the demon to be silent and come out of the man.  And the demon obeys.  Those of us who know that Jesus derives His authority and power from God are not at all surprised by the result.  But the people who witness the event sure are surprised.  Jesus makes no big gestures; He does not invoke some flowery prayer.  Jesus simply commands the demon and it obeys.  Period.

     The people who witness the teaching in the synagogue and then the exorcism are simply amazed by what they have seen.  He teaches as one who possesses authority and even the demons bow to His command.  There is something unique about this son of a carpenter from Nazareth.  Something unique and powerful has come from Nazareth, even if Nathanael is unsure as to whether He is good.  It is also an interesting tension set up by the author Mark.  What two groups will be fighting Jesus the hardest during this Gospel account?  The Jewish authorities and the powers and principalities who seek to mislead people from God!  Towards the end of the book, it will appear that Satan and his minions and that the Jewish and Roman authorities have won.  This Man with authority will be nailed to a cross and put to death.  For three days, it will seem as if true power resides with them.  Then, in that unconquerable demonstration of power and authority, God will raise this Man from the dead, demonstrating to all who heard His teaching that He truly knew God.

     A number of you have commented to me after church, in Bible Study, in my office, and even via e-mail that I seem to be a bit fixated on our baptisms.  Part of the reason I may seem fixated on your and my baptism is because of the season.  Epiphany kicks off with the baptism of Jesus.  The rest of the season is spent reminding us of His manifestation in the world that rejects Him.  Baptism is important to us because we are baptized not only into His death, but into His Resurrection as well.  If we accept the significance of the sacrament, we have died to selves and struggle, with God’s grace, to live to His honor and His glory that others might be drawn into His kingdom.  Part of the reason we focus on baptism, you might say, is that we begin to want less knowledge about God and more to know God.  Baptism inaugurates that process by which we come to know our Lord better and more fuller.  To be sure, we will not know Him perfectly as did Jesus until He recreates us with His eyes, His ears, and His heart, but part of our struggle in our faith is the effort to get to know Him better and better each day.  How is this accomplished?

     For starters, we know we meet God each and every day in the Scriptures, right?  Why do you think we as good little Episcopalians/Anglicans read the Scriptures?  Do you think we like to snicker at the idea of people struggling to pronounce some of those names in there?  Do you think it is some method of indoctrination from which there is no escape?  No.  We encourage one another to read the Scriptures because it is in His holy Word that we learn who God is.  We learn from Jonah and a million other places that God is merciful and ready to turn aside from His wrath, eventually learning that His mercy is best demonstrated in the life and person of Jesus Christ.  We learn our Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and tons of other places in Scripture that our God is a deliverer, no matter the odds, eventually learning that His ability to deliver His people is best demonstrated in the work and person of Jesus Christ.  We learn from Scripture that what God values is not easily seen or heard, as evidenced by the movement of the Star in the eyes of the magi or the inward digesting of the angels’ message to the shepherds, but that nothing and no one escapes His penetrating gaze.  In short, we come to know God through our study of Scripture.  The details may change in our life from those recorded in Scripture, but because we know Him, we expect Him to act in our lives!

     How else do we move from a knowledge about God to know God?  Does the word prayer mean anything to you?  We are taught, repeatedly, that prayer is really divine communication, are we not?  We are real good at talking to God about our perceived needs and our perceived lacks.  Some of us have come to know Him a bit more and learn to be thankful and joyous in the face of answered prayer.  A few of us even learn to be silent and to listen for His voice.  But prayer is an activity which opens us up to the heart and mind of God.  I shared with you last week of how I prayed for evil people to be destroyed, only to be reminded that I, too, like the folks in Nineveh, once rejected God and rightly could be called evil.  Given some conversations with you this week, some of you understand all too well the nature of God’s grace.  Many of you remarked how prayer played a pivotal role in allowing you to come to that fuller understanding.  We should not be too surprised.  Did not our Lord often stop ministering and seek a place and time to pray?

     Lastly, how else do we come to know the heart and mind of God?  Who comes to dwell in our hearts when we are baptized?  Who bestows upon us those gifts He deems necessary that we have and utilize for His glory in our lives?  Who circumsizes our hearts and writes God’s torah on them?  Yes.  The Holy Spirit.  We focus so much on the baptized into His death and the idea of going to heaven that many of us forget that when we are baptized into His Resurrection, we are empowered by His Holy Spirit.  I see the squirming.  Yes, I understand that, for many of us, the Holy Spirit is the challenging Person of the Trinity.  But we are promised by our Lord Himself that when we are baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we will be empowered to accomplish things greater even than did He while on earth.  The Holy Spirit bestows upon us gifts, charisms, which are unique to us and necessary for us to manifest God in the world around us.  One might claim, by virtue of our baptism and by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, we become authorities with respect to our gifts.  Some of us may get one charism; others may get more.  The focus, though, is never on the charisms but on their use to His honor and His glory.  But think for a second of the significance of that event.  You and I, by virtue of our baptism, have been entrusted with a gift necessary to glorify our Lord and to proclaim His kingdom.  Is it not a wonder that the world does not turn and embrace such a gift?  Such opportunity?  Yet we who know about God, how often do we quit trying to know God?

     I was put in mind of the practical difference between a knowledge of God and knowing God this week as I ministered with members of our congregation.  Jerry dragged me over to St. Luke’s and even arranged a tour for me.  I asked my guide how we at Advent could better support them in their efforts to serve people in our community of Nashville.  In our discussion about the emergency food pantry, he pointed out the cases of macaroni and cheese.  Now, before I say what I am going to say, I used to love those boxes.  They were an awesome after school snack when I was a kid.  I have no doubt, too, that for many families, those boxes mean the difference between eating and not.  Anyway, they had cases of mac & cheese.  They had little milk.  And they had precious little other diversity to assist those in need.  I have no doubt that those who receive the boxes will be thankful.  And those who have fed the homeless with mac & cheese boxes have demonstrated a knowledge of God by giving a gift of food.  But I wonder.  How many of those who gave mac & cheese boxes would serve Jesus mac & cheese from a box were He to show up for dinner at their house tonight?  Some would, because that would be all they could afford.  But how many of us grab a box or ten and then pat ourselves on the back for being “good” Christians because we have fed the hungry in our midst?

     Knowing God means we understand what He means when He tells us to feed Him in them and them in Him.  You and I are called to feed the hungry as if it were our Lord who was hungry.  We see Him in them and serve accordingly, and we see them in Him and serve them thankfully and gratefully, knowing He served and loved us first. 

     Or consider the clothes.  It is a similar problem.  People give things to St. Luke’s that they would never wear.  The volunteer staff spends all days Mondays sorting and combing through the donations.  Those that can be sold are priced and put out on the floor.  Those that cannot are offered to Goodwill and other charities.  To be sure, those with no money for clothes in this cold weather are thankful for our rags.  But, here again is the hard question: would those rags be what we would give our Lord were He to show up on our doorstep naked, in need of clothes?  If doing to the least of these means we have done unto Him, is that not precisely what many of us have done?  Knowledge of God versus knowing God.  Are you beginning to see the difference?

     Although we do not think of it often in these terms, when we skimp, when we act as if we have finite resources, we are testifying to the world around us that God has a lack, that God is a God of scarcity.  In Bible Study today were angry and upset about a commercial that will air today showing God without a charged cell phone battery.  But how many of us live our lives hoarding that which He has bestowed upon us?  How many of us, through our life and witness, testify that God does not have enough?  When we skimp what we feed the hungry in His name, when we skimp on the clothes we offer in His name, whenever we choose to deal with those suffering from mental illness or addiction like they are the cause of their problem, we are testifying as to whether we know God or just have knowledge about Him, whether He is the source of all things given us, or just a pretty good guy after whom we would do well to model our life.  When we skimp, we deny His power, His authority, and His love.

     Of course, I have left unaddressed, for the most part, the discussion of spiritual warfare in this pericope of Mark.  Mark is not a physician.  He is not misdiagnosing Tourette’s, addiction, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness.  He is making a theological claim.  There is an unclean spirit that has taken control of an unfortunate man, a man whom I might point out does not need to repent of the possession to Jesus.  Because of the possession, the man is unable to ask for aid.  The demon claims to know who Jesus is and asks if He has come to destroy them.  Whether the demon thinks it can fight against Jesus or is conceding that Jesus is its opposite is, in all reality, unimportant.  What is important is that Jesus has authority to silence the demon with a word and cast it out of the man’s body with just a word.  There is no green pea soup vomit as with the Exorcist.  There is no struggle in Jesus’ efforts or strain in His voice.  He commands; even the demon obeys.  The demon certainly has a knowledge of Jesus, but it does not want to know Him.

     Talking about spiritual warfare and demons is always dangerous in the Church.  It is a fine line to walk when speaking of them knowledgably.  CS Lewis once wrote that the Devil excels in either convincing well-meaning Christians that he and his minions do not exist or in convincing those well-meaning Christians that he and his minions are behind every evil.  They are in many ways a modern Scylla and Charybdis through which we must pass.  We ignore Satan or seek him far too often, either to our detriment.  Yet, in this passage and in others, Jesus treats the demons as real.  Paul treats them and the warfare in which they are engaged as very real.  We would do well to remember that powers and principalities and demons are struggling with us and those around us to steer us away from the Lord who loves us, who dies for us, and who has authority even over them.

     Do I believe that demons and powers and principalities exist and are in warfare against our Lord?  Absolutely.  Today is a perfect example.  Larry presented us with a commercial that will air during the Super Bowl that will suggest to the masses that God is bound by the laws of His own creation.  Given that 110 million souls or so will see the commercial, how many might be misled into believing God is not the Creator, not omnipotent, not able to overcome any technology we devise?  Worse, as one member of the group pointed out, can you imagine such a commercials getting through all the powers that be that treated Mohammed as weak?  As ineffective?  Speaking of those 110 million souls and the big game, how many will have skipped church today because they had to get ready for the party or watch every single minute of the pre-pre-pre-game specials rather than learn about the love of God?  Which will matter more in their lives?  Which will matter more for eternity?  Yes, there are powers and principalities and demons which wage war constantly against God and try and seduce us from following Him.  Sadly, they are far more effective than any of us would wish.

     But, and hear this but well, if God has given you eyes and ears and a heart to see and hear and understand the spiritual warfare going on around you or in the world at large, He has likely given you the means to combat that warfare in His name, to His glory.  Perhaps your combat will be done through prayer.  Maybe your combat will be done through conversation.  Can you imagine yourself at a party later today when someone remarks how the cell phone commercial captured how they see God?  All you need to do is speak the Word of truth, the Word of His creation into such nonsense, and the veil of darkness might life in their eyes.  Maybe, maybe your role is to be a bit more of an exorcist.  Maybe you know somebody suffering from an unclean spirit.  Maybe physicians and psychiatrists and psychologists are unable to diagnose the problem of someone you know and love.  Maybe your role is to cast out a demon into the eternal darkness in Christ’s name and to do so expectantly, with authority.  After all, those of us baptized into His Resurrection have been given power and authority to do great things in His name.  If spiritual warfare is real, it makes sense, does it not, that a couple of us have been given that power and that authority by the Maker of all things, seen and unseen, to free those oppressed and manifest His power and truth to a world starving and groping for such things!

     Brothers and sisters, how do you view your baptism?  Was it merely a ritual of water and words?  Or was it something far more mystical and infinitely more meaningful?  Was it merely a rite of passage that made people in your family happy, or was it your commitment to begin to learn to know your Lord who saved you?  If you take seriously the idea that you have been raised to new life in His Resurrection, then you, too, share in His authority.  By virtue of your undertaking to fulfill the oaths you made at your baptism, you have committed yourself to knowing God as a friend.  As you walk and study and pray with Him, He will disclose more and more of His heart and mind to you.  Better still, as you come to know Him better and better, and empowered through the Holy Spirit, you will be given power and authority to speak and to act in His Name.  People will say of you, “He/She speaks.  And with authority!  From where does he or she get this authority?”  Before long, if you are not too careful, you may be the light in the darkness that He calls each one of us to be, not just in this season we call Epiphany, but in all times and in all places of our lives.