Sunday, July 16, 2017

Models for what?

PROPERS:          PROPER 10, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 GENESIS 25:19-34

ONE SENTENCE:        It seems that the key component in relationship to God is `        not holiness of life as much as faith.

            Over the last few weeks – and in the coming weeks, too – we have heard stories about the patriarchs from the Book of Genesis.

            You may or may not have gotten the message:  These folks were interesting – not perfect at all.

            Today we have the story of the birth of Jacob… and of his manipulating of the birthright from his brother Esau.  This quid-pro-quo – trading birthright for food – is typical of their relationship.

            We have now seen the patriarchs… Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

            Abram – called out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to leave his people behind and travel to a land that God would show him.  Under a starlit sky, God makes a covenant with Abram.  Even though he has no children at an advanced age, God tells him that his descendants will number as the stars.

He later, of course, was renamed Abraham – the patriarch of the patriarchs. He is also told by the desert God he encounters, by your name all nations will bless themselves.

            Then we have Isaac – son of Abraham, nearly sacrificed by his father.  Other than being duped by his son, Jacob, and claiming to a king that his wife was actually his sister, Isaac is unremarkable.  He is primarily a connective patriarch – serving as a link between his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob.

            Finally, there is Jacob – the third of the patriarchs –  the most interesting.  His was a life of subterfuge and duplicity.  As we saw in the first lesson, from his birth he supplanted his older brother Esau.  He traded stew for Esau’s birthright.

Later, assisted by his mother, he will manipulate his father into giving him the patriarchal blessing, which was due his brother.  He was crafty in his dealings with his uncle, Laban.  And he ultimately took the name of Israel, after wrestling with God, a name that means “the one who strives with God.”

            It is from these three patriarchs that the 12 tribes of Israel come.  And if you follow the story closely, Abraham is the father of the other Arab people, through his relationship with slave-girl Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael – the ancestor of the Arab nations.

            So, I guess you could say we can blame everything on Abraham.

            Each of these men – these three patriarchs – had multiples spouses and concubines.  Each had many children.  But we – in the Judeo-Christian tradition – recollect only the three, and Jacob’s 12 legitimate heirs.

            These three men – blemished as they are – are the foundations of our faith.

            What does that say to us?

            Why do we remember them if they are not models for us – if we are not meant to emulate them?

            Well… we are meant to emulate them.  The challenge is how.

            Let me be clear:  We are not called to have multiple partners at the same time, generating multiple offspring.

            We are not called to send our children into exile in the Wilderness, as Abraham did with Hagar and Ishmael.

            We are not called to place our children on a rock to be sacrificed.

            We are not to favor one child over another.

            We are not to defraud our family members.

            There are numerous other things that the patriarchs did that we should not emulate, but that is for another time.

            There is, however, a passage early in the story of the patriarchs that is very important. It is important to our understanding of these stories.

            In Genesis, chapter 15, we are told that God renews his promises to Abram. The key words are in verse 6:

“And [Abram] believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

            What exactly was it that God reckoned as righteousness?  What was it that stood out in the lives of the patriarchs – such as they were – that was so commendable?  What was it that should impact and inform our lives?
Abram trusted in God’s promises to him – promises that included descendants that would number as the stars, even though he was childless with his wife; and that those descendants would lead to all nations blessings themselves by their relationship to him.
Abram trusted God – even though he had no evidence to confirm those promises.  Trust – a synonym for faith. That faith – that trust – was seen as righteousness.

            Much later, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews would write this definition of faith:

11:1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith* our ancestors received approval.

            The key aspect of the patriarchal narrative we need to keep in mind is faith.  We know beyond a shadow of doubt – through stories recorded in scripture – that Abram, Isaac, and Jacob were not perfect people.  Far from it.  But they were people of faith. They are exemplars of trust in God.

            You have heard me say this before, but I believe that if I say it a few more times, the message might get absorbed:  Perfection is not the goal.  It is not even attainable.  Faith is the goal.  Trusting God is that which is “reckoned as righteousness.”

            The gift of faith does not mean that we go about living our lives, however we wish.  Faith is meant as a transformational agent – something that courses through our being to make us a New Creation. That faith will be reckoned as righteousness.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Part of Who I Am

PROPERS:          PROPER 9, YEAR A   
TEXT:                 ROMANS 7:15-25a

ONE SENTENCE:        As Paul notes, the human condition is part of our makeup; our lives require deep reflection and self-awareness.     

            It is likely a challenging thought to consider the possibility that the Apostle Paul might reflexively – even automatically – do that which is wrong.  He owns-up to that inherent self-tendency in the second lesson today.

            You have heard me say it:  Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the greatest bit of Christian theology we encounter in scripture. This passage does its part to add to that truth. Hear his words again:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” 
          With that thought it mind, let me take you back to an important experience in my understanding of that passage.
          At the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2003, the deputies were being called to vote on the election of Canon Gene Robinson to be the new bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire.  As you may recall, he was the first openly gay person elected bishop in the Episcopal Church.
          There was much soul-searching going on on the floor of General Convention.  I took counsel with my good friend, boss, and bishop, Duncan Gray, III.
          I shared with him a thought that I had: “Each deputy should vote his or her conscience. There is no wrong time to do the right thing.”  His response challenged me: “Remember, your conscience may be fallen, too.”  In other words, one’s own conscience might well be afflicted by the human condition – known as sin – too.
          That insight makes Paul’s statement even more important and piercing.
          Paul is telling us that the human condition – our nature as broken, flawed human beings – is part of who we are.  It is woven, like a cyst, around our spirit, its tendrils tied inextricably to our way of living.
          Paul goes on to share the inner turmoil he feels around this state of being:
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

            Paul knows that there is nothing he can do about this condition.  He is hard-wired as a human being to function in such a way – that despite his best intentions, he cannot always do what is right.

            Each of us has been hard-wired differently.  We were brought-up in a certain environment.  Our ways of seeing the world and perceiving others are different.  We have differing levels of trust. Our ways of relating to one another and the world are unique.  The lenses through which we see the world around us are as varied as there are many of us.

            So, we make differing decisions.  We act in ways that may be unique to us.  Even if we make, measured, thoughtful, reflected decisions.

            I am a believer in an approach called systems theory.  It is a concept that was first described by Dr. Murray Bowen, a Tennessee family practitioner who ultimately became a psychiatrist.

            One of his tenets was that emotional maturity gives us more options for responding to situations and decisions.  His thoughts could be described in this way: If we are fragile, insecure and anxious, we are much more likely to react to a situation.  If we are secure, feel safe, and self-aware, we are much more likely to respond to the same situation.” React vs. Respond.

            I would suggest there is a spiritual analogue to this teaching, and it fits hand-in-glove to Dr. Bowen’s theory. It is this: The more spiritually mature we are, the more likely we are to perceive and act on the right course of action.

            So, spiritual self-awareness as well as personal self-awareness are important components in our taking the steps that are right in the eyes of faith and of our God.

            Paul almost certainly knew that, in some form or in some way.  But he knew that the human condition – our tendency to act in a self-centered way, or a destructive manner – was always present. And despite our best intentions and motivations, we will fall short of perfection.

            Here is what he said:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

            Yes, it is ultimately the grace of God which steps in.  It is the grace of God which can fill-in the holes which we leave in the wake of our human imperfections.

            It is the grace of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, that can take our broken, flawed, imperfect human lives and make us something that we could never be on our own.