Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Giving Some, Giving All

PROPERS:         PROPER 27, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 MARK 12:38-44

ONE SENTENCE:        The breach between hubris and God’s purpose is filled                                        with self-offering.      

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
  That mark our place; and in the sky
  The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
  Loved and were loved, and now we lie
      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
  The torch; be yours to hold it high.
  If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields.

            I memorized that poem in the fifth grade – something you likely did during your schooling.

            It memorializes the scene after the Second Battle of Ypres in Western Belgium, beginning on April 22, 1915.  It was written by 42-year-old Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, a Canadian surgeon. He would die of pneumonia 10 months before the Armistice, which we commemorate today – the 11thhour of the 11thday of the 11thmonth.  One hundred years ago today.

            He described his view of an aftermath of the battle – the first instance of the Germans using poison gas in World War I.   The war would end three-and-a-half years later on a rail car outside of Compiegne, France.  It was in that same rail car in that same forest that France would surrender to the Nazis 22 years later. Lessons were not learned.

            The Second Battle of Ypres was fought some 15 miles from Dunkirk – perhaps the low point for the British during World War II. The issues which led to one led to another.

            All of this took place within a theological context.  It could be called hubris– pride– one of the seven deadly sins. Pride in self-reliance. Pride in invincibility. 

            Pride. There was, on the European continent and especially in Germany, a sense of the inevitable progress of human nature.  Pride. Stoked by the fires of the Enlightenment, scholars and the people believed in the ability of humanity to know what needed to be known, to do what needed to be done, and, in a sense, to create a utopian state.

            Pride. There was a sense that human beings could perfectcreation.  Rationalism– reason and knowledge – would create a flawless world.

            All that was before the Great War – the bloodiest of all time before that moment. And it was before World War II, which followed soon, and claimed the lives of three-percent of the world’s population.

            Yes, the march of knowledge continued.  Yes, we continued the march of human progress as well as our rebellion against God. We unleashed the elemental forces of creation in devastatingly destructive ways.  We showed that we had, within our grasp, the ability to destroy the world.  

            But, did we have the ability to save ourselves?

+ + + 

            There was a movement that came after the ashes of the Great War.  It was known as Neo-Orthodoxyand it emphasized the importance of faithand God’s revelation.  Its leaders would be people like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who would ultimately give his life in a Nazi death camp.

            They emphasized the importance of God’s self-revelation and the need to be transformed by his word.  They argued that we, through our own actions and knowledge, cannot save ourselves. We had to depend on God and his self-revelation.  We had to depend on the ways God had shown us.

            Sadly, we had shown that through two world wars. that we could not do it on our own.

+ + + 

            Jesus shows us the way – the antidote to pride… to ambition… to self-glorification. It is in the gospel lesson today.

            Jesus sat down at the Treasury – one of the open courtyards of the glorious Temple of Herod’s creation.  The Treasury had a large brass receptacle to receive the people’s offerings.  It would clang noisily with large offerings.

            Jesus watched as the wealthy came forward and ostentatiously – and loudly – placed their offerings in the receptacle.  He was not impressed.  They were giving small sums from their riches. They relied on themselves and what they had.

            Then a poor widow came forward.  She humbly placed two small copper coins in the receptacle and went on her way, without fanfare and, as far as she knew, without notice.

            Jesus noted the humility versus the pride – the generosity of spirit, as opposed to the ways of the world.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.”

+ + + 

            In a world which gave us Gettysburg, the Marne, the Bulge, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue, Baghdad, and Tora Bora, millions of veterans have sought to correct a world animated by pride. Led by pride down a pathway of war and destruction, the world has again and again been led back to a more just world, by the self-giving of millions of veterans. Humility. Freely offering of self.

            As the saying goes, All gave some, some gave all.

            We have learned through their example – such as my father, a veteran of World War II – that we do not have it within ourselves to build a perfect world. But we do have a model for moving in the right direction. We trust in a world beyond our grasp.

            And giving generously of self, for a higher purpose, is one of the teachings which can change the world.

No Simple Answers

PROPERS:         PROPER 25, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 JOB 42:1-6, 10-17; MARK 10:46-52

ONE SENTENCE:        The question of theodicy should not be why evil happens;                                     it should be, “why there is good.”      

            I did not get to preach last week.  The lessons for last Sunday included one of my most favorite passages of all – from Job, chapter 38.

            Job is included in the books of the Old Testament known as Wisdom Literature.  Wisdom Literatureincludes such material as the Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and the Song of Solomon.  Those books reflect the learned wisdom and insight of Jewish sages.

            Job is a fabulous story.  It raises the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  It is basically a story about theodicy– God’s justice.

            The Book of Job begins with a wager between God and the Satan– the tempter who has been roaming the earth. God brags on his faithful servant Job, but allows the Satan free reign to do what he wishes to see if Job will curse God.

            Satan causes Job to lose everythinghe has – houses, family, flocks and herds, all in a day’s time. Job, a faithful man, is left in ashes, scraping boils on his skin with a broken piece of pottery.

            The ensuing chapters of the book detail conversations between Job and three men who have come to be known, ironically, as Job’s comforters.  

            The three comfortersattempt to blame Job or God for the tragedies which have befallen Job.  Surely, you are at fault for this! Certainly, you have some blame for these events!  You have been unfaithful in some way!

            But Job has not been unfaithful.  Ultimately, though, he challenges God, asking the Almighty to explain himself.

            This is where last week’s first lesson comes in.  It is some of the most beautiful imagery in all of the Bible:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:  Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you will declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

“On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”  (Job 38:1-7)

            God is essentially asking Job:  Who are you to ask these questions?  What do you know about the complexities of creation?

            Which brings us to the first lesson today, four chapters later.  A contrite and chastened Job responds to God:

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)

            Job stands humbled and in awe before God.

            But a serious question is raised.  In fact, it is probably the most serious theological question of all:  Why do bad things happen to good people?

            I have pondered this question for much of my adult life – as have the greatest theologians of history.  I keep coming back to Job.

            Why do hurricanes strike vulnerable communities along a coastline?

            Why do evil men fly airliners into skyscrapers?

            Why do tsunamis scour coastal towns, claiming thousands?

            Why are innocent infants stricken with life-threatening illnesses?

            Why are faithful Jews massacred in their synagogue?

            Let me side-step those questions for a moment.

            The gospel lesson today tells of the healing of blind Bartimaeus.  It tells of Jesus and his disciples traveling through the oasis town of Jericho.  Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus and is healed of his blindness.

            The Gospel according to John tells a similar story.  It involves a man blind since birth.  His disciples raise a question of theodicy: “Tell us:  Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  The question assumed that the blindness was the result of some misdeed by the man or his parents.  In other words, a quid pro quo– this for that.

            Jesus tells his disciples that that is not the issue.  The situation is there so that the glory of God can be manifested. God’s glory will be shown in the healing of the man.

+ + + 

            I do not know why bad things happen to good people.  God’s response out of the whirlwindto Job is enough for me.  I cannot imagine the depths and heights of creation that are in God’s hands. I have to assume, at some point, that bad things will happen to me.  In fact, they already have – but I know they are part of human existence.

            The questions I must ask is these:  Why don’t more bad things happen? Why do we experience so many blessings?

            In this season approaching Thanksgiving… and in this season when we consider our many blessings as we ponder our gifts to the church’s mission… it is fair to ask those questions.

            I was at a meeting of clergy impacted by Hurricane Michael this past Monday. The clergy were sharing their experiences of the storm and its effects on them.  One priest summarized his view of the difficulties: “I have everything I need and some of what I want.”

            It is like the question, Is the glass half empty or half full? Or,why is life so shortor why is life so long?  Or, this: why am I experiencing these difficulties or why am I so blessed?

            There really is no satisfactory answer to these questions.  But, we are called by Job to recognize, we are all part of God’s infinite creation.

Healing with the Truth

TEXT:                 JOHN 14:1-6

ONE SENTENCE:        Life is difficult and complex, but truth heals and                                                  liberates us.

            Years ago, Duke, Susan, Nora and I were young adults here at St. Andrew’s. A friendship was founded.

            About that time, a book gained currency in this congregation.  The book was The Road Less Traveledby M. Scott Peck.  It was a transformative book for many of us.

            Scott Peck was a psychiatrist with a profound insight into human nature.  He was also a new convert to Christianity. His perspective shed a brilliant light on the contemporary practice of the faith.

            There are two points from that book that have a bearing on what we do here today – a sacred farewell to our brother, Duke.

            First is the opening sentence of the book: Life is difficult.  Three simple words representing a profound truth.

            Nora actually needle-pointed those words for me.  And they hung, framed, in my office for many years.

            We can say more, too.  Life is difficult.  Life is complex.  Life has its ups and downs.  Life is both brokenness and wholeness.  Life – earthly life, at least – has a beginning and end.

            We all manifest that truth in our lives.  No matter the persona we project to the world, we each deal with the difficulties of human existence.

+ + + 

            The second point from The Road Less TraveledI would share is Scott Peck’s emphasis on truth– unflinching, uncompromising honesty.

            Peck contended that there is no such thing as a little white lie –something to protect another person’s feelings; a simple tale to hide a minor truth.  He said that truthis important – that it is foundational to health and wholeness. And to spiritual wellbeing. 

            These two key points are before us today.  They are before us in the life of our friend Duke – both as they relate to him, and as they relate to what we do here today.

+ + + 

            Human existence is not simple.  We are confronted with various contradictions.  We face complex problems.  We have competing inclinations.  There is no straight line in this life.  We have to face the turbulent shoals of human existence no matter what pathway we choose.

            As St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions… 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.”

            We go through life – and Duke went through his life – striving to do what is right.  But we, like Duke, find the road is anything but straight.  It is littered with competing desires, different priorities, and those things which are most tempting – the expectations of others.

            We need to face that fact squarely, and shed the illusion that any one of us is perfect… or that we will even approachperfection in this life.

            Life is difficult, as Scott Peck noted. We should disabuse ourselves of any notion that says otherwise.  We will rise, and we will inevitably fall.  We will succeed, and we will fail.  We will do good, and we will fall well short of the mark.

            It is the human condition.  It infects each of us.  As Martin Luther wrote, “Simul Justus et peccator.” Simultaneously – at the same moment, in the same body – we justifiedand sinner.

            That is the truth about you.  That is the truth about me.  And that is the truth about Duke.

            But Duke knew something else about truth. He knew it was of immeasurable importance.  He knew it could save a life. Even a life in the depths of brokenness.

            I suspect all of you knew Duke’s journey.  You know how he sat in his den many years ago and felt a numinous presence speak truth to him.  His life pivoted. He heard those words of truth – as hard as they were – and began a journey that led to his own healing, and the healing of countless others.  It was a moment of metanoia– turning about.

            Duke came to know the meaning of the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”  He knew that the truth was the only thing that could unbind the twisted cords of addiction which wrapped his life and the lives of those he encountered.

            He knew that it was the truth alone that would allow resurrectionin the lives of those so horribly broken.  Pure, unfiltered, unbridled, unrestrained truth. Spoken not in harsh judgement, but in healing love.  His words were the truth he had lived in his own experience – that deep, abiding, daily freedom comes only from the truth.

            So, he spoke that truth – perhaps to many gathered here.  Yet, there was another aspect to that truth – one that embraced instead of confronted.

            That additional aspect was the truth that every life was worth saving.  No matter how broken, no matter how flawed, no matter how deep and dark the bottom, no matter what a person had done with his or her life, he or she mattered.

            With that realization, the stain of the human condition could be wiped clean. Life could begin anew – free of shame. Not that we become perfect – because we don’t – but because we are embraced as beloved children of God.  We are set free by that truth.

            Duke lived enough life for 10 lifetimes.  I am weary from just thinking of his journey.  He is at rest now. Free from the demands of the journey, and free from the contradictions and challenges of the human experience.

            He knows fully the truth of Jesus’s words to struggling, grieving Thomas: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”Duke found the way, he embraced the truth, and he lives now the fullness of life.

            He stands at the precipice of eternity and hears Jesus say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”

            The truth has set him free.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Discerning the Way of the Cross

PROPERS:         PROPER 19, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 MARK 8:27-38

ONE SENTENCE:        To take up the cross in Jesus’ name requires an                                                  examination of conscience.

            Jesus is talking with his chosen band of friends – his small group of disciples – in the gospel lesson today.  It is in such quiet, sacred conversations that deep truths are shared.

            Some years ago, I was a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  The convention is like congress – divided between an upper chamber, the House of Bishops, and a lower chamber, the House of Deputies.

            The House of Deputies, of which I was a part, was approaching a momentous vote. The choice was not simple or easy. There was great tension for those wrestling with their consciences.

            I was feeling somewhat righteous and flippant.  I had told myself, “There is no wrong time to do the right thing.” Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!

            My Bishop was a man of integrity and insight, and a dear friend – Duncan Gray III. I trusted him explicitly.  I shared with him my leanings on the vote, and added these words: “At least that is what my conscience is telling me to do.”

            He looked me in the eye, and speaking words which showed the depth of his wisdom, said, “Remember, your conscience can be fallen, too.”

            Your conscience can be fallen, too.  All elements of human nature have the potential to be subject to the fallenness of creation – touched by human pride, mistake, or sin.

+ + + 

            Jesus tells Peter and the others – and he tells us – to take up your cross and follow him.But it is not easy. It should not be approached flippantly. It will seldom be our default response. It may demand a price – a heavy one.

            I am reminded of that scene from the movie Mashwhen Major Frank Burns and Major Margaret O’Houlihan are drawn toward each other in lusty temptation and give in with the words, “God’s will be done!”

            That oversimplifies but characterizes the temptation to view our wayas God’s way. Following the way of the crossis not automatic. It requires sacrifice and is frequently very difficult.

            I have recently read a book, D-Day,by the late historian Stephen Ambrose. The moment-by-moment, pounding-heart tension of the Allied troops landing on Omaha Beach is palpable.  Many of those young men knew that they would never see another sunrise, but they gave their last full measure of devotion.  That was their way of the cross.

            Likewise, is the young seminarian who entered into sainthood on August 20, 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels.  He stepped into the way of a truck driver-sheriff’s deputy’s shotgun blast to save the life of a young girl in Hayneville, Alabama. 

            Those are dramatic examples.  However, seldom are our choices so dramatic or clear-cut.  So, it is necessary for us to examine our consciences, deeply, to see if we are serving selfor serving the God of our worship.

+ + + 

            I was a young college sophomore at Ole Miss when I first encountered Professor Goberdahn Baghat.  I was politically active and thought I had the world figured out.  The options we considered in his course, International Relations,were simple and straightforward – at least in my mind.

            On our first essay test, he disabused me of those notions.  My grade reflected my superficiality of reasoning. The world is much more complex, he seemed to be telling me. You need to give it more thought.

            Dr. Baghat started me on a pathway that would continue for years to come. That pathway could be named critical reasoning.  It is the thoughtful, measured evaluation of situations, and the resulting course of action, which is usually more complex than merely saying, God’s will be done.

            An aside:  Have you ever noticed how often your easy perception of God’s will happens to coincide with your wishes?

+ + + 

            Take up your cross and follow me. A commentator on this passage wrote: “Jesus is not talking about the suffering that is simply part of life in a broken world -- everything from annoying neighbors to serious illness to natural disasters. Neither is he telling us to seek out suffering or martyrdom. Jesus himself did not seek it, but he foresaw that it would be the inevitable outcome of his mission.”

            This all means that we are to do two things, in taking up our cross and following Jesus:

·     First, we are to discernwhat we are called to do – recognizing that our human tendency is going to be different from the way of the crosswhich we are called to follow.  That means looking past the superficial, tempting, easy answers which are so alluring. Discern.

·     Second, we are to act with commitment– taking Robert Frost’s Road Less Traveled. Seldom will that mean that we will storm Omaha Beach, step in the way of a shotgun blast, or literally carry a cross along the Via Dolorosa.  But it may well mean that we pay a price.

What we receive – and what we are called to live – is notcheap grace.  Jesus paid a high priceand he calls on us to follow the same path.