Sunday, December 10, 2017

Good News of God's Comfort

PROPERS:          ADVENT 2, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 ISAIAH 40:1-11; MARK 1:1-8

ONE SENTENCE:        As the Prophet Isaiah notes, God brings comfort to his people – then and now.

            The events of September 11, 2001, were traumatic for all of us, wherever we were.

            Nora and I were in Seattle, Washington, while I attended a training conference.  Since we were on Pacific time, I awoke late to see the southern tip of Manhattan covered by a cloud of smoke, from the two collapsed World Trade Center buildings. 

I also saw images of fire roaring on the side of the Pentagon. There were rumors of a fourth commandeered plane, too, which soon was found to be true.

            It was a bad day – a terrible day.  It will be remembered like December 7, 1941 – “a date which will live in infamy.”

            But, imagine if it had been much worse.

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            Imagine if Washington had been invaded by a foreign army.  Imagine if the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, and the various monuments had been laid waste.

            And go a step farther – imagine the President had been tortured, his sons killed in front of him, and the residents of the city were captured and taken into forced exile in a foreign country.

            How would we remember that day?  How bitter would we be?  What would be our understanding of God and his hand in the world?

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            That is the world of our first lesson today: Isaiah, Chapter 40.

            The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible:  66 chapters.
            Biblical scholars believe that the first 39 chapters were composed by the prophet himself – Isaiah ben Amoz.

            The prophet spoke in his day – and in those first 39 chapters – about the arrogance of the wealthy and the powerful, the abuse and mistreatment of the poor and unfortunate, and called for holiness that came from God’s own holiness, and not from the people’s lineage.

            He warned a day of reckoning would come for Judah – the southern portion of the land we call Israel, and the home to Jerusalem.  He warned of the various places the people put their trust, instead of with God the creator.

            The day of reckoning did come – and it was worse than anything we have experienced.

            In 589 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem.  It had been a vassal state for nine years, but the people had rebelled against the foreign king.  So, he placed the city under siege.  Nothing in.  Nothing out.

            Two years later, in 587 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar’s armies breached the walls of the ancient holy city.  He leveled the city – killing or capturing its inhabitants, flattening homes, burning Solomon’s temple, and capturing the royal family.  His commanders killed the king’s family in front of him and then blinded him.

            They led him and his people into exile in Babylon – modern-day Iraq.

            The forced captivity led to Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept…”

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            The meaning of the tragic events was unmistakable to the people of Judah and Jerusalem.  They had turned against God and so his harsh judgment had crushed them – in the form of Nebuchadnezzar’s army.

            It was into that world that an unknown writer penned the passage we read today as he first lesson.  You see, it is believed by Biblical scholars that additional writers – living long after Isaiah, but contemporary with the events – wrote chapters 40 through 66 of Isaiah.  We call such writers Deutero-Isaiah.

            Whoever the writer was, he brought words of comfort and hope to the Jewish people living in captivity in Babylon.  Hear them again:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her 
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins.

            In the view of the prophet, God’s judgment had been exhausted.  He was ready to accept the people of Judah back into the covenant relationship.  The blessed and holy covenant in which he would be their God, and they would be his people.

            It was only a few years later when deliverance came to be – from the unlikeliest of places.  Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered Babylon, and allowed the people of Judah and Jerusalem to return to their homeland.

            Cyrus, king of Persia – modern day Iran -- is referred to as the messiah, God’s anointed one in Isaiah 45.  The people returned to Judah and Jerusalem.  And they began to build the Temple in which Jesus would ultimately teach.

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            Five hundred years later, a wild ass of a man, John the Baptist, would walk in the Jordan Valley. He was a loner, a vagabond, an itinerant preacher. The early verses of Mark’s gospel – in referring to him – include some resonant verses from Isaiah:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

            John announced God’s movement in the world and in history.  Not God’s judgment, but words of good news. Someone is coming. And I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.

            He will come, and he will comfort his people.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Spy Who Knew Me Well

“I have been many people over my 85 years, and not all of them have been pleasant.”  So said author and former spymaster John LeCarre in a recent interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross.

LeCarre is the author of numerous books, most especially known for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and as the creator of fictional spymaster George Smiley.  He is also a former agent with British secret services MI-5 and MI-6.  No doubt, his varied career has given him ample opportunity to be many people – and the expectations of his vocation (as a spy) have prompted some behavior he would not like to repeat.

But, isn’t that true for many of us? I know it is for me – but in a much less dramatic and more mundane way.  While I cannot reflect on 85 years – just yet – I can look back on a lifespan almost 66 years. When I do, I see that “I have been many people… and not all of them have been pleasant.”

That reality has come back to me episodically over the years, perhaps like a Ghost of Christmas Past.  I am reminded of some of my actions – known and unknown – that make my skin crawl and potentially put the lie to who I am today.

I have said frequently that I would not go back to my teenage years for all the money in the world, even though many my age – and many of the folks I grew up with – would do that in a heartbeat.  I cannot fathom that wish.  I was so awkward and immature at that stage of life, that I would never seek to repeat those days.

As a young person, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I can look back on those days and see the ways I tried to cope with or adapt to those feelings of inadequacy.  Trying to be someone, alcohol, anger, neediness, ridicule of others, manipulation, projecting self-importance, ambition – were among the traits of my life at that stage.

Trying to fit in to a world that was not my size took its toll.  In a time I did not understand at the moment, it all began to come crashing down around me.  It was incredibly painful and it did not pass quickly.  But in that difficulty were the seeds of my redemption.  Wholeness would ultimately emerge from that time, like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon.

As C. S. Lewis wrote, there are memories that bless and burn.  But over the years, my intent has been to grow beyond those teenage years and those later years as a young and maturing adult.

By the grace of God, I experienced healing, on many different levels.  The factors which contributed to that healing came almost simultaneously.  First, there was a transformative relationship with Nora, which caused me to refocus my life and allowed me to find love which I had been seeking.  There was also the presence of God in my life – a presence which I would know only fragmentarily, “here and there, now and again.”

Over the years, those relationships grew – with Nora and with God.  We were blessed with two wonderful children – sources of unspeakable joy.  Our relationship to God grew through our connection to the church.  Life blossomed, old compulsions and ambitions began to shrivel, and a new direction began to beckon.

The past thirty years, while not always easy, have been times of immense blessing.  As I told my sister, Anna Helm, yesterday, I can look back and give thanks for all of life.  I am able to see that each step, no matter how painful, awkward, or potentially destructive, has led me to this moment.

There have been many friends and colleagues along the way – anonymous agents of grace.  I have learned that, perhaps, the words of A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis have meaning in my life: “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

The old saying is true: “I am not what I should be, but thank God I am not what I used to be.”

One of the episodes from Prairie Home Companion has Pastor Inqvist saying, “that whenever a preacher admits to being human, the congregation immediately wonders, ‘Who is he having an affair with and how long has it been going on?’”  I am glad to say that my life and ruminations are much more mundane, but profound, nonetheless.

My journey thus far has a lot in common with a sermon I preached recently.  It focused on Charlotte Elliott, the bedridden 19th century English women who wrote the hymn, Just As I Am.  I used to ridicule that hymn, but now it has poignant meaning to me.  In preparing my sermon, I listened to the music from the YouTube performance of the mass choir at one of Billy Graham’s crusades in England.  The soft, gentle truth of that hymn almost brought tears to my eyes. 

I had lived it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Unifying Ethic

PROPERS:          PROPER 29, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 25:31-46

ONE SENTENCE:        The transformed, genuine Christian life leads to an ethic guided by the essential teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25.

            In my salad days, right after ordination, I was, as they say, “not always right, but never in doubt.”  I had some strong opinions, though not all of them were well thought-out.

            Those opinions came into conflict with those of a much more senior priest – who had equally strong but not well-thought-out opinions.

            He was largely retired, having served as Canon to the Ordinary in another diocese and, more importantly, as one of my predecessors at the small congregation where I was then assigned.  We were like the older, wary dog and the younger, more impetuous pup circling and sniffing each other.  Trust was in short supply.

            In a social setting one evening, the topic of basic homiletical perspectives came up.  To de-fancify that terminology, the discussion had to do with our basic theological opinions.  In other words, what was our starting point for our sermons?

            The older priest believed, he said, in the basic sinfulness of human beings.  He believed that people in the pews needed to be confronted with their sinfulness and that their perverse nature should be named and challenged.  I would have described that perspective as Calvinist in nature – naming the utter depravity of human nature.

            His view was that we willfully resist God’s goodness and that it is the preacher’s responsibility to name and condemn that behavior.

            That perspective could be represented by a repeated emphasis on the Ten Commandments.  The Law. God’s requirements. And our resistance.

            That was his approach to preaching sermons.  I profoundly disagreed with him.

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            My opinion was quite different.  I believed that human beings – the people in the pews – tried hard.  I believed that many folks carried a burden of guilt with them, like a 50 pound bag of potatoes. Much of that burden had its roots in sermons such as my colleague said he preached.

            I believed that people sought to do the right thing, but our human nature got in the way.  I identified with Paul’s struggles from the Letter to the Romans: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will save me from this body of death?”

            I believed that people needed a healthy dose of grace.  They needed to realize that God loved them, and that his love could overcome the gulf between what God calls us to be and what we are capable of.

            If I had labeled my older friend’s theology as Ten Commandments’ based, I would say that my own was Beatitudes’ based. Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the meek… blessed are the peacemakers… and so forth.

            To boil the conflict down, I would describe it in this way:  The older priest emphasized the sinfulness of human nature; I saw the need for grace.  The Ten Commandments versus the Beatitudes.

            We both had our perspectives, and never the ‘twain shall meet.

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            As the years rolled on, I gained a different perspective:  We were both right – in our own ways.  We just didn’t go far enough.

            Today I would describe the older priest’s perspective with a phrase we use to use when I was a lobbyist – All hat and no cattle. The emphasis on the Law was precisely one of the shortcomings that Jesus saw in the religious institutions he confronted in his day.  A good product, but ultimately unfulfilling.  Good talk, but little substance.

            My own perspective, while in my opinion, well grounded, was equally empty.  The emphasis on grace and the love of God could lead a horse to water.  However, the simple proclamation of God’s grace left open the subject of the proper response.  It was the theological equivalent of the dog who catches the car – what does he do with it?

            I wondered:  How do I bridge the chasm between “All hat and no cattle” and “the dog who catches the car”?  How was I to overcome the gap between the emphasis on the demands of the The Law and the potentially vacuous proclamation of God’s grace?

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            So, I come to the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 – perhaps the high point of Matthew’s gospel.

            In those 15 verses, Jesus talks about all nations coming before the king.  As the king judges those nations he says,

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

            It is within these few verses – among Jesus’ final teachings – that we find the meat of the gospel.  In the Great Judgment we find the ethical imperative of the good news.  The needle of law and grace is threaded.  The balance is there.

            A Christian life, whether forged by law or grace, is a transformed life.  It does things other than speak platitudes and proclaim empty phrases.  It does much more than hammer people’s broken nature and utter soft words of forgiveness.

            A Christian life – transformed as it is – is founded in lawful nature and cloaked in grace.  Yet, that transformation brings forth fruit that is described in Matthew 25 – concern for the sick, drink for the thirsty, food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, a welcome for the stranger, care for prisoners.

            And interesting and confronting for me:  There is not a word of blame.  That empathy, that care, that concern is not allocated on the basis of the person being blameless.  The ethical mandate is for all people in such states.

            When we as individuals have embraced and lived that gospel ethical standard, we will be living more fully the gospel life.  We will be ready to stand before the king.