Saturday, July 29, 2017

Hope in the Cosmos

PROPERS:          PROPER 12, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 ROMANS 8:26-39

ONE SENTENCE:        The essence of God’s faithfulness is found in Paul’s words today – faithfulness that transcends all the limitations of creation.       

            I love to read complicated books.  Nora will tell you that I read very long books.  The current book I am reading is some 1,600 pages long. Since I am a fairly slow reader, each book takes me a long time to read.

            I like books that make me think.  It is not unusual for me to ponder a passage, without turning a page, until I can really get the grasp of what has been written.

            I am having to pause frequently in the current book.  It is the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, and it deals extensively with philosophy, with physics in general, and nuclear physics in particular.  Not exactly my wheelhouse.

            Now this may cause your eyes to glaze over, but stay with me for a minute.  It gets better.

            The book deals with the first three laws of thermodynamics.  That may sound very complicated – and it is.  But it can be boiled down to this:  all of creation is winding down. We are all heading in the same direction.  Everything in creation is heading toward entropy – heat death. Absolute zero.  Everything. All of us.

            A movie I saw many years ago illustrated this fact very simply.  The movie was A Brief History of Time, about the life and theories of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

            The simple illustration which represented the direction of creation was this:  A coffee cup falls off of a table and shatters.  That happens, perhaps frequently. But you never see the shattered coffee cup rise off the floor, come back together, and resume its position in the saucer.

            Keep in mind this scriptural truth:  Creation emerged from chaos.  We see that in the first chapter of Genesis – “In the beginning…”  Science is saying that we are heading back – slowly, inexorably – to chaos.

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            The fact is that we know this.  We do not need physics or the first three laws of thermodynamics to tell us that.  We don’t need Stephen Hawking or anyone else to weigh-in on that one.

            We all live in the human condition.  We face our limitations.  Ultimately, each of us will reach our end.  We are likely to experience loss along the way.  We will say good-bye to those we love. There may be illnesses.

            As a priest for 30 years, I have seen it time and time-again.  In hospitals, nursing homes, at bedsides, and at gravesides.  Yes, we experience creation and new life.  But we are all ultimately heading in the same direction.

            That is the cost of being human.  On one level, it is a one-way street.  No one needs to tell us that.

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            So, do I need to reprise Roy Clark and Buck Owens from Hee Haw – Gloom, despair and agony on me…?

            No, I don’t. I don’t need to do so because the laws of physics and thermodynamics do not have the last word.

            Through our eyes of faith, in a very important way, God has the last word.

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            Our second lesson today is my favorite passage in all of scripture.  It is, I think, the high point of the New Testament.

            Keep in mind that the author – the apostle Paul – had been through all sorts of trials.  He had been whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, jailed, shipwrecked, and spurned by his faith community.  Yet, even in the midst of all this, he maintains a hopeful perspective.  He sees God working through it all.

            For Paul, life informs faith.  And faith certainly informs life.  There is reciprocity.  But the apostle does not let the bitter circumstances of his experiences overwhelm his Christian hope.  Paul has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of human existence, and he sees a radiant beam of light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.

            Hear his words:

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

Paul’s theology reaches a crescendo here:

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            Listen to those last words, once again: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            If we are people of hope… if we are people of faith… if we embrace the words and prayers we offer here… we know that our eternal fate is not established by the winding down of creation.

            Our hope is in the Creative force which called into being the Cosmos – the Word of God. Not the Bible, but the Word of God as in the first verses of John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

            Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, overcame the darkness of the human condition. In our baptism, we have gone down with him into the grave, and we have emerged – resurrected – with him as New Creations.

            Even as we face the human limitations and the shortcomings of our humanity, we are bound for all eternity to our source of hope and life.  Paul makes it clear -- nothing can ever sever that bond.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Weeds and Wheat

PROPERS:          PROPER 11, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 13:24-30, 36-43

ONE SENTENCE:        Jesus tells us that the weeds cannot be separated from the wheat while they are growing, but God’s method of ultimately separating the two may be creative.

            Today we have heard a familiar parable from Jesus’ teaching.  And we even have his own interpretation of that parable – a rare gift of insight.

            I want you to take two lessons away from this gospel.  And I want to remind myself of those two same lessons.

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            First the parable, known as the Weeds and Wheat or the Parable of the Tares.

            Keep in mind that Jesus’ parables are set in a specific time in a distinct culture.  The time was 2,000 years ago.  The setting was half-a-world away.  The society in which he lived and ministered was largely rural and agricultural.

            So, Jesus uses a lot of agricultural images in his teaching.  Take, for example, last week’s gospel lesson, the Parable of the Sower.  He also speaks of the mustard plant, and the tiny seed which grows into that bush.  He talks about grapevines, and he makes frequent mention of sheep and shepherds. 

            That was the milieu in which he lived and taught.  They were familiar, accessible images to his listeners.  The metaphors he used at least had a chance of staying with the people.

            The same is true for the parable we hear today.  His parable included very familiar images.

Ponder the difficulty in raising a crop of wheat in those days.  No modern herbicides. No pesticides. No irrigation to speak of. Seeds were not modified to be disease resistant.

            So, a planter gambled with each crop.

            In Jesus’ parable, good seed is scattered.  The crop is hoped to be a bountiful harvest of golden wheat.  But, after the planting of the seed, someone comes in and sows weed seeds.  The genius of this ruse is that the weeds will largely be indistinguishable from the wheat.  The wheat and weeds will grow together, side-by-side.

            Jesus tells us that the separation will come later – after the harvest.  As the sheaves are bundled, it will become apparent which are the weeds and which are the wheat.  They will be separated into separate batches.  The weeds will be burned – in other words, disposed of.  The wheat will be gathered into the granary.

            What is the point in all this?

            I think Jesus is telling us that we – with our limited perspectives – cannot distinguish between those of us that are weeds, and those of us that are wheat.

            And more to the point, recognizing the complexity of human nature, we cannot distinguish between which aspects of who we are are weeds and which aspects of us are wheat.  Remember that Martin Luther coined the phrase, Simul Justus et peccator – Simultaneously justified and sinner.

            We are complex beings.  We have mixed motivations.  We have hearts and loyalties that are divided.  As Paul noted in the Romans reading recently, the thing that I would not do, I do.  And the thing that I would do, I don’t do.

            Please understand:  I am not equating Mother Teresa with Adolf Hitler.  Not everyone’s brokenness is equivalent.  Behavior does exist on the edges – but those cases are very rare.

            We live in the great center of the human condition. We are much more typical of what Paul describes.  We largely do our best… but not always. Despite our best intentions.

            That is the reason that it is only in extreme circumstances that what I call Formula 409 is used.  That is the excommunication provision found on page 409 in the Book of Common Prayer.  In my 30 years of ordained ministry, I have only seen it utilized twice – by other clergy.

            There are other occasions, too, in which misdeeds cause a person to be removed from a position of trust. There was a case of that just this week involving the Ole Miss football coach. But that is temporal, not eternal.

            There are occasions when someone needs to be told that their actions are looking a lot more like weeds than like wheat.  But those occasions are exceedingly rare.

            Largely, our call is to let the weeds and wheat grow together.

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            Now, to my second point.

            A number of years ago I read a series of novels by the British author Susan Howatch.  Her works included titles such as Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, and Absolute Truths.

All of her books were theological in nature and set in the Church of England of the early 20th century. Jonathan Darrow, an older, mystic priest, is the protagonist in more than one of her novels.

            One of the characters asks Jonathan Darrow about the ultimate fate – in the great judgement – of ordinary people who commit significant misdeeds during their lives.  Separating the weeds and wheat.  It is a subject on which we have no experience and on which we can only speculate.

            Darrow, a wise, older priest, says that he has wrestled that issue.  And his belief is that in the time after death, our souls are scoured by God’s divine spirit, with the good aspects of our beings being made eternal, and the evil which we do (in Shakespeare’s words) is separated out.

As the gospel today tells us, the broken parts of our spirits will be thrown into the furnace of fire – in other words, disposed of.  And those parts of our being which reflect the divine, again in the words of the gospel, will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.

            If you think about it, it is like gold being refined.  The impurities are cast off.  The gold is retained.  But, if we find a nugget of gold, surrounded by less valuable elements, we do not throw it away.

            Each of us is a bearer of internal gold.  Each of us also bears some inert elements.  Each of us represents wheat.  Each of us contains some weeds.

            Let’s grow together.