Sunday, March 31, 2019

Striving for the New Creation

PROPERS:         4 LENT, YEAR C         
TEXT:                 2 CORINTHIANS 5:16-21; LUKE 15:1-3, 11b-32

ONE SENTENCE:        As Paul Tillich notes, what matters is a “new creation.”  

            You have heard me refer to Paul Tillich here before.  He was, arguably, the greatest theologian of the 20thCentury.

            Tillich was born in Prussia – an area of modern-day Germany – in 1886. His father was a Lutheran pastor. Tillich, too, was ordained at age 26 and became a military chaplain during World War I.

            He continued his academic pursuits. His public lectures brought him into conflict with the Nazis who had come into power in 1933.  He was dismissed from his teaching position at the University of Berlin.

            Another great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the Serenity Prayer, had already fled from Germany to the United States. He invited Tillich to come to America’s welcoming shores.  Tillich did, and took up a teaching position with Union Theological Seminary in New York.

            It was there in 1955, after more than a 20 year teaching stint, that Tillich preached a retirement sermon – a sermon that was among his finest (and his sermons were excellent).  The sermon was entitled The New Being, and it is based on our second lesson today.

            Tillich hears Paul’s words:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  

            What is this new creation?  Tillich grounds his approach in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians – Chapter 5, Verse 6:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. 

            The great theologian is saying that nothing counts for anything except reflecting a New Creation – which is characterized by faith acting through love.

            The church has historically said that this approach is to clarify the early understanding that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; between Jew and Pagan. Tillich says the difference is greater.

            He contends that Paul’s words read down through the ages say that nothing matters other than the New Creation.  No institution, no ideology, no political philosophy, no creed. 

            He says that it does not matter if a person is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or member of any other faith tradition if that person does not embody the New Creation in Christ.  Nor are those folks excluded from the covenant community if they do manifest that New Creation.

            He goes on to say that rituals of any tradition – as he says with the Jewish rite of circumcision – do not make any difference, in and of themselves, without the New Creation.

            Since Tillich preached that sermon in 1955, he was bound by the times.  He listed the various political philosophies in vogue and said that they do not provide what is essential to the person of faith.  He listed Fascism, Communism, Secular Humanism, and Ethical Idealism.  No matter how high the ideals and aspirations of a movement, they do not bring the New Creation.

            What we need to hear, I think, is that we are called – as are all people – to manifest the New Creation that is provided through the life and teaching of Jesus – and that is seen in a life of faith, acting through love.  If we do not, we are like Paul’s description in First Corinthians – “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

            All of this sounds like our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, calling us to follow the Way of Love. He expressed it so well in his sermon at the Royal Wedding last summer.  If we are not motivated by love, we are not motivated by Christ.

            You may ask:  What does this New Creation look like? How will I know I have reached it?

            I would respond to the second question first.  It is an elusive goal.  It is similar to catching smoke in your hands.  You may do it one moment and not the next; one situation and not another.  But the message is to keep trying.  You are human.  Sometimes you will realize the goal; other times, not.

            The first question: What does the New Creation look like?

            We have an excellent example in the gospel lesson today – the Prodigal Sonor, more accurately, the Loving Father.

            The Prodigal Son, seeking forgiveness, and the Father, forgiving, are wonderful models of the New Creation.  Their actions reflect their motivations.

            The older brother, who resented the younger one, has yet to be made a New Being. He continues to rely on legalisms and what seems right.  On a human level, he is right.  On the divine level – the level to which Christ calls us – he is not yet a New Being.

            You may have already taken on the life of the New Being.  That may be your manner of life. At the very least, you probably know someone who has reached that way of being.  

            But most of us can attain that New Being in the same way a musician gets to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Like all other elements of walking in faith, we strive, we fail, we fall down, we turn about, we give ourselves over to Higher Power, and we continue to strive.

            It is in following the one who most clearly lived the life of the New Being – Jesus, the Christ – that we find the way to being made new.

The One Who Shall Not Be Named

PROPERS:         3 LENT, YEAR C         
TEXT:                 EXODUS 3:1-15; LUKE 13:1-9

ONE SENTENCE:        God will be who God will be – regardless of our efforts to define and constrain the divine being.         

            It has been said that the best theology today is being done on the silver screen.  That may well be true.

            Also, some of the most memorable.

            I suspect that most of us here have seen the memorable Cecil B. DeMille production of “The Ten Commandments”.  The lead role of Moses was, of course, played by the late Charlton Heston.

            The movie is essentially a depiction of the life story of Moses – born into a Jewish family in Egypt when Pharaoh had ordered the death of all Jewish infants; hidden in a basket amid the bulrushes of the Nile River; found by Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into the royal family; he became a prince of the powerful nation.

            But life did not go well for him, and he took refuge in the Wilderness – becoming a shepherd, living a life of solitude. Until the moment depicted in the first lesson today.

            We are to assume that this desert God has pursued Moses.  That desert God has found Moses at the foot of Mt. Horeb – what will become known as Mt. Sinai.  It is foreboding-looking volcano rising out of the surrounding desert floor and will later figure prominently in the Exodus story.

            Moses, tending his father-in-law’s flock, sees a bizarre sight on the side of the mountain – a bush that is afire, but is not being consumed.  And drawn like a moth to a flame, he approaches this mysterious apparition. 

            A voice speaks to him out of the flaming bush – and that voice calls him to deliver God’s chosen people from slavery in Egypt.  Moses, reasonably, asks, “Whom shall I say sent me?”

            It is at that moment that we reach the high point – the climax.  Moses is asking this God’s name.  It was believed that having something or someone’s name gave you control over that person or being.

            The flaming bush sidesteps the question: “I am who I am… Tell them I amsent me.” That is known as the Divine Tetragrammaton – the four Hebrew letters yud-hey-vav-hey.  The Latin letters are YHWH, from which we draw the name Yahweh. Faithful Jews will not pronounce the word.  The name of God is too sacred.

            My Old Testament professor was named William Augustin Griffin.  He was a modern version of an Old Testament prophet. He said those four Hebrew letters could also be translated as “I will be who I will be.” Other ways – equally faithful – of translating those four letters include “He-who-is”and “He-who-calls-into-being.”

            God is sidestepping Moses’ question.  He is telling Moses, “I will not be controlled.  I will not be put in a box.  I am the ground of being.  I am the source of all things.”

            God is making the most profound self-revelation to be made before the incarnation of Jesus as Christ.  And he makes it clear to Moses – and us – that “I will have my own way.”

+ + + 

            I heard an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor this week.  She is a well-known Episcopal priest and internationally-famous preacher living in Georgia.  She was asked by the interviewer how she defined God.

            Her response was much more profound and articulate than I could quote, but the essence was, “God is the glue which holds all things together… The mysterious force of creation… The uniting spirit which intends good… The force which unites creation and cares for each of us.”

            I thought of the great theologian Paul Tillich who described God as “the ground of being.”

            God’s self-revelation to Moses… Barbara Brown Taylor’s attempt to describe God… Paul Tillich’s theological definition… all tell us the same thing: “God will be who God will be.  Do not try to put God in a box.”

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            One of the great issues in theology is theodicy – God’s justice.  It raises the question of Why bad things happen to good people.

            We profess belief in a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and all-present.  Yet, evil still exists.  Illness still wracks human lives.  Disasters strike various places.  Humans are inhuman to others.  On and on…

            The questions of theodicy resist answers.  Perhaps God is telling Moses – and us – that “I will be who I will be.”He will not be constrained.  He will not be second-guessed. He will not be put in a box.  He will not be limited by human definitions.  He remains beyond our ability to understand fully.

            That was the essential point being revealed to Moses. Yes, Moses was being called into a cauldron of trouble.  Yes, the task would be daunting. Yes, the years ahead – wandering in the wilderness – would be difficult. 

            But remember this: “I am the one who calls into being… and I am calling you to rescue my people.”

+ + + 

            Think of the gospel lesson for a moment.  The passage from Luke tells the story of a man who has a non-bearing fig tree. The landowner is frustrated after three years of the tree being barren.  He tells his gardener to cut down the tree. 

            We might be tempted to do the same – or, figuratively, to give up on a person.

            But, the gardener takes a different view.  “Let’s give it another chance. Let me work with it.  Let me tend it a bit.  Then we will see what happens.”

            I am convinced that is what God does with us.  He gives us another chance.  He tends us.  He loves us. And he loves those that we might give up on.

            Perhaps… just perhaps… God is being who God will be.  And he is letting the world have a chance to work things out.  Sure, that is hard for us.  We would like for everything to be resolved right now.  We would like for figs to be on the tree when we want them. We would like to understand.

            But God stands astride history, time, creation, and all levels of being. Ultimately, he will be who he will be. And we rest, forever, in his hands.

The Common Roots of Faith

PROPERS:         2 LENT, YEAR C         
TEXT:                 GENESIS 15:1-12, 17-18

ONE SENTENCE:        Trust, as in the gift of faith, provides the assurance of transformation.

            Thirty-four years ago today I preached my first sermon – as I described it, “with live ammunition.”  I was invited to preach at St. Paul’s Church, in my hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, as a first-year seminarian.

            To say I was nervous is a monumental understatement. Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, might describe it.

            But preach, I did.

            The gospel was from the old Episcopal lectionary.  It was the Fourth Sunday in Lent – also St. Patrick’s Day, but that didn’t matter – and the gospel lesson was John 6:4-15.

            That passage is one of the versions of a very familiar story – the feeding of the multitude.  The unique twist in John’s version is that it was a young boy who offered all that he had – five barley loaves and two fish.  That meager offering was used by Jesus to feed the 5,000 Galileans who had gathered on the grassy hillside.

            One boy. Two fish.  Five barley loaves.  And a whole lot of faith.

            The message I saw in that passage was that the young boy’s offering served as the catalyst for the feeding of thousands, and a story which is handed down through the ages.

            It is extraordinary what faith – that is, trust– can do.

+ + + 

            In the first lesson today, from the Book of Genesis, we have the continuing story of Abram – even before he has become known as Abraham, the patriarch.

            Our lesson is from the 15thChapter of Genesis.  Abram had received God’s call three chapters earlier – Chapter 12. He has moved from modern-day Turkey, to modern-day Iraq, all the way to Egypt.  And he did this as a faithful response to God’s call.

            Biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, will tell you that there are as many ways to interpret a story as there are to peel an onion.  That is certainly true with the Abraham saga. What I am sharing with you is barely scratching the surface of what sages have seen over 3,000 years.

            Abram and his wife Sarai were elderly – he was 75-years-old at the start of his journey.  They were childless – without an heir.  Yet, God promised him that his “descendants would number as the stars” and that in him“all the nations of the earth would be blessed.”

            This was a pretty tall promise by a God of the desert night to an elderly man and his barren wife.

            But despite all the fruitless, seemingly-pointless wandering he had already done, and even though he had not yet been given an heir, Abram trusted the voice of the night wind.  Scripture acknowledges his trust, and we are told, “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

            The verses which follow are mysterious to us.  Animals are sacrificed and halved.  A deep sleep falls over Abram.  And in the darkness a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the animal carcasses.  It was an ancient covenant rite – cementing the relationship between God and Abram.

            Fast forward from that moment.  Fast forward beyond a childless couple wandering, meandering through a barren part of the world.

            Today, the three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – trace their early roots to that wandering Aramean, Abram.  Billions of people – in all corners of the earth – see him as a patriarch of faith.

            Those faithful Jews walking to the Wailing Wallin Jerusalem, acknowledge they descend from his faith.  Those Muslims, who enter the El Aksa Mosque only a few steps away from the Wailing Wall, see him in a similar way.    And Christians of all types – Ethiopian, Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Roman – walk into the sacred precincts of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher give thanks for his lineage, as well.

            Those of us – all of us – who call upon Jesus, Yahweh, or Allah, should have special reverences for Abram’s faith.

            Abram, of course, went on to be the father of Ishmael, whom the Arabs claim as their ancestor.  And he and Sarai – who became Sarah – were the parents of Isaac, who became the father of Jacob, who became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.

            All from inauspicious, seemingly-hopeless beginnings.  In the solitude and darkness of a desert night.

+ + + 

            What does this story of Abram and Sarai have to say to us?  And what does the story of the young boy’s five barley loaves and two fish say?

            It is not about magical thinking.  It does not mean that you will get rich if you just believe hard enough.  It does not mean that a better job or material blessings are on the way.

            Here is what I think it says:  If we have faith – that is, trust – God’s spirit can move through our lives and transform us in ways we cannot begin to imagine.  We can find hope where there seems to be none.  We can find peace where there is only turmoil.  We can find meaning where we only see pointless existence.  We can find God’s presence in the midst of a seeming void.

            Scripture tells us again and again – where there is faith, there is hope for transformation.  Be patient. Be still. Have faith.  Trust.

Taking the "Lite" Out of Lent

PROPERS:         1 LENT, YEAR C         
TEXT:                 LUKE: 4:1-13

ONE SENTENCE:        The purpose for us in Lent is both more simple and complex than we think:  It is to eliminate the barriers which separate us from a more full relationship to God.        

            First of all, please accept my heartfelt thanks for your understanding, support, and prayers during my recent surgery and convalescence.  The card and emails I received from you were heartwarming, and I am deeply grateful.

            It is good to be back with you in one piece.

+ + + 

            We have embarked on the great season of Lent – the 40 days and 40 nights (plus Sundays) which precede the Easter celebration.

            We Episcopalians have a love-hate relationship with Lent.  We faithfully attend Ash Wednesday service, we wear our forehead crosses with a sense of pride, yet we grow tired of the tediousness of penitence which the season emphasizes.

            Not to mention, we miss our chocolate and alcohol, too.

            But, if truth be known, Lent has become a caricature of its original place and purpose.  It has been separated from the practice of the early church – a practice deeply rooted in the faith of the church.

            Today, Lent is about what we are going to give up.  Typically, that means chocolate, sugar, alcohol, desserts, fried foods, or other things which we recognize we need to minimize in our lives – Lent or no Lent.

            Another contemporary practice is to take onsome behavior which we have neglected.  Typically, that includes exercise.  Or fasting. It may include meditation, Bible-reading, and prayer.

            I have seen other manifestations of Lenten exhortation.  Doing good and charitable works.  Reaching out to the poor and lonely, the ill and grieving.

            All this is good and right.  But how does it connect to the earlier purposes of Lent?

            Here I begin my liturgical history lesson.  I hope it helps you understand – and grasp more fully – the power and purpose of this season.

+ + + 

            In the early church – think in terms of the first few hundred years – the service was structured much as we structure this Eucharistic service. There were the two primary portions of the service – the Word of God, and the Liturgy of the Table.  The line of demarcation between the two was The Peace.

            The Word of God was in a form that would be familiar to us.  It included the gathering of the people, opening prayers, the lessons from scripture, an exposition on the scriptures (we would call a sermon), a statement of belief (later known as the Creed), and additional, all-encompassing prayers.  The Peace would follow.

            Now I don’t want us to think that we could walk into a Cyprian, Coptic, or Eastern Orthodox Church and feel right at home.  It would feel strange.  But the essential elements would be very similar. 

            This first part of the service was instructional in nature.  It was meant to illumine those in attendance.  And it was a preface to what was to come next – but not for all.

            That is because this portion – the first part of the service – was meant for all people.  All people included two groups which would not participate in the Eucharistic feast which was to come – the portion known as The Liturgy of the Table or The Great Thanksgiving.

            See, the first portion of the service was known also as The Liturgy of the Catechumens.  It was portion of the service aimed especially at those who were being prepared for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter.  These were “the people in waiting.”

            But, there was another group who would not be joining in the Liturgy of the Table.  That group included people who had been separated from the faithful by egregious and public sins.  Lent, for them, was a time of true, deep, and profound penitence.  They were assessing their lives.  They were amending their ways.  They were turning back toward God.

            For both of these groups – the catechumens and the penitent sinners – coming to the Holy Table was not something that was done flippantly.  It was something that came at the conclusion of a significant journey.

            So. They waited.  They reflected.  They assessed.  They studied. They turned fully toward God.

            After the Peace – when the kiss of peace was exchanged – the unbaptized and the penitent sinners would be ushered out of the service.

            Giving up chocolate or alcohol… or deciding to fast or meditate… or committing to exercise… was not part of the equation.  The journey of Lent had profound impacts of the lives of the faithful.

            It had a purpose and it had an end.  When the great season of Lent was ended, the catechumens would be baptized and the penitent sinners would be welcomed back into the community of faith. And there would be a great celebration – and all would share in the Eucharistic feast.

            It was not a purposeless, liturgical version of Buck Owens and Roy Clark: “Gloom, despair and agony on me…”. It had purpose, meaning and power in the lives of those who took the journey.  Their lives would never be the same.

+ + + 

            So, what does this say to us?  How do we make Lent truly meaningful in our lives?

            Luke tells us of the original Lent, when Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights.  I have seen the Wilderness – it is not an inviting environment.  Bishop James Pike, a controversial Episcopal bishop in the 1960s, went there himself, for insight and solitude.  And he perished there.

            Luke tells us of Jesus’ temptations there.  They were not insignificant – power, autonomy, a life free of God’s demands. Jesus resisted.

            The analogy for us?  

            We, too, like Jesus, must be in the world.  We journey among many temptations.  There is much demanding our allegiance, our loyalty, our worship.  We are given the latitude to break free of a life of faith, to take on a way of life that is grounded in our own interests, desires, and appetites.

            Like Jesus in the Wilderness, the call of Lent is to a call of responsive faithfulness.  We are to turn daily toward our source of life… our source of wholeness… our source of meaning.

            That is challenging.  It requires more steadfastness than giving up chocolate.  But it can transform our lives.

The Scandal of Love

TEXT:                 LUKE 4:21-30

ONE SENTENCE:        The offense that Jesus’ original listeners took at his                                             words were based in his understanding that God’s                                                       movement is not limited to the people of the covenant.     

            Today’s gospel lesson is the difficult part of the passage which began with last week’s gospel.

            Jesus is at home in Nazareth – the small community in which he has been reared and in which he is known as Mary and Joseph’s son.  This, in a sense, is his coming out party.  He is speaking in the local synagogue.

            The latter part of last week’s gospel and the first part of this week’s has the listeners being touched by his words – his graciousness.

            But it goes downhill quickly from there.  Jesus dares to confront the presumptuousness and privilege of his listeners.  After hearing his words, they rebel against him.  They drive him to the edge of town and try to throw him down a cliff.  Trust me: It would have been a long way down. But Jesus escapes.

            His offense was confronting the people’s assumed privilege – that they are the people of the law and the people of the covenant, and, therefore, the chosen people of God.

            Jesus cites two beloved figures of Jewish history:  Elijah and his successor, Elisha.  Those two men were widely recognized as some of the most important prophets of sacred history.

            But Jesus decides to afflict the comfortable.

            He tells of the famine which strangled the land and people during the days of Elijah.  Yet, he notes pointedly, Elijah was sent only to the widow in Zarephath of Sidon.  A gentile!  Not one of the covenant people!  (See 1 Kings 17).  Not only did he prolong her rations, he raised her son from death.  How inconvenient.

            He chose to swat the hornets’ nest even more.

            He recounted the story of Elisha who – despite a multitude of lepers in Israel – was sent to cleanse only a Syrian, Naaman.  Naaman, doing what Elisha directed, was cleansed of his leprosy, and his skin was made like “that of a young boy.” (Read 2 Kings 5)

            Once again, it was not one of the covenant peoplewho was touched by God’s gracious hand, but a Gentile – one of the people considered less than others.

            Scripture tells us that his hometown folks were filled with rage.

            That is because, in a very real sense, he had gone from preachin’ to meddlin’.  He had gone a bit too far for a home town boy.  He had started grilling sacred cows – and the result was not pleasing to the listeners.

            Jesus was reminding the congregants that even though they had Moses and the Lawon their side, that did not necessarily mean that they were the only ones that God was concerned about.  This was a bitter pill to people who saw their chosen status as something to be proud of – as evidence of their privileged position with God.

            Jesus pricked that balloon.  The result was the rage of the people.

            Lest we forget.  Lest we forget.  We do not need to cast the blame on the people attending the Nazareth synagogue more than 2,000 years ago.  Religious pridefulness is not something limited to first century Jews.

            The price of speaking the truth has not decreased markedly in the last 20 centuries.

            Think of Thomas a Becket.  He was the Archbishop of Canterbury who, in the 12thcentury, challenged the power of Henry II, the King of England.  Four knights, after hearing the king express exasperation in these words, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”,went to Canterbury Cathedral to slay Becket.  That was his price – his blood – for challenging the king.

            Think of Martin Luther.  The scholarly and colorful German monk challenged the strategies of the Pope to build St. Peter’s Basilica.  That led to threats against his life – threats which were so serious he had to be spirited out of town to escape lynching.

            His courageousness in the 16thcentury led to a church-wide tsunami called The Reformation.

            Think of Duncan M. Gray, Jr., my ordaining bishop.  As a young priest, he challenged a rioting horde of ruffians on the Ole Miss campus in 1962, as the James Meredith riots got underway.  He was beaten on the spot.  His parish church, St. Peter’s, almost closed because of objections to his stand.  Even facing death threats in the turbulent years to come, he endured, to become a beloved priest and bishop.

            Think of Will D. Campbell – a Southern Baptist pastor from rural Amite County, Mississippi.  An active leader in the Civil Rights movement, he never held a full-time pastorate after his years as Chaplain at Ole Miss.  Yet he exhibited courage as a pastor to both civil rights leaders and secretive members of the Ku Klux Klan – and he was roundly criticized for pastoring both sides.

            An axiom he repeated frequently was (and this is cleaned up), “We are all [scoundrels], but God loves us anyway.”

            That speaks somewhat to Jesus’ message in Nazareth – a message that nearly got him thrown off a cliff.

            The truth is that the love and grace of God are scandalous.  There is nothing we have done to earn it.  There is nothing we can do to deserve it.  We cannot be good enough to qualify for it.  His love and grace are poured out to us freely. And it is not limited to us.

            What God does hope – but does not require – is that we manifest transformed lives and open hearts.  His hope is that we will be so changed by our encounter with his love that we will be messengers of his love and compassion to those who do not yet know of his mercy.