Sunday, February 16, 2020

Beyond the Binary

TEXT:                 MATTHEW 5:21-37

ONE SENTENCE:        The Christian faith is more complicated – and more gracious – than binary choices.

            I grew up an Ole Miss fan.  There, I said it.

            But that is not who I am.  Though, it is who I was.

            I have told friends for years that part of my spiritual awakening was being healed of football.  And, boy, did I need it.

            In years past, I would be a basket case on football weekends.  I still say to this day – with tongue planted firmly in cheek – that the darkest day in my life was October 17, 1970.

            That was the day that my undefeated, fourth-ranked, beloved Ole Miss Rebels – with Heisman Trophy candidate Archie Manning at the helm – were defeated by Southern Mississippi at Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.  Little Willie Heidelburg, scatback from Southern and, ironically, the only black player on the field, scored touchdowns on two double-reverses to lead the Golden Eagles to a 30-14 victory.

            No, I don’t remember those specifics…

            It was downhill from there.  Legendary Coach John Vaught had a heart attack that week.  Archie Manning broke his arm the next week.  It did not bode well for the future.

            Through my years at Ole Miss, our football team was awful.  And I was miserable.  The misery continued afterwards – in the years following.

\           If Nora was here today she would verify what am anxious wretch I was.  On weekends when Ole Miss played football, I was wound tight as a tick.  When we lost – which was frequently – I would be sullen the entire weekend.

            My viewpoint of life and college football was binary, dualistic – Ole Miss was good, everything else was not good.  Binary. Either/or.

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            You know it.  Sadly, our culture has become binary, too.  Either you’re fur us or agin’ us.

            It is seen most clearly in our politics.  And in social media, too.  Lines are being drawn.  You are on one side or the other.  There is no in-between.

            We’ve seen it in the church in the last two decades.  Thankfully, we have largely emerged from that chapter.  We have grown more tolerant of one another – by and large.

            Culture is another thing, though.  We see the divisions daily.  They are exemplified by the television channels we watch.  The fabric of society is stretched, and it is about to be torn asunder. There is a demand for winners and losers – a zero-sum game.

            What does the church have to say?  What does the gospel have to say?

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            Going back to the early roots of the church, we come across one of the first heresies – Gnosticism.  It was characterized by the definition of its name – secret knowledge.  One of its other tendencies was a focus on dualism – something was either all good or all bad.

            Gnostics saw matter – flesh and the world -- as evil, and spirit as good. Christians saw creation as good, but as corrupted. Hence, the Incarnation – Christ coming in human form to redeem creation. The Gnostics saw our embodiment itself as evil, and that the essential spirit represented the sole good present in creation.

            For example, the Gnostics saw the pursuit of the spiritual quest to be far superior to Christian ministry, such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, and other ministries to which Jesus calls us. The binary contention was this:  the inner was good; the outer, not so.

            In reality, the truth can be found in both/and and not in either/or.

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            To put the matter in a secular context, I would quote the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

            That was an important lesson I had to learn.  My passion for Ole Miss football was the petri dish for my spiritual transformation.  I came, by a gift of grace, to see life as more complex – more in shades of grey than in all black and white. And that did not make things simpler.  In fact, life became more complicated.

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            The faithful people of Jesus’ day, if they wished, were free to follow the details of the Law – the black and white specifics of Torah, the ancient law of Moses.  In broad strokes, it was very clear.  There was little doubt about major issues.  The Law was authoritative.  It was to be followed faithfully.

            But, there was some thought beyond that fundamental approach. As an example, the Pharisees were experts in the Law.  And they were focused on applying it to every aspect of life.  They, too, saw that there were grey areas – areas of doubt, areas of confusion, areas of dispute – which needed to be addressed.

            There were various avenues for interpreting Torah.  They included Peshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod.

            Jesus seeks to be clear about the complexity of God’s Law in today’s gospel. If there is a supposition that Jesus released us from the demands of the Law, these words will disabuse us from that mistaken notion.

            Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

            And he goes on.  He does not let us off the hook.  Keep in mind that this passage is within the Sermon on the Mount, and comes only a few verses after the Beatitudes – the words of comfort for common men and women, like you and I, who listened to him that day.

            His words remind us, as Scott Peck wrote in his book, The Road Less Traveled, that Life is difficult. It iscomplex and resists the temptation to place everything in a box, or see all of life as black or white.

            Jesus is telling us: The heart is the core of our lives. It discloses our motivations. A heart that is hard, will deal with complex matters in a firm, brittle way.  A heart that is both spirit and flesh will see issues and people with nuance, grace, and gentleness.

            Our lives are not characterized by simple, binary choices, but call us to a spirit-filled approach to people and to circumstances.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

A Different Perspective

TEXT:                 LUKE 2:22-40

ONE SENTENCE:        The apex of the Christian perspective is to see God’s                                           hand in all things.         

            Today is one of the Holy Days in the Church Year – the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple.

            What is that, you might ask. It starts with the fact that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were Jews.  As faithful, observant, and practicing Jews of that day, they followed the practice of presenting their forty-day-old infant in the Temple. The rite was for his official induction into the Jewish faith, and to complete the ritual purification of Mary after the birth.  Keep in mind that first-born males were designated to God.

            Mary and Joseph were poor.  As poor people, they offered the ritual sacrifice of two turtle doves.  A wealthy person would have offered a lamb.

            We could talk about the ritual significance of this moment.  But I want us to focus on two persons who make brief but important Cameo appearances in Luke’s gospel in this passage:  Simeon and Anna.

            Both were elderly.  They had lived long lives of dedication in the Temple.  The Temple, of course, was the massive edifice that was the central place of worship to all Jews.  Wherever Jews lived in the world, they directed their prayers toward the Temple.  It was described as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

            It bore witness to the engineering genius of the tyrant king, Herod.  It succeeded the previous Temple, built by Solomon, and destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B. C.  The Temple was the center of life, faith, and activity – rising in the heart, and highest point, of the walled city.

            Simeon and Anna devoted their lives to service in the Temple.  Simeon had received assurance that he would not die before he saw the Lord’s anointed one – the one who would deliver Israel.  Anna, 84 years of age, lived in the Temple – always dedicated to prayer and fasting.

            We can only speculate what their previous years had been like.

            Keep in mind that they were a people – Jews – whose history to that point could be characterized by slavery, deliverance, war, defeat, captivity, and conquest by neighboring powers.

            Simeon and Anna almost certainly lived a simple, monastic-like existence.  They knew no frills or luxuries.  They lived a spartan existence.  If they were fortunate, they would have shared in the priest’s portions from the sacrifices in the Temple.

            They lived under shadows – the shadow of Herod and his successors, and the shadow of Rome.  Perhaps the closest analogy we could make would be life in an Eastern Block country during the days before the fall of the Iron Curtain.  Cruel leaders overseen by distant tyrants. What freedoms they knew were limited, and their beloved Temple was always under the watchful eye of Rome.

            We know little of Simeon’s background.  We know more about Anna.  She lived with her husband for seven years (probably until her early-to-mid 20s), after which she was widowed.  She began her service in the Temple then.  She may have been in the Temple for 60 years.

            But I think we can speculate that their lives had been meager, challenging, and anything but easy.

            Yet, here they were: open, receptive, and hopeful.  Their eyes of faith were bright.

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            Years ago, I would travel to Grand Coteau, Louisiana, for silent retreats.  There is a wonderful Jesuit Spirituality Center there.  The monastic brothers and sisters there welcomed and warmly hosted people seeking retreat time.

            Each retreatant would be assigned a spiritual director for the duration of the stay.  We would meet with the director an hour each day – to be guided in prayers, to share our journey, to seek insights, to find God’s movement in our lives.

            One of my directors once observed to me: “All life is a blessing.” Not just the good stuff, but all life.

            I thought, “That’s a simplistic view… easy for someone who lives in a monastic community.”  How did one reconcile that perspective with Cambodia under Pol Pot, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, or pediatric cancer wards?

            I even thought back on my life – the bitter experiences, the pain, the depression, the anxiety, the broken relationships – and thought, as if…

            All life is a blessing? No, that was not my perspective.  How could someone say that?  How could that be a perspective?  Life is difficult… and much more so for many others.  I could not preach that mindless perspective to my congregants.

            So, I just put that approach out of my mind.  And the years went on…

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            Years went by, and I lived my life.

            Then, as I matured – in other words, got older – I found myself looking back, reflecting on life.  Life and distance changes one’s perspective. I was reminded of the poem by the Jesuit priest named Anthony DeMello.  It was called, The River.  It had nothing to do with a river, except maybe the river of time and perspective.

            DeMello’s poem took me to a place billions of miles into space and millions of years into the future – to look back; to gain a more detached perspective. In looking back, I saw the insignificance of my personal travails – and the poet’s refrain was “This, too, shall pass.”

            The years, the experience, the wisdom, and the poem -- they changed the way I viewed life. 

            Now, I am thankful for my life.  I can see how each experience, each relationship, each personal failure, each disappointment had led me to this precise moment in life.  

            It is because of each of those that I stand before you.  It is because of each experience that I am the person I am today. I can see how those experiences – good, bad or indifferent – molded and formed my life. Not perfect, by any means, but blessed beyond measure. And deeply grateful.

            To be clear, I am not saying that traumatic events in life do not hurt.  I am not volunteering for any bitter experiences.  I am not advocating some Pollyanna view of the world.

            And I admit:  I must stand silent in bringing meaning and purpose out of events such as the Holocaust.  If Elie Wiesel cannot bring meaning, I certainly can’t.

            I am saying that God can move through our lives. Depending on our openness, he can redeem the losses that we sustain and bring about new life where there appears to be none. And when we have moved beyond those losses, we can once again be grateful for the gift of life itself.

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            Anna, the elderly prophetess, and Simeon, lived faithful lives.  They remained open to the potential that they would see a transcendent blessing in their lives.

            They, too, had probably seen and known bitter losses and experiences.  And at the end, they were able to see the hand of God in all that they had known.  They praised God in words that have echoed through the millennia.