Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Transcendent Question

PROPERS:          3 LENT, YEAR A         
TEXT:                 COLLECT OF THE DAY, EXODUS 17:1-7

ONE SENTENCE:        We are accompanied by the Lord when we go through valleys of life.   

            As you know, this past week has been unusual.  I wrote one sermon early in the week – a sermon I would have been happy to preach – but the events of the week demanded that I write a different sermon.

            And it demanded that I focus on an entirely different text.  Circumstances require it.

            It makes sense.  We are in the midst of Lent – based on the 40 days and 40 nights our Lord spent in the wilderness.  In a much more real sense than usual, we are in a wilderness, too.

            The first lesson resonates so profoundly with our current place.  Moses is in the midst of the Exodus with the Hebrews.  They have left “the fleshpots of Egypt” to wander for years in the parched, dry wilderness which separates Egypt from the Land of Promise.

            The people complain bitterly to Moses.  They are thirsty.  They need water to sustain them in their meandering.  So, Moses appeals to God, and God tells him to strike a rock with his staff.  Moses does, and water flows plenteously for the people.  Their thirst is quenched.

            But that does not answer the larger question.  The final verse of the lesson notes: “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”

            A pertinent question today. Is the Lord among us or not?

            Add to that transcendent question, which has been asked by Jews and Christians throughout the millennia, the collect for today:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

            We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.  Whereas the Hebrews felt alone, hungry, thirsty and isolated, our world is closing-in on us as an invisible, easily-transmitted pathogen is creeping in our midst.

            Nursing homes are closed.  Meetings are cancelled. Communion practice is altered. Letters are issued by church leaders.  Sporting events are postponed. We maintain our distance from one another. Fellowship is attenuated. Handshakes are discouraged.

            With human anxiety and our innate instincts of self-preservation being what they are, we have a sense of wandering in the wilderness of the unknown.  We feel that way, in spite of our relative safety and comfort.  The unknown hangs over us.

            It is all very understandable.

            But… but…

            Keep in mind that we have passed this way before – as individuals, and as a human race.

            You, as individuals, have been through trials of various types.  Some involved deaths of loved ones.  There have been serious illnesses.  Perhaps you have known disappointments in important relationships.  Maybe you have known personal struggles which you have shared with no one else.

            Those and others are the price of being human.  You are surrounded by sisters and brothers who have known the same or similar.

            As a human race, we can look in the historical record and name countless wilderness experiences. The Black Death of the 14th Century.  Wars and tumults.  The Spanish Flu. The Holocaust.

            In each and every one of these circumstances, personal or global, we could rationally ask the question: Is the Lord among us or not?  Life itself could be named Massah and Meribah.

            In each circumstance, we have indeed had no power in ourselves to help ourselves.  But, we have done what we could. 

            First, we should note that it is in the strength of the Body that we find God’s presence. We are sisters and brothers, walking through this wilderness together. God does not leave us desolate. Remember:  The Hebrews were a peoplewandering in the Wilderness.

            Second, acting in wisdom is the thing we can do as a people.  We can assess the risks, take prudent action, be cautious, and be assured that in hope is our strength.

            A manifest truth which we claim as people of faith:  We are never alone.  We are always accompanied by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… the God of Moses… and we stand side-by-side with the one who spent 40 days and nights in the desert.

            Our recessional hymn last week was one of my favorites and expresses a sound theology.  It is hymn 637.  The third verse includes this statement of faith:

"When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

Bridging the Gap

PROPERS:          3 LENT, YEAR   
TEXT:                 JOHN 4:5-42

A different sermon was written and preached
for this Sunday because of the rapidly-developing
crisis caused by the COVID 19 pandemic.

ONE SENTENCE:        Christ, by his example and teaching, models for us how to “bridge the gap” between peoples.    

            Jesus, as always, is on foot in the Samaritan village of Sychar today.

            We tend to lose sight of the fact that Jesus walked everywhere he went.  That was his sole mode of transportation.  From way up north, in Tyre and Sidon, all the way down to Jerusalem – and all points in between.  Hundreds of miles – on foot.

            We also lose sight of the fact that Jesus did not look “like us”, and he didn’t speak like us.  He was a Middle Eastern male – likely dark complexioned with dark hair.  He spoke Aramaic – common in his time, but a long-dead language now.  His words were translated into Greek for the early New Testament, and later, in various forms of English.

            Despite what many people think, Jesus did not speak King James’ English.

            But, more than any of that, we don’t usually understand the drama of Jesus’ teaching and example with the Samaritans.

            We are confronted with such an example today.

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            We tend to think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when the word “Samaritan” appears in our gospel.  It is, of course, one of Our Lord’s most famous parables.

            There is a tendency to think of it in terms of a good-hearted stranger, helping a victimized traveler.  It is, indeed, that, but so much more.  It is a story of race and religious bigotry.

            And those same issues rise to the surface in Jesus’ visit to the Samaritan village of Sychar today.

            The Samaritans were the “kissing cousins” of the Jewish people – but they were despised.  They lived in the northern section of the land, in an area we now know as the West Bank.  The Samaritans, it is believed, were the descendants of Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  They were the remnant of the people who had survived the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC.

            But, more than that, they followed a different set of scriptures and believed that the true place for worship of God was not the Holy City of Jerusalem, but Mount Gerizim, near the modern-day city of Nablus.

            The differences were both real and significant. Samaritans had nothing to do with Jews.  Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans.  And never did the twain meet. We may think divisions are new in that portion of the world, but these hard feelings go back to the biblical era and before.

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            Jesus was apparently in Sychar alone.  He is thirsty from his long journey.  He does something remarkable.

            He sees a Samaritan woman at the common well, and he asks her for a drink.  This is truly unusual.  A Jewish male speaking to a Samaritan female.  This was not done. A Jew speaking to a Samaritan, and a male speaking to a female.

            The rest of the gospel passage has so much more – mostly bearing witness to the unique nature of Jesus.  The early church chose to memorialize this scene in early scripture.  It is not here in John’s gospel by chance.

            Likely, I think it is preserved because it emphasizes the same point that the Parable of the Good Samaritan – preserved in the Gospel according to Luke.  Both stories convey the point that the barriers which divide people of faith are chimeras – something artificial, not real.

            It is so interesting to me how we are able to see the barriers that Jesus crosses and accept them – but see them as final examples, a trend that we are not to continue.

            Jesus’ examples of pushing the limits were recognized in Paul’s words from his Letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

            Why are we fine acknowledging that, yes, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male not female, but we are fine with other barriers that continue to this day?  

            Jesus came that all might come within his saving embrace.  Our arms need to be open to offer that embrace.

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            A prominent car dealer in New Orleans, Ronnie LaMarque, had television advertisements in the early 1990s that proclaimed, “We’re bridging the gap.”

            He was referring to his car dealerships’ efforts to reach across the Mississippi River and garner business from both the West Bank and the East Bank – both Greta and New Orleans.

            Jesus Christ models for us how to bridge the gap.  By his life and example, he removed barriers, broke down walls, shattered stereotypes, and disarmed prejudice that separated the children of God.

            His actions were not limited by the time and the circumstances.  His life is a model for us today.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Beginning of a Saga

PROPERS:          2 LENT, YEAR A         
TEXT:                 GENESIS 12:1-4a

ONE SENTENCE:        The righteousness brought by faith brings order out of the chaos of life.        

            The first lesson today begins an important scriptural saga – the story of the key patriarch, Abram.  The story of Abram – who will eventually be known as Abraham – and his family will consume the next 39 chapters of Genesis.

            But, it is grounded in chaos.  Like nearly all biblical stories, it follows and precedes something important, and in this case, the chapter before sets the stage for what is happening.

            Our first lesson is from the beginning of chapter 12 of Genesis.  Just before, in chapter 11, there is the story of the Tower of Babel.  All of the tribes of earth, we are told, have gathered to build a great city.  At the center of that city will be a tower, built from bricks of the native rock, and mortar from the plentiful bitumen of the area.  That tower, they said, would reach to the heavens.

            Genesis goes on:  God looked down and saw the united tribes, all speaking one language, and decided it was time to step-in and take-action.  So, he scattered the people, giving them various languages which differing tribes could not understand.

            Thus, we are told, the people were spread across the face of the earth.

            It is then that God takes an action that will forever change the course of history – down to this very day.

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            We are told Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law, Sarai, from Ur of the Chaldeans.  Ur today is a site in southern Iraq, near Iran. The elder Terah planned to take them to the land of Canaan, in modern-day Israel.

            But taking a curious, circuitous route, they made it only as far as Haran, a site located in modern-day Turkey.  They were a long way from their desired destination. Terah, the father of Abram, died there, in Haran.

            It was there that the saga of Abram begins.  He steps to center stage.

            It is important that we understand the nature of these people.  They were not traveling easily in an RV, on smoothly-paved roads, between Holiday Inns. No, these were Bedouins – nomadic people, forced by nature to move between sources of food for their flocks and water, for both animals and humans. It was a rugged existence – one that continues to this day. You can see such primitive Bedouins on the hillsides outside Jerusalem.

            I have this vision of Abram coming out of his Bedouin tent in Haran, under a clear night sky.  He is alone under the stars.  He is pondering his next move on the long journey to Canaan his father had begun.

            Under the sky’s blanket, on a cool desert night, he has a theophany – an encounter with God.  The exact nature of that theophany I do not know.  Perhaps it was just a still, quiet voice within him, in the solitude of the moment. Whatever the circumstances, he heard:

            “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

            The importance of this passage cannot be overstated.  This is the original covenant between God and what would become his chosen people.  This is the basis on which everything else in the Judeo-Christian tradition is built.  God has reached out and chosen Abram.  

            God was seeking to bring order from the chaos of Babel.  The order continues – to Isaac and to Jacob, and then ultimately to Joseph, who would play an important role in the ultimate delivery of the chosen people – the Hebrews, or the Jews.

            The divine covenant lineage had passed a significant point some 1,500 years later when the apostle Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans.  A passage from that letter is our second lesson today.  Let me remind you of the words:

“What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”

            Paul was writing about a New Covenant – the covenant which had come through Jesus Christ.  But, he referred back to a covenant with Abraham many centuries before – a covenant which had now been expanded and extended.

            He referred to another covenantal moment with Abraham, in Genesis chapter 15.  It is essentially the same covenant we heard today in chapter 12.  The new words are these: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

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            All of this is to emphasize the centrality of faith.  It is a recurrent theme in scripture – the importance of faith over reliance on the The Law.

            We know precious little of Abram’s moral life – though between chapters 12 and 15, we have a bit of a flittering and unflattering insight into his ethics.  What made Abram stand out as an icon and as a patriarch was his faith – his willingness to trust God.

            Trust is a synonym for faith.  Our object of faith is that in which we put our trust – specifically, our ultimate trust.  It is to be a trust which goes beyond the limited parameters of this life… that transcends the daily problems we face… that looks beyond this life into the mists of eternity.  Abram, the patriarch, saw barely the tip of the iceberg on that quiet night in the Middle Eastern desert. Jesus later brought that faith into high relief. And Paul emphasized its importance.

            When I was growing up in the Methodist Church, we used to sing a hymn that expressed this faith so well.  Listen to its lyrics:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

            Today, we stand on that same solid rock. Our faith holds us there firmly.

Monday, March 2, 2020

A Shared Journey

PROPERS:          1 LENT, YEAR A         
TEXT:                 GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-7; MATTHEW 4:1-11

ONE SENTENCE:        The chasm between God and humanity is so great and God seeks to bridge that chasm, and Jesus did so in his wilderness sojourn.         

            We have entered the great season of Lent.  Forty days and nights of penitence and preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection.

            Many of us heard the words this past Wednesday that “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  The message implicit in those words and in this season is that we are not god or gods and that there is, in the words of a gospel passage, a great chasm which is between us and the eternal realm in which God abides.

            In the first lesson today, we have the prototypical human beings, a man and woman unnamed at this point, seeking to bridge that chasm.  They are seeking to become like God, and the end result is something we know too well.  That lesson is repeated day-by-day as we seek to substitute our will for the will of the Divine One.

            Admittedly, the Divine Will is not always clear.  We face temptations from many different directions – and we feel pulled in those various directions.  It is an aspect of the human condition – being “a little lower than the Gods” and placing our desires and self-reliance at the center of our lives.

            Bridging the chasm – to fully know existence in both realms, the human and the divine – was a reason Jesus was driven into the Wilderness.   This came right on the heels of his baptism by John in the River Jordan.

            The baptism of Jesus is one of the mysteries of the gospels.  John the Baptist was offering a baptism for the repentance and forgiveness of sins.  He offered it even to the faithful people of the religious community. It was different from the baptism of conversion.

            This, of course, raises the issue of Why Jesus needed to be baptized, since we profess belief and the church has proclaimed down through the millennia that he alone is without sin.

            Jesus’ response to John’s challenging of his baptismal request is telling: “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

            A way of looking at the baptism and the movement into the wilderness is to acknowledge that both events allowed Jesus to know the full experience of his human followers.  Jesus was, after all, in the teaching of the church, both fully human and fully divine.

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            So, after his baptism in the cool waters of the River Jordan, Jesus is driven by the spirit into the arid, desolate wilderness.  There he is tempted by Satan – multiple times.  And he resists.  But in that experience, he comes to know the vast chasm which exists between this realm and the fullness of the kingdom.

            It is a chasm we acknowledge in this season of Lent.  We are reminded of our sinfulness. We lay claim to our shortcomings.  We name our failures – shared with the first man and woman, in the Book of Genesis. We turn to head in a new direction.  But, we know we cannot do it on our own.

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            In the days before the turn of the 20th century, the seeds of a theological upheaval were being planted.

            Leading theologians had been espousing theories that human nature was on an upward trajectory.  The world was being made a better place, and true progress was being made.  Humanity was creating a new, better world. All along the world’s frontiers, human progress was evident. The theological perspective was known as Liberal Theology.

            But something had happened that changed all that.  World War I had come.  The bubble of idealism was burst. There was devastation and staggering loss of life.  Human progress was halted.  The voices of optimism went silent.  The Western World – mostly Europe – descended into an economic, social and political dark hole.

            And, of course, in spite of being victorious, the United States soon followed with the Great Depression.  Even though Franklin Roosevelt had plans for recovery, a strident strain of populism began to sweep across the country.  It was a dangerous time – both here and overseas.

            An ominous caldron began to boil in one European nation – and it cast a broad and portentous shadow. Its leader had a sinister charisma. The movement metastasized like a cancer. The chasm between the realm of humanity and the full Kingdom of God was growing deeper and more perilous.

            In the midst of this, a theologian emerged.  He was Swiss.  His name was Karl Barth.  He challenged the assumption that humanity could span the chasm or that the world had anything to teach God.

            He emphasized the Word of God – Holy Scriptures – as the sole means by which the chasm could be bridged.  He believed that God, reaching across the dark gulf, was the only manner in which human beings could find the good of God’s kingdom.

            Karl Barth, from Basel, Switzerland, became the voice of what was known as Neoorthodoxy.  His commentary on the Book of Romans was read widely, and during his life, he published a 12-volume work of his theology, known as Church Dogmatics. He was also the principle author of the Barmen Declaration, which was the confession of faith of pastors who resisted the dark movement – Nazis in Germany.

            Karl Barth, born in 1886, had seen the folly of theology through the experience of World War I.  He knew human pride and destructive evil, too. He also saw the great chasm, in broad relief, in light of Germany’s descent into the abyss of the Third Reich.

            There was an emphasis that politics should not be preached and that the Word of God was the appropriate focus for the pulpit.  That had a cutting edge to it, because, as the Letter to the Hebrews notes, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Word of God cast the shadows.

            Barth and others believed that the Word of God – and it alone – could banish the forces of evil and allow God to enter the world of human beings.  The Word, faithfully preached, would emphasize the differences in broad relief. We are utterly dependent on God’s action to bridge that deep abyss which separate our world from his.

            That is, from my perspective, why we baptize infants in the Episcopal Church.  The primary and most important movement is God’s, not an individual accepting that relationship.  God, first and foremost, reaches across to us to establish a covenant.  No relationship would be possible without that action. We ratify and acknowledge it.

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            The example of Karl Barth does not end with his Commentary on the Book of Romans, his 12-volume Church Dogmatics, his authoring of the Barmen Declaration, or his preaching or teaching.  In fact, it was from a particularly different direction.

            Karl Barth believed in the Word of God.  He was a strong proponent of how that word should impact our lives.  But Karl Barth was unfaithful.

            He violated his marriage vows to his wife.  He had a long-time, illicit relationship with his assistant.  It went on for years, even while he continued in marriage. Even with his wife’s knowledge of the betrayal.

            That sad, bitter example is instructive to us. Even at our best, we are afflicted with the human condition – which theologically comes to us down through the millennia from the First Chapter of Genesis.  

            In this season of Lent, we acknowledge that truth. We are broken.  We hurt others.  We betray sacred vows. We place ourselves in the rightful place of God.  We are prideful.

            But here we are – seeking to bridge the chasm which separates us from our Creator.  The truth for Karl Barth is the same truth for us:  God loves us anyway.  That is the repeated story found throughout the word of God – that God continues to bridge the chasm to come to us; not in our perfection, but in our brokenness. 

            By his life, he knows the road we travel.