Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas 2: In the Beginning was the Word

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth...” (John 1.1, 14)

“In the beginning was the Word...” I’m not talking about the opening of John’s gospel. I’m not talking about the word that God spoke that brought the world into being. I’m talking about your word and my word.

In the beginning is the word, the sound, the cry of each of us. wailing at the top of our lungs. Angry to have been torn from the safe, warm womb. And for the longest time that’s all there is. There’s just our voice. Then, gradually, we begin to recognize there are others, much bigger than us who are talking to us. We don’t know what they are saying but we figure out that if we yell and cry loud enough and long enough and frequently enough we can get them to do what we want: feed us, change our diaper, or just hold us.

And ever so gradually we begin to understand what they are saying. Before they put us to bed they put is in this stuff called “water”. And we quickly learn how to tell them if it’s too hot or too cold!!

“Milk”—now there’s an important word! It doesn’t take long at all to figure out the name of that delectable substance.

But the most important words probably come the most quickly—Mommy and Daddy. The big creatures who hold us and feed us and change us and teach us all these words that we are learning.

If there were only our own voices crying in the emptiness, if there were no voices responding to us, how could we know what to call water or milk, much less Mommy and Daddy? And if we could not name the world around us, how could we even know who we are? For it is only by responding to others, it is only in the give and take with others that we learn who we are.

We come to learn who we are by encountering others and the primary way we encounter others is through language. We talk and I learn that you like brussel sprouts and I like broccoli. You are a morning person and I am a night person. You are Jewish and I am Christian. You squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom and I squeeze from the middle.

If there were no language, no medium for communication, then how could we ever know who we are? Communication is essential for learning who we are because communication enables community and it is in community that we take on the unique characteristics that make us who we are.

And so the world goes... sometimes communication enables very good things to take place. Great artists can take words and create poems and plays and novels and reflect life back to us so that we can understand it more fully. Music is another form of communication. Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert and a thousand others take melody and harmony and rhythm and reflect an infinite variety of subtle gradations of human feelings.

But sometimes communication is used destructively. “Words mean exactly what I want them to mean”, said Humpty Dumpty to Alice in Through the Looking Glass. And so tyrants have taken words and twisted them. The Nazis called their extermination of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others the “final solution”. “Anti-social tendencies” was the excuse the Soviets gave for sending millions to the prison camps in Siberia. “Re-education” was what Mao said he was doing to dissidents and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, when he was really sending them to camps where they were worked to death. “Not one of us”, an innocent sounding phrase, is given as an excuse for excluding those of different races, religions, and nationalities from our communities. Harmless sounding phrases can be used to mask profound evil.

“In the beginning was the Word...” So, the human race went for hundreds of thousands of years talking to itself. And then, Someone else spoke. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” Israel, a tiny and seemingly insignificant people, suddenly found its internal conversation rudely and abruptly interrupted by a word from Beyond. And so the real dialogue began. A Voice broke in offering a radically new perspective. The Voice said, “You are not alone. You did not create yourselves. You have responsibilities to me and I to you. And because I am a just God and will deal justly with you, you must deal justly with one another. And oh, by the way, I love you with an everlasting love and will never, never leave you.”

And Israel took up the challenge of dialogue with God. The dialogue was conducted through prophets—men and women who always began what they had to say with “The word of the Lord came to me...”

Like a child, Israel learned new words. They learned justice and righteousness which meant (and still means) to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and care for the sick and dying. They learned chesed, “lovingkindness”, the quality of God’s love for them which was also to be the quality of their love for one another.

But it was difficult to remember what the prophets said, so they wrote it down. Hundreds of yards of papyrus was used to write down the words of the prophets. And weekly on Friday night and Saturday morning they read the words of the prophets. Scribes pored over the scrolls, interpreting what the prophets had said, trying to help people live according to the teachings of the prophets, which is to say, according to the words of God.

But it was still difficult to remember, much less to do, what God had said to the prophets. You had to be able to read and few could do that. Or you had to go to the Temple or the synagogue and that was difficult to do every week. And the Israelites were like us. They had their own agendas. There were other gods who were less demanding, who asked no more than a pinch of incense or an occasional lamb on the altar and a quickly muttered incantation. So, the prophets spoke less and less frequently and their words grew faint and people neglected to read the words on the scrolls.

So if you were God, what would you do? You or I would probably try to speak more loudly. If we had divine powers we might borrow the booming voice of the thunder and speak in that way. That would get people’s attention, but that would only work for a short time. People would get accustomed to that and tune that out, too. We might send earthquakes and natural disasters to underscore the importance of what we had to say. That gets people’s attention for a while, and then they go back to doing whatever they were doing before the catastrophe.

So God spoke in an entirely different way. There had been enough words, and there had been enough flashy miracles. God’s strategy was brilliant. It was counter-intuitive. We expect an announcement from God to be like an announcement from the President. “We now interrupt this program to bring you a speech from the Oval Office...” Or we expect a word from God to be announced like the announcement of a dire catastrophe. “There will now be a test of the emergency broadcast network...” Or at least there would be a legion of trumpeters and drummers and maybe even bagpipes preceding a major announcement from God.

But instead God slipped quietly and unobtrusively into the world. God’s message came wrapped in the flesh of a baby born to an unwed mother who had travelled far from her home and could find shelter only in a cattle shed. Talk about counter-intuitive!

Oh sure, there were some shepherds who saw and heard a few angels, but who believed them? There were some astrologers who found a strange conjunction of stars and set off for Bethlehem. And even Joseph and Mary were somewhat unsure of what God was trying to say.

A popular phrase of the 1960s expresses exactly what God was doing: “The medium is the message”. God’s message was not just what Jesus said; the life of Jesus was the message of God. The message was that this is how God chooses to love. God’s love is vulnerable and non-coercive. The message is that we have several choices. We can ignore it, and that’s what most did. There weren’t many who had “ears to hear”. We can scoff and condemn: “This man receives sinners and eats with them”. Or we can follow: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. And immediately they dropped their nets and followed him”.

We can also take God’s love and betray him and give him a mock trial and turn him over to the authorities and nail him to a cross and watch while for six hours he dies and then take God’s love and put it in a borrowed tomb and then we can all go home to our houses and think, “Well, it was a lovely dream, but it wasn’t very realistic, was it? The world is a tough place. God should have sent his love in a stronger package. Maybe next time God should try sending a warrior or a king or something big and flashy that will get people’s attention. God needs to send a guy who’ll knock a few heads together. The human race is a pretty tough audience. Maybe God learned his lesson this time. The very idea of sending a baby who grew into a man who never owned a home and who hung out with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors.... what was God thinking?”

But then God’s love burst out of the borrowed tomb. God’s love showed that it was stronger than Roman legions; stronger than the thousand year Reich; stronger than the Iron Curtain; stronger than death.

The laugh is on us. We had to learn we were still infants when it comes to learning God’s language. We had to learn that there are some kinds of weakness that are stronger than what we think of as strength. We had to learn that life is about more than just accumulating things and pushing to the front of the line and looking out for number one. We had to learn that you can’t kill God’s love. It comes back again and again and again.

Above all we had to learn a new meaning for the word love. Love means reaching out to and including lepers and the homeless and persons with AIDS and persons who struggle with addiction. Love means giving without expecting anything in return. Love means trusting that God who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds of the air will care for us, too.

And what happens if we put our trust in God’s love? What happens if we take the radical risk of loving as God loves? Well, God left us a story about what happens if we do that and we heard the beginning of that story tonight. If we really love as God loves then what happened to Jesus will happen to us. A few will listen; most will be indifferent; and a few may try to kill us. But the story also tells us that those who love as God loves can never, never be separated from God.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christmas needs more Jesus

Note: This article by my friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller appeared recently in The Birmingham News, and I am reproducing it here by his permission.

It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without the trees strapped to the tops of SUVs. It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without crowded parking lots and lines at the cash register. It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without a month of the same music year after year wafting its way down the aisles of the SuperCenter or the shopping mall or the grocery store. And it sure wouldn’t be Christmas without the specter of some kind of Grinch who is out to spoil the holiday fun.

As a rabbi, I don’t celebrate Christmas. Christmas celebrates the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus, the Messiah of all the earth. Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah of all the earth, and neither do Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or Atheists nor any of the other people in our country who are not Christians. Even the Eastern Orthodox Church, a large part of the Christian world, does not celebrate Christmas on December 25. So Christmas, although it is ubiquitous here in America, is not universally observed.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like Christmas. I do, really. I like the lights, the food, and the return of hope and promise that permeates our society. I enjoy listening to some of the less campy Christmas music. I even smile as I find myself humming Christmas melodies. Even as I watch from the sidelines as everyone scurries around to get everything in place for their perfect Christmas day, most people have good cheer and hopeful spirits, and they share that with everyone. And I like that, I really do.

But this year, I have turned on the television and the radio and read about Christmas in the newspapers, and I have learned that suddenly I, because I don’t celebrate Christmas have become this year’s Grinch. I don’t like being the Grinch. I really don’t.

It seems that some of the more mean spirited people in our society are picking on people who don’t celebrate Christmas. After all, what is Christmas without a Grinch? These Grinch hunters take great offense at the people in the stores who tell their customers to have a happy holiday without specifically mentioning Christmas. They feel as though we non-Christmas celebrators are removing the baby Jesus from our society. But we haven’t done anything new. Last year we non-Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. And next year, no matter how much hollering there is, I don’t suspect that we will be celebrating Christmas even then.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t like Christmas. It means that we don’t celebrate Christmas. The non-Christians I know are rooting for Christmas. Deck your halls, by all means. Put up your lights and your mistletoe, enjoy your hats and stuff your stockings, be generous to the people you love and to the poor among us. Open your hearts to the joy and the hope that your belief brings you, and let some of that joy and hope permeate your lives all year long. What a blessing you will be as good Christians to all of us! Only don’t make me your Grinch.

I am not at all offended if some store clerk wishes me a “Merry Christmas”, and neither should anyone. I know these people are wishing good things for me, because Christmas is good for them. I have taught my children to say, “Thank you” to those who wish us a merry Christmas. But what could possibly be offensive about anyone wishing anyone else “Happy Holidays”? Christians know that that means Christmas. And others know that that means, “Even if you happen to be different from me, I wish you the very best at the festive season.” Those are hardly fighting words. They actually seem like Christian words. These words should represent the Christmas spirit that all Christian believers cherish. Even a true Grinch, (not me!) would be offended by someone saying, “Happy Holidays.” A true Grinch would be offended by anyone saying happy anything!

Like some of you, I am concerned that there is not enough Jesus in Christmas. I am also concerned that there is not enough Jesus in Christianity. I am concerned this year that non-Christians are made to be society’s enemies. I can’t believe that Jesus would endorse this view. I am concerned that some Christians see their numerical majority as the right to bully the rest of us. I can’t believe that Jesus would endorse this view. Jesus was kind and was open and was generous in spirit. At least that’s the way I have experienced him through the eyes of true Christians who have shared their faith with me. And true Christians, I have learned, don’t need a megaphone to make their faith known. If these media bullies are really concerned about Jesus and Christmas, let them call to task those Churches which plan to close on Sunday morning, December 25 because too many Christians will choose to stay home to open their presents. Let them call to task those who buy for themselves and take for themselves, but do not share enough from their bounty with those in need. Let them emulate Jesus’ generosity of spirit, which curiously they seem to lack this year. Christians, please bring Jesus back to Christmas. And if this wish makes me your Grinch, well I guess that is the burden that I bear for you. And I do it with love.

Jonathan Miller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, AL. He has served congregations in New Zealand, Los Angeles, and Birmingham.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Advent 2: Songs of Exile

My sermon for Advent 2 is featured on the Episcopal Church's "Worship that Works" site. Here's the link:

Songs of Exile

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Advent 1B: Remembering the Future

One of the most popular Christmas specials of recent years has been the dramatization of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory". The very title of that wonderful program tells us something important about the season we have just entered. Advent and Christmas are seasons of memory. All of us have memories of Advents and Christmases past. I hope we remember how the liturgy of the church changes at the beginning of Advent. One of the great advantages of our traditions as Episcopalians is that worship involves our senses. At the beginning of Advent we see that green gives way to purple; we notice the Advent wreath and its four candles, knowing that when all four are lit Christmas is finally at hand; we smell the Advent greenery on the altar and Advent wreath; we hear the lovely, haunting Advent hymns -- "Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel".

But I'm afraid that our memories are more shaped by the popular media than by the traditions of the church.

Perhaps one artist above all seems to have caught the popular imagination with his scenes of American life, especially his depictions of Christmas and other holidays, and that artist is Norman Rockwell. I remember seeing a Rockwell print that would be for many the ideal scene of Christmas festivity.

It depicts an older man and two boys (apparently a father and his sons) are dragging an evergreen, snow still clinging to it, into a well-appointed living room. A fire burns in the fireplace, and a woman and young girl (surely the mother and daughter) clap their hands together in delight.

Well, as Yogi Berra once remarked, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be".

The "Christmases past" of most "baby boomers" were urban or suburban in nature. We had artificial trees or perhaps dried up sticks of trees we bought from Boy Scouts in the church parking lot.

The message of much popular media seems to be that we should try to remember a past that never was or at least was not our past.

Like us, the writer of Isaiah 64 struggled with the problem of memory. The memories recalled in Isaiah 64 are not of a "Norman Rockwell Christmas"; they are better, truer, and deeper memories. They are memories of the mighty acts of God. The writer remembers a God who came down from heaven and at whose presence the mountains quaked. Isaiah recalls a God who "kindled brushwood" and caused the waters of the earth to steam and boil.

The writer of Isaiah 64 did not have personal memories of these things. When the writer of Isaiah 64 spoke of the mountains quaking at God's presence he was alluding to Israel's encounter with God at Sinai. That was an event in the distant past, something which no one alive had personally witnessed. And yet Israel remembered, for the event was embedded deeply in their corporate memory and that memory was kept alive in their stories.

More than likely, the author of Isaiah 64 was an exile who had returned to Jerusalem about fifty years after Babylon had invaded and burned and destroyed Israel's holy city. But the prophet and the refugees who returned from Babylon had kept alive the memory of what their God had done; they had told the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; of Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel. They had recounted Israel's great deliverance at the Red Sea and of the awe their mothers and fathers had felt before Sinai when Moses delivered God's great precepts: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt... you shall have no other Gods before me." The memories of Israel's God were just as real to the prophet, as if had seen them with his own eyes. For they were a part of Israel's corporate memory. In fact, they were what gave existence and identity to Israel.

And so they gathered, prophet and people, amidst the ruins of Jerusalem, among the rubble of the Temple to tell the story of the God who had done "awesome deeds that we did not expect". They gathered to remember and to wait. To tell the story surrounded by the destruction Babylon had visited upon Israel and its capital took courage and boldness. It could even be seen as an act of defiance. It was counter-cultural. To remember what God has done in the past is to hope for and anticipate what God may do in the future.

We gather in our warm homes and churches, not in the ruins of the Temple. But our world, too, often seems a wasteland, a land in which we have forgotten God and God has forgotten us. Like Isaiah and the Israelites, we gather in the cold and dark; we light candles and sing songs and tell again the story of the God who came and who comes, of that which has been and is yet to be.

Like the prophet who penned Isaiah 64 we must confess that we, too, have not seen or heard the God who made the mountains tremble, who "did awesome deeds that we did not expect". The memory of a Norman Rockwell Christmas is lovely but unreal. The memory of a God who comes down, who meets whose who "gladly do right" is very real indeed.

Like the prophet we, too, can tell the story, Israel's story, of a God who came down with majesty and fire. But we can also tell the story of a God who came with meekness and gentleness in the form of a baby.

And we can tell the story of how God comes among us even now, who "meets whose who gladly do right, those who remember [God] in their ways".

What we remember and await is not a Norman Rockwell Christmas. It is a lovely picture, but the day after we would be left with a feeling of emptiness. Instead, we wait for something infinitely better - for the skies to pour down righteousness upon those who hunger and are cold, for fire to fall upon dry and drowsy hearts, which is to say, upon us. We assemble and tell the story as we remember that which is yet to be and anticipate what has already happened -- the advent of our God.

Thanksgiving Day: Errand into the Wilderness

The feeding of the five thousand is arguably the most famous meal in western history. A meal of bread and dried fish was probably typical for first century Palestine. But even though the fare was spartan, the crowds who dined on the miraculously multiplied picnic couldn’t get enough. They even followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The crowds did what crowds always do; they followed someone who gave them “bread and circuses”. And Jesus rebuked them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." (John 6.26-27)

The crowds that followed Jesus into the wilderness following the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes made two mistakes. First, they were seeking “the food that perishes” rather than “the food that endures for eternal life”. Secondly, they assumed that what Jesus was offering came with a price tag attached: "What must we do to perform the works of God?"

This dialogue between Jesus and the crowd in the aftermath of the feeding of the five thousand seems an odd gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day. No doubt about it -- Thanksgiving is about “the food that perishes”. Say “Thanksgiving” and my mind turns immediately to turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin and pecan pie. But Thanksgiving should also remind us of the pilgrims and puritans who came to the northeastern shores of North America in the seventeenth century, seeking to found a godly church in a godly commonwealth. Perry Miller, one of the greatest scholars of American puritanism, entitled one of his books Errand into the Wilderness. That’s a good way of describing what the pilgrims and Puritans were up to. It’s also not a bad way of describing the scene in today’s gospel reading. Jesus was on an errand into the wilderness and so were the crowds who followed him. But Jesus was in the wilderness to offer “the food that endures for eternal life” and the crowds were seeking the “food that perishes”.

Thanksgiving also seems to be about working hard and enjoying the rewards of our labor. The question the crowd asked Jesus, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" has an American ring to it. Sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin observed that the command to refrain from work on the Sabbath means that we should work hard the other six days! But we live in the age of “24/7”; even the 24 hours of the Sabbath seem stressful. Bill Gates famously remarked that an hour spent in church seemed to be an inefficient use of time.

Human life is mostly about seeking the “food that perishes”. It has to be. Someone once observed that we do not live by bread alone, but we don’t live very long without it, either. Like Jesus and the crowds and like the pilgrims and puritans, we, too, are on an “errand into the wilderness”. Human life is a journey through uncharted, difficult, and often dangerous territory. The constant temptation is to make it nothing but a quest for “food that perishes”. But the paradox is that if we seek only to fill our bellies, we will die of malnourishment.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a colleague who said to a member of his congregation, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. Tell me, where are you running all the time?” The man answered, “I’m running after success, I’m running after fulfillment, I’m running after the reward for all my hard work.” And Kushner’s colleague replied, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, trying to elude you and if you run fast enough, you may catch up with them. But isn’t it possible that those blessings are behind you, that they are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?” Kushner observed that God may have all kinds of blessing in store for us – “good food and beautiful sunsets and flowers budding in the spring and leaves turning in the fall – but we in our pursuit of happiness are so constantly on the go that God can’t find us at home to deliver them”! (Lawrence Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (New York, 1986), pp. 146-147)

Perhaps the feeding of the five thousand isn’t such a bad reading for Thanksgiving Day after all. It reminds us that life and the food that sustains life are not our accomplishment; they are God’s gift. At the end of the great Danish film Babette’s Feast, a distinguished general rises to propose a toast and says, "Man, my friends is frail and foolish. We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness we imagine God's grace to be limited...But we are wrong; grace is infinite. Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”

So, this Thanksgiving I encourage you to pause and remember a feast two thousand years ago in Palestine, when Jesus took and blessed and broke and gave the loaves and fishes to five thousand. The cuisine would hardly have impressed Julia Child, but it was a potent reminder that a little is enough when it is given and received with love and gratitude. Enjoy the turkey and cranberry sauce and all the other “food that perishes”, but save some room for the “food that endures for eternal life” because that’s what we really need to sustain us on our “errand into the wilderness”.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Christ the King: The Kingdom of Love

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, in inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world... Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...” (Matthew 25.34, 41)

“Christ is the King, O friends upraise anthems of joy and holy praise…” Thus begins a wonderful hymn by Bishop G.K.A. Bell of Chichester, England. “King” is a favorite title of Christ employed in many Christian hymns. We sing, “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne” or “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now”. And on the last Sunday in Pentecost we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when in addition to singing about Christ the King, we have to start thinking about what it really means to say that Jesus of Nazareth is king, and that can give us pause.

Kings and queens have mostly disappeared from modern, western countries. Oh sure, we hear a great deal about the “woes of the Windsors”, the British royal family, and it often makes for entertaining reading. But where there are kings and queens, they are usually figureheads, useful for making inspiring remarks and opening shopping centers, but having little real power. We are more comfortable, or at least familiar, with presidents and prime ministers.

However, there remains a fascination with kingship. British journalist Katharine Whitehorn attributes our fascination with kings to the popularity of fairy tales. “Whoever heard,” she asked, “of someone kissing a frog and it turning into a handsome senator?” President Jesus" just doesn't have the same ring as "King Jesus". A trendy, leftist minister once referred to Jesus as "Chairman Jesus", but that won't quite do either. Like it or not, we are stuck with King Jesus. So, on this Christ the King Sunday we are given the salutary reminder that we are subjects of a leader for whom we did not cast a vote; rather we are the subjects an absolute monarch whom we did not choose. Scary? The words “absolute monarch” bring to mind images of dungeons and royal thugs. But keep this in mind: Although we did not choose this King, he chose us. There is one law in this Kingdom and one banner waves in its skies: the law and the banner of love.

But more disturbing than the idea of kingship is the way King Jesus exercises his rule in the parable of the sheep and goats. “The king will say to those at his right hand… ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’… [but] he will say to those at his left hand, …’I was hungry and you gave me no food…’” The righteous sheep are told that they will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, but the “accursed” goats are told to “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.

Applied literally and unimaginatively, this parable would seem to say that we are to give food, drink, and hospitality to everyone who asks. To deny to serve the needs of even one hungry and homeless person would seem to be justification for being sent into eternal torment.

However, note the way the king speaks and the way the sheep and the goats answer him. The king says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food.” And both the righteous sheep and the “accursed” goats reply, “When was it that we saw you hungry?” The king asks in the singular, but both the sheep and the goats reply in the plural.

We are not expected to do the work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, or healing the sick alone. We are expected to belong to communities that will exercise compassion and mercy. Does this excuse us from individual responsibility? Not necessarily; the community acts through its members, as well as corporately. Unfortunately, not only have all of us, time and time again, passed by the hungry and homeless on the streets, our churches are usually more concerned with maintenance than with mission.

Examine your check book. What percentage of your money do you spend on yourself and your family and what percentage do you give to the hungry and homeless? Examine your church’s budget, too. The great majority of churches that I know anything about give a small fraction of their money to the poor. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” what will he have to say to us and to our churches? Christ the King Sunday is an invitation to us individually and corporately to let Christ reign in our hearts and lives by serving him in the person of the poor.

In the dark days of Stalin’s rule, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge worked for the British newspaper, the Guardian, as a correspondent. One day while walking in the woods outside of Moscow he came across a small church and noted that someone had given the church a fresh coat of bright, blue paint. Muggeridge writes that he felt that he ”belonged to the little disused church [the painter] had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. 1, The Green Stick (1972), pp. 226-227.)

We, too, are invited to live in the “kingdom of love”, to give to the hungry and homeless, not in order that we might sit among the sheep when the Son of Man comes in glory, but because the King (who is also the Good Shepherd) sought and found us when we were hurt and hungry and lost and alone.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

All Saints: Saints and Sinners

All Saints’ Day begs the question, “What is a saint?” There are a number of ways we could define saint. The simplest and earliest definition of saint is found in the New Testament. Paul begins most of his letters by greeting the “saints” – the saints at Corinth, at Ephesus, at Galatia, and so on. In the New Testament “saint” means simply any baptized person, any Christian. The word translated as “saint” in the New Testament is hagios or its plural hagioi, a Greek word that means “holy”. The saints are the holy ones, not holy because of anything intrinsic to them, but holy because of the holy presence of Christ within them.

A second, more common, use of the word “saint” is to denote one of the heroes or heroines of the Christian faith. Thus, we speak of St. Peter or St. Francis, St. Mary Magdalene or St. Clare.

For a long time I was puzzled about why the gospel reading for All Saints’ Day was the Beatitudes from Luke or Matthew. However, I think I know why that is. The Beatitudes are, if you will, Jesus’ definition of a saint.

Let’s look at a few of the characteristics of the saints as defined by Jesus.

First of all, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. We are a society obsessed by money, financial success, accumulation of things. For Jesus, wealth was not a sin, but it was a problem. The wealthy person, Jesus warned, was likely to have his priorities in the wrong place. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be”. The saints are those persons who have their hearts fixed upon God’s kingdom, not earthy riches.. The saints do not determine their own worth or the worth of others on the basis of financial success.

Secondly, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. We live in a world where feelings, in general, and sadness and depression, in particular, are suspect and not exhibited in public. Men, especially, are schooled to show little expression and feeling.

We also live in a "feel good" culture. "Drink this, eat that, smoke a certain brand of cigarette and you will feel good and be happy". Fairy tales end "and they all lived happily ever after", but that isn't the way life works. But what if the ability to feel deep sadness is a prerequisite for feeling great joy? The saints are complete persons who feel the full range of human emotions. The saints are those who can "weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice".

Thirdly, "blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth". A popular bumper sticker back in Alabama where I grew up reads, "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch" As a culture we exalt the big dogs, the hot shots, the powerful. Assertiveness, even aggressiveness, is highly valued. But what if the race is not to the swift, nor the contest to the strong? What if the truly great in the world are not the Donald Trumps but the Mother Teresas? The saints are those who choose not to run with the big dogs. They are the ones who choose service above self-aggrandizement.

Finally, the saints are those who long for righteousness.. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied". Jesus was a Jew, and to a Jew, righteousness, zedeqah, meant something very specific.. Righteousness was literally "to do right by", especially to do right by the poor and hungry, widows and orphans. So when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, he was literally saying, "Blessed are those who long for the hungry to be fed and the homeless to be housed, for in the end, they will not be disappointed". Of all Jesus' claims, this may be the most extraordinary. Righteousness is not at home in the world in which you and I live, but Jesus announces the coming of a new world of righteousness and justice. The saints are those who long for the appearing of such a kingdom, who never lose heart and are never satisfied with anything less.

Another definition for saint that I want to offer involves a very concrete example of holiness. In the early part of this century, Henry Joel Cadbury came to teach New Testament at Harvard Divinity School. Cadbury was one of the great New Testament scholars of our century and was at work on what became the Revised Standard Version of the Bible when World War I broke out. A pacifist, Cadbury would not fight in the war but instead volunteered to work with the Quakers caring for the wounded and dying on the battle fields of Europe. In the midst of the war, one of Cadbury’s students came across his professor bandaging a wounded soldier. “Dr. Cadbury,” the student exclaimed, “Why aren’t you back at Harvard translating the New Testament?” “I am translating the New Testament,” Cadbury replied. He was translating the New Testament not from Greek into English but from the printed page into human life. I think that may be the best definition of saint. A saint is one who translates the New Testament into a life of love and service.

In conclusion, I want to offer you the devil’s definition of “saint”, or at least the definition from the Devil’s Dictionary. American humorist Ambrose Bierce once wrote a book entitled The Devil’s Dictionary. In it he defined saint as “a dead sinner, revised and edited”. To give the devil (or at least Ambrose Bierce) his due, there’s much to be said for that definition. A few years ago A.N. Wilson wrote a biography of C.S. Lewis, a man who is a saint to me and to many, many others. Wilson’s biography shocked some C.S. Lewis’ fans by painting a revealing picture of Lewis, warts and all, but I came away appreciating Lewis more, not less, for knowing that he struggled and fought against many weaknesses and temptations. Sometimes he battled them successfully; sometimes he did not. But I think that a saint’s light shines more brightly, not less, for their struggles. The life of Christ in a saint is displayed more vividly in contrast to the saints’ all-too-human failures. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once remarked that “…that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God's love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God's creative mercy still waits.” (A Ray of Darkness, p. 52)

All Saints’ Day exhausts and unsettles me. However, you define saint, I find it difficult to imagine myself among those “saints triumphant [who] rise in bright array”. More often than not, I choose self-aggrandizement over service; my heart and mind go in a thousand different directions, rather than being fixed on God’s kingdom; and if my life is a translation of the New Testament, then it must be in an unknown tongue. But I have to keep reminding myself and keep reminding you that sainthood is not our accomplishment; it is God’s gift. We follow where Christ and the saints lead, knowing all the while that we will stumble and fall. You see, the Devil’s Dictionary had it partly right: Some saints are dead sinners revised and edited, but all saints are forgiven sinners, just like us. The saints remind us of what we are capable of if we will only open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new and raises us from death to life abundant and everlasting.

Reformation Sunday: Truth is a Who

If Reformation Sunday is about anything, surely it is about truth. Weren’t competing truth claims were at the very heart of the revolution launched by Luther and continued by Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, and others? Either the pope is the vicar of Christ or he is not; either the eucharistic bread and wine literally become the body of Christ or they do not; either we are saved by divine grace unaided by human effort or we participate in our salvation through good works.

But as the great theologian Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” We know that the Reformation did not succeed on the basis of its truth claims alone; in large part it succeeded because of complex economic and political reasons. The emerging nation-states of Europe supported Luther and the other Reformers in order to gain economic and political power at the expense of the papacy.

When Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians discuss the great issues of the Reformation -- the status of the papacy, justification by grace through faith, and transubstantiation – there is more agreement than disagreement. This is not to diminish the wide gulf that divided Wittenberg and Geneva from Rome in the sixteenth century and continues to divide Protestants and Catholics today, but the temptation of Reformation Sunday is to make that gulf far wider and deeper than it is or ever has been.
The common confession of Christ as Lord binds all Christians together, and in a post-Christian age that fundamental confession is more than enough for us to make common cause against the widespread indifference and even hostility toward all expressions of faith.

So what is Reformation Sunday if it is not a chance to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate one another that Luther was right and Popes Julius II and Leo X were wrong? Is Reformation Sunday anything more than a chance for Lutherans to sing “A mighty fortress” and Presbyterians to repeat some of the more exciting passages from the Westminster Confession?

I think the key to Reformation Sunday is in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Truth is a central category in John’s gospel. At the very beginning the author tells us that when the divine Word took flesh and lived among us that “we [saw] his glory… full of grace and truth.” Later, Jesus declared himself to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” The great accomplishment of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cranmer was to issue a thunderous call to western Christians to return to the Word made flesh, the Word spoken by Israel’s prophets, the Word that “above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth.”

But if the great work of the sixteenth century Reformers was to summon the church to return to the Word made flesh and the Word of the prophets, then that implies that the church had drifted away, that there was a great gulf between the position of the Reformers and the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Let there be no misunderstanding here: there were and are issues that separate Roman Catholics and Protestants. We do not serve the gospel well if we are not honest about our differences. But I think we are somewhat misled by the categories historians have given us. It might be better to re-christen Luther’s great movement the sixteenth century REVIVAL rather than the REFORMATION.

Of course, Luther, Calvin, and the others did reform the church. They were convinced that the church of the sixteenth century was a very different church than that of the apostles, and they believed that their work was to return the church as far as possible to the apostolic model. But that was also the goal of many who remained within the Roman Catholic Church. What Luther, Calvin, and the rest accomplished was a great revival, a movement that bore fruit not only in the Protestant churches they founded but also in the Roman Catholic Church that they left. They awakened the entire western church to its need to “continue” in Christ’s word and to let that word set them free.

Part of our problem on Reformation Sunday is with the word “truth”. Without sounding too much like former President Clinton, much depends on how you define “truth”. If truth is a thing that is fixed, unchanging, and static, then we might as well give up all hope of reconciliation with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. But is that what Jesus meant by “truth”? In John’s gospel truth is never a set of propositions such as mathematical formulas. The truth is always a Person. The Truth is the one who said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.”

Physicist Niels Bohr said, “There are two sorts of truth: trivialities, where opposites are obviously absurd, and profound truths, recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth.” That sounds like it relativizes truth completely out of existence, but if the truth is not a thing but a Person then Bohr may have been right. If Truth is a person, then perhaps both Luther and his opponents can be comprehended in Truth’s embrace.

So in a post-denominational, indeed, a post-Christian age, can we continue to celebrate Reformation Sunday or has it become an embarrassment that we should discard? I think the Reformation still has something to say to us that should be celebrated, because what the Reformers said in the sixteenth century is just as valid today. The church of the 21st century, the churches that the Reformers left behind, need reformation and revival as badly as the creaky, sinful, and tradition-bound late medieval church. As Fred Pratt Green’s great hymn puts it, “The church of Christ in every age / beset by change but Spirit-led, / must claim and test its heritage /and keep on rising from the dead.” In every age, we need reformers to summon us to return to the truth with a lower case t but even more, to Truth with an upper case T. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the truths that the Reformers taught, but we always need to be reminded to return to the Truth who became flesh and dwelt among us, whom we saw to be full of glory, who invites us to abide in him, and who will set us free indeed.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Great and First Commandment

Matthew tells us that the Pharisees "came together". Presumably, they came together to try to find a question that would trip Jesus up, that would expose him for the charlatan they believed him to be.

What were the Pharisees trying to do? Were they trying to expose Jesus' lack of knowledge or trying to trap him into uttering some blasphemy or heresy which would reveal once and for all what a bad Jew he was and alienate his followers?

Why, then, did they give Jesus such an easy question? "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

I know a lot of questions harder than that one, don't you? Those of you with children know that a five year old can ask harder questions than a Pharisee any day. Where did God come from? Is God married? How old is God?

Why didn't they ask something difficult, such as, What was God doing before God created the heavens and the earth?

But they asked Jesus, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Jesus' answer was remarkably conventional. "’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets".

Note that Jesus did more than they asked him to do. The question was "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” But Jesus cited two commandments in reply, "’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets".

There was nothing in Jesus' reply to which the Pharisees could have taken exception. In fact, one of their own, Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, gave a similar answer to a similar question.

The story is told that a pagan came to Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest of the Pharisees, and said, "Rabbi, I will become a Jew if you can recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg." Hillel stood on one leg and said, "That which is hateful to you, do it not to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah; everything else is commentary. Now, go and learn it."

The rabbis taught that there were 613 commandments in the Old Testament. In terms of order "Love God with all your heart" is certainly not the first commandment. The first actual commandment in the Old Testament is "Be fruitful and multiply".

However, the Hebrew word that we translate "first" means not just numerically first but also first in importance. Jesus clarified his answer by saying that to love God with all your heart is not only the first but also the "greatest" commandment.

William Muehl, who taught me preaching at Yale Divinity School, assigned his upper level preaching students the task of preaching a sermon on the most difficult in the Bible. Students commonly chose "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" or "Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect". But I'm inclined to think that the hardest text in the New Testament is "Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Anyone who preaches on this text (and this preacher, especially) should begin by admitting that he or she is a hypocrite. More often than not, I do not love my neighbor, and I am bad about holding grudges. I agree with Frederick Buechner: "Of all the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun.” But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, so here goes.

Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees begs two questions: First, what did he mean by “love”? And secondly, what did he mean by “neighbor”? If you remember nothing else from this sermon, if you remember nothing else from any of the sermons I’ve preached, remember these two points.

First, today’s gospel employs perhaps the most dangerous four letter word in the English language. The word is “love”.

What makes the word “love” so dangerous is the fact that it’s repeated a thousand times a day on radio and television, and yet most of the time, those who use it don’t really mean love at all. Usually when television programs, movies, and popular music use the word love they mean infatuation or sexual attraction. But when Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, he used the word agape. Agape is the sort of love with which God loves us. Feelings are secondary; behavior is everything. We could paraphrase Jesus’ commandment in this way: You shall act in a loving way toward your neighbor. You shall behave toward your neighbor in the way that you want her to behave toward you.

But notice that love of God precedes love of neighbor. Isn't loving our fellow men and women the only way to love God?

There was a time when I would have said that it was redundant to say "Love God and love your neighbor", but I'm no longer sure about that.

I think that Jesus identified the "great and first commandment" as "love God" and then followed quickly with "and love your neighbor as yourself" because it is possible to love others or at least be concerned with the needs of others without taking into account the spiritual, the transcendent, dimension of human life.

There are those who are passionately concerned with the care of the hungry and the homeless who nevertheless have no awareness of the spiritual nature and spiritual needs of human beings. I honor them for their actions and fierce commitment to justice. However, I think that they are making an error which will prove very costly in the long run.

Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that "the difference between a person who relies only on himself and a person who has learned to turn to God for help... is not that one will do bad things while the other will do good things. The self-reliant atheist may be a fine, upstanding person. The difference is the atheist is like a bush growing in a desert. If he has only himself to rely on, when he exhausts his internal resources he runs the risk of running dry and withering.

"But the man or woman who turns to God is like a tree planted by a stream. What they share with the world is replenished from a source beyond themselves, so they never run dry." (Who Needs God? quoted in The Reader's Digest, Nov. '96, p. 90)

Finally, note what Jesus did not say. He did not say "serve God" or "obey God"; he said "love God".

From first to last the Bible is a love story. It is first the story of God's love for Israel and then of God's love for the church. First, God's covenant people are wooed and then they are invited into relationship.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind" is less commandment and more invitation. It is an invitation to love One who has always loved us. It is, in fact, an invitation to become more human. For we were created in the image of God for one reason above all others -- that we might love God and others as God loves us.

The second main point I want you to remember is this: who are these neighbors that Jesus wants us to love?

Another biblical story supplies us with the answer to that question. Do you remember the story of the Good Samaritan? On some other occasion a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told the tale of a man beaten by thieves and left for dead who was assisted by a Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus asked his questioner, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The Pharisee replied, “The one who showed him mercy”, in other words, the Samaritan.

The conclusion I draw is that our neighbor is any person who has needs that we are aware of and whom we can help.

I don't know about you, but all this leaves me feeling uncomfortable. My reaction to Jesus' radical challenge to love our neighbors is to feel discouraged and even a little depressed. I am tempted to say that Jesus sets before us an impossible ideal, but that would be too easy. It would let us off the hook. The trick is to aim at loving our neighbors, really try to do that, and at the same time to know that we will fail. And to realize that God sends sun and rain on the just and unjust, gives life and health to those we love and those we despise, that you and I and all of us need God's mercy as much as anyone in the whole creation.

Perhaps W.H. Auden said it best,

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.

God does not ask us to love our neighbors with the perfect love of perfect hearts because God knows (how well God knows!) that we do not have perfect hearts. It is the crooked love of crooked hearts that God asks us to share with our neighbors.

But we might find in trying to love that we succeed in loving. And we will find, in the end, that loving our neighbors is not an accomplishment, it is God's gift, for only by the grace of God are we able to love at all.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

What's left for Caesar?

Today’s gospel reading is about drawing lines. Where do we draw the line between Caesar and God? Between the state and the church?

The Anglican tradition has generally had a close relationship with the state. We came out of a great conflict between church and state when England’s Henry VIII defied the church and insisted that the king should have authority over the church in his realm. There was a great deal of justification for Henry’s position, but it should make us a little uneasy. The church often has to say things to kings that they do not want to hear, and it can be difficult to rebuke a king who pays your salary.

The American revolution changed the relationship between church and state, and the Episcopal church became independent of the state. That, I think, makes for a healthier relationship between church and state.

A vivid symbol of the relationship between church and state is the presence of the American flag in most Episcopal churches. I have no objection to the presence of the flag in the church, but I would strenuously object to having a flag flying ABOVE a church. Having a flag flying above a church indicates that the church is under the authority of the state, but a flag inside a church says that the state is beneath the sacred canopy, that we owe our ultimate loyalty to God and not to Caesar.

The New Testament gives us conflicting messages about church and state. On the one hand, Paul acknowledges that God has appointed earthly rulers to maintain order. So far, so good. Caesar provides a police force to enforce the laws and restrain criminals. The state maintains roads and delivers the mail. But the New Testament also warns us against the creeping sacralization of the state. What I mean by that is that every state in human history from ancient Rome to the United States in our own day has a tendency to seek divine honors, and we often find ourselves giving honor to the state that belongs to God.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus asks his opponents for a coin. The coin they gave him had an image on it, probably the image of Tiberius, the Roman ruler who assumed power after the death of Augustus in 14 AD. “Whose image is this and what is the inscription?” Jesus asked the Pharisees and Herodians, and they replied, “The emperor’s.” But notice that they did not answer the second part of Jesus’ question, “What is the inscription?” To have quoted the inscription would have been to commit the sin of blasphemy, because the inscription read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, great high priest”.

Jesus’ question put his opponents on the defensive because it not only made them confront the fact that they were dealing with a state that claimed divine honors but it also reminded them of another image – the divine image that is stamped on every human life.

So where does that leave us? What are the things that we are to give back to Caesar and what are the things that belong to God? Where do we draw the line between church and state? Caesar’s image, then and now, is on our coins, but God’s image is on our lives. Caesar has a claim to at least some of our coins, but he does not have a claim on our lives.

Christians have to live with the uneasy knowledge that God and Caesar may at any moment come into conflict. We are right to pray our president and other political leaders but we also pray “thy kingdom come”. We pray that all of earth’s kingdoms, including the United States, may one day yield to God’s kingdom. We acknowledge that no earthly kingdom perfectly reflects the divine justice, that all stand under God’s judgment.

Jesus’ devastating non-answer to the Pharisees’ trick question – “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” – throws the burden back on us. What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? I think we can get some help in solving the puzzle if we look at the context in which Matthew has set today’s gospel reading.

The question about taxes and tribute was the first of three controversy stories in the 22nd chapter of Matthew. In the third story, the Pharisees ask Jesus which of the laws is the greatest, and he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” I think that solves the dilemma posed in the first story, the one we heard today. What do we owe Caesar and what do we owe God? We owe God all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. Caesar can have everything else.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Our Party Best

Are you familiar with the phrase “A list”? The A list is the cream of the crop. They are the people we all want to associate with, whether they are TV and movie stars, politicians, business leaders, or celebrities of some other kind. Most of us have a personal A list, a list of people whom we like to associate with, and if we’re honest, we also have what (for want of a better phrase) I’ll call the X list, that is, the list of people we’d rather not associate with under any circumstances.

Jesus told a story about a king who threw a party to celebrate the wedding of his son. He invited all the people on his A list. The day and time of the wedding feast came, but no one showed up. So he sent his servants to remind them, thinking that perhaps they had overslept or had written it down on the wrong page of their day planners or palm pilots. But each of the A list invitees refused to come. The king was astonished, and sent his servant back to find out the reason for this outrageous behavior. The people on the A list had lame excuses. One was on her way to the lake for the weekend. Another was about to close a big deal that would double his business. Some of them just slammed the door in the face of the king’s servants or gave them a kick in the seat of their pants. Now this king was not the kind of pleasant, inoffensive monarch we find in the 21st century. He was a Middle Eastern potentate. He kept a fulltime staff of thugs who liked nothing more than beating the living daylights out of those who got on the wrong side of this king. So he sent them out to all the people on the A list, and those folks didn’t know what hit them. The words “Old Testament justice” barely begin to describe their fates. But the king still had a problem on his hand: his son was getting married and their was no one to come to the party. Furthermore, the caterers had a truck-full of shrimp mousse and a huge ice sculpture that were starting to get warm. So just to get some warm bodies in the chairs, he sent his servant out to collect the street people, and out they went again. So the wedding took place and the caterers served the shrimp mousse and everyone admired the elaborate ice sculpture of Cupid. The guests looked kind of uncomfortable in their ill-fitting rented tuxedoes and ball gowns that had been found for them at the last minute. Then the king spotted one guy who had sneaked in in his old army jacket with a knitted cap pulled down over his ears. “You! Yeah, I’m talking to you! How’d you get in here without a tux? Throw the bum out!” And his thugs grabbed the guy and tossed him out the door, giving him a few bruises just for good measure.

It’s a strange story, one of the strangest Jesus ever told. But I think it’s good news for all of us. From beginning to end, Jesus made it clear that he had come to bring good news to those who did not expect it and did not deserve it, and he was not well-received and seems not to have liked those who DID expect it and thought they deserved it. He made a point of seeking out and was sought out by those who were not on anyone’s A list: the poor, the sick, the leprous, crooks, and women of dubious morals.

But most of us are none of those things. We generally play by the rules, go to church on Sunday, pay our taxes, and are probably on somebody’s A list. But the fact is that all of us are needy. All of us are afraid. God meets us at that point of greatest need. It is when we come to that point of greatest fear and greatest need that we are most in touch with God. There comes a point in every life when we realize that we have been passed by, overlooked, excluded… it may be a critical illness, a divorce, a financial setback, or just plain getting old. And at that point God reaches out to us, graciously inviting us to the wedding feast.

But what of the guest who showed up without a tuxedo? Is there any special requirement for coming to the feast? I believe that the only requirement is a grateful heart. And if we keep in mind that the invitation to the feast is God’s gift and not our achievement, that we are invited not because WE are good but because GOD is good, then how can we not have grateful hearts.

Isak Dinesen retold the story of the wedding feast in her story "Babette's Feast," subsequently made into a film in Denmark. At the end of the film the title character throw an elaborate feast for the simple people of a remote Danish fishing village. Also present at the meal was a distinguished Danish military leader. At the meal's conclusion, the general raises his glass in a toast and says, "Man, my friends is frail and foolish. We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness we imagine God's grace to be limited..."
"But we are wrong; grace is infinite. Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular." Gratitude is the dress code for the wedding feast.

But I want to let English poet George Herbert have the last word:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A fully human life (Proper 22A)

Episcopalians and the Ten Commandments do not seem to be concepts that naturally belong together. I am reminded of a cartoon I saw of a church. The sign in front said, “The Lite [L-I-T-E] Church – five minute sermons, 45 minute services, and only eight commandments – your choice”. That’s the way many think of the Episcopal Church—heavy on pomp and ceremony but rather light on the commandments.

When I say “Episcopalian” what comes to your mind first? Sherry? Prep school? Trust fund? And yet there is a long and intimate association between Anglicans and the Ten Commandments. When Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, came to the throne of England in 1547, he ordered that the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments should be painted on the walls of every church in his realm. We might question his interior decorating skills, but theologically he had it right. From the earliest days of the Christian church every newly baptized person was taught the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments before they were taught anything else. Furthermore, from 1552 to 1979 every service of Holy Eucharist began either with a recitation of the Ten Commandments or with Jesus’ summary of them: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself”.

Now when I say “Ten Commandments” what pops into your mind? People of my generation and older may well think of Cecil B. deMille or Charlton Heston, but more than likely when we think of the Ten Commandments we think of them as negative and restrictive. After all, eight out of ten are phrased in the negative, “thou shalt not” and only two are phrased positively. There is something in the very words “law” and “commandment” that gets our backs up. Do you know the story of the little girl who said, “Mother, when you say ‘You must’, I feel ‘I won’t’ all over”.

One of the first things we need to understand about the Ten Commandments is that most of them are phrased negatively for a good reason. It is impossible to legislate for every contingency. The commandments say “You shall not commit murder” rather than saying, “You shall protect and preserve human life by driving the speed limit, not polluting the atmosphere, using firearms carefully or not at all, wearing your seat belt...” and so on. The list would be endless. So by phrasing the commandments in the negative, God gives scope to human freedom. God trusts us to use our reason, guided by scripture and the church, to decide how to apply the commandments, for we encounter situations which the ancient Israelites could not have envisioned. And yet these ten ancient admonitions have guided humankind from an age of camels and caravans to an age of cloning and computers.

Another issue we face as we begin to consider the Ten Commandments is whether or not they are to be understood as absolutes which can never be set aside or modified. One of the most important Anglican theologians of the 20th century was Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher wrote the enormously popular and influential book Situation Ethics. His position is easily summarized: The only law that applies to followers of Jesus is the law of love: “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself”. We can know what to do in every situation simply by asking ourselves “What is the loving thing to do now?” There is a vast gulf between the Ten Commandments and Fletcher’s situation ethics. I think we can close or at least narrow the gap this way. The commandments are absolutes but some are more important than others. For example, it is more important to preserve life than to tell the truth, so we may lie if it is necessary to save a life. There is finally no conflict between the commandments and the law of love. The Ten Commandments are practical applications of the law of love.

The 16th century French Protestant leader John Calvin said that every negative commandment implies a positive. In other words, “Thou shalt not kill” implies that we are to cherish, nurture, and preserve life. “Thou shalt not steal” means that we are to respect the property of others. There is no doubt that he was right. The commandments lay down the minimum standards that are necessary for human life to flourish. The commandments establish a perimeter within which humans are free to be fully human. Daily we fail to do things that cherish and preserve life and fail to respect the property of others, but at a minimum we must not murder or steal or else a truly human life will be impossible.

The Ten Commandments begin not with a law but with a story: “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage...” From the very beginning this clears up a misunderstanding about the commandments. Notice that no punishments are attached to the commandments. The commandments say, “You shall not commit murder” but do not add, “or you will suffer the same fate”. There is no “or else” attached to the commandments. The commandments are given to us not as a precondition for pleasing God, much less as something we must do in order to be saved. The commandments begin with the announcement that God has already redeemed us, brought us up out of Egypt, delivered us from bondage. That is just as true for Christians as it was for Israel. You have been baptized, redeemed, named as God’s own; you are “forgiven, loved, and free”. The commandments are our response to God’s love and care not things we must do to merit God’s favor.

So, if the commandments are not requirements we must fulfill in order to be accepted, why should we pay any attention to them at all? The commandments are important because they are the conditions for living a fully human life. If we go through the commandments one by one, we find that each one establishes a condition that allows human life to flourish. For example, a fully human life is one that acknowledges the God who has created and redeemed us; honors the sacredness of other lives; and reverences the truth without which communication is impossible.

The commandments begin at the very beginning. “You shall have no other gods before me”. Acknowledge and honor the God who has created and redeemed us. Why is this important? Is it not possible to live a fully human life without acknowledging and honoring God? All of us know very fine people who are agnostics or even atheists, and sometimes their ethics and integrity put Christians to shame. Rabbi Harold Kushner said something wise about this: "...the difference between a person who relies only on himself and a person who has learned to turn to God for help... is not that one will do bad things while the other will do good things. The self-reliant atheist may be a fine, upstanding person. The difference is the atheist is like a bush growing in a desert. If he has only himself to rely on, when he exhausts his internal resources he runs the risk of running dry and withering. But the man or woman who turns to God is like a tree planted by a stream. What they share with the world is replenished from a source beyond themselves, so they never run dry."

In light of the opening words of the commandments, we may wonder how Israel could possibly give honor to any other gods. The Holy One had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, inflicted plagues and disasters upon their Egyptian masters, parted the Red Sea, and given them food and water in the wilderness. And yet at the first opportunity, they made a golden calf and worshiped it. Later, Israel’s rulers would set up the statues of pagan gods in the very Temple itself. And we are no different. In his sermon on the first commandment, the 16th century German Reformer Martin Luther says that “To whatever you give your heart and entrust your being, that, I say, is really your God.” (Luther’s Large Catechism, Samuel Janzow, trans., St. Louis: Concordia (1978), p. 13)

To what have we given our hearts? In what or in whom do we entrust our being? It has become commonplace to point out that all too often we worship financial success or professional achievement or physical pleasure rather than the God who redeemed us from bondage. Now if I were playing devil’s advocate I might point out that those who worship financial success and professional achievement are very often rewarded by their gods. They become rich, famous, and successful. But do we want to put our trust in wealth, success, and celebrity? Will they sustain us when the world comes crashing down around us (and eventually the world comes crashing down around all of us)?

The post 9/11 world makes the question more acute. On a beautiful morning in the very heart of American economic and political power, a small band of fanatics demonstrated that no amount of political or economic or military power can protect us. It is a lesson we should have known, a lesson as old as the Ten Commandments. “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me,” says the Holy One of Sinai. It is a word every age needs to hear, because daily the demigods of wealth, power, and pleasure invite us to worship at their altars and put our trust in them. But there is only One in whom we can entrust our being, the One who spoke long ago upon Sinai: “I am the Lord your God... you shall have no other gods before me”.

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image”. Look around you. Christianity is a religion rich in images. There is the cross, the dove, the eagle-shaped lectern we see in many Episcopal churches. There are these magnificent windows portraying Christ the Good Shepherd, his birth, and his death and resurrection. Even Judaism understood this commandment primarily in terms of not making any images of God. Jewish art is full of portrayals of Old Testament scenes and Jewish life. When Islam began to grow and spread in the seventh century, Muslims reacted against the images they saw in Christian churches and completely forbade the making of images of any human or animal.

How, then, do we reconcile the visual richness of Christian worship with the stark absoluteness of the second commandment? “you shall not make for yourself a graven image”.

First, we must distinguish between idol and icon. The second commandment is a prohibition of idols. The peoples of the ancient near east (and most other civilizations, for that matter) made idols of wood and gold, stone and precious jewels. These idols were (and are) thought to have power in and of themselves. An icon is quite different. An icon is an image that points beyond itself to a transcendent reality. The Eastern Orthodox churches have a far more sophisticated understanding of icons than we do. The icons in Orthodox churches are highly stylized, even distorted images. The eyes are larger than normal to show that the person portrayed in the icon is looking upon heavenly things. The Orthodox do not speak of painting icons but of writing them. They don’t merely look upon icons; they read them. An icon always tells a story, always refers beyond itself to heavenly realities.

Secondly, the Christian understanding of icons is founded upon our experience of God in Christ. Exodus tells us that when God spoke from Sinai the mountain was surrounded by thick clouds and smoke. Of course, this meant that God was too holy to look upon. Indeed, the Old Testament says that no one may look upon God and live. But the Christian faith tells us that in Christ God stepped out of the clouds for a brief period. As the New Testament says “we have seen...” [1 John] The invisible God of Sinai became visible in Jesus. While we must never confuse image with reality, the God who became flesh in Jesus is appropriately imaged in visual art. We worship a visible God, a God with a history. Christian art rightly portrays God’s history in scenes from the life of Jesus.

Finally, the commandment not to make any graven images reminds us that God cannot be contained or controlled. If we have an image of God (and this is as true of Christians as anyone else), there is the temptation to believe that we can make God do our bidding. God can neither be captured in an image nor harnessed to human purposes. The God of the Ten Commandments is radically free.

We ignore the commandments at our peril, not because God is ready to hurl thunderbolts at us if we step out of line, but because the Ten Commandments give us the outline of a fully human life.

Make no mistake: the Ten Commandments set the bar high and daily we fall short. Our hearts and lives are fragmented and we put our trust in many things besides God. But the God who spoke from Sinai still speaks, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. But even in our disobedience, God seeks us out, saying, “You are mine and I have redeemed you”.

Monday, September 26, 2005

A Family Affair? (Proper 21A)

In today's Old Testament reading the prophet Ezekiel delivers this message from God:

"The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge"? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine; it is only the person who sins that shall die."

Apparently, the proverb "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge" (and its cousin, "The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children") was common in Ezekiel's time. But Ezekiel believes he has a "word from the Lord" to challenge Israel's "conventional wisdom." "This proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel." No longer shall the next generation suffer for the sings of their parents. Rather, a person shall only be held accountable for what he or she does.

Ezekiel was setting out a radically individualistic view of the world. Ezekiel's revisionism was at odds with the whole sweep of Israel's history but is a good fit for the way the modern West (and especially the U.S.) understands human nature. We live in an individualistic civilization. Ezekiel's vision of individual responsibility is very consistent with our prevailing philosophy. "Everyone for himself" or "Every tub on its own bottom" is our motto.

But I wonder... are we really a group of separate, discrete individuals, spinning freely through social space, connecting with each other at will, or is it true, as John Donne wrote, that "no man is an island, separate unto himself"?

I want to challenge Ezekiel's view. Consider two examples:

First, the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks the French newspaper Le Monde published an editorial in which the writer boldly stated, "Today all of us are Americans." Watching the disaster of Hurrican Katrina unfold in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast I felt (and you probably did, too) that "All of us are New Orleanians." It was a disaster for which all of us must bear some of the blame, and the rebuilding of New Orleans is a responsibility that all of us must share. This impulse or feeling that what happened in New Orleans somehow happened to all of us and is an event for which all of us are responsible is at odds with our prevailing philosophy of individualism.

Second, have you ever read or hear the story of some horrific crime only to be told that the perpetrator was so badly abused as a child that he or she was morally and emotionally impaired and was really not fully responsible for the crime they had committed? That is cold comfort to the victims of such crimes who are seeking justice.

Make no mistake: there are disfunctional families that warp and wound children so badly that a life of crime is almost inevitable. There is good reason to focus on families rather than individuals; the families in which we grew up either gave us love, nurture, and encouragement that enabled us to grow and strive and excel and exceed, or they damaged and warped us and left us with a burden of rage that we act out on each other and on ourselves.

We speak of a child having her father's eyes, or his mother's mouth. Is it possible that behavior is inherited, too? Are the behaviors and habits learned in early childhood so firmly fixed that they cannot be greatly changed, much less completely eliminated?

Most of what we have and who we are is a given. We do not choose the families into which we are born, our skin or eye color is fixed by our ancestors, our body type is genetically determined, even our religion, to a great degree, is determined by the culture and family into which we are born.

There is much good sound theology in affirming that human life is corporate. The Christian faith is undeniably a "family affair".

Several years ago Anglican History and Heritage featured an editorial which asserted, "The Bible is a we book, not an I book. In the Old Testament, God addressed the nation, Israel, the Children of Israel, the people, and so forth.... In the New Testament the gentiles were brought into the covenant with Israel. As in the ancient time, so now, it was the church that was addressed by God... it is these Christians collectively who are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people...' (1 Peter 2.9). wonders why Anglicans, clergy and laity alike, seem unable -- or unwilling -- to grasp the corporate character of their lives even within their own communion.... Is it forgotten that we worship from a Book of Common Prayer?" (v. LXII, no. 3, pp. 311-312)

So, I want to challenge Ezekiel: sometimes when the parents eat sour grapes, the children's teeth are set on edge.

"But now," as longtime radio announcer Paul Harvey might say, "For the rest of the story." Our environment and genetic heritage do not tell the whole tale. We are not fixed and determined like animals or machines.

In fact, the dichotomy, either free or fixed, determined or self-willing, is a false dichotomy. Much is fixed in our lives, but much is free. Our families do shape us, but they do not determine everything that we do.

We are both determined by our genetic heritage and environment in which we were raised and yet somehow free and responsible for our choices.

The parable in today's gospel reading is an illustration. Jesus tells of a father and two sons. One son has the knack of saying the right thing, and then doing whatever he pleases. The other son is a rebel, always saying the wrong thing, but in the end doing the right thing. The story tells us that even within the same family, persons with the same environment and genetic heritage may react in complete different ways to the same situation. Choices are possible.

In Twelve Step programs, persons in recovery admit that they are powerless. Powerless, though, is not the same thing as helpless. Alcoholics are powerless to change the fact that they are alcoholics, but they can choose not to take the next drink.

I confess that I am something of a "bleeding heart". If a person has a sad enough story about a broken and abusive family, I am ready to excuse even the most appalling behavior. But that is not right.

There is a difference between holding persons responsible for their actions and sitting in judgment on them. We do well not to sit in judgment on those whose environment left them emotionally crippled and morally impaired, because our good deeds are as much a product of our environments as their crimes are a product of theirs.

You and I are able to attend and complete college, hold down jobs, and pay our bills because that is how we are raised. Those of us who have grown up with loving, caring, and compassionate parents in relative affluence and comfort (and that is most of us) need to remember that that comfort is God's gift, not our achievement. Our responsibility is in proportion to what we have been given, and we do well to be forgiving and understanding to men and women who have not been given the advantages we have been given.

The well-being of society demands that each of us be held accountable for his or her deeds.

God's good news is this: Neither our genes nor our environment determine who we can be or what we may do. God has loved us into being and will keep on loving us no matter how many times we fail. Indeed, I believe that God's love will not let us go but will refine us like fire until all that is amiss in us is redeemed and restored. The good news is this: The family, the environment, the culture into which we are born does shape us, but we are part of a larger family, we are claimed by a love even greater than our parents' love for us. In baptism we are born into God's family, and the love that embraces us in water and the Name of the Trinity will nurture us without fail, will support us and hold us up, will not warp us but will guide us straight and true.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

God's economy (Proper 20A)

Mark Twain was once accosted by a wealthy man who said to him, “Mr. Twain, I want to know your opinion about something. Why do people labor and strive just to accumulate money? Money can’t buy happiness; it can’t buy a happy home, nor can it lift the spirits of those who mourn. Money cannot alleviate the sufferings of the dying, nor can it buy the love of a good woman.” Twain paused and looked at him, “You are referring, I take it, to Confederate money.”

Money can’t buy me love, as the Beatles sang, but it sure can buy or rent a lot of other things that are near and dear to our hearts. Perhaps the most important things that money can buy us are power and prestige. We use money as a way of measuring just how much we have accomplished. Our checkbooks and credit card statements show us two things very clearly: first , they show us just how much we’ve accomplished by the standards of the world we live in, and secondly, they speak volumes about our spiritual lives.

On the first day of the fall semester at the University of Alabama where I teach, I had an experience that provided me with a vivid illustration of what Jesus was talking about in today's gospel reading. As usual, I was running late. Students scattered right and left as I drove up the street in front of my building. Then, I turned into the parking deck next to the history department on two wheels. At that point, a young man quickly gestured me to a stop. When I rolled down my window he informed me that the parking deck where I’d always parked was now “reserved parking”. I have an ordinary faculty/staff parking permit which cost me $80, but if I wanted to park in reserved parking it would cost more than $200 for the semester. Needless to say, I was irate. Who, I wondered, could afford to pay that much for parking? And then it occurred to me that almost directly across the street from what is now the reserved parking deck is the business school. I began to fume. Business professors make 3 or 4 times as much as history professors. They don’t deserve it, I told myself. They don’t have my credentials. Did they have to learn 3 or 4 foreign languages to get their degree? They probably did their dissertations on Lays’ potato chips or Palmolive dish detergent. That's hardly the same as a scholarly study of Calvinism in England. And on and on my mental tirade went.

The mistake I made on the first day of class is that I sat in judgment on my colleagues across the street. I enjoyed the self-righteous satisfaction of examining my business school colleagues in my mental tribunal and finding them guilty. In today’s gospel reading Jesus warns us not to begrudge God’s generosity to others, because God gives not according to what we deserve but according to God's ideas of abundance. We look at the world as a place of scarcity, but God sees creation as a place of abundance.

It is only human nature to want mercy for ourselves and justice for everyone else. We want the world to be fair and believe that we are the final arbiters of fairness. God's economics and our economics have little in common. We believe that everyone should get exactly what they have earned, and if God wants to know how much my neighbor has earned, then I will be happy to tell God how much she has earned to the exact penny. Most people, we believe, get far more of life’s grace and goodies than they deserve. You and I, on the other hand, have been shortchanged. Our paychecks never reflect the overtime we’ve put in.

But the parable of workers in the vineyard reminds us that God’s economy is very different. God does not offer us a job for which we will be paid a wage. Rather, God invites us into a relationship in which he promises us gifts beyond our wildest dreams. God does not promise to reward our hard work with a Christmas bonus; God promises to love us as beloved daughters and sons – a reward we could not possibly earn.

God’s economy is a mystery. We cannot know why the race does not always go to the swift nor the contest to the strong. We cannot know why the Bill Gates and Donald Trumps have so much and the Mother Teresas have so little.

Several years ago Gerald Sittser wrote an article in The Christian Century about the death of his wife, mother, and daughter in a terrible car accident caused by a drunk driver. Furthermore, the driver who had been responsible for the accident was acquitted of wrongdoing in the case.

Understandably, Sittser was outraged and angry. “Why me?” he asked himself angrily. Finally, it dawned on Sittser that he was asking the wrong question, and “why me” became “why not me?” “Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths,” he writes, “but I did not deserve their presence in my life either…. I would prefer to take my chances living in a universe in which I get what I do not deserve … That means that I will suffer loss, as I already have, but it also means I will receive mercy. … I will have to endure the bad I do not deserve. I will also get the good I do not deserve.” (Gerald Sittser, “On the life and death we don’t deserve,” The Christian Century, Jan. 17, 1996, pp. 44-47)

What kind of world has God created? What is the secret to understanding God’s economy? Here’s a hint: Drop the words “earn” and “deserve” and replace them with “gift” and “grace.” From beginning to end it is all gift. Sometimes God gives us the gifts of tears and anguish; at other times God gives us the gifts of joy and laughter. God has given us a world in which the owner of the vineyard is free to give his workers far more than they have earned at the end of the day? Is it fair? Of course not. It is much better than fair; it is gracious.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Proper 18A: God With Us

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If it were up to me, I would give Matthew’s gospel a new title. “The Gospel according to St. Matthew” has an impressive dignity, weight, even majesty, about it, but it just isn’t very catchy. I would re-christen Matthew’s gospel as “The God Who Is With Us”.

Matthew’s gospel begins with the story of Joseph’s mysterious and troubling dream in which an angel prophesied that Mary’s child was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a child would be born to a young woman and that the proper name for that child would be “Emmanuel”, God with us. (Mt 1.23) Matthew ends with the Risen Christ’s promise to his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28.20) And in the very heart of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ great promise that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. (Mt 18.20)

“The virgin shall... bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.... God is with us”.

“Remember, I am with you always...”

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The Gospel of the God who is with us.

I want to focus on the three parts of Matthew’s great theme: God is with us.

First, it is GOD who is with us. When one of you enters the hospital for surgery, you certainly want your family to be there, and you would probably like to have one of the parish clergy there. It’s comforting when a friend or family member promises us, “It’s OK; I’m here for you”. But Matthew’s promise is of a different magnitude altogether. It is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible who promises to be by our side.

But do we really want to take God up on his promise? Having the Almighty at our side might be more terrifying than comforting.

Annie Dillard famously asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.”

The God who promises to be with us is like TNT – a source of infinite but uncontrollable power. The God who promises to be with us loves us unconditionally, but God also invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to lose our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. Along with the comfort and assurance we receive from God comes the demand of discipleship.

Secondly, God promises to be WITH us.

Anthropologists tell us that different cultures have different ideas of the appropriate space between persons. It’s a bit of a generalization, but people in Mediterranean cultures often talk very animatedly almost nose to nose. Northern Europeans (and most North Americans) prefer a little more distance.

The God who promises to be with us appears to be more Mediterranean than northern European. This is a God who does not maintain a polite distance. This God promises to be with us, to be in our midst, to be among us. This is a God we cannot keep at arm’s length. This is a God who is closer than our next breath.

God does not say to us, “I’ll be right over here if you need me. Just give me a shout.” This is not a God to whom we can say good bye at the end of today’s service and leave in church until next week. This is not a God who will leave us alone.

Francis Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven” speaks of this God who does not maintain a safe, polite distance:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind: and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

And it ends:

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

Finally, the God of Matthew’s gospel promises to be with US.

God promises to be with us, with frail, fallible human beings. This may be the most remarkable part of Matthew’s theme.

It would make more sense if God promised to be with the stars in the Milky Way. That would make sense to us. God, after all, is majestic, splendid, all-powerful, and all-knowing. We would expect God to inhabit the vast reaches of space. It might make sense if God promised to be in the crashing waves of the ocean. To paraphrase the prophet Elijah’s great insight, God is not in the earthquake, fire, and whirlwind; God is in the still, small voice, and in that frailest of all vessels – the human heart.

God promises to be with us. Now note something very important here. The “us” God promises to be with in today’s gospel, indeed throughout Matthew’s gospel is plural. That is not to say that God is not with us when we are alone, but the promise, the assurance, the certainty of God’s promise, is to us not individually, but corporately. “...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20)

That’s a hard saying for many of us, including myself. I tend to be a loner. I want to do things on my own. We live in a culture that is individualist to the Nth degree. But God tells us to come together and promises that when we do come together under his banner and in Jesus’ name, that he will be with us.

The reason that God makes this promise to us corporately is that it is only through others that we are able to receive love from God and offer love to God. Jesus’ great promise to be present wherever two or three are gathered in his name is prefaced by a discussion of what to do when a member of the community hurts or offends another member. Jesus was nothing if not realistic. Even the community gathered in his name and experiencing his presence will be a place of conflict. We know that all too well. But he tells us to come together anyway.

“...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20) God is among us, because corporately we are Christ’s body, the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world. Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best when he wrote: “There are no ordinary people You have never met a mere mortal... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ... the glorifer and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

The message of Matthew’s gospel is so simple, I can sum it up in three phrases: GOD promises to be with us; God promises to be WITH us; God promises to be with US. Amen.