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.