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”.