Monday, December 25, 2006

Advent words: Salvation

The last Advent word is salvation. What comes to mind when I say the word “salvation”? This is the audience participation portion of the sermon! When I hear the word “salvation,” I immediately think of Billy Graham rallies, endless choruses of “Just as I am,” and strangers handing me “Four spiritual laws’” tracts on the street.

Someone once asked one of my divinity school professors if he was saved, and when he replied in the affirmative, they asked the inevitable follow up question, “When were you saved?” My professor said, “Sir, I was saved 2000 years ago!”

I have three problems with the evangelical idea of salvation.

First, it over-spiritualizes the idea of salvation. Both the Hebrew and Greek words which we translate as salvation have less to do with things we think of as spiritual and more to do with our well-being in this world. They are this-worldly rather than other-worldly. The Hebrew word yasha means to protect from danger and the Greek word sozo means to heal. I think we misinterpret and misapply the word salvation if we think of it as being about salvation FROM this world and FOR life in the next world.

Second, the evangelical notion of salvation is too individualistic. The Bible’s understanding of human nature is profoundly corporate. What one does affects the community and what the community does affects each member of it. But we also know this from our own experience. From the moment of birth a child is a part of a community. The community may be only the child and her parents, but from that community the child learns who she is.

The Zulu language of South Africa has a word for it – ubuntu. Ubuntu means “I am who I am because of who you are” and “You are who you are because of who I am.”

And third, it implies that salvation is an event rather than a process.

I want to offer an understanding of salvation that is helpful to me and may be helpful to you. My definition of salvation is this: Salvation is the wholeness God desires for each of us and for all of creation and to be saved is to have enlisted on God’s side in the struggle to restore wholeness.

The playwright Eugene O’Neill once said, “Humans are broken and live by mending.” All of us are broken, and we live in a broken world. From the moment of birth we are on a collision course with disintegration. Science tells us that systems tend toward maximum disintegration. In other words, the battery in your laptop will only last a few hours; you will need to replace your car every few years; and your house will need painting every decade or so. And what is true scientifically and physically is just as true spiritually.

We struggle with forces of spiritual disintegration every single day. We try to live moral and ethical lives and are frustrated by failure. We seek to love and care for the important persons in our lives but find ourselves hurting them. We even fail to take care of ourselves by eating right and getting enough exercise and breaking bad habits but find ourselves powerless.

God’s purpose for each of us and for the universe is the restoration of wholeness. I believe that is what is meant by salvation. Salvation is to experience and be a part of God’s great plan to restore all things to wholeness.

How do we do this?

We do it by building the world of which Mary sings in today’s gospel reading, in which the poor and hungry are filled and lifted up and those who oppress them are brought down and sent away.

We do it by seeking wholeness and integration for ourselves and others.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. We are not saved by good works; we are saved by God. Frederick Buechner puts it this way, “There is NOTHING you have to do to be saved. There is nothing YOU have to do to be saved. There is nothing you have to DO to be saved.” But I also like what John Wesley said: “We are saved by love alone but not by such a love that is alone.” In other words, if we love God, if we truly desire to build the world that God that God is building, then our love will manifest itself in good works.

But how does God restore us and others and all of creation to wholeness? God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This incarnate God endured all the forces that divide and disintegrate – violence, oppression, fear – and returned only love.

The cross is the great sign of salvation because the cross is the place where God’s brokenness touches our brokenness and brings wholeness.

So, to return to the question with which we started, Are you saved? Am I saved? The best answer would be “I was saved”, “I am being saved,” and “I shall be saved,” because salvation is not an event; it is a process.

There is so much more I should say but I want to finish by coming back to where we started. What of the man on the street who asked my teacher if he was saved? I don’t want to dismiss people who are truly concerned about the salvation of others, but I think there’s a better way to do what he was trying to do. Rather than asking people if they are saved, I think we should do two things: First, we should live lives that demonstrate the power of God’s salvation. How much more confidently can we live because we know the end of the story? We know that God’s will for us and for all of creation is life, not death; wholeness, not disintegration. And secondly, we should not be shy about sharing this good news with others. All around us people are living lives of fear, anger, and despair. Let them know that Episcopalians know the good news and rejoice in it. Invite them to join us on our journey from despair to hope, from darkness to light, from death to life.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Advent words: Singing

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
(Robert Lowry, 1860)

Indeed, how can we keep from singing? Christianity is a singing faith and never more so than in Advent and Christmas. In today’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Zephaniah writes, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies”

Although it was his brother Charles who wrote the hymns, John Wesley understood the power and significance of music better than most Christian leaders. Wesley included a list of “Rules for singing” in the introduction to the Methodist hymnal.

2. Sing [vigorously] and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can….

5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature….

But Christianity has been a singing faith from the very beginning. It was born from Judaism, which had a rich musical tradition, although we know little or nothing about the music of the Temple and the Old Testament. But the Old Testament, especially the Book of Psalms, is full of references to music. But that begs the question, why sing? This morning’s canticle commands us to “Sing the praises of the Lord for he has done great things…” Why not just SAY the praises of God?

The 4th century theologian, St. Augustine famously said, “Those who sing, pray twice.” I think Augustine said that because to repeat a prayer with our lips is all very well and good, but singing a prayer requires us to employ not only our minds but our hearts and spirits, too. Perhaps he should have said, “Those who sing, pray thrice!”

Jesus himself sang. We know this because as he left the Passover meal he shared with his disciples and went out to be betrayed and crucified, he sang one of the Psalms. A great contemporary hymn puts it like this, “And did not Jesus sing a hymn that night / when utmost evil strove against the light? / Then let us sing for whom he won the fight. Alleluia!” (Fred Pratt Green)

I want to offer one note of caution. Singing makes good theology better but it can also deafen us (in a sense) to bad theology. When our current Prayer Book was being put together, they consulted musicians to make sure that the texts that should be sung were singable. They called this the “singability committee” but there was also a “believe-ability committee” to make sure that everything was orthodox. It is a useful exercise to say the words of our hymns aloud occasionally. A catchy tune can frequently carry along a text that is not only badly written but simply not orthodox. When I taught Anglican liturgy I always did a session on music and had my students say aloud the texts of a few hymn and song that I did not believe were good expressions of the Christian faith. They were always amazed to find out that for years they had been singing hymns that were only marginally Christian at best.

But still, I wonder, Why is Christianity a singing faith?

First and foremost, I believe that Christians sing because ours is an incarnational faith. That is, we worship a God who came among us as one of us, not a God who is far away, not a fastidious God who stays safely above human life. Rather, we worship a God who is as close as the air we breath, as close as the breath with which we sing hymns.

Theologian Geoffrey Wainwright explains it this way, “…singing clearly demonstrates worship – and therefore the [kingdom of God] and human salvation – to be an affair of the whole person, mind, heart, voice, body.” In other words, when we sing we employ our whole selves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – showing that worship involves all of these.

Second, we sing because I believe that in some sense music is the language of heaven. The Book of Revelation is full of references to singing. We are told that the redeemed sing the praises of God around the throne of God. Singing is not only preparation for heaven, it is an anticipation of heaven. When we sing, we are already experiencing something of heaven because singing unifies us. It makes us one with each other and one with God.

Music is also the language of heaven because music facilitates understanding. The Book of Genesis tells us that when humans tried to build a tower that would touch heaven, God confused their languages and made it impossible for them to understand each other. Music at least partially undoes that confusion. If all of us were to speak at the same time, we would be unable to understand what the person next to us was saying, much less the person on the other side of the room. But what if we were all singing at the same time?

I wonder if you remember a wonderful scene in the movie Amadeus. Mozart is describing a scene in his opera The Marriage of Figaro in which six main characters are all singing different words, but because of the magic of music, we can understand six things that are sung simultaneously although six things that are SAID at the same time would be mere noise.

Third, Christians sing because music is a vehicle for working deep truths into our soul. When I was rector of St. Stephen’s in Greene County, I went regularly to the county nursing home. Its residents were mostly in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. The nursing home staff wanted me to conduct a more or less traditional service of worship – scripture reading, sermon, prayer, and so on – but I immediately realized how pointless this would be. Instead, I just sat at the piano and played hymns. Remarkably, people who did not know their names remembered the old gospel songs they had learned in childhood – “Amazing grace”, “Blessed assurance”, “Jesus loves me”, and so on. We might think that they remembered them because they had learned them in childhood (and that might be part of it) but they also remembered them because music embeds itself deeply in the human heart.

When I teach confirmation classes for children, I require them to memorize the Gloria, the creed, the prayer of confession, and the post-communion prayer, because if they know these by heart, then they can follow the entire service without opening the Prayer Book. One of my confirmation kids had a very difficult time learning the Gloria until his mother suggested that he sing it for me. The words he had been unable to remember to speak came to him easily when he sang them.

Finally, I think Christians sing because music has the power to change the world. Think about this: There has never been a great revolution without a great song. Music is powerful and can be used for both good and evil purposes.

The fight to abolish slavery and re-unite the Union inspired Julia Ward Howe to write the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
God’s truth is marching on!

And the words and music of her hymn, in turn, have inspired people the world over to work to break the chains of oppression.

The Marxist revolutionaries in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the winter of 1914 were inspired by the Internationale:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation
Arise ye toilers of the earth
For reason thunders new creation
`Tis a better world in birth.
Never more traditions' chains shall bind us
Arise ye toilers no more in thrall
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We are but naught we shall be all

How wrong they were and how much misery was caused by the Russian revolution, but imagine how inspiring that music must have been to people who overthrew the oppressive czarist regime?

The French revolution of 1789 gave us the Marseillaise, still the national anthem of France. “Arise, children of the Fatherland, the day of glory is at hand…” And although it was not strictly speaking a revolution, the civil rights movement in this country would scarcely have been possible without music: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome… deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

Another evil regime that used music to sway people’s minds was the Third Reich. When Hitler and his thugs came to power in 1933, they decreed that all university professors must sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler and begin every class with the stiff-armed salute. At that time, Karl Barth was teaching theology at the University of Bonn. He refused to take the oath and regarded the stiff-armed salute as an idolatrous gesture. He was dismissed from his position but when he taught his last class, he concluded the class by having his students sing, “Now thank we all our God.” While the dark and menacing music of Hitler and his fascist thugs seemed to drown out every other sounds, Barth and his students raised their voices and sang,

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and bless├Ęd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

Hitler and his music have disappeared from the face of the earth but God has given us a song that shall never die.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent Words: Judgment

I am going to try doing something new and different in my sermons during this season of Advent. Each Sunday I will preach about a single word that is related to the readings for the day and illuminates a different aspect of the Advent season. The words are judgment, joy, singing, and salvation.

Today I want to look at the word “judgment.” Psalm 50 tells us that

Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
4
He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.

What do you think of when you hear the words “judge” or “judgment”? Don’t laugh but the first thing that comes to my mind is Judge Judy. We might do much worse than submit the ills of the world to the judgment of a smart, tough, Jewish woman from New York.

Israel often conceived of the relationship between God and the world as being like a legal proceeding. Israel’s prophets, in particular, frequently used the image of a legal proceeding to warn the people of Israel that they had strayed from God’s ways and must repent.

But Israel’s understanding of justice and judgment were very different from the way we understand these things. Wise as Judge Judy often is, God is not that kind of judge.

For Israel, justice and judgment were less about laws and rules than they were about right relationships. We conceive of judgment and justice in terms of a written code of laws, but for Israel they were about relationships.

In a sense, the U.S. Constitution helped create the American nation. It was written at the beginning of our history and has profoundly shaped that history. Israel’s laws, on the other hands, emerged out of Israel’s experience as a people. They learned by trial and error what it takes to be a people, a community, and their scriptures – our Old Testament – is a record of that experience. Its wisdom is the distilled experience of Israel over the centuries.

In Israel the judge was a man or woman who “sat in the gate”. That means that they literally sat at the entrance to the town, a place that made them accessible to anyone who had business to bring to the judge. The business that people brought to Israel’s judges was both similar to and different from the kind of business handled by judges in the American legal system. A judge of ancient Israel might be called upon to rule on the guilt or innocence of a thief or murderer. However, the method of Israel’s judges was entirely different from judges in our own time.

Israel’s judges were not guided by written law; they were guided by what was best for the community. Their function was to re-establish the equilibrium of the community,. A good example is the story of Solomon judging between two women who claimed the same baby. When two women came to Solomon, each claiming to be the mother of the same baby, Solomon didn’t consult a code of laws. Rather, he knew that the real mother would yield her claim rather than allow the baby to be harmed. So, when he proposed cutting the child in two and giving each woman half a baby, the real mother relinquished her claim.

The well-being of the community, its equilibrium was threatened by the two women who each claimed the same baby. Allowed to go unchecked, the crime of the woman who stole her neighbor’s baby threatened Israel’s very existence. It was a violation of at least three commandments: the prohibition of lying, stealing, and coveting.

Another way of looking at the difference between ancient Israel and the modern United States is to say that whereas the U.S. has a LEGAL system, Israel had a JUSTICE system. Justice is always more than conformity with a code of laws.

When Job wants to justify himself before God, he says, “delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless who had none to help him. 13 The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. 14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.” Job does NOT say that he has followed the laws to the letter; rather, he says that he has fulfilled his function in the community by helping others.

Now, let’s go back to the idea of what the Bible means when it talks about God coming to judge the earth. God is the kind of judge who will sit in the gate, who will restore right relationships.

I believe that when most of us think of the Last Judgment, we think that God is keeping a list of everything we have done or left undone, and that God will go down that list checking things off: “Barry Vaughn, Barry Vaughn, let’s see.. oh, here you are… right between Ludwig van Beethoven and Queen Victoria. It says that when you were four you didn’t share your toys with Ronny Armstrong…hmmmm… not good… but here it says that when you were six, you let Beth Hallmark have one of your chocolate chip cookies… very good!!…” And presumably God will do this with everyone of us, even if it takes a couple of millennia.

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has a very different idea of what Final Judgment means. He points out that heaven is not just about each of us alone with God for all eternity; rather, it is about all of us being together for eternity. For this to happen, some serious reconciliation has to take place. I have to be reconciled with those I have hurt, and what is more challenging, I also have to be reconciled with those who have hurt me and whom I do not want to forgive.

Theologian Karl Barth was once asked, “In heaven, will we see our loved ones?” And he replied, “Not only the loved ones!” That’s a sobering thought. God’s love is larger and more comprehensive than yours or mine. God’s love just might embrace and heaven might include even those people we despise and who despise us. Or as Professor Volf puts it, “If Cain and Abel are to meet again in the world to come, what will need to happen for Cain to avoid Abel’s look and for Abel not to want to get out of Cain’s way?” (Volf, The Christian Century, Nov. 10, 1999. slightly paraphrased.) Or to put it another way, what will have to happen for you to face the Cains and Abels in your life?

God is the kind of judge who reconciles and brings together the Cains and Abels of the world. The final judgment is not so much an inventory of all the things we have done and failed to do, as it is a final opportunity to get right with all the folks we wronged and who wronged us.

In 1963 Alabama’s bishop, Charles Carpenter, opposed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s demonstrations in Birmingham as “unwise” and in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King condemned Carpenter and other clergy for their racism. Yet, both were Christians. I have to wonder what they thought when they saw each other in heaven. When they approached the Judge at the gate of the heavenly city, did God say, “You have some hard work to do before you can enter into your heavenly reward.” And I have to believe that Dr. King and Bishop Carpenter are sitting side by side at the heavenly feast. Which begs the question, Who will be sitting next to me at the heavenly feast or next to you? If you are a Democrat, chances are it will be a Republican and if you are a Republican you may find yourself next to Bill Clinton.

“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy 13 before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” (Ps 96)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"So, you're a king, huh?"

Text: John 18.33-37.


Movies and television shows about lawyers are nothing new. They've been around since at least Perry Mason. The climax of the bestselling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is a murder trial. And think of the popularity of John Grisham’s books, all of them having to do with lawyers and trials. On television we have Law and Order and Boston Legal among other shows that deal with lawyers.

There's something intrinsically dramatic about confrontation in the courtroom, especially if it's a criminal trial. There's a mystery. Did the accused do it, or didn't she? And there's the excitement of the head-to-head contest between two skillful lawyers.

Today's gospel reading takes us back to perhaps the most famous trial in history -- the trial of Jesus before Pilate.

"Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?'"

You can't beat this scene for drama. The representative of human justice confronts the representative of God's justice. The Divine Lawgiver himself is put on trial. God's dynamic and creative Word is tried by God's creatures.

The charges were serious. In asking Jesus if he were a king, Pilate was implying that the charge against Jesus was treason, a capital offense. Someone who claimed to be a king was a threat to Rome. And Rome was known to punish its enemies swiftly and decisively.

But we know how this trial came out. Injustice prevailed, and an innocent man went to the gallows.

Although Jesus' trial before Pilate took place two thousand years ago, I want to suggest that in a sense it continues.

The title of a collection of C.S. Lewis' essays is God in the Dock. In a way, Jesus is always in the dock, on the stand, and never more so than on the last Sunday in Pentecost which we keep as the Feast of Christ the King.

Christ the King Sunday brings Jesus before Pilate again. Once again we hear Pilate ask, "So, you are a king?" But Pilate is not the only one asking. I have to confess that sometimes I find myself on the side of Pilate, wanting to ask Jesus, "So, are you a king? If you are a king, where's the evidence, because the world shows very little evidence of being under your rule and authority."

Tell me, Jesus, I want to say, do you reign in hospitals and nursing homes where the elderly die of lingering diseases?

Do you reign in sub-Saharan Africa where some countries may lose as much as 50% of their population to AIDS?

Do you reign in the Middle East when states assassinate the leaders of neighboring states and facilitate the sacrilege of "holy war"?

Do you reign in Darfur when so-called civilized nations stand by and allow genocide to take place?

What kind of king is Jesus to let things like this happen?

But the trial continues, and Pilate again asks, "So, you are a king?"

What is there to be said in defense of Jesus?

I recently read the story of a terrible incident that happened at the height of the war in the former Yugoslavia: a three-year-old girl in Sarajevo was hit by a sniper's bullet while playing outside her home. They rushed her to the hospital, of course, and the television cameras captured the scene, including her father bursting into tears, overcome by crushing grief. A reporter asked the father what he would like to do to her killer. And his response was that he would like to have a cup of coffee with the sniper and ask him what could cause a human being to do such a thing to a child, and he concluded by saying, "One day her tears will catch up with him". (Miroslav Volf, "A Cup of Coffee", Christian Century, Oct. 15, 1997,p. 917)

When that grieving father overcame hatred and expressed his willingness to sit down with his daughter's murderer over a cup of coffee, the kingdom of God briefly but brilliantly appeared in the very heart of the kingdom of violence and evil. Jesus reigns wherever love overcomes hatred and mercy conquers revenge. He reigns in the heart of a father who can forgive his three-year-old daughter's killer.

The late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was the correspondent of England's Guardian newspaper in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. He went there idealistic about the so-called "workers' paradise" being built in the USSR and left completely disillusioned. In his autobiography, Muggeridge relates the story of coming across a little church in the wood outside Moscow.

In the woods there was a little church, of course disused now. The fronts of such churches, like the Greek ones, are painted with bright colours; blues bluer than the bluest sky, whites whiter than the whitest snow. Someone... had painted up the one in the Kliasma woods. Standing in front of this unknown painter's handiwork, I blessed his name, feeling that I belonged to the little disused church he 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.

Jesus reigns when we decline the "kingdom of power" and "live in the kingdom of love". He reigns when authoritarian regimes come crashing down and when we stand with those who in our time are still persecuted for the Kingdom's sake.

I have to admit that the evidence is not entirely convincing, but nevertheless I must choose to stand with Jesus, not Pilate. I choose to believe that Jesus is king in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

And perhaps what Jesus meant when he said to Pilate that his "kingship is not of this world" is that his kingship is utterly different from human kingship. He rules not by coercion but by love. He comes to us as he came to Pilate, unarmed and defenseless, to ask if we will enlist in his kingdom.

Perhaps Jesus is on trial not because of anything he has done but because of what we have failed to do. The evidence for Christ's rule may be faint and fragmentary because we do not let him reign in our hearts and lives. It is up to us to plant the flag of God's Kingdom by what we do with what God has given us.

When we forgive someone who has wronged us, we have brought the kingdom a little closer. When we put aside our schedule and take time to visit the sick and the elderly, earth begins to resemble the Kingdom a little bit more.

In an autobiographical book Frederick Buechner vividly related the story of hearing George Buttrick preach a sermon about the reign of Jesus in the hearts of believers.

It was around the time that Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey, and the preacher played variations on the theme of coronation.... He said that Jesus Christ refused a crown when Satan offered it in the wilderness... He said that the kingdom of Jesus was not of this world. And yet... Jesus was crowned in the hearts of those who believed in him... this coronation of Jesus in the believer's heart took place among confession... and tears... [and] great laughter... Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face. (Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, pp. 43-44.)


May Jesus be crowned in our hearts with confession and tears and great laughter, and may we plant the flag of the kingdom of God's love in all of earth's dark corners by each of our words and deeds.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Joy of Being Mortal

Text: Mark 13

A stock figure in cartoons and jokes is the fanatic who carries around a sign that says “Repent! the end of the world is at hand.” Like many of you, I grew up Baptist, and when I hear or read this kind of warning about the end of the world, I smile but also feel a tiny twinge of fear. What if the fundamentalists and Pentecostals are right? I wonder. What if this really is the world’s last day or night? What will be God’s judgment on my life? Too little love and too much anger... too little service and too much self-aggrandizement.

The first century like the twenty first is a time of intense apocalyptic expectations. And the NT reflects the intense apocalyptic expectations of its time. In other words, first century Jews and Christians believed that the end of the world really was about to come to a crashing halt and that God would judge between the righteous and the sinful.

Today’s gospel reading reflects the intense apocalypticism of the first century. Jesus borrowed the language of the book of the prophet Daniel and spoke of the “desolating sacrilege” being set up in the Temple. The “desolating sacrilege” was code for the desecration of the Temple by the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV who had a pig slaughtered on the temple’s high altar and offered to the pagan deity Zeus.

What are we to make of the speculation that these might be the so-called “last days.” That we in our own day as Paul in his day, should be alert to the possibility that at any moment God might bring down the curtain on this weary old world.

First, let’s separate the core message of apocalypticism from the symbolism that surrounds it. Apocalypticism is the belief that the world is about to come to an end and that there will be a final battle between good and evil. One feature of apocalyptic literature is that it is highly symbolic. It has to be symbolic because it speaks of realities that none of us have ever experienced. So, Jesus was employing symbolic or metaphorical language when he spoke of the stars falling from the heavens or of the householder who will not even have enough time to rush back in side and collect his or her most valuable possessions,

Will the stars fall from the heavens? Of course not, but that does not affect the central message of apocalypticism, and that message is that this world and everything in it is finite. The world had a beginning and will have an end. Just as surely as you and I were born and will one day die, the same thing is true of the world around us.

A grim thought, you say? Something that will keep us up late or make us toss and turn? Well, it should certainly make us thoughtful, but it need not make us depressed, because the world doesn’t just flicker out like a candle. Rather, the message of apocalypticism is that the God who created the world will also be there at the end bringing creation to its conclusion. In creating the world, God declared it to be very good. What we have done with the world God gave us is anything but good, but surely the God who created the world and declared it to be good will deal graciously with the world.

Fundamentalists seem to believe that the core message of apocalypticism is “Jesus is coming again soon… and boy, is he mad!” But I do not believe that that is the message of the NT. The God who will bring creation to its conclusion not only loved creation and declared it to be good but also revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a God who loved creation and his creatures so much that he entered into creation and became a creature. The God we have come to know in Jesus is a God who loves us even when we fall, who gives us second and third and fourth chances. The God who took human form in Jesus is not a “gotcha” God, who jumps out and yells “Gotcha!” whenever we commit the slightest transgression. The God I have come to know in Christ is a God who is always there to support us, who weeps with us when we acknowledge our failings and gives us strength to try again.

Remember that God does not simply judge the world; God also redeems the world. I believe that the message of apocalypticism is that when the world finally comes to an end, God will lovingly gather the pieces and built a new heaven and a new earth, in which all the sadness and pain of the old creation will have no place.

A second message of Christian apocalypticism is that we need to remain somewhat lightly connected to or invested in the institutions and structures of this world. To be sure, God wants us to be good citizens, to work for the well-being of this world and all that is in it. However, the core message of apocalypticism is not just that the world is finite but that everything in the world is finite. Or as the Book of Revelation puts it, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of God and his Christ.” In other words, no human kingdom will last forever, and that is as true of the United States as it was of the Roman Empire. I do not doubt for a minute that the U.S. a great force for good in the world. The U.S. promotes freedom and human rights among the family of nations, and often does so even when it is not in its best interests to do so. And yet apocalyptic literature warns us not to set up any earthly institution as an object of worship. The New Testament reminds us that God should be the object of our worship.

Finally, apocalypticism urges us to be awake, alert, and ready. Our eyes should always be open to see the hand of God at work in the world. The world will only come to an end once, but there will be other mini-apocalypses. Something we have spent a lifetime building may be destroyed in a second. That’s a kind of apocalypse. The death of a marriage, a career, a loved one… all of these are occasions when God wants to build something new and better out of the ruins of the past, and apocalypticism says that if our eyes and spirits are open, we will be able to see God at work redeeming the past and building a better future.

“Be alert,” Jesus says, “I have already told you everything.” This is not only the message of the Christian faith; it is a central message of all the great faiths. Most of us go through life more than half asleep. God is doing wonderful and amazing things around us all the time, and we never see it. We should go through life wide-eyes with wonder, but instead we stumble along, myopically focused on the driver who cut us off on the interstate or the co-worker who took credit for something we did. We nurse petty angers and resentments when God wants to give us (as the Prayer Book’s baptismal service says) the “gift of joy and wonder.”

A beautiful Buddhist story is a perfect illustration. A man came to the Buddha and asked, “Are you a god?” “No,” the Buddha answered. “I am not a god.” “Are you a spirit, then?” the main asked. “No,” said the Buddha. “I am not a spirit.” “Are you an angel?” “No, I’m not an angel.” “Well, are you a saint, then?” “No, I’m not a saint.” Finally, in exasperation, the main asked the Buddha, “What are you then?” The Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

May God give us all the grace to be awake and aware and give us faith to believe that beyond every ending and every death, God is present, gathering up the pieces and redeeming all that we had thought was lost. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

All Saints: Weaving community with the threads of need

Text: Matthew 5.1-12

All Saints’ Day, invites us to consider those heroes and heroines of the faith we refer to as saints. When I say the word “saint,” who springs to mind? I imagine that one of the first people that most of us think about its Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The late Pope John Paul II “beatified” her, that is, declared that she may be referred to as “Blessed” Teresa of Calcutta. A person who is declared “blessed” generally goes on to be declared a saint. Now, it’s important to remember that the church does not MAKE saints; only God makes saints. The church simply recognizes saints. Mother Teresa was a saint long before her beatification by the pope, long before the 1970 film, “Something beautiful for God”, brought her international fame.

A common misperception about saints is that they are persons who draw on enormous spiritual resources or that they have strengths that you and I do not possess. The case of Mother Teresa shows how wrong such ideas are. The most striking (and for some, the most shocking) news to come out of Mother Teresa’s beatification is the fact that she suffered from profound doubt, from feelings of abandonment by God, even wondering at times if God existed.

She wrote, “The damned of hell suffer eternal punishment because they experiment with the loss of God. In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.” And also, “My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains.” Because of her perpetual good cheer, she felt others believed “my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew.”

We do the saints a disservice (indeed, we may be doing God a disservice) to assume that saints are perfect people who never experience doubts and struggles with their faith. A saint, then, is not one who never doubts, who never struggles, but one who continues to practice faith, to love others, to seek God, even when it is excruciatingly hard to do those things.

I would even venture to say that it may be weaknesses that make a saint, not strengths. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made an interesting and provocative remark in one of his sermons. “It's often been said, boldly, 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.”

I think the saints teach us one supremely important truth: Our weaknesses may be more important than our strengths. Now listen carefully. Our strengths are important. God has given each of us great gifts of strength, intelligence, compassion, and so on. But think: If we were composed only of strengths, what need would we have of each other? What need would we have of God? It is our weaknesses that bind us to each other and to God. That may be the secret of the saints: that, they know their need of God. But that is nothing new; I think it is the message of the Beatitudes.

For a long time I was puzzled by the fact that the gospel for All Saints’ Day is the Beatitudes, but I think I’ve figured it out. Most of the Beatitudes speak of an emptiness, a lack of something, a space in our hearts into which we can invite God. “Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… those who hunger and thirst… those who are persecuted…” The saints are those who recognize their emptiness, their profound need, and invite God to fill that space, that need, that emptiness.

Make no mistake: all of us know this emptiness, this space that cries out to be filled, but we do our best to fill it up with anything but God: alcohol, drugs, sex, and television are the “usual suspects” but we can even try to fill that emptiness with going to church. Instead, I invite you to sit with the emptiness, to find out what we can learn from it, and I think what we will find is that our emptiness is an invitation from God, a doorway through which God comes into our lives.

On public radio a few years ago I heard a remarkable program about cloning. During the program the narrator quoted a poem that the poet addressed to those he called “genetically engineered super humans”. In a strange way, I think that what the poet said about his so-called “genetically engineered super humans” enlightens what I’ve been saying about saints and sainthood.

You are the children of our fantasies of form,
our dream to perfect the ladder of genes and climb
its rungs to the height of human possibility,
to a [perfection] beyond all injury
and disease, with minds as bright as newborn suns
and bodies which leave our breathless mirrors stunned.
Forgive us if we failed to imagine your loneliness
in the midst of all that … excellence,
if we failed to understand how much harder
it would be to build the bridge of love
between such splendid selves, to find the path
of humility among the labyrinth of your abilities,
to be refreshed without forgetfulness,
and weave community without the threads of need.
Forgive us if you must re-invent our flaws
because we failed to guess the simple fact
that the best lives must be less than perfect.
(“Letter to genetically engineered super humans” by Fred Dings)

I think the key to understanding the saints is that they know that it is precisely the “threads of need” that are needed to “weave community”, and that even “the best lives must be less than perfect” because it is our needs and imperfections that open us to the grace of God and to one another. Amen.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Ubuntu - A Wedding Homily

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” Before the Bible tells us anything else it tells us that the heavens and the earth, everything we see and everything we do not see, comes to us from the hands of God. Furthermore, it assures us that everything God created is good, because every time God creates a star or a whale or an amoeba God declares it good. Finally, at the end of what must surely be the most productive week of work in the history of the universe, God declared everything that had been created to be “very good” indeed.

Thus, the Christian faith proceeds from the assumption that the world is good. There are religions that are not at all sure that the world is good. There are even Christians who act as though the world is a bad place, rather than a good place; there are Christians who are afraid that the good gifts of God’s creation, the things that delight the senses – wine, food, music, even the joy of husband and wife—are perhaps at least a little sinful. Oscar Wilde once said that a Puritan is a person who is afraid that somebody somewhere is having a good time!

But the Bible tells us otherwise. It tells us to enjoy God’s good creation. To be sure, there is nothing so good that it cannot be abused but that should not take away from the pleasure God intended us to have in the beautiful creation about which Genesis speaks.

God created light and called it good; created the seas and dry land and called them good; created humankind and called us good; but finally God declared one thing not to be good. What is the first thing in the Bible that God declares not to be good? It is not one of the “usual suspects” – stealing, lying, murder and so on. Rather, the first thing God declares not to be good is to be alone: “It is not good for humans to be alone.”

It’s a remarkable statement. We have a whole creation to enjoy, a creation full of good things, but God tells us that we are to enjoy it in the company of others, rather than by ourselves.

Psychologists and physicians tell us that the most important indicator of health (not just emotional health, but physical health, as well) is a person’s social network. The more connected we are to others, the more likely we are to be healthy. But we didn’t need a researcher at Harvard to tell us that; the Bible tells us that at the very beginning. “It is not good for humans to be alone.” Our Jewish sisters and brothers recognize this in one of their most ancient prayers; “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, for you set the solitary in families.”

God has put a drive toward community in every human heart. We need the company of others to be fully ourselves. Africa’s Zulu language has a word for it – ubuntu. Ubuntu means “I need you to be me” and “You need me to be you.”

None of us is whole or complete by ourselves. I need you and you need me… ubuntu. Marriage is a special form of togetherness or community. It is a recognition of the truth of Genesis and the truth of ubuntu. A good marriage is not based on the belief that we must marry someone to be whole or complete; rather it is based on the deep and abiding conviction of the couple getting married that they complement each other in just the right ways and that they can be so much more together than they can be apart.

The force that pulls us toward others is a kind of gravity. Each of us is a satellite flying through social space. Now we are drawn toward this one; then we spin off into space again; and then we are drawn toward another. The Bible gives a name to this gravity that draws us together; it is love. There are many kinds of love. One kind of love draws us together, but I believe another kind of love keeps us together. The love that draws us together is more or less automatic, but the love that keeps us together requires work. Scott and Blair, you will feel yourselves drawn in many directions, but I charge you on this day to be attentive to the gravity, the love, that drew you together in the first place. Keep it strong and never take it for granted. Anchor yourselves to one another with kindness, patience, and understanding.

Christian marriage is a special kind of community, for as Christians we believe that we are on a journey and that our spouses are our special companions on this journey. There is a love even stronger than the love you feel today for each other, and that is the love of God that took human form in Jesus of Nazareth and lived among us. Let that love draw you into the very heart of God, for the closer we come to the love that created the universe, the love that endured the cross and the grave, the love that makes us more together than we could ever be alone, the closer you will be to each other. Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Seeing Jesus Again for the Very First Time

Text: Mark 10.46-52

Sometimes what the Bible does not say is as interesting as what it does say. For example, how many gallons of ink have been spilled in wondering about what Jesus was doing in the twenty or so years before he began his public ministry. The public ministry of Jesus began (Luke tells us) when he was “about thirty years old” (Luke 3.23). The next earliest story we have of Jesus (also from Luke) is his visit to the Temple when he was about twelve years old (Luke 2.42). Twenty years of Jesus’ life pass in silence. Did he spend the time quietly working as a carpenter in Nazareth? Did he travel beyond Palestine? Was he abducted by aliens? But the New Testament leaves with nothing but silence.

I’m even more intrigued by the story of the woman caught in adultery. When she is brought before Jesus, he stoops to the ground and writes in the dirt with his finger. (John 8.6) It’s the only account the Bible gives us of Jesus writing. What do you suppose he wrote? One preacher suggested that Jesus wrote the names of the men in the crowd who had committed adultery themselves!

Today’s gospel also leaves us with an intriguing silence. “Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jericho and that they left, but tells us nothing of what happened in between. How long were they there? Did Jesus teach and preach? Did he weave any new tales of prodigal sons and good Samaritans? Of lost sheep and priceless pearls? And above all, I wonder, did he work any miracles? But undoubtedly something happened while Jesus and the disciples were in Jericho.

But before we get to what might have happened in Jericho, consider the significance of Jericho itself. Jericho, now as then, is an important town. It is situated in an oasis in the desolate wasteland between Jerusalem and the Jordan River. It is about 15 miles east of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the hills that stand between Jerusalem and the Jordan. It was an important commercial center and trading post on the principal road that connected Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley and points east. But its religious significance outweighed even its commercial significance. Jericho was the point at which the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. Jericho symbolized God’s fulfillment of the divine promise to Israel that they would enter and possess a land flowing with milk and honey.

Thus Jesus’ choice of routes into Jerusalem was full of significance. He could have traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem via the flat coastal plain, passing along near the sites of modern-day Haifa and Tel Aviv. But instead he chose the rougher, more arid interior route of the Jordan Valley. Jesus’ journey recapitulated Israel’s journey. But there was a difference: Israel journeyed from the wilderness to the promised land, but Jesus journeyed from the promised land to the cross. However, each went via Jericho.

So, what do you supposed happened between the first and second sentences of today’s gospel reading? Between “they came to Jericho” and “as he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving”? That something happened is beyond doubt. Something happened that came to the attention of blind Bartimaeus.

Imagine Bartimaeus’ world. Marks tells us that Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “Let me see again”. Bartimaeus is different from the blind man whose healing is recounted in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel who was blind from birth. Bartimaeus had once had sight but had lost it. I imagine that Bartimaeus’ desire for healing was greater, much greater, than the blind man in John’s gospel. He had had something precious and had lost it. The loss of sight must cause inconceivable anguish. I imagine that Bartimaeus had had to struggle with bitterness because of his enormous loss.

It is somewhat redundant to refer to Bartimaeus as a “blind beggar”. He was blind, so of course, he was a beggar. He had no alternative. He sat beside the road and begged for spare change. However, Mark portrays Bartimaeus as a man of decisiveness and action, not as a passive victim. Rather than passively accept his fate, Bartimaeus refuses to be ignored. He shouts. He makes a scene. He shouts Jesus’ name. The crowd hushes him. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet…” But Mark tells us that Bartimaeus “cried out even more loudly” and shouted Jesus’ name again.

A detail I find especially poignant is that when Jesus notices Bartimaeus and calls for him to come to him, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. What do you suppose that cloak represented to Bartimaeus? Just how many cloaks would a blind beggar of the first century possess? Perhaps he had a begging bowl and a staff, but I doubt he would have much else. That cloak may have represented anywhere from 25% to 50% of Bartimaeus’ possessions. It is even more powerful when we think of the story of the rich man who came to Jesus earlier in the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel. When Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions”. What a contrast with Bartimaeus who, with joyful abandon throws away his cloak, perhaps his most expensive possession!

As a sightless man Bartimaeus’ only way of learning about the world was via his other senses, mainly his sense of hearing. What Bartimaeus knew about Jesus he would have learned by listening. So whatever Jesus did during his visit to Jericho, Bartimaeus must have learned about it by listening to the buzz of the crowds. He could not observe directly.

From the few remarks of Bartimaeus that Mark records, it is plain to me that Bartimaeus knew two things about Jesus. First, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah. As Jesus is leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David” is a messianic title. The Messiah was thought of as the heir of the throne of David, the one who would re-establish a united kingdom of Israel and Judah, as David had. Secondly, Bartimaeus knew that Jesus could heal. When he and Jesus come face to face, Bartimaeus poignantly says, “My teacher, let me see again”.

So much for what Bartimaeus knew about Jesus. What do you suppose Jesus knew about Bartimaeus? Again, we don’t know how long Jesus had been in Jericho or what he had done there. Perhaps he had taught extensively. Undoubtedly, he had healed. Otherwise, why would Bartimaeus have begged Jesus to heal him? More than likely, Jesus was tired. But most importantly, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his death. There must have been much on his mind and heart. And then suddenly, as he was leaving Jericho, faintly, from the edge of the crowd that thronged around him closely, he heard a noise, some kind of disturbance. And then it came again, and the second time, he could make out the words, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus told the crowd to bring to him the man who was calling out for him.

Perhaps the most powerful detail in this story is the question that Jesus asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” It is powerful because it is almost word-for-word what Jesus had said to James and John in the story immediately preceding the healing of Bartimaeus. “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10.35-37)

What a contrast! James and John had wanted glory, power, fame, and perhaps riches. They had wanted the choicest seats in the Kingdom of God. In contemporary terms, they had wanted Jesus to choose them as his running mates! But Bartimaeus had only wanted his sight; he only wanted Jesus to restore the ability he had once had to see the orange sunset, the petals of a daisy, the smile of a loved one.

Mark forces us to ask the questions: Who was really blind? And who really received their sight? Plainly, the rich man whose great wealth had kept him from “inheriting eternal life” was blind when he came to Jesus and blind when he left. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, threw away the greatest part of his worldly possessions. Can you see his cloak flying from his hand as he runs toward Jesus as fast as his blindness would permit him?

James and John were at least as blind as the rich man who could not part with his great possessions. They understood the kingdom of God in terms of power and status; for them the kingdom was about who was in and who was out; who had front row seats and who was in the “nosebleed” section. In contrast, Bartimaeus asked for nothing more (and nothing less) than God’s first creation and gift to the world: light.

How do we know that Bartimaeus was healed? That’s obvious, isn’t it? Mark says that “immediately, he regained his sight…” Nothing could be clearer. However, there is more, much more. Bartimaeus could have regained his sight and remained blind.

Mark has placed the story of Bartimaeus’ healing in a very significant place. It takes place immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It takes place just before the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus, as I said earlier, is on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death. Everything in Mark’s gospel leads up to this point. Although Mark tells us of only one other blind man that Jesus heals, it could be argued that virtually everyone in Mark’s gospel is blind, especially the disciples. The disciples consistently fail to understand what Jesus is all about. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah but is horrified when Jesus foretells his death on the cross. James and John ask Jesus to give them preferential treatment.

Blind Bartimaeus is one of the few people in Mark’s gospel who really see. And we know this by the last five words in chapter ten. “Immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way”.

Mark presents us with a stark choice: Will we be like the rich man and let our possessions or accomplishments come between Jesus and us? Will we be like James and John and think of the service of God as a means for self-advancement? Or will we be like Bartimaeus? Will we let nothing keep us from crying out in prayer to God? Will we toss aside whatever gets in our way and run as fast as we can toward Jesus? And above all, will we “follow him on the way”, even though we know that it is the way of the cross?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Looking Glass Ethics

Text: Mark 10.35-45
Looking Glass Ethics

In Through the Looking Glass, the author Lewis Carroll takes his character Alice on a series of adventures in “Looking Glass Land,” where you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place and where the Red King practices believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Looking glasses or mirrors are helpful for more than practicing posture and putting on make-up. They enable us to see ourselves as others see us. However, looking glass land is different from our everyday world in a fundamental way: looking glass land is our world backwards and inverted. In other words, looking glass world is not a photograph. The world we see in the looking glass appears to be our world but as we begin to explore, we find that it operates by a different set of rules.

Seeing our world reflected in the looking glass can be helpful but it can also be misleading. We’ve all had the experience of trying to tie a tie while watching ourselves in the mirror. The hand in the mirror goes in one direction and our hand goes in another, and we end up with a Gordian knot instead of a bow tie. On the other hand, the mirror can help us untangle puzzles. Scientist and artist Leonardo Da Vinci famously learned how to write backwards and his notebooks can only be deciphered when they are viewed “though the looking glass.”

The gospels hold up a mirror to our world. At first, the world we see in the gospels seems much like the world in which we live. People are born and they die; they hunger and thirst; they marry and have children. But when we look more closely we see that the looking glass land of the gospels is so very different from the world we inhabit.

For example, we celebrate the wealthy, famous, and powerful but the gospels tell us that the poor and persecuted are the special objects of God’s favor. As the Song of Mary says, “God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty way; God has brought down the mighty and has lifted up the lowly.” We live in a world that measures success by the bank accounts, houses, and cars that we possess but the gospels tell us that in God’s kingdom the only thing that matters is our capacity to love. Our world is all about getting more and climbing higher but the gospels tell us that God evaluates us by how much we give and by our willingness to serve those who occupy the world’s lowest places.

Today’s gospel reading is a perfect illustration. James and John come to Jesus and say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." They made the mistake that everyone makes when they look at the world through the looking glass; they assumed that it was exactly the same as the world in which they lived. They assumed that greatness would be rewarded with power and prestige. They didn’t realize that in looking glass world (that is, the kingdom of God) that which is high in this world becomes low; that which is valuable in this world is worthless on the other side of the looking glass.

Wherever Jesus’ followers have successfully practiced his “looking glass ethics,” they have mystified the world and the world has predictably responded with hostility. The Romans did not know what to make of the early Christians. The Romans valued honor above everything else. “Love of honor” or philotimia above everything else. They defined honor much like we define honor. Military victory was honorable (provided the fight was fair) and defeat was dishonorable or shameful. Athletic prowess was honorable. Holding high political office or coming from a good family were also honorable. The Christian faith inverted Rome’s values, because at the heart of Christianity is the story of Jesus who voluntarily submitted to die the most dishonorable death imaginable in the Roman world – death on a cross. Not only did Jesus die on the cross, he went to his death without any resistance. In the Roman mind, Jesus died a shameful death in a shameful way, that is, without putting up a good fight.

James and John assumed that the values of this world operate on the other side of the looking glass in the kingdom of God, but Jesus quickly corrected them. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

It ran contrary to common sense in the first century and runs contrary to common sense in the twenty first century. The headlines of our newspapers and lead stories on the news celebrate presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and senators.

The Christian has the difficult task of practicing looking glass ethics on the wrong side of the mirror. The best illustration I can give is to tell a story by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Imagine, he said, a thief who breaks into a jewelry store, but strangely he doesn’t steal anything. Rather, he rearranges the price tags so that what had been valuable becomes cheap and what had been cheap becomes valuable.

Sisters and brothers, our task is to value the things Jesus values and to love those whom Jesus loves; to seek the place of service rather than the place self-aggrandizement, to fill the hungry with good things and to love the poor, the hungry, the homeless. And to remember that what seems high on this side of the looking glass is low on the other side and what seems cheap here is of infinite value in Jesus’ upside down kingdom. Our mission is to be subversive: to put the price tags back where they belong .

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Impossible Possibility

Text: Mark 10.17-31

“A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound… money makes the world go round.” So sings the Emcee in Cabaret, but it’s not a new idea. Karl Marx was wrong about almost everything, but he was right about one thing: Consciously or unconsciously, we usually act in accordance with our economic self-interest. But long before Marx Jesus said much the same thing.

Jesus had a lot to say about money. He told us that hearts would be found in the same place as our treasure. He told us that the measure of a life well-lived is how much we give, not how much we receive. He said, “Blessed are the poor, but woe to you who are rich.”

Today’s gospel reading contains two of Jesus’ “hard sayings.” The first one is obvious: Jesus’ command to the affluent young man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. But there is another even harder saying hidden in today’s gospel reading that we will get to in a few minutes.

Britain’s former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, is one of my heroes. When I was studying in Britain she was in her second term and was elected to a third term during my time there. However, she was incredibly unpopular with British intellectuals, including most of the clergy, although I think there is little doubt that her policies laid the foundation for the prosperity most Britons are enjoying today. A key element of “Thatcherism” was the sale of state-owned industries, such as British Petroleum, British Aerospace, and so on. I ran into a friend one evening, a priest, who was out walking his dog. He began to rail at Mrs. Thatcher and her lack of compassion for the poor. Finally, I said, “But John, the Prime Minister is just doing what Jesus told us to do…. Go and sell all that you have.”

Seriously, though, was Jesus telling us that we must sell all that we have? Was he saying that unless we embrace poverty, we cannot follow him? The quick and easy answer is to point out that Jesus requires only one person in all the gospels to make this sacrifice. When he dines with the corrupt tax collector Zacchaeus, Jesus does not tell him to sell all that he has. Zacchaeus offers to give half of his possessions to the poor and to reimburse anyone from whom he has stolen by a factor of four, and Jesus appears to give Zacchaeus his blessing.

So are we off the hook? Can we keep our houses and cars and bank accounts, unless Jesus personally requires us to sell it all or unless, like Zacchaeus, we need to make amends for a life of crime?

When he was on his deathbed, comedian W.C. Fields asked for a Bible. Fields had never displayed any interest in religion, and his friends were astonished. ”Why do you want a Bible?” they asked. “I’m looking for loopholes,” Fields replied.

Like Fields, we want to find loopholes. We want to believe that there is some fine print in the Bible that says that we can amass great wealth and also follow Jesus. We want to believe that Jesus was talking about someone else when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.” But the sad fact is that all of us have our hearts in the wrong place. All of us are too firmly tied to this world by chains of money and possessions.

Jesus can’t possibly be talking about me, can he? If I were a corporation I wouldn’t make the Fortune 500 list; I wouldn’t even make it if they expanded it to a thousand or a million. When it comes to wealth, I’m not only not in the same category as Bill Gates, I’m barely on the same planet. Wealth, however, is relative. To be wealthy in the world of Jesus, was to have a roof over one’s head and enough food to eat. When I taught New Testament at Samford University, I had to work hard to convince my students that when Jesus talked about the rich, he was talking about them (and their teacher, too, of course). The average student at an American university is fabulously wealthy, not only in comparison with the average person in the world of Jesus but even in comparison with about two-thirds of the people in the world today.

All of us want to negotiate with Jesus. I know I do. “Jesus, I’ll follow you… I’ll give up everything I have, except…” What? What is the one thing you would not give up to follow Jesus? I know that if a heavenly voice roused me from my sleep at 3 am and said, “Go and sell the Steinway grand your parents bought for you in high school” I would ask for a second opinion. What would you not give up? The money you have saved for retirement? The vacation house at the lake or the beach? But Jesus does not negotiate. Matthew’s version of this story read, “If you would be perfect, sell your possessions and give everything to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”

I have to give the young man a lot of credit. He did not try to negotiate with Jesus. He may not have been willing to pay the cost of discipleship but he understood it. In fact, he understood it so well Mark tells us that he was “shocked and went away grieving.”

The first “hard saying” of Jesus is his challenge to the young man who was seeking to “inherit eternal life:” “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” The second (and, I think, harder) saying comes in the discussion Jesus has with his disciples after the young man’s departure.

He tells them that it will be as hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Now, it is sometimes argued that the “eye of a needle” was a narrow gate in the wall around Jerusalem. That is not correct. The gate known as the “needle’s eye” was built long after the time of Jesus. Jesus meant a real camel and a real needle. In other words, he was saying that it’s impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. His disciples were astonished. They assumed that the rich would have an easier time of getting into God’s kingdom because they could do so much good with their wealth. So they asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply to that question is today’s second and harder saying: “For mortals it is impossible…”

“For mortals it is impossible” is a hard saying because deep down most of us believe that if we really, really try, then we will be to enter the kingdom, to get into heaven. We won’t even have to sell our possessions as Jesus asked the affluent young man to do, because unlike him, we know that we will do so much good with our wealth. We’ll give to our church, the United Way, our college alumni fund, support political candidates who will write good legislation and enact wise policies. Of course, we won’t be able to do this all by ourselves. We will need God’s help. But isn’t that what the very next verse says: “With God’s help all things are possible”?

Ah, now that’s a problem, because the new translations have corrected a mistranslation in the earlier versions. The King James’ Version reads, “With God all things are possible.” “All things are possible with God” is the RSV’s translation. But the New Revised version translates the Greek correctly: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

“With God all things are possible” implies that all that we need is to get God on our side and try a little harder. It’s like the old bumper stickers that said, “God is my co-pilot” which always made me wonder why the less qualified person was in the pilot’s seat.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth called the Christian faith the “impossible possibility.” A virgin give birth to the savior of the world? Impossible. The infant in the manger God incarnate? Impossible. An executed criminal who rises from the dead on the third day? Impossible. The rich enter the kingdom of heaven? Impossible. The poor enter the kingdom of heaven? Also impossible. But that is God’s business: turning impossibilities into possibilities.

The French mystic Blaise Pascal said, “Those who seek God have already found God.” Those who seek God have already found God because the desire for God is a gift. I think the young man who asked Jesus what more was necessary to inherit eternal life was sincere, but I think he wanted to have eternal life AND riches. There is a great fascination with spirituality in our age. There is much good in this but the danger is that spirituality life will become just one more hobby. For example, Madonna has become interested in Qabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. I can imagine an interviewer saying, “Now, Madonna, tell us about some of your interests.” “Well, I do yoga, support animal rights, and .. uh… oh , yeah… I’m getting into Qabbalah.”

I think a story from the Buddhist tradition may help us understand why Jesus made the young man an offer he COULD refuse and why the man went away grieving. Like Jesus, people routinely came to Buddha seeking spiritual help. “Master,” the man said, “I know that you have attained enlightenment. What must I do to become enlightened?” The Buddha looked at the young man, and said, “Do you really want to be enlightened?” The man said, “Yes, I really do.” “Come with me, then.” The Buddha and the man walked down to the lake. “Lean over and look into the lake,” the Buddha said. As the man leaned over the surface of the lake, the Buddha seized the man’s head and held it beneath the water until he was half-drowned and then released him. “Now, when you want enlightenment as badly as you wanted air, come and see me again.”

The kingdom of God is not our achievement; it is God’s gift. It is only by grace that we will be able to seek the kingdom with all our hearts, to think nothing of giving up everything and following Christ; to be as desperate for God as a drowning man is for air. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven

I think it was an episode of the TV medical series ER that included a scene in which two little boys were engaged in a fierce argument. One of the doctors asked them what they were arguing about, and they said that they were arguing about who would win if Superman and Batman got in a fight. One little boy argued that Superman would certainly win because he was the "man of steel" and is "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound". The other little boy said that Batman would win because he would use kryptonite to disable Superman.

Well, that's the kind of thing that little boys argue about. Older boys (and men) argue about which football, baseball, or basketball team is the greatest, and sometimes they argue about which country is the greatest. We call those latter arguments wars.

It is difficult to imagine grown men having the kind of discussion described in today's reading from Mark. "...when he was in the house, Jesus asked them, 'What were you discussing on the way?' But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest".

Unless we are Muhammad Ali, we don't usually go around chanting, "I'm the greatest", and I think that even Ali said that a little tongue in cheek. No, we aren't usually so open in asserting our superiority over others. But we do have subtle ways of doing it. There is something in human nature that makes us want to let others know that we think we are superior. We call it drive or ambition. It makes some seek political office; it makes others work to become CEO of their company. And others demonstrate that they are ahead of others by amassing wealth or possessions.

Now, there is nothing wrong with ambition per se. There is something healthy in a degree of competition. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to do the best one can in one's job or in athletics or in school.

The problem comes when we start comparing ourselves with others. If on some level we are saying, "I want to show that I am better or stronger or smarter than Sam or Mary", then something is wrong with our competitiveness.

That appears to be why Jesus rebuked his disciples. They had one idea of greatness; Jesus had another. Their idea of greatness seems to have been about having more -- more money, more success, more power. Jesus' idea of greatness seems to have been about giving more. "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise."

Jesus' own life represented a different standard of greatness. And as if that weren't enough, Mark says, "he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me".

True greatness, Jesus seems to be saying, is not in having but in giving. It is not in stepping on others in order to climb the ladder but in being attentive to the needs and concerns of others.

Now, that was really a kind of strange thing to do. Notice that Jesus said nothing about childlike innocence. You are probably more familiar with the way this same story is told in Matthew's gospel. It is Matthew, not Mark, who adds the famous line, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven". Matthew appears to be saying that Jesus was urging his followers to become innocent and pure again, like little children.

But Mark does not include that line, and I prefer Mark's account of this story. Now, don't misunderstand me; I like children (really, I do!!). But children can be remarkably quarrelsome. They can come to blows when they argue about the relative superiority of Batman and Superman. We don't enter the world as innocent, unselfish creatures. We enter the world as selfish creatures and have to learn unselfishness by sharing our toys and cookies with others.

Jesus says that true greatness is found in being a servant. And he showed them what he was talking about by picking up a child. Jesus picked up the child and set him in the midst of the disciples not because he was urging the disciples to become childlike (nor, as pop psychologists of our day might say, to urge them to "get in touch with their inner child"). The child is not the model of greatness; the child and those like the child are the ones we are to serve. The child represents the weak and the helpless, those who cannot take care of themselves.

"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but hiim who sent me".

Service to the weak and the helpless, then, is service to Christ. Receiving children, visiting the sick, praying with the dying, giving food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless -- that is the test of greatness.

I'm not good at it. If I had been among Jesus' disciples, I might not have been openly discussing who was the greatest, but I probably would have been wondering about it and trying to figure out how to get Jesus to notice and praise me.

However, I know that it has been in those moments when I have been the servant rather than the one being served that I have felt the presence of God most strongly.

I remember the Christmas of 1978. I had graduated from Harvard the previous June and still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. My mother was the principal of a rural elementary school, and she asked if I would play the piano for the Christmas program. That was about the last thing I wanted to do. Harvard graduates weren't supposed to play upright pianos in the cafeterias of rural elementary schools. They were supposed to work for large investment firms on Wall St. or for senators in Washington or be trying to make partner in prestigious law firms. But I was playing Christmas carols for school children.

I went with a bad attitude and played sullenly, until the special education students started to sing. "Special ed" is, of course, a euphemism. These are the physically and mentally handicapped children. But in spite of their handicaps, or maybe because of them, these children sang with joy. Christmas really meant something to them. They felt special as they stood on the stage and people listened to them and their parents and relatives beamed with pride. And I felt ashamed that I had been so reluctant to be there and play for an hour or so. And then I started to feel a kind of warmth or contentment, call it the "spirit of Christmas". The presence of God, maybe? But I was glad I was there.

Just after Mother Teresa’s death The New Yorker featured an article by a physician who had worked with her. He concluded by saying, "As for the ending of her own life, I think she would have found something wastful in any sort of mass tribute to mark her death. 'Get on with it', she might have said. 'There is work to do.' She might have said, as she did say to many who visited her, 'Make your life something beautiful for God.'"

And that is a pretty good paraphrase of what Jesus said to the disciples who were discussing which of them was the greatest, and what he might say to those of us worrying about making more money or getting promoted, "Get on with it! There’s work to do. Make your life something beautiful for God".

Thursday, September 14, 2006

When words ARE enough

“Word, words,” sang Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars burning above; if you're in love, show me!” Probably all of us are sympathetic with Eliza Doolittle’s complaint about her suitor’s failure to match deeds with words. Words by themselves seem puny and anemic. Words hardly seem adequate when death and disaster strike. What good are words when terrorists crash airplanes into skyscrapers or a city and tens of thousands of its citizens practically disappear beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico? However, in today’s gospel reading, Peter tells Jesus that he has “the words of eternal life.” What do you suppose these words are, and is there any justification for Peter’s outrageous claim?

Words, both spoken and written, are central to the Christian faith. From the beginning to the end of the Bible words play a central role. In Genesis God speaks the heavens and the earth into existence: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…” The prophets prefaced their oracles by saying, “This is the word of the Lord.” And when the Spirit breathed new life into Jesus’ discouraged followers, the great sign of the Spirit’s visitation was the gift of words: “…they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2.4)

Words are powerful; they can create, and they can destroy. When a couple stand in the presence of God and their family and friends and pledge to love and be faithful to each other, their “I do’s” summon a new world into being. But just as surely, when love dies and a couple who have shared a life together grow distant and hostile, a whole world is destroyed when one spouse says, “I want a divorce.”

Sometimes words take on a life of their own. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, “all men” meant “all free, white, male property owners above a certain age,” but his words accomplished more than he intended or could have imagined. They not only severed the ties between America and England and brought a new nation into existence, they eventually brought freedom and equality to enslaved Africans and women, as well. When Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” a nation haunted by unemployment and hunger began to regain its confidence. And when Ronald Reagan stood atop the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he was sowing the seeds that would yield a harvest of freedom for the Soviet people and their allies in only a few years.

But of all the words ever spoken, only Jesus’ words are said to be “the words of eternal life.” In teaching his disciples to pray, “Our Father…” Jesus changed the relationship between humanity and God from estrangement to reconciliation. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount radically challenged our belief that life is about gaining, getting, and keeping; rather, he suggested that it is not the winners but the losers on whom God’s favor rests. In the face of death itself, Jesus demonstrated that real power is not in the hands of those who sit in judgment on the innocent and condemn them to death but in the hands of the one who can summon the power to forgive: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Finally, he told us that meaningful life is found not in security but in risking everything for the sake of the gospel: “…those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”

Jesus’ words are not pious platitudes; rather, they are flares that arc across the night sky, showing us the way across a perilous landscape. His words are food and water in the wilderness. Each of Jesus’ words is a time bomb that may at any minute go off in the midst of the enemy’s fortress.

“To whom shall we go?” Peter asked. There are many places we can go for easier words. The marketplace tells us that “Greed is good” and will not reproach us for filling up our bank accounts while our neighbors are in need. The cult of power and success all around us rewards our innate competitiveness and mocks the gospel’s reminder that the poor are blessed. Rather than dying to self and being raised by God to new life in Christ, the prevailing culture promises us perpetual youth if we will drink this, eat that, or drive the latest model from Detroit.

What is it that gives Jesus’ words such power? He was not the most eloquent rabbi of first century Palestine and far from the most learned. Scholars have demonstrated that he was not even very original; many of Jesus’ sayings are similar to or even the same as some of his contemporaries. I think the explanation for Peter’s claim that Jesus spoke “words of eternal life” can be found at the very first beginning of John’s gospel. “ The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” There was a perfect correspondence between Jesus’ words and his life. When he said, “Blessed are the poor,” he lived out its meaning by sharing his life with the poor. When he prayed “Our Father,” his disciples could believe that God was their Father, too, because of Jesus’ own intense intimacy with God. When he said, “Father, forgive them” to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, his words rang true because he had lived out that forgiveness in his life. And when he died, his disciples finally understood what he had meant by calling on them to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.

His words have eternal significance because they were not just spoken in Palestine long ago, he speaks them to us today. When he blessed the “poor in spirit,” he was blessing us, for we are all poor in spirit. When he prayed “Our Father,” he was inviting us into greater intimacy with God. When he invited his disciples to give up their lives for the sake of the gospel, he was inviting us to let go of our false security and launch out in the great adventure to which God invites us. And when he forgave the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, he was forgiving us, for all of us have stood by and allowed the innocent to be punished.

Jesus’ words are words of eternal life because he is God’s word and his life was the very image of God’s love for us – the poor, the fearful, the estranged, and the bystanders at the cross.

When life falls apart (and eventually, life falls apart for everyone), there is only one to whom we can go, only one whose words are “spirit and life,” only one who has the words of eternal life. As Albert Schweitzer reminded us, “He comes to us as one unknown as of old by the lake-side he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands, and to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.” (Concluding paragraph, The Quest for the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The "Medicine of Immortality"

The heart of today’s gospel reading is a contrast. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” In other words, your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died, but those who eat “the bread that came down from heaven” will live forever. What is astonishing about this promise is not just the assurance of eternal life, but the fact that Jesus joins the promise of eternal life to the most mundane of human activities – eating.

I would like to look at both the promise – eternal life – and the means to achieve it – eating the bread that came down from heaven.

First, the desire for life after death seems to be fundamental to human nature. The eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume once said, "It is a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever,” but I am not sure that many people agree with him. Indeed, in 21st century American culture there seems to be an almost desperate need to believe that there is life after death. Suddenly there seem to be a half dozen new TV shows that deal with the idea of life after death and the possibility of communicating with the dead.

Eternal life is not an “unreasonable fancy;” it is at the very heart of the Christian faith. To divorce eternal life from the Christian faith is to render the faith anemic and puny. In today’s gospel reading Jesus reminds us that “the living Father” sent him. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about life, both here and hereafter. To accept that death has the last word is to accept that God’s power is limited, but that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus promises that he will raise up those who are nourished by his body and blood.

It is just as true, however, that the Christian faith is about more than life after death. It is just as much about life in the here and now. Indeed, there is a continuity between life in this world and life in the next. As priest and poet John Donne put it, “… all the way to heaven is heaven… so that soul that goes to heaven meets heaven here… the true joy of a good soul in this world is the very joy of heaven…” (“Sermon LXVI” in Herschel Baker, ed., The Later Renaissance in England, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin (1975), p. 561.)

The promise that eternal life belongs to those who eat and drink Christ’s body and blood grounds us in this world. The promise of eternal life is not annexed to some elaborate ritual; we are not asked to bathe in a sacred river or to offer sacrifices or to repeat a magic formula. Instead, we are invited to a meal.

But (I imagine someone asking) can it be that simple? Can we really receive eternal life by eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table? To answer that question, first imagine how we come to the Lord’s Table. In the world of Jesus, bathing was relatively uncommon, but if one was invited to a dinner party, one bathed and anointed oneself with oil. Similarly, before we come to the Lord’s Table, we are washed in the waters of baptism. Also, to sit down at table in first century Palestine implied that the guests were at peace with the host and with one another. Jesus admonishes us to be reconciled with one another before “offering our gift at the altar.” (Matthew 5.23-24)

The 16th century Protestant Reformers condemned the mass because the consecrated bread and wine had become isolated from the other parts of the liturgy; they had become ends in themselves. However, when we properly celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, then we will have met Jesus all along the way. We will have been baptized into his death and resurrection; we will hear him speak in the voice of scripture; we will be reconciled with those we have sinned against; we will be nourished on his body and blood; and finally, we will hear him command us to go into the world to do his will.

The late 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons called the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, “the medicine of immortality.” Jesus did not employ the metaphor of medicine, but he did promise that if we are nourished on his body and blood we will have eternal life. The meal we share with believers on earth is the heavenly banquet in earthly guise. Saints and angels gather around whenever we set the table, whether the sacrament is celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony they can muster at St. Peter’s in Rome or with loaf bread and jug wine at summer camp, because it is the earthly extension of the marriage feast of the Lamb.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Being "pushy" for justice's sake

My sermon for Sept 10 is available at the Episcopal Church's website.

http://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work_77229_ENG_HTM.htm?menu=undefined

Saturday, August 05, 2006

In a New Light

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... and God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”. Have you ever thought about the fact that God created light before God created the stars, the givers of light?
A thread of light connects all three texts this meditation is based on: There was the mysterious light shining from Moses’ face that frightened the Israelites. In 2 Peter the author speaks of the “prophetic message” he delivers as a “light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.
And finally, there is the story of the Transfiguration, the story of Jesus’ journey to the top of a high mountain, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. While there the disciples saw Jesus transformed into a being of light: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. And they saw Jesus talking with the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah.
I am inclined to think that the transfiguration of which we speak today was not so much in Jesus as it was in Peter, James, and John. The light that they saw pouring from Jesus had always been there; they just had not seen it before.
The life of Jesus had already shed a radically new light on the world. The poor had been regarded as unloved and unwanted by God, but in the light that Jesus brought they came to be seen as special objects of God’s favor. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Tax collectors and prostitutes were shunned, but Jesus cast an entirely new light on their status when he shared meals with them. “He receives sinners and eats with them”. (Luke 15.2)
To the learned Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to him “by night”, Jesus brought light. “Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3.3). “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light...” (John 3.19) Jesus saw that Nicodemus’ real need was not a theological discussion but a radically new way of seeing. And Nicodemus, who arrived in the dark, left amidst God’s blazing light.
And then there was the “man blind from birth” (John 9.1) that Jesus and his disciples encountered in Jerusalem. But even the disciples were in darkness, for they saw this sightless man as nothing more than a theological dilemma: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2)
However, Jesus saw the man and his blindness as an opportunity to do the work God has been doing ever since the first chapter of Genesis: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. (John 9.3) And taking the dust from which God had made Adam and the water with which he makes the new Adam, Jesus gave that man blind from birth God’s first creation and gift to the world—light.
Today’s gospel retells the story of a moment when Peter, James, and John suddenly saw Jesus for who he was—a man filled with God’s light, the light that God created even before he hurled stars and moons and planets into the inky void.
The New Testament speaks of a world hovering between light and darkness. According to 2 Peter we are in that dim moment just before “the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 Peter 1.19).
According to John’s Gospel Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 9.5). The darkness has not overcome the Light, but neither has the Light quite overcome the darkness. There are still those who, like Nicodemus, prefer to do their business by night. There are still those who saw not a great and wondrous miracle when the blind man was healed, but merely a sinner violating the Sabbath code.
The light of which the New Testament speaks is not so much about heavenly bodies or luminous filaments; it is about opening our eyes and stepping out of the shadows. It is about taking the risk of adopting a new perspective.
There is darkness in every life. There is an unwillingness to see in each one of us.
A child who awakens from a nightmare may see the face of a monster on her wall, but when Mother switches on the light, it becomes the laughing face of a clown in a picture.
The Bible tells us of Saul who became Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus, who had seen the followers of Jesus as enemies, but suddenly came to see them as brothers and sisters.
By eerie and unsettling coincidence the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, is also the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The overwhelming light generated by that nuclear explosion was quite different from the light that shone from Moses’ face or the light of Peter’s message, much less the light that frightened Jesus’ disciples atop the Mount of Transfiguration.
My father served in the Pacific, and I am deeply grateful that the destruction of Hiroshima prevented an invasion of Japan in which he would have fought. But even though the bombing of Hiroshima brought a terrible war to a quick end and probably saved the lives of thousands of troops, both Japanese and American, nevertheless it took the lives of thousands of men, women, and children.
For over forty years men and women saw the world in the light of nuclear destruction. The light that Jesus brought invites us to see the world in a radically different perspective.
Years after hostilities between the U.S. and Japan and its allies ended American veterans of World War II returned to the sites of mighty battles and so did their German and Japanese counterparts. Men who once saw each other as enemies, now see each other as neighbors.
A little over a hundred years ago here many in this country saw black people as slaves. But now we have learned and are still learning that black and white people alike are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...”
According to the Talmud, a Jew must pray at dawn. But that begs the question, when is dawn?
It is said that a young student came to his teacher and asked, “Rabbi, when is dawn? Is dawn the moment when the last star fades from the sky, or is it when the sun creeps above the horizon?”
The wise old teacher replied, “No, my son. Dawn is the moment when you can look at the face of another and see not an enemy but a friend.”
In the light of Hiroshima we came to see half the world as our enemies, dedicated to our destruction. And we saw ourselves as their enemies, and dedicated ourselves to their destruction.
But in the light of the Transfiguration God invites us to see the poor as heirs of heaven; to see sickness not as divine punishment but as an opportunity to do God’s work; and to see each other as sons and daughters of God.