Monday, June 26, 2006

Under the sign of the question mark and the cross

“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asked the Adversary. (Job 1.8) And that was the fateful question, the catalyst, the push that set in motion a train events that would leave Job near despair.
Job had seven sons and three daughters, and his livestock numbered in the hundreds. He was not only prosperous, he was good. Job belonged to the Rotary Club and was a member of the vestry; he gave to the United Way and voted Republican. To use the correct Biblical word to describe Job, he was righteous. In defending himself before God, Job declared, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper... I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me...” (Job 29.12 14) and we have every reason to believe that Job was telling the truth.
But disaster overcame this man of righteousness and prosperity. The livestock were killed by marauders and natural disaster, and his children were all killed when a tornado struck the house in which they were having a party. Finally, Job himself was afflicted with a chronic, painful, debilitating illness.
However, Job still had his wife and his friends, though he may have wished more than once that they, too, had been in the house with his children. “Curse God and die,” his wife urged. And his friends were no better: “Who that was innocent ever perished?...happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (Job 4.7 and 5.17) In short, these friends insisted that Job was in the wrong and God was in the right.
When Job could take it no longer, he burst out, “God has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me... God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces... though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.” (Job 16.9, 12). What kind of God is this, Job asked, who allows “the wicked [to] live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power... How often is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out?” (Job 21.7, 17)
The story of Job, of course, is the human story. His misfortunes were more dramatic than the misfortunes most of us will encounter, but they were different from ours only in degree, not in kind. Life is tragic, and to fail to appreciate the tragedy of human life is to fail to be fully human.
But what makes Job most like us are his questions. Job’s questions went on and on and on until he was worn out and his friends were worn out and God was just about worn out. To be human and to be thoughtful at all is to question much. Job’s questions are our questions: Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer? Other questions, less momentous but no less persistent, linger at the corner of our awareness: Does the one I love also love me? What can I do with my life that will give me happiness and fulfillment? Will I have enough resources to live on in old age? And above all we wonder: Why must I suffer and die? Why must those I love suffer and die?
At times these questions spin about us like a whirlwind. Job’s questions were like that, too, until finally, one day, Someone spoke to Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?... Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
Job’s questions got answered with more questions. In asking Job these questions, God seemed to be saying that there is no answer to Job’s questions, or at least, there is no answer that Job can understand. The point of the Book of Job appears to be that there are some questions to which there are no answers, or no answers that the human mind can wrap itself around. That’s frustrating, especially to me. I like to believe that any question can be answered, any problem solved, if we apply reason to it and study it and do research.
So, is Job merely a rebuke to human reason, to the quest to make sense of life and answer unanswerable questions? Or does Job offer us some comfort in those sleepless nights when our mind just won’t stop asking questions?
I want to suggest that the answer of Job is more, much more, than the mere assertion that life’s big questions are unanswerable. Job got more than just a rebuke; he got God. And so do we. In the midst of the questions, in the midst of the whirlwind and turmoil, there is God. Just as surely as God came to Job, God comes to us.
Furthermore, this God who came to Job and comes to us is a God who hears our questions and speaks to us. God doesn’t always answer our questions, for perhaps we do not even know enough to ask the right questions, much less to understand the answer. But this God who speaks in the midst of the whirlwind is a God who chooses to be in relationship to us.
Consider another Biblical tale that we heard this morning. Jesus and the disciples boarded a fifteen foot fishing boat to cross from west to east across the Sea of Galilee. It should have been a short, uneventful journey, but instead they encountered a fierce storm. The comparison to human life is irresistible. Job, too, had every reason to think that his journey across life’s sea would be uneventful, that he would grow old and die in prosperity, with the comfort of his wife and family around him. What more can any of us wish for? But storms arise. Like Job, the disciples questioned, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” It is a question that we are bound to ask time and time again on life’s journey.
Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, and if that were the only sign over human life, we might well despair. For atheists and agnostics life has only two punctuation marks: the period and the question mark. However, the Christian faith asserts that there is another sign over human life and another punctuation mark in life’s story: the Cross. For we have not only to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind and replied to Job’s unanswerable questions with more unanswerable questions. We have also to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind on the sea of Galilee: “Peace! Be still!” In the tempest of questions that fly about us, God comes to speak peace. And when we ask the question that the disciples asked, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” there is an answer: He is the Crucifed and Risen Lord who is with us in the storm and the calm, on sea and on land, when we have all the answers and when we have nothing but questions.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Buried Treasure

The story of the quest is one of the most basic plots in all of literature. Homer’s Odyssey is a quest, as is Vergil’s Aeneid. In a sense, so is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. One of the forms that the quest narrative often takes is the hunt for buried treasure, and that, I think, partly accounts for the enormous success of The Da Vinci Code.

What accounts for the popularity of quest or buried treasure narratives? The answer, I think, is in the way that God constructed the human heart. St. Augustine famously remarked that in each human heart there is a God-shaped hole. There is a yearning inside each of us that we spend our whole lives trying to satisfy. You might say that God pre-programmed each of us to go on his or her own quest. For some the quest to satisfy that yearning results in lives devoted to public service. These people become presidents and prime ministers. For others the quest takes the form of artistic accomplishment, and these people become great artists or musicians. Still others display heroic sanctity; these are the Mother Teresas and the John Paul II’s. Tragically, some try to satisfy the yearning with alcohol, drugs, or sexual gratification, but the addict’s desperate attempt to get another fix is a twisted form of the quest narrative.

One way to think about the Bible is to see it as an enormous quest narrative. It begins with Adam and Eve who possess the treasure – intimacy with God – but who then lose it. The rest of the Bible is the story of humankind’s quest to regain that perfect relationship with God that the first humans enjoyed.

Two of today’s readings are about hidden treasure. First Samuel tells us of the treasure of kingship or leadership hidden in the unlikely person of Jesse’s youngest and smallest son, David. And the gospel reading also tells us that the seeds of the kingdom that God sowed long ago are quietly and inconspicuously growing.

The two treasure stories have at least two things in common: First, in both cases the treasure is hidden in small packages. David was the youngest, smallest, and least likely of Jesse’s sons to become King of Israel. Jesus’ parables of the sower and mustard seed both tell us of tiny seeds that will yield the rich harvest of the kingdom, even though there is no outward sign that they will yield anything at all.

Second, in both cases the treasure is in plain sight but most people fail to notice it.

There is no doubt that God hides treasure in the most unlikely places and people. God’s greatest gifts are frequently disguised with plain and ordinary packaging. It would be easy to preach a sermon about how God chooses unlikely, overlooked, and unexpected things and people to accomplish his purposes. That is certainly true. Instead of choosing mighty Babylon or eternal Rome to be his people, God chose the tiny kingdom of Israel. God chose to come among us in the person of a first century Palestinian peasant, not a great king. And Jesus did not choose wise rabbis or mighty warriors to be his disciples but simple fishermen.

So far, so good, but I’m left thinking “So what? Where do I fit in the story? Where is the treasure for me to find?”

I think there is another way to read today’s two stories of hidden treasure. They are not just about the treasure out there somewhere in the world; they are also about the treasures hidden within each of our lives and hearts.

The story most applicable to today’s readings is not the Da Vinci Code’s tale of a chase across the great cities of Europe that takes us from St. Peter’s in Rome to the Louvre to Westminster Abbey. The more applicable fable is The Wizard of Oz.

I know we all remember the story of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow. Each was hunting a treasure. Dorothy wanted to find a way to go home; the Tin Man wanted a heart; the Lion wanted courage; and Scarecrow wanted a brain. They were told that the only one who could grant their hearts’ desires was the “great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” And so they went “off to see the Wizard” and “followed the yellow brick road”. They went through at least as many dangers and adventures as the hero and heroine of The Da Vinci Code and at last they found the wizard and forced him to grant their wishes. But the wizard, although he was pure humbug, was wise enough to tell Dorothy and her friends that the treasures they had been seeking had been in their possession all along. The Lion displayed courage, the Tin Man compassion, the Scarecrow wisdom, and Dorothy only needed to click her heels together three times and say “There’s no place like home” to be whisked back to Kansas.

That is the secret of the quest on which God sends all of us. The treasure that we seek is already inside us, in our hearts. But that is often the place that we look last and when we do look there we fail to see what is right in front of our eyes.

When Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, confirms young people, he tells them that God has given each of them a unique gift for the church, a gift that no one else possesses. I believe he is right. Each of us has a unique gift, a unique contribution to make to God’s kingdom. But the trick, the twist in the story, is that the treasure is buried, hidden. We may not even be aware of what it is that God wants us to contribute to the kingdom.

What I mean is this: The person who devotes her whole life to financial achievement and amasses great wealth may believe that her gift is to her talent for making money; her role is to be a donor or benefactor. Make no mistake: the kingdom needs people like this. But what if her real gift is her compassion. What if her greatest contribution to the kingdom is not her financial resources but the kindness with which she treated others?

I was struck this week with the story of Bill Gates’ decision to leave Microsoft and devote himself to his philanthropic work. Up until this point, it would seem that his quest was to amass great wealth, but it may be that his wealth was not his greatest achievement but only the means to an end. In a century or two, will Bill Gates be remembered as the founder of Microsoft or as the person who helped bring an end to the AIDS crisis in Africa?

The final lesson I take away from today’s readings is that our greatest and most important gifts may not be those parts of ourselves that we are proud of and that we display for all the world to see. They may, actually, be the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden and would rather no one saw.

Put your self in the prophet Samuel’s place, but instead of questing for a new king for Israel, go on a quest for the hidden parts of your personality. Invite each of your qualities to come out into the light. Invite your courage, your kindness, your strength, your intelligence. Thank God for each one and honor yourself for having it, but keep going. Look for those darker parts of yourself – your fear, anger, hurt, and paint. Be grateful for your fear, because it may have kept you alive. Give thanks for anger because it helped you stand up for yourself. And thank God for the pain and hurt because they give you empathy with others.

Thornton Wilder in one of his three-minute plays, The Angel that Troubled the Waters, tells of a man who stood on a day by the pool of Bethesda, praying in fierce agony that God would touch his tortured soul into health. But the angel, coming, whispered in his ear saying, "Stand back; healing is not for you. Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. Not the angels themselves in Heaven can persuade the wretched and blundering children of earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love's service only the wounded soldiers can serve". (emph added) And in that moment the angel stepped down into the waters and troubled them. As the lone sufferer drew back, a lame old neighbor, smiling his thanks, made his painful way into the pool and was healed. Joyously, with a song on his lips, he approached the other, still standing there like a statue of grief, thinking of the things which might have been. "Perhaps", said he, "it will be your turn next! But meanwhile come with me to my house. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I do not understand him. Only you have ever lifted his mood. And my daughter, since her child died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us. Come with me but an hour!" (Quoted by Paul Scherer in We Have This Treasure.)

The paradox of the quest is that it takes us full circle. We set out for distant, exotic lands but we end up at home. We look for gold and precious jewels buried deep in the earth but find that the real treasure was in our hands along. For “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Fighting fire with fire

In the first lecture I give to my students in the history of western civilization I ask them what is the fundamental difference between the way modern men and women perceive the world and the way ancient men and women perceived the world. For example, think of Hurrican Katrina. When it was approaching the Gulf coast, our televisions were full of talking heads telling us how fast its winds were, what time it would make landfall, and so on. But in the ancient world when natural disasters happened, people had little or no access to scientific information about hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on. Instead, they simply attributed these events to God or the gods. Instead of stockpiling water, medicine, and batteries, they prayed and offered sacrifices.

We are heirs to a scientific world view that promises us that reason can prevent or alleviate almost any event that befalls uss. It was not so in the ancient world. The ancient world understood the world in terms of myth, symbol, ritual, superstition, and magic. Is a volcano about to explode? Toss in a maiden!

There is much to be said for the scientific world view. Antibiotics, satellites, and central heat and air have transformed human life mostly for the better, but the scientific world view has limits. Human life (as Shakespeare said) is “rounded with a sleep.” We come from and are destined for mysteries that science cannot penetrate.

Isaiah takes us into the heart of such a mystery. We cannot know the exact nature of the experience that the Prophet Isaiah had, but he hints in the opening verse that his world had been shaken to the very foundations. Uzziah, the king of Judah, died in 742 BC, and whenever there is a sudden transition from one ruler to another, it can be unsettling, especially if there is an international crisis. About the same time that Uzziah died, the Assyrians were threatening Judah’s sister kingdom of Israel in the north, and Judah itself was very much at risk. So how did Isaiah respond? He could not read about it in the New York Times or turn on Fox News for a “fair and balanced” account of the situation. He did what ancient men and women did in such situations. He went to the temple..

Disasters have a way of opening us up. For a brief time after 9/11 churches and synagogues were full. When our world trembles, we realize our need for something more than our own strength, answers that satisfies us at a deeper level than reason.. Something opened Isaiah’s eyes quite literally, and he found himself staring into the very heart of the universe. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” Isaiah felt himself small, weak, and inconsequential before this vast Being.

Amidst swirling incense, seraphim, the highest order of angels, swooped and flew. Don’t think of cute, pink-cheeked Renaissance angels. Some have suggested that the seraphim were actually winged-serpents. Whatever they were, these were terrifying creatures with not one or two but three pairs of wings. The presence of the seraphim emphasize the vast distance between God and humanity. The wings tell us that the distance is so great that they must fly through that vast space. They tell us that God is infinitely far above us. And they tell us that they do God’s bidding with great speed.

But the seraphim perform another function. Think of them as (in a sense) a heavenly Secret Service. But unlike the president’s Secret Service detail their job is not to protect God from us but to protect us from God. Not in the sense that God wishes to do us harm but in the sense that the divine energy will reduce us to nothingness if we approach too closely. Isaiah realized this immediately. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!.” Isaiah was too close to the divine fire. He was at ground zero for a power greater than any nuclear explosion. The power that had shaken the temple to its foundations would surely reduce Isaiah to fine, dry powder.

What would you or I do in a similar situation? Imagine waking in the middle of the night and finding oneself face to face with the Power that spoke the world into existence. Imagine the heavenly beings swirling around that Power. Hear their voices chanting praises in unearthly music. Feel the neergy surging from the divine throne. What would you do? Take an aspirin and call the doctor in the morning? Run to the fridge and eat the rest of the chocolate chicp ice cream? Grab the telephone and call 911?

The remedy for Isaiah’s dilemma was strong medicine. One of the seraphim took a coal from the sacred fire on the altar and placed it on Isaiah’s lips. He was literally fighting fire with fire. To see God, to meet God face to face, we need some of the divine fire in our hearts. So God transmitted divine energy through the sacrificial fire and the seraphic hands to the prophet’s lips.

Imagine Isaiah’s thoughts at seeing one of the seraphim zooming down toward him with a handful of redhot coals. Nothing about this story is nice or safe. Isaiah went to the temple because of his fear that the Assyrians might destroy Judah, but in the temple he confronted a far greater fear: the possibility that he might be reduced to ashes in the divine fire. Some cures can kill. Isaiah’s only hope was that the altar fire might harden him to bear the divine fire.

We want a safe, domestic deity. We want the Good Shepherd of the 23rd Psalm, a kindly grandfather, an old, bearded, and slightly forgetful senior citizen. In short, we want Santa Claus without the list of who’s naughty or nice.. But the God of Isaiah and Paul and Jesus is not that kind of deity. Isaiah’s encounter with God left him with second and third degree burns. When he spoke with Nicodemus, Jesus employed the metaphor of birth. “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or again).” Think of that: nine months of pregnancy, morning sickness, and a long, painful, and potentially dangerous labor and delivery in which the lives of both mother and child may be at risk.

But what about Paul’s promise that the Spirit will unable us to call God Abba or Daddy? That’s certainly a comforting thought, but listen again to what Paul says before that: “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The Spirit only comes to us after we have “put to death the deeds of the body”, that is, all that separates us from God.

The poet Annie Dillard famously asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?… The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”(Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Trinity Sunday is a good time to bethink about the “power we so blithely invoke,” because the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us of what a strange and incomprehensible God we worship. A God who is both three and one. A God who is a community of three persons who are identical in their nature and diverse in their functions. A God who came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. A God who dwells in glory incomprehensible and is without beginning or end and yet was born in a stable in Bethlehem. A God who dwells outside of time and cannot suffer but who died on a cross on a Judean hillside, was placed in a borrowed tomb, and rose triumphant on the third day.

The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the God of prophets and seraphs, of new births and skeptical rabbis, is not somewhere else. This God does not dwell in the splendor of distant galaxies or in the vast, cold darkness of space. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the God who commanded seraphim to sear Isaiah’s lips with coals of fire is right here among us.. There is no escaping this God, no place where God does not see and hear, no place where we cannot hear the seraphic song or be singed with the divine fire. Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit is as omnipresent and as unpredictable as the wind. It can be a gentle, cooling breeze or it can bring destruction on our cities.

When the children visit Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, they are told that only the great lion Aslan can free Narnia from the witches’ spell. “A lion!” Lucy exclaimed, “Is he safe?” To which Mr. Beaver replied, “Oh, no. He’s not safe, but he’s good.” Amen.