Thursday, November 12, 2009

Good advice or good news?

William Inge, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1911 to 1934 said, “The gospel is good news, not good advice… we can find no economic principles in the gospel.” I think Dean Inge was correct and today’s readings give us a great illustration of his observation.

The readings from First Kings, Psalm 146, and Mark all tell us about widows. The widows in First Kings and Mark literally give their entire life’s savings to what they believe to be good causes. Psalm 146 tells us that God sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.”

Let’s update the story of the widows in First Kings and Mark. Imagine that you are a priest and that a woman who is neither quite young any more nor very elderly comes to you for advice. She says, “God has told me to empty my bank account and give it all to Episcopal Relief and Development.”

If you went to one of our Episcopal seminaries, then you had to take Counseling 101 and there you learned the technique of reflective listening, so you try that first, “So, I hear you saying that God has told you to give all your money to Episcopal Relief and Development?” Clever opening, huh? And she says, “Yes, that’s right.”

Then you decide that you need more information. “How much money do you have? What are your sources of income? What are your obligations?” She goes on to say that she is on disability and has a small monthly pension from the company her late husband worked for and has about $3000 in the bank. She pays $400 a month for an apartment that is subsidized for low income persons. And she has a son with medical problems whom she helps financially whenever she can.

Counseling 101 never prepared you for this.

Frankly, if she were my parishioner I would probably begin by telling her that God never tells us to undermine our economic well-being. God certainly never tells us to empty our bank accounts and give it all to Episcopal Relief and Development or Green Springs’ Ministries or even to our parish church. I would tell her that God’s will for us is to be prudent about our financial needs; I would suggest that she talk to someone in the parish who can help her maximize her return on her money and perhaps help her find a better paying job. And I might suggest that she see a good therapist who could help her work through that business about hearing God tell her to give away all she has. After all, we’re Episcopalians and our God doesn’t do things like that.

But then there are those troublesome stories in the Bible. God sends the prophet Elijah to a woman and her child who are only one meal away from starvation and commands her to feed Elijah rather than herself and her child. Elijah reassures her, “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” Jesus commends another woman for putting “every thing she had to live on” into the Temple treasury.

I have a feeling that Counseling 101 did not prepare me too well for dealing with someone whom God has told to empty their bank account. It certainly did not prepare me to deal with someone who takes Psalm 146 literally.

For the most part, I have put my trust in rulers and children of earth. I have believed and still believe that we live in a world that works pretty well most of the time. I believe that people who work hard and play by the rules will usually experience at least modest success; that our market-driven economy maximizes opportunities for most of us; that our political system provides a stable framework within which people can exercise initiative and reap great economic benefits. Then, a little over a year ago, the international banking system imploded. The pillars of finance, the giants of banking, began to topple. In other words, current events began to resemble the words of Psalm 146.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

Every year at commencement Harvard University bestows honorary degrees upon a dozen or so men and women for their achievements in scholarship, business, politics and other fields. In 1996 Harvard honored philanthropist Walter Annenberg, the founder of TV Guide. It may only have been a coincidence that Annenberg had just given Harvard $25 million but be that as it may, it was probably more significant that Annenberg at that time held the record for money given to American institutions of higher education. However, immediately after honoring Annenberg, the university marshal said, “Mr. President, we have with us today another philanthropist…” The other philanthropist was Osceola McCarty, a black laundry woman from rural Mississippi who had given her entire life’s savings, some $300,000, to an historically black college to be used as scholarships for its students. Annenberg may have given more dollars to American universities but Osceola McCarty gave everything she had. “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on…”

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying: It is probably not a good idea to empty your bank account and give it to any cause, however worthy, even St. Alban’s! But sometimes prudence and faithfulness are at odds. Sometimes we are called to make some wildly extravagant gesture, rather than to live our lives within the parameters of prudence. The gospel after all is not good advice, it is good news.

Jesus wept

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus visited Jerusalem only once as an adult, but John’s gospel tells us that he visited it at least three times. If John is correct, then the story of Lazarus makes a little more sense.

Bethany was a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Martha and Mary lived there with their brother Lazarus. It would have been a logical place for Jesus to stay during his visits to Jerusalem. Probably all of us have friends in large cities who have opened their homes to us when we have come to their towns, thus sparing us the expense and bother of staying in a hotel. Of course, in the time of Jesus there was no such thing as a hotel. To visiting Jerusalem or a similar city one had to have a friend who would open his or her home to you.

We know little about Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Luke’s gospel tells us that when Jesus visited Mary and Martha that Mary sat at his feet but Martha was busy with many things. What little we see of Mary and Martha in today’s gospel readings is consistent with that story.

At any rate, it is clear that the two sisters and their brother were friends of Jesus. So it is surprising that when Jesus hears that Lazarus is gravely ill that he hesitates rather than going at once to Bethany.

This is one of the mysteries of John’s gospel. Jesus has one idea of time; the people around him have another. For Jesus, time seems to go backward and forward; sometimes it speeds up, sometimes it slows down. When his mother tells him that there is no more wine for the wedding feast at Cana, he tells her that his time has not yet come. Present and future become one when he tells the Samaritan woman that the hour is coming and now is when all earthly places of worship will become redundant because God requires only that people worship him in spirit and in truth.

John’s portrait of Jesus also shows the early church struggling to make sense of the idea that Jesus was both fully human and fully one with God. Sometimes John’s Jesus seems to be an almost unearthly figure without human weaknesses and needs. When the disciples bring him food, he says that he does not need it because for him to do the work of God is food enough.

But the Jesus we see in the story of Lazarus is a fully human being.

At the very beginning of John’s gospel he tells us that Jesus is the very LOGOS of God who has taken human form. Logos means word, thought, reason. In other words, in Jesus the distance between God and humanity has collapsed. God’s inmost thoughts have taken on human flesh and dwell in the midst of us. At the beginning of John’s gospel, the author draws back the curtain and lets us in on the secret that others will discover during the course of the gospel as they see Jesus work miracles and finally be raised from the dead.

So if Jesus is the very thought, the very word of God, the word through which God spoke creation into existence, we expect miracles. Changing water into wine, giving sight to the blind, multiplying loaves and fishes – these should not cause any difficult for Jesus. Even raising Lazarus from the dead… But what we do not expect God’s incarnate word to do is to cry. This is the real miracle in today’s story. The raising of Lazarus from death to life is impressive but what moves me is that Jesus weeps, that there are tears at the very heart of God.

Today is All Saints’ Day. The saints, of course, are God’s elite. We know the saints because they are the ones who exhibit heroic sanctity. Like Mother Teresa they give their lives to serving the poorest of the poor; like Albert Schweitzer they spend their lives working in a tiny medical clinic in Africa while writing great books on theology and editing Bach’s organ works (actually, I think Schweitzer overdid it a bit). Like Martin Luther King, Jr. they risk and finally give their lives as they stand up for and speak out for dignity and justice for all.

This is all true as far as it goes, but I believe that the story of Lazarus tells us something else about real sanctity. Real sanctity, real holiness, also weeps. The saint is one who sheds tears over the death of a friend. The saint is one who shares her grief with others, and lets them share their grief with her.

The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said, “...I am convinced that we should solve many things if we went into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief, and joined together in beweeping them and crying aloud to the heavens and calling upon God. And this, even though God shold hear us not; but He wold hear us. The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common.”

Today’s reading from the book of Revelation tells us of a new heaven and a new earth in which death is no more. But it goes on to say that “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” We all long for a world in which death and sickness have disappeared, in which the hungry are fed and the homeless have shelter. I would change only one thing about this new heaven and new earth: Leave room for tears. I believe that real sanctity is to experience the whole range of human feelings from tears to laughter. That is what makes us human, that is what makes us holy. That is what draws us to one another and also draws us toward God.