Monday, May 24, 2010

Babel or Jerusalem?

I have to admit that I think I would have liked Babel. In my mind’s eye I see a combination of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Babel is a city of architectural marvels. It has the tallest sky scrapers, the greatest museums. Its orchestras and musicians play in the finest concert halls. It even has spacious and reverent cathedrals that soar upward, filled with prayer, chant and incense..

The problem with Babel is that it is a destination. Once you have come to Babel, there is no point in going anywhere else. Its people are proud and complacent. They have the finest of everything and not only do they know it, they let everyone else know it, too. To live in Babel is to have arrived.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is different. Jerusalem is a little shabby. Its buildings are a collection of different styles, different materials. One building may be part gothic, part Romanesque, and then when they ran out of money, they just completed it with plain, unadorned concrete blocks. Jerusalem’s streets are narrow and the streets are not well maintained and you can’t get anywhere without making a dozen turns and asking directions at least five times.

But Jerusalem has a sense of excitement and adventure that Babel lacks, because Jerusalem is not a destination; it is an embarkation point, a launching pad. Jerusalem is where one goes to be equipped for mission.

The most arresting phrase in the story about Babel is “Let us make a name for ourselves.” In the Old Testament in general and in Genesis in particular, to name is to control, to master. God names each part of creation as God creates it: “God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night… God called the dome Sky and the dry land he called Earth…” And above all God named the first human being – Adam.

But the people of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves. In other words, they wanted to control themselves, their lives, their own destinies. But this is not an option, and the older we get, the more we understand that we are not the masters of our fate and the captains of our destinies.

Our only choice is to cooperate with God and become a part of God’s story, a part of the city that God is building, or to resist God. Babel was a city that defied God. They not only wanted to make a name for themselves, to be in charge of their lives, they wanted to build a tower that touched heaven. In other words, they wanted to be God’s equals. But that is not an option. God is God and we are not. Babel’s ambition is the essence of sin – to move God out of the center and take God’s place.

What does all this have to do with St. Alban’s? First, note that St. Alban’s is located at the end of a dead end street. That’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because people do not drive by and see us and say, “That looks like a nice church. I think I’ll visit it some Sunday.” It is also unfortunate because of the symbolism. It suggests that St. Alban’s is a little like Babel, that we too, are a destination rather than a launching pad, that we are less like Jerusalem and more Babel.

But sometimes the Spirit breaks through. The Spirit broke through to the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit came as fire and wind to a bunch of dispirited and disillusioned disciples. Jesus had left them. He had gone away to his Father in heaven. What were they to do? Their Lord and master had gone and the authorities were seeking to do to them what they had done to Jesus. And then in the midst of their pity party, the fire of the Spirit descended upon them.

And that is what is happening to us, I believe. Last Christmas it is EXACTLY what happened, when, in the midst of the Christmas Eve service, George swung the thurible and it hit the altar rail and hot coals flew out all over the carpet. George, you thought that was an accident, but I believe it was the Holy Spirit!

In the great scheme of things, burning a few holes in the carpet was no big deal. But the coals that escaped from the thurible did more than burn holes in the carpet. They began to ignite our imaginations. What if we replaced the carpet? What if we painted the church? What if we made those renovations that we’ve been talking about for years? What if we put in new windows?

And so we have. The carpet is gone. The paint on the walls makes the building look bigger, brighter, and more welcoming. And it is no accident that we now have windows that open outward. They open to let the Spirit in and to let the good news of the gospel out.

The Spirit is also at work among us as we reach out to our sisters and brothers in Haiti and at home. We are becoming known in the diocese as a small church with a big heart for outreach.

It is a lot easier to live in Babel. As I said at the beginning, I think I would have liked Babel. It is a beautiful city and has everything in it to delight the mind and the senses. But there is something missing – a sense of adventure, a purpose.

We are not meant to live in Babel. We are meant to come to Jerusalem so that we may be sent out proclaiming the gospel in every language.”Every language” means not only French and Yoruba and Mandarin. It means the language of the school teacher, the dialect of the accountant, the accents of the insurance agent and the banker. Each of us speaks a different language. Try to find a way to proclaim the gospel in the language that you speak, whether you are a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. And if you have trouble proclaiming the gospel in your language, ask the Spirit for help. Because when the Spirit gets hold of you and sets your heart on fire, there’s no telling what you will say or where you will end up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Righteousness and justice are the foundations of God's throne

“The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice; let the multitudes of the isles be glad.”

When we say Psalm 97, the words pass through our brains ever so briefly and then are launched into the air from our tongues, and we do not even pause to think about them. But if we did pause, we might be astonished by them. We might even be somewhat reluctant to say them. For Psalm 97 makes several staggering claims.

The first claim is that the LORD is king. The Psalmist is not making the unexceptional and not especially interesting claim that a Supreme Being rules the universe. This was a claim that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Locke, and other Deists would have been comfortable making. The Deists believed it was self-evident that the world was created by a wise and rational Almighty Lawgiver. But this is not a claim that is as easy for us to make as it was for them.

At the beginning of the 21st century we have learned that the universe is far more mysterious and far less rational than Jefferson, Franklin, and Locke believed. Darwin taught us that creation took place over millions of years, not seven days, and in some sense is still taking place. According to Darwin the creation of a single species required the extinction of millions of earlier versions of that species that could not compete successfully in the struggle for food and reproduction. Astronomers have taught us that the universe is not a cozy little group of planets and satellites with our sun burning brightly in the center but rather it is a dizzying array of galaxies that exploded from the Big Bang and are speeding off into the void and will one day either slow and cool down to absolute zero or will fall backwards into a mass so dense that light itself will not be able to escape from it. Marx and Freud taught us that we are not even the masters of our own motives and minds but rather are swayed unconsciously by our economic needs and by irrational impulses.

So I am glad that when the Psalmist said “the LORD is king”, he was not saying what the Deists said. Rather, the Psalmist said, “Yahweh is king”, Israel’s very own covenant God was king. And this was an astonishing claim. It was astonishing because Israel was one of the smallest kingdoms in the ancient near east. Israel’s neighbors all had their own gods and goddesses and they generally believed that their own gods exercised their powers within their countries’ borders. The people of the ancient world believed in tribal gods, not cosmic gods. Even the mighty Persians and Egyptians believed that their gods’ powers were confined to the lands that their people ruled.

But this is not the only remarkable thing that the Psalmist said. The Psalmist went on to say that “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Yahweh’s throne”. To get a sense of why this is an amazing claim, think of what the Psalmist might have written. He could have said, Strength and power are the foundation of Yahweh’s throne. He could said that Yahweh’s kingdom is based on domination and force. But instead he said “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Yahweh’s throne.”

It was not an easy claim to make in the ancient world and it is not an easy claim to make today. To the ancient Jews righteousness and justice meant far more than simply adhering to an arbitrary collection of rules. To be righteous and just was to live in harmony with one’s neighbors. A just community was one in which the elderly and orphans were cared for; it was one in which even the stranger from another land was treated with kindness and respect. The righteous person was one who cared not only for her family but also for the neighbor she did not know and who had no claim on her kindness. And the Psalmist makes the startling claim that we are to order our lives in this way because these are the very foundations of the world: “Yahweh is king… righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.”

Israel’s God was not a God to approach lightly. Yahweh is a God shrouded in mystery (“clouds and darkness are round about him”); the earth fears the lightning bolts that he hurls from the heavens; and even the mountains “melt like wax” at his presence. Righteousness and justice may be the foundations of his throne but Yahweh “burns up” his enemies.

But Israel is called to rejoice in this fearsome Deity. “Zion hears and his glad and the cities of Judah rejoice” but they are invited to rejoice precisely because Yahweh is a God of righteousness and justice. It is those who are just for whom light springs up and those who are “truehearted” who are joyful and glad.

We need to hear the good news of Psalm 97 because we live in a world which seems to be anything but righteous and just.

Not only have we learned that the physical world is not the orderly Deist universe that Franklin and Jefferson believed in, we have also learned that the moral universe is also chaotic.

The international banking crisis showed us that some bankers were gambling with the money entrusted with them as though they were members of an Elks’ lodge on a junket to Las Vegas.

The oil spewing into the Gulf shows us that the company entrusted with bringing the oil safely to shore and preserving the integrity of the environment lobbied heavily against putting safeguards into place that might have prevented the spill.

The debt crisis in Greece makes it seem as though the government of that country was paying its bills with high interest credit cards and giving no thought to how they would pay back the credit card companies. Now their irresponsibility threatens to shake the already shaky international banking system.

All three of these crises show us a failure to exercise oversight by those charged with the responsibility of regulating and warning.

They also show us our own failings: Our belief that property prices would always go up and never go down; that the stock market would go up for ever; that we could overconsume oil and other limited resources and never have to face the consequences.

We failed to remember that the foundations of Yahweh’s world are righteousness and justice. We forgot that God expects us to exercise wise stewardship of his world, that we are called to be prudent and frugal in using the resources, including financial resources that God has given us. And in many cases we forgot that success and wealth also impose great responsibility, the responsibility to be as righteous and just as Yahweh is – to care for those who have less, who have been pass by and passed over, who are weak and vulnerable.

We have worshiped the false gods of riches and power and (as the Psalmist says) we have been confounded.

It is time for us to turn back to the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah; to turn back to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is time for us to listen and watch for the coming of Israel’s God and to sign and rejoice, to hear and be glad for the coming of this God who judges rightly.

And it is time for us to pray that God will once again establish the world upon righteousness and justice.