Sunday, June 24, 2012

Under the sign of the question mark and the cross (J. Barry Vaughn, June 24, 2012)

“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, or to use the more appropriate and specific Biblical word, 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 no reason to believe that Job was not 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 frus trating, 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.

I don’t know if “Uncle” Bob Richard asked the kinds of questions that Job asked, but I suspect he did. I suspect that at one time or another all of us want to grab God by the lapels (if God has lapels) and say, “Are you listening? Are you paying attention?” But I also believe that Bob knew what it meant to be in a relationship with God even if God doesn’t answer our questions.

Uncle Bob was not with us long. He began attending St. Alban’s about the time that I became your priest. He had retired after a long career as a lawyer in Montgomery. He came back home because both he and his sister Joy Ebaugh had grown up in Birmingham.

One thing that drew Bob to St. Alban’s was music. As a boy Bob sang in the boys’ choir at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, under the direction of Herb Grieb, a towering figure in the Birmingham music community, directing the music not only for the Advent but also for Temple Emanuel.

Janet and the choir felt a special affection for him because he always came early and listened to us warm up. He must have liked us to come and listen to us squeak and squawk and hit wrong notes and go BZZZZZZZ with our lips to get warmed up. And we must have liked him to pull out our copies of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus in the middle of the summer and hit all those high notes!

A few years ago when my favorite uncle, Cecil Roper, died, I gave a homily at his funeral and said that I believed that Uncle Cecil would try to teach the heavenly choir to sing the psalm settings that the earliest Protestant churches had sung because he loved them so much. However, I wasn’t sure that the heavenly choir would like them as much as Uncle Cecil liked them! However, I am sure that the heavenly choir will feel just as much affection for Uncle Bob as St. Alban’s choir feels if he will sit on the front pew and listen to them warm up.

Job and Uncle Bob weren’t the only ones who had questions for God. The disciples did, too. “Master, do you not care if we perish?”

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 question mark and the period.

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.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Indian culture and modernity

One of the reasons that I wanted to see India is that it is rapidly modernizing and (along with China) many expect it to be one of the economic giants of the coming century. I know nothing of China, but I foresee a rocky road ahead for India.

India has great resources: Thanks to a long coastline and thousands of miles of railway laid down by the British, it has an enviable transportation infrastructure. Its people are energetic, friendly, and intelligent. It seems that everyone speaks at least two languages.

The Indians I have met and talked with may be exceptions to the rule, but I doubt it. They are warm, kind, and have a passion for education. It seems that every other billboard advertises some kind of school. Most offer English classes, and many also offer courses in business and information technology.

The India people seem infinitely adaptable. They have survived invasions by the Greeks (Alexander the Great in the 3rd c. BCE), several waves of Muslim invasion, and finally 200 years of rule by Great Britain. Each encounter has changed them in some way, but I believe the core of their culture has remained the same.

 I suspect that India today is facing its greatest challenge: the encounter with modernity. India has changed more in the last 40 years than in the preceding 400 years. Forty years ago Julian McPhillips, an Alabama businessman turned Episcopal priest (he was rector of St. Luke’s, Mountain Brook, for 2 years in the early 60s) came to Calcutta to serve as director of the Peace Corps for eastern India. I do not know if the Peace Corps is still active in India, but the conditions that McPhillips faced when he came here have changed. Today India can feed its people. Education is more available than ever. And clean, safe water may still be a problem in some places, but waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhus seem to be under control. One interesting fact is that in India today non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease are on the rise while communicable diseases are on the decline. In other words, in terms of health India is starting to look more and more like the United States.

Most definitions of modernity include the following features: (1) separation of state and religion; (2) the use of reason as the principal tool for controlling the world around us; (3) industrialization and urbanization; and (4) individual autonomy.

The U.S. had the good fortune to come into being as modernity was on the rise. Because we were from the beginning a nation with many different religious bodies, we rightly chose not to give any one religious group a privileged status. There is a very vague and general sense that the U.S. is influenced by Judeo-Christian values. This may be true, but such values are broad and tolerant enough to accommodate all religions and none.

Very early in American history there was a struggle between a vision of the U.S. as a rural, agrarian society, on the one hand, and as an urban, industrial society, on the other. The agrarian vision was associated with Thomas Jefferson and was part of his reason for acquiring the vast tract of land from France that we know as the “Louisiana Purchase.” The land Jefferson acquired was to provide enough land for every family to have a farm. Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, however, foresaw an urban, industrial America, and by and large, Hamilton’s views have prevailed. Interestingly, the appeal to an idealized, pre-urban, pre-industrial America of nuclear families and small towns still has a strong grip on the American imagination.

America is also profoundly modern in that it is a society that exalts the individual above the community. People come to America to escape their communities, whether those are religious, ethnic, or familial. Oddly, though, the same people who invoke the image of small town America are often the same ones who also praise rugged American individualism, even though in small communities there is enormous social pressure on individuals to conform to community values and standards.

What does all this have to do with India? India is an ancient culture. Its climb from an agrarian, pre-industrial past to the modern world will take infinitely more energy than did America’s rise.

Americans have no experience of transforming an ancient culture into a modern one. America began with a more or less a blank slate; India is beginning not with a blank slate but with an entire library of cultural, religious and social values, norms, and customs. India’s culture is thousands of years old. It is written indelibly on the hearts and minds of its people. It is implicit in their thoughts and feelings, and is a part of their DNA. All of us react in unconscious ways because of our culture, but Indian culture is not only far more ancient than our own, it is also unimaginably different.

I believe that separating religion and state in India will be an enormous challenge. Officially, India is a secular state that does not privilege any religion. In reality, India is Hindu. Frequently during my time here I have been told that India and the Hindu faith are one and the same. Two of our guides told us that there is no such thing as Buddhism. The Buddha, they told us, was a reformer of the Hindu faith. I am certain that this would come as a great surprise to millions of Buddhists in China, Thailand, Japan, and elsewhere who experience their faith as quite different from Hinduism.

It has been said that India is the world’s most religious country, and I believe this is true. Wherever one looks there are temples, and every home and place of business contains a shrine. I am not sure what a well-educated Indian would say if pressed about the 30 million gods and goddesses of India, but I believe the practice of honoring these deities is deeply written on the India soul and will re-assert itself even if belief in the gods is challenged.
Indian religion seems much like the religion of ancient Rome. The Romans feared and persecuted the Jews (to a degree) and Christians (even more than the Jews) because they refused to honor the Roman deities. Why was this? Because the deities guaranteed the stability of Rome. Refuse the deities their ancient honors and the fabric of Roman society would start to unravel. And so it did.

What will happen in India as the acid of modern skepticism starts to work on its religious life? I suspect there will be a powerful resurgence of traditional Hinduism and a reaction against modernity. Indeed, this seems to be happening with the rise of the BJP, the Hindu national party.

India is also still a culture in which the community takes precedence over the individual. For example, most marriages are still arranged. What could be more contrary to modernity than not letting people choose their own life partners?

I sincerely hope that India will successfully negotiate its transition to the modern world. The world will be a stronger and safe place if India modernizes. But I am certain that there will be a profound, probably violent, and lengthy period of turmoil before India is fully modernized. India’s ancient culture will fiercely resist the encroachment of modernity. And I believe the element that will resist modernity most strenuously will be Indian religion.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prophets behaving badly - the role of religion in the public square (J. Barry Vaughn, June 17, 2012)

He was tall and handsome. In the hour of crisis he had unified his people. When anarchy nearly brought down the country his calm and cool leadership saved the day, and as a result, he was brought to power on an overwhelming wave of popular support. However, people still had questions. For one thing, he was associated with a controversial religious leader. Some questioned his religious affiliation. He had been seen in the company of an extremist religious group and some said that he had participated in their rituals.

Now he was being challenged by a newcomer. Many of those who had supported him were going over to the new candidate. The religious leadership of the country turned against him and gave their blessing to the good-looking newcomer. They said that the former leader had failed

This is not the story of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney; it is the story of Saul and David. But in a way it is the story of any change in leadership, any election.

The difference between the story of Saul and David and the story of Barack and Mitt has to do with the role of the prophet Samuel.

Samuel first anoints Saul as king over Israel, and then when Saul disobeys God and keeps for himself some of the loot he has acquired in the battle against the Amalekites, God tells Samuel to reject Saul as king and anoint David instead.

Now, put aside for a moment the fact that we know that Samuel is acting on instructions from God. The fact is that we only know that Samuel is acting on instructions from God because he tells us.

The important thing for us to note is that the prophet Samuel is the one who either betstows or removes legitimacy from Israel’s king. In other words, in ancient Israel there was no separation between religion and the state.

This was the norm in ancient Israel, and to a surprising degree it is still the norm.

Even in Great Britain, America’s closest ally, there is a state religion. The queen is head of both the state and the Church of England. But although there is no separation between church and state in principle, there IS separation between church and state in practice. What many people fear about the United States is that although IN PRINCIPLE there is separation between church and state in principle; in PRACTICE there is far too much coordination between church and state. But I’ll come back to that.

Look around the world. Many countries, especially Muslim countries, do not separate religion and the state.

In the ancient and even not so ancient world, this was the norm.

So when the U.S. Constitution enshrined separation of church and state in the first amendment, it was doing something radically new.

Now, many people will point out that the words “separation of church and state” are not found in the constitution, and that is absolutely correct. What the first amendment guarantees is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But what that means in practice is separation of church and state.

If the government can “make no law” establishing a religion or “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, then there is a separation of church and state. The constitution guarantees that the state will not play favorites. The state cannot endorse Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, nor Christianity. The state cannot choose between Catholics and Protestants, much less any of the denominations that have sprung from Protestantism. Furthermore, the state cannoteven give a privileged status to belief in God above non-belief in God. Before the state, the atheist and the believer are absolutely equal. The state has its sphere, and religion or the church has its sphere.

But that is where the problem lies: What is the relationship between those two spheres? Do they ever overlap or are they completely separate? And with great fear and trembling, that is what I want to talk about: the relationship between church and state or religion and politics.

There are three possibly models for the relationship between religion and politics.

The first is a more or less complete identity. In other words, the two circles overlap completely or nearly completely. This is the model of some but not all Muslim countries. It was the model followed in Afghanistan when it was dominated by the Taliban. It is more or less the model followed in Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, some Muslim countries, such as Turkey, have discovered that they become more successful when they make a sharp distinction between religion and the state and do not allow one to interfere in the other.

What is surprising to many Americans is that it was also, to a great degree, the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England also believed that the circles of church and state should overlap more or less perfectly. Many believe that the Puritans came to America to establish freedom of religion. And that is true: they DID come to establish freedom of religion… for themselves, but not for anyone else.

The Puritan ideal was this: a godly church in a godly commonwealth. It was the ideal that the 16th c. Reformer John Calvin favored. That’s why he insisted that the church council and city council of 16th c. Geneva should be one and the same.

Very few people in 21st century America believe that the circles of church and state or religion and politics should perfectly overlap (although there are a few extremists who believe this).

The danger of having the circles of religion and the state overlap perfectly is the danger of the theocracy. It is the danger of Muslim or sharia law. It is the danger of imposing rules and rulers against which there is no appeal.

It is the danger (to borrow from today’s OT reading) of believing that Samuel or some other prophet is always right when they tell us that they are speaking on behalf of God.

But where the circles of religion and the state overlap perfectly, there is little freedom. “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is the rule.

More dangerously, it gives too much power to those who claim to speak for God, to prophet, priests, and other religious leaders. It also forgets that religious leaders are human, that we are finite, that we are no less sinful than other people. That is why I believe this model is wrong.

The second model is of perfect separation between the circle of religion and politics.

There are many today who believe that the two circles can be completely separated; that there should be no overlap.

There are many who believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s” but I don’t think that’s what he meant.

They tell us that religion has no place in the public square, that the voices of faithful women and men have no place in public discourse.

I have to give them their due. They point out a real problem, namely, how do we evaluate religious truth claims? In other words, when Samuel or some other prophet anoints Saul or some other leader and says, “thus says the Lord” or “God told me that this man or woman should lead us”, how do we evaluate that statement? How do we know that Samuel is accurate reporting a message from God?

The answer is that we cannot a claim such as that. By definition, a message from God is beyond and above human reason. Its truth cannot be evaluated in the usual way by testing it and measuring it and comparing it to the things we already know to be true.

But I do NOT believe that that means that religious statements and values have no place in the public square or in public discourse.

I am impatient with people who say that we cannot legislate morality.

If they mean that we cannot legislate the intimate behavior of couples in committed relationships or who are legally married, then I agree with them. But our laws are not purely utilitarian. What I mean is this: We have laws against murder, theft, and so on, not just because we think these are good ideas and not even because they are necessary for the smooth functioning of society (although they are). We have these laws because we believe that they are founded on moral principles that are part of the very fabric of the universe.

Imagine this: Let’s suppose that scientists and scholars were able to prove to their satisfaction that the cold-blooded murders of SOME would actually make the world a better place. In a sense, this is what happened in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and during the “cultural revolution” in China.

Even if it could be proved that some murder was justified, it would still be wrong.

Now, I don’t believe that such a thing could ever be proved. I am certain that good science and good scholarship would never arrive at such a conclusion. The Nazis used science to serve their ideology. They did not adapt their ideology to reality. Instead, they tried to bend reality to their ideology, and that’s a big part of the reason that they failed.

So, to summarize what I’m saying: A community’s laws have to be founded in universal moral principles. The reason that we are constantly changing our laws is that humans are flaws, finite, and sinful. We will never perfectly administer our laws, but that does not mean that we should stop trying.

And that brings me to the third model of the relationship between religion and politics: the two circles sometimes overlap and sometimes do not overlap.

I believe that religion has a place in the public square, that religious people should speak up and speak out. I believe that public discourse is better and richer and fuller when it is informed by the opinions of religious people even when I do not agree with their opinions.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

The first is the abolitionist movement. There were many reasons to believe that slavery was necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Many, it not most, people in the south even believed that slavery was endorsed and blessed by the Bible.

But the abolitionists said, “Not so.” They argued and fought for the point of view that human beings are made in the image of God, that God did not distinguish between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, African and European. They fought and thank God they won that argument. But if their arguments had been ruled inadmissible because they were making religious arguments, then they would never have won.

Or consider the civil rights movement. Again, strong arguments were made that there should be legal separations between people of different races. But Dr. King and other civil rights leaders made some of the same arguments made by the abolitionists a century earlier. Dr. King said that we should judge people by the “content of their character, not the color of their skin.” And again, thank God, public discourse was swayed by religious opinions.

The first amendment of the U.S. constitution tells us neither that religious opinion should be given a privileged status nor that it should be excluded from the public square. What it tells us is that all opionions, like alll people, have a place in the public square, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, atheist or believer.

And if some Samuel today should tell you that God has withdrawn his blessing from one leader and given that blessing to another, do not believe him!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

You will be like God (St. Alban's, June 10, 2012)

Sin is an ugly word. A lot of us grew up conservative churches that talked about sin a lot. Quite a few of us grew up in conservative Protestant churches. Some of us grew up in conservative Roman Catholic churches. But in a lot of cases they had the same attitude toward sins.

These churches had long lists of sins: drinking, smoking, dancing, and –to put it delicately– associated behaviors were at the top of the list (although drinking, smoking, and dancing weren’t nearly as problematic for Roman Catholics, which may be part of the reason that I found Roman Catholicism so attractive when I was much younger!).

Probably the most important thing I can say about sin is this: Sin cannot be reduced to a list of behaviors. I am not a moral relativist. The Ten Commandments are an excellent guide for living our lives. If we follow them, we will be better people. If we follow them, we will not only lead good lives; we will lead satisfying lives, lives that are fully human.

 But these things are not sin itself; they are symptoms of sin. The story from Genesis we heard this morning tells us what sin really is.

“…the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die;  for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." “You eyes will be opened… and you will be like God…”

That is what sin is – the desire to be God. Sin is the desire to be like God, to take the place of God. Even if we never again take the Lord’s name in vain or drink to excess or do any of the numberless things that our parents and clergy told us not to do, we will still sin.

That is why the most dangerous sins are the sins associated not with bad people but with the best people. That sounds paradoxical and it is a little paradoxical. But keep in mind that the sins that Jesus most often condemned were the sins of the good.

One of the problems I have with the gospels is their treatment of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of the sects or parties of Judaism in the age of Jesus. In a sense, they were the most liberal of the Jewish parties, and I use “liberal” in the best sense of the word. They were looking for new and creative ways to understand, interpret, and apply the Torah or Jewish law.

The word we most often hear associated with the Pharisees is “hypocrite.” In the gospels Jesus calls them hypocrites, so we believe this means that they said one thing and did another. But we don’t have to believe that this is true of all the Pharisees. Undoubtedly it was true of some of them, but of course, it is true of some Christians as well.

My late friend Peter Gomes used to say that an excess of virtue is worse than an excess of vice because there are no constraints on virtue. I had a hard time understanding that at first, but it finally made sense to me.

Look around the world today or think of history. One of the criticisms of religion is that it has made the world worse, not better. There’s some support for this. Think of the Crusades or of present day “jihadism”, that is, Muslim extremism. The problem with deeply religious people is that sometimes they think they can do no wrong. And it is precisely when we think we can do no wrong that we are at our most dangerous.

The Crusades were launched by a decree of the pope himself, and they did so much damage to the people of the middle east that they are still remembered. Some people in the middle east still refer to all Europeans as “Franks” because most of the Crusaders were Franks. They killed Muslims, Jews, and eastern Orthodox Christians indiscriminately.

Protestants are not immune from committing violent acts in the name of God. When the English civil war brought the puritans to power, one of the first things they did was to try and execute England’s King Charles I, a man who was guilty of nothing but stupidity.

Jesus’ criticism of some of the Pharisees was a criticism that could be leveled against some, perhaps many, Christians, too. The temptation of deeply religious people is that we set the bar high and fail to live up to it. Then we rationalize our behavior.

This is exactly the behavior we see in Genesis. When God says to Adam, “Did you eat from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”, Adam says, “the woman you gave me tricked me and so I ate.” And when God asks Eve the same question, she says that the serpent tricked her.

We always blame someone else.

I still vividly remember one Sunday School class. I could not have been more than ten years old. My mother was the teacher and the lesson was this story from Genesis. My friend Ronny Armstrong had poked me with his pencil, so I poked him out, and my mother fixed me with her death ray stare. “But he started it,” I said, thus proving the truth of today’s story from Genesis.

Many of you have probably read Angela’s Ashes, the autobiography of writer Frank McCourt. McCourt also wrote an account of a time he spent as a teacher. In it he tells the story of the excuses many of students gave for not handing in assignments. Many of them were allegedly by the parent of his student, but they were plainly forged.

"Arnold doesn't have his work today because he was getting off the train yesterday and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away.  He yelled to the conductor who said very vulgar things as the train drove away.  Something should be done about this."

"A man died in the bathtub upstairs and it overflowed and messed up all Roberta's homework on the table."

"Her big brother got mad at her and threw her essay out the window and it flew away all over Staten Island which is not a good thing because people will read it and get the wrong impression unless they read the ending which explains everything."

"We were evicted from our apartment and the mean sheriff said if my son kept yelling for his notebook he'd have us all arrested."

McCourt reflects, "Isn't it remarkable, I thought, how they resist any kind of writing assignment in class or at home.  They whine and say they're busy and it's hard putting two hundred words together on any subject.  Why?  I have a drawer full of excuse notes that could be turned into an anthology of Great American Excuses."

But the essence of sin is not blaming other; it is putting ourselves in the place of God. And this brings me to the final thing I want to say.

There are some things Jesus said that I wish he had not said. I’m sure that if only he’d thought more carefully, he would not have said them. Probably the most problematic thing Jesus said is in today’s gospel reading.

"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"

Every religious leader knows people, usually with some mental or emotional illness, who believe they have committed or afraid they are going to commit the unforgiveable sin.

Let me set your minds and hearts at ease: There is no such thing as the unforgiveable sin.

I believe that Jesus is talking about the nature of sin. Remember that the nature of sin is to put one’s self in the place of God. That was exactly what the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to do: Eat this fruit and you will be LIKE God.

The paradox is this: If we put ourselves in the place of God, then who is going to forgive us? Strangely, many of us are less willing to forgive ourselves than God is.

Think about that for a moment: Have you ever done anything that you fretted over, worried over, loast sleep over? All of us have done that. But there is a cure for that: Ask God’s forgiveness. Ask the person you have wronged to forgive you and try to make amends. However, we often go for years and sometimes even for a lifetime, worrying over something we have done wrong. And when we do that, then we have put ourselves in the place of God. We cut ourselves off from the source of forgiveness. But the psalmist tells us that God is always ready to forgive us:

Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
O LORD, hear my voice; *

If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you; *

O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
for with the LORD there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

We are so ready to believe that we are the biggest sinners in the world and so reluctant to seek God’s forgiveness. But with the Lord “there is mercy, and with God there is plenteous redemption.” Amen.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

"Born again:" A sermon for Trinity Sunday (St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Hoover, Alabama, June 2, 2012)

Sometimes I believe that the industry producing magic markers and poster paper would go out of business if it were not for the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel. Wherever large groups of people are gathered together, you nearly always see people waving signs that say “You must be born again” and “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or just “John 3:16.” But people hardly ever try to figure out how the two verses fit together.

On the surface there is no apparent connection between the two verses. One is an invitation to new life, the other is a powerful statement about God’s love. But both give Episcopalians a lot of trouble.

First, what about this “born again” business? Why do we need to be born again? I think that Episcopalians probably have as much trouble with this as Nicodemus did. Imagine Nicodemus’ reaction when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again. Nicodemus was a Jew, and then as now Jewishness was a matter of birth not choice. Under normal circumstances one is born a Jew, one does not convert to Judaism, and there is certainly no such thing as a “born again Jew.” Nicodemus could probably trace his ancestry back generations. He certainly knew to which tribe of Israel he belonged. Paul certainly did. In Philippians he reminds his readers that he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. But if he were born again, he would have to give up all of that. If he were born again, there’s no telling who he would be. And that’s the problem. If he were born again, he might be a nobody! But Nicodemus was important; he was SOMEbody. John says that he was a “ruler of the Jews.” So why would he want to be born again?

Episcopalians have much the same problem with being born again. Do you know how many Episcopalians it takes to change a light bulb? Why, my grandmother gave that light bulb to the church. That’s a perfectly good light bulb. Why do you want to change it? First, the prayer book, then women priests and bishops, and now the light bulb!

Like Nicodemus, many of us can probably trace our ancestry back generations. We know that we are descended from great-great-great grandmother so and so who left England or France or Poland in the 18th or 19th century and came to America and married so and so who made a great fortune selling hot chestnuts on the streets of Manhattan and then lost it all in the crash of 1891 but they were all good Episcopalians and I don’t care if I’m born again or not but by golly I will always be an Episcopalian.

Part of the problem with Nicodemus, I think, is that he didn’t really hear what Jesus was saying. Jesus said, “You must be born again,” and Nicodemus took it too literally. “Must I return to my mother’s womb?” Nicodemus said with wonder and confusion and maybe some repugnance.

And when we hear Jesus say, “You must be born again,” we seem to think that Jesus is giving us a chance to live our lives all over again. Sometimes there seems to be a whole industry devoted to movies that exploit this idea of getting the chance to living our lives all over again. Think of the “Back to the Future” movies. Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, doesn’t exactly get to live his life over again, but he gets to go back and fix the things that were wrong in his life.  Or think of the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again until he gets it right.

But Jesus is not talking about living your life all over again; he’s talking about living a new life. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." In other words, being born all over again means new life, a life that God chooses for us, a life that we don’t expect, but a life that is better. It means trusting God, a God who is full of surprises, a God who does new things. It means that the new life to which God raises us will be surprising; it may even be uncomfortable; but we know that it will be good.

And that’s where the other verse comes in. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that who ever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”

This verse also gives Episcopalians a lot of trouble, and again part of the problem is caused by the way we read it or hear it. When we hear “perish,” we think that “hell.” We think Jesus is saying that whoever does NOT believe in him will be sent to eternal punishment. But that may not be what Jesus is saying. This is not the time or place to discuss the idea of eternal punishment. I may deal with that in another sermon. But then again, I may not!

The fact is, all of us perish. Every Ash Wednesday, I impose ashes on your forehead and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are dust and we will return to the dust. But Jesus tells us that dust and ashes and death do not have to have the last word. Jesus promises that we can have everlasting life. And I would add that everlasting life is not just something that starts when we die; it starts right now. It is part of the promise of being born again. But I will come back to that.

Another problem that Episcopalians have with John 3.16 is with the idea of God giving “his only begotten Son.” This causes all kinds of problems for people who believe that God somehow sentenced his Son to an agonizing death by being nailed to the Cross. I have a problem with that. I believe that everyone with a heart has a problem with that. I do not believe that in some sense God sentenced Jesus to die or that Jesus was a payment, a sacrifice that God demanded for the propitiation and expiation of human sin.

Here’s what I believe: I believe that Jesus was God’s Son, that in Jesus God chose to live a fully human life and that Jesus lived a life that led to the Cross. His path led to the Cross so that he could experience everything that we experience – darkness, betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and finally death.

I DO believe that Jesus chose to give up his life. I believe that he freely released his life, and I also believe that the Cross represents some kind of mysterious cosmic exchange – life given that life might be received.

And here is where the two verses come together.

The verse that Nicodemus misunderstood – “You must be born again” – does NOT mean that we can go back and live life all over again and fix all the things that we got wrong the first time. It means that new life can start any time. It can start right now. It means that God gives us a second chance and a third chance and as many chances as we need. But this new life that God gives us will surprise us. It may not be at all what we expect. God will ask us to do all kinds of new and unexpected things, even difficult and uncomfortable things, such as loving our neighbor, especially the neighbor we dislike. God asks us to love our Muslim neighbor. God asks Democrats to love their Romney-supporting neighbor. And God asks Republicans to love their Obama-supporting neighbor.

It also means that the perfect and eternal life that Jesus released on the Cross can be ours, that we can have new life, a life that does not end when the priest at our funeral says “dust to dust and ashes to ashes.” Now, I think that’s good news, don’t you?