Friday, September 21, 2012

Children of Light


 A Homily originally given at Morning Prayer in Trinity School for Ministry's chapel on 9/20/12.

 John 12:27-36

 “Tell me, what is it you plan to do
  With your one wild and precious life?”

This question really stuck me when I read it one spring day in a book of poems by Mary Oliver. The truth is I wasn’t sure at all what I would do with my life. I was studying Painting and Drawing at Tyler School of Art. I always assumed that I would be an artist, but lately I was beginning to question if that was really where my primary calling was. Besides, I was no fool, I knew that the chances of earning a living as a painter were small. I also wasn’t sure what role the Christian faith I inherited from my parents would play in my life. It was a time of great searching and questioning.

At that time my spiritual home was a Quaker meeting made up of a pretty theologically diverse group of people. My reading of old Quaker books, George Fox’s journal in particular, had captivated me. Although I now have some pretty significant disagreements with Quakerism, I believe God used it powerfully in my life. My time in that Quaker meeting helped set the course that would eventually lead me here to study and to pursue ordained ministry.

You may not be familiar with that particular sect outside of the man on the Oatmeal box. Quakerism began with a group of seekers in mid 17th century England who felt lost and alienated amidst the religious and political controversies of the time. They weren’t sure if they could trust any of the voices competing for dominance in the church and society. Their conviction was that if they submitted themselves to God together in silence, Christ himself would come and be their teacher. The presence of the living Christ within and among them would be like a light that would reveal to them the truth about themselves and the truth about the scriptures. This light would show them the way forward and make them friends of God. The name Quaker actually began as a derisive term, the name they preferred was the Religious Society of Friends but early on they also referred to themselves as the Children of Light.

The picture of Christ as a guiding light really resonated with me. I wasn’t sure where I was going in life or what I could trust in, but my evangelical upbringing pointed me to Jesus Christ. I knew I couldn’t go wrong by placing myself in his hands. I knew that the meaning and purpose for my life could only be found in him.

The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus was going back to Judea to raise his friend Lazarus, his disciples discouraged him because there were people there who wanted him dead. Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” (John 11:9-10). Jesus knew the divine purpose to which he was called. He also knew that the appointed time of his mission was coming to a close. Soon the hour of darkness would be upon him.

 In today’s gospel reading Jesus’ soul is grieved because that hour has finally come. He knew his death was imminent and he was afraid. Jesus was not without ordinary human anxiety, yet he submits to his Father saying, “Glorify your name!”  and the heavens declared back God’s confirmation.

I don’t know what God’s plans for your life are. Each of us has his or her own unique calling, yet one thing I can say for certain is that it will be towards the end of God’s glory. God’s will for your life is that his name be glorified in you. You and I must submit our anxieties and uncertainties to him. Our true self, the person God created us to be, is found only in Christ.

Jesus’ death, his willing submission and self-sacrifice to the Father, even onto death for our sake, is his glory. It is also the life in him that he gives to us. The eternal life of the Trinity is self-giving love, and Jesus possessed that life in all its fullness.

 The life in Jesus is the light of all humankind. It reveals to them their sin and God’s righteous judgment, but at the same time God’s grace and mercy. It is a beacon, a light-house, searching out the sinful, the lost, and world weary. This life—lifted high upon the cross—draws all people to itself.

Jesus spoke to those gathered around him, who heard his anguished prayer and the voice of God’s confirmation like thunder. He said, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”

Jesus’ words are urgent. When Jesus left for the home of Mary and Martha, he acted because he knew the “day” appointed for his mission was waning. Those who work can only do so while the light of day remains. Jesus, who is himself the light of the world, suggest to the people that he won’t be with them much longer. The sun is just about to disappear below the horizon, now is the time to choose. Will they believe in him and be children of light?

There is a moral dimension to being children of light, which involves being people whose lives are characterized by truth and goodness. Jesus means more than moralism though. Being Children of light means being born again. We cannot produce in ourselves the eternal life of God, but rather it comes to us through Jesus Christ. Again George Macdonald writes, “God is the father of Jesus and of us…but while God is the father of his children, Jesus is the father of their sonship” (The Creation in Christ). Jesus begets in us the life of God. Even like a mother, he bares in himself our true life, and labors to bring it forth.

We need not stumble in darkness, but can walk in the light of day knowing who we were created to be. This wild and precious life is his gift to you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Surprising Reversal

The following sermon was preached August 19th 2012 at Lighthouse Lutheran Church in Freedom, Pa.

It is a tremendous privilege to be here at Lighthouse Lutheran and invited to preach. As pastor Whalen said, I am a student at Trinity School for Ministry, and studying to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. I haven’t always been an Episcopalian though. I was actually raised as a Presbyterian, and my family is still active in the Presbyterian Church. I’ve visited quite a number of different churches before finally landing in the Episcopal Church. For a while I even attended a Lutheran Church. I found much to admire there and have learned that it has a lot in common with my own Anglican/Episcopal church.

Not only have I had the opportunity to experience a bit of the diversity of the Christian faith, but I’ve also sat in on a few services from entirely different religious traditions. I took a class in World Religions a few years ago, and our professor asked that we visit a variety of places of worship from outside the Christian faith.  His hope was that we would gain a greater appreciation for what it felt like to be an unbeliever or seeker visiting one of our churches. He wanted us, in a kind of reversal, to know what it felt like to be the outsider looking in.

Following these instructions, my wife and I visited Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Jewish Synagogue, on a Saturday morning. We certainly did feel like outsiders. At the door to the sanctuary there was a bowl full of yarmulkes. I awkwardly took one and fastened it to my hair. Inside there was hardly anyone there, accept a few worshipers. All of the prayers were being sung in Hebrew. I tried to follow along, putting my very limited knowledge of Hebrew to the test, but didn’t have much success. The service seemed to go on forever and eventually the sanctuary was full of worshipers. There was a brief lesson (given in English thankfully) and I began to feel a bit more comfortable, especially when I looked across the way (they met in the round) and caught the eye of a familiar face, a co-worker of mine who seemed extremely amused and bewildered to see the young man she knew from work who was studying to be a Christian pastor.

Although the service was largely in another language, I felt I could connect with the scripture readings, many of the prayers, and even a lot of the lesson. The biggest moment of cultural-religious vertigo came not during the service, but afterwards as I looked over the welcoming table in the lobby. There was a small stack of newsletters with a title that certainly raised my eyebrows. The name of their newsletter was “The Pharisee.”

My gut reaction was to think, “Don’t they know that the Pharisees are the bad guys? Why would anyone, especially such warm and friendly people as these, want to be associated with that vicious, arrogant, self-righteous rabble?”  In Christian circles we are accustomed to thinking of the Pharisees this way. When the Pharisees come up in a Gospel reading our programmed response is to boo and hiss saying, “I can’t wait to see how Jesus nails them this time!” Seeing the Pharisees lifted up as a standard of godliness and faithfulness seemed like a highly ironic reversal to me.

The original audience of today’s gospel reading would have had the opposite response.  Among the people of God who were serious about being faithful and living according to the Holy Scriptures, the Pharisees would definitely have been considered the good guys. They distanced themselves from the Temple establishment that had become corrupt and compromised by its association with the Pagan Roman Empire, and instead emphasized that fidelity to God was to be found in everyday actions such as gathering around the table and having a meal with family. They shared with Jesus a belief that the writings and prophets were holy scripture, along with the law, as well as a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the age to come. Believe it or not, out of all the various religious movements of his time, Jesus appears to have most in common with the Pharisees! 

When Jesus tells a story about two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, it would seem immediately obvious to his listeners who the good guy was and who the bad guy was going to be.  Pharisees were known for their piety, but one wouldn’t expect to see a tax collector in prayer at all. Tax collectors were notorious for being greedy colluders with Rome, traitors, and oppressors of the poor. Jesus, however, turns the people’s expectations on their heads.

The Pharisee is outwardly blameless. He does all the right things and then some. The Law requires the faithful to fast on the Day of Atonement, but this guy fasts twice a week! The Law requires the faithful to tithe on certain crops, but like a good Pharisee, this guy tithes on everything – even garden herbs. Everything the Pharisee says about his actions is true. The problem is the spirit in which it is said. The Pharisee does not come to God humbly acknowledging his utter dependence on him, but instead is full of pride in his own accomplishments. The Pharisee’s prayer offers praise to himself rather than to God! The Pharisee finds his justification, the validation for his standing before God, in comparison to other people. He isn’t like the wicked tax collector, he is one of the good guys, and on that basis he believes he can come boldly into God’s presence.  The Tax Collector, in contrast, stands far off and beats his chest.  He acknowledges that he is a sinner, and begs God for mercy.

At this point, we may be tempted to compare ourselves to both of these characters. You may say, “God, I thank you that I am not like this wicked Pharisee who seeks to justify himself on the basis of his good deeds, but I am a good Lutheran and know that I am justified by faith alone!”  Do you see how doing that would be another ironic reversal? We are more like the Pharisee than we care to admit, even if most of us wouldn’t be quite as blatant about it. It seems like an unavoidable part of our human nature to find our identity and justification by comparing ourselves to others. I once read a sermon by Debbie Blue that put it this way,

“We construct, we know, our goodness over against some other person or philosophy or way of being. How can we feel good if we don’t know what out there is bad, or define ourselves over against it? And it works better if there’s a bad that seems “out there,” something we think we are not really a part of (corporate America, fundamentalism, decadent living, worldliness, repressive government, whatever).”

We saw this principle illustrated well recently in the media. The president of Chick-Fil-A came out against same-sex marriage and in defense of traditional marriage, and suddenly it felt like everyone was scrambling to take sides. One side was congratulating themselves that they weren’t like those backwards bigots who hate gay people and the other side was congratulating themselves for not being like those liberals who don’t support freedom of speech and mock traditional values. For a couple of weeks it seemed like the whole nation was seeking to justify themselves on the basis of whether they did or didn’t patronize a particular fast food restaurant.

Jesus commends the tax collector because of his humility. The tax collector knows that his life is not pleasing to God. He doesn’t try to justify himself by comparing himself with someone more sinful than he is. He is remorseful and realizes that he has nothing to stand upon but God’s mercy. The Pharisee’s prayer tells us very little about God and much about himself, but the tax-collector’s prayer is rooted in his faith that God is merciful and gracious. Because of his humility, the tax collector’s prayer is accepted but because of the Pharisee’s pride and presumption, his prayer is rejected. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Luke 18:14 ESV)

Our justification lies not in our righteous deeds – how well we stack up against others, or with whom we associate ourselves.  It lies rather in the most dramatic reversal of all.  “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). The very Holy One of God, God’s only begotten son, in whom he was well pleased, became despised and rejected for us. The wrath due to us because of our sin was poured out on him, and God’s blessing, love, and forgiveness was poured out on us guilty sinners. God the son humbled himself to become man, to suffer for us upon the cross, and even descend into Hell itself. Although he was laid low by the powers of sin and death, God exalted him through his resurrection and ascension, so that we too might share in his glory. It is to Christ and Christ alone that we should look for our justification.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What is Man That You Should Be Mindful of Him?

Psalm 8

1 O LORD our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!

2 Out of the mouths of infants and children *

your majesty is praised above the heavens.

3 You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, *

to quell the enemy and the avenger.

4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *

the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

5 What is man that you should be mindful of him? *

the son of man that you should seek him out?

6 You have made him but little lower than the angels; *

you adorn him with glory and honor;

7 You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *

you put all things under his feet:

8 All sheep and oxen, *

even the wild beasts of the field,

9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *

and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.

10 O LORD our Governor, *

how exalted is you Name in all the world!

I have a confession to make. I am a bit of a comic book geek. My strong suspicion is that there are more than a few people reading this that I can really geek-out with about comic books. Those people are surely familiar with the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They are responsible for the bulk of Marvel comic’s flagship heroes, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four.  Along with heroes they also created many memorable villains. One of their most fascinating is Galactus, an extremely powerful and highly advanced entity who survives by devouring worlds. He sucks the life out of a planet and moves on. His herald, the Silver Surfer, leads him to Earth, but the Surpher is so struck by the beauty and nobility of human beings that he intervenes on our behalf.  Galactus dismisses his plea saying:

"Do they themselves not tread upon anthills, trampling on those who crawl gently within? They wish the humble ant no harm, but care not if it lives or dies!”

To Galactus, humanity is as insignificant as an ant-hill. In light of God’s incomparable might and the sheer vastness of the cosmos that he has created, why should God’s attitude to us be any different than that of Galactus? As the Psalmist asks “What is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you should seek him out?”

The answer, I would submit, lies not in the nobility of human beings but in what the old English mystic Julianof Norwich called God’s, “most marvelous courtesy and Homely love!” This charming expression of Julian’s is meant to capture God’s openhearted hospitality and readiness to be disadvantaged as well as his willingness to become near to us and have fellowship with us. In other words, God’s humility and graciousness.

The Psalmist writes “You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor.” The word that is translated here as angels, presents some questions. It is a Hebrew word, ‘Elohim,’ that is often used to refer to God himself. It just as easily could mean heavenly beings or angles. The New Testament authors, working from the Greek text, take it for granted that the word should here be understood to mean angels and so shall we.

2 Peter describes angels as “greater in might and power” than human beings. We may be lower on the celestial hierarchy than the angels, but according to the psalmist it is not to angels but to human beings that God has granted glory, honor, and dominion over his creation.  Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that God created human beings in his own image, which means that they were created to be regents of God’s royal authority. Not only that but they were created to know and enjoy God’s fellowship. What gracious courtesy God has shown in sharing his authority with people! How humble God must be to allow such familiarity between himself and his lowly creature!

Psalm 8 is a song of astonished wonder at God’s marvelous courteously and homely (or familiar) love towards the humble ant-hill of humanity.

God granted the psalmist a glimpse of both the divine glory and the divine humility, but he has reserved for us a more profound mystery, a mystery so awesome that even the angels—greater than us in power and might—long to see it. This mystery is the miracle of the incarnation where the Son of God condescended to become himself a human being.  Nothing testifies to God’s marvelous courtesy and homely love more than that! C.S. Lewis suggests that if we want to understand the depth of this condescension we might imagine what it would be like to become a slug or a crab!

Although humanity was created to reflect God’s glory and reign as his image-bearers, we have failed in that task and grievously marred God’s fair image. We have spoiled and exploited God’s good creation. Creation itself—far from being under our mastery—has too often exercised mastery over us through flood, famine, and other natural disasters. What human beings have wrecked through our sin, Jesus Christ, came to restore. Jesus Christ is truly God but also truly man. As the truly human one Jesus is the perfect image-bearer and creation’s true lord. Through Christ, human beings at last realize their true destiny as regents of God’s authority over creation.

As the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus was made for a little while lower than the angels, but has been crowned with glory and honor greater than the angels or any other created thing (Hebrew 2:5-18). Jesus has ascended into heaven and has taken our human nature with him into glory. A human being sits at the right hand of God!

Jesus’ act of self renunciation, his emptying, has become the means by which we are filled with glory and honor. He has poured himself out for our sake. By becoming a servant he has made us kings. By becoming poor he has made us rich. Thomas Oden writes,

“His poverty consisted in the self-renunciation by which he assumed servant form—he was born in a stable, remained poor throughout his life, worked with his hands in common labor, was without a home of his own, and finally in his crucifixion was stripped of his robe and laid in the grave of another—all signs of poverty, of complete and willing lack of worldly resources. This poverty has made redeemed humanity rich by enabling persons to share in his glory by faith.” (Classic Christianity,261)

Again, who are we that God should show us such courtesy!? Have you ever considered the vastness of the universe? Among all the billions of stars in all of the whirling galaxies, our tiny planet revolves around one. Our brief life here is a mere blip in the span of cosmic history and yet God loves us with such mighty, burning, passion that he chose to share his own undying life with us.

If the Psalmist has reason to praise God in astonished wonder, we have more.

O LORD our Governor,
     how exalted is your Name in all the world!


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Feed The World

We have all seen the commercials with those wide, hungry, eyes that stare out at us from our TV screens or from the cover of brochures. These images are compelling because they bring us face to face with a hunger and need that is unimaginable in our affluent society. If we are people of conscience, we are convicted and feel an urgent need to do something—anything—but the need seems so great and the task so overwhelming that we are paralyzed. What could my dollar a day really accomplish?

People all over the world are hungry. Many of them are quite literally hungry, but they are also hungry on another level. The poverty, oppression, chaos, disease, and injustice in the world awaken in us a hunger for peace, stability, order, well-being, and justice. The Bible has a word for the kind of peace and harmony just described, the Hebrew word ‘Shalom.’ When God’s kingdom arrives at last, all things will be put right. There will be Shalom. Until that time our hearts cry out, “How long?!”  

People flocked to Jesus because they recognized in him the hope of a world made right. In him they saw the truth and goodness that they were so very hungry for. They followed him wherever he went and made it very difficult for him to have even a few hours rest and quiet with his disciples. Instead of being annoyed or impatient with them, our text tells us that, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things”(Mark 6:34 ESV). In this one sentence the author of Mark’s Gospel speaks volumes not only about our Lord’s heart of love for his people, but also about who he is and why he has come.  In Jeremiah 23, the Old Testament reading that accompanies this gospel reading in the lectionary, God pronounces judgment on the corrupt leaders of the people of Israel saying,  “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1 ESV). There is a similar denunciation of the wicked shepherds of the people of Israel in Ezekiel 34. Israel’s leaders led the people astray, and their wickedness brought God’s judgment on the nation.  This resulted in their exile and captivity to foreign overlords. The leaders of Israel failed in the task for which they were appointed. Instead of being good shepherds that care for God’s people and lead them in his ways, the shepherds were more like wolves! They ruthlessly exploited God’s people for their own ends. They did not strengthen the weak or heal the sick, they did not bind up the broken nor restore those cast off or search for the lost, but they ruled them with violence and cruelty. In fact, the way that the Bible describes the cruelty with which they exercised their authority is the same way it describes the oppression that the Israelites suffered in Egypt. Therefore God promises to rescue his people from their jaws. He promised to come and shepherd his people himself through the good Shepherd that he would appoint.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV).

There is a story I once heard about Joseph Stalin that I think is relevant to this gospel. In a speech he once gave to a conference of Soviet leaders, Stalin announced to those gathered that he would teach them how to govern the Russian people. Much to the perplexity of the audience, he produced from a cage a live chicken, which he commenced to savagely pluck of its feathers. He dropped the hysterical and bloodied creature to the ground where it hobbled about in agony. Looking around, Stalin produced a small amount of feed from his coat pocket and trailed it after himself as he walked a few steps away. The chicken followed slowly behind picking up the bits of grain.

Like the crowd upon whom Jesus looked with pity, there are people today like sheep without a shepherd. They wander about aimlessly, searching for security and satisfaction for the deep hunger in their hearts. There is also no shortage of those who would seek to exploit this vulnerability for their own ends. The tyrants of this world—the wicked shepherds—exploit the vulnerability and need of the harassed and helpless masses for their own ends. They know that if you keep the people hungry, fearful, and defenseless, that they are more easily manipulated and exploited. Jesus came to call people into true liberty through following him as their true shepherd. Israel followed the wicked shepherds into sin and bondage. Because of their wickedness they were carried off into exile. Although God brought the people back to their land, all was not yet as he promised. There was still the deeper exile of sin that kept them from enjoying God’s shalom. John began a movement of renewal when he began baptizing people in the Jordon. He was calling people to a new Exodus, and now the promised shepherd of God’s people had arrived in Jesus. As we saw in the previous passages in Mark’s gospel, the false shepherd of God’s people, Herod, was terrified. Here was God’s true king.

The author of Mark tells us that the people followed Jesus and the disciples out into the wilderness to a desolate place. The setting and situation are evocative of the story of Exodus, which is no accident. Moses was God’s instrument in leading the people out of slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt in order that they could serve God as they were intended to do. Jesus is a new and better Moses, who has come to lead the people to liberation from tyranny (not least the bondage and tyranny of their own sinful nature) so that they could be free to serve God in God’s Kingdom, his promised Shalom.  Just like in the wilderness, the people were hungry, and the disciples turned to Jesus. Jesus’ response seems a bit glib and somewhat confusing, as is often the case. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The people needed guidance and leadership.  They needed authentic shepherds, ones that would lead them to the truth so that they could see and know God’s kingdom. In this simple response Jesus seems to be saying to his disciples, “This is why I have called you. My people are like sheep with out a shepherd. Feed my sheep!” The Church, especially those called to ordained ministry, should mark these words. Jesus is here commissioning us to be the ones who will lead the lost in the way that they should go, and give to them that food which will truly satisfy the longing of their hearts. Food is essential for life, and God’s people perish for lack of food. The disciples do not understand though. They also do not catch Jesus’ subtle scripture allusion to 2 Kings 4:42-44, or else they would understand what Jesus is about to do next.

Jesus collects five pieces of bread and two fish from his disciples. He organizes the people and sits them on the green grass—perhaps an allusion to Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:1-2 ESV). Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it his disciples. The whole scene is rather reminiscent of the Eucharist. In fact the series of verbs that the author uses here is the same he uses in 14:22 during the last supper. Miraculously, the five loaves and two fish are able to feed the whole multitude of people gathered there. The people eat their fill, and twelve baskets of crumbs are left over (perhaps a basket for each disciple). The image is one of abundance proceeding from scarcity, and an example of the overflowing nature of God’s love and generosity. Jesus is able to satisfy our deepest hunger and to give us more than we ever imagined possible. In Ezekiel 34, God condemns the wicked shepherds for feeding themselves while ruthlessly oppressing and exploiting his flock, but Jesus lays down his life for the flock. The food that he gives them is his own body and blood, his life poured out for them. John’s Gospel makes this explicit,

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35 ESV)

Just as God sent bread from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness in Exodus, he has given the world his own Son to satisfy our deeper hunger. Jesus is the true and greater bread from heaven.

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51 ESV)

The bread that Jesus’ disciples are entrusted with, and told to feed the people with, is the very bread of life – it is Jesus himself. In response to the great need of the world, Jesus commands his Church to give his people the living bread that does not perish. In response to a world of lost people like sheep without a Shepherd, the church is called to faithfully point them to one who himself is God’s shalom. In the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, the living presence of Jesus is made present to us like bread from heaven in order satisfy us, sustain us, and to give us life.

N.T. Wright, in his commentary on this passage, raises a concern that is perhaps on all of our hearts as we read this passage,

Friday, July 20, 2012

How Do You Sleep At Night?

“How do you sleep at night?” That is a loaded question in certain contexts. Sure, it can be as banal as questioning the comfort of one’s mattress, the snoring of one’s spouse, or the fussiness of one’s infant child, but there are other things that keep a person up at night. No doubt we have also heard the question asked of someone who is particularly callous, cold-hearted, or whose deeds have just been brought to light.  It concerns an experience so common to most of us that we find it shocking when it is lacking in others, the call of that interior voice that convicts us of our sins, the voice of conscience that makes us toss and turn.  That voice is not easy to escape. Human beings seem to know instinctively that some things are wrong, and yet we still often choose to do those things. Christian theology identifies this tendency as our sinful nature. We all universally have the tendency to sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and what we leave undone. For this reason we all have experienced the persistent jab of a wounded conscience. J.C. Ryles writes,

“God has not left Himself without witness in the hearts of unconverted people. Fallen and corrupt as man is, there are thoughts within him accusing or excusing, according as he lives—thoughts that will not be shut out—thoughts that can make even kings, like Herod, restless and afraid.”

Indeed, this week’s Gospel reading reveals King Herod as precisely that—a man terrified by his guilt-ridden conscience. 

Despite Jesus’ lukewarm reception in his hometown, news of Jesus’ ministry has spread. Jesus’ disciples have been sent and they too are spreading his message and demonstrating it with power. The Kingdom of God is breaking in! People have begun to ask questions. Who is this guy anyway?!  Many people believe that Jesus is the promised second appearance of Elijah. The scriptures record that Elijah was carried away into heaven in a fiery chariot, and many—based on Malachi 4:5—believe that Elijah will return in the last days, before the time of the Messiah, when all things will be put right. Others think, if not Elijah, perhaps Jesus is some other prophet of old. Herod, on the other hand, is convinced that he is John the Baptist.  Herod believes that John, the man that he beheaded, has been raised from the dead.

Herod is of course wrong about this. It is difficult to understand how someone could even come to this conclusion given the fact that John’s life and Jesus’ ministry overlapped with each other. Herod’s paranoia, brought about by his guilty conscience, may have led him to draw an irrational conclusion, but his instincts are actually not too far from the truth. In an odd way his statements foreshadow the judgment that will be proclaimed later by the apostles after Jesus’ own death, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree”(Acts 5:30 ESV).  Herod knows that he has sentenced an innocent man--a great and holy man--to death. He recognizes that God is at work in the ministry of Jesus Christ, setting things right and calling him to account for his wickedness and tyranny. God has indeed vindicated John, not by raising him from dead, but by fulfilling John’s prophesies in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is bringing about the very thing that John prophesized, the great day of reckoning and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Herod is living in the shadow of his father’s great legacy. Like his father, his greatest ambition is to be recognized as the true king of the Jewish people. He has been continuing the reconstruction of the Temple that his father started in order to commend himself to the people, but they are growing increasingly disdainful of Herod’s compromised Temple system. John’s prophetic ministry of baptism for the forgiveness of sins was a direct challenge to the temple establishment. He called Herod out as the phony and tyrant that he really was. Would God’s true king act in the self-serving and immoral way of Herod, taking his own brother’s wife and colluding with the Romans? No, there was a much greater king coming who would reign with justice and integrity. Deep down, Herod knows that John was right and so he is terrified of him even after his death.

Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Phillip, hated John and wanted him dead. She couldn’t stand to be told that she was a sinner for living with her husband’s brother. Herod, because he was afraid of John, kept the prophet safe. Herod was fascinated by John, even though John denounced him. Herod believed that John was a holy man and even “heard him gladly.” How many people today are exactly like Herod? Maybe you can even see yourself in him. It is possible to have a fascination with religion and spiritual things, even go to church and hear the preacher gladly, and yet still be unprepared to accept the consequences of such truth for one’s own life.  Such people—people like Herod—are like what was sowed along the path in Jesus’ parable of the sower, they receive the word but ultimately fail to understand it and so the evil one snatches it away.  They may also be like the seed that fell among thorns and was prevented from growing. Herod’s circumstances were certainly “thorny” and not particularly hospitable to the kingdom life. Herod lived in decadence among cruel and ambitious people who hated the truth, and they snared his heart.

One night, after a lavish birthday celebration for Herod where the wine flowed freely, Herodias finally got her opportunity to take vengeance on John the Baptist. Her daughter was dancing for the men, no doubt in a highly erotic and seductive manner. Herod was so enticed by her that in a booze-soaked moment he made a rash and ill-conceived promise to give her whatever she wanted, up to half of his kingdom. The girl returned to her mother, who was perhaps the one who put her up to seducing the king, and said, “for what shall I ask?” When she returned to Herod she gave him her request, the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod was trapped. He didn’t want to break his oath in the presence of all of his guests, nor did he want to appear weak or afraid. Reluctantly, he gave the order and John was executed.  Afterwards, John’s followers took his body and laid him in a tomb, but unlike Jesus, there would be no glorious resurrection on the third day.

John’s death seems all the more tragic for the senseless way in which it happened. What a pathetic and unceremonious way for such a great man to die! Sometimes it looks as if those who speak out for what is right are the losers, while “all the criminals in their coats and their ties, are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.” The vindication of the righteous—like John—however, is in the resurrection and ascension into Heaven of Jesus Christ. Jesus was condemned to death and viciously executed by the powers that be, but God raised him up. Jesus was God’s own son in whom he was well pleased, and the world’s true lord. Through his death and resurrection, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15 ESV).  The rulers of this world were unmasked and their wickedness and corruption were revealed because they “murdered the author of life whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15).

When Jesus returns and the kingdom that he inaugurated will at last be consummated. Those who suffered and died for the cause of truth and justice, like John, will be the first to take their seat with him in glory. All of those who have aligned themselves with God’s son and God’s Kingdom—with truth and righteousness—will be glorified, but the proud, the cruel, and the oppressive—those who have rejected God’s kingdom—will be thrown down and suffer the judgment of God.

Herod had the chance to turn and repent. God spoke to him through his conscience, and yet he chose to listen to those around him instead. Herod made the tragically foolish decision ignore what he knew to be true and right. Herod sought to gain the world, but instead lost his soul. We may not be a tyrant or a murderer like Herod, but how often have we compromised our integrity by doing what we know to be wrong because of the pressure of those around us or for the sake of some advantage we hoped to obtain?  Despite Herod’s ambitions, he died in disgrace after being banished to Gaul. He has gone down in history as a tyrant and a fool. John on the other hand continues to honored all these many centuries later because of his faithful testimony to Jesus.  Despite how it may appear, it is those who obey the witness of God in their conscience who are ultimately honored.

So, how do you sleep at night?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Extraordinary Ordinary

In the part of the world where I live—the northeastern United States—one cannot go more than a few blocks in a populated area without coming across some kind of Christian church. Christianity is absolutely ubiquitous. Despite the fact that many are claiming we are entering into an increasingly post-Christian era, Christianity continues to play a fairly large role in our culture. Most people here in the United States, have participated in some kind of Christian worship such as a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Why is it then so common that church is the last place that people expect to find truth or spirituality?

            In the last few hundred years the West has enjoyed a flirtation, if not an all-out love affair, with Eastern Spiritualities such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The popularity of New Age authors such as Eckhardt Tolle and Deepak Chopra are evidence that this trend continues. While  I think that studying world religions is a very worthwhile thing to do, and I believe we can learn a lot in the process, it often seems like the spiritual treasures and wisdom of the Christian tradition are ignored or dismissed. No doubt this is largely due to the failures, hypocrisy, and downright spiritual dryness of much of the Church, but I think another reason is the very prominence of Christianity in our culture. Christianity is commonplace and ordinary. We are very familiar with its claims, or at least we think we are, and we are not that inspired by them. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. In contrast, Christianity is spreading like wildfire in places like Africa and China. The stories that I hear from friends in the mission field are astonishing, such as stories of entire towns converting the Christianity in a single day. Often these stories are accompanied by dramatic tales of miraculous signs and wonders that seem lifted straight out of the book of Acts. For the most part, Christianity doesn’t seem all that exciting here, and the preaching of the Gospel often runs into a strong wall of cynicism.

Last week’s Gospel lesson had us study the inspirational faith of two individuals who came to Jesus for help, Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood. It also had us look at the wondrous deeds performed by Jesus, including the raising of the dead! In this week’s reading, Jesus is back in his own hometown. The author of Mark’s gospel informs us that Jesus was not well received. The people were incredulous about his claims, offended even, and they scoffed. Why was Jesus such a flop in his hometown? I think it is for the very reason discussed above, that familiarity breeds contempt. The people of Jesus’ hometown thought they knew Jesus. They knew his parents and his sisters and brothers. “Isn’t this the same guy who used to play in the streets as a kid? Didn’t we hear him cry when he skinned his knee? Doesn’t he come from an ordinary family in an insignificant part of the world? How can we possibly believe that he is some kind of mighty prophet? Who does he think he is saying these things about himself? He isn’t fooling us!”

The fact is that Jesus really was an ordinary person from an ordinary part of the world. It is difficult to believe that God would use the ordinary in such extraordinary ways. When we think of a holy man, we are likely to think of a wise old hermit on a mountaintop, someone floating two inches above the ground shrouded in light, a wise king, or someone powerful and mighty. The last thing people expect of a holy man and a great savior is that he would be the son of a carpenter from a blue-collar town.

When the prophet Samuel went to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as king of Israel, all of Jesse’s outwardly impressive sons passed before him. He thought, “Surely one of these is the one God has chosen!” The Lord corrected Samuel by saying, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel16:7 ESV). The one God chose was the one no one else expected; David, the youngest son out tending the sheep. Likewise Isaiah prophesized of Jesus in ages past,
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3 ESV).

Jesus was surprised at their unbelief and declared, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” Everywhere Jesus went, crowds of people wanting to get close to him swarmed him, but here in his own hometown he was snubbed. They thought they knew him already. They thought they had him all figured out, and he was nobody special. The author of Mark tells us that Jesus wasn’t able to do many mighty works in his hometown. This statement raises a few eyebrows. Jesus wasn’t able?! This is the same Jesus who raised a dead girl back to life just a few verses earlier? Jesus the Son of God? I think it would be a mistake to focus on what Jesus was not able to do. Much more important was what Jesus was able to do despite the resistance and the hostility of the people. The author qualifies his statement, “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (6). Oh, is that all? Early Christian theologian and Bible commentator Origen explains,

“Matthew and Mark [reporting on the incident in question] wished to present the all-surpassing value of that divine power as a power that works even in those who do not believe. But they did not deny that grace works even more powerfully among those who have faith…Thus the power in him overcame even their unbelief” (Commentary of Matthew 19)
I invite you to look past the ordinary and mundane nature of the Church. I invite you to take a second look at Jesus. You may think you already know him, but there is so much more! I believe the truth about him is so compelling that it can change us from the inside out. This extraordinary truth is not on the surface, however, it needs to be sought through faith. Even a small amount of faith, a mustard seed, can begin to change us. As Origen says, there is power in Christ to overcome even our unbelief.

The extraordinary truth about Jesus, the Gospel, is passed on by ordinary everyday people. The sending of the twelve follows the story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown. Jesus warns them that they will not always be well received. He tells them that if anyone does not receive them, they should, “shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (11). I don’t know about you, but I find that a particularly difficult passage, especially given the fact that, in light of the verses before, the ones most likely to reject you are the ones closest to you. The people who know me best have seen me at my worst. They know how selfish and petty I can be. Jesus may have shared my ordinary and humble estate, but he was also without sin! Who am I that anyone should listen to me? Yet Jesus calls ordinary, sinful, human beings to be his representatives in the world. He sends us out understanding not only our sinfulness, but also the sinfulness of the people to whom we are sent. He knows we will not always be a success, but it is precisely because he became an ordinary human being like us that he can sympathize with us in our struggles and help us in our weakness. 

God delights to use the ordinary and the mundane for extraordinary purposes. Saint Paul writes,              
 “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 ESV).

From the very beginning God has used the ordinary and downright disreputable to bring about his purposes in the world. Think of the less-than-sterling character of many of the Old Testament patriarchs. God has even gone as far as to use a shameful instrument of torture and political oppression to be the means of demonstrating his atoning love towards humankind. The cross is the height of foolishness to the world.

We might have contempt for the familiar and the mundane, but God doesn’t. God is not impressed by what we might consider wise and important. I think this may be one reason why God chose two such mundane, everyday, activities—washing and eating—represented in Baptism and the Eucharist, to be his chief sacraments. God wants to open our eyes so that we are able to see that the ordinary really can be extraordinary.

The Church around the corner might seem very ordinary. It might be the place where your grandmother worships. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is full of a lot of hypocritical backsliding people. Ordinary folks are like that. Can God use something so ordinary to do extraordinary things? Yes he can, and he does.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Marriage in the Age to Come

 A Sermon preached at the end of last year (2011) in a Morning Prayer service for Trinity School for Ministry.

          In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus cofounding the Sadducees attempt to make him appear foolish. The Sadducees deny the resurrection and so their question is not asked in    sincerity, but is in reality an attempt to poke fun at what they believe to be absurd. Jesus responds ingeniously, confirming the reality of the resurrection. Those who have died are alive to God, and through the power of God, will share in the life of the age to come.

          In the process of doing so, however, Jesus says something that is disturbing to many: “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.” What?! Marriage is one of our most cherished institutions and among the greatest joys of this life. How can it be that it should be excluded from the age to come? Doesn’t this suggest a rather dim view of marriage?

          I would submit to you that perhaps marriage will not be abolished in the age to come, but rather fulfilled. We have yet to know the fullness of what marriage is communicating to us. In this world we see “as in a mirror dimly” but in the resurrection we shall no longer live amidst the shadows of things, but like the angels who look upon the face of God, heaven shall be our natural habitat. We will see behind the veil to the true meaning of our life here.

         C.S. Lewis’ novel “The GreatDivorce” depicts a group of tourist visiting the outskirts of Heaven. The residents of Heaven try to encourage them to stay, but in order to do so each tourist must give up their particular form of idolatry. One of the tourists is an artist who immediately sets up his easel and begins painting. His heavenly companion informs him that this is simply out of place saying,

         “When you painted on earth it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came…Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

If we insist on marriage for its own sake as being our only hope for happiness and fulfillment, we will never learn to see through it to that heavenly country of which it is a foretaste.

I haven’t been married long, but one thing I have learned about marriage is that it is not primarily about me and my own happiness and fulfillment. Without that crucial insight, I would only be setting myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. Ironically, the true joy of marriage would elude me. Marriage instead is a foretaste and a preparation for the age to come. Through each day learning what it means to lay down my life for my wife, the dross of my selfishness is being purged. Through loving and being loved by my wife, God is teaching me what it means to love and be loved by him. Through forsaking all other partners, God is showing me what it means to love him alone with all my heart soul mind and strength. The Death to self in true matrimonial love, sets before us the cross on which the son of God offered his life for our life.

I believe it is no accident that Revelation describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. This is the reality of which marriage is a sign. Just as the fracturing and ruin of creation begins with man and woman being put at enmity with one another, so marriage is meant to point us forward to God’s promised restoration, the New heavens and the new earth. Indeed, the Scriptures are full of references to the covenant-love of God and the life of his kingdom being like marriage. In Ephesians 5 Saint Paul teaches us that marriage is a profound mystery that speaks of the love of Christ for his Church. Indeed in the opening of the Chapter of which today’s reading is a part, Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matthew 22:2 ESV)

          Mike Mason, in his book The Mystery of Marriage insightfully suggest this about our passage,
“Considering the rich imagery of weddings and marriage throughout the Bible, it seems more probable that far from there being no marriage in Heaven, what Jesus must really have been getting at is that Heaven will be all marriage. Indeed, in earthly marriage we may detect the sign and promise that in eternity everyone is to be married to everyone else in some transcendent and unimaginable union, and everyone will love everyone else with an intensity to that which now is called ‘being in love’ and which impels individual couples to spend their whole lives together.”

Marriage is like a journey that a man and woman embark on together. In the age to come they will have arrived at their destination and obtained their goal. So does that mean that they will then part ways? Will the love be all used up? By no means! Think about it like this by way of analogy, children have a very special relationship with their parents, but when they become adults that relationship necessarily changes. I think we can all admit that there would be something dreadfully wrong if my parents still wiped my nose and cut my meat for me! As an adult, my relationship to my parents has changed, but my love for them has not diminished. If anything I love them more, because they helped me become the man I am today. On the other side of the resurrection, my marriage will have in a sense “flown the coop” but my love for my wife will not have diminished. No, we will have simply entered a more glorious and more mature place in our relationship.

In today’s passage Jesus points us forward to that day when marriage will have at last reached its fulfillment. Marriage is a picture of heaven and a preparation for heaven. We should treat it as such. We should love our spouses, and indeed everyone, with a commitment to the person God intends them to be in eternity. Marriage prepares us for eternity but it is not itself eternal. Although marriage finds its end at death, the love that married couples share does not. We cannot know what it will be like when Christ appears and we are changed but in the words of ElizabethBarret-Browning—“If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”