Monthly Archives: February 2016

Looking for a Better Crown Luke 13:31-35

 

The evangelist Luke tells us that some Pharisees once came to Jesus to warn him, “Get away from her, for Herod want to kill you.” But he replied, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work . . . .’”

There are at least two types of courage I know of. The one kind belongs to those reckless young motorcyclists who zoom helmetless up and down US 19, darting in and out of traffic at the speed of sound. Their utter contempt for dismemberment and sudden death is the type of courage called “daring.” Daring is most appropriate to the young, and most sensible people grow up and out of it, like acne. Some, however—and they are mostly men, though not exclusively–never really do, and they often end up with shattered bodies and a string of memorable if broken relationships. Over their third beer they are likely to say they were born with “a lively sense of adventure” or “a thirst for excitement.” They are “the players,” “the boys who will be boys,” “the girls who “just wanna have fun.” But what they call themselves hardly matters—they possess the kind of unreasonable, pointless adolescent boldness that measures life by its intensity and not in hours and days. Either you were born a player, beloved, or you weren’t, and if you weren’t you’ll probably live longer–or at least it will seem longer. And there isn’t really much more to say about daring, except that it doesn’t wear well.

There is, however, another, better variety of courage that grows more attractive the longer we practice it and flourishes with age. Fortitude is reasonable courage, courage with a purpose, and fortitude is something we should nourish in ourselves and cherish in others, because it is both rare and precious. And daily more necessary in a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Considering the dangers of the present and the uncertainly of the future, all sensible people are at times afraid. But to give way to our fears is cowardice, and cowardice is what fortitude overcomes—consciously, purposefully, intentionally.

Fortitude is a grown-up courage. It was a habit my father had in spades. As a man he was widely and greatly liked–but not universally, mostly because he also had the habit of telling the truth. He called stupidity and evil by their right names. And that is a habit always gets you into hot water with ignorant people who prefer lies. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody hates you,” daddy used to say and laugh. But experience has taught me the sober truth of it. Fortitude and the habit of telling the truth go together. They cannot be separated, beloved.

And Jesus also had the habit of telling the truth–he showed how. He not only told the truth, he was the Truth. And for that reason our Lord was likewise widely loved and deeply despised. He was crucified for it. He experienced the consequences of truth telling, and from beyond the resurrection he says to those of us who try to follow him, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Take courage.

Every human being is afraid at times. Jesus was no exception. To fear is part of what it means to be fully human. But fortitude is the gift that overcomes our fear, and it comes preeminently from the Spirit of the risen Lord which has been poured out upon us. It comes first of all from the lively realization that our lives are finite, limited in time. Jesus told those Pharisees, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” He was aware of the shortness of his life. And whenever you and I reflect upon the undoubted fact that sooner or later we are going to die anyway, the question always arises–So what else can happen? That our lives are limited in time is not a sad thought at all—for followers of Jesus it is an encouraging one, even a joyful one. We can “take courage,” or as the old translation renders it, “be of good cheer.”

So we can go on and live with cheerfulness in this dangerous and uncertain world because the death and resurrection of Jesus has placed our finite lives in the context of God’s infinite life. “I have conquered the world,” the risen one says. Apart from that cheering news of his resurrection it would do precious little good to say “take courage” or “buck up.” Fortitude is not a decision we make on our own. But the good news of the third day–that nothing whatsoever that will happen to us, in life or in death, can disrupt of eternal destiny in Christ–makes fortitude possible. As my daddy used to say—“Check your shirt, Billy. If there’s no blood on it, you’re all right.” We have been all right so far, and we always will be—far better than just all right. In this world the smart money is always on evil. But you and I have a tip from the stable. We have inside information. We know that because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus death is dying. Jesus has overcome the powers of darkness for us. And we will also rise.

So be of good cheer, beloved, and let me hear you call things by their right names. This is not the moment in time to keep our mouths shut. For us right now nothing is more important than to purposefully display the courage of Jesus. In the face of bloody-minded authorities and wicked institutions, both religious and political, he did not step back. Tyrants like Herod are not nice. Handing them sweeties just tends to make them worse. So when some Pharisees came to warn him of what was essentially a death threat, Jesus didn’t miss a beat—“Go tell that fox. . . .”

And you and I, in our own small ways, need to stand up against the evil powers we see at work around us. It is not recorded that Jesus was never cruel, but neither did he ever roll over and play dead either. And neither should we. Because what we fail to do and say in time, beloved, we will regret in eternity. We cannot waste our short years worrying about what other people might think of us. You know I have had reason before to scold you—and myself—for being too nice. Because niceness may render you harmless and liked by all, but it will not make you like Jesus. We are looking for a better crown than Miss Congeniality.

True bravery, which goes beyond mere daring, is a great mystery. We should by all rights be cowering under the covers, but it is inside us—the strength to go on and do what you know needs doing—the bravery to speak out against evil and cope with loss. So where in the world does fortitude come from? Well, from nowhere in this world, strictly speaking. It comes from somewhere else. True bravery is always a first degree miracle. And when we see it displayed in others or discover it in ourselves, we really should indeed marvel. Because it shouldn’t be there, but there it is.

 

 

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Bread into Stones Luke 4:1-13

In the Gospel of Luke the devil says to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

So why not? After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, the evangelist tells us that Jesus was “famished,” literally dying of hunger. So if he was capable of turning rocks into rolls–as Luke certainly believes–why not just do it?

In fact, it would have been easier and more sensible for Jesus to have said “yes” to any of the suggestions the devil makes. If he was hungry, why not satisfy his physical needs with a wee little miracle? And if he had a personal destiny to fulfill and the devil had all the kingdoms of the world in his power to give, why not take him up on his offer? Aren’t we born to realize our full potential after all? And if Jesus really needed to demonstrate his special relationship to his Father, why not do it by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple? Nothing to it.

None of the propositions the devil offers him were really that bad in and of themselves. Satan, the consummate campaign manager, always comes up with nifty ideas. The problem was that his suggestions are always just too simple to be workable. He is the master of magical solutions. And since magic is all the devil has, that’s all that he can offer. But magical solutions to real problems never work because they do not take into consideration the agonizing complexity of reality.

In our political cycle the year of the presidential election has come round again—God help us all!–and all we hear are voices from all sides offering magical solutions. They tell us how we can get everything we want at no cost to ourselves. Easy-peasy, the voices say. Nothing to it. Just once I’d like to hear someone running for office say: We can do something about—say—unwanted pregnancies or drug addiction or the terrorist state called ISIS or systemic poverty or the decay of the American middle class, but we are going to have to work together and each make painful sacrifices. But no way. Instead we get are those magical solutions. Water-board the terrorists. Throw out the aliens. Carpet bomb ISIS. Build a wall. Lower taxes. Take care of everyone and make the rich pay for it. Or Wall Street. Or Mexico. But not you possums. Never you. Easy answers to the devilishly complicated problems that confront us—that’s all those strident voices have to offer us. Fish without bones, and bread made from stones.

But enough about those presidential pickers and grinners. What I’m interested in talking to you about is what is really important—living our own ordinary lives in the obedience to the call of Jesus. And there the story of Jesus’ temptations can offer us guidance in making our real, everyday choices.

Now there are some choices we do not have to make because we are who we are–no younger or richer or stronger than God made us. So don’t worry about those choices you have not been offered, beloved. I’m not giving you—or myself—an easy out. Just being realistic. There are options you and I cannot take because they will never be offered to us. But then every once in a while we are presented with a real choice between what is good and what is simply easy.

The other day I was walking down the street when I was approached by a homeless man. He was fairly young and his clothes, though tattered, were clean and neat. “Let me tell you what just happened to me,” he said. But I was in a big hurry–and we all get tired of being hit up, don’t we? So I just handed him a dollar and hurried on. “Thank you,” he called about me, “but I just wanted to tell you what just happened to me.”

And maybe once that tattered man had told me what had just happened to him, he might have gone on from there to ask me for money. But that’s not the point. At that moment in time he simply wanted to be treated as a fellow human being and not just as an object of my charity. But I was in a big hurry on my way to the cemetery.

Now there is nothing wrong with giving to those in need—Jesus expressly told us to do it. It is a good thing, and act of compassion. The problem lies in the “how” of our giving. You and I, beloved, are always tempted to do good things not because they are good, but because it is easy. As T.S. Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral—“The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

In trying to live the life of obedience to the call of Jesus we are always being faced with such real choices. So it is worth remembering that the Lord always demands that we choose the thing that is both good and difficult. That’s what it means for us to take up our cross and follow him.

There never is an answer that is both easy and faithful to our call to follow him, beloved. The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness drives that home. His temptations were different from ours. His were gaudy and spectacular–ours are mundane and often tedious. But in essence they are same as his—to take the easy solution to the difficult problem. So Jesus declined to make stones into bread. He said no to the magical solution and remained famished, but obedient to his call to be truly human. And we are also called to do the difficult, beloved, not just the good, knowing that laziness and indifference effectively turn the bread of our kindness into stones.

 

 

 

 

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Silver Linings…Luke 9:28-36

 

“While Peter was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and the disciples were terrified as they entered the cloud” (NRSV, verse 34).

Long, long ago now–so long ago that it seems like it belongs to a different lifetime–my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It happened quite unexpectedly in the midst of a very happy time in our lives. We were young. Our children were little—Paul had just gone off to kindergarten, Elisabeth was about two years old, and we had just moved to Florida. Then suddenly our sunny lives were overshadowed by a cloud, and, like those disciples in the gospel lesson for Transfiguration Sunday, we were afraid. We left the doctor’s office feeling alone, shaken, and lost in a fog of obscurity.

That night I had a dream. In it I found myself at the health club where I went to work out. As usual, I handed the smiling girl at the front desk my membership card, and she asked, as she always did, “How are you doing today, Mr. Roen?” “I am going to die,” I replied, for no reason at all except that how things happen in dreams.

But the girl never stopped smiling nor missed a beat. “Well, then, Mr. Roen, have a nice life—or death, as the case may be.”

And I have, actually—had a nice life. That was more than twenty-five years ago now. After surgery and a bout of chemotherapy Penny has been fine—Thanks be to God! But the memory of that vivid little dream has stuck with me nevertheless—just the memory of Jesus’ transfiguration stuck with those chosen disciples who witnessed it to the very end of their lives. They recalled it as an experience of both of glory and the terror, because in our encounters with God the two things always go together—glory and terror.

We forget all the sunny days, beloved, but we always remember those times when we entered the cloud. We remember them because at those moments the most basic fact about who we are is revealed. The Eternal is out there, but we are not eternal. Life always stands right next to the Great Opposite. They exist side by side, Living and Dying, in the greatest intimacy. And there are moments when we stand between them, with one foot in each, and we are unsure to which we belong. We do not know where we are or where we are going, unsure whether we are alone in the cloud or not.

Even as I write to you, beloved, some of you have entered the cloud of obscurity. If you are not there right now, good for you. Someday you will be. When those chosen disciples entered that cloud, they were terrified. They were afraid of losing their master. They were afraid of losing each other. But they never stood in any real peril of either, and that’s the point of the story. If there was any danger it was that they might get so caught up in their fear and confusion, they might just fail to hear what Jesus had to say. So the cloud came to erase everything else. And the voice of God spoke out of the obscurity—“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (v. 34).

The date on which we remember the Transfiguration of Our Lord has changed. When I was a child it was celebrated on August 6, and it still is in the Orthodox tradition. Back home in North Dakota it came right during harvest, when the days were brilliant and hot, and the nights, foreshadowing winter, were dark and chilly. August 6 also had another profound, if ironic meaning. Because that was the day in 1945 when at the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, instantly killing 80,000 people. Aerial photographs of the mushroom cloud that enveloped the city are quite beautiful, but its name is Death. It is the terror all of us must face.

Does every cloud have a silver lining? My mother always said it did, but I’m not so sure. Certainly the experience of being lost in the cloud of obscurity is genuinely terrifying. But the cloud erases everything that is trivial and unimportant. And out of it God is always speaking the words that clarify our lives—“This my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” In our text we are told that when the voice had spoken those words, immediately the cloud vanished, and “Jesus was found alone.” And that word—“alone”—hangs there in space like a wisp of fog being burned away by the sun. Jesus alone–in the end that is all we have. In the cloud we lose track of each other. And in the end we lose track of ourselves, but we are not lost, because Jesus is there. We don’t have anything else, but he is enough. Because he will always be there with us in life or in death—whichever the case may be.

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