Category Archives: Gospels

Too Late? Matthew 6:13

It may already be too late. The temptation may already be upon us, beloved–I leave that to you to decide.

But first, we need to consider what this petition–“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”—means, because there is no part of The Lord’s Prayer that is so little understood or so perplexing. Does Jesus’ prayer for deliverance from temptation really mean that God tempts people to sin, or at least that he puts them in situations where they might be inclined to immoral thoughts and actions?

No, that would be a game, beloved, and God doesn’t play games with us. He doesn’t tease our appetite for disobedience. The compulsion to sin comes from our own inclinations and from the active power of evil in the world, not from God. The word “temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer means something quite different and distinct.

Part of our perplexity results from the translation of the prayer we use in worship and private devotion. Whereas the familiar King James Version says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” the more modern New Revised Standard Version translates the same words, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

When the Lord teaches his disciples to beseech the Father to be spared from temptation and from the power of the evil one he is referring to the Jewish apocalyptic belief–a belief shared by Jesus and by the little Jewish church for whom the evangelist Matthew writes–that before the end of the age there will be an era of intense suffering and testing for the people of God. During that period the wrath of Satan will be loosed upon the righteous, and his time of persecution and calamity is variously called “the time of trial” or “the temptation” or “the tribulation.”

So the temptation into which we pray not to be led is not an individual experience, but a moment in history when the evil one and his forces will attempt with cunning and violence to turn the faithful away from faith and obedience into apostasy. And when we pray “Lead us not into temptation,” we are praying for the church that it may be delivered from this awful time and from the power of the Satan, the spirit of chaos and malice.

But has the “time of trial” come upon us already unawares? We can’t help but wonder. Is it too late? Has the temptation already begun? Even as are praying that the barn door will remain shut, is Satan already loosed upon the world? There is no question that we live in an apocalyptic moment, beloved. All around us we are witnessing a turbulent struggle between the forces of good and evil, and between two visions of what the end of history should be—ultimate freedom or repression, self-giving love or bigotry, human transformation or human degradation.

During the past decade the technology of social media has brought the whole world together in ways both amazing and alarming. People with similar ideas in disparate corners of the earth are being gathered into online communities that share ideas and information. This new globalism has had many happy results, including my ability to talk with you online about matters that concern us both.  There is, however, a sinister side to all this information sharing. In much of the world the internet access is largely uncensored and uncontrolled. Online it is possible to say anything and everything. As a result, fascist hate groups, once consigned to the lunatic fringe, have experienced an alarming rebirth throughout Europe and America.

The internet serves the evangelists of the so-called alt-right well as a recruiting tool, gaining for their ideas an enormous following of believers. This often anonymous community exists mostly online, but has gained great media attention of late owing to its vocal support for Donald Trump and its influence in the Trump White House.  The most remarkable thing about the alt-right movement, however, is its youthfulness. It is not just the old and the angry who are enticed. Millions of youthful adherents have been proselytized by the marketers of hate. They are drawn chiefly from a subset of under-employed and frustrated teenagers and young men, who are attracted to the potent anti-gospel of racist ideas and anti-migrant propaganda that they find online.

The influence of alt-right videos, blog posts and tweets is not, however, confined any single group. Crucial to the agenda of the alt-right is to make their message acceptable and familiar to ordinary people, bringing hate speech about liberals, feminists, and migrants into the mainstream.  Here they have succeeded brilliantly. Their assault upon the internet has already pushed the boundaries of acceptable conversation far to the right, making it possible to say things publicly that it would never have been uttered before. Suddenly the walls of “correct speech” are crumbling like Jericho’s. The measure of how well this agenda of the alt-right has succeeded is the fact that there is less and less opposition to racist and sexist ideas when they are uttered in public discourse and online. So we hear the president of the United States calling black athletes exercising their first amendment rights “sons-of-b…..s,” and we are scarcely surprised.

Many decent people have turned away from the internet in reasonable disgust, tuning out its tweets and the posts. But their effects cannot be ignored. The click, the re-tweet, the YouTube comment are part and parcel of an epochal struggle between good and evil. So the apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, the Armageddon of our times, is taking place not on a plain in Syria but on an online battlefield into which anyone with internet access can step.  The migration crisis has energized the alt-right, making it possible for its disciples to imagine a Europe that re-embraces fascism. In the United States the backlash against immigrants has already led to violent action and still more violent speech. And it is not over by any means. The alt-right movement is not going to go away; in fact there is every sign that it is strengthening both here and abroad and becoming a truly global network of tech savvy fanatics and an army of devoted followers.

The temptation is upon us, beloved. The struggle between those who wait for the Kingdom to come and those who imagine a fascist, pagan future has already begun. We know that the Lord will triumph over the power of Satan in the end, but in the meantime God help us all.

 

 

 

 

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Fair It Isn’t

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus says—“When it was the turn of the men who came to work first, they expected something extra, but they were paid the same as the others. As they took it, they grumbled at their employer: ‘These latecomers did only one hour’s work, yet you have treated them on the level with us, who have sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun.’”

I suppose you could hog-tie this parable and try to make it about something it isn’t. It is certainly not a story in defense of laissez-faire economics or an illustration good labor-management relations. You might dwell on whether or not it is true that a person has a right to do whatever he pleases with his own property. But the parables of Jesus were not intended to inculcate high morality. And in any case you would miss the point, because this story is about justice, God’s kind of justice, and because it’s about God’s justice, it is an outrageous story. God’s justice being outrageous, scandalous, and messy.

My mama used to say, “If it’s sloppy, Billy, eat it over the kitchen sink.” And this story—the Laborers in the Vineyard—is one that you have to eat over the kitchen sink, beloved, because it runs counter to our human idea of what’s fair is fair. The truth is, it isn’t–fair, that is. But nothing gets closer to the gospel, the good news, than this parable does. It may not sound like good news on first hearing, but it is.

The first and oldest meanings of a word are often the most interesting, beloved. For instance, to be “fair” meant originally to be pale, blond-haired and good-looking. In other words, to be fair is not to be dark, or to speak another language, or to worship God under another name. Our ideas of fairness are weighed, perverted by our own prejudices and predispositions. So as often as not they are stacked against the poor, the uneducated, the helpless, the dark, and the different. Fair doesn’t usually mean what’s fair to everyone. It means what’s fair to me.

Hurricanes tend to bring out the worst and best in people. There is a story that came out of this last hurricane. In Covington Georgia a worker pulled into a Taco Bell to get a quick lunch. He is a lineman for the county, and he had not been home for three days. He had been working hard, trying to get people’s electricity back on. But not hard enough. A woman approached him at the Taco Bell and threw her soft drink in his face because she thought he shouldn’t be eating while her power was still out. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, some people had electricity while others were in the dark. Fair it isn’t. But fairness can often be a cloak for crude selfishness.

So in Jesus’ story the employer offered all his workers a fair wage—a denarius, worth about twenty cents, which was considered generous for a day’s work in New Testament times. Therefore, those who worked for a full day for their denarius had no ground for complaint. And they are rebuked not for dissatisfaction with what they received, but for begrudging others who received just as much. They grumbled—understandably. But their employer asserts his right to be generous, to be just in the larger sense, rather than simply fair, to pay everyone alike. By giving to one he insists that he is taking nothing from another.

And this is the justice of God that constantly gets in the way of our idea of fairness. Fairness is a human notion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an hour’s wage for an hour’s work—but fairness, the human idea, is opposed to justice, the divine ideal. Justice is what God  alone can give, because he is God. This is not human business; it is Kingdom business. In the Kingdom of God each laborer receives the same grace no matter how long or short the service given.

I told you that this is a messy parable. You have to eat this one over the sink. It isn’t fair. It is grace, beloved. Eternal grace.

And grace cannot be divided up into parts and offered as payment for services rendered. We cannot earn eternal grace. It us ultimately past valuation, an inexhaustible fortune, the pearl of great price worth everything else we have and then some. And it is given fully and completely to each laborer in the vineyard. We could never earn it no matter how long we worked in the hot sun. It always remains a gift, pure and simple, not a wage. This parable is a defense of Jesus’ message of God’s pure and simple grace against the attacks of those who defend a religion of meritorious works. God’s justice is perfectly evenhanded, it says, like the employer, he gives to each the same, whether they come early or late.

It is never too late. Before we part I want to tell you the story of a woman, Ann. She was the wife of a mid-level diplomat who lived with her family in all sorts of places in Africa and the Far East, wherever her husband was posted. It was not as glamorous as it sounds. Most of those postings were on the night-soil circuit, as it is called. In one of them, far from good medical care, Ann’s baby became suddenly ill and died.

She did not have an easy time of it, but what can you say? If it’s sloppy, eat it over the sink. Life isn’t fair.

But during all those years between Katmandu and Timbuktu, Ann kept a secret ambition alive. Most people would have given it up long before, but Ann didn’t. And when her husband retired, she made up her mind to fulfill that ambition, though late in life. She had always wanted to go to seminary and become a Lutheran pastor. Her grown children thought she was crazy. Her husband tried to seduce her with the pleasures of retirement. But she became the oldest student ever to enroll in the seminary, and she graduated at age sixty-one and was ordained, having received a call to a little country church in rural Maryland.

And Ann was a wonderful pastor to those people. How they loved her! She was filled with stories about the grace of God. She was filled with compassion for the little sorrows of ordinary life. But mostly she was filled with thanksgiving for having received what she desired all her life. And who would begrudge her of it? Those who don’t want women to be ordained to the ministry? Those who think Ann was too old?

The grace of God does not know early or late, young or old. It swallows up our ideas of fairness like Jonah was swallowed by the great fish—hook, line and sinker. As the landowner in Jesus story asks the grumbling laborers with genuine amazement—“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or would you begrudge my generosity.”

Fair it isn’t. Nevertheless who would dare?

 

 

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Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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Loving our Neighbor in Contentious Times

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
One of the ugliest aspects of the contentious time in which we find ourselves is the strong, indeed overmastering encouragement it gives us to detest those with whom we disagree politically. America is in fact two nations, one to the left of center, the other to the right, and there is no foreign power each detests as deeply the other. We have become the enemies of ourselves, beloved.
Of course, vehement differences of political opinion are nothing new. America always has been a polarized society–our two-party system is based upon that reality. But under this present administration the two-edged sword of partisan politics has been honed to a razor’s edge, while our public discourse has fallen to a new level of coarseness. Respect for government has vanished. And should we be surprised? When the one who occupies the highest office in the land uses that office to excoriate and ridicule his enemies, both real and imagined, in the most vulgar and cruel ways, how great is the temptation for all of us who differ from him to see the Abomination of Desolation set up in the White House and to demonize those who support him.
And there, you see. Off I go. I am as guilty as any. It is part of the profound tragedy of our American moment that the present administration has imparted its chaotic and vitriolic character to the whole nation, beloved. As a nation and as individuals we act as if we have received permission to be our worst selves. Yet in our hearts you and I both know that this is not right, let alone righteous. The loathing and denigration of others stand in opposition to the law of love that Jesus taught and lived. Such may be common currency these days, but they are still profoundly anti-Christ.
So what should we do, beloved, for the sake of our souls? If you have dealt with the problem to your own satisfaction I hope it goes well for you. But I myself am perplexed. And it is not enough to tell myself that detestation of those from whom we differ is nothing new. It comes as naturally to us as having beliefs and opinions to despise those who ridicule them. And for me it makes it no easier that on the crucial matters that face our nation and our world–health care, human rights and climate change–I firmly believe that I am right. But my sense of my own rightness only throws fuel for the fire. It may come naturally to detest as we are detested, to loathe as we are loathed. But the Lord summons those of us who call upon his name and want to be called by it to live beyond and above what comes naturally.
“Love one another. . . . By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Like all the commands of Christ, love it is not impossible, if you understand it concretely and practically, as a matter of doing rather than feeling. Back home in North Dakota my father was a yellow dog Democrat, and yet his best friends were the dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who lived around us. When they met after church or on the street they talked about the weather and the crops. They all knew each other’s political opinions, but they suffered and rejoiced together. They helped each other. They respected one another. The struggled together against the powers and the elements. They were neighbors, and they rose above politics to regard each other as such. They made a decision to live in unity. And dispassionate civility of that kind is a gift of divine grace, beloved, coming directly from the Holy Spirit.
But things were different fifty years ago. In our time when truth is so degraded by fake news and civility so compromised by the power of a bad example, it may no longer be possible to practice that that kind of enlightened detachment. With the issues of immigration, health care, the equality of rich and poor before the law, and the warming of our planet pressing in upon us, it may be morally impossible to remain silent and inwardly seethe. We live in an apocalyptic moment, at the end of something and the beginning of something else. This is time to tell the truth and live the truth you tell. In such times, writes the prophet Joel, “your sons and daughters will all prophesy, your old men will see dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (2:28).
How you go about living prophetically is a matter for you and Holy Spirit to decide. For myself, this writing is a start. And furthermore I have decided to examine some of the more divisive issues coolly and without passion, issues that I had once considered closed, to see them in their complexity, recognizing that people of intelligence and sound conscience come down on both sides with great furor.
Abortion, for instance. No other issue cuts so deeply to the center of what we believe and no other issue stirs more dissention between right and left. But if we are pro-choice, while affirming a woman’s control over her own body, we need to consider the creeping—and creepy—technology-driven nightmare of eugenics. What is the next step beyond freedom? A more profound bondage? Do we really want to live in a world where imperfect fetuses are routinely culled?
And if you oppose abortion as a choice, if you are pro-life, have you considered what you would do if your daughter or grand-daughter–sixteen years old say—were being forced to give birth to an unwanted child. And what if that child were the result of rape? Or if the fetus were already dead in the womb? What then? Would your emotional and theological arguments melt like lemon drops in the heat of the situation?
Life is complicated, beloved. The truth is complex, more complex than anyone can conceive. And no one is completely right about anything. It is the recognition of that simple fact that forms the foundation of the kind of human connection the risen Lord is talking about when he commands us to love one another. He calls us to approach each other, even those from whom we differ most deeply, with a measure of Christ-like humility and treat them with a courtesy that has become uncommon in our time.
But at the same time we are summoned out of the world to tell the truth with boldness. There is the greatest spiritual danger in surrendering one’s own sense of the right and maintaining an angry silence. We each have a prophetic role to play. In this regard the collect we prayed in church a few weeks ago impressed itself upon me: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…”
Boldness and compassion–that is not easy tension to live in, but that is what love means in this time and place, not a childish affection but a difficult decision. We may be solely tempted to detest those from whom we differ in this deeply polarized nation. But at the same time we need to recognize that to have compassion on those who differ from us is to have compassion on ourselves. We are all what we are–trapped in this corrupt human nature. But that does not nullify to call to righteousness, to speak the truth with boldness and to live above the standards of a debased and soiled world.

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The Lord’s Prayer…..Thy Kingdom Come

Right here. Right now.

Hurricane Matthew is passing over Savannah at this very moment. People’s lives are being uprooted by the wind. Dark sea waters are rising in empty streets. From this distance I can only hope that no one has been left alone and frightened with the storm howling outside. I can only pray that every inhabitant of that lovely city is somewhere safe and in the arms of God right now–and that every one of those people is aware how much more precious each single moment of life is than houses or furniture or any other material thing.

Because this is where we find our real life, beloved—in this present moment. This is where we meet God and find out how much we are loved.

We all live an unreal life too, of course, which is the sum of all the time we waste looking off into the distance, enclosed in our own concerns, trapped in our own minds. In fact we spend most of our lives staring at that far horizon, waiting for dark clouds that never rise or for that ship that never comes in. Then we arrive at the point where we look back with regret upon all those individual moments that slipped away while we were too distracted to notice.

Oh, yes, we all have done it, beloved, wasted too much of our time looking forwards or backwards. That’s bad news, and who needs more of that? The good news is that it is never too late. The kingdom of God is right here, right now, available in every moment, within us and around us. It comes every time we stop and become fully aware of the love of God and the caring presence of other people.

So when we pray—Thy kingdom come—we are not just looking forward toward that new creation in which God’s plan will finally be finished and done and ready for inspection. We are not just looking toward the horizon of hope in heaven and beyond. We are also asking that his kingdom may come in the exquisite beauty and grace and sadness and joy of this present moment right now.

Because this is it, beloved. This is not a dress rehearsal for life. This is it. And it is what we do and what we say right now that matters. Now is moment upon which everything hangs.

The evangelist Luke tells us that a certain thief who was crucified with Jesus. And in his agony of despair he cried, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And the Lord replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The kingdom of God where Jesus reigns as Lord is not off somewhere in the distance at the end of time. It comes to us when we stop staring into the future with anticipation or fear and into the past with regret or longing and look around us at the people who are near us, the people God has given us to love and care for. It comes when we forgive them and receive their forgiveness. It comes went we sit beside them in silence and hold their hands. Because this is where God meets us. This moment is when his kingdom truly comes among us.

Right here. Right now.

 

 

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Life inside the Trinity. John 16:23-33

The risen Lord says to his followers—and to us, by the way: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Because the national news has been so disquieting lately, I often find myself taking refuge further back in the paper. Here in Florida the homegrown stuff is liable to be rather bizarre and garish—but that somehow seems reassuring in troublous times. It usually consists of the familiar litany of opulent drug busts, alleged vampire attacks, and naked liquor store heists. Just business as usual here in the Sunshine State. Then every once in while a local story comes along that is in its own way even more troubling than the national news, because it represents such intimate, recognizable human suffering. You feel as if you might well know the people involved personally, and you are forced to grieve for them.

For instance in last Sunday’s paper there was the story of the murder-suicide of a St. Petersburg couple. They belong to a type familiar to us here–Florida has more than its share of such vigorous, affluent senior citizens living out their dream down here where everyone knows that 60 is the new 40. The husband was in fact 69, a longtime, much-decorated St. Petersburg police officer who had reinvented himself and found a lucrative and interesting second career as a financial adviser. The wife was 72, a business consultant and guest columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Over the years she had contributed over a hundred articles about business and career development. She was the president of Strategic Communications, a consulting firm she founded in 1985 that specialized in public relations, marketing, and employee motivation. The husband was an associate vice president for investments at Raymond James. He told a friend that did not intend to retire for another six or seven years. He loved what he was doing. They were prosperous, well-liked and much-admired–poster children for “the new old.”

Then almost overnight everything fell apart. The husband suffered an accident at the gym that left him unable to walk without a cane, and then only haltingly. The wife learned that a hip injury she had suffered would eventually leave her dependent on a walker or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “If you don’t have health, you don’t have anything,” the husband had told a friend back when he was still “a picture of health.” So when their vigorous good health abandoned them, everything else they had meant nothing. They experienced what all of us will if we live long enough—they went from being healthy and independent to being feeble and infirm quite suddenly. It was the greatest shock of their lives. They had always expected their bodies to obey them, and then all at once their bodies declined. They felt betrayed, empty, at the end of their rope. They had no other life. The husband was especially depressed by their declining physical condition—he was very “down the dumps” the friend said afterwards. It had occurred to the friend to suggest professional help, but he hesitated, as we all might. They were such self-sufficient people. They had never needed any help.

Then one day last week, their daughter in San Francisco tried and couldn’t get in touch with them, so she called a neighbor. When his knocking was answered only by the barking of couple’s dog, he called the police. The husband’s body was found dead in the front hall. His wife’s in her home office. He had apparently shot her, and then used the same handgun to end his own life.

I repeat this story not to sadden you, beloved—although it is a very sad story—but to give us both pause. It is a story the demands our attention. As someone with a firsthand knowledge of depression, I can never bring myself to pass judgement on those who come to such a terrible place as those people did. I pray for their souls, but I don’t venture to pronounce sentence on their actions. None of us are really that much stronger than the rest of us, beloved. And no one knows the darkness and emptiness of the hell into which people not so unlike ourselves can sink. Only Jesus knows.

But at the same time we have no business judging, we also have to say clearly that this is not where we are intended to end up, driven to a despairing act that repudiates everything good that has gone before it. Our end should offer us and those who survive us peace and resolution and a sense of balance. It should be the part of our lives that makes sense of their whole.

Because in every part of our lives—but especially at their ending–the difference between hope and despair, between order and confusion, the distinction between purpose and meaninglessness depends upon where our souls are situated. We have to have another life—the one we live in these fragile bodies is not enough. Either we are also living inside the Trinity of Three Persons, as part of the eternal life of God, or we are in trouble.

But it isn’t a simple matter, living inside the Trinity. Some people talk about “being saved” as a once and for all, cut and dried arrangement they strike up with God. They accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, confess and receive forgiveness, and then ride off like Judge Roy Bean to condemn the rest of humanity from the saddle of their high horses. But their self-righteousness and unkindness reveal the truth. It just isn’t that simple. The judge is just as guilty as the defendant. As sinners we are condemned to complexity, beloved. Life inside the Trinity can never be reduced to a tract entitled God’s Plan of Salvation with four points and a prayer.

It is complicated because we have to live it out in the world, and the world is a complicated place. We may want to love God single-mindedly with our whole heart, mind, and will, but our desire for him is constantly being muddied by our all-too-human lack of concentration. We are easily distracted. We get confused. We waffle. We get angry, and then we get sad. We chase our own tails. Then our tails turn and chase us. We worry about ourselves, and when we tire of that we worry about other people. Then we just worry. We get so caught up in what Jesus in the Gospel calls “the world”–which is roughly half gorgeous spectacle and half ghastly nightmare—that we lose our focus upon what is Really Real.

But then quite suddenly and unexpectedly we stumble upon that Really Real again, because it is prevenient, always there, and grace enfolds us like the cloud of glory enfolded Moses—but not for long and never permanently. The grace of God never leaves us, but we are constantly leaving it to dwell in our own selfishness. We step in and out of that magic circle of grace–the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is better imagined as an endless circle of being and loving rather than as an equilateral triangle as it is often pictured—every day of our lives and sometimes several times each day.

But it is always there–that’s whole the point. The life of eternal grace is there for us to step into. The fullness of joy is always possible to those who ask. “Ask, and you will receive,” the risen Lord says, “that your joy may be full.” Our goal in life is not to understand the Holy Trinity, which would be an exercise in futility, but to experience it from the inside. And the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes that possible for us. “I have overcome the world,” the risen Lord says to his followers. Jesus died on the Cross and rose again that he might offer us those worlds of light that live inside the Trinity. It did all that so that we might have another life.

And that’s what makes the tragedy of that murder-suicide in St. Petersburg so heart-rending. That couple, who had everything else, only seem to have had one life, the life they lived in their bodies. That is not to say that that life meant nothing–no love or compassion is ever wasted, beloved. Whatever was good in those people survives. I believe that. But when push comes to shove—as it always does—life in the body is not enough.

It lets us down. In the end our bodies always leave us alone, even when we are surrounded with an admiring crowd, even when we are in the arms of those who love us best, we are abandoned. That is our condition. Jesus calls it “tribulation,” the confusion of ordinary human life. “In the world you have tribulation,” he says. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peace versus tribulation–that is the conflict in which we have to live out our lives—in the tension between the chaos and confusion of life inside our bodies and the calm and stillness of life inside the Trinity. It isn’t always a very comfy place to be—pulled as we are in two directions. We know that, don’t we, beloved? But as my dentist said to me recently in a moment a considerable discomfort—“Don’t worry now. This isn’t going to last forever.”

 

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Filed under Discipleship, Easter, Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Our Bizarro Twin. Luke 24:1-12

“The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but [the two men dressed in dazzling clothes who met them at the empty tomb] said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. ”

That little flock of women who first spread the message of the resurrection were, of course—in their own time and place—the very ones least likely to be believed. But God gives us the good news and tells us to share it. It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether or not we are believed. It is the telling that matters. And predictably the disciples who first heard the story regarded it as “an idle tale.” The resurrection news is just so bizarre, going as it does against all expectation and all common sense, and in so many ways so unsettling and so uncanny.

No wonder Easter is still, from the commercial point of view, such a hard sell. While each year the goblin market of Halloween, Easter’s “bizarro twin” at the other side of the calendar, continues to break its own records for the consumption of its wares—costumes, candy, cards—Easter lags far, far behind. And it is worth asking just why exactly. Shouldn’t the news that death is dying be easier to market?

The problem is with that very word. Because you cannot talk about the resurrection of Jesus without bringing up You Know What. Even papered over with the imagery of cute rabbits and drenched in the scent of spring flowers, Easter retains that tell-tale whiff of mortality. And in a time when pretty much anything can be talked about openly, death remains strictly off limits. For modern people death-talk has about it the same forbidden quality as sex-talk had for our Victorian great-grandparents. It is our big No-No. As far as humanly possible we have banished from our lives any mention of their Great Opposite, and we discuss it with our children only with the greatest reluctance.

That does not mean, however, that death has been banished entirely from the popular consciousness. I know this because every Halloween I act the part of the talking corpse at Honeymoon Island State Park. On the stage of this world some are given the great parts—King Lear and Prince Hamlet. I play the Dead Cowboy. My face is smeared with grease paint and fake blood. An open wound is carved in my bosom. Made up I present indeed an alarming sight—I have pictures to prove it. Then night falls and I lie down in a coffin of my own building, waiting for a gaggle of silly geese to come waddling down the haunted path. And when they do happen by, I sit up and speak in a hollow, sepulchral voice—like Lazarus returned from the grave to tell all. Oh, and you should hear them squeal and squawk when they spy me there in my coffin. I scare the ever-livin’ goose-poop out of that goofy gaggle. Still they must enjoy it, because each year they come back for more.

What is disturbing is that they often they bring with them their young offspring, who are genuinely terrified by what they see along the haunted path. They scream with real terror when I sit up and start to speak, and I hear their goosey parents saying, “It’s not real. He’s just an actor.” They say this because they want to believe it themselves, and they want their children to share that belief, that death isn’t real. That it’s all grease paint and pretend. That our mortality is a mere fiction, the Biggest Joke of All–but never, ever a reality, present to us at every moment of our lives. The gooselings, however, know better. They scream and cry because they know that there is a fearful reality hidden under all the silliness of Halloween.

In that regard that little flock of women who dutifully trooped off to the tomb on first day of the week to anoint the body of Jesus with spices have it all over on us modern people. They never doubted that death was real. They knew it intimately well. They had seen and touched and smelled it. In their society it was always there, all around them, undeniable. In ours it is a deep, dark secret hidden even from ourselves.

But in order to experience the painful joy of Easter you and I have to stop pretending, beloved. In order to really hear the cheering news of his resurrection we have to acknowledge that Jesus really died—dead as a door nail—and so will we. If his cross drives home any point at all, it is that death is factual and personal to each one us. And only through that dark glass of that realization can we glimpse the eternal meaning of Christ’s rising, and understand why it was necessary for the women to find the tomb so absolutely empty, so totally vacated. Rising, he left the winding sheets behind him. Because the risen Lord was not a friendly ghost like Casper. When he arose it was as The Paschal God, naked and alive in an utterly new way, as no one had ever been alive before.

Sigmund Freud said that we human beings are fundamentally, constitutionally unable to imagine our own death, and he was probably right. Some have done their darndest to confront their death head-on. John Donne, the seventeenth century English poet and preacher, went so far as to sleep the last years of his life in his own coffin. Nice try, you must admit! But on the whole, we find it well-nigh impossible to picture a world in which we ourselves are not present. Even the boldest spirit among us is death-shy. The fear of nothingness is our deepest human dread, beloved, and we hide it from ourselves at all costs, papering it over whenever possible with nervous laughter and maudlin sentimentality. So the news that Jesus died and rose again must always confound and terrify us as much as it did that little flock of women who were its first witnesses.

But The Paschal God–bless him!—does not leave us in our terror and confusion. He comes to us, through the doors we close and lock behind us, in the upstairs rooms where we hide ourselves from reality. He comes still marked with the gristly signs of his own death and says, “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid.” Not that there is nothing to be afraid of—there are still plenty of things in life to fear. But we are not left by ourselves to face its Great Opposite. Whatever lies before us, Jesus has been there already. He has gone ahead as “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it (12:2). Or as the Apostles’ Creed boldly puts it, “He descended into hell,” and then “on the third day he rose again.” The Lord knows where we are going and he knows the way back.

And his resurrection turns everything “bizzaro.” That thing that most frightened us has become the door to eternal life. And the universe, which had seemed dark and meaningless, has revealed itself to be chock-a-block with light and possibility. The Resurrection of Jesus makes everything possible. We will be all right. Better than all right. Therefore, beloved, let us keep the feast. Have an extra Cadbury crème egg on me. In spite of the shocking Trumpism of our time and its sometimes triumphant vulgarity, Christ is still risen. Nothing can alter that. And just as a thousand thousand candles can be lit by a single flame, the news of his resurrection continues to kindle human hearts with hope and courage. So to those of you who share that hope with me, I wish you great joy this Easter.

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Filed under Easter, Gospels, New Testament