Category Archives: New Testament

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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Filed under End Times, Gospels, New Testament, Prayer

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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Filed under Gospels, Grace, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

The Sweet Smile of Moderation

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to Timothy, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of moderation” (1:7).

It has become commonplace to say that America is a highly polarized place. There is a tug of war going on between the alt right and the alt left for the soul of the nation. As hard as one team pulls, the other team tugs more fiercely. And for the rest of us the challenge of these times is to find a place to stand, as far away as possible from the fundamentalisms of the far right and the far left. Because one is not the opposite of the other–they are both simply different forms of barbarism and fanaticism. And moderation is the opposite of both, the only place where there is peace in a world where peace is in short supply.

Moderation is not a faith, nor a political party, nor an ideology; it is a way of dealing with the dizzying complexity of our divided times. It copes with the complexity in the world outside by acknowledging and nourishing the diversity within ourselves. People who follow the path of moderation are never just one thing—always many.

I had the great good fortune to grow up in a household where moderation was the rule, not the exception. My parents were many things at once–a complicated mixture. They were deeply conservative and devout in matters of religion, strongly opposed to strong drink and tobacco in all its forms, and generous almost to fault. And at the same they were shockingly liberal when it came to social issues; they were strongly anti-big money, pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-choice. They were both pietists and socialists at the same time. They taught me the importance of having many identities, not just one. And the possibility and even the desirability of holding two opposing ideas at the same time. You can believe that abortion is a sin, as they did, and at the same time believe just as strongly that it is also a sin to force a woman to bear an unwanted child.

At our house we were dyed-in-the-wool moderates, but there were fundamentalists in our larger family, people who were just one thing with a vengeance. That was the reason that at Thanksgiving children were never allowed at the main table, because inevitably an unseemly argument would break out among those who were just one thing religiously or politically. As a child I wanted more than anything to sit at the adult table and listen to what my father referred to it as ‘the Thanksgiving food fight.” But it was forbidden, and neither of my parents took part in it. When it began my mother would go into the kitchen and my father would become stubbornly silent and focus his attention on her excellent food.

The Thanksgiving food fight was always a battle for something called “The Truth.” Radicals regard “The Truth” as singular and their own possession. Moderates understand the truth about “The Truth,” that it is plural and endlessly complex. There is no single formula that embraces all that can be said about the universe or human life within it, no set of doctrines that excludes all others. On my desk I have a Coptic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd and a head of the Buddha. They both look down on me as I write, both wearing the same calm, sweet smile of moderation. They say to me–No question can be settled once and for all in this world. Everything is partial and impermanent. The only thing that lasts is love, and in this violent time love is another name moderation.

And like love, moderation takes courage. It means standing on the deck of the ship and facing the storm rather than locking yourself in a water-tight compartment below. It means opening yourself to many different visions of truth, some of them uncomfortable and upsetting. Radicals of all kinds see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. They want to impose their particular vision of reality—called “The Truth”–upon everyone else. And it takes courage to stand up against these fundamentalisms of the left and the right, and to say that everything is not cut and dried. There is always room for another opinion.

So moderation also demands humility, a clear vision of yourself. No one knows all the answers. Every earthly arrangement is temporary and contingent upon the circumstances—and that is very good news, beloved, because every earthy arrangement would be hell if were extended forever. There is no right polity, no pure doctrine, no perfect government, no absolutely correct way to worship the Eternal—only ways. The best that can be said is that God wishes to be approached “with humility and gentleness,” as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:2). But his heaven is not located in the past or the future. Things should not stay the same, nor should they change too quickly. Heaven is present here and now, where ever there is tolerance, balance, self-discipline, and humility.

Moderation is not an easy path, but it is always a blessing to know where you stand, beloved—with both feet planted on solid ground and your eyes fixed on the only thing that lasts. The byproduct of such a well-balanced life is peace.  And the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah says, “will be the stability of your times” (33:6).  Not you yourself.

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Filed under Letters of Saint Paul, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Ruthless People

 

Pastor Bill Roen

August 25, 2017

 

What has made Americans so cruel?  There is no point in denying that something has. The torch-wielding white nationalists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are only the deckle edge of American ruthlessness. Their cruelty is made glaringly public on the news. But behind them is a third of the nation—I’ll leave it up to you to decide which third–who whose ruthlessness is more discreet. This is the third who would like to take food stamps away from hungry families, dismantle unemployment insurance programs, ax benefits for the disabled, and take coverage away from tens of millions, visiting countless households with the nightmare of losing their health insurance.

Now we have to ask ourselves—in a country that once prided itself on its compassion what justifies such cruelty?  Harshness toward the poor has always liked to dress up in Biblical costume. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians  St. Paul writes—

“Even when we were with you, we gave you a command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:10).

Passages like this are often used to justify  hostility toward the poor and to add credibility to the widely-held myth that safety net programs reward lazy people who don’t want to work. According to this way of thinking, of those who want to do away with these programs, persons who accept the government help are blood-sucking parasites, unworthy to be thought of as human, let alone as fellow citizens or fellow children of a fatherly God.

Of course St. Paul is right—in a limited sense. There is no excuse for laziness. Those who can work should. Work is—or should be, at least—a blessing, not a curse. It is God’s way of giving meaning and order to our otherwise random existence. It is the way he continues his work of creation through us. But what about those who cannot work–children, the disabled, the mentally challenged? What about the unemployed—not from sloth but from inability to find work? What about the underemployed, those working two jobs who still linger below the poverty line?

Why punish them? The opinion of the “ruthless third” is that the government should be out of the rescue business altogether. People should be left on their own, to sink or swim.  To soften the harshness of such sentiments, those who feel this way often justify themselves by saying that care of the poor and disabled should be left to individual charity. Not necessarily their own individual charity but somebody’s. This point of view could hardly be less realistic. What I know about individual charity—and it is quite a lot—I would be very loath to depend upon it for my daily bread.

In America a handful of people are far richer than they have ever been, but it is a mistake to think that if the government got out of the welfare business they would step up to the plate. Mostly the very rich are consumed with the enduring problem of how to get richer. In our society they are well-rewarded with tax-credits for whatever charity they offer, but their random giving is driven more my fashion and display than by compassion. At a Rotary meeting I once heard a man remark, “I don’t know how the people who work for me live on what I pay them.” That sums up things pretty well. With notable exceptions, the rich are not so much hostile to the poor as indifferent.

Some of the ruthless third would argue that churches and charitable non-profits should take up the task of caring for the poor. Christians often point to the example of the early church, which provided care for its needy members. This too could not be more unrealistic. The churches and similar non-profits do what they can, and what they do is admirable, but they are consumed with the problem of their own financial existence, and they could never begin to the shoulder the staggeringly complex problem of caring for the needy in our society. Try going around seeking help with your rent or your electric bill and see how far you get. Churches and agencies would be tapped out before they even began to feed to hungry multitude.

The truth is that the “ruthless third” are not looking for ways to help struggling Americans. They are seeking ways to avoid doing so. Their motto is–Not with my dollar you don’t.

So we return to our original question—What has made Americans so cruel? The simple answer is fear. Those who have a deepest hostility toward the poor are not the rich, but those who themselves are not far from being poor—the white lower middle class. For those who consider themselves “the real Americans” this is a time of great anxiety. Their standard of living has for a long time been eroding. The old certainties are melting away. The structures that ensured that the white middle class could define what it means to be an American are crumbling, and the new definitions of American seem strange and threatening.

And fear is what motivates anger, the anger of the elder son in the prodigal son story. And anger generates cruelty. The ruthless third fear that next step downward on the economic ladder. They don’t hate poor people individually,  they just want them to stay poor. There is a security in being able to look down and see someone below you. And there is a cruel logic at work—if someone else suffers, my family and I won’t. Or if we suffer, someone else should suffer more.  It has to do with punishing the poor for being that way, punishing minorities for being different, punishing immigrants for working hard to succeed in a new land, punishing the helpless for being helpless.

And there is no reason under this administration and this climate of anxiety and uncertainty, that the ruthlessness toward the poor should not get worse. So it is necessary for those of us who are trying to be disciples of the risen Lord to decide what should we do?  Well, first of all we should not give way to our own cynicism. There are many problems with any structure that tries to deliver help to the poor. There will always be those who try to exploit the system. There will always be duplication and waste and intrusiveness.

But in this time and place you and I must make up our minds what the government is, or should be. We have to decide kind of America we want.

It is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we live that the government is a representative of a fatherly God, and that under God the citizens of the state are responsible for each other.  Our welfare system has its foundation in the idea that government should act as a surrogate father offering security, discipline and order to all, citizen and alien alike.

Opposed to the fatherly idea of government is the pagan conception of a state which has no responsibility except to itself. It exists to secure the welfare of one particular group of citizens and to its chief beneficiaries, the powerful and the wealthy. Under the varnish of pious banalities of the God helps those who help themselves variety, the ruthless third are the strongest advocates of the pagan state in America today. They worship its symbols—the flag, the anthem, the military–but mostly they are united by a deep-seated hatred of its opposite–government that taxes them to give fatherly protection not just to one class, one ethnicity, one color, or one language but to all its citizens.

We need to recognize that if government is not the representative of a merciful God, who cares for his people materially and spiritually, it will be a cruel despot, buyable by the wealthy and biddable by the powerful. And this pagan understanding of the state is what dominates the thinking of the ruthless third, an attitude that is immoral and profoundly Anti-Christ.

And as followers of the Crucified we should not be dismayed the self-righteous, flag-waving and tiki torch brandishing advocates of an essentially pagan government. Nor should we be seduced by a godless worship of the state parading under the guise of patriotism. Because ruthlessness is not patriotic, and it is certainly not Christian. The only true patriotism is allegiance to a government that is merciful and nurturing.

No government is perfect, just as no act of kindness is perfect. Every system is flawed by selfishness and greed. But recognizing that, we still need to call cruelty by its right name. And in every way to we need to reward with our votes, our voices, and our prayers government that gives fatherly care to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, recognizing that each of us is some of both. That is the state worthy of our loyalty, and no other.

And we should keep in mind those words St. Paul writes to the Galatians in a more gracious mood: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22-23).

Nor should there be.

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Filed under Discipleship, Letters of Saint Paul, Life in the Spirit, New Testament, Uncategorized

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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Whence comes all this beauty. 1 Chron. 16:29

We are having a really frightful time of it, beloved. It seems as if lately the shocks just keep on coming—Boom! Boom! Boom!—one right after another, and you and I are forced to seek out whatever shelter we can find from the shocking venality of our government, from the appalling vulgarity of our public discourse, from our muddled, messed up lives. So in this frightful time what comfort is available to us?

Well, none at all, if we choose to focus our attention on the nasty business that confronts us daily in the newspapers and on television.  If we set our eyes on the destruction of the natural world upon which humanity seems so hell-bent, or if we listen only to the “organ concert” of our infirmities and diseases, there would indeed no hope. Ugliness—moral and physical–is inescapable. But if we make a decision to see it, the beautiful is also all around us. Whether we find the comfort that it offers is up to us to decide; whether to see the world as a hideous mess or suffused with eternal grace depends upon whether our eyes are really open.

There is a wonderful passage about—of all things—the flowers in “The Naval Treaty” by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the midst of solving a particularly puzzling case, the author has Sherlock Holmes pause to indulge in a very uncharacteristic meditation:

“He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, [says Dr. Watson, Holmes’ fictional biographer] for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as religion,’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”

So what hope does the great detective derive from the rose? In practical terms its beauty is useless–useless but not meaningless. It is “an extra”—not a necessity but “an embellishment of life,” a necessary unnecessary. It will not feed us or satisfy any of our ordinary physical needs or desires, but its beauty is a powerful sign of something beyond itself. It is not good for anything, it is good in itself and its goodness comes from outside itself, from what Sherlock calls “the goodness of Providence.”

It is a glimpse into another world which makes sense of this one. If our eyes are really open we cannot help but ask—Whence comes all this beauty? In the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the God who is the maker of all things, “seen and unseen.” The real world—the night sky, the birds, the flowers–transmits the beauty of the unseen world behind it, the Really Real, where this world’s meaning is revealed. We presently see it “through a glass, darkly,” as St. Paul writes,  but it holds the promise that that eventually we will see that meaning “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

If I were given a choice among all the most beautiful places I have ever been, I would choose Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It was the chapel of the early French kings, and it contains the most extensive collection of 13th century glass in the world. The effect of the sun shining through those windows into the gilded interior of the chapel is nothing short of heavenly. But the guide will tell you that the chapel was used as an administrative office during the French Revolution, when its windows were obscured by enormous filing cabinets. The cabinets both hid them and saved them. And in the same way our view of the beautiful is often obscured by the ugly realities of our human situation. The light behind the windows, however, continues to shine.

It shines whether we see it or not. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder—it comes from somewhere else, beyond the world of the things it illuminates. Evil does its best to soil and destroy it, and it often succeeds. But beauty is both fragile as a rose and as tough and resilient as the roots of wisteria vines which cannot be rooted out. It keeps coming back and back and back for more. It no sooner does it die in one place than it breaks through somewhere else.

At this stage of my life my calling, as I see it, is to give hope to the perplexed—most particularly to myself–and encouragement in a world that seems to have gone mad. Hope for what exactly? Hope that things that currently seem to be falling apart will eventually come together in a more harmonious form. Beauty is a product of fitness and rightness in nature and art, every part of something working together to make a graceful whole. That’s what beauty is. A rose. A sunset. A common butterfly. A rare bird’s wing. The windows of Sainte Chapelle. A concerto for strings played there. It makes no difference. And to those who see it and give thanks for it, the beautiful offers the promise that things can and will someday work together that way, in harmony. And  that which seems to be falling part is really coming together in a more apt and fitting whole.

But we are helpless to make that happen, beloved. On one level you and I are called to change things, but the beautiful silently it asks us–Can you separate what is precious from the desire to possess it? Can you smell the rose without plucking it? Can you let it bloom on the bush? Can you be patient and let God, the original artist, finish his work? Can you be content to wait until the Really Real is fully revealed? The beautiful is a glimpse of that a transformed world. It is, like goodness and truth, a form that eternal grace takes. Without it this world would be hell, beloved, but filled to over-bursting with beauty, it indeed gives us “much to hope for.”

 

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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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