Category Archives: Old Testament

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

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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Letting it Go 1 Kings 19:1-8

Letting It Go   A sermon preached August 9, 2015

In 1 Kings 19:1-8 it says that “the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched [the prophet Elijah] and said. ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And he arose and ate and drank, and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

This day to day world we are living in right now is actually a school, beloved, a school in which we are enrolled for a few years to acquire the lessons we need to prepare ourselves for what is coming next, for our graduation into Eternity, into that life that really is Life. And the lessons we fail to absorb in this one, we will have to mug up in the next life. Here or there, they must be learned.

So if going to church doesn’t help us absorb those crucial lessons we need to learn before we die, beloved, what good is it? If we aren’t here to learn something eternally useful, why on a Sunday morning you and I could just as well be at Dunkin’ Donuts drinking coffee and eating those plump donuts filled raspberry jelly we used to call Bismarcks. But we can’t sit around eating Bismarcks our whole lives long; we need something more substantial. So we come here to listen to the Spirit of Jesus who says—I am the living bread that came down from heaven. The Spirit has a lesson to teach us this morning, beloved, so let’s get right down to business.

We have before us a part of the life’s story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. At the moment when we catch up with him, the prophet is caught between a rock and hard place. Obedient to what he regarded as the LORD’s command, Elijah had first defeated and then slaughtered the prophets of the pagan god Baal. Now Baal had an awful a lot of prophets. They were even greater in number than those who have announced they are candidates for the presidency of the United States.

There were four hundred and fifty of them, the Bible says, and they were under the protection and patronage of Queen Jezebel of Israel, who made the wicked queen in Snow White look like Betty Crocker. So when Jezebel found out that Elijah had put all her prophets to death, she sent a message to him saying—“So may the gods do to me and more also, you wretched, disgusting little man, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (I added in the “wretched, disgusting little man” part so you would get the idea that Queen Jezebel meant business.) She was not a woman to be trifled with. Elijah knew it, and it says, “He was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life.”

So it is against this background which our story takes place. Elijah is between a rock and hard place, almost literally. He is out in the stony wilderness all alone. He sits down under a solitary broom tree and says, “It is enough, now, O LORD, take away my life.”

So what is enough? Well, you and I both know perfectly well what enough is. Enough is a place, a wilderness place where we have all been at one time or another. Elijah had reached enough. He was oppressed by his own violent past and sapped by the hatred of the wicked queen Jezebel. She was strong, and a hatred like hers drains the life blood out of you. And at the same time Elijah was disgusted with himself, ashamed because in the face of her threats he had turned tail and run. “I am no better than my fathers,” he says. Furthermore he was alone and hungry, and hunger and isolation always make everything seem worse even than it is. But most of all Elijah was just mortally tired, tired of trying to be stronger than he really was, tired of trying to change the things that resist change, tired of trying to do the will of the LORD in the face of overwhelming evil. And you and I can certainly identify with that. We too have been to the place called Enough.

“LORD, take away my life,” Elijah says. He just wanted to die. Now whereas suicide demands a particular sort of person with a despairing courage few of us have, and relatively few people seriously contemplate it, all of us get to the place where the prophet was, the place called Enough. It is a wilderness where we can’t see any reason for going further, where we look back on our lives and see only failure, where are so dead tired all we want is just to lie down and die.

But instead of dying we lie down and go to sleep. And that’s exactly what the LORD’s prophet did. Depressed and exhausted, he lay down under the broom tree and slept. What happened next was strange, but it was real, and not a dream. An angel touched him and he awoke to discover that the LORD had provided him with food, not coffee and jelly-filled donuts, but something more substantial–bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And the messenger from God said, Get up and eat. No please. Just a simple command. Get up and eat something. You’ll feel better. I can hear my mother saying it—It’s not that important. It doesn’t matter. Let it go….

When you are in a foreign city your ears are always alive to the sound of your own language being spoken. We were in the lobby of our hotel in Paris a few weeks ago when I caught the sound of two women speaking English. They spoke, as Americans often do, just a little too loudly not to be overheard. They were discussing some problem they had had with their baggage. Something was broken or missing or hadn’t shown up when it should have. It wasn‘t clear what was wrong exactly, but something surely was. One woman was angry and she all for going back to complain and seek some sort of restitution—an apology at the very least. “It isn’t right!” she kept saying. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that sort of carelessness!” The other woman heard her out, but she was equally determined to let the matter go. “We’re in Paris,” she said. “We may never be here again. I don’t want to waste our time here with things that’s don’t matter. Just let it go.”

So they went off together, still arguing about their baggage. It didn’t sound like a resolution was in sight. Now I love to travel, but I am convinced that the best way to travel is carelessly. Bad things are going happen along your journey. It’s inevitable. Your baggage will sometimes get misplaced, lost or damaged. You can’t always ignore the bad things that happen, but the best way of dealing with them is by just letting them go and moving on. The journey is so much more important, beloved, than the baggage we take along on it. So let it go.

Let it go. “Get up and eat,” the angel had to say to Elijah a second time, “otherwise the journey is too great for you.” The command has two parts: First of all–Get up–and then—eat something. In life, which is the journey we are all taking, we are constantly being presented with a choice whether to fret and brood about our baggage and cling to it like grim death or get up and let it go. Our anger and our guilt, the memory of our past failures, the pain of our present heartaches, and the anxiety of our future fears are nothing but dead weight. If we drag all that baggage along, the journey will be too great for us. So what are you carrying, beloved? Whatever it is, let it go.

There is a story told of two monks, a master and his disciple, who were on a journey. It had been raining for the past two weeks—we can identify with that!—and there were deep muddy, greasy puddles everywhere. As they passed through a town along their way the monks saw a richly dressed woman trying to cross the street. She had apparently been shopping and had gotten caught by the rain, and now she stood there, looking very cross and impatient—like Donald Trump in a frock–scolding her servants. But she couldn’t step across the deep muddy puddles in the street without spoiling her beautiful yellow silk dress. And her servants were so loaded down with parcels and packages that they couldn’t help her. So without further ado the older monk picked the woman up, put her on his back, and carried her across the muddy street, setting her down gently on the other side. But she didn’t bother to thank him. She just pushed him aside and went on her way.

The younger monk saw all this happen and all that day he brooded on it. Then at last he could contain his indignation no longer. “Master,” he said, “that woman back there was very rude to you. You picked her up and carried her across the street, and she didn’t even bother to thank you.”

“I set that woman down hours ago,” replied the master to his disciple. “So why are you still carrying her?”

So, beloved, why are you still carrying whatever—or whoever–you are still carrying? This is the place you need to set your baggage down. And now is the time to get up and leave it behind. Each week the Lord says to us–“Arise and eat.” We each have excess baggage we are dragging along, but this is the place to leave it, and Holy Communion is the time.

We can’t set our baggage down once and for all, not in this life. It is always being restored to us. It is always being returned to us out of the Lost and Found. That’s why we have to come back here each week to leave it behind again. And here the Lord provides us with a meal, not of donuts and coffee, but of his own self, the bread of heaven. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” the psalmist says. Holy Communion gives us a place to set our baggage down and the strength to do it. So hear the Lord saying to you, “Arise and eat, otherwise your journey will be too great for you.” Then come and let it go.

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Micah 6:1-8. What Does the Lord Require?

Micah 6:6-8   “What does the LORD require?”  March 4, 2014    

Living a global existence, as we all are forced to do these days, like it or not, I often find myself overwhelmed by the images of second-hand suffering. Is there really more misery out there than in times past? It does seem so at times, doesn’t it? The sophisticated technologies of news gathering have given us a God-like perspective on the mischief humanity is up too. We see close-up the realities of war and terrorism. We are presented with scenes of the unimaginable suffering caused by natural calamities—famine, flood, and earthquake. The media have thrown a window wide open upon the whole sad spectacle of human misery, offering us endless graphic images that clamor for an empathetic response.  

And for those who have planted within them a longing for goodness, who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” to use the words of Jesus, this overload of second-hand suffering doesn’t make a Christ-like response any easier. Quite the opposite.  It was much simpler to respond to the distress of our neighbors when we saw it in a more limited way. The people down the hill suffered poverty, and we were able to help with their electric bill. The widow next door suffered desolation and loneliness, and we were able visit her. The homeless man in the street needed a hot meal, and we were able to provide it. Of course we can still do all those things. Nothing is stopping us. Only now there are so many more neighbors and they are so much more distant from us and they are so much more desperate, literally dying of their want. We are able to look despair and desperation in the eyes of a mother and child half a world away.  I, for one, sometimes feel like I am drowning in a sea of pity.

Scientists who study such things tell us that human beings are equipped with “mirror neurons” that enable us to feel for and with others. Empathy is hard-wired into our brains. But apparently we are not equally endowed with these sensors, however. Some people seem to be physically more sensitive to the joys and sufferings of others, and therefore more likely to feel the tug of compassion toward a moral response.  

That tug, however, is by no means irresistible. Empathetic people—like ourselves, dare I say?–are not always willing or able to act concretely upon their moral feelings. They may indeed feel the suffering of others more vividly, but empathetic people are also more likely to comfort themselves with the idea that when they have felt something they have done something. They have a tendency to mistake their humane feelings for actions, their empathy for a concrete response. Empathy is a moral indulgence, not a moral imperative. There is a crucial difference between feeling empathy for that homeless woman begging at the traffic stop and actually giving her a dollar before the light changes. And if we don’t have exactly the right change—if, say, we only have a five–it is so much easier just to feel sorry and then drive on and let someone else take care of her.  After all, we did feel pity, and that’s something isn’t it? You can’t help everyone. There are too many beggars at our door. The whole world seems to have its hand out.

And there it is again–the problem of moral fatigue. The overload of second-hand suffering that leaves us frustrated and discouraged. We may feel responsible to do something, but also feel helpless to do anything that makes a difference. The needs are so distant and so enormous. The problems are so beyond our means, so impossible to comprehend, let alone solve, that we feel helpless, and helplessness leads to exhaustion. We shut the paper. We turn off the television.

We close the eyes of our attention. We try to shut out the words and images that disturb our peace of mind, but the questions do not go away, because it is the Holy Spirit that has put them there–How much individual responsibility do I have as a follower of Jesus to care for a hurting world? What are the limits of my responsibility? When I see or hear about of people half a world away and my eyes water from the smoke of a distant fire, I know I should do something. But what exactly?

Let me give you an example. My wife and I first heard about this one at the Greek Orthodox Church we attend. For the last few Sundays we have been asked to pray for thirteen Syrian nuns and three orphanage workers, who have been abducted from their monastery in Maaloula. Even as fighting raged in the area, the nuns refused to leave the orphans in their care. Then on December 2 of last year a group of armed rebels linked to al-Qaida and part of the three-year-old revolt seeking overthrow the Assad government in Syria, abducted them at gunpoint and took them to unknown destination, where they still remain. The oldest of the nuns is nearly ninety. The youngest of the orphanage workers—who are themselves orphans—is in her mid-teens.

In a video released shortly after the abduction the nuns denied that they had been kidnapped, saying that they were in good health and being sheltered at location distant from the fighting. But that was almost three months ago now, and nobody any longer believes that they are being held for their safety.

Certainly not the Patriarch of Antioch. After the abduction of the nuns, Patriarch John issued a powerfully worded statement which reads in part:  “Our appeal to the international community: Although we are grateful for all the feelings of solidarity, we no longer need denunciation, condemnation, or ‘feelings of concern’ about the assault on human dignity that is occurring, because all this is engraved in the conscience of all of us. Today, however, we need concrete actions, not words. We do not want voices of condemnation from decision makers, whether regional or international, but efforts, pressure and action leading to the release of those whose only fault was their clinging to their monastery and refusing to leave it.”

The statement has undertones of bitter irony. There is little that the United States and the nations of Western Europe can do to stop “the assault on human dignity” that is taking place in Syria, except raise “voices of condemnation.” We are not going to intervene there. That seems pretty clear. There are some very good reasons why we can’t. The lessons of Iraq are still too fresh in all our minds for us need to rehash them. So what sort of “concrete actions” can be forthcoming? The Orthodox Churches in America has been asked to remember the nuns and orphans of Maaloula in their prayers, together with the other bishops and clergy who had been abducted during the fighting. But apart from our prayers and our unwanted “feelings of concern,” what do we have to offer?

Well, nothing. That’s just the point. As individuals and as a nation we are helpless to effect any change in the situation in Syria—or in so many other corners of world where people are suffering. We can watch these humanitarian   tragedies play themselves out in the media, but apart from lighting a candle before an icon of the Mother of God and sending a check to UNICEF, we can do nothing. We see these assaults on human dignity and feel for those who suffer them—“all this is engraved in the conscience of all of us”—but we are helpless to effect any real or lasting difference.

 But that realization does nothing to the emptiness in our hearts that only personal righteousness can fill. Call it a hunger for righteousness or integrity or whatever you like. The Holy Spirit puts it into our hearts. According to the evangelist John’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death, the Lord, knowing “that all was now finished,” said “I am thirsty.”  He thirsted for the Kingdom of love and justice. It was an infinite thirst, but in our finite way we share in it.  And the question remains-What does it take to quench our thirst? “You always pay in blood or money,” my mother used to say.  How much does integrity cost?

The Old Testament prophet Micah is struggling with this same question when he asks: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” How much sacrifice does it take to restore a person to righteousness?

The prophet lived in a world where blood sacrifice was considered necessary to satisfy God’s demand for justice. Sin was thought of as an unpaid obligation, and real compensation was thought necessary to discharge that debt. Sometimes olive oil would be enough to mollify the LORD’s anger, but more often sin demanded the spilling of blood. Blood was the only thing that could effectively restore a person to righteousness in her or his own eyes and in the eyes of God. Of course, by rights it was the sinner’s own blood that should be spilled, but the blood of an innocent animal sacrificed in worship could provide a ritual substitute.

Still our restoration to righteousness is clearly beyond our means. An ocean of blood could not buy it. “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,” the prophet asks in obvious frustration. “Shall I give by firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Outside of Israel, human sacrifice was not unheard of, even the sacrifice of firstborn children. The God of Abraham rejected the sacrifice of human blood (see Genesis 22:1-19). Even the utmost imaginable sacrifice is not enough.

That is why God did what he had forbidden us to do. He sacrificed his Son to pay our debt in blood—that the way that Christian theology has often interpreted the Cross. Jesus’ innocent death was a way—the only way—to satisfy for God’s own demand for justice and restore us to personal righteousness. All other sacrifices had proved ultimately futile. So much blood had been spilled and the world remained unreconciled to its Creator. So a better sacrifice was required, and Jesus Christ came to die in order to restore us to integrity, a restoration we embrace by faith alone.  

And having been made righteous by faith, depending on Christ alone, we are freed to pursue goodness for its own sake. Not only freed. We are now constrained by God’s unmerited grace to follow Jesus in the kind of life he led. Christ lived and died among us in order that we might share his life, which is the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit impels and empowers our striving for goodness.

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” the prophet Micah asks. And then he provides an answer: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  

 Goodness requires more of us than feelings. Empathy for others is not a bad thing—it just isn’t a particularly good thing. It is a start, but not an end. Our response to human need has to go beyond mere sentiment. To be good we have to embody goodness, make it concrete and solid in our words and actions. God’s love was made incarnate in Jesus Christ, and our love must also be incarnated, made real and tangible. The LORD requires that we “do justice.”  That means living out the idea that all human beings deserve food, shelter, safety, and dignified work as a matter of right, not as a charitable gift. It is active justice.

The prophet links active justice with active kindness. Active kindness means addressing the enormous body of human suffering, which often threatens to overwhelm us, one instance at a time. Active kindness is discrete. It is done in the manner of Jesus. He helped and healed those he encountered, individually, and at the same time he offered ordinary friendship to all. It was his business. And to do justice and to love kindness is our business, beloved; our daily duty and not the result of sentimental feelings in which we occasionally indulge ourselves.

If I were shipped off to a desert island with only a half dozen books, I would take along Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I never grow tired of it. At one point in the story, Alice is invited to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts. It is a very confusing game indeed and made all the more frustrating because the mallets are live flamingos and the balls are hedgehogs. Everything is alive and has a mind of its own. And the situation is made all the more trying by the presence of the Duchess, monstrously ugly, always too close by, and with the annoying habit of finding a moral in everything that happens. But Alice, who is a polite and well-brought-up child, is always trying to make the best of things. . . .

“’The game’s going on rather better now,’ Alice said, by way of keeping up the conversation a little. ’Tis so,’ said the Duchess: ‘and the moral of that is—‘Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round!’  ’Somebody said,’ Alice whispered, ‘that it’s done by everybody minding their own business!’ ’Ah, well! It means much the same thing,’ said the Duchess. . . .”

That’s funny, of course, because on the surface love doesn’t seem at all the same thing as minding one’s own business.  But the two things have more in common than we might think. In fact, love is very much the same thing as minding our own business.

There is an ancient story of how once St. Anthony of Egypt was fretting about divine providence—how God would take care of things—and a voice came to him that said, “Anthony. Attend to yourself; for those are the judgments of God, and it is not for you to know them.” Attend to yourself, mind your own business, do your duty, “walk humbly with your God”—there are many ways of putting it, but they all mean roughly the same thing. Establish your moral code and then live by it.

Each of us has within ourselves the makings of a moral code. We have the raw material, “engraved in the conscience of all of us.” What we need to do is define what we know is good, and then commit ourselves to living out our code on a daily basis. Those who respond effectively to the misery in the world and are not overwhelmed by it are those who have a code they live by. Their code is what helps them to deal justly with other people and act with kindness toward people with whom they have nothing in common. Their personal code of conduct is open to refinement, but always remains the heart of their identity. It allows them to set goals toward which they can press, and it sets limits on what they can reasonably expect of themselves. It defines what their business is—and is not. And while we need to establish a code and then live by it, vigorously and without reservation, we need to remember that everybody’s code is going to be different.  

An eighty-four year old nun was recently sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in a breaking-in at the nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The incident took place in 2012. Megan Rice, a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, together with two other conspirators, was convicted of defacing a bunker which holds the nation’s primary supply of the high-grade uranium used construct build bombs is kept. The break-in exposed serious flaws in security at the facility, but the three accomplices clearly regarded the break-in as a miracle.

Sister Rice asked the court to sentence her to life in prison. “Please have no leniency with me,” she said in her closing statement. “To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me.” After sentencing, the judge said that he was concerned that the three defendants showed no remorse for their actions and he wanted the relatively harsh sentence to serve as a deterrent for others contemplation the same sort of action. Whether the sentence is the just punishment of a criminal or the martyrdom of a saint I leave to you to decide.  

            But this much is clear–here is woman who has a code that lies at the heart of her identity. And living out her code vigorously and without reservation is giving meaning and joy to her existence. Whether her sacrifice will have real or lasting significance, no one knows but God. He alone decides whether our actions are good nor not. But Sister Rice has certainly made a stab at goodness.  And all that endures of our lives, beloved, is the good we do—or try to do. That comes from God and goes back to him. Everything else perishes utterly with us. Thank goodness!

 

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Who Is This? Job 38:40

January 5, 2014   (My Birthday, by the by)

“Who is this?”

                When I was a child I was an avid collector of stones. It commenced early. My mother said that as soon as I could walk I started picking up rocks and stuffing them into my pockets, and from then on I was never—night or day–without at least one stone on my person at any time. I suppose there must have been some deep psychological significance to my compulsive rock collecting. Who cares? All I know is that there was something in the beauty and the solidity of stones that I found comforting as a kid. They are dependable and companionable—in their own reserved fashion. And since mine was a solitary childhood—we lived miles away from our nearest neighbors–they became my silent playmates.

The badlands of western North Dakota were silent, empty place back then–the oil boom that has changed all that, and not altogether for the good. But back then McKenzie County where my father’s ranch was located was rapidly hemorrhaging population. There were few people—and every year fewer—but there were lots of stones everywhere. Wonderful stones. My father’s pasture with its deep gorges and coulees was rich in fossil life. There were petrified stumps taller than the tallest man and sandstone slabs printed with the most beautiful, delicate falls of Paleocene leaves.

                We didn’t see other people that often, out there back then, and when visitors did come to the ranch I always wanted to show them my fossil collection. “Don’t bring out those old stones, Billy,” my mother would beg, but I did anyway. The stones were part of me–the most interesting part, I thought. Most people were kind and pretended to show as interest, even if they didn’t feel it. But then once when I was ten years old or so my great uncle Dwight came to see my father on some matter or other, and I brought out my fossil collection to show him.

                  That was a big mistake. I really should have known better. Everyone knew what Uncle Dwight was like. To say he was zealously religious is the grossest understatement possible. Dwight was besotted with religion. He was God-intoxicated. A twice-born fundamentalist, an ardent adversary of “demon rum,” a fanatical puritan in every sense, he was the author of several religious tracts which he published at his own expense condemning women for wearing pants and “scent,” and putting forth the idea that if they ran around seductively dressed and smelling like harlots, it was their own fault if they got themselves raped. Shameless seducers, it was they and not their attackers who should be put in jail. You get the idea. It is hardly worth saying that he never married. He lived alone and devoted his spare time to the study of the Book of Revelation. He was as thick as two boards nailed together and just as rigid.

                And it was to this zealous old Pharisee that I presented my fossil collection for inspection. As I said, I should have known better. It gave him the perfect opening. He stood up like an Old Testament prophet and denounced my lovely, innocent stones in no uncertain terms as satanic imposters. They weren’t millions of years old as they pretended to be; they were lately forged by the devil himself in an attempt to mislead people into believing in the hell-inspired theory of evolution—which he persisted in mispronouncing “evil-ution.” The world was created in six days only five thousand years ago and loose change. The Holy Bible (KJV) said so.

I can see him yet, glowering down on me and my fossil collection with unmasked hatred, his eyes burning like coals of hungry fire. He looked as if he would have cheerfully stoned me to death with my own rocks, if he had been able.  I was ten years old—no more—a lonely, backward kid in thick glasses. And of course I could find nothing to say in reply to his tirade. Children didn’t “sass” their elders as much back then, and when stirred up great Uncle Dwight was indeed a very intimidating sight. For one thing, he turned a succession of nasty colors, one after another, his eyes bugged out, and the veins in his forehead stood out like sash cords. Sometimes in the heat of passion he would stamp his feet and do a sort of war dance. It was enough to frighten anyone.

So I just stood there, holding my box of fossils, and took it. I feel sure that in heaven I will forget Dwight completely for what he did to me that day, but I’m not there yet. No child needs to be humiliated like that—I certainly didn’t. It wounded me where I was most vulnerable, at the heart of myself.  But even though I stood there mute before his tirade, I knew Uncle Dwight was full of it.  

At ten years of age I already knew that the world wasn’t just five thousand and some odd years old. I knew my fossils weren’t the works of the devil intended to deceive anyone. They were the imprints left by ancient life forms laid down in sedimentary rocks millions and millions of years ago. I had a book with wonderful pictures that explained it all. The book compared those layered sedimentary stones to a book of wonders, its pages recording the epic story of life on our planet, how it evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity and awareness. And I believed what the book of stones said about the evolution of life on earth. I believed it instinctually, as one is drawn to the truth.

I believed in the Bible too, the ultimate book of wonders. I grew up in a household saturated with the Bible. My parents were both enlightened and devout. As a child I heard the Bible read and quoted constantly. It ordered our existence in this world, and drew us steadily toward the next with the monofilament line of grace.  We knew the risen Lord was with us, even in our obscure corner of the world, and his presence brought light into our wintery darkness and spoke peace to our loneliness. As a child I couldn’t see any real conflict between those two books, the Bible and the book of stones.

I still can’t.  Both are books of great mystery and beauty, and what binds them together is a sense of awe and wonder at our world—that it is—that we are in it—and that there is a Real Presence hidden in all things, like the bread and wine of Holy Communion. And that our world is so very, very old—so many millions of years that only God can count them—was a source of admiration and wonder to me as a child. And it came to me as a profound shock to discover that not everyone felt the same way. It still does.

                Here in Florida my wife and I usually worship at the Greek Orthodox cathedral up the street. But this Christmas our kids were with us and everyone felt the need to hear the familiar carols. So we celebrated Christmas Eve at a Lutheran church near where we live. I won’t burden you with its synod affiliation—some of you will guess it anyway. And the congregation made no bones about what they believe and teach. In the bulletin I found a list of affirmations under the title “OUR FAITH,” outlining what they believe and teach. And there is nothing wrong with that. They should know what they confess, and everyone else should too. But among their espoused doctrines, together with the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, I found this statement—“We believe and teach that man is not the product of evolutionary development but was created by Divine design in the image of God.” And suddenly through the candlelight, I saw the face of Uncle Dwight glaring down at me, his eyes still burning with hatred for the hell-inspired theory of “evil-ution.”

                My Uncle Dwight is long dead, but his point of view lives on in churches and flourishes. According to a recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that God created human beings in pretty much their present form at one moment in time, less than 10,000 years ago. And in the face of the efforts of scientists and educators to convince them otherwise, the percentage of Americans who believe in what has come to called “creationism” has increased by 2% in the last thirty years. Uncle Dwight hasn’t won his battle with the devil, but he certainly hasn’t lost it either.

                Of course, we Americans are free to believe anything they jolly well want to. The right to be contrary is enshrined among all the others. I read the other day that there are people out there who believe America is 2014 years old. The Constitution protects stupidity as well as wisdom. So here in America churches can believe and teach that the world is flat and the moon is made of gorgonzola—and some of them do pretty much just that. But here in America I also have a right to speak my little piece—thank God. And it is a sad thing for a fervent believer like myself who loves Jesus very much—and I do, each day more–to see something that is demonstrably untrue as creationism affirmed together with the Lordship of Jesus, as if one must accept the first affirmation in order to embrace the second.

Which, of course, you do not. According to the same Gallup Poll, thirty-two percent of Americans subscribe to what the pollsters call “theistic evolution,” a belief that human beings evolved over millions of years, but that God was present to guide that process. But those moderate souls, who believe in the Bible and the book of stones, make up a fairly small minority of those who attend church regularly—only about 25%. Virtually everyone else who goes to church believes that God created the world in six days in the not too distant past and that fossils are creatures that drowned in Noah’s flood, or other such nonsense.

And of course they are free to believe that. This is America, after all. Who cares? I do, actually, because when they believe and teach something that is demonstrably false and lift it to the level of revealed truth, they call the whole Creed into question. That is the kind of willful ignorance is what gives our Christian faith such a bad name among those whom Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the cultured despisers of religion.” They like to style themselves champions of the truth. But in fact such incorrigible ignorance arises not from courage but to cowardice. People who hide behind the wall of fundamentalism are afraid to face the facts. Now facing the facts is often tough. I know, because I have struggled to do it most of my life. It forces us to acknowledge that we don’t know the answers to the greatest questions—and never will.  It forces humility upon us, and humility runs counter to our human nature. But as Albert Camus wrote somewhere–“The most incorrigible vice [is] that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything.”

In the Old Testament book that bears his name, a man called Job learns the painful lesson of humility. By the end of the book the Lord has lost patience with prideful humankind in general, and in particular with Job’s presumptuous questioning of his ways. In chapter 38 comes the showdown. God addresses Job out of the vortex of a desert whirlwind and demands- “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up you loins like man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (38:1-7)

Where? Who? The questions keep on coming and coming, with no space for an answer. And no space is necessary because the answer to every question is the same—nowhere and nothing. We were nowhere when God created us. We are nothing compared with such majesty and power.  But the grilling continues relentlessly through the next four chapters of the book, until finally poor Job, who represents us all, exhausted by so much close interrogation, cries out, “I know that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6) 

And that is essentially where the book ends, with Job crushed by the magnificence of the created universe and reduced to his proper place in it, to dust and ashes. He is humiliated, but at the same time he is exalted. It is the paradox that runs through all of scripture. The mighty are pulled down and the lowly are lifted up. Pride and the pretense of understanding makes fools of us. But humility restores to what we intended to be, the creatures through whom God experiences his creation.

                And as for all the answers to the questions we ask about that creation—Where did it come from? Where is it going? What came before and what follows after?–revealed religion doesn’t have them all. It can’t explain how the world came to be, only celebrate the Creator in poetry and song and in service that imitates his faithfulness and love.

Science doesn’t have all the answers either. In certain realms it can lead us to the truth, but its method simply does not work when it is applied to the question of, say, what is beautiful? Or what is good? Or why is there anything at all?  Religious fundamentalism simplifies things that cannot be made simple, but science often does the same thing. It “murders to dissect.” It persists in asking the wrong questions, as if when confronting the “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, we could explain its effect upon us by analyzing the chemical composition of its pigments.

The truth is that no one understands how the things that are came to be or why they are, not the atheistic scientist or the literalist believer. What makes us what we are is a mystery that goes beyond us all. Anyone who pretends to grasp that mystery, whatever his or her faith or lack thereof, is pathetically deluded. The best we can do is get close enough to that mystery to feel its warmth. In one of the apocryphal gospels Jesus is reported to say—“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire.” Did he really say that? Who cares?  It is true. And it is also true that nothing becomes us better in the presence of the mystery of What Is than to adopt an attitude of humility and there is nothing wiser we say about it than—I don’t know.    

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Habukkuk 2:4

Sermon on Habakkuk 2:4—October 10, 2013

The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk writes: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

I am in the process of packing for another trip—this time to Baltimore and then out to western Maryland to see the fall leaves. I am frankly delighted.

Some people—and I include myself in this–love the very act of traveling. They get uneasy if they are stuck in one place too long. They have what is aptly referred to as “wanderlust.” They are possessed by a need to get up and go, not for any particular reason, but like the bear that went over the mountain, to see what they can see. They’re like my wife’s grandmother. When she was alive people used to say, “When the car leaves home, Ethel is in it.”  Robert Louis Stevenson, who suffered from an acute case, explained the condition very well– “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

I suppose I picked up my own case of wanderlust from my father. Back on the ranch in North Dakota, life was often marked by a tedious routine of responsibilities and chores. But nearly every Sunday after church, we took a drive somewhere. My father loved to see new territory. He liked to look at the crops and the cattle. He liked to stop and read historical markers. He liked different food. Different people. Different horizons. The great affair was to move. He always favored west as a direction in which to go, and we would set off into the wilds of eastern Montana looking for heaven knows what. And we might drive for a hundred miles each way on a hot Sunday afternoon to get a hamburger in a jukebox joint or a soft ice cream cone at a Twisty-something.  And then we would turn around and go back home and start the routines of the week all over again.

Our earthly lives are a series of these circular jaunts, beloved—off to the grocery store, to the Home Depot, to the bank. They start at home and end up back at home. Sometimes they take us further afield–to Disney World, to the beach, to Paris. Sometimes we call them vacations, and we take them for pleasure. Or we call them tours, and take them to enlarge our experience of the world. Or we call them business trips, and take them for profit. The best of these trips are like a hit in baseball. They begin with the crack of contact made between the bat and ball, they produce the satisfaction of touching all the bases along the way, and they end with the relief of safely reaching home plate again. The worst of these circular trips—to court, to the hospital, to the nursing home–are literally a descent into hell. But we always intend—or at least hope—to come home again. But as we travel our minds are always tending back to the beginning, because no earthly trip is ever intended to go on forever.

Every human life is a series of this little trips, but some of us—those who “live by their faith”–are on a greater sort of journey, that journey is what makes you and me different. Peculiar, in a word. In addition to running in all those little circles, we are traveling on a more or less straight line that stretches on into infinity. We are on a journey that leads us toward  something we do not know—that we cannot know–toward a place we have never seen—nor can imagine–to a homeland to which has never been our home.  

All lesser trips are circular—and whether they are good and bad, profitable and useless, they are ultimately doomed to futility. That is not really such bad news, beloved; it is just the way it is. When we accept their futility, we can endure or enjoy those little trips for what they are. We just need to understand that they don’t take us anywhere. They just circle back on themselves endlessly, returning us again and again to where we started out. To ourselves.

That is what I have come to understand about the trip I am currently making, the trip called “retirement.”  It is in a very real sense a privileged trip, because mine is very comfortable retirement. Not everyone gets to take that trip so comfortably. I know that, and I try to remind myself to be grateful. But I have come to realize that retirement, which so many people see as an end, is like any other trip; it doesn’t go anywhere except back home again, home again, jiggety jig. Like every other earthly trip it is futile.

I am not being intentionally gloomy—just realistic. Actually I remain completely sold on travel. I believe that most of the circular trips you and I take in life are—on the whole—a lot of fun. I would still without a moment’s hesitation crawl into the back seat my father’s 1956 Pontiac and spend a hot summer’s afternoon touring the great outback of Montana. Life is, on the whole, what it was pronounced by God to be in the beginning—good.

Mae West is seldom quoted in sermons—much too seldom in my opinion. But Miss West once said—“You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.”  The circular trips we take can be great adventures if we take them boldly and don’t expect too much from them—or too little. But every tour—no matter how grand—is a trip to nowhere.

The single exception is the journey we take in search of the Really Real, the journey called faith. That journey is different from all others because it does not return to its beginning. It does not circle back upon itself. Those who “live by their faith” are on a journey toward a reality that completely transcends themselves. And that journey goes on and on forever, past the horizon we call death, and beyond it, deeper and deeper into the heart of Christ.

The scriptures talk about that infinite journey in many different ways. For instance, in the midst of a discussion of the faithfulness of Sarah and Abraham and the other mothers and fathers of the people of Israel, the author of the Book of Hebrews writes: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had an opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them” (11:13b-14).

But the city—the New Jerusalem–is not a place as we imagine it with houses and streets—many mansions and streets of gold. It is the point of intersection between the horizontal line of our infinite journey and the vertical line of God’s eternal grace. Those two lines form a cross. The straight path of our infinite journey leads not to ourselves but to Jesus Christ, the God for us. 

            So what does all those boil down to in terms of our lives right here and now, beloved? Well, it suggests that we should resist the temptation to get too caught up the circular trips we take, both good and bad. We should pack light and take it easy and not linger too long on the way. We are, after all, “strangers and foreigners,” and toward these strange lands through which we travel we should cultivate an attitude of detachment.

That attitude is pretty difficult to master—I myself am still working on it–because the trips we take are pretty enthralling. They want to command our full attention. They say—“This is it! This trip you are on right now is what is really important—success or failure, marriage or divorce, child raising or child losing, surviving cancer or succumbing to it. This is your real life.” But that isn’t so. Sometimes–if the trip you are on is particularly awful–it certainly seems as if it going to last forever—but it never does. The only trip that goes on forever is our pilgrimage of faith.

People in earlier times went on long journeys to visit the places where Jesus Christ lived and died and see the relics of Christ and his saints. Sometimes pilgrims visited famous shrines–Canterbury or Santiago de Compostela—but the ultimate place of pilgrimage was always Jerusalem, the place where God’s life intersected our own. These pilgrimages were once in a lifetime affairs and intended to reflect in miniature the infinite journey of faith. They were long and arduous journeys undertaken to reach a place the travelers had never been before. They were undertaken without the expectation of return. Sometimes pilgrims would receive the last rites before setting out for Jerusalem, and their families regarded them as dead until they heard otherwise.

Yet there is every indication that these journeys of faith were exciting and joyous affairs. People laughed and told stories. Pilgrims of every class mixed freely. Barriers were let down. The past was forgiven. At its best it was close to what human life was intended to be.

You and I are on such a pilgrimage. When we find ourselves on the little circular trips we take in life, we need to recall that our pilgrimage does not end where it begins, it begins where it ends. And when our trips turn sour and bitter, we need to remember that there is a place beyond all this noise and confusion where there is peace. We are all together on our way to Jerusalem, and I am so glad of your company on the journey.

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