Tag Archives: Faith

Laughter in the Wings based on Mark 5:21-43

“When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he entered he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”

People do laugh at the strangest moments, don’t they? There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything funny about the situation in our gospel lesson. The death of a child, twelve years old, at the dawn of life, is nothing less than tragic. So why did they laugh?

They laughed because Jesus said—“The child is not dead but sleeping.” To them it seemed an absurd statement. And when we hear something absurd, even in the most tragic circumstances, we laugh. It is a natural response. Absurdity is our recognition that we are being asked to believe that the impossible can happen. The absurd is a statement or a situation is so contrary to common sense that it cannot be. So the mourners in the story thought Jesus was being silly, and they laughed at him. The tragedy was not theirs, after all. It was someone else’s heartbreak.

They were there simply to make a racket. The etiquette of death in our own time demands silence and hushed voices. But in Bible times it was just the opposite. A well-to-do family like that of the ruler of the synagogue might have hired professional mourners to cause an appropriate commotion. They may have been paid for making a hullabaloo. Or it may be that the people who were there that day were just neighbors there to offer their condolences–and perhaps have a bite to eat. In either case they knew death when they saw it, and the child was dead. Kaput. Children died with much greater frequency in that place and time, but the situation was no less poignant for being relatively common. A life had been cut short. There was nothing more to be expected of the dead. Jesus walked in on a noisy wake and hushed the mourners. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” And they laughed because there was no rational answer to such a ridiculous question.

But what the gospel writer wants us to understand is that the presence of Jesus is able to make what would otherwise be absurd, not only possible but inevitable. Nothing is ever over. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he says. It is worth noticing with what tenderness the miracle is accomplished. Jesus took her by the hand, we are told. And then we are given something very rare and precious—“ipsissima verba dei”—the very voice of the Christ speaking. “Talitha cum,” Jesus says in Aramaic, a phrase which the evangelist Mark helpfully translates for his gentile readers—“Little girl, arise.”

And it says “she arose.” It is the very same word in Greek—“anatasis”—which is used for Christ’s own resurrection. And we are to understand that it is by the same power that Jesus was raised from the dead that the little girl is returned to life. So absurdity is abolished by the presence of the risen Lord. Now nothing is absurd. Anything can happen. That is the essence of the Gospel, and that is the central reality of the Gospel life we are called to live. It demands a changed attitude toward the whole of life.  If Jesus rose from the dead now anything can happen. With God nothing is impossible.

That does not mean that everything that can happen will. What it does call us to do is offer up those impossible situations in our lives to the power that raised Christ from the dead. And all of us have those circumstances we deem hopeless. Consider this, beloved. Are there people from whom you are estranged, with whom you have not spoken for years? Do you have relationships that seem impossible to mend–with relatives, maybe, or with old friends? Are there chronic health conditions to which you have resigned yourself? The gospel demands that that we give up our old ideas of what is possible and open ourselves to any form in which healing and reconciliation may come.

The mourners in the story represent the old way of thinking about things. Their laughter is cynical, hopeless, and without joy. For them the dead are dead. Kaput. So it says that Jesus hushed them up, and “then he put them all outside. . .” He put them outside not only because they provided a noisy distraction to the miracle he was about to perform, but because they could not believe that the absurd can happen. But it can. And it does. The death and resurrection of Jesus provides the paradigm for a new kind of life. If he died an absurd death on the cross and rose again against all expectation, then the world is not the dead end it sometimes seems to be, but a realm from which the impossible has been banished, and a place of genuine laughter and great joy.

 

 

 

 

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Confusing Facts–Mark 4:35-41

The Gospel of Mark tells us that as the storm raged around them, Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and the disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

 

It was a tempest, a real gully-washer, and the disciples were understandably alarmed by it. They thought they were perishing. But the Lord of Life was there with them in the boat. They can be forgiven if they did not enjoy the ride, but they should not have been afraid—nor should we be.

I was told the other day of a certain evangelical pastor who counseled his congregation not to listen to the news any more, that is would just confuse and alarm them. They should give the time they would spend listening to the news and reading the paper to prayer and Bible study. Now there is nothing at all wrong with prayer and Bible study, heaven knows. And that might even be good advice, if ignorance were ever a good thing—which it is not.

We have to be suspicious of anyone who wants us to remain ignorant of the facts, for whatever reason. They pretend it is for our own good, but they always do it for their own reasons. The Apostles of Ignorance don’t want their people to attend to the “liberal media” because they want us to listen to their version of the truth instead. Uniformed people are always more biddable and easy to manage. It is always a mistake to turn your mind over to anyone else, no matter who.

But that pastor, misled in much else, was right about one thing–there is no doubt that listening to the news these days is confusing, aggravating and sometimes downright frightening. We can readily identify ourselves with those disciples, quailing in the boat with the storm howling all around them. We too are struggling against the contrary winds of bias and opinion; we too at times find that our little boat is in danger of being swamped by distressing images and dire warnings.

The news is not an invention of sinister forces, liberal or conservative. Just like in the Bible story, the storm around us is real, not imaginary. That it is confusing is not an excuse to ignore it and pretend that it isn’t raging. We could try to hide from it, closing our eyes tight and huddling in the bottom of the boat. But ignoring the storm that is raging around us does not deepen our Christian faith. It only serves to make it naïve and shallow and all those other things that unbelievers say that it is. No, if Christians should be anything, it is more concerned and interested in what is going on in the world, because we believe in a God who speaks through history, not just ancient history but our own. His prophets and seers have always seen his hand at work in it. And God is still speaking to us through the chaotic events of our moment in time, even when we do not always understand what he is saying and hear only the roaring of the storm.

What was always been true remains the case, beloved–to be a Christian is to be confused. To be a Christian in this world is always to be waiting for further clarification. As St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:8-9)—“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We are confused and perplexed by the news, by the wars and rumors of wars that Jesus said must come before the end, by the monstrous lies we hear shouted from on high, by the vulgar materialism of our society, by the staggering callousness of our government, by the decision of a large part of popular Christianity to regard the political fabrications as truth, and by religious leaders waging war on the facts in the name of Christ.

It is easy to become obsessed by it all and start yelling at the television screen. It is easy to misunderstand and overdramatize our position, like those disciples in the Bible story. They thought Jesus was indifferent because he was sunk in exhausted asleep. They thought they were in mortal danger of drowning, when in fact that his presence with them in the boat ensured their safety.

The storm is real enough, but God is with us–that is the good news we need to hear right now. So when Jesus speaks to the wind and the sea—Peace! Be still!—his Holy Spirit is speaking to us as well. The facts are facts—that they confusing is no reason to ignore them. But the presence of Christ in the boat is the Fact that governs all other facts. The news is the news. What is important for us is to remain calm and still in the midst of the storm. Not to spend our little all to buy into any one point of view. The truth is that the truth is endlessly complicated and complex. But God is at work to simplify and distill it into a single limpid word—Jesus.

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Minor, Minor Prophets based on Psalm 141

“Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.

Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds

in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.

Let the righteous stroke me; let the faithful correct me.

Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head,

for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.”

There is no more appropriate way to celebrate the Feast of John the Baptist than to be a prophet a little like John. Not exactly like, of course; we each have another life. And forth-telling was seldom a fulltime occupation for the prophets of the Bible. John the Baptist was exceptional in this as in many other things. He was a professional prophet literally from the womb. St. Luke tells us that as a child he “grew and became strong, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publically to Israel” (1:80). Most prophets in the Bible were other things before—and after–God called them to speak his word—farmers, mothers, fathers, priests, and carpenters. Some were called to speak just one prophetic word of warning to the powers that be before they dropped back into their former lives.

And so each one of us who have the Spirit of Jesus in us are given our prophetic moments, I am convinced. We may be only “minor minor prophets,” beloved, but that does not mean that when confronted with evil we are not called to speak out in the tradition of John the Baptist. We have a sacred duty to do so, because unless we speak out against evil when we see it, we are a party to it and responsible for it.

In a strategy recently announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it is the stated policy of our government that anyone who enters the country illegally—including those who come here seeking asylum from Central American violence and drug gangs–will be prosecuted to the limit of the law, with their minor children taken from them and placed in separate custody as a form of deterrence. It is a controversial policy. Everyone more or less admits that forceably separating parents from their children is an inhumane practice—even the president doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.  But that doesn’t matter to those who are enforcing a policy that is callous even for this administration.  “If you don’t like that,” Sessions said, “then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

More than 700 minors, including toddlers and babies, have been separated from their parents at the border between last October and April of this year; another 600 since the “zero tolerance” policy was announced in May. The kind of pain and anxiety and trauma these numbers represent is unimaginable. This is not the rule of law, this is intentional cruelty. There is no other way to describe a policy of a government that criminalizes desperate people, and uses children as a way to punish their parents. It is a national sin—there is no other word for it.

There are some people who simply cannot cut a deal with evil, and they are the “major prophets” of every time.  John the Baptist was like that. With evil he was like dog with a snake—he could not leave it alone. He could not keep his mouth shut; that is what cost him his head.

But most of us are not possessed with that passion for justice that John had. We are not “a voice crying in the wilderness.” We are able to accommodate ourselves to the little injustices around us quite neatly and live with the living. If we do not find ourselves and ours in jeopardy, it is easy enough for us to resign ourselves to the suffering of others, and to deplore life’s small cruelties, but do nothing about them.

It isn’t very nice, perhaps, but that’s how we ordinary people are.

But there are times when we stand in the presence of self-righteous evil and are forced to make a choice. This policy of separating parents from their children as a form of punishment and deterrence is manifestly wicked, but it is only the beginning of what will be done. If we want to call ourselves followers of the crucified Lord we have to resist it now, and become minor minor prophets.

Cruelty is not an unintentional byproduct of the White House immigration policy, it is its objective. Its intention is to cause pain and agony for parents and trauma in young children for the sake of vague policy goals, which are not succeeding anyway. It is revenge upon the poorest. It is cruelty for its own sake, beloved, and we cannot ignore it without adding to the suffering of Christ.

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Darn Pharisees–Mark 2:23-3:6

In the Gospel lesson for this week it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Are you angry, beloved? Angry enough to admit you are? I am. Angry enough for two of us. Not all the time and with everyone, of course. I wouldn’t say that I’m an angry person, but sometimes with some people my anger breaks through the skin and at times I feel that there is more than enough reason for it. Reading the newspaper and watching television makes it worse, but I can’t stop that either. We live in angry times. But our Gospel lesson, which speaks to us directly about the anger of Jesus, gives you and me some guidance as to how our anger can be controlled and directed by the love of God.

It is a vivid scene that Mark sets for us. Jesus is in a synagogue on the Sabbath day–maybe it’s hot, maybe it’s crowded–and a search light is on him. The Pharisees are watching, because there is a man there with a withered hand and they waiting to see if they can catch Jesus breaking the Sabbath law by healing him. They want to use his compassion as a hook and the crippled man as bait. So there is an atmosphere of tension in the synagogue that day, and Jesus, always sensitive to an atmosphere, feels it. He hears the question buzzing around his head–“Will he do it?” Like a persistent fly. “Will he do it?”

So when he looked around him in the synagogue on that Sabbath day what did Jesus see? He saw the man with a withered hand, whose life was wasted by his physical deformity, and the sight of human suffering always ticked Jesus off. He felt the futility of it. The isolation of being different. The tragedy of wasted existence. But what stirred his ire particularly were the Pharisees, watchful as spiders, whose bodies were whole and strong enough, but whose souls were shrunken and distorted by their cold indifference and their immovable prejudices.

Jesus had much in common with those Pharisees on purely religious grounds. He also was an observant Jew. He taught many of the things they believed—the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and evil spirits, the judgment of souls, heaven and hell.  But he was not one of them. Our Lord was a carpenter, yes, but not a joiner. Nothing in the gospels indicates that he identified himself with any particular sect or group. He stood apart from the religious set-up of his time. He was critical of all its parties. But in particular he did not get along with the Pharisees.

And why? Although they were scrupulous in keeping the Law of Moses to the letter, they were terribly careless about the suffering of others. They were rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. But what made Jesus particularly angry that morning in the synagogue was their silence. When he asked them–“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” It says that “they were silent.” And that is what made Jesus angry enough to heal the crippled man on the Sabbath just to spite them. He was angry because although they were the most religious of God’s chosen people, and the most rigorous followers of his Law, they would not commit themselves to life.

And what Jesus saw when he looked around at the synagogue that Sabbath day is what the Lord sees when he looks at the Church today. Many of the most religious, the most scrupulous, who wear the name of Jesus in the boldest characters, are the most indifferent to ordinary human needs. They too, like the ancient Pharisees, are rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. When Jesus looks around at the Church he beholds a place where principles, laws, and political agendas too often trump compassion, and no doubt the Lord is angry.

His anger is a comfort to those of us who share that anger. It says to us that Jesus feels our frustration and our exclusion. His anger is a comfort, but not an excuse. Anger secreted inside withers the soul. Jesus’ anger did not lie smoldering in his heart. It moved him to concrete action on behalf of those in need. “Stretch out your hand,” he said to the man in our story; and “he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” By way of comparison, what did the anger of the Pharisees do? It says they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Our anger is more often than not a result of hurt feelings. We feel it when we think, rightly or wrongly, that we are being attacked. (“Progressive?” Franklin Graham recently told a group of conservative pastors and evangelists in the locker room of the Rose Bowl. “That’s just another word for godless.”) But the answer is not to add our anger to the already poisonous atmosphere that surrounds us. The answer is to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to life. We need to vote, to give, to work, and to speak the truth in the Spirit of Jesus.

It is pretty hard for any of us, whatever our persuasions, not to get angry these days. There is anger all around us, on the right and on the left, above and below—it is an atmosphere that is always threatening to choke out our better feelings. It is reassuring that Jesus too could be angry like we are, but he could not be indifferent as we can so easily become. Even in the most hostile of circumstances he was always able to take a stand for life. In the synagogue one morning we are told he saw a man with a withered hand. He might have inquired regarding his religious preferences, his immigration status, his sexual orientation or his political party, but all Jesus said was—“Stretch out your hand.” He was obedient because he knew he needed healing. And so we should stretch out our lives to Jesus, beloved, and the Lord will restore our withered hearts to be like his.

 

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Fair It Isn’t

Matthew 20:1-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair it isn’t. Nevertheless who would dare?

 

 

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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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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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