Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sermon: 12 Pentecost (19 August 2007)

Pentecost 12: 19 August 2007
(Isaiah 5:1-7/Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19/Hebrews 11:29-12:2/Luke 12:49-56)
…the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For had it been an adversary who taunted me,
then I could have borne it;
or had it been an enemy who vaunted himself against me,
then I could have hidden from him.
But it was you, a man after my own heart,
my companion, my own familiar friend.
We took sweet counsel together,
and walked with the throng in the house of God.

My companion stretched forth his hand against his comrade;
he has broken his covenant.
His speech is softer than butter,
but war is in his heart.
His words are smoother than oil,
but they are drawn swords (Ps 55:13-15, 21-23, BCP).

Several Psalms give voice to human struggle, confusion, and disappointment – lament, we call these. Few are as poignant to me as this Psalm 55, this great cry of betrayal. A friend, a companion, a kindred spirit has proven untrue and the psalmist can scarce contend with his treachery. Had it been an adversary, yes; but, you – a man after my own heart? How to understand that, how to cope with that: such things elude the psalmist.

We’ve all felt this at one time or another, haven’t we: a sense of betrayal, a sense of trust broken? It happens in ways great and small – though none seem small at the time – to old and young alike. A husband has an affair. A mother abandons her children. A close colleague plots an office coup. A friend violates a confidence. A schoolmate ridicules and excludes. A teacher taunts and humiliates. The deeper the trust, the greater the pain of betrayal. And so we learn – early on – to protect ourselves, to trust only haltingly and sparingly. To say someone is a trusting soul is not necessarily a compliment.

The opening words of the Creed – I believe in God – are bold and risky words. I put my faith in God, I trust in God, are not words which come naturally to those who have known betrayal, which is to say to most all of us. They are bold words, risky words, foolish words unless the character of this God is known, unless the agenda of this God includes my welfare, unless the track record of this God is one of unfailing faithfulness. That’s why the next few words of the Creed are so critical: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. This God is worthy of the great risk of trust because his character is known – because he is Father, because he is almighty, because he is creator.

Of course, when we try to describe the character of God we quickly bump hard against the limits of revelation and language. Our knowledge of God is limited to what God has revealed: speculation and philosophy are not so trustworthy here where the issue is very much one of trust. Nor is our language adequate to express God’s self-revelation. How can human words do justice to God whose own words have the power to create worlds? We are limited to analogy, metaphor, simile – essentially to comparison. So, to what do you compare the God who is unique, who is, almost by definition, that being beyond compare? The framers of the Creed settled on Father as that comparison most in keeping with God’s self-revelation and with human experience and language.

As soon as you describe God as Father though, objections arise. Surely, you’re not saying God is male: Why should we not consider God as Mother or perhaps generically as Parent? What about those who have had terrible experiences with their own fathers: neglect, abuse, abandonment? Such experiences certainly distort a view of God as Father. These are understandable concerns; we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand. They are stumbling blocks to some and we should address them with sensitivity. But we need not, and really should not, let these concerns force us to abandon the Father language and image. It is, after all, how Jesus referred to God and how he taught us to think about and pray to the God who is also our Father.

Just what kind of father God is emerges clearly from the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:43-48).

“[But] when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:3-4).

“[But] whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6).

“[But] if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15).

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:31-33).

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:11).

A Father who is prodigal in his providence, who pours out blessing and provision on the good and evil alike; a Father who knows and sees our inmost, truest selves – not what we project to others – and who loves and rewards our feeble attempts to give, to serve, to pray; a Father who longs to forgive errant sons and daughters and who longs for them to forgive errant brothers and sisters; a Father who is poised to answer, eager to be found, and ready to open himself; a Father who is good, perfect, and gracious: this is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is our Father. This is a Father worthy of our trust. This is why we can say, I believe in God the Father.

The Creed tells that us that, in addition to all this, God the Father is almighty. And here we must be careful because our concepts of might and power are likely distorted; the cross certainly tells us that God’s thoughts on power are not our own. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests a particularly helpful approach in his book Tokens of Trust.

The word translated ‘almighty’ in fact in the Greek means ‘ruler of everything’ or even something like ‘holder of everything’; and this suggests a slightly different approach. It means that there is nowhere God is absent, powerless or irrelevant; no situation in the universe in the face of which God is at a loss. Which is much the same as saying that there is no situation in which God is not to be relied upon…that his love never exhausts its resources, whatever may happen in the universe in general or in my life in particular. [‘Almighty’ is] a way of saying that God always has the capacity to do something fresh and different, to bring something new out of a situation – because nothing outside himself can finally frustrate his longing. So almightiness in this sense becomes another reason for trust (Rowan Williams. Tokens of trust. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2007, p. 16.).

This concept of almighty seems a bit more nuanced than I might like. What I really want is a Father almighty who will step in at the first sign that life might not be going exactly to my liking – who will step in to straighten it out with miracles flying and lightening flashing, who will let no harm come to me ever, who will do my bidding on-command. I want a genie and endless wishes. I want what Bruce wanted in Bruce Almighty: all that power – omnipotence – at my command. But – thanks be to God – that’s not the kind of Father almighty that we have.

What the Bible puts before us in not a record of a God who is always triumphantly getting his way [or my way] by doing miracles…but a God who gets his way by patiently struggling to make himself clear to human beings, to make his love real to them, especially when they seem not to want to know, or to want to avoid him and retreat into their own fantasies about him (Williams, pp 16-17).

What the Bible shows us is a God who is determined to put creation to rights not by an overwhelming exercise of miraculous power, but by entering into the pain and struggle of creation himself – supremely in Jesus Christ – and by holding all things together in his love as his will unfolds toward new creation. This way of God’s being almighty can allow things seemingly to go pretty badly wrong in the short term. There are Darfur and Iraq. There are the Indonesian tsunami and the Minneapolis bridge collapse. There are Columbine and Virginia Tech. There are poverty and hunger and disease. There are…well you can continue the list of horrors we wish God would eliminate, wrongs we wish he would right immediately. But, right in the midst of all these evils and horrors there’s a cross planted atop a hill with a dying man groaning out his last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And that’s the ultimate example, the ultimate proof, of the almightiness of God – the ability to absorb all the pain and evil of the world and to turn it to the greatest good, the willingness to suffer death to bring forth life, the power to conquer hatred through love alone. We may not understand the ways of God; in fact, we often do not. But we can see and know his character. We can say, with Paul,

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).

That’s something like what it means to say, I believe in God, the Father almighty. We can see this incarnated – a flesh and blood example – in the life of Job. This poor man clearly does not understand what is happening to him, the terrors that he is receiving – so he thinks – at God’s hands. His doctrine of God’s justice and righteousness lies as shattered as the pots with whose shards he scrapes the boils covering his body. He wants to plead his case, and does so to his worse than useless friends: all they do is spout the conventional misunderstanding of God that Job now knows to be false. All is pain. All is despair. All is anger. And yet. And yet Job holds on. As much as he might want to, he can’t bring himself to let go of the God he has known in the past as Father almighty.

Even if he slays me, I will hope in him. I will surely defend my ways to his face (Job 13:15, NET Bible)!

It’s hard to tell if this is a cry of faith or of despair, but it certainly is the cry of a man who has known God to be Father almighty in the past and can’t understand why he fails to be in the present. Like Jacob wrestling the angel at the Jabbok, Job knows he can’t win, but he’s afraid to let go. The way through this impasse is a deeper understanding, a deeper experience of God, the Father almighty. And God appears – not just as the Father almighty, but as the creator of heaven and earth.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings
shouted for joy (Job 38:1-7)?

Verse after verse, page after page, God bombards Job with similar questions – all of them rhetorical and all directed toward the same conclusion: I am the creator and sustainer of heaven and earth. All things exist and are preserved by my power. I know things you do not know. I do things you cannot conceive. This God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind is no passive deity who winds the clockwork of his creation and steps aside to let it tick away without him. No. This God – the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth – is always and everywhere present within creation, caring for it, nurturing it, drawing forth righteousness and justice where none seem possible.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 7‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. 8Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? 9Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?
10‘Deck yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendour. 11Pour out the overflowings of your anger, and look on all who are proud, and abase them. 12Look on all who are proud, and bring them low; tread down the wicked where they stand. 13Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below.
14Then I will also acknowledge to you that your own right hand can give you victory (Job 40:7-14).

Do you really believe, Job, that your justice, your righteousness, are more to be trusted than those of the God who created and sustained the world? Well, since you put it that way…

Then Job answered the Lord: 2‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3“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 (Job 42:1-3).

Had Job known the words of the Creed I suspect he might have added this to his response: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sermon: 11 Pentecost (12 Aug 2007)

11 Pentecost: 12 August 2007
(Isaiah 1:1, 10-20/Psalm 107:1-9/Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16/Luke 12:32-40)
I Believe…

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When the church marries a couple we have them stand up before family and friends, before the communion of saints and all the company of heaven and God himself, and we ask them questions: “Do you?” and “Will you?” questions. Do you take this man to be your husband or this woman to be your wife? Will you love and comfort, honor and keep, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, be faithful as long as you both shall live? If the bride and groom are young, they stand there before the church overdosed on endorphins, superfueled by hormones and we try to put the brakes on. “Listen here, young man. Before we authorize you to have sex with this young woman you’re going to have to make her some promises – and we’re going to expect you to keep them. And you, young woman, wake up. This Prince Charming beside you is going to grow old, fat, and bald and will certainly disappoint you in countless ways. Can you handle that?” A good marriage ceremony is designed to scare the living daylights out of the bride and groom. It is a solemn and holy commitment they make, a sacrament of Christ and his church. We want them to know just what they’re getting themselves into.

Likewise, when the church baptizes candidates we have them stand up before family and friends, before the communion of saints and all the company of heaven and God himself, and we ask them questions: “Do you?” and “Will you?” questions. Do you renounce? Do you turn? Do you promise? Do you believe? Will you continue, persevere, proclaim, seek, serve, strive, and respect? In a way, here too we’re trying to put the brakes on. No less than a marriage ceremony, the baptismal liturgy should scare the candidates; it begins with death and burial, after all. It is a solemn and holy commitment they make. We want them to count the cost (Lk 9:57-62). We want them to know just what they’re getting themselves into.

The Do you believe? questions in the baptismal liturgy follow the Apostles’ Creed, which likely developed as a form of catechesis, a pattern and method of instruction for baptismal candidates. It is the Cliff Notes of Christian faith and theology – not all we will grow to believe, but an essential starting point, a common foundation upon which the theology of the church rests. There should be nothing objectionable here to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant Christians and nothing that any group would leave out. In the familiar slogan, In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love, the Apostles’ Creed falls under essentials. Though the non-denominational church of my youth rejected all manmade creeds as superfluous and even divisive, even they affirmed all the truths of the Apostles’ Creed.

The early church considered the Apostles’ Creed, or an early precursor of it, as the regula fidei, the rule of faith – the standard of truth by which they measured all spiritual understanding. "Christ was pure spirit and therefore only appeared to die," said the Docetists. "Not so," replied the church. "He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried." "There was no resurrection. Jesus’ body was likely thrown on the garbage heap outside Jerusalem and eaten by dogs," says John Shelby Spong. "Not so," replies the church. "On the third day he rose again." So much nonsense, so many heresies, can be swept aside by the Creed. It remains the regula fidei of the church. So, for the next few weeks, as part of our confirmation instruction, we will explore the Creed together, this summary of the faith that we have gotten ourselves into.

The basic structure of the Creed, like the basic structure of our faith is Trinitarian. There are three sections: one dedicated to the Father, one to the Son, and one to the Holy Spirit. Each section begins with a bold declaration: I believe.

I believe lots of things. Some of my beliefs are simple statements of fact – usually facts beyond my power of observation or verification, facts discerned by experts and communicated to the rest of us. I believe that the earth revolves about the sun as Copernicus said and not the other way round as generations before thought. Few today believe otherwise. Why do I believe this? It’s in the science textbooks and my teachers assured me it’s true, and really for no other reasons. It’s presented as fact and I accept it as fact. (Whether that acceptance is a good or bad thing is itself worth exploring – both science and public education have agendas, after all, and those agendas deserve careful scrutiny. But that’s another story.) Some others of my beliefs are merely opinions, expressions of personal preference. I believe that Starbuck’s coffee is superior to Seattle’s Best; I believe that most any coffee is superior to Seattle’s Best. I believe that rap music is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. And yet there are almost certainly people who go to Border’s Bookstore cafĂ© on a rainy Saturday afternoon to enjoy a cup of Seattle’s Best coffee while listening to rap music on their iPods – and consider that time well spent. My opinions notwithstanding, they believe otherwise. And they’re not wrong; on these type of beliefs we may agree to disagree.

Some beliefs are statements of fact and some are expressions of opinion. I believe in God, we say in the opening words of the Creed. But what do we mean? Are we saying that we accept the existence of God as a fact discerned by the experts – Who would they be? – and communicated to the rest of us? Well sure, in some sense this is exactly what we mean. Most of us believe because our parents believed – those are the immediate experts – or because some other significant person in our lives believed and passed that on to us. The notion of the self-made man or woman is highly exaggerated; we are formed by others and belief is often part of that formation. Part of the agenda of the church – and we don’t try to hide this – is spiritual formation, the passing on of beliefs from one generation to the next. That’s why we use ancient liturgies, gather around an ancient book, and practice ancient rituals. We have received these and we are determined to pass them on. So yes, we say we believe in God as a statement of fact, though others might question our conviction. Are we saying that we accept the existence of God as an opinion, as a personal preference? Again, yes; in some sense this is exactly what we mean. We choose to view our lives as created, meaningful, relational, and transcendent – in short, we prefer to live in a world created by God and endowed with meaning and purpose. We prefer and pursue a relationship with that God and we hope that relationship will transcend the boundaries of our very brief physical existence. In our opinion it will. Of course, our opinion notwithstanding, many believe otherwise. Our culture, which values diversity and tolerance above all else, assures us that they are not wrong; on these types of beliefs we may agree to disagree. (Whether such tolerance and the view of faith as solely personal preference relegated to the private and not the public realm is a good or bad thing is itself worth exploring – our culture has an agenda, after all, and that agenda deserves careful scrutiny. But that’s another story.)

This September I will have been married thirty years – good years that have passed all too quickly. I hope for thirty more. Out of these thirty years comes this simple statement: I believe in my wife. What do I mean by that? Is it a statement of fact, a simple acknowledgement of the existence of this other human being who is in a particular relationship with me? No, it’s much more than that. Is it an expression of personal opinion or preference – I prefer this wife to my other ones or I prefer this woman to all others I might have chosen as wife? Well, at some personal risk, I must admit that this is not exactly what I mean either. I believe in my wife is not merely a statement of fact or an expression of opinion or personal preference. This belief is in another category altogether – a category it shares with the opening statement of the Creed: I believe in God.

When I say I believe in my wife I mean that I trust her, that I’m convinced her prime agenda is for my good – really for our mutual good. I mean that our relationship is life-giving. Do you remember all those marriage promises we spoke of earlier: to love and comfort, honor and keep, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, to be faithful as long as you both shall live? I mean that she has kept her promises to me and that I have every reason to believe she will continue to do so as long as we both shall live. This isn’t merely a statement of fact or an expression of opinion; it is relationally verified reality. Thirty years of life together, thirty years in which my wife has been faithful to me – to our relationship – have engendered and nourished my belief in her. This belief certainly includes both fact and opinion; but, it subsumes them, it transcends them. This belief is trust.

The church means – I mean – something quite akin to this in the opening line of the Creed: I believe in God. I mean that I trust God, that I’m convinced that God’s prime agenda is for my good – that God has no agenda which does not include my good. I mean that my relationship with God – and what an astounding notion a relationship with God actually is! – my relationship with God is life-giving. I mean that God has kept all his promises to me – promises contained in covenant and cross and revealed in the word written and the Word made flesh – and that I have every reason to believe that God will continue to do so throughout eternity. And all this in spite of the reality that I have broken my promises to God time and again! The years of my life with God, years in which God has always been faithful to me, have engendered and nourished my belief in God. This belief certainly includes both fact and opinion; but, it subsumes them, it transcends them. This belief is trust. Most days, anyway. But not always and equally so. My trust is strained easily by lack of understanding. It is brought into question by difficult circumstances. I argue with God as I argue with my wife – usually over something quite selfish and petty – and then I sulk and withdraw for a time. Trust doesn’t come easily or naturally for most of us. We have to work at it. We need help. And that is part of the importance of the Creed, of this corporate confession of the church. On those days when I can’t honest say I believe in God as a conviction of trust, it means everything to me to be surrounded by people who can, at that moment, say the words to me and for me. You don’t believe right now? Well, we do. It’s all true. You have no trust right now? Well, we do. Share some of ours. The Creed reminds me that I need you, that I need this community of trust in and through which God becomes flesh and shows himself trustworthy. When I say I believe in God I’m also saying that I believe in God’s people, the church – that I believe in you. I’m not sure it’s possible to separate the two; I’m sure it’s unwise to try. So, some days I believe in God only as one fact among many. Some days I believe in God only as preference – the Word over silence, meaning over meaninglessness. But most days I believe in God as trust. I want that for all my days.

I think our society overestimates the power of facts. Take sex, for instance – more specifically sex education. Why do we have sex education in public school? (We call it Wellness now, but there’s still a healthy dose of sex in the curriculum.) It all comes down to disease and unwanted, early pregnancies, both of which are costly to and disruptive of society. And so the schools have been tasked with presenting the facts of life – physiology and mechanics, yes, but those only secondarily so. Our culture has an agenda, remember? Mainly we want to present our young people the facts about the risks and dangers of unprotected sex so they’ll stop it. (Isn’t it interesting that we talk about sex as safe so long as there is only a slim chance of disease or pregnancy? No matter the devastating emotional and spiritual consequences sex may have – anything but safe there.) Our government and culture are convinced that knowledge of the facts will change the sexual behavior of young people. All I can say is that they obviously don’t know our young people. They don’t understand that hormones trump facts, that pleasure vanquishes reason. You know as well as I, the teenage couple in the back seat of the car aren’t going over the facts. Besides, pregnancy and disease happen to other people, not to them. And how long have we known now that cigarette smoking causes cancer – known it as unquestionable fact? We teach that fact in Wellness also. Yet how many people start smoking each year – young people who just know they are ten feet tall and bulletproof? And have you noticed how large our society is now? Knowledge of the tremendous health risks associated with obesity don’t seem to stop people from saying, “Supersize that.” Of course it’s generally better to know than not to know, to have the facts than not to have them. I just don’t share our society’s conviction that facts significantly alter behavior.

That’s surely one reason the Creed aims for belief in God not just as a statement of fact or of opinion, but of trust. It matters not only what we know, but how we live. And for that, trust is more important than facts. I can believe that God exists – accept that as fact – without it affecting my behavior in the least. In fact – pun intended – James says that the demons believe in God and shudder (James 2:19); but, they go right on being demons in rebellion against God. But trust? Well, that’s another matter entirely. Trust caused Peter and Andrew and James and John to leave their fishing nets to become fishers of men. Trust caused Levi to abandon his lucrative tax-collecting station and strike out with this carpenter-turned-rabbi. Curiosity took Zacchaeus up the sycamore tree but trust brought him down and trust compelled him to restore all he had stolen. Trust nailed Jesus to the cross and held him there: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” is the sound of trust. And trust broke the power of sin and death and rolled back the stone on the morning of our Lord’s great victory. I believe in God all these said in the word of the Creed – not with their lips, but with their lives.