Friday, May 30, 2008

Sermon: 3 Pentecost (1 June 2008)

3 Pentecost (Proper 4): 1 June 2008
(Gen 6:11-22; 7:24; 8:14-19/Ps 46/Rom 1:16-17; 3:22b-31/Mt 7:21-29)
Once a King or Queen of Narnia

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

In The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Peter Pevensie is having trouble re-adjusting to life in England. He was after all, just a year earlier, High King Peter the Magnificent, Lord of Cair Paravel, ruler of Narnia. And, once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia. After that, being seen and treated as an ordinary, adolescent, English schoolboy – well, you can imagine how difficult that would be. And that is the really surprising thing that makes the story work: you can imagine how difficult that would be – imagine how difficult it would be to fall from a great height; to know yourself more and better than what you appear; to long for something, for some way to transcend the ordinary and become the exceptional person you know you are and are meant to be. You know this feeling in fact, as certainly as Peter did in fiction.

When you are young this knowledge, this feeling, shows up as imagination. Children play dress-up and make-believe: they are princesses and warriors, rock stars and movie stars and sports heroes. As adults this same knowledge, this same feeling, manifests as ambition: get the better job or the promotion; buy the bigger house, the flashier car, the latest gadget; get ahead in whatever way you can – make a name for yourself. Still later, into middle age and beyond, the true nature of this knowledge, this feeling, emerges: longing – the ill-defined but real and ever-present certainty that things should be better, that you should be better, certainty as an ache in the heart and mind and soul.

There may be something beyond the ache this side of heaven, but I don’t know that yet. If there is, I suspect it’s just another facet of longing. I’m starting to believe that longing is the most fundamental expression of our fallen humanity, that longing underlies all human relationships, all accomplishments, all glories and even all atrocities. We are – all of us – kings and queens of Narnia having trouble re-adjusting to life in England. And it’s not just us: it’s England, too, that feels the longing. All creation is out-of-joint, straining toward the Creator’s ideal.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:19-23).

I call it ache. Paul calls it groaning. It’s one and the same. It is, of course the result of human sin – also, ironically, the cause of much human sin – it is the result of sin and curse and expulsion. Michael Card says we were intended to wake up in the Garden and we find ourselves, instead, in a sin-impregnated world. Our fallen humanity is dominated by the longing to return to the Garden: to relationships that work, to holy ground that knows no curse, to lives that do not end in dust and ashes, to the tree of life.

We know we were intended for more and better, so we long to transcend the ordinary. We try to transcend the ordinary. But we do so in ordinary ways. Not satisfied in your job – looking for greater meaning? Well, change jobs. Find the task that brings you joy and pursue that. There’s nothing wrong with this; I’ve done it myself. But what if, just what if, no job was meant to satisfy, no job was meant to provide meaning to your life? Not satisfied in your relationship – looking for more respect or more passion or more novelty, or just more? Well, end it and trade up, start another relationship with someone who can fill today’s need. But what if, just what if, no human relationship was meant to satisfy, to fill the emptiness in heart and soul? Not satisfied with your social position, your status – looking for more stuff or more personal power? Well, take charge of your life, assert yourself, stand up for your rights, don’t hesitate to shove others aside on your way to success. But what if, just what if, wealth and power were never meant to satisfy, never meant to end the human longing, to silence the groaning? Trying to transcend the ordinary by being more ordinary is the way of foolishness. So says the teacher in Ecclesiastes.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind (Eccl 1:12-14).

The Teacher looks for transcendence of the ordinary in all the ordinary ways: wisdom, pleasure, work, wealth, power. His conclusion? All is vanity and a chasing after the wind. The longing remains, the ache is still there, and the groaning of the heart continues.

But, in the fullness of time, another Teacher comes – another Teacher offering another Way: not a way of foolishness, but a way of wisdom.

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall’ (Mt 7:24-27)!

This is what we want – a house on the rock, a life of transcendence, a way of wisdom. But this way is narrow and this path is hard. It’s anything but ordinary.

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.

Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Pray, but not to be seen. Give, but not to be seen. Fast, but not to be seen.

Forgive others their trespasses against you so that your Father in heaven will forgive your trespasses.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

This isn’t The Secret. This isn’t A New Earth or The Best You Now. This has nothing to do with a moment of enlightenment that will allow you to return to the same old ordinariness but with a new understanding, a new transcendent attitude. Jesus’s way is made of things you do or things you don’t do. Just get on about the business of living this new way: that’s pretty much it. Like Naaman the Aramean leper who was instructed by Elisha to wash in the Jordan seven times, we might expect something more dramatic, more mystical: ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy’ (2 Ki 5:11)! But no, just get on about washing in the Jordan, Elisha says to Naaman. But no, just get on about the business of living this new way, Jesus says to us: that’s pretty much it.

I prefer transcendent theology over doing something, and judging by the sermons preached and the books written and the discussion held I’m not alone. Surely, if we just get all the doctrine right, our lives will snap into place. If we just harmonize the theories of the atonement, if we come to grips with predestination once and for all, if we can agree on the ordo salutis – the order of salvation – if… . “Fine,” I think Jesus would say to us. “But in the meantime, stop sleeping with other people’s wives, stop condemning your brothers and sisters, stop doing your religion for show or respectability or out of habit. And while you’re at it, work on your generosity and your forgiveness and your truthfulness. Serve someone, wash some feet, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick – take up your cross and carry it. In the meantime, just follow me.” We try to convince ourselves that following Jesus means understanding Jesus. But what if it’s the other way round? What if understanding Jesus means following him, doing what he said to do, living as he said to live?

I know the standard objections to all this. What about grace? What about faith? What about salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – all the Reformation’s doctrinal legacy? This sounds like salvation by works. Well, to me it just sounds like obedience. Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain, which parallels Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, ends with Jesus asking rhetorically, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say” (Luke 6:46)? Why indeed?

So where would this path of obedience lead us? Is it the way to transcendence? I don’t think so. Though we might describe it as the way or the path or the road, it is really the destination, not a means to the end, but the end itself. It’s not that living this way will ultimately lead us to transcendence; this way itself is transcendent. When you bless those who curse you and forgive those who sin against you, in that very moment you transcend hatred. When you give to those who ask you and go the extra mile when compelled, in that moment you transcend self-interest. When you refuse to act as judge over your brother or sister, in that moment you transcend self-righteousness. You do all these things not because they lead you to transcendence, but because they are themselves transcendent acts.

So where would this path of obedience lead us? Will it end the longing and the ache of the fallen human condition? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the opposite might just be true. The nearer I get to home on a return trip – coming back from vacation or from infrequent professional travel, for example – the greater the longing to arrive: getting closer makes me want it more. That’s also the testimony of the saints who walked this path of obedience. With each step their longing grew, their ache increased. But it was a divine longing, a holy ache much to be preferred than any earthly satisfaction or comfort. The longing and the ache may result from the fall, but I do not think of them as punishment or curse. They are blessing and gift: a holy dissatisfaction given us by God to draw us to him. Perhaps Augustine said it best: “You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its place of rest in You.”

So, here we are – Kings and Queens of Narnia, sons and daughters of God – out of place, longing for the way back, aching for transcendence. The one who knows us, the one who made us says, ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.’ We really need look no farther: obedience is the way we seek.


Friday, May 23, 2008

2 Pentecost (Proper 3): 25 May 2008
(Isaiah 49:8-16a/Psalm 131/1 Corinthians 4:1-5/Matthew 6:24-34)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

By any measure, what we do when we take up this ancient text and gather around it each week is a bit odd, even radical. There is a rhythm to our actions, like the rhythm of the Eucharist. As the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given, so too is the text. It is taken, blessed, opened, and read. If we are not careful, though, the text does the same to us: It takes us, blesses us, breaks us, and gives us away to one another and to the world. Taken and blessed is one thing; broken and given away is quite another.[1]

Before we take up the text, we start with prayer, as well we should, because what we hold in our hands is dangerous, a living thing that often wounds before it heals. So we pray,

Almighty God, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today, and, having heard, we may fully obey him who came and is to come, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We acknowledge before God and our neighbors that we are closed-hearted and dimwitted and deaf to God’s word unless the Holy Spirit breaks open our hearts and enlightens our minds. We seek God’s blessing on the act of reading the Scriptures – what you do – and on proclaiming the Word – what I do – both essential acts. And notice that it is the Scriptures that we read and proclaim: not the latest Christian self-help book, not modern psychology or sociology, not the Christian theme of some popular film or television series, and – God forbid – not the preacher’s ideas of how to live a happy, successful life. We are not free to deal with any of these until we first have read and proclaimed the hard, true word of Scripture. We say in our prayer that this Word is God’s Word to us and for us, and that our attitude toward it should be one of joy. And we commit ourselves to obey fully what we have read and proclaimed. We don’t read mainly to understand; we read to stand under the text in obedience to it.

As William Willimon points out, none of us is really worthy to take up this text, to read it and hear it, to proclaim it. This “good book” requires a good people, better than we are, better than any who gather around it. I know it requires a better preacher than me. My only consolation lies in the story of Balaam. God showed Balaam that he can speak through the mouth of an ass; each week I show that God still can if he so chooses. No, we’re not worthy of this ancient text: not really able to hear it and certainly not able to fully obey it. But here’s the mystery of the Word of God: God’s word has power to create what it speaks. The constant refrain of the creation story is “and God said, and it was so, and it was good.” God’s word calls worlds into being. And God’s written word – read by his people, proclaimed by his pastors – has the power to call into being a people worthy of the reading and the proclamation, a people who can obey, with joy, what God has to say. We read and proclaim not because we are worthy, but so that, through the reading and the proclamation, the living Word may make us worthy – worthy to hear it and able to live it.

God’s word to us today is – I started to say simple, but I’ll say direct instead: You must choose. There are two ways: one leads to life, one to death.[2] You must choose. There are two masters: God our Creator, the giver of all good and perfect gifts, or Mammon, the demonic spirit of greed and avarice. You must choose. You cannot travel both paths. You cannot serve both masters. You must choose.

19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rustm consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Mt 6:19-21).

This is the part of the text that the lectionary leaves out today, the part that tells what our choices really are: treasures on earth or treasures in heaven. I can understand the desire to leave it out. It is a part I don’t want to hear and it is certainly a part I’m not worthy to preach. This text doesn’t say what I want it to. Here’s how I would re-write it.

Do not just store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where recession and inflation, rising food and gas prices, incompetent politicians and greedy corporations devour your hard earned savings; but be sure also to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, beyond the reach of those who would use you for their own gain. Keep your feet on the earth and your heart in heaven.

That’s much better. I’ve eliminated the need to choose; it is not either-or, but both-and: a little treasure on earth, a little treasure in heaven. But that is not the text. You remember a story Jesus told.

‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God’ (Luke 12:16b-21).

This story starts with the man already rich: The land of a certain rich man produced abundantly. The old saying is true in this parable: the rich get richer. His land produced abundantly and he faces the dilemma of what to do with all his goods and wealth. What do you think? What should he do? To make the right choice, what should he do? What would you do?

There is a reasonable – even virtuous – solution, isn’t there? Fill the existing barns – which will obviously supply all the rich man’s needs for another year – and give the surplus to the poor. Reasonable, yes; but, whatever made us think that Jesus is reasonable? Ours is a both-and solution: feet on earth, hearts in heaven. Jesus says choose. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, he says. You cannot serve God and Mammon, he says. Where your treasure is there will your heart be also, he says. Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me, he says. How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, he says. Choose, he says.

So, woe to you Donald Trump and Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, you captains of business and finance; you’ve made your choice. Woe to you Exxon-Mobile and British Petroleum and all you oil profiteers; you’ve made your choice. Woe to you generals of Myanmar who steal relief aid from your people. Woe to you World Bank and first world countries who keep the third world crushed with debt. Woe to you Disney, who squeezes every drop of profit out of child stars and then discards them on the garbage heap of sex, drugs, and ruined lives. Woe to you. Woe to all of you. You’ve made your choice.

Wrong. Just wrong. Who am I to judge these people and institutions? This text is God’s word to me and to you. Let God deal with them. It is not my place to stand outside this text and use it to judge others. It is my place to stand under it and let it judge me, to let it ask me the hard questions about my choices and my heart. Choose, this text tells me, and I don’t want to. I am not worthy of this text. It is not a comfortable word for those of us who waffle between earth and heaven. In our consumer society we fool ourselves into believing we want choice when what we really want is to keep all options open, and not to make a choice.

Choose, Jesus says again: God or Mammon. There are a couple of ways to choose Mammon over God. One is simply to take the route of acquisition like the rich man whose land produced abundantly. That is the conspicuous choice and we try to avoid that. The more subtle choice of Mammon is found in the second part of our text.

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Mt 6:25-33).

If I sell everything I have, give it to the poor to follow Jesus, and then am consumed by worry over what I’ll eat or drink or wear, I’m still in the grips of Mammon; I’ve still chosen Mammon over God. While my hands may be free of the “stuff,” my heart isn’t. My treasure is still with Mammon, and my heart is there with my treasure. And this really cuts right to the heart of the matter. Wealth is all about trust. Surely, I’m not the only one who finds it ironic that our money says In God We Trust. Our society doesn’t trust in God. It trusts in money and the huge military that money funds. And when I tell you that I don’t worry about what I will eat or drink or wear, it’s not because I trust God so completely. It’s because I’ve used the money in which I trust to fill the refrigerator and cabinets, the closets and dressers. Even at that I begin to feel insecure when gas approaches $4.00 per gallon, when my utility bill increases by $100 each month, when the price of food has doubled in the last few months, when I think about car insurance and college expenses and wedding expenses and retirement. “O you of little faith,” Jesus said to his disciples in another context. He might as well have said it to me.

I’m not worthy of this text and certainly not worthy to proclaim it. I don’t know many people who are. But here’s the mystery of the Word of God: God’s word has power to create what it speaks. The constant refrain of the creation story is “and God said, and it was so, and it was good.” God’s word calls worlds into being. And God’s written word – read by his people, proclaimed by his pastors – has the power to call into being a people worthy of the reading and the proclamation, a people who can obey, with joy, what God has to say. We read and proclaim not because we are worthy, but so that, through the reading and the proclamation, the living Word may make us worthy – worthy to hear it and able to live it.

When Jesus calls us to choose God over Mammon and trust over false security, he is not speaking that word primarily to you or to me as individuals. Through the word, he is calling into being the kingdom of God, describing life in that kingdom, and inviting us to take our place there. Imagine a kingdom in which there are no poor because all God’s gifts are held in common. Imagine a kingdom in which no one need worry about food and clothing and shelter because all are family and all share from least to greatest. Jesus didn’t tell us to strive not to worry; You try hard now – don’t worry. He told us to strive first for the kingdom of God, for in that kingdom there is simply no need to hoard and no need to worry. Do that – first strive for the kingdom of God – and then all the rest will be added to you. The order is everything.

So here we have it, God’s word to us and for us today. I wish I were worthy of this text. I wish I could do more with it for you – either explain it away or say, “Look at me. Here’s what it means to live the text.” But I can’t. This is God’s word to us. “Choose,” Jesus says, “God or Mammon, trust or worry.” “I can’t; I’m not ready yet,” I reply. “Well then,” Jesus says, “take up the text, open it, read it, proclaim it. The word will yet have its way with you. I will yet create a people worthy to hear this word and able to live it.”


[1] Robert Benson. Living Prayer.
[2] Didache 1.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Feast of the Trinity: 18 May 2008

Feast of the Trinity: 18 May 2008
(Genesis 1:1-2:4a/Psalm 8/2 Corinthians 13:11-13/Matthew 28:16-20)

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
have mercy on us sinners.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us and all the world.

Cliff Notes religion: that’s what the creeds are – a summary of the essence of a faith in as few words as possible. For the Jews, it is the shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. For the Muslims it is the shahada: There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. For Christians – at least for those who profess a creed – it is…well, it is more complicated. It is just not enough for us to say “God” or to emphasize God’s unity as do the other monotheistic religions. As William Willimon writes, Christians “haven’t said ‘God’ until we say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’”[2] Yes, God is one and yes, there is but one God, but that’s the beginning, not the end, of the Christian understanding. Christians are not simply monotheists as are Jews and Muslims, but monotheists of a particular stripe: We are Trinitarians. We didn’t choose Trinitarianism; a Trinitarian God chose us.

Jesus’s early followers were all good Jewish monotheists. From them and from their spiritual offspring we received the truth that opens the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

This is classic monotheism: a slight expansion of the shema, perhaps, but still very much in the same vein. The question is, How did a bunch of good, Jewish monotheists move from stanza 1 to stanza 2 of the Creed?

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

How did good, shema-quoting fishermen and tax collectors and zealots – followers of Jesus, all – reach this point? They were forced into it, or suckered into it – use any language you please and it amounts to the same thing. They had little, if any, choice.

Jesus comes on the scene announcing the immanent arrival – really, the present reality – of the Kingdom of God. The crowds perk up and pay attention now. “Did he really say what I think he said: the Kingdom of God is here?” That means God is on the move. He’s preparing to judge the nations and vindicate his people Israel. He’s about to bring righteousness and justice, freedom and return from exile. God is once again coming to his temple to dwell among his people. And this can only mean that the Messiah, God’s chosen and anointed one, is even now among us. Could it be this one, this carpenter from Nazareth? He teaches with authority, casts out demons, restores sight to the blind and makes the lame dance. He even raises the dead.

The crowds grow and Jesus keeps them in a state of expectation, a state of suspense. He calls twelve followers, clearly mimicking the twelve tribes of Israel and hinting that he’s reforming the nation about himself. These twelve are with him constantly – an inner circle with special access to the Master. He even commissions them to do work like his: to heal, to exorcise, to preach repentance. And then, toward the end of his brief ministry, he drops the bombshell, the secret he’s been carrying from the beginning.

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am,” (John 8:58).

“The Father and I are one,” (John10:30).

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9b).

And you can hear the collective gasp of every good, Jewish monotheist. Jesus calling himself, I Am? Jesus and God, one? Jesus the image of the Father? And many in the crowds, unable to harmonize the shema with these new, shocking pronouncements of Jesus, begin to leave, to return to their synagogues and rabbis – though they speak with no authority, heal no sick, raise no dead, promise no immanent Kingdom of God. “Will you leave me, too?” Jesus asks the twelve. And Peter realizes they’ve all been had. Jesus has kept them with him for three years. They know him – or at least they thought they knew him. They’ve felt his compassion. They’ve witnessed his authority. They’ve seen his power. They’ve heard his wisdom and truth. And now he says he’s God. What do you do with that?

C. S. Lewis puts the answer in simple and stark terms in Mere Christianity.

Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to

Pretty stark choices, but that’s the way it all played out historically. Some, including members of Jesus’s own family figure he’s a bit off and come to take him home before he hurts himself or tarnishes the family reputation even more; “beside himself” is how some translations read – “loony” we might say. But the apostles know better. No man was ever as sane as this master of theirs. Some leaders – Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees – consider Jesus a blasphemer in league with and empowered by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They come to crucify him. But the apostles know better. No man was ever as holy as this master of theirs. So, they are trapped, snared in Jesus’s plan and will. They are forced by their own personal experience of three years to conclude – maybe against their own will – that Jesus is exactly who he claims to be: I Am, the very image of God – God in flesh and blood. And so they must expand their monotheistic concept of God – not give it up, but expand it to include one God in two persons, one God who is both Father and eternally begotten Son. I’m not certain they understood it any better than we, but they knew it to be true and they had no real choice but to accept it.

Then comes the trauma of the crucifixion and the exhilaration of the resurrection. This Jesus who died was raised to life and was with them again. But only for a time – all too brief a time. Ascension comes and Jesus is gone again – gone after promising never to abandon or forsake them, gone after promising to be with them always even to the end of the age. But a few days later the wind blows and the fire falls and the Holy Spirit comes upon these twelve – and thousands of others – and they know with certainty that God is with them once again, not in the Person of a Galilean carpenter this time, but in the Person of the Holy Spirit that the carpenter promised to send while he was still among them. And again their monotheism expanded – it had to based upon their experience – expanded to include God in the person of the Holy Spirit.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

So they believed and so we say. So we say, not because we figured this out on our own and certainly not because we fully understand it. So we say, because this was the experience and witness of our fathers and mothers in the faith. So we say because Athanasius stood against Arius and his band of heretics – Athanasius against the world – and proclaimed, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.” So we say, because this is the faith we have received, the faith into which we have been baptized.

A recently published book, The Shack, has made quite a stir in some Christian circles. Its central theme is theodicy, the question of how an omnipotent, compassionate, and righteous God can allow terrible evil and suffering. The author’s answers are relatively conventional – nothing really surprising, certainly nothing controversial. But the form in which those answers are presented – well, that’s another matter. The book is not a theology text; it is a parable, a metaphor, a story about a family which experiences great personal tragedy. Later, the husband and father receives a handwritten invitation from God – called Papa in the story – to return to the location of the tragedy and meet with God in hopes of rebuilding a shattered faith. When he arrives he sees a God quite unlike any image he has ever held. I won’t say more and risk spoiling the surprise for any who might like to read the book, but, know that the book has sparked many charges of heresy based on the author’s presentation of the Trinity. I’ve read the book; it’s worth reading, I think. Admittedly, it gets many points of doctrine wrong, which, of course, concerns me. But, honestly it would concern me a lot more if it claimed to be a book of theology instead of a parable. The controversy over this book raises the question of why the Trinity is such a “touchy” doctrine for Christians. So what if we differ on our understanding? Is an orthodox “understanding” of the Trinity really so important? What’s at stake? Much, in every way.

If God is not Trinity – and Trinity in the orthodox understanding of one God in three, consubstantial[4] Persons – then Jesus is not God and we have believed a lie. Since we falsely worship Jesus as God, we are blasphemers and are still dead in our sins. If God is not Trinity – and Trinity in the orthodox understanding of one God in three, consubstantial Persons – then the Holy Spirit is not God and we have no divine life within us. Contrary to what Peter says, we have not been made partakers of the divine nature. We have not been sealed as God’s own people in baptism. To borrow from Paul, if God is not Trinity – and Trinity in the orthodox understanding of one God in three, consubstantial Persons – then our faith is in vain and we are of all persons most to be pitied. So, much is at stake in every way.

Knowing God as Trinity forces us to confront the absolute “otherness” of God. There is always the dangerous tendency to project our humanness on God, to imagine God as simply a wiser, holier, more compassionate version of ourselves. This may well be the ultimate idolatry. Once I imagine God to be basically like me, then God is sure to endorse all those things and people I endorse and to condemn all those things and people I condemn. Maybe you’ve been in a theological discussion and heard someone say, “Well, I just can’t imagine a God who would ____,” and you can fill in the blank: send people to hell; condemn a loving, homosexual relationship; reveal himself as a Galilean carpenter; intervene in the natural world to work miracles; vote Democratic or Republican, etc. As soon as you hear (or say), “Well, I just can’t imagine a God…” then you know you are in trouble: red flags should fly, bells and whistles should sound. Human characteristics are being projected on God and God is being recreated in man’s own image. And reasoning upward from man to God is always fraught with danger and error. The Trinity provides a safeguard against this type of projection by reminding us that God is not just a better version of ourselves; God is totally other than us with a communal mode of existence that we can scarce begin to comprehend. God is not like us and we cannot safely reason upward. We know God only by revelation, only because God became flesh and dwelt among us in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, only because God abides within us in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Knowing God as Trinity reveals the Gospel truly as good news. A standard and oft-heard caricature of the Gospel runs something like this.

We are evil sinners, thoroughly depraved, objects of the Father’s wrath. To satisfy the Father’s justice/righteousness he must destroy us. But Jesus, in his love for us, steps into the breach between the Father and man, and accepts the Father’s wrath on our behalf. By punishing his Son, the Father is pacified, and we somehow are made acceptable to him.

There is just enough truth in this presentation to make it plausible; that’s why it persists. But the Trinity says no to this “good Son / bad Father” un-gospel. If the unfailing disposition of Jesus toward us is love and mercy, and if, in the Trinity the Father and Son are one in essence, then Jesus is the perfect expression, the perfect image, of the Father. That means God’s unfailing disposition toward us is not wrath, but love and mercy. However we understand the redemption won for us through Jesus – and we can never understand it fully – we must understand it as an expression of the love that passes endlessly among the three Persons of the Trinity and overflows abundantly to us. God is love, the beloved Apostle tells us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is love. That is Gospel. That is good news. That is the Trinity.

Knowing God as Trinity assures us that the God who created us is the same God who redeemed us and is the same God who is even now working in us to complete our salvation. Knowing God as Trinity assures us that we have even now been incorporated into the divine life and divine love that characterize our God. Our Greek brothers and sisters have a beautiful word and concept to describe the Trinity: perichoresis. The Greek is nuanced and difficult to translate but it implies a mutuality, a sharing that “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two.”[5] Literally, “perichoresis” means “to dance around.” And that may be the best description of all. The Trinity invites us to join in the Dance which began before the foundation of the world and which will continue beyond the ages of ages. Let’s listen to the music of the Creed. Let’s feel the rhythm of the Liturgy. Let’s leave our seats and come to the Table. Then let’s join in the Dance of the Trinity.

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

[1] N. T. Wright. Trinity Prayer.
[2] William H. Willimon. United Methodist Beliefs. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 5.
[3] C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. Harper Collins. pp. 51, 52.
[4] Consubstantial: Of the same substance, sharing the same essence. No one Person of the Trinity is more or less God than any other Person.
[5] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Blackwell, 2001.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sermon: Ascension (4 May 2008)

Feast of the Ascension: 4 May 2008
(Acts 1:1-11/Psalm 47/Ephesians 1:15-23/Luke 24:44-53)
The Politics of the Ascension

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

Barak Obama gets this week’s “With Friends Like That Who Needs Enemies” award, as far as I’m concerned. Throughout his campaign he has constantly walked a racial tightrope. To win the nomination he must appeal to people of color, to the Hispanic and African-American communities. But, he can’t be seen as the minority candidate only; that’s a racially divisive tactic that would destroy his candidacy. He must appeal to the white voters also. That’s a problem; Hillary Clinton has a lock on the core of the white, Democratic voters – the middle-class, blue-collar population. So, Obama is forced to put together a strange coalition: people of color – often disaffected Latinos and African-Americans – with upper-middle class, educated, urban white folk. He’s walked that racial tightrope with amazing balance so far. Then up pops his minister this week, the Revered Jeremiah Wright, and cuts his legs right out from under him. You don’t expect your pastor to do you in like that. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Wright said some pretty outrageous things to the National Press Club, things about the black church and the black religious culture and tradition in the United States. Here are some excerpts of his speech.

The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates those who are holding them captive. It frees the captives and it frees the captors. It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors.

The prophetic theology of the black church, during the days of chattel slavery, was a theology of liberation. It was preached to set free those who were held in bondage spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically. And it was practiced to set the slaveholders free from the notion that they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel.

The prophetic theology of the black church is not only a theology of liberation; it is also a theology of transformation, which is also rooted in Isaiah 61, the text from which Jesus preached his inaugural message, as recorded by Luke. When you read the entire passage from either Isaiah 61 or Luke 4 and do not try to understand the passage or the content of the passage in the context of a sound bite, what you see is God’s desire for a radical change in a social order that has gone sour.

God’s desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people. God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society.

God’s desire is for positive change, transformation, real change, not cosmetic change, transformation, radical change or a change that makes a permanent difference, transformation. God’s desire is for transformation, changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders, and changed hearts in a changed world.

The prophetic theology of the black church is a theology of liberation; it is a theology of transformation; and it is ultimately a theology of reconciliation.

The Apostle Paul said, “Be ye reconciled one to another, even as God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.”

God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other, or put each other down.

God wants us reconciled, one to another.

What got into Wright? How dare a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ talk about liberation, transformation, and reconciliation – especially in a secular, public forum like the National Press Club? Doesn’t he know that a pastor is supposed to stand behind his pulpit in his own church, preach hell-fire and damnation, and invite people to repent and pray the sinner’s prayer? It’s about salvation. It’s about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. What does that have to do with liberation, transformation, and reconciliation? Those things sound – well, they sound political. What business does a minister have talking politics? What business does a minister have suggesting that the Gospel just might have something to say to our elected leaders about how God wants things done? What business does a minister have asserting that those in authority are answerable to God for their use or abuse of that authority? That kind of talk can get you in trouble. That kind of talk can get you fired. That kind of talk can get you crucified.

Well, this is a setup just to provoke you – just like the Gospel does from time to time. I don’t really mean to defend Jeremiah Wright. He did say some incendiary and divisive things – not to mention just plain stupid – over the past week and Obama was probably right in condemning his former minister’s words. But not everything he said was wrong. Some of it was pure Gospel. And our secular world – our political candidates, our elected officials, and our government – don’t quite know what to do with the Gospel when religious folk take their faith out of the churches and into the public arena. There are some assumptions about the role of faith and the church in politics that should be challenged. Who says that the role of the church is to preserve the status quo, wave the flag, endorse the politicians and their programs, support their wars, and pray for the troops they sent into those wars? Not Scripture.

So, I say again that I’m not here to defend the Reverend Wright; he’s a much bigger player on a much bigger stage than I am and certainly doesn’t need me to speak on his behalf. But I am here to defend the right of the church to speak the truth to the powers-that-be, or rather to the powers-that-think-they-be.

That’s what the early church – the church during the first few generations following the resurrection – did in their faith and practice. They announced in word and deed, in their meetings and in their communities, before one another and before the world that the powers-that-be were no longer the powers-that-are. They engaged in politics of the most fundamental form – politics as the creation of a people, which is really what politics is all about. They met daily in faith communities that included slaves and masters, male and female, powerful and disenfranchised. They shared all things in common and some of them were, at least on one occasion, struck down by God for withholding property from the common store and lying about it. They lived by and died for the faith and won an empire and a world for Jesus Christ. Now that’s politics – religion played out in the public forum.

The ancient faith at its best was bold and confident – no hedging of the bets, no waffling, no worries about political correctness – just a bold proclamation of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our modern faith seems to me often tentative – a best guess, one option among many, a truth that works for me but not necessarily the truth before which all people must ultimately bow. Can you imagine a modern Christian scholar invited to speak before an interfaith congress – Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, representatives of major and minor faiths the world over – opening his address like this?

I know that you are extremely religious; your faiths testify to that. But you hold these faiths in ignorance. What you worship in ignorance I now proclaim to you in truth: how God the creator of the universe became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, how through Jesus he has called all men to repentance, how through Jesus he will judge all mankind, how he has testified to this truth through raising Jesus from the dead (cf Acts 17:22-31).

That is the sound of the ancient faith proclaimed by Paul to the philosophers of the Areopagus in Athens, the National Press Club of its day. I’ll bet he sounded to them like, I don’t know, Jeremiah Wright maybe? I like the sound of that ancient faith – its boldness, its confidence. I want my modern faith to sound like that.

This brings me round to the event we celebrate this day, the Ascension of our Lord. We don’t make much of the Ascension in the modern church; it can’t begin to rival Christmas or Good Friday or Easter or even Pentecost in importance and attention. I’m not sure many of us know what to make of it. It belongs more to the ancient faith, I think – to a time of boldness and confidence. When you truly celebrate the Ascension, there can be no hedging of bets, no waffling, no worries about political correctness – just a bold proclamation of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The early Christians were quite convinced that the Kingdom of God had already come among them in and through the incarnation, life, death, and supremely in the resurrection of Jesus: not would come someday, mind you, but had already come now. It wasn’t here in its fullness, but it was here; it had been inaugurated. It was a project that Jesus had launched onto the stage of history, a project which was progressing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. These early Christians, the caretakers of the ancient faith, were likewise insistent that in and through his ascension Jesus had taken his rightful place of glory and authority at the right hand of God. Seated on the throne he had begun to reign: not will begin to reign someday, but had begun to reign now. The shorthand for all this, the way of capturing these great truths in the fewest words, is the earliest creedal statement of the ancient church: Jesus is Lord. To say Jesus is Lord or simply to call him Lord Jesus was to announce the present Kingdom of God and the present reign of Jesus as ruler of all.

Paul hedged no bets; he was not at all tentative when he proclaimed to the Ephesians the power of God that God put

to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:20-23).[2]

Paul hedged no bets; he was not at all tentative when he proclaimed to the Philippians that, because Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death on the cross

God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Php 2:9-11).

Peter hedged no bets; he was not at all tentative when he proclaimed to the massive gathering of Jews that first Pentecost following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus that

this Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:32-33, 36).

Polycarp, disciple of John the Apostle, hedged no bets; he was not at all tentative when he stood trial in the arena before a Roman proconsul, when he knew his martyrdom was at hand.

The proconsul became more insistent and said, “Take the oath and I will release you. Revile Christ.” But Polycarp responded, “For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?”[3]

These fathers of the faith hedged no bets, were not at all tentative in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ because they knew that in the Ascension, Jesus had taken his rightful place of authority and rule at the right hand of God, his Father and our Father; because they knew that all pretenders to the throne – all would-be rulers on earth and in the spiritual realms – had been cast down and trampled underfoot by the true King; because they knew that the redemptive work of Jesus – death, burial, resurrection, and, yes, ascension – had inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and that they were even then citizens of that kingdom, as Paul himself proclaimed.

[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:13).

Here’s what’s most impressive to me: Peter, Paul, Polycarp, and all the rest of the mothers and fathers of the ancient faith proclaimed the present reality of the Kingdom of God and the present rule of the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of and directly to a Roman Empire that dominated the known world, directly in the face of an Emperor who considered himself the son of God and who claimed all earthly authority for himself. What gave them this boldness, this confidence? They knew, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that at the Ascension Christ had taken his rightful place of authority and rule at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph 1:21).

What is the evidence that they were right, that the Kingdom of God had come and that Jesus had begun his reign at his Ascension? Peter, Paul, Polycarp, and all the rest of the mothers and fathers of the ancient faith – they were and are the evidence. Men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, rich and poor, powerful and disenfranchised living in the Kingdom of God right there and right then, in holiness and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, proclaiming him as Lord and bending the knee only to him. The ancient church being the church was the evidence that the Kingdom of God had come – there and then – and that Jesus had begun his reign.

Let us stand today and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come and that Jesus is even now reigning over all things in heaven and on earth and we will be met with skepticism at best and hostility at worst – from outside the church, certainly, and maybe also from within it. Can we seriously maintain the present reality of the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ in light of war and genocide and poverty and terrorism and natural disasters and human suffering? Yes. Yes, so long as the church is the church. So long as there is a community of the faithful living in the Kingdom of God amidst the surrounding chaos, living in holiness and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, proclaiming him as Lord and bending the knee only to him. So long as there is a community of the faithful bringing light into the darkness, healing into a wounded world, broken bread to the hungry, living water to the thirsty, and eternal life to the dying – and all in the name of the ascended Lord Jesus Christ who even now sits enthroned at the right hand of God. We can boldly and confidently proclaim the present reality of the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ wherever and whenever, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we become the answer to the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

And if the Kingdom of God doesn’t look exactly like the world expects it to, is that any wonder? Since when did Jesus do things the world’s way? Of course, the Kingdom of God doesn’t look like a dictatorship in which all opposition is brutally crushed and swept away. Of course, the reign of Christ doesn’t look like a tyrannical exercise of unlimited power. This may be what the world would expect, but we know better, don’t we? The Kingdom of God is like – well, it’s like a treasure hidden in field, a lump of leaven hidden in several loaves of bread, a tiny mustard seed planted in the ground. And the reign of Christ? Well, Jesus came among us as one who serves and told us to do likewise. Jesus took up not a scepter but a cross and told us to do likewise. Jesus laid down his life for the world and told us to do likewise. That’s what the reign of Christ looks like in the midst of this fallen world.

The angels said to those who witnessed the Ascension,

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

When he does we know that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Php 2:10-11). I suspect that no one – not even those who hate and oppose him – will be coerced or forced to do this. Rather, I think that witnessing his beauty and glory, they will spontaneously fall to their knees in worship, in acknowledgement of what the church knows already through the Ascension: the Kingdom of God has come and the Lord Jesus Christ has begun his reign. This is the politics of the ancient church and this is its bold proclamation: Jesus is Lord. May it be ours also.


[1] Transcript of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s speech before the National Press Club on Monday, April 28, 2008.
[2] Unless otherwise noted all scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
[3] The Martyrdom of Polycarp (9). The Apostolic Fathers Volume 1. Loeb Classical Library. Bart D. Ehrman, translator.