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.


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