Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Rap on Jeremiah

I have just begun teaching a nine month Bible study on one of my favorite books, Jeremiah. The prophet lived at a time of great political, social and religious upheaval, most notably the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. I find Jeremiah has much to say about our time, as we experience great cultural and social shifts in Western society. He answers the question--albeit in a nuanced and challenging way--of how does one live faithfully to God in a time of faithlessness and chaos? As anyone who has read Jeremiah can tell, it is far from chronological in its order, which can make it a challenge to comprehend. I've put together the following short poem, which includes all the critical names and dates to understand the immediate context of Jeremiah and hopefully make it meaning and message more apparent to our current challenges. I hope this silly poem might since ignite the curiosity of some readers to revisit this treasure of a book.

Jeremiah prophesied in 626,
When Josiah was trying the religion to fix.
Pharaoh Neco came out and put him down;
To Jehoiakim the son he gave the crown.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon
Made the two kings his own pawn.
Then Jehoiakim thought he had a plan,
Free the nation and rebel against the man.
Dying suddenly his son Joiachin
Was sent into exile with the rest of his kin.
This all happened in 597,
False hope ran high, as high as heaven.
Zedekiah the uncle became governor.
Jeremiah was then a frank messenger.
To an end it all came in 586,
When Nebuchadnezzar made Jerusalem sticks.
The land turned to chaos and murder and strife;
Jeremiah went to Egypt for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A sermon on reality TV & conversion of the heart

Gospel Lesson:  St. Mark 7:1-23

One of the major trends in the reality tv movement of the past two decades has been the makeover show. The same storyline runs through virtually all of them. They start with a person, family or group who are somehow deficient or in need of real help; then enters the expert or experts at whatever difficulty they are facing; the right cure is applied. The conclusion of the show is meant to convey dramatic resolution as the subject has been transformed. These shows point to a fundamental human hunger for salvation. It is remarkable that there is a vestige of the Christian account of the salvation of sinners in the genre of the makeover show. Of course, the problem with these shows is the transformation and salvation offered is purely on the level of externals. A material or physical medicine is applied to what are mostly emotional and spiritual maladies. Take for example, one of my personal favorites for a number of years: Clean House. Each episode introduces a new family who is burdened by clutter. It is clear that many are suffering from more than just an inability to throw things out. But the experts arrive, sell everything at a garage sale, and transform the house from clutter to haven. But the emotional and spiritual issues that caused the chaos are often overlooked or minimized. You see, there is a relationship between one's external circumstances and one's internal state, and an external salve alone will not heal an internal problem.

This is precisely the point our Lord Jesus is making in todays Gospel lesson. The passage begins with a legal dispute brought by the Pharisees and scribes who were the authorities on the application of the law found in the Torah, the first books of the Bible. These Jewish leaders ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. It was not a question of sanitation but of ritual purity. You see, according to the traditions of the scribes, hands must be washed prior to eating. There are two problems with this: the first is that it is a very vigorous interpretation of the law. The custom of hand-washing was based on law of ritual washing for the priests prior to entering the temple and offering sacrifice. The tradition was trying to say that even eating a meal is sacred—not, of course, a bad sentiment—but on the other hand, to claim divine authority from the Torah for this custom was more than a stretch. A second and more important problem has to do with the nature of the inquiry made by the Pharisees and scribes. For Jesus it is evident that they are far more concerned with externals than than with internal considerations of motive, will and love. For our Lord it would be far too easy to fulfill all these external customs but have no love for God or for one's neighbor, and this, he says, is fundamentally hypocrisy. He quotes Isaiah as characterizing their hypocrisy: This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

Our Lord is not saying that externals are bad or unnecessary. That would be bad news for us Episcopalians because externals are among the things we do best: good music, beautify liturgy, and well-ordered worship. But as we learn from our Lord's response to this line of questioning, we have to begin with internal and allow the external to be manifestation of that. In the discourse following he says, “There is nothing from outside a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” He then goes on to list those evils that begin in the mind and in the will and are the source of defilement. By the way, ritual defilement, uncleanness or impurity are those thing that disrupt one's relationship with God meaning most importantly, if you were unclean, you could not enter the temple for worship. Our Lord touches the man with leprosy and is touched by the woman with the issue of blood—both leprosy and blood were causes of ritual defilement. This woman and the leper would have been like untouchables because the defilement was contractible—if one touched them one would be unclean. By touching them, Jesus shows that this notion of defilement is not to be worshiped above love for neighbor, but he also remarkably restores them to society at large and to temple worship and even to God. The point our Lord is making in this lesson is summarized very well in another discourse with the Pharisees where he says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:25-26).  Cleanse first that which is within.

Again, I do not think that Jesus is saying externals are unimportant. Later Christian thinking would come to the conclusion that ritual law had been superseded in the New Testament, but our Lord is not rejecting ritual law in our passage. He is saying that religion, if it is to be true, has to be first a religion of the heart. A religion of the heart then can become the basis for the externals of religion. Those externals then are a manifestation of the internal, religion of the heart. In fact, the external becomes the natural complement to the internal aspects of faith. This is something we already realize instinctively. There are many Protestant versions of Christianity where the religion of the heart never expresses itself externally: these tend to produce churches that market a highly subjective faith which results in chaos and volatility. A further complication is when the religion of the heart is not supported by external structure, it often depends on emotions to maintain itself; emotions inevitably turn and can cause spiritual shipwreck. The opposite extreme of well-ordered externals but an absence of internal religion is a temptation for the mainline and Catholic denominations, and this of course is the problem of the Pharisees and scribes. External religion isolated from internal faith results in a sterile and cold religion that we have all witnessed and perhaps even practiced. When our liturgy, traditions and worship become more real to us than the living presence of Christ, we are worshiping a pious myth rather than the living God.

In looking at our lives, we have to start with our hearts and not with externals. Consider this fact that flies in the face of our consumerist culture: material goods are rarely if ever transformative. I promise the desired thing will not bring lasting happiness or joy. Our Lord indicates that our hearts need to be clean if we to be ritually clean, that is, in right relationship with God. Consider again the fact that our hearts are the moral center of our person. St. Augustine said that before Adam and Eve ever ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree, before the serpent ever tempted Eve, Adam had a bad will, a will to sin. Sin is clothed in lots of forms: it can be blatant and uncloaked, it can appear in altruistic guise—after all if you are giving to the poor just to stroke your own ego, how do you think God reckons this act?—and sin can even appear in a religious guise. Think of the Pharisee who went up to temple only to pray to himself about how much superior he was to others. But the matter is even more stark: traditional theology says that if you have the will to sin but not the occasion to sin you are still guilty of the sin.

But how, you might ask, can we ever begin to change our own hearts? It is the heart that seems to be most out of our control. The prophet Jeremiah says of the heart: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? And in the succeeding verse he answers his own question: I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins (17:9-10). It is God who knows our hearts and intentions, our wanderings even better than we do. But he also wills to change our hearts. The Lord speaks through the prophet Ezekiel, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean. . . A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (36.25-26). A changed heart is not something we can manufacture, it is something that only God can give us. I love this imagery: He can change our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. Again you might ask: how does he do this? What is it that can soften a stoney heart? Brothers and sisters, it is love. Love is the only thing that can transform the heart. Ezekiel prophecy finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Look at the cross, where God's love embraces all of our sin and brokenness. Even as our arms were crossed in antipathy to God, Jesus extends his arms in love. The love of God removes our stoney hearts and gives us a new heart of flesh. Isn't it self-evident that once we accept that we are wholly loved by God, we become free, free to love others not of obligation or self-interest but in the freedom of self-giving and self-sacrificial love, and thus, in our own small way, to be vessels of God's heart-changing love. As we come to this Altar, we remember once again the love of our Savior given in his precious Body and Blood. May we ever be nourished, renewed and transformed by this love given for each of us and indeed for the life of the world. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An invocation for a men's civic supper club

Almighty God, the God of righteouness, of truth and of love, the author of peace and giver of every good gift. We thank you for the manifold blessings of this life: for true and unassuming friendship, for affectionate and loving family, and for a strong civic community. We give you thanks not only for the light but also for the darkness: for trial, tribulation and adversity which have called us out of ourselves and into the brotherhood of love. We give you thanks for sparing us from trial that we did not have strength to bear, for delivering us out of many present troubles, and for the hope of our final deliverance in your kingdom. We remember before you our nation. Deliver it from selfish ambition, idle sloth, vain strife and shallow materialism. As we turn to you and order our lives according to your Word, may the civic virtues of respect for authority, thriftiness and universal charity flourish. We pray to you for all young people. Infuse in them a passion for truth, save them from the sins of blind youth, and deliver them from the heedless pursuit of the pleasures of this life. Finally and above all, we give you thanks for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ. In him, our elder brother, representative and head, the door of forgiveness and new life is always open. It is in his name that we pray. Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A sermon on the occasion of a Baptism

[31] And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.[32] And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. [33] And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; [34] And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. [35] And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. [36] And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; [37] And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
                              - St. Mark 7:31-37

The Gospel lesson today relates our Lord's healing of a deaf and apparently mute man. In fact, the Greek word indicates that he could speak, but only with great difficulty—hence the translation in the King James, he had an impediment in his speech. The fact that he could speak tells us that he was not deaf from birth, but rather, his loss of hearing must have been from an accident or disease. In the beginning of our lesson, our Lord ventures into a predominately Gentile region: Tyre, Sidon and Decapolis, but we cannot say for certain that the deaf man was a Gentile as there were communities of Jews living in those areas. Note the important fact, that nowhere do we have a record of the deaf man asking to be healed. In fact, it seems to be on the impetus and initiative of the those who bring the deaf man to Jesus, that our Lord heals him. In nearly every healing Jesus performed, an individual had faith. In this case, as in several others, it does not appear to be the faith of the one healed but of those who bring the afflicted person. We have here a picture of the goodwill and pity our Lord has for broken and hurting people. There is much here that is true of our own lives. None of us came to faith in isolation. At a certain time—the fulness of time—our first encounter with the Lord was probably as a result of being brought to the Lord by someone else. Perhaps a mother, or a godparent or a mentor. We must remember that even the small faith we offer to God is not our own; it is the gift of God and it has been nurtured by others. If we understood this, then there would truly be no room to cast aspersions on the apparently unbelieving or the faithless.

In this Gospel narrative we have a picture of infant baptism. Allow me to explain. The faith needed for our Lord to work, as I've noted, is probably not the faith of the deaf man but of those who bring him to Jesus. If someone asked you how to become a Christian what answer would you give them? On the day of Pentecost, Peter gave this one. After our Lord's Ascension, Peter filled with the Holy Spirit preached to the crowds of Jesus the Messiah. Just a few months earlier, a similar crowd gathered for a Jewish feast had called for the crucifixion of Jesus, and now Peter tells them that this Jesus whom they crucified is Lord and Christ. The response of the crowd is immediate: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter's answer is a wonderful summation of entry into the Christian life: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2.37-38). Repent and be baptized. Christian initiation is twofold, repentance and baptism. Repentance itself is a twofold action: a turning away from sin and self and a turning to God in faith and obedience. From Peter's words, it is evident that baptism and faith go hand in hand. If you only had one or the other, that is, baptism or faith, one would have a truncated Christianity. Well, you might ask, how does an infant have faith when baptism is administered? The faith comes from those who bring the child to baptism to be touched by the Lord, just as those men brought the deaf man to the Lord to be touched by him. I think it would be a reasonable conclusion that the deaf man believed in Jesus after his healing. In the same way, parents, godparents and the local church are to nurture faith in baptized children so that the faith becomes that of the child and not only of those who brought the child to be baptized. And just as our faith is not a static reality but something that grows or diminishes as it is fed by prayer and the Scriptures so too baptism cannot be merely a past event. Fr. Bright likes to say that baptism is the greatest gift one will ever receive, and it takes one's whole life to open this gift, this ever-flowing fountain of grace. We are always in need of returning to those two great pillars of our initiation: repentance and baptism. These are not to be simply past events, but on-going realities.

I mentioned earlier that the condition of the deaf man indicated that he had a speech impediment. In fact, the Greek word used to describe this disability is nowhere else used in the New Testament. The evangelist probably employed this somewhat unusual word in order to allude to an Old Testament passage that has strong messianic overtones. Listen to this passage from Isaiah 35 as the prophet describes the work of the Lord: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of stammerers shall be clear.” The tongue of stammerers. Notice the close verbal parallel between the last verse of the Gospel lesson and this passage from Isaiah. For Mark, it is evident that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. And, of course, Jesus quite literally healed the blind, the deaf and the lame. But Isaiah's prophecy and our Lord's ministry of healing have spiritual implications as well. According to the Bible, every one is a little bit blind, a little bit deaf, a little bit stammering in their speech. For this reason, our Lord says repeatedly, he who has ears to hear, let him hear. There are of course many reasons for this spiritual condition. One reason is out of sheer laziness in that we can and do live unexamined lives. Think of the person raised in one place who has no love for the geography of that place; in nearly all cases, he will have to leave home before he can see and appreciate the beauty that has always surrounded him.  Another cause of spiritual blindness is the fact of our creaturely limitations. We are born into certain epochs and ages, a certain society and culture. It is difficult to think about what is already assumed in one's culture. How many white Americans who lived at the formation of our nation and who were otherwise moral human beings did not recognize the immorality of owning another human being? It is very difficult to be objective about one's received culture and even family background. A third cause of our spiritual blindness is, of course, sin. Life, true life, is meant to be dynamic and growing, but sin is deadening and ossifies all that it comes into contact with. We easily fall into the cycle of transgression, guilt & shame, superficial repentance, and finally sin again. Before long, our senses are numbed to God and to the world around us. We cannot bear to hear the message of God's love; we cannot see the beautiful world he has given to us. I am convinced that the more we empirically examine the world around us the more we will see these conditions of being deaf, blind, lame and of stammering speech. Our Lord's ministry of healing evidences his pity for such as these.

Allow me now to read the sentences following in the passage from Isaiah: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of stammerers shall be clear, because water has broken forth in the wilderness and a gully in a thirsty land; the dry place shall turn into marshlands, and in the thirsty land there shall be a spring of water (NET LXX Isaiah 35:5-7). The message and promise of baptism is that water has broken forth in the wilderness. Our physical, emotional and spiritual infirmities are like a wilderness in which there seems to be no life sustaining water, and there is not as long as we are focused on my trial, my difficulty, my adversity. Our baptism is like a fountain that will never cease to flow. It is a fountain of grace in the wilderness of blindness and sin. Whether we are facing trials from outside or our own inner demons, we can always say—like Martin Luther when he was assailed by guilt—I am baptized. I am baptized. May we ever find our baptism to be a solace in trial and a well of grace.