Thursday, March 27, 2014

3rd Sunday in Lent

St. John 4:5-42

Most human beings feel like they are on a search for God. I am convinced, however, that most of us are trying to avoid God and avoid the truth. Most of our lives are elaborate coping and avoidance strategies. Entertainment in moderate doses can help one deal with the stresses of everyday life, but we now live in a world in which we are being entertained to death. Even religion can become an avoidance strategy. Years ago I knew a nice, devout woman who went from church to church looking for a service or Bible study every night of the week. A large part of why she was doing this however was to avoid her painful home life of a loveless marriage in which husband and wife were enemies living under one roof.

The Gospel lesson this morning is one of the longest in the modern lectionary. I elected to forgo a lesson from the Old Testament with the hope that we would not be fatigued and unable to concentrate by the time we came to this powerful narrative. The Samaritan woman in this Gospel is an example of avoidance and evasion. In this she represents humanity as a whole. Our Lord on the other hand displays perfect tact in responding to her evasions and avoidance. He leads her gently and loving yet definitely towards the truth. In this he shows us how God pursues us and leads us into the light. We tend to think in terms of our search for an unseen and invisible God, but the profounder truth is that more often God is in search of us. Not of course that God does not know where we are. Consider the scene in Genesis immediately after Adam and Eve have transgressed God's commandment. The text reads, Adam and Eve heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" Here was Adam's chance to be honest, but of course, he did not step into the light to admit his transgression until God exposed it. In the Gospel lesson this morning, our Lord is essentially calling to this woman, "where are you?"

Now the first thing that needs to be said about this scene is the degree to which our Lord transcends and breaks social barriers of his age. Our Lord was a man, and she was a woman. It was severely frowned upon for a men and women to spend time alone together except for spouses and families. Further, he was Jewish, she was Samaritan. The Samaritans and Jews had a long history of antipathy and discord. Jews perceived the Samaritan religion as a watered-down, heretical version of Judaism. In contemporary idiom, she was Mormon or Jehovah's Witness. Finally, she was a woman of bad repute. To by-standers, this would look like a priest talking alone with a prostitute. To the itching ears of gossip and social propriety, this looks delightfully bad.

There is a hint of this woman's bad reputation in the detail that she comes at the sixth hour to draw water. The Romans numbered the hours of the day from sunrise and so the sixth hour would be about noon. Nobody, but the person who is trying to avoid contact with others, would come to draw water during the hottest part of the day. You might come in the morning or in the late afternoon, but not the middle of the day. Under ordinary circumstances these two would have completely ignored one another's presence. According to the mores of the time, there could be no reason nor benefit from a conversation. But our Lord approaches her and initiates a conversation.

There are two things that are remarkable about the interaction that unfolds between them. The first is that Jesus gradually leads up to this revelation of her history. It is as if he takes her by the hand and gently leads her into the light by degrees. One imagines how a zealous street preacher might approach this woman, abrasively calling attention first to her sins and short comings. Instead our Lord repeatedly mentions the call of God to transform humanity: "you would have asked of him, and he would have given you living water"; "God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." The second thing that is remarkable in this conversation is the way this woman tries to evade and avoid the pursuit of our Lord. She understands his offer of living water literally, thinking that he is offering running water from a spring or stream rather than the standing water of a well. She also falls back on formulaic answers from the entrenched hostility between Jews and Samaritans. "our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" "when Messiah comes, he will shows us all things." Both remarks are intended to halt the conversation as she falls back into her entrenched position as a Samaritan. It is like two people of opposing view having a debate about abortion; inevitably they fall back onto formulaic expressions and arguments and so the debate goes no where. Except, of course, in this case our Lord does not see himself as the adversary of this woman. He is calling out to her, as his Father's agent, "where are you?"

The most explosive moment comes when our Lord asks her to bring her husband; she responds that she has none. Our Lord proceeds to name her history, not in the spirit of condemnation and judgment. By naming this history, he casts his light upon it. By naming it, there is implicit forgiveness and new life. She certainly saw it as new life because at the end of her interview she goes to her neighbors--the very people she was trying to avoid in going to the well at noon--and tells them, "come, see a man who told me all that I ever did."

Most Christian people I know have two identifies. There is the public religious identity that is marked by regular devotion and piety. Then there is the private fallen identity that gives in all too easily to temptation and besetting sin. You might say that sounds like a hypocrite; am I saying everyone is a hypocrite? Well, partly, yes, but in my observation most people are quite sincere in their Christian devotion and piety. The purpose of Lent is to allow our lives--all of our lives--to be exposed to the light of the Lord, in a sense to bring those two identities together. In our special devotions, we are supposed to hear the Master calling, "where are you?"--as he searches for us amidst our distraction, our entertainment, our waywardness. Imagine what it would be like for our Lord to name your history--both the good and bad--and to know that if you did not stop him or obstruct him, there was forgiveness implicit in that naming. Could you this Lent let our loving Lord Jesus name your whole life not just the Christian part of it; could you let him name your whole history not just the parts you are proud of? Even now, God is calling, "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light" (Ephesians 5:14).

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

1st Sunday in Lent

In the current young people's confirmation class, we have been studying the opening chapters of Genesis to see how they lay out the framework for the entire narrative of the Bible. This past week we looked at Genesis 3, the story of the Fall, in which the serpent tempts Eve to break God's commandments. The serpent cunningly asks Eve, "did God really say, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" The implication of the question is that somehow God is depriving Adam and Eve of something they rightfully should enjoy. The serpent hints that God is capricious in his commands, in the way that a child might be tyrannical if suddenly he were given unlimited power. Eve's and Adam's decision to break God's commandments indicates that they want to live apart from God. In the narrative, that is precisely the result of their decision, as they are cast out of the Garden of Eden. It is not surprising that in the succeeding chapter of Genesis, someone implies by his actions that he wants to live apart from his fellow-man: Cain murders Abel. You see, in sin there is a desire for autonomy and self-sufficiency, a desire to live apart from God and others, a will to live by one's own light rather than the light of God. Americans have always prided themselves on autonomy and self-sufficiency but neither is a particularly biblical value.

In the Gospel lesson this morning, we have the account of our Lord's temptation in the wilderness. St. Paul and the early church fathers spoke of Jesus as a new Adam. The old Adam, sought to live by his own light; he desired to be autonomous and self-sufficient, and every child of this Adam has followed in his footsteps. The story needed to be rewritten. Genesis 3 needed to have a different decision and a different outcome. We needed a new Adam.

In the first temptation, our Lord is tempted to turn stones into bread. The narrative relates that our Lord had been fasting for forty days; undoubtedly, he was hungry. The body requires food and sustenance to live, but in our fallen condition, we desire more than we can handle. Ironically we desire that which will ultimately hurt us, because we desire inordinately and excessively. Such is the deception of the flesh. Such inordinate and excessive desires indicate that we are hungering for something more, something deeper and more profound. Think of the person who eats not because he is hungry but because he is sad or lonely. Or of the person who sleeps around because she is looking for love. Our Lord understands all of this, but he rejects such empty searching. There is a hunger in us that can only be filled by God. The bread of this world will not suffice. That is why there is a kind of emptiness evident in the lives of those who only seek the things of this world. If the things of this world could satisfy, the wealthy and the famous would be the most joyful and loving people around, but it is, I think, fairly obvious to the casual observer that there is just as much misery in Hollywood as every else, and perhaps a little more.

In the second temptation, our Lord is placed on the highest point of the temple and exhorted to cast himself down, confident that the angels would catch him. The temple, of course, was a public place, a place where many observant Jews could have observed first-hand this extraordinary miracle. Who could doubt that this man was the Messiah, once they had seen this miracle? Certainly not Jesus nor those religious folks standing by. In our fallen nature, we want proof. We want to know for certain that God exists, and we would like to hear him tell us exactly what to do.  We do not like ambiguity or uncertainty. The way God has made us, however, is that we are built for faith and trust. He did not whisper over Adam and Eve's shoulders, "don't do that." Rather, he gave them the freedom to obey his command without restraint or coercion. Occasionally, we will try to bargain with God: give me some sign that you are real or that I am supposed to do a particular action; such bargaining does not succeed because we are built for faith, and proof would destroy this faith. Consider the fact that every human relationship is built on trust. You open yourself up to someone by degrees, trusting that they will not harm you. Our relationship with God is similar. We will not ever get "the proof" that we, in our fallen nature, desire. Rather we have to walk and live by faith, handing our lives over to God trusting that he will work out his good purposes.

In the third temptation, our Lord is tempted to gain worldly power by worshiping Satan. "All the kingdoms of the world will I give thee, if thou wilt worship me," Satan bids our Lord. We say that Jesus was born a king. He was born of the family and lineage of David, the kings of Israel and Judah. But Jesus is a different type of king from every earthly power and authority. In our fallen nature, we believe that might is right. To have power is to control and to dominate. The tools of such power are fear and coercion and intimidation. Our Lord rejects this type of power in rejecting this temptation. True power, he shows us by his life and ministry, is to serve and to love. The tools of such power are humility and kindness and love.

In overcoming these temptation, our Lord becomes for us a new Adam: An Adam that does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; An Adam who does not live by proof but by faith, not by sight but by trust; an Adam who rejects the power of tyranny and oppression in favor of the power of love and service. St. Paul tells the Church that we belong to this new Adam by virtue of baptism and faith in him. The story has been rewritten, and we do not have to live according to that fallen Adam. Now we may live according to this new Adam, our Lord Jesus, who renews and transforms us into the image of his glory.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

History of the Book of Common Prayer

This excellent video helps to explain the origin and purpose of the Book of Common Prayer.

Last Sunday after Epiphany: the Tranfiguration

St. Matthew 17:1-9

He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them.

In the sermon last Sunday, I spoke of how grace not only reveals God’s goodwill towards us but also changes us so that we might love with a divine love and be as God is. The verse which ended last week’s Gospel lesson--“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”--is less a command than a description of what will happen to us and to humanity as we become more open to this transforming grace of God. It might be justly asked what does it mean to be open to the grace of God? Just it merely mean being especially religious or spiritual? The typical attitude towards grace as well as many things in life is that if I want something I am going to have to earn it and work for it. That is a fine model for the ego, but it fails to account for the way in which God is the source, continuance and final end of our existent.  The lessons this morning indicate the path which we must take to receive this transforming grace.

The lessons all relate to the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain. Transfiguration is a word used to describe the change in the appearance of Jesus at this event. Coming at the end of Epiphany season, there is a hint of our Lord’s divine nature as well as his perfect human nature in this transfiguration. The Old Testament lesson shows Moses ascending a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments on the two tables of stone. The mountain is full of clouds and fire as Moses encounters the glory of the Lord. In the Epistle, we have a first-hand account of the transfiguration with the voice heard from heaven. Finally, in the Gospel lesson, our Lord takes three chosen disciples up to a mountain where the glory of his perfect human nature is revealed. Moses and Elijah appear with our Lord; Moses represents the law while Elijah represents the prophets; together they imply the unity that is between the New Testament and the Old Testament.

A common element in these lessons is clouds. The cloud covers Mount Sinai as Moses enters the glory of the Lord. The cloud interrupts Peter’s misguided suggestion to build tabernacles.  But clouds are also a motif in Scripture generally. They often symbolize God’s presence. For example, the cloud and fiery pillar that accompany the Hebrews in their journey from Egypt to the promised land. Consider too the clouds into which our Lord ascends forty days after Easter, as he enters the very presence of God.

We have a word for clouds into which we enter: fog. Fog probably makes us think of lack of visibility. It can be disconcerting and scary driving in fog because of the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Scripture uses clouds to symbolize God’s presence; we think of clouds as obscuring and limiting vision. These two ways of understanding clouds are not as different as they might at first appear. To enter God’s presence, to see his glory is to accept a degree of uncertainty, a degree of blindness.

Allow me to explain. We naturally want to know what our future looks like. We would like to have some certainty about employment, money, the welfare of our children and other loved ones. In order to secure this certainty we work very hard to plan and protect that which we hold dearest. We worry whether our children will ever sort out their lives. We worry that family members will become gravely ill. So often all this planning and anxiety comes to nothing, in large part because we anticipate events over which we have no control. "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." We make our plans but are never truly ready for the tempest of time and decay.

There is an alternative to this constant fretting over the future, and it is called faith. Faith is accepting our limited ability to see into the future or change it and trusting that God will order every part of our lives. This necessarily involves surrendering our plans and anxiety. We have to surrender our children to the grace of God which can preserve them through every trial and trouble of this life. We have to surrender our loved ones to God knowing that their ultimate security and health can only be found in God. To accept this faith, to surrender in this way is to enter into a cloud. It is not a cloud of confusion and chaos, but the cloud of God’s sure mercies.

Consider the Hebrews who came out of slavery in Egypt. They had visions of what the free life would look like, but when these images did not immediately materialize they actually told Moses they wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. The comforts of prison life were more alluring than the uncertainty of wandering in the desert on the way to an unknown, unseen promised land. Moses enters into the clouds of faith and hears these staggering words of God: “I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.” For the Hebrews the alternatives were these: the comforts of a known prison or the uncertainty of faith in God’s plan for them as a people.

There is a similar faith in the account of our Lord’s transfiguration. The passage about our Lord’s transfiguration is preceded by Peter’s great confession. Jesus questions his disciples, who do you say that I am? To which Peter answers, thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now Christ is simply the Greek word for Messiah, and for a Jew to confess someone as messiah would mean that he would very much anticipate the world to change in a dramatic and definitive way. The hope of many first century Jews was for the Romans to end their occupation of Israel. For the pious, the messiah would be the one to win this independence. But for Peter and the disciples no such victory is given. Instead, they witness Jesus transfigured and then as they come down the mountain, in the verses following our lesson, they are told that “The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again.” This was not exactly what they were expecting of their messiah. Matthew writes, And they were exceeding sorry. The disciples are soon going to have to enter the uncertainty of Good Friday. They will enter the cloud that is said to have covered the sky the three hours our Lord was nailed on the cross.

My friends, we have been called to come up the mountain, to enter the cloud of faith and uncertainty. It is the uncertainty of the wandering through the desert on the way to a promised land. It is the uncertainty of the loneliness and desolation of the cross on the way to the empty tomb. If we are prepared to surrender the images of what we want our lives to be like or what we think they should be like, then we will open ourselves up to receiving God’s grace, because in surrender, we become open to love, joy and peace. After all, if you are so busy pining after the comforts of prison life, a life that you think is certain and secure, there will be no energy or openness for love or joy or peace. Prison life is not about love but about self-preservation. Prison life is not about joy but about accumulating as many moments of fleeting happiness as possible. Prison life is not about peace but about trying to forget that you have resigned yourself to bondage. My friends, in the words of St. Paul, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).