Saturday, March 23, 2019

"Trust God and ..." - March 24, 2019

Psalm 37:1-9

When I read over Psalm 37 a few weeks ago, the one verse that stuck in my head, or the one part of one verse, was “Trust in God and do right.”  When I read it more closely, I saw that verse three says,

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 

That is something very different, and I will get back to that, but I admit that I was disappointed because I had a hymn all picked out to go with trusting God and doing right, not trusting God and doing good.  In fact, I think that might be where the phrase that was stuck in my head comes from. 

It was written by Norman Mcleod, a Scottish Presbyterian who led a group of highlanders to settle in Nova Scotia in 1817.  The community moved to Cape Breton Island in 1829, and then when the same potato blight that hit Ireland hit them in 1847, they all moved to Australia and a year later to New Zealand.  They must have been a hearty bunch.  Mcleod definitely had a feisty streak, and it shows up in the hymn I was thinking about:

Courage, brother, do not stumble,
Though thy path be dark as night;
There’s a star to guide the humble:
Trust in God and do the right.
Let the road be rough and dreary,
And its end far out of sight,
Foot it bravely; strong or weary,
Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

Perish policy and cunning,
Perish all that fears the light!
Whether losing, whether winning,
Trust in God and do the right.
Trust no party, sect, or faction;
Trust no leaders in the fight;
Put in every word or action,
Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

Some will hate thee, some will love thee,
Some will flatter, some will slight;
Cease from man, and look above thee:
Trust in God and do the right.
Simple rule, and safest guiding,
Inward peace and inward might,
Star upon our path abiding,
Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

The music was written decades later by Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, who also wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, and has that same punchy, go-get-‘em feeling.  Go, follow bravely!  Let’s bring in the kingdom of God!  There’s a whole catalog of those nineteenth-century songs that stir up Christian courage.

“Peal out the watchword! Silence it never!
Song of spirits, rejoicing and free!
Peal out the watchword!  Loyal forever,
King of our lives, by thy grace we will be!”

You’ve got to love that.

“Lord, we are able; our spirits are thine.
Remake them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
A beacon to God, to love and loyalty.”

I’ll stop.  The reason I’ll stop is that Psalm 37 isn’t telling us to do right, but to do good.

            Now, those two impulses are not in conflict.  But to do good, I would suggest, is the harder of the two, in part because it doesn’t always carry the same sense of satisfaction (or maybe “dignity” would be a better word).  To do good often involves setting yourself aside in ways that call for an internal, rather than an external, struggle.

            I would point to the story of Jesus birth.  Matthew [1:18-19] tells us,
“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Joseph would have been totally within his rights, totally justified, at least at that point, to make a public statement about the whole situation.  Instead, he let kindness and consideration take over, and if you put yourself in that position, it is not an easy thing to do, especially in a society where a pregnancy like that would conceivably end up with the mother becoming, at best, an outcast and, at worst, dead.  Then God called on Joseph to go even one step further, to marry Mary and to raise Jesus as his own, which he did.

“Trust in the Lord and do good.”

            The “trust” part of that is major.  Joseph had to keep on trusting God from that moment.  He had another dream, just after the visit of the Wise Men, where he was warned that Herod would try to kill the baby, so Joseph took the mother and child and they became refugees in Egypt.  He had another message in another dream a few years later, letting him know that the coast was clear, and he uprooted them again to go home.  He and Mary had another scare when Jesus was twelve years old and they took him to the temple and when the family left, Jesus stayed behind without telling anyone.  They had to turn around and search all over Jerusalem until they found him.  Tell me that wouldn’t take trust.  Imagine being entrusted with the care of the Messiah, and losing him.  For that matter, I wonder if Joseph suspected that the people who wanted Jesus dead as a child might have gotten to him then.  I wonder if he thought how careless he had been to let him get anywhere near Jerusalem, the center of danger.  I wonder if he had a hunch somewhere in the back of his mind that it could be in Jerusalem that the Messiah would be killed.  I wonder if Joseph understood that even more would be asked of Jesus than had been asked of himself, both in trust and in doing good, more than had been asked of anyone, ever.

            Back in Jerusalem, while Mary and Joseph were going frantic, Jesus had been discussing the scriptures with the teachers in the temple.  One of the passages that he knew was this psalm.  How do we know that?  He quotes it.  We didn’t read the whole psalm this morning.  We heard verse nine say,

“…those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.”

Two verses later you’ll hear, right there, words that Jesus would point to in the Beatitudes.  It says,

“…the meek shall inherit the land.”

Certainly, then, Jesus knew the rest of this passage, with its urging to trust the Lord and to do good, which he did, but also to trust the Lord when doing good would mean bearing up under injustice without giving into it, to show the ultimate inability of hatred and cruelty to overcome innocence and faith, love and mercy.

“Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”
[Psalm 37:5-6]

For Jesus it would even mean letting them torture and kill him, and the people there that day tossed Jesus’ failure to lash out like them and the rest of us back at him, when that failure was really the greatest success:
“He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to.”  [Matthew 27:42-43]
To do the good he was sent to do, he had to trust as no one else has ever done, committing his way to the Lord, committing his life to the Lord, committing even his dying to the Lord who would vindicate him on Sunday morning, but this was still Friday.

            We, with our enjoyment of being right – let’s even use the word “pride” – want to jump ahead so quickly to the victorious songs and the glory of God, so we rush past the suffering and the trouble that come first, and the ways that we learn the profound lessons of trust and humility.  We miss the songs that say,

“Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh;
teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.”

And so I’m going to leave off with that.  I’m going to leave off with the protestors sitting at the lunch counter, holding still while the crowd taunts them and spits.  I’m going to leave off with the parent holding onto the screaming child.  I’m going to stop here with the husband or wife saying, “I’m with you, but if the drinking doesn’t stop, I have to get the kids away.”  I’m going to end with the whistleblower making the phone call.  I’m going to say once more,

“Trust in the Lord and do good,”

and point to someone going us all one better, up on a cross.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

"Taking Refuge" - March 17, 2019

Psalm 31

            Everybody needs a place to regroup occasionally.

“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now
When I come home feelin' tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so …”[1]

Okay, that works for the end of a difficult day, at least for The Drifters.  Maybe you have a place like that (I hope you do): a golf course or a coffee shop, someplace where you can go to decompress or turn things off for a short while.  I say, “Turn things off,” meaning that you get away from whatever pressures might bend you out of shape.  I might as well say, “Reconnect you,” because sometimes what life’s ups and downs do is disconnect you from the things that matter.

            One of my old friends, who lives in Silicon Valley, went through a double mastectomy two years ago, with aggressive chemotherapy afterward.  As part of her healing, she began to do two things that have helped her immensely.  One is that she started spending every Friday afternoon, as she puts it, “Visiting with the redwoods.”  The other thing she does is that whenever she can, she walks a labyrinth whenever she is near one.  (She has some sort of app on her phone to locate them.)  It focuses her prayers, she says.  Those two activities help her to reconnect to what matters on a more-than-superficial level: to the earth and to God.  The word “religion”, by the way, comes from a Latin word that means to reconnect.

            It’s a part of our humanity that we need those places of safety.

            In extreme cases, it might be a matter of protecting our physical lives.  There is the familiar story about how Martin Luther, after he began to preach about how we are saved by faith in Jesus, and only by that, not by anything good works that we try to do or how pious we are, was hauled in front of Emperor Charles V.  Luther’s theology undercut the notion that it would be possible to get on God’s good side by making offerings to the Church, which was how the Vatican’s building plan was being funded with the backing of German bankers.  (Follow the money.  Luther’s preaching would mean less income for the Emperor, whom those same bankers were supporting as well.)  It was complicated.  Eventually it meant that this professor of New Testament Studies was being told face-to-face to back down by a man who controlled most of Germany, all of Spain and the Netherlands, Mexico and most of South America.  His response was, “My conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.”  He survived.  The way it worked out was that days later one of his supporters faked a kidnapping, and carried Luther off to a castle where he hid for over a year, translating the Bible into German while he was there.

            It was a place of safety, of refuge.  But the real safety, which he had declared before the Emperor, was in his relationship to God through Jesus, a relationship that he was not going to jeopardize.  The places that offer us security and a sense of peace do so insofar as they connect us to the real source of security and peace, which is the Lord.

“In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
   do not let me ever be put to shame;
   in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
   rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
   a strong fortress to save me.” 
[Psalm 31:1-2]

Luther needed those castle walls to keep him safe, though even there he tried to disguise himself, just in case.  His sense of what God could offer him, though, was enough for him to paraphrase this Psalm in a way that we still sing.

“A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing,
Our helper he amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.”

            The time came when he had to leave his hiding place and go back to his work, and he knew that for the rest of his life he would be a target.  In some people’s eyes he was a dangerous character and a subversive and to take him out would be as good a thing as it was when the Seals took out bin Laden.  Even so, he kept that awareness that the security God offers us is an eternal security.  We have a permanent refuge which is not a place.  It is God himself. 

“You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
   for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
   for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
   you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
[Psalm 31:3-5]

Again, it found its way into “A Mighty Fortress”:

“Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also.
The body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.”

        Since trouble does come in many forms, so do places of refuge.  If you are in fear of physical harm, thank the Lord that there are places and people who can offer protection.  Whenever there is an emotional challenge, I hope your own version of the Redwoods reaches out to you and says, “Come and rest.  Let us show you how to see the long view of things.”  I hope you have a place of prayer where you and God can speak fully and freely with one another.  Remember that you’re sitting in a place like that right now.  If you need space and silence, here it is, and not just on Sundays.  If you need to talk, that’s also fine.  If you just need to stare at the pretty colors in the windows or listen to the band playing from the field down the street, God may reach out to you that way, too.

            Most of all, though, when you need refuge for your soul, from despair or fear or guilt or shame or any of the things that assault your deepest being, there is the ultimate refuge, a person and not a place.  That is Jesus, who is not limited to one place or time and who hears whenever or wherever you call. 

“Love the Lord, all you his saints.
   The Lord preserves the faithful,
   but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
   all you who wait for the Lord.”
  [Psalm 31:23-24]

[1] “Up on the Roof” by Carole King and Jerry Goffin.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

"Fear of Death" - March 10, 2019

Psalm 6

            Let’s talk about fibromyalgia.  Let’s talk about rheumatoid arthritis.  Let’s think about multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s and lupus.  Let’s consider what it means to have any of the hundred and one conditions that are chronic and don’t just go away, but linger for weeks or years or longer, until they take the stuffing completely out of someone and leave them not only in pain or incapacitated, but without enough energy to get through the day, and with a dread of the nighttime.  Let’s think about people who hear the words of the psalmist and say, “That’s me!”

“I am weary with my moaning;
   every night I flood my bed with tears;
   I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief…”
[Psalm 6:6-7]

Let’s think about their caregivers, who have a different kind of pain which is not physical but no less real.  That’s the pain of helplessness and confusion.  Sometimes it’s a strange sense of guilt for being well when someone they love is sick, for waking up rested when their spouse has had one of those horrible nights.  Or maybe there is, after all, the physical toll on them that comes from caregiving and, again, a kind of guilt for considering their own needs when that other person is so much worse off.

            A friend of mine, a retired physician who is himself in the midst of some serious medical issues right now responded to the news this past week that Alex Trebek has stage-4 pancreatic cancer with these words:

“Alex Trebek ‘might retire in 2020.’ Seriously, ‘might.’ And he’s going to ‘fight this.’ Seems to me he’ll live about 6 months if he was just diagnosed, fight or no fight (but admittedly I’m not up to date). Alex says this whether he believes it or not. It’s expected. Even if we’re heading rapidly to the exit, it’s expected. ‘It’s dignified.’
What does this say about him? About us?
How can we deal with the dying with empathy while both they and we are expected, for far too long, to just keep pretending they’ll live forever? That they’ll be better any day and get right back to work.
The standard scenario is that everybody keeps pretending until one day the Hospice Kit arrives…”[1]

One thing I hear in that is how tired and hurt the writer is, too, and a big part of it is simply that it is hard for people to acknowledge what is happening, and in the denial they distance themselves from the person who most needs them.

            Without someone there, and many times even with someone there, comes a spiritual crisis and an overwhelming fear that God, too, has given up on them and that death itself will be, not a doorway into life, but into oblivion. Faith and trust do emerge, but they can be the Promised Land that lies way over there, through the desert and across the Jordan.  Until then, they cry out:

   “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
   while you, O Lord—how long? 

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
   deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
   in Sheol who can give you praise?”
[Psalm 6:2b-5]

            One of the things that the scriptures do is give us words for this.  They give us the way to pray about it.  They do not exclude the shadows that are as much a part of life as any other – and remember that if there are shadows that means that the sun is still shining somewhere.  But the scriptures do not turn away from the realities the way that people do.  They prepare us for them, and one of those realities is that we are not here on earth forever.  The same day I read my friend’s bitter comments, I also read a quote from Eugene Peterson (who died a few months ago) that says,

“That’s the whole spiritual life.  It’s learning how to die.  And as you learn how to die, you start losing all your illusions, and you start being capable now of true intimacy and love.”[2]

That intimacy and love refer to the people around you, but also to God.  Or at least, it can.

            It may take time, and it is not possible ever to say how much or how little.  That’s why it’s a good idea to start right now, whether you’re young or old, healthy or not; whether you work in a safe situation or one that involves dangerous activities – the thing about dying is that you don’t know when it could happen.  (Woody Allen used to do a routine about what it would be like if we all got a two-minute warning, like the end of a football game.  I don’t remember the whole thing but it included running up to someone and telling them something horrible, finishing, “And if that’s not the truth, may God strike me dead!”)  The Church of England has its people pray a long litany together every year during Lent, that has this passage:

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all oppression, conspiracy and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.

            So, here’s my advice as a religious professional: before you find yourself in this situation, read over the end of this psalm.

“Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
   for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
   the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
   they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”
[Psalm 6:8-10]

On the one hand, the writer did survive whatever illness he faced, at least long enough to compose the psalm.  On the other hand, he did eventually die.  But in between, he gained confidence in the Lord’s power to destroy his enemies.

            What greater enemy do we have than death?

            Of that, another biblical writer had this to say:
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
[Romans 8:31-39]

[1] Used by permission of the writer.
[2] "Eugene H. Peterson Quotes." BrainyMedia Inc, 2019. 7 March 2019.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

"Not Being an Obstacle" - March 6, 2019 (Ash Wednesday)

II Corinthians 5:20a-6:10

            Last week, National Public Radio interviewed Rose Torphy, who was visiting the Grand Canyon with her family in January, where she became a Junior Ranger and was given a Junior Ranger’s badge.  “I promise,” she had repeated, “to discover all I can about Grand Canyon National Park and to share my discoveries with others.”  Since then, she’s been wearing her badge proudly, and she told the radio reporter, “Just talking to people, they see my badge on my coat and ask how come I’m a Junior Ranger.”  That might have something to do with her age, which is 103.[1]

            It’s a great story in its way, but one thing the interviewer never got around to asking, or maybe it didn’t get past the editor, was what Mrs. Torphy had discovered about Grand Canyon National Park that she wanted to share.  That is, after all, the point of becoming a Junior Ranger.  Unfortunately, what got in the way was the reporter’s fascination with her age.  People can become condescending to those of advanced years, which is really too bad, and it can lead to missing out on some valuable interactions.

            Maybe that would have happened, given time, but it was only a five-minute piece and about thirty seconds of it was taken up reporting the number of Mrs. Torphy’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.  So much time went into reporting about the messenger that they never really got to the message.

            The church in Corinth to whom Paul wrote seems to have been full of people who were probably really impressive and admirable.  He talks about all sorts of spiritual gifts being part of their experience.  Some people were prophesying and some people were healing and some people were getting caught up in ecstatic prayer and there were some amazing teachers and some who were so generous he said they would not only give the shirt off their backs, they would give their whole body if they had to.  You need a kidney?  How about a spleen?  That’s why he said things to help them keep these gifts in perspective.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. [I Corinthians 13:1-3]

Pretense can be a terrible obstacle to the gospel, the idea that you have to be some kind of Super Christian to be a follower of Jesus.  What you need is love.  Otherwise you just get in the way.

            In the section of II Corinthians that we heard this evening, Paul tells them again that if they want to let people know what God has done through Jesus and continues to do through the Holy Spirit – which is what the Church’s business is all about – they need to get over themselves.  He goes ahead and mentions his own experiences, but what he highlights are his failures and troubles.  It’s not a catalog of successes.  It’s a list of difficulties.

“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” [II Corinthians 6:3-5]

What got him through were not gifts that show up easily, and take work to develop, but are some of the most valuable character traits anyone can have.  He pulled through

“by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and,”

he adds,

“the power of God…” [II Corinthians 6:6-7]

            It is the power of God that makes the rest possible.  It’s not us.  In my experience, at least, I can say it’s not me.  If I forgive, it’s not generally because I want to.  It is a lot simpler to hold a grudge.  The world is a whole lot easier to understand and to navigate when I can label everyone very clearly as a Good Guy or a Bad Guy.  It takes work for me to understand a disagreement from your perspective, and it may be a waste of time and energy, when I know that mine opinion is the right one, anyway.  Unless I have that divine nudge, the Holy Spirit, prodding my conscience, I’m not going to do that.  As for

“afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger”

and so forth, I’d really rather avoid them, thanks.  Yet when you follow Jesus closely enough, you end up walking in his footsteps, and he got into a lot of trouble.  Nobody’s life is without trouble and suffering of some sort, for that matter, but what makes it worthwhile is that if we face trouble, not to make ourselves great, but for the sake of God’s ways, then God’s grace will be there from the very beginning, and not just when we get stuck and start shouting for help.

“As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
   and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
[II Corinthians 6:1-2] 


Saturday, March 2, 2019

"Italy: The Gift of Art" - March 3, 2019

Luke 9:28-36

            One of my favorite professors in college was Dr. Gerald Fitzgerald, who introduced himself to his freshman classes, “I’m a poet who teaches to support my habit.”  He had the thickest South Boston accent I’ve ever heard, which I won’t try to reproduce, but after he introduced himself, he asked us, “Why is there poetry?” to which, of course, everyone responded with blank stares and a feeling that we might have signed up for a required course with a lunatic.  After a few seconds of silence, he said, “Okay, then.  How many days are there in April?” 

            Now, I know you’re doing what we did.  You’re saying to yourself, “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.”  Poetry is one of the ways we remember.  Dr. Fitzgerald went on from there to say that poetry is also one of the ways we teach and learn, not only about set facts but also about what it is to be a human being alive within the natural world and living among other human beings and with questions about what other world may lie beyond this one.

            Psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, even theology are all mind-centered and rational ways of doing the same thing, but the arts are not just helpful, but even necessary for real discussion and learning among people who are thinkers, but more than thinkers.  We respond to ideas and thought, but we even talk about mathematical theories as “beautiful” or “elegant”, and those things move us and speak to us on a deeper level than we often express.

            In practical terms, some people learn through the sciences and some through the arts.  Some people learn visually and some learn by hearing; some learn by reading and some learn by moving.

            There have been times when Christianity has almost lost that awareness.  We grew out of Judaism, with its strong opposition to idolatry.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” [Exodus 20:4-5a]

Familiar?  I hope so.  At the same time, the tabernacle that Moses was commanded to construct and the Temple that later took its place were decorated with carvings of animals and embroidered hangings, so it isn’t all art that is banished.  At the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared in conversation with Jesus, Peter’s impulse as a witness of that moment of pure glory was to offer to build three dwellings or tents or tabernacles (all possible translations of one word) to commemorate what had happened. [Luke 9:33]  Jesus turned it down, but the impulse to build a monument, to create, in response to this indescribable sight, was Peter’s very human thought.

            We face the need to see art for what it is, not worshiping it or making it an idol, but as a tool for communicating the awareness of a creative and redemptive God who does not disdain nor undervalue the material world or the people who live in it. 

            Yet, humans being humans, we do tend to worship our own creations.  At one point in Church history, there were a group of people who looked at the way images of Jesus and of God’s holy people were being treated and said, “Wait a minute.  This is going too far.”  A lot of people who had formerly been pagan still had superstitious ideas about statues and pictures and didn’t always distinguish clearly between the person pictured and the picture itself.  In Constantinople, there riots between “iconoclasts”, who favored banning images and sometimes took matters into their own hands, and “iconodules”, who insisted that they venerated images without worshiping them.  The battles went back and forth for over a century from 726-842.  Eventually, they settled on a compromise that you can still see in Orthodox icons, where they agreed not to produce three-dimensional statues, to avoid strictly realistic portrayals in favor of stylized figures, and to put them on gold backgrounds to symbolize that these icons are glimpses into heaven, not objects of power here on earth divorced from God’s Holy Spirit.

            The Italians perched across the water from Greece looked at this stuff and said, “Wait a minute.”  They didn’t have the same lofty, philosophical approach to art.  For them, as for much of Western Europe then and for the next few centuries, it was a way of teaching people who could not read and letting them get at least a small hint about the contents of the Bible.  They didn’t sign onto the program that Eastern Christianity adopted at that point. 

Now, that isn’t to say that Western Christianity hasn’t had its own excesses of devotion to statues from time to time, and its own arguments about what to do when images threaten to become idols.  On the whole, though, the tradition established by Italian painters of the Middle Ages and those who followed them over the centuries kept the visual arts alive as a means of teaching people about Jesus in a way that says he’s not just as a face staring down from above, but he is the living embodiment of God in human form.

            People like Giotto and Filippo Lippi and Cimabue (don’t worry – there won’t be a test) began to experiment with drawing and painting scenes from the life of Christ in realistic ways, setting them in Italian towns and with people wearing the clothing of their own day.  By painting Bible scenes that way, they were saying, “Don’t try to box Jesus in.”  They set an example of how to use artwork and everything else, for that matter, to set the gospel free in the world.  They pointed to the Transfiguration of Jesus, when the glory of God that lived within him burst out in a miraculous way because it is so wonderful that it just cannot be contained.

“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  [Luke 9:2]

Jesus, for them, and for us, cannot be just an image even though we have an image of him in our minds sometimes or a set idea about him, when instead we are faced with a living Savior and the voice of God himself saying,

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” [Luke 9:35]

Listen to him, because he has good news.  The kingdom of God is at hand, and he brings it to all of us, here and now.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:14]

Saturday, February 23, 2019

"Congo: The Gift of Focus" - February 24, 2019

Matthew 25:31-46

            Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment has a bunch of clueless people standing before the throne of God asking what happened.  Some of them are being led by the angels into paradise and some of them are being herded in the opposite direction, and all of them – those who are blessed and those who are condemned – all say the same thing: “When did we see you, Lord?”

Neither group ever realized the deeper connection that underlies all human interactions.  None of them ever seems to have stopped to wonder whether when they dealt with someone bearing God’s image they might not also be dealing directly with God.  All the same, he was there, whether they knew it or not.  Some of them never realized it because they were too busy caring about themselves, so that they never had the time (or probably even the inclination) to look into anyone else’s eyes and see Jesus looking back.  Some of them never realized it because they were too busy trying to help the person in front of them – but for those people there is hope.

Of course, best of all is to be doing good because we do know that Christ is above all and in all and through all.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

            “…Christ plays in ten thousand places,
            Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
            To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Yet we learn that in the ugliest moments of human life.  We learn it where there is hunger and loneliness and fear and sickness.

            Central Africa and West Africa have been through terrible times in the past few decades.  Ethnic feuds have turned into civil wars and civil wars have sent refugees in all directions, destabilizing otherwise calm nations.  Criminals have taken advantage of the chaos, and the chaos has led normally law-abiding people to become criminals.  Add the occasional outbreak of ebola into the mix, and the friction between Christianity and Islam, and you have serious turmoil.

            In the midst of that, among all the horror stories, we keep hearing accounts of people who are doing things like building orphanages and schools, simply because there are children around who need to be taken care of.  No, not everyone reacts this way.  But some do.  We hear about doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers who cared for people desperately and dangerously sick, simply because the sick cannot take care of themselves.  We hear about people sharing their food and their houses with strangers on the run from war, just because they can see on their faces and in their eyes that there is a need that only time will change and they want to buy them the time if they can.  That is time for God to do the real work.

            It is a gift that the Christians of the Congo are able to focus on the needs of the people around them, needs both physical and spiritual.  It is a gift that they have been teaching specifically to us, and by “us” I mean United Methodist Christians in Eastern Pennsylvania, specifically those of us right here today.

            Every quarter, we take half the loose offering that is in the plate on Sunday morning and designate it for a mission project, local or national or global.  This quarter our giving, and all of the giving on Ash Wednesday, will go to help the eye clinic in Mpasa, Congo, and we are joined in that giving by the other churches in Delaware and Montgomery and Chester Counties that make up our South District.

            We’re going to watch a video that was put together to promote support for that work, but I don’t want anybody to watch it in that spirit this morning.  I want to watch it, instead, simply as a witness to what the Lord has done and what the Lord is doing at this very moment, in and through his people.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:37-40]