Saturday, March 25, 2017

“Darkness and Light” - March 26, 2017

Ephesians 5:8-14

            The letter to the Ephesians warns us to

“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” [Ephesians 5:11-12]

That’s all well-and-good, but it often seems that darkness disguises itself as light and the first thing that often happens when someone starts to come out of it is the recognition of the difference between artificial light and daylight, and how dark the night is just before the sun begins to rise.

            Jay McInerny’s novel Bright Lights, Big City[1] takes as its narrator and main character somebody who is eager to make it very big, very fast and projects that very clearly.  He has left a small town in Kansas behind him to work at a bigtime magazine and he spends his nights doing the club scene, where the bouncers all wave him to the front of the line and he goes around wearing Ray Bans all the time.  (Realize that this was the 1980’s, when Ray Bans were a big deal and pop songs included “The Future’s So Bright, I’ve Gotta Wear Shades” and “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night".

            What he doesn’t let onto anyone about is that image and reality are different things.  His job is not going so well, because the work he does on one or two hours of sleep is not his best.  His wife has left him and the chances of pulling their marriage back together are slim.  His sunglasses are there to protect his eyes because his unacknowledged cocaine addiction has made them painfully sensitive to light.  And he is dumb enough to think that people are not going to notice.

            News flash: they do.  When people get caught up in the whirl of such things, the people around them see it.  They may be so wrapped up in it themselves that they don’t comment, or maybe they don’t know how to bring up the subject.  Sometimes they pretend not to see because they hold themselves responsible in some way, rightly or wrongly.  A parent will wonder what they did or didn’t do that led to this.  A spouse will do the same.  A brother or sister will wonder if they set a bad example or teased them too much as a child.  A boss will question when and how to say, “Enough.  You’re done.”  A child will just watch, scared.

            It isn’t just substance addiction, either.  That’s the easy one to point to.  The addiction to status, to trying to be the bigwheel or the celebrity, that’s even harder.  It looks so much like just being a buffoon or a blowhard.  Have you ever seen The Office?  The main character thinks he’s the center of everything at the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton office, and he is the only person in the whole company who thinks he’s half as funny or intelligent as he believes.  But nobody tells him until he pushes them too far, because they see something that he doesn’t think they do.  They see how fragile he is.

            Along with that goes the addiction to power, whatever petty territory someone rules.  Maybe it’s a country.  Maybe it’s an office.  Perhaps it’s a classroom or a household.  Control it if you can, because beyond those borders or those walls or those working hours lies a world that is not your own, and that does not respond to your commands or wishes or even needs.

            In Bright Lights, Big City we find out slowly that the narrator became entangled in the web that his life had become because he was trying to get away from a deeper trouble.  His mother had recently died of cancer, and there had been nothing he could do about it, except spend the time with her to let her know how much he loved her.  He had not done that.  That, too, was at the root of his problems with his wife.  If she were to get sick, would he stand by her?  Or would he hide?  One definition of sin is “a disordered love”.  It is loving anyone or anything more than God.  It is loving yourself more than another.  The hardest sins to deal with are the ones that are strictly between you and God – nobody else.  The sins of the heart get locked away inside, where they begin.  Who would ever allow them to see the light of day.  Such sins are the ones that lead people to turn away from God, not out of simple guilt, but out of shame. 

“For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly,”

we read. [Ephesians 5:12]

            In such a condition, we may not even want to hear about forgiveness, because it hurts so much to know how desperately we need it.  In the last couple of pages of his book, as McInerny’s narrator stumbles out of a club around 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, he’s falling apart physically and he’s falling apart spiritually.

“You’re not sure exactly where you are going.  You don’t feel you have the strength to walk home.  You walk faster.  If the sunlight catches you on the streets, you will undergo some terrible chemical change.
After a few minutes you notice the blood on your fingers.  You hold your hand up to your face.  There is blood on your shirt, too.  You find a Kleenex in your jacket pocket and hold it to your nose.  You advance with your head tilted back against your shoulders.
By the time you reach Canal Street you think that you will never make it home.  You look for taxis.  A bum is sleeping under the awning of a shuttered shop.  As you pass, he raises his head up and says, ‘God bless you and forgive your sins.’  You wait for the cadge, but it doesn’t come.  You wish he hadn’t said anything.”

Well, whether or not you want to hear it, you are blessed and you are forgiven.  Let me read on, from the novel, again.

“As you turn, what is left of your olfactory equipment sends a message to your brain: fresh bread.  Somewhere they are breaking bread.  You can smell it, even through the nose bleed.  You see bakery trucks loading in front of a building on the next block.  You watch as bags of rolls are carried out onto the loading dock by a man with tattooed forearms.  This man is already at work so that normal people can have fresh bread for their morning tables.  The righteous people who sleep at night and eat eggs for breakfast.  It is Sunday morning and you haven’t eaten since…when?  Friday night.  As you approach, the smell of bread washes over you like a gentle rain.  You inhale deeply, filling your lungs.  Tears come to your eyes, and you feel such a rush of tenderness and pity that you stop beside a lamppost and hang on for support.
‘Could I have some?  A roll or something?’
‘Get outta here.’
‘I’ll trade you my sunglasses,’ you say.  You take off your shades and hand them up to him.  ‘Ray-Bans.  I lost the case.’  He tries them on, shakes his head a few times and then takes them off.  He folds the glasses and puts them in his shirt pocket.
‘You’re crazy,’ he says.  Then he looks back into the warehouse.  He picks up a bag of hard rolls and throws it at your feet.
You get down on your knees and tear open the bag.  The smell of warm dough envelops you.  The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag.   You will have to go slowly.  You will have to learn everything all over again.”

            Jesus, the Bread of Life, assures us that we can all do that.  We may have to go slowly.  We may have to relearn everything.  But we are fed with the simple, honest forgiveness that our souls crave – and even if it sticks in our throat to say that we need it, that simple bread is what gives life.  We aren’t meant to stumble hungrily through the dark,

“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” [Ephesians 5:8]

[1] Jay McInerny, Bright Lights, Big City (New York: Random House, 1984).

Saturday, March 11, 2017

“Law and Faith” - March 12, 2017

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

I like the way that Paul refers to God as one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” [Romans 4:17]  

On one level, there is God as Creator of the universe.  One nanosecond there is nothing and the next — bang! — even a Big Bang! — and there is everything, not yet fully formed, and flying apart at unimaginable speeds and higher temperatures than can be measured, off into the far reaches of nothingness, existence rushing to fill up the non-existence that was there but isn’t there (although “was” and “is” are sort of relative because time just came into being with the rest of the universe).  Physicists describe all this with mathematical equations because to put it into words is more than language can handle.

Then there’s the way that the subsequent elements and molecules and compounds organize into greater and greater complexity, with one building upon another.  Inorganic compounds become organic somehow, and learn to replicate themselves and strings of DNA and RNA form, then produce proteins and before you know it, after mere trillions and trillions of years there are bacteria swimming in primordial waters on their way to becoming jellyfish and kangaroos, earthworms and Albert Einstein.  God

“gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” [Romans 4:17]  

On another level, though, there is the smaller but no less miraculous way that God calls newness into existence within and among people.  For instance, the Bible gives us the example of a man born in the Late Bronze Age, sometime around 2500 B.C., in a city called Ur, then on the Persian Gulf in what is now southern Iraq.  His name was Avram or Ibram, something like that.  We would say Abram, which I’m going to do.

He would have been raised to worship the gods of his people, and among them every city had its own gods, and sometimes families had their gods that pertained to them alone.  How it was that the one God, the one who made heaven and earth, who “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” spoke to him and how Abram recognized what was going on we do not know, but somehow it was that God spoke and Abram heard a word of promise that said, 

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Genesis 12:1-3]

Somehow, Abram trusted that promise, and as a result there are people all over the world who now live their lives knowing that the God who spoke to him can be trusted with their lives, too.  Not just for this world that we see, either, but on into the eternity that lies beyond our comprehension.

What happened was told and retold by the children he and his wife were too old to have.  It is not always a story of virtue and victory.  There were moments when, faced with adversity or scared and confused, they made some pretty bad choices.  In fact, the bad blood and dissension that some of their choices created still linger in ethnic conflicts all across the lands of the Middle East, where they spent their lives wandering.  Even so, God always brought them and the equally mixed-up generations that followed them out of the troubles they faced.

They faced famine, and God directed them to a land where there was food.  They faced genocide, and God kept them alive.  They were enslaved, and God sent them a liberator.  They were drawn to worship other gods, and the One God sent them prophets to call them back.  They were given laws to keep them on track and — oops.  That’s where, much later, one of their own, a man named Saul or Paul, had to point something out.

What made them a people wasn’t the rules that made them distinctive.  It was their living relationship to God, the kind of absolute trust that Abram had shown, which came long before the rest of it.  In fact, Paul would come to say that to be part of this family history doesn’t even depend on being a literal descendant of Abram, but on responding to the offer of relationship to God in the same way that he did, with faith in the One who speaks out of eternity into time, out of nowhere into our here-and-now.  

“It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)”.  [Romans 4:16-17a]

Notice that means that we are family with all of Abram’s children.  Attack the Jews, and you attack the Christians.  Attack the Muslims, and you do the same thing.  These are not idle observations.  There is no place for the anti-Semitism that has shown its face in recent weeks.  Not among us.

                It also means that it is unacceptable to condemn others beyond these three Abrahamic faiths, saying, “We are God’s chosen, and you are not.”  Salvation is based on faith, not works, and certainly not on birth.  Those others, those outsiders, they may yet come to faith and hear God’s call.  Abram was once one of them.  Why would a pagan or a Buddhist or a Hindu or anyone else respond to the good news of a loving God who embraces all who will come to him, if in his people the only thing they see is rejection and hatred?  To hate them, revile them, or even to see them as inherently an enemy is for us not to trust the very promise that was given to Abram:

“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Genesis 12:3]

                I will say that, among those who see their spiritual ancestry in Abram, it is Christianity, with its insistent proclamation that it is faith alone that counts, not specific customs, that best embodies that wideness of promise.  For us, the story of God’s dealings with humanity need not be told in Hebrew or in Arabic, but must be told in every language on earth.  For us, there is no need to face in one direction to pray, because God is everywhere.  For us, there is no one Promised Land, because God has come to us – all of us – in Jesus. 

“See, the home of God is among mortals,
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them”.  [Revelation 21:3]

And so we are told to go out and permeate the whole world with the news of God’s creative and life-giving presence, with the promise of forgiveness, newness of life here and now, and fullness of life in eternity.  It is precisely as we carry out that mission that we find how close to us he truly is.  One of Abram’s descendants, Jesus, had this to say:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:19-20]

Saturday, March 4, 2017

“Sin and Grace” - March 5, 2017

Romans 5:12-17

            The ancient Greek land of Phrygia had been caught up in all kinds of struggles and wars for many years when its council met to choose a new king.  Legend had it that one day a good ruler would come to them riding in an oxcart, and it just happened that as they were in session a poor man named Midas (yes, that Midas – the one with the golden touch and the muffler company) rode into town in just such a cart, so naturally they made him king.  In gratitude, and to symbolize the end of his wanderings and the end of constant policy changes among the Phrygians, he dedicated his oxcart to Zeus and tied it to a pole in the city’s central area.  He used an unusual kind of knot that left no ends exposed, and the rope was made of bark that hardened and shrank as it dried.  He prophesied, as a way of reassuring the city of political stability, that no one would become conqueror of that country who could not undo the knot.  It became known as the “Gordian Knot”, named after Midas’s father, and it stumped people for centuries.  Then, in 333 B.C., a Macedonian named Alexander came into the city, took out his sword, chopped through the knot, and went on to conquer Greece and Egypt and Asia.

            From the beginning of time, human beings had been trying to, as the saying goes, untie the Gordian Knot of sin.  It would only be when God took direct action through Jesus that it would be solved.

            We tend to think of sin as something that we do or fail to do.  There are sins of commission – when someone steals or murders, for instance – and sins of omission – as when they choose not to help someone in danger or not to feed the hungry.  There are sins of thought, word, and deed.  Classical Christian theology divides all of this into mortal sins – those that are freely chosen despite an awareness of their sinfulness and that they have grave consequences – and venial sins – those that are done unthinkingly and have lesser effect versus those that are done deliberately and with greater effect.  On the other hand, there is also a school of thought that says that sin is sin – that you may go over the speed limit by ten or forty miles per hour and either way you are speeding.

            While all of these are valid and practical ways of being aware of what we do and keeping watch over our consciences, the mere admission that we all sin mindlessly from time to time points to a much deeper problem.  Individual instances of sin may be chosen, but sin itself may be more like a pervasive force in human nature itself.  Just like the Gordian Knot that became more solid and tighter with time, once released into the world sin becomes more intractable as it becomes embedded in the systems and expectations of our lives.
            Consider advertisements.   They’re all around us every day.  Advertising tries to convince us that one item is better than another, although they may be produced in the same plant and just packaged or labeled differently.  But do we really believe that Bounty is better than Brawny or that Charmin is better than Scott’s?  Or do we generally check out the price and go with that?  We accept that ads are going to be out there, that they will try to convince us to buy what we don’t need, and that they will make exaggerated claims about how happy the right frozen pizza will make us.  Sometimes it even works.  Doesn’t that amount to creating a false version of reality, though?  And isn’t creating or knowingly living in a false reality an accurate description of sin?

            When Paul talks about sin in his letter to the Romans, his language becomes all convoluted because he’s talking about a condition that is all tangled up and that tangles us up in its various strands until the good and the bad are so mixed up we don’t always know which is which.  Something might be wrong and we don’t even know it unless somebody points it out.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.”  [Romans 5:12-13]

Think about the whole business of tipping in restaurants.  Food service workers are payed at a lower rate than other hourly workers.  When a restaurant decides that the fair thing to do is to offer a decent wage and then to forgo tipping, they have to put prices up and that puts customers off, even though they may actually pay less in the long run.  So in order to stay in business a restaurant will have to pay an unfair wage and in order to remain employed the staff will have to accept a large degree of uncertainty in their income.  In order to keep things going smoothly, we just all sort of agree not to confront the system.

            It’s the Gordian Knot: look and try to figure it out or do something about it, but nothing works because you cannot find the beginning or the end.

            That’s why God sent Jesus to cut through it.

            Jesus was the one person who managed never to become entangled in sin.  He was human, yes, and tempted like the rest of us.  He got hungry and tired.  He had friends who just didn’t get him, and enemies who did.  He knew what it was to have people turn their backs on him, to have his name maligned by people who had never even met him, and to be held in suspicion because of the good that he did.  He was also divine, though, and the will of God – which is the opposite of sin – was always at work within him, even to the core of his being where the intentions of the heart are found.  He never even sinned by thought, let alone word or deed.

            That made him the one person ever who could see and judge sin clearly in all of its disguises.  That also made him the one person who could forgive sin without any taint of excusing it out of self-interest or fear of hypocrisy.  And he forgave freely.  He forgives freely even now, cutting through the guilt and the shame and everything else that death brings with it and wraps around us.

“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” [Romans 5:15-17]

            So we do fall into sin, over and over and over again.  We do not, however, have to stay there.  Instead of the Gordian Knot it once was, with the grace of God it’s more like what happens when I’m walking the dogs and stop paying attention long enough for their leashes to get all mixed up and wrapped around my legs and theirs until we can figure it and then move on, hoping nobody (of course) was watching.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Be Reconciled" - March 1, 2017

II Corinthians 5:20b-6:2

            “Reconcile” is not a verb anybody uses often, unless you’re an accountant reconciling the books.  Other than that technical usage, it usually has to do with marital partners.  There is always hope that Angelina and Brad or Tom and Katie will reconcile.  (Not much hope, but some.)

            The thing about marriage is that since the time of the New Testament, the Church has seen in it a reflection of the love between Christ and the Church, which means that the strange and holy dynamics of a marriage, which often includes a lot of unholy stuff, describe what can happen between God and us.  That makes Paul’s appeal all the more poignant:

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” [II Corinthians 5:20b]
            Paul didn’t come up with the comparison of the divine/human relationship to marriage on his own.  The prophet Hosea saw that in his own miserable marriage long before Paul.  In Hosea’s time, many of the people of Israel were turning their backs on God and worshiping the Canaanite fertility gods who promised many children and bountiful crops and the security and wealth that go with all of that.  Their worship included the practice of cultic prostitution, where a woman would go to a temple with a veil over her face and wait there for a male devotee to come along.  In return for a fee that would be given in part to the pagan temple, they would act out the ritual marriage of a storm god – a baal – and the earth mother, and in the course of it all the woman might become impregnated.  Hosea’s wife became mixed up in this sort of thing and, as you might expect, he was not happy about it.  He wanted to put her away, and was perplexed about what to do with her children, whose uncertain paternity he was prepared neither to repudiate them nor to recognize.

            What Hosea did do was to call upon his son and his daughter to act as go-betweens for him and his wife, since they weren’t on speaking terms.

“Plead with your mother, plead –
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband –
that she put away her prostitution from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts,
or I will strip her naked
and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.
Upon her children also I will have no pity…” [Hosea 1:2-4a]

He had a lot more to say, and this is the PG-13 section of it. 

On top of that, he realized he wasn’t the only one affected.  There were many other marriages in Israel with similar troubles of their own, and other ways in which people were turning aside from God’s paths.  In fact, Hosea saw Israel’s behavior in general as doing to God what his wife had done to him, with God preparing to cut his people off the way he wanted to do to her.

“I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
            of which she said,
            ‘These are my pay,
                        which my lovers have given me.’
I will make them a forest,
            and the wild animals shall devour them.
I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
            when she offered incense to them
            and decked herself with her ring and jewelry,
                        and went after her lovers,
                        and forgot me, says the Lord.” [Hosea 2:12-13]

            And yet, there was always something that held God’s hand back from the complete destruction of that relationship.  God maintained an abiding loyalty, however severely strained it might become.  Even though it gave him deep, almost inexpressible pain, God always kept the door open for reconciliation, with a love akin even more to that of a parent for a wayward child:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
            and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
            the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
            and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
            I took them up in my arms;
            But they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
            with bands of love.
I was to them like those
            who lift infants to their cheeks.
            I bent down to them and fed them.” [Hosea 11:1-4]

Reconciliation, not destruction, was and is God’s will. 

            Reconciliation begins with God’s own suffering love.  Hosea knew that.  We do, too, and have seen its fullest revelation in the way that Jesus lived and died.  Reconciliation for the whole world, not just Israel, begins on the cross, when God’s love picks up our pain to go with his own.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” [II Corinthians 5:21]
Without that initial offer, nothing we could ever do would turn things around.  But the offer is there, and persists.

            The second half of that reconciliation then falls to us.  Paul puts it this way:

“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 5:22-6:2]
Honestly, though, I think Hosea put it even better:

“Come, let us return to the Lord;
For it is he who has torn,
            and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
            on the third day he will raise us up,
            that we may live before him.
Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
            his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
            like the spring rains that water the earth.” [Hosea 6:1-3]

And there it is.  If you would be reconciled to God, God is even readier than you are, and is saying, “Welcome home.  I missed you.”