03 April 2015

WHY THE CROSS ?

Good Friday
3 April 2015

Why do we carry these crosses everywhere?

We wear them around our necks and on our arms. Some are made of the most ordinary materials, and some are made of the most expensive. Some are as simple as two plain lines. Others are ornate and complicated, with no end to their beautiful variation. We lift crosses up into the air, and we process in lines behind them. We place them on our walls and doors.

But what do they actually mean? Do they mean simply that we are pious? That we are warm and cozy, soft-hearted people? Do they mean that we harbor some long lost spiritual dimension in our past? Do they mean simply that we are from a religious family?

No, the cross means more, much more, than those things. Sadly, regrettably, tragically, the cross has also been used wrongly. It has been used, for instance, to justify violence. It has been used in acts of racism and anti-semitism and prejudice. It has been used in ways that are directly antagonistic to the way that Jesus used it.

In his book, Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll delivered a scathing critique of the manner in which the cross has especially been used in anti-semitic ways. Today, some well-meaning Christians are reluctant to display the cross, out of sensitivity to its anti-semitic history.

However, that is one of the attitudes towards the cross that I seek to redeem. The cross means something different. The cross means something that is the very opposite of violence, and it means something that is much more profound than mere emotional pietism.

Today, Good Friday, is the day of the cross. I know that Easter is a lovely and delightful day, but I feel closer to God on Good Friday. Let me tell you why: Good Friday is a day of love. Unfortunately, throughout history, many of us have tried to explain the meaning of the cross without love. We have discussed crude blood sacrifice, and we have developed grand “atonement” theories, and we have tried to explain rationally just how the sacrifice of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, has saved us.

Listen to three of these popular theories.     
                                                                                                                         
A first theory has been called “the fish hook theory.” Some say that “Satan was owed something because of the sinful nature of humanity. Someone had to pay Satan a sort of ransom, and that someone was Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and paid the price. But then Jesus tricked Satan by being resurrected.” This view was once described with the image that Christ was a worm on a fish hook that finally caught Satan. So, this view has also been called the fish hook theory. But this theory has a real problem: why should God have to owe Satan anything at all?

A second type of theory has to do with satisfying God’s justice. Some say that “it wasn't Satan who had to be satisfied. Rather it was God's justice that had to be satis­fied. The perfect righteousness of God demanded that someone suffer for sins which had been committed. Therefore (according to this theory), Jesus's death on the cross satisfies the justice, the righteousness, of God.” But this theory has a similar problem: Would God kill Jesus in order to satisfy a harsh and impersonal justice system? That can’t be.

A third theory is the blood theory. This theory maintains that “sin –somehow—can be transferred to another's blood. The Old Testament sacrificial offerings of lambs and such were designed to be a sort of transference. In those ceremonies, the sins of humanity were transferred to the animal and so offered to God and removed from people. Thus, sins can be transferred to Jesus's blood because he was a perfect and sinless offering; he was able to take away the sins of the world.”

Alas, as Rene Girard has shown us, this theory runs the risk of perpetuating scapegoat systems. When we believe that Jesus’s death is just another example of the scapegoat sacrificial system, we perpetuate scapegoating and violence to other innocent people. We run the risk of making the cross a sign of violence towards others again.

Perhaps you recognize the language of these three sorts of theories. Elements of each theory appear in our theology and in our litur­gy. Some of us may believe parts of all of them.

Let me suggest, however, that none of them captures the essence of what is going on today. The cross is not about a legal contract or a heavenly transaction. It is not “blood for sin.”  We betray the cross if we analyze it in quantifiable and crude transactional terms. Good Friday is not an intellectual day, and the cross cannot be fully explained with an intellectual theory.

The cross goes deeper than our brains. 

The cross, indeed, is a starkly violent image; there is no getting around that. But the point is that Jesus transforms that image. Jesus “made an instrument of shameful death to be for us a means of life and peace.” That transformation declares that even the most painful suffering and most gruesome death are not stronger than God. God is greater. God defeats violence at the cross; and God defeats death at the cross.

Well, how does that transformation happen? Why the cross? Today, I have three words with which to answer that question. The cross, the holy cross, means three things: pain, paradox, and passion. And by “passion,” I mean “love.” Pain, paradox, and love.

Let’s start with the human experience of pain, and death. Why do we suffer pain? Where does evil come from? What is death?  These are eternal questions of humanity, whether that humanity lived two thousand years ago or today. The eternal questions of humanity have had to do with suffering, have dealt with evil, have been about facing death. Wherever we have lived, at the beginning of humanity in sub-Saharan Africa, in the ancient kingdoms and dynasties of China, in the crowded streets of Atlanta, in the comfortable homes and apartments of Buckhead, wherever we humans have lived, we have faced similar questions.

There are some people of the world who do not believe in pain. There are some religions of the world which do not believe in pain. Some do not believe in sickness or disease. Some religions believe that evil is an illusion, that evil does not actually exist. Some religions do not acknowledge death.

Let them be, those religions. Christianity is not among them. Christianity's answer to the eternal questions of pain, death, and evil is not simply to claim that they do not exist.

Rather, Christianity’s answer is the cross.

The pain and suffering of the cross is Christianity’s acknowledgement that suffering, and evil, and death, really do exist. This might seem obvious to you. “Of course evil, suffering, and death exist,” you say. But I am not speaking so simplistically. I have known hundreds of situations in which good-willed people have been unable to acknowledge their pain. Our tendency is to hide those embarrassing parts of ourselves, places which have not matched our ideals of perfection and happiness. Suffering is painful, yes, but it is also embarrassing. Pain is also humiliating.

Our tendency is to hide. We would rather not admit those times when we have been betrayed, when we have lost, when we have been defeated.  Husbands and wives live hidden from one another. We show up to work in misery. We collapse in the evening from fatigue and bewilderment, unable to keep up with our dreams. But somehow, we dare not admit those problems. We are scared.

Then, worse, we tend to explain away evil. Such an act was due to a lost childhood, we say. Such an atrocity was a sign of sickness. Such horrific behavior is a symptom of a sick society, we say. No; pain and suffering are inherent parts of being human.

So, first of all, the cross means that we Christians acknowledge the real existence of pain and suffering.  In fact, we share an important tenet with Buddhism in this regard. Life is suffering. Of course, we believe that life is also much more than that; but life does involve suffering. None of us gets around pain and suffering. The way to the other side of pain and suffering is not around it, but through it.

It is Jesus who shows us how to go through, not around, pain and suffering. The holy cross, then, reminds us that Jesus himself encountered pain, and betrayal and false witness and innocent suffering, too – more so than most of us ever will. We follow Jesus and the cross because they show us the way through. Remember: the cross never gives us permission to inflict pain; it gives us the strength to live through it.

Secondly the cross means paradox. This is more complex. It starts with the very paradox between suffering and joy, and between death and life. The cross means both death and life. Christians are supposed to know how to deal with both. The cross, two simple intersecting lines, represents the truth that life always has two lines going through it, at least two lines, usually many more.

The very shape of the cross, an intersection of two lines, can be seen as paradox, as the meeting of two different worlds. Many people have understood the horizontal axis of the cross to mean reconciliation with each other, and the vertical axis of the cross to mean reconciliation of humanity with God, with the transcendent. Perhaps the cross means the paradox of reconciliation.

Christianity is a deeply spiritual way, not a rational way. People who wear the cross care about the reconciliation of “both/and”, not “either/or.” Paradox means the ability to live with opposites. In Jesus, for instance, we live with both humanity and divinity. Humanity and divinity are concepts that are often seen as opposites; but, to us, paradoxically, they are not.

Finally, passionate love. The cross means love. It was love that brought Jesus into the world, and it was love that led him to the cross. The reason we follow Jesus to the cross is because we want to love like he loved.

In short, wearing the cross around our necks means that we choose to love. In the midst of pain, we choose to love. In the midst of paradox, we choose to love. In the midst of things we cannot hold together, things we cannot understand, we choose to love. In the midst of life, we choose to love, to give ourselves for each other. Love was the choice Jesus made, and he made that choice most powerfully at the cross, the holy cross.

The holy cross means pain, but it means paradox even more; and even more still, the cross means love. Jesus loves us, this we know, for the cross tells us so. The cross is where Jesus sacrifices not just himself, but all of humanity.

But here’s the catch. The word “sacrifice” does not mean to kill something. Sacrifice does not mean violence. The real meaning of sacrifice, the deep meaning that lies behind all the ways the word is used in Scripture, the deep meaning of the word, “sacrifice,” is “to make something holy,” “to bring something close to God,” “to take something near God.”

The sacrifice of Jesus, then, is not simply that he died, or that he shed blood, or that he experienced evil. The sacrifice of Jesus is that he took the human experiences of pain, violence, and death, to God. This is Christianity’s answer to the eternal questions of death, pain, and suffering. Jesus is the evidence that pain and evil really do exist, and even God knows about them. In fact, God has touched pain and evil, and is transforming them.

If Jesus took pain and suffering to the cross, it should be no accident that we today who are in pain should end up in the church, here at the cross with Jesus. Whether we are innocent or guilty with pain, we end up in the same place as Jesus does: before the loving mercy of God.

Again, Christianity is an honest and realistic and incarnate religion. There are places in our lives where we bleed. There are places where we hurt, where we are in pain, where we suffer. Those horrifying, and even gruesome places, are the very places where God –in the person of Jesus Christ—pours out his love for us. God does not love us in theory. God loves us personally, in the person and life of Jesus Christ, in the very blood of Jesus Christ.

Today, we see suffering, but we also see love. It is love that looms so much larger over the landscape of intellectual theories of atonement. It is love that generates the power of Good Friday. It is love that compels Jesus Christ to take the despair and pain and suffering and blood of humanity near to God.

Sacrifice means to make holy. Jesus has made holy the human experiences of torturous pain, or bloody death, by taking them near to the very heart of God.

And Jesus took something else close to the heart of God. He took the human experience of sin. When God was touched so closely with that sin, God was affected. To be passionate means to be moved, to be willing to be moved. God himself suffered when touched by human violence. God was affected.

God’s response, however, was to forgive.

It is at the cross, then, that we discover, the true nature of God. The true nature of God is passionate love. When touched by sin, God forgives – he  does not condemn. When touched by despair, God perseveres. When touched by evil, God instigates the Good. When touched by violence, God turns it into peace. When touched by death, God turns it into life. The true nature of God is passionate love.

This is why we can say with deep conviction that we are saved by this blood of Jesus. This is why we can say with passion that Jesus is the perfect offering for our sins. His offering –his sacrifice—makes holy even the awful aspects of humanity, His offering takes all of human experience to the very heart of God, and in that heart of God we meet ... perfect love.

Jesus on the cross is an offering of love. And there is nothing more perfect than that love, nothing more powerful than that love, nothing more passionate than that love. To be loved by a suffering Jesus, on the cross, is to be loved. To be loved where we suffer is to be loved. That kind of love is deep, and broad, and high; that kind of love is the perfect offering for our sins. That kind of love lifts us close, so very close, to God. That kind of love is why we call this Friday Good.



AMEN.

27 February 2015

ON THE OBSERVANCE OF GEORGE HERBERT

This week (February 27), the Episcopal Church will observe the feast of George Herbert, surely one of the finer poets in our tradition. Here is but one example of his work:

THE AGONIE
 
        Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
        But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

        Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
        His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

        Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
        If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

However, the figure of George Herbert, country parson, has also assumed a legendary and misleading image. In a little treatise called “The Country Parson,” Herbert laid out a set of admirable criteria for what makes a successful parish priest. Those attributes of soft and genteel politeness have often been lambasted and critiqued, recently by Justin Lewis-Anthony in his delightful book, “If you Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him.” Lewis-Anthony noted that Herbert, in reality, was not really such a removed country parson. His little parish church was actually within walking distance of the high culture of Salisbury, and –even then—Herbert served there less than three years. He didn’t really pay his dues!

Here is what Justin Lewis-Anthony wrote in The Guardian, June 2, 2009: “Close your eyes and picture a vicar of the Church of England. Whether you are a regular churchgoer or someone who once watched an episode of The Vicar of Dibley, your mental image will more than likely be this: a smiling, benign, inoffensive and unworldly cleric. This image has its origins in the life and ministry of one man, George Herbert (1594-1633).  … …. Too often Herbertism gets in the way of Christianity. The solution must begin with ridding the false memory of Herbert, who he wasn't and what he didn't do. Much of our reverence for "George Herbert" is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him.” (The Guardian, June 2, 2009).

George Herbert was actually born in Wales, and there is another Welsh-born poet and priest, a more contemporary one, whom I highly recommend for a fine model of country clergy. He is R. S. Thomas, a great giant of a poet. I can print here only a portion of his poem, “The Country Clergy,” but look it up. It is an excellent and rugged juxtaposition to Herbert’s fantasy country parson. From Thomas’s “The Country Clergy:” 

I see them working in old rectories  
…They left no books, 


Memorial to their lonely thought 
In grey parishes; rather they wrote 
On men’s hearts and in the minds 
Of young children sublime words 
Too soon forgotten. God in his time 
Or out of time will correct this.



10 February 2015

WITH WINGS LIKE EAGLES?

Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

I used to sing a little song set to that verse, and the song ended, “Teach me Lord, Teach me Lord, to wait.” But waiting is one of the hardest things we do! If given a choice, we would rather not wait at all. Over history, western civilization has progressed ever so deliberately towards practices and inventions that free us from having to wait. From the printing press, to the industrial age, to the internet, we have shortened our waiting times.

In today’s information age, we no longer have to wait for the evening news shows, or the morning newspapers, to inform us of what has happened in the last twenty-four hours. The 24/7 news cycle means we have it now. In fact, the internet puts almost any information at all into our eyes in almost an instant.

Finally, of course, Amazon has us able to shop right now, with only a few key strokes, without waiting for our consumer urge to abate. The ability to download entire books has us reading that book we were slightly interested in, within two minutes of our urge. We don’t need to wait for much at all. We have learned to fly like eagles – quickly and instantly!

In the midst of the satisfaction that the world offers us in almost an instant, the Bible steadily admonishes us to wait. Whatever for?

Because life – real life—does not happen instantly. It takes time. Because flying itself takes time.

When Isaiah wrote the verses of chapter 40, Jerusalem had been captured; and the inhabitants of Judah had been forced into exile in Babylon. They had no idea when, or if,  they might be set free to return home. Other parts of the Bible describe their desperation (Psalm 137:4 asks, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”).

In that time of desperation and tears, Isaiah counsels waiting. Things will not be as they are now, he says. “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” It is God who will provide, says Isaiah, not our human strength or urgencies.

Last year, when I was down in Coweta County, on the farmland where I grew up, in the pastures where I learned to run, I would always see two bald eagles circling on clear days. They had built a beautiful nest, a home, in a towering old pine tree next to the lake. My entire family took joy in noticing their activities.

But this past Fall, we were crushed when we noticed one day that the old pine tree had collapsed. The entire nest, the eagles’ home, had been devastated; and the eagles were nowhere to be seen. They were gone. We counted the incident as another example of the hard life of nature.

But last week, when I was down there again, at the lake, I noticed an amazing thing. There they were, two bald eagles, soaring over the pastures where I used to run as a child. Yes, said my family, they had started a new nest, over on the other side of the lake. It was probably not complete yet, but it was being built, because only now is the time that eagles build a nest for their young.

Yes, it is only now that the new home for the eagles could be built, when the season is right, when the rhythm of life is returned to birth and new life. The eagles had to wait. The eagles could not build their new nest immediately. They had to wait for the seasons to change. But they waited; and the Lord provided another tree and another nest.

When we are crying, of course we want to return to joy. When we are desperate, of course we want hope. When we are in exile, of course we want to return home. When we are weak, of course we want to regain our strength. But God brings us home over time, when the seasons change, when the rhythm of life returns.

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.


22 December 2014

LET IT BE


(a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent - 21 December 2014)

 The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:28, 30-31, 35, 37-38)

“Let it be,” said Mary.

About forty-five years ago, there was a man whose business was failing. He was still a member of an amazing partnership –one of its two great stars, in fact—but he knew the partnership was crumbling. In fact, everyone in the business knew it.

The year was 1969. The partnership was the great rock band, The Beatles. The man was Paul McCartney. As he worried about the break-up of The Beatles, McCartney tried more and more desperately to take control of the band.

One night, Paul McCartney had a dream, a dream that featured his mother, his mother Mary. In the dream, his mother, who had died when was fourteen years old, came to him and said just a few words, “Let it be.”

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, Let it be.

McCartney has said, since, that he did not intend the song to have any explicit religious meaning, but he has also said that people can interpret that song in any way they like, including the religious.  And many of us do just that.

It is my belief that, in the church, today is Mother’s Day. I know that the rest of the country counts the second Sunday in May as Mothers Day, and we here in the church usually make a nod in that direction on the Second Sunday in May. But, in the Christian Church, we already have a Mothers Day, built into our lectionary, our schedule of Bible readings through the year.

It’s today. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas, the Church usually hears the faithful story of the one of the great mothers of our tradition. Mary. Mother Mary. The one who heard the angel announce a miraculous conception. The one who received the Word. And, then, the one who said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” The one who said, Let it be.

Hail, Mary, we say today. Full of grace. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Many of us know that powerful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition, and say the prayer to Mother Mary. But we might well speak it to all mothers today. We hail mothers today, those who say yes, those who allow the miracle of new life to be conceived in them. Mothers, who whisper words of wisdom to those they love, especially in times of trouble. Mothers, who speak words of truth.

When I speak “Hail Mary,” today, though, I do not mean that today is just a Roman Catholic day. It is a Protestant Catholic day, too, just as powerfully, because what we observe today is the power of the Word. It is the Word that comes upon Mary. It is a powerful Word, aggressive, energetic – maybe even a male generated – word.   

It is the Word which fills Mary today, and it is the Word which fills us. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh. And the Word fills us.

At some point in every mother’s life, at some point in every father’s life, at some point in every parent’s life, they hear one of the most feared questions of parenthood. “Mommy, Daddy, where do babies come from?”

No matter how old the questioner is, there is always one answer that works. There is one correct answer for the question, “Where do babies come from?” They come from love. Babies come from love. When two people love each other, new life happens. When the divine and the human love each other, new life happens!

And the signs of that love are often words. Words are important. The way we speak to other people matters. The way we speak to our lovers matters.

What did the Word say to Mary? “Greetings! Favored One! The Lord is with you! Do not be afraid!”

The word “Greetings” really means, “Rejoice!” It is one my favorite words in the Bible. The Word of God is always, at one level, a word of rejoicing. What if that were the first word we greet folks with every day? Rejoice!

“Favored one.” Ah, what if each of us called our lover, “favored one.” “You have found favor,” says the angel to Mary.

“Do not fear,” says the angel. Indeed, that is what Love says in every generation. You need not fear. Perfect love casts out fear.” When you find yourself in times of trouble, do not fear.

And Mary accepts this miracle, this sign of divine love, Mary accepts this Word, with her own words. She says “Let it be. Let it be to me according to your word.”

But Mary is not the only person in this story who accepts the Word of new life. The angel says that her “cousin, Elizabeth, in her old age, has also conceived.” And, the gospel of Matthew tells this story another way entirely , with the angel announcing the news not to Mary at all, but to Joseph.

It’s not just Mary’s day today. It’s not just Mothers Day today. It’s Fathers Day, too. It’s cousins day. It’s relatives day. It is a day to welcome the power of grace into our lives, no matter who we are. It’s All Flesh Day.

When the angel hailed Mary as favored one, the angel was announcing favor to all flesh. When Mary said “Let it be to me according to your word,” the Word entered all flesh. That word said, “You are favored. You are graced.”

The mighty, inseminating, conceiving Word of God is always about grace. And there’s not a person in the world who does not need it. Your child needs that word. Your lover. Your friend. Your stranger. Your other. Your enemy. The Annunciation is a word of grace. You are favored, and so are you and you and you.

Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God. The Holy Spirit has come upon you with grace.

The power of God’s grace is that it makes us all feel like virgins. The power of grace is that every time is the first time. It is a new beginning every time it enters into us. It’s like celebrating New Year’s Day.

The story is not just about accepting the seed of life inside us. That’s important, to be true. But the Annunciation is about announcing. It is about speaking the Word. It is about God speaking good words to all flesh. And then it’s about our speaking good words to all flesh.

Speaking good words. The scholarly among you know what the word “benediction” means. Bene means good. Diction means speaking. A benediction is a good word. Believers in the Annunciation are meant to proclaimers of grace and good words. The Church, the community of faith, is meant to be an announcer of blessing and grace to the world.

“Hail, favored one. Rejoice, you have received grace.”

What kind of blessing, what kind of grace, will we give today, tomorrow, and Christmas itself? It is what our children need. It is what our friends need. It is what our parents need.

It is what we need. And when we have received grace, it grows. The nature of grace is that it grows. The proof of grace is that it grows. The way others know you are pregnant with grace, is that it grows. It starts with a whisper, and it grows into a song.

Let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. That which is conceived in you is holy. It is grace. And it will be the salvation of all flesh.


AMEN.