Sunday, 23 September 2018

In Front of a Chasm (Luke 16:19-31)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 23, 2018, Proper 20)



The Old Man Playing Pinball

It was the beginning of my weekend, a Thursday evening, and I was out with a friend at one of the eateries in my neighborhood.  There happened to be a soccer game on the television, so I had all that I could ask for: time to unwind, a friend to share the moment with, and soccer in the background.

But what I remember most from that night is none of those things.  Instead, I still see what was in the corner of my eye: an old man playing pinball.  My first thought was, “Good for him!  This guy probably grew up playing pinball.  And he’s still enjoying it today.”  The flashing lights and arcade noise of the machine drew my attention throughout the evening.  Whenever they died down, I saw the man dig into his pocket and slip another quarter into the machine.  The glow of the machine returned and washed over the man’s impassive face.  When the man eventually left, I thought he had run out of quarters.  But minutes later he returned with a drink from the bar.  Taking a swig, he dug deep for another quarter and resumed his play.  The pattern continued for the rest of the evening.  Slipping in quarters.  Grabbing another drink.  Every once in a while shoving the machine against the wall in frustration.

When I left that evening, the man was still glued to the game.  His memory remains with me.  It even haunts me a little bit with a lonely feeling.  The mindless digging for more money.  The glow of the game on his glazed face.  The resignation with which he would walk away for another drink. 

I have a suspicion that this memory haunts me most because I see its lonely truth not only in that old man but also in myself and in the world around me.  Of course, it looks different from person to person.  For some, it may be a weekend Netflix binge.  For others, it may be scrolling through Facebook.  For me in my college years, it was the computer game Championship Manager, where I took the bottom-league soccer minnows Dagenham & Redbridge from obscurity in the English league to champions of Europe.

“You Are Those Who Justify Yourselves”

Last week as we read at the beginning of Luke about Jesus proclaiming good news to the lowly (Luke 4:16-19), I shared with you my dilemma, which is basically this: God’s good news in the Bible is for the poor, and I’m not.  That leaves me wrestling with the question: Where am I in the good news? 

Today I’m scrambling to find an answer to that question, and so I’m flipping several pages in the gospel of Luke to get to a place where Jesus addresses people like me, people who are more or less “comfortable.”  I’ve turned to Luke 16, where Jesus has been talking about money and has just made the infamous proclamation, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13).  When his audience ridicules him for making this all-or-nothing claim, he suggests that they have their hearts in the wrong place.  “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others,” he says, implying that they are more concerned with justifying their way of life than with listening to any message that might challenge it.  I can’t help but feel that he’s addressing people like me when he says this, people who justify their place in life, saying, “I worked for it, I earned it, it’s not my fault that others have it more difficult.”

Next Jesus tells a story.  

The Good News for Lazarus:
Not Money but Embrace

My kneejerk reaction to this story is to justify myself.  This doesn’t apply to me.  I’m nothing like that rich man, dressing myself in the finest clothing and feasting every day.  But I remember how Jesus has just pointed out my self-justifying behavior.  And so I hold myself steady and try to hear what this story might have to tell me about where I am in the good news.

The first thing I notice is that as exaggerated as the story is, it still strikes too close to home.  Sure, I’m nothing like the rich man, feasting in his finest everyday.  But Lazarus at his gate—that’s like the beggar whom I pass each morning on my way to church.  Lazarus is all around this city and all around this world, and the chasm between rich and poor only gets bigger each day.[1]

As a story, the tale of Lazarus and the rich man proclaims the message with which Jesus began his ministry.  It is good news to the poor.  Many folks read this good news as a simple reversal of fates for the haves and the have-nots.  If you’ve got it bad now, you’ll have it good later, and vice versa.  But if that’s the case, then I wonder why there’s nothing said about Lazarus receiving riches after his death.  The good news for Lazarus is not wealth but welcome, not money but embrace.  In life, he knew rejection, but now he knows love.  This little tale is undoubtedly about money, but I think it suggests an even deeper dimension to the chasm between rich and poor.  I think it shows the heart of the matter.  Because what matters most to God, in the end, is that Lazarus be embraced and loved.

There is no embrace, however, for the rich man.  The rich man is alone.  It says that he sees Abraham and Lazarus “far away,” at a great distance (v. 23). Later Abraham elaborates: “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” which is only natural (v. 26).  As in life, so also in death.  In life, the chasm was the great gap between wealth and poverty, a gap that was symbolized by the rich man’s gate that stood between them.  In death, there is no gate, but notice how the rich man twice calls out to Father Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand for him.  Even now, he persists on seeing the world according to the old gap.  He continues to view Lazarus as something of a servant and presumes on his own privilege to get what he wants.

A Daydream and an Alternative Ending

I wonder, though, if the rich man even knows what he wants.  Water, he says at first.  Or a warning to his brothers, so that they not also be deprived of their comforts.  But I wonder if that’s really what he wants.

I had a flash of a vision this week as I was reading the story.  In my daydream, the man playing pinball and the rich man blurred together.  After slipping in quarter after quarter and buying drink after drink, his face glazed over in the glow of his happiness, which was actually not happiness at all, he woke up to his great loneliness.  Surrounded by people, he was forlorn and friendless, lost in a game made up of money, mastery, and the false promise of more.  And his eyes were opened, and he saw all around him a great chasm.  And he looked across the chasm and saw Lazarus and Abraham.  And he felt the torment for what it was, and hot tears, tears of fire, sprang from the corners of his eyes as he saw Lazarus comforted in the embrace of Abraham.  And he begged Lazarus: “Brother, I am alone.  Would you come be with me?”  And suddenly the chasm was gone—had it even been real?—and Lazarus reached out and embraced me.

The Embrace of Lazarus

I wonder if we hear in today’s story what concerns us most.  If it’s money that is most important to us, then we hear a story about money.  We hear a criticism of our wealth.  If it’s security that we’re after, then we hear a story about the afterlife.  We hear a warning about eternal torment.

But if the story itself is any indication, what matters most to God is not money or security.  It’s relationship.  Communion.  Embrace.  That is what Lazarus receives from Abraham.  And that is what the rich man misses out on.  He faces instead the chasm of his strength and security and self-sufficiency.  He faces the chasm of his loneliness.

And that is where I find myself today.  Hearing Jesus proclaim good news to the poor, and asking, “Where am I in the good news?” I discover today, if I am honest, that I am often standing in front of a chasm.  It’s not a chasm of punishment, but rather a consequence of my life.  It’s a chasm of quarters and distraction, money and mastery.  It’s a chasm I feel acutely when I pass by the needful, whom in fact I need.  It’s a chasm of loneliness.

How is that good news for me?  Well, I’m still trying to figure it out, but I know this much.  The God of Abraham desires to embrace me as much as to embrace Lazarus.  And to receive that embrace is perhaps no different from giving that embrace to persons like Lazarus, who lay on the other side of my chasm.

Prayer

God of embrace,
Who lifts up the lowly
And welcomes the ones
Whom the world rejects:
Uncover before us
The chasms
That separate us
From your embrace.
In Christ, for whom there is no chasm.  Amen.



[1] Cf. Matthew Stewart, “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/, accessed on September 19, 2018.  See also this report that world hunger is on the rise: Jason Beaubien, “The Fight Against World Hunger Is Going in the Wrong Direction,” https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/09/11/646786468/the-fight-against-world-hunger-is-going-in-the-wrong-direction, accessed on September 19, 2018.


Sunday, 16 September 2018

Where Am I in the Good News? (Luke 4:16-19)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 16, 2018, Proper 19)



The Extent of My Poverty: Adventures in Flying

If you’ve ever traveled by air before, you know that flying can be a real adventure.  Over the course of my studies in England, I flew back and forth across the Atlantic several times.  I can’t tell you how happy I am that I haven’t had to make one of those flights in the last few years.  Airlines and airports have been the sites of some of the most distressing experiences of my life.

I remember, for example, how I was detained for a few minutes in London Heathrow after walking through security.  I had prepared diligently, taking off my shoes, belt, and jacket, removing everything from my pockets.  Even so, as I walked through a security officer whisked me away behind a screen and asked me to loosen my remaining clothes.  I won’t share any more details, except to say that I left that pat down red in the face.

More typically, and less upsetting, my transatlantic flight would include moments of hunger.  On one occasion, the two on-flight meals on offer did not appeal.  But of course the coffee did.  And for me, coffee on an empty stomach is always a bad idea.  By the time we touched down at JFK, my hands were shaking and my eyes couldn’t hold still.  I must have cut a nervous figure.  Looking back, it’s a small miracle Customs didn’t detain me for further questioning.

Lastly, I remember arriving home one Christmas only to discover that my checked baggage hadn’t made the flight.  No problem, the airline representative told me.  They’d have the checked baggage delivered to my home address as soon as it arrived.  For the next two days, then, I wore a random assortment of clothes that had remained in my childhood drawer: soccer shorts, flannel pajama bottoms, and threadbare t-shirts.  And I bummed toothpaste and shampoo off my family.

I share these memories now not only because I’m finally far enough away from them that I can laugh.  I share them also because in today’s scripture Jesus proclaims good news to the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, and these experiences are probably the closest I have come to inhabiting those positions.

I don’t mean to say this with either pride or shame.  I’m simply stating the fact.  The extent of my oppression is a pair of momentarily invasive hands at airport security.  The extent of my hunger is a day without food (but not without coffee).  The extent of my poverty is living a couple of days without my first choice of clothing.

Good News for the Poor…

According to Luke, when Jesus begins his ministry, the first thing that he does is to proclaim “good news to the poor” (4:18).  For the next three years, the poor will remain at the center of his good news.  To whom does the kingdom of God belong?  The poor.  How do I live a good and full life, the rich young ruler asks?  Sell everything, Jesus says, and share your life with the poor.  How difficult it is, he exclaims, for a person with wealth to enter the kingdom of God (cf. 18:18-30).  When Jesus gets on a storytelling kick about how to eat around the table, he repeatedly urges his listeners to share their meals with the poor (cf. 14:13, 21).  And when he tells a simple parable about a poor man and a rich man, it’s no surprise to find that the poor man is lifted up in God’s embrace and the rich man is left in the agony of his isolation (cf. 16:19-31).[1]  Jesus is constantly turning the order of the world upside down, lifting up the poor and leaving the rich in a freefall.  The last will be first, he says, and the first last (cf. 13:30).  The greatest in the kingdom, he says, are the least (cf. 22:26).  In today’s scripture, when Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, he’s referring to the Jewish idea of Jubilee, a year when debts are dropped and slaves are freed and lands return to their original owner—a year, in other words, in which life is leveled, the rich giving back to the poor.

And all of this is nothing new, really.  All throughout the Old Testament, God is on the side of the poor.  That’s how the story of Israel begins, of course, when God hears the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt.  But even after Israel gains its own land, God especially listens to and looks out for the poor.  “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” we hear God proclaim in the Psalms (12:5).  And also, “Who is like you, Lord?  You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them” (35:10).  And then prophets were always reminding the people where God’s real concern was, not in ceremony but in care for the poor: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,” Isaiah proclaims.  “Is not this [the fast that matters to God]: to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them?” (58:4, 6-7). 

From Egypt to Nazareth, from Moses to Jesus, God has been always proclaiming good news to the poor. 

And that’s basically what the Bible is.  If we take a step back and look historically at who wrote the Bible and whom it was written for, we’ll see a bunch of losers.  A bunch of sojourners in a land that is not theirs.  A bunch of slaves.  A bunch of exiles, dispossessed and displaced.  The Bible itself is an enduring witness to the fact that God’s good news is for the poor.  History is usually written by the winners, who write to glorify their accomplishments.  The Bible is written by losers, who write to insist on God’s love and care for them.

…And I’m Not

Can you imagine a book on the history of the United States written by Native Americans?  Or undocumented migrants?  Or African slaves?  Because that’s who wrote the Bible.  The slaves from Egypt.  The exiles in Babylon.  The Judeans under the heel of the Roman empire.  The Bible that they wrote points us to a God who cared especially for them.  The poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed.

And that’s my dilemma.  God’s good news is for the poor, and I’m not.  My comic flying misadventures don’t even come close to touching poverty.

My brother was telling me about a funny scene from the recent box office hit Crazy Rich Asians.  There’s a moment when the girlfriend realizes that her boyfriend’s family is stinking rich.  They’ve just boarded a plane to Singapore to meet his family, and they’re escorted to a bedroom suite in the plane.  When the girlfriend exclaims that his family must be rich, he responds: “We’re comfortable.”  To which she observes, “[That’s] exactly what a super-rich person would say.”

Now I’ve never flown in a bedroom suite—as you know, my flying experience has looked very different than that—but when I consider the fact that I have an American passport, a bank account, and a car, and that I can afford occasionally to buy things that I would like to have, I realize that in the eyes of most of the world I am super-rich.  I would never call myself that.  Who among us would?  We prefer euphemisms.  Like “comfortable.”  Or perhaps you’ve heard folks complain laughingly about their “first world problems.” 

But I hear that the truth sets us free.  So today I’m going to go out on a limb and state the truth.  I’m rich.

And that troubles me, because Christ proclaims the good news to the poor.

It appears that I’m not alone in my discomfort. In today’s scripture, after Jesus announces the good news to the poor, and after the congregation digests what he’s saying, that the good news is more than a personal promise to them, that it is a wild promise especially for the poor and that it might upset the balance of everything, they try to throw him off a cliff.  It’s a surreal but suggestive image for me.  If I don’t want to throw Jesus off a cliff after I’ve read the Bible, after I read its good news about a social upheaval favoring the folks beneath me…then have I been reading the Bible honestly?  (And if you don’t want throw me off a cliff after I’ve preached…then I have preached the Bible honestly?)

Something Scandalous in the Good News

Today marks the beginning of a five-week series in which I’ll explore the bias of the Bible.  If that sounds scandalous, then good.  I think there was something scandalous in the good news that Jesus proclaimed that first day of his ministry in Nazareth.

As I’ve already suggested, the proclamation of good news to the poor scandalizes me because I know that I’m not poor.  That leaves me with the question: “Where am I in the good news?”  What does this good news mean for me?  Like you, I believe that God loves everyone.  But I’m also beginning to wonder if God’s love doesn’t look bigger and wilder and riskier than I’d like for it to be.  Maybe sometimes I’ve been guilty of turning the kingdom of God into a personal salvation project, when really it’s about a new creation, a rearrangement of the world where the lowly are lifted up—and the rich…well, that’s what I want to figure out.  Where am I in the good news?

Prayer

Dear Jesus,
I can’t quite make out
Whether your good news
Is a comfort
Or a challenge.
Or both.
Where are we
In your good news?
Give us pause.
Give us patience,
That we not dismiss
Your scandalous suggestions
As quickly as the congregation in Nazareth.
Make us ready
For your salvation,
Which is good news to the poor.  Amen.



[1] More specifically, the poor man, Lazarus, is embraced by Abraham, who represents God’s favor.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

We Are All Ministers (Ephesians 4:1-13)


(Reflection for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 9, 2018, Proper 18)



“Something for Everyone”

One of the memory care residents across the street, Richard, is a retired Methodist minister.  His face is the picture of peace: the faint trace of a smile always playing on his lips, whether he’s there putting together a puzzle, or talking with me, or simply sitting at the table that he’s been pushed to.  His eyes are warm and friendly, but I can’t help feeling that they see much more than I see.  He has a little bit of that faraway look in his eyes.  He seems to see more than is in the room.  I like to think that he sees the kingdom of God—not heaven somewhere else, but right there on the second floor of Symphony Manor, among nurses and residents and the activities room TV blaring the latest prize on the Price Is Right.

Richard can’t remember the names of the churches where he served, although I have worked out that he ministered here in Virginia, in the eastern shore of Maryland, and in West Virginia.  Months ago, I asked Richard what advice he would give to a young minister such as myself.  Here is what he said.  It’s very simple:

“I tried to find something for everyone to do.”

A Kingdom Vision:
Everyone a Minister, Christ Alive in Our World

A more cynical listener might hear in these words just the practical wisdom that idle hands are the devil’s playground, or that keeping people busy is as good as keeping them happy.

But I think Richard means a lot more than that.  I think he sees the kingdom of God, and I think he’s sharing a bit of his vision.  And I think his vision is an ancient vision, a vision that has been passed down through the ages, from Jesus to Paul to our denominational forebears, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.  Campbell and Stone, remember, did not uphold the traditional distinction between clergy and laity.  They did not distinguish between the pulpit and the pew.  They believed that we are all called and equipped to be ministers.  And this wasn’t an invention of their thinking.  It came from the earliest followers of Christ, from people like Paul, who said that every Christ-follower is given a gift “to equip” them “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (cf. Eph 4:7, 11-12).  It came from Christ himself who made no distinction among his followers but sent them all out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (cf. Luke 9:2).

According to this vision of the kingdom, we are all ministers.  We all have gifts to share.  That is how Christ lives in our world today!

From Jesus and Paul—To Richard and Gayton Road

“I tried to find something for everyone to do,” Richard said with that intimate and yet far-off look in his eyes.

He was not reciting a timeworn cliché.  He was sharing with me his vision that everyone in the church is a minister, everyone has a gift to share, that is how Christ lives in our world!

This kingdom vision—which runs from Jesus to Paul to Alexander Campbell to Richard—has inspired us here at Gayton Road Christian Church.  This year, we have assembled three teams to share in the ministry of the church, and we are inviting every member and friend of the congregation to join at least one team.  Because like Richard said, we believe that there is “something for everyone to do.”  We believe that every person here is a minister and has gifts to share.  That is how we become part of the body of Christ that lives and moves and touches people in this community and throughout the world.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Beauty That Calls Us (Song of Songs 2:8-13)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 2, 2018, Proper 17)



Sacred Sounds

In our world, some sounds are sacred.  Voices, notes, tones that set our hearts to leaping, that call us to self-abandonment.

The recess bell.   When it rings, the school shakes from inside.  Then the door opens and erupts with children.  They run this way and that, nearly losing it, kicking balls, playing chase, climbing the jungle gym, running to meet their friends in the shade of tall trees—all of them in love with life.

The dinner call.  When my mom opens the back door and calls out, “Dinner,” my brother and I grab the soccer balls and scramble through the door and kick off our shoes still tied and run our hands through an obligatory ten seconds of water and soap and then take our seats, where glasses poured with cold milk and plates filled with food await us—and we are suddenly hungrier than before.

The whistle.  When its sharp ring pierces the waiting air of the playing field, the players lose their worries and then lose their breath—and before long, a fortunate few among them who are “in the zone” will lose themselves completely.

The ring tone.  When its familiar melody anonymously announces a caller, the young soul awakens from the tedium of the everyday and fumbles for the phone in anticipation, hoping against hope that the name on the screen will match the name of their love—and when they see the name, the day is suddenly filled with new life and possibility and adventure.

The recess bell, the dinner call, the whistle, the ring tone—just a few sacred sounds among many.  When they reach our ears, they raise us.  They move us.  They fill the world with beauty and goodness and new life.  They call us out of ourselves.

A Song of Love

The Song of Songs is a scandalous song.  Not once does it mention God by name.  Instead it sings shamelessly about human love.  How it ever made it in the Bible is a mystery.  To this day, scholars debate the reasons that the ancient rabbis included this earthy love poem in their scriptures.

Of course, ever since its inclusion, the rabbis and priests both have done their best to censor this love song by making it into a metaphor.  This song is really about God and Israel, they say, or about Christ and the church.  Certainly the song can be read that way.  But I wonder if it’s not even stronger if we read it simply as it is.  Perhaps it need not mention God because its story somehow is the story of God.  Is that not what John said centuries later?  “God is love.”  Love is how God moves in the world, including how God moves between two human lovers.

But is love only a matter of romance? 

Today’s scripture begins with an incomplete sentence, a sort of surprised exclamation: “The voice of my beloved!” the woman proclaims.  Moments later, she shares with us what her beloved says: “Arise, my love…and come away.”

Isn’t this the call of love?  A call that excites us and raises us up and entices us to abandon ourselves and to go away into the world?  Isn’t this the same call as a recess bell or a dinner call or a whistle? 

Three Beautiful Places Where We Are Called

And don’t we all hear this call?  Maybe for us it’s no longer as obvious or immediate as a particular sound that sets our hearts to leaping, that throws us into self-abandonment, like a bell or a whistle or a ring tone.  Maybe we hear the call in the lower, subtler registers of a particular place or a certain situation.

In the Greek, the word for beauty, kalon, appears to have come from the word for call, kaleo.  In other words, the ancients believed that beauty is what calls us.  (Which sounds to my ear like the truth we have already touched on, that love is how God moves in our world.)  If we reflect for a moment on where we are drawn most deeply to in this world, on what sets our hearts to leaping and leads us into self-abandonment, I imagine that we might find ourselves thinking about matters of deep beauty and joy.

Of course, it is easy to miss the call of beauty.  Caught up in our own plans and programs, our thinking in terms of business and this-for-that and what’s most effective, we sometimes miss the beauty right before our eyes—a sunset, a child, a gratuitous gesture of compassion.  So a couple of years ago, our church intentionally set aside some time and space to reflect on its deepest joys.  There were three places that I heard over and over again: tables, both the worshipful one here in the sanctuary and the messy ones over in the fellowship hall and at Deep Run Park and wherever else we might gather; small groups, like Bible study groups and the choir who gathers every Wednesday; and visiting with the needful, as when we sing carols with the shut-ins or take bears to the hospital or give to the homeless. 

Tables, small groups, and the needful.  Three beautiful places to which we have been called as a church.  Here is where God’s love has moved us.  Here, we have encountered a deep beauty and joy.  I am not talking about the superficial kind of excitement that we might compare romantically to a crush, which is an excitement more often than not selfish in its nature. I am talking about a deep and abiding joy that draws us out of ourselves, a breathless sense that we have happened upon the most precious thing in the world, what matters most.  This is the beauty of the bed-ridden holding a teddy bear and praying tearfully with people who care.  It’s the beauty of multiple voices becoming one and singing melodies and harmonies and lyrical words that express what no lesson or lecture ever could.  It’s the beauty of difference and disagreement gathering around the same table in peace and love.

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

And is it any surprise?  These three places are where Christ promises us he will be.  The table, where he says “Remember me” and “I will meet you again here” (Luke 22:16-18); small groups “where two or three are gathered” (Matt 18:20); and the needful, for “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

Jesuit priest and poet Gerald Manley Hopkins once wrote that “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”  Perhaps this is another way of saying that these three Christ-haunted places are everywhere, that there is no limit to the ways that we hear the call of the beautiful, “Arise, my love…and come away.” 

Next week when we meet in the fellowship hall for worship, we will pray and ponder how the call that we hear as individuals lines up with our church’s sense of call to tables, small groups, and the needful.  I would wager that wherever you hear the call of Christ, which is also the call of the beautiful—that wherever you see Christ “lovely in limbs…and eyes not his”—it is not too far from a table, or two or three others, or a person in need. 

Prayer

Beautiful Christ,
Whose call to us
Raises us to new life
And draws us into the world:
As bells and whistles
Rouse the hearts and bodies
Of children,
So may your voice
Excite and entice us
To take the risk of faith—
To rise and go away
On your adventure of love.  Amen.


Sunday, 26 August 2018

"God Insists"


When I first heard
“God does not exist, God insists,”
I was troubled.

Why?
The idea does not question
The reality of God.
(It insists on it.)

Perhaps what I worship
Even more than God
Is existence.
Being.
Something sure, stable, secure.

"Hear in Heaven" (1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 26, 2018, Proper 16)



Gaps in Our World 

Pause your life.  Freeze it.  Take your remote and stop everything for a minute.  Inside you is a world.  A world of plans.  After church, you will eat lunch.  You’ll catch up on errands you didn’t have time for in the week.  A world of expectations.  In fall, the leaves will change color and the temperatures will drop.  At the end of a pay period, you’ll get a paycheck.  A world of decisions to make.  Maybe in the future you’ll be buying a new car or a new home.  Do you buy this one or that one?  A world of possibility. Maybe you’ll change jobs.  Maybe you’ll make a new friend.

Inside you is a world.  What you think.  What you anticipate.  What decisions you’re ready for.

This world inside you is closed.  Finished.  Complete.  If you took the remote and resumed play and everything ran according to plan, then the future would really only be a foregone conclusion: a natural unfolding of the present, a foreseeable development, a potential eventually to be realized.  At the beginning of the 20th century, as industrialization and advances in science promised a society of comfort and convenience, many people understood the world in just this way.  The future, they thought, was already written.  They boldly predicted and planned for a century of peace and pleasure.

After two world wars, multiple genocides, continued struggles with hunger, and an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, we’ve conceded that maybe there was more to the world than we could see or know.  As the world inside us began to play out, there were shocks and surprises.  Things we did not foresee.  Things we could not plan for.  Our world, it appeared, had gaps and cracks.

God on High

I must confess that I have a hard time with the traditional imagery of God on high, of heaven as God’s dwelling place.  Which is exactly what we find in our scripture today, where King Solomon dedicates his newly built temple to God.  Twice in our scripture, and twice more in the surrounding verses that are not included, Solomon prays to God: “Hear in heaven your dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:30, 39, 43, 49). 

The imagery doesn’t resonate with me because it sits at odds with my faith experience.  I have only ever encountered God on the ground level.  From the moment I was born, when as a helpless infant I was held close and loved in the flesh by the people around me.  As I grew up, when I was given more second chances by my parents and teachers and coaches and friends than I can count.  As I meet with you each Sunday, when we gather around this Table and share not only bread and cup but our trust in a life that is greater than death.  In all these things, I have encountered God on my level. 

Or as we’ll say around Christmas time, “Emmanuel”—God is with us.  Or as Christ said, “Where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them” (Matt 18:20) or, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me” (Matt 25:40).  Or as Paul says, “You are the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27).

Heaven is God’s dwelling place?  My faith and my hope are that all the world is God’s dwelling place.  Emmanuel.  God is with us.

Heaven as the Gaps in Our World

But maybe I’m being unfair.  Maybe like “lamb of God” or “bread of life,” God “in heaven” is metaphor.  After all, what would it even mean that God dwells on high in the heavens?  Where exactly?  If everyone on earth pointed up, we’d all be pointing in different directions. 

I wonder if our own expressions about the heavens don’t point us in the right direction, toward what this metaphor really means.  Expressions like “Heaven knows,” which means I don’t.  Or “Heaven help me,” which means I can’t do it myself.  Or “It fell straight from heaven,” which means it came out of nowhere. 

All of these expressions suggest our inability and our ignorance.  Heaven is shorthand for I don’t know everything, I can’t do this on my own, I didn’t see that happening.  Heaven is the opposite of the world that is inside us, the world that we know and plan for and anticipate, the world that is closed and complete.  Heaven is the gaps and cracks in our world.

Which if we are honest, are our only real hope of salvation.  I think the reason that Solomon keeps praying to God in heaven—and the reason that Jesus keeps talking about the flesh needing something else, needing spirit—is that they know that the world inside us, the world that we know and prepare for and expect, is actually small and shortsighted.  Just ask the hopeful who predicted paradise at the start of the twentieth century.  What we know, what already exists, what we can see coming—these things won’t save us.  It’s what we don’t know, what doesn’t exist, what we can’t see coming—it’s God, in a word, or “heaven,” if you like, that will save us.

Death…and Resurrection

If you’ve ever held onto a grudge, or hidden a lie, or simply hogged what you could have been sharing, you know just how important “heaven”—the gaps and cracks in our world—is.  Because holding onto a grudge is holding onto the world that we know, the world where we’re right and the other person is wrong.  And hiding a lie is preserving the world that we want, the world where we are accomplished and admired and accepted.  And hogging what we could be sharing is protecting our world of plans and possibilities, the world where we’ve worked hard and earned it and deserve whatever we can afford.

In each case, we are clinging to the world that we know.  But then there are cracks and gaps, thank God.  Have you ever held onto a grudge only to have your opponent give you the nicest compliment?  And it destroys your world…before opening up a new one where you have one more friend than before.  Or have you ever hidden a lie only to have it exposed?  And for that split second it feels unbearable…but then all of the sudden you can breathe and the weight of the lie is lifted and then in this truth it feels like you’ve been set free.  Or have you ever hogged something only then to share a little bit begrudgingly?  And at first maybe it feels like your world is lost…but then you enter into a new world richer and fuller and friendlier than before.

When heaven breaks through the gaps and cracks in our world, it often feels like this, doesn’t it?  A little bit like death…and then resurrection.

Salvation from Outside

Emmanuel.  God is with us.  But we can ignore God just as easily as we can ignore our neighbor. 

For this reason, I think, King Solomon prayed, “Hear us in heaven!”  For this reason, we say, “Heaven knows!”, “Heaven help me!”  Heaven is our way of confessing I don’t know everything, I can’t do this on my own, I didn’t see that happening.  Heaven is our way of inviting what we can’t see coming, of celebrating the gaps and cracks in our world.  Heaven is our way of praying for a world bigger than our grudges, freer than our fictions, rich beyond riches.  Heaven is our highest prayer—not as an escape from earth, but as redemption for earth: “On earth as it is in heaven.”  It is this salvation from outside, Jesus says, that actually gives us life.  “The flesh is useless”—“it is the spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).  Patience, gentleness, forgiveness—these fruits of the spirit come not through our willpower and determination, but from our surrender to something beyond us.  God, in a word—or “heaven,” if you’d like.   

Prayer

God of the gaps,
Who breaks into our world
In the openings
Of nonexistence,
In what we cannot see coming,
In what we do not know—
Hear us in heaven
And save us.
Lead us beyond
The world we cling to.
Lead us in the way
Of death and resurrection.
In the name of him whose spirit gives life, Jesus Christ.  Amen.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

When the Sun Goes Down on Anger (2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 12, 2018, Proper 14)



A Smoldering Look

It was the first day of second grade.  Keith found the desk with his nametag and sat down.  Immediately he knew something was not right.  As the boy next to him began to snigger and several heads in front of him turned around and stared, he could feel that his seat was wet.  Terrified, he stood up and saw a puddle.  The boy sitting next to him, whose name was Jeff, must have put water on his seat before he arrived.  He hadn’t seen it when he sat down.

His face red with embarrassment, Keith dried his seat and sat down again.  But that was not the end.  Jeff was speaking to the teacher now, “I think the boy next to me had an accident.”  All the class looked at Keith.  The teacher came over and discreetly asked if he needed a change of clothes.  No, he shook his head, the seat just had some water in it.  He gave Jeff a smoldering look.

Keith never forgot that first day.  In time, he would make Jeff pay.  One day Jeff got to lunch and discovered that everything in his lunchbox was soaked.   There was a hole in his juice pouch.  Another day, Jeff opened his pencil box and found all his pens and pencils and crayons stuck together, caked in glue.  Before long, these petty pranks had escalated into an outright battle.  Every offense was remembered.  None was left unaccounted.  Whenever one struck, the other struck back.

Keeping Anger in Circulation

Anger has a way of keeping itself in circulation.

This is no less true in our homes and in our workplaces than in the world of second grade.  We see it everywhere.  One person gets angry—and then gets even.  But rather than stopping the anger, this only spreads it.  The other person gets angry and retaliates.  Once the cycle starts, it is hard to stop.  Anger has a way of keeping itself in circulation.

It was not an accident that King David looked out across the field one day and prepared to go to war with his own son, Absalom.  That day was a little over a decade in the making.  It had all begun eleven years ago when Amnon, one of David’s other sons, raped Absalom’s sister Tamar.  Absalom channeled his anger into cold revenge.  Saying nothing, he waited for two years.  Then he threw a feast and invited his family, including his half-brother Amnon.  The Bible says that when the heart of Amnon was merry with wine, Absalom gave the signal and his servants killed him.  The news deeply distresses his father David, filling him with a bitter mix grief and anger.  For five years, Absalom is not welcome in his father’s home.  Finally David receives him, and the two reconcile.  Or at least they appear to.  But anger has a way of keeping itself in circulation.  Absalom never forgets how long it took his father to welcome him back home.  In his smoldering resentment, Absalom conspires for the next four years to usurp his own father’s throne.  Finally his plan comes to fruition.  He takes his father’s throne, and David flees the city with the warriors that remain faithful to him.

Which brings us back to David looking out across the field and preparing to go to war with his own son.  Twelve years before, the scene would have been unimaginable.  But that was before anger began its vicious cycle.

Even so, David keeps perspective.  Before the battle begins, he gives careful instruction to his army not to kill his son Absalom.  David wants out of the cycle.  He keeps alive the hope of one day reconciling with his son.

But by this point in time, the anger has grown beyond his control.  David’s wishes are too feeble in the face of its outsized demand.  When Absalom finds himself stuck in the trees, hanging helplessly above the ground, anger licks its chops.  This is too good to be true.  David’s commander, who heard very well David’s instruction, thrusts three spears into Absalom.  Why?  He is the surrogate of anger, possessed by its demand, driven by the betrayal his king has suffered and the need for vengeance.[1]

The Satisfaction of Anger:
Who Is Satisfied?

I’m fascinated by the way we talk about anger.  We commonly refer to nurturing anger and satisfying our anger.  I wonder if there’s more truth in these words than we realize.  Our expressions suggest that anger is a reality and a power distinct from us.  When we nurture anger, we are not nurtured.  Anger is.  When we satisfy anger, we are not satisfied.  Anger is.  In my mind, this paints the picture of anger as a parasite.  It feeds off us.  We might think that payback will make us feel good, but really it will make the parasite feel good even as it drains us of life.

That’s what happened rather literally in the story of King David.  At each turn in the road, someone kept the anger alive.  Seeking to get even, to settle the score, someone kept the anger in circulation.  And each time the anger was satisfied, it left someone dissatisfied.  It deprived its hosts of life.  The anger grew and grew until one day it literally took life.  Not only Absalom’s, but also a part of David’s.   Who can hear his anguished cry and not hear the death of part of his soul?

The Most Powerless Thing To Do?

The trouble with anger is what to do with it.  If it’s hard enough to stop the cycle in second grade, what do we do when it comes to the tragic realities of our own world?  Because what we see in Absalom’s story we see also in our own world.  Sexual abuse.  Rape.  Murder.  War.

In response to evils like these, it is tempting to jump ahead and look for an answer, a solution, a fix.  But if we are not careful, the answer or solution will become a vehicle for anger, keeping it in circulation and draining us of life at the same time.  In today’s epistle reading, Paul paraphrases Christ on the importance of simply starting where we are and acknowledging the anger: “Be angry,” Paul says, “but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26; cf. Matt 5:21-26). 

Words like these cannot even begin to address the horrors of something like rape or murder.  They are not meant to.  They are meant to address another horror, one that promises satisfaction but only deprives us further of life.  Words like these would not have restored the honor of Absalom’s sister Tamar.  They wouldn’t have brought David’s son Amnon back to life.  Words like these cannot change the past.  But they can change what happens next.  They can stop the cycle.

“Do not let the sun go down on your anger” promises neither a restoration of what was lost, nor the offender’s repentance, nor a future reconciliation.  The only thing it promises is a stop to the cycle.

Its power is not in what it accomplishes but in what it makes possible.  Like much of God’s power, it is a possibilizing power.  It is the same power of the cross.  Proclaiming forgiveness instead of vengeance, returning after his shameful death with a word of peace instead of retribution, Christ makes possible an entirely different way of life, one where violence is not kept in circulation, where life is no longer lost in the quest to get even, where anger is just a feeling and not a power that holds us in its crippling grip.

To let go of anger is perhaps the most powerless thing to do in the world.  It accomplishes very little in itself.  And yet—the life that it makes possible!  That, according to Jesus, is worth dying for.

Prayer

Tenderhearted Christ,
Instead of nurturing grudges,
You nurtured us—
Liberate us
From the ruinous grasp of anger;
Teach us your way
Of feeling anger
And letting it go;
Train us in that powerless power
That makes possible
The world of which you dream,
The kingdom of God.  Amen.



[1] David’s commander Joab also has his own anger to satisfy.  See 2 Sam 14:28-33.