Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Flaming Hammer

The following is a transcript of my sermon preached Sunday, August 22nd at St. George's Anglican in Waynesburg, PA.  The readings for this week were as follows:  Psalm 46; Isaiah 28:14-22; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29; Luke 13:22-30.  The sermon primarily refers to the reading from Hebrews.

I don’t know if you noticed just now, but our New Testament reading this morning was missing some verses. No, nobody made a mistake. The lectionary—our list of weekly scripture readings found in the prayer book—leaves out Hebrews 12:20-21, as it often does with supposedly unpleasant content. What was left out? Let me read it to you. It says that the hearers at Sinai begged “that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’)”[1]

Our dean and president at Trinity School for Ministry, the Very Rev. Dr. Justyn Terry, has said before that often the scriptures left out of the lectionary are the very ones we ought to preach on. This morning I tell you, I accept his challenge. This morning I will preach the full word of God, however unpleasant it may be.

Israel begged for God’s intense, fiery word to stop. Who among us does not know the difficulty of hearing the full word of God? The gospel, as good news will do, fills us with hope. We rejoice in the glory of God’s mercy and grace extended to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet the cross ought to also to cause us holy fear, as we have been told by Jesus himself that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”[2] The cross both announces the grace of God as well as the sacrificial lifestyle he calls everyone to live.

Last week I spoke the word of God to you. I told the story of Babylon’s invasion of Israel and the dark consequences which followed. It was a dire time in Israel’s history. A time of violence, immorality and uncertainty. I pointed out that our own day suffers many similar problems. I argued that, as in Jeremiah’s day, many voices in our culture claim to have the answers and solutions while those who speak God’s word are deemed dangerous or irrelevant. I concluded that we ought to judge all these voices based on what we know about God through the Bible, through that long and full history of Israel culminated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But did we hear the full word of God? I’m asking myself here; did I even proclaim it?

Let me ask you—who did you identify with in that story? I’m guessing no one here saw themselves as Babylon, the future army of destruction. That would be like rooting for an evil Terminator or a dictator. Maybe some of you saw yourself like Israel—God’s chosen, but compromised by sin, unsure of the word of the Lord in a chaotic time. But my guess is—and I say this because I was no different—that most of us identified with Jeremiah. The one who got it right. The good guy. We like heroes and we want to be heroes—we’re encouraged by their tales of perseverance and righteousness, and rightly so. We ought to aspire to a noble life. However, as we dream of nobility, we must not forget the darkness of our human nature. We don’t like to admit to our own villainy and probably need God’s word to admit it to ourselves.

I will not argue today any differently than I did last week—as Christians, we face a God-less culture which might be happy to eradicate the apostolic witness from public life altogether. But when we point our finger at this sinful culture, are there not three fingers pointing back at us? We who instruct others not to sin, do not we also do some of the very things we criticize? As much as we do so, we ignore part of God’s instruction that our lives ought to reflect our message, and therefore should heed the words we read today in Hebrews: “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”[3] Those of us quick to identify the sins of others ought to also examine ourselves.

One of us might say, but Lord, have I not done well enough? Is it not enough to attend church, avoid terrible things like drugs and illicit sex, to do my best to “get by”? So long as I’m not like “those people over there”?

To illustrate my point, I have two stories to tell.

A couple of years ago I lived in Tallahassee, FL with my friend Scott. We were both out of college, both Christians and both working at a job we had because they were willing to give us money if we showed up and, well, confound it if we didn’t have this persistent need to eat regular meals and sleep under a roof behind a locked door. Scott knew a man through mutual friends whose name, like mine, was Mike. Mike did not have his life together. He lived out of his van and was a recovering alcoholic who lapsed every now and then. He had intermittent work with stone-cutting and placing for personalized driveways and patios, but was often short on cash because he would hold out for better paying jobs and feel insulted by low-paying grunt work. He asked Scott if he could live with us and, with my reluctant permission, Scott said yes.

So Mike lived with us for a couple of months. Working intermittently. Taking up large chunks of my free time with his energetic ramblings. Staying off of alcohol. I allowed and tolerated his residency because I regarded it to be my Christian duty, but I was a reluctant host and probably not always a kind one. Shortly after Mike moved out, he lapsed back into his addiction, and stumbled drunk into a house on his street late one night. The young coed he terrified called the police, who arrested him for breaking and entering. When I heard this, I turned my nose up and decided that he deserved what he got. I never visited him in prison.

I remembered these events recently, with sorrow, because of my current chaplaincy internship at the Beaver County Jail. There I’ve met Marcus, whose name I’ve changed to protect what little privacy he has left, a man I pray with on a regular basis and who is also a killer. Marcus, formerly a Muslim, found Christ while reading the Gospels alone in his cell. He became irritated and unamused by the macho posturing of his fellow inmates, and has come to know the peace of God through the grace and forgiveness of Jesus. Marcus regularly demonstrates an authentic, humble faith and an intelligent curiosity to understand as much about God and the Bible as he can. We are even currently reading a spiritual book together.

Every day I meet with him, I have to be willing to extend Marcus the same grace he has come to accept, or I would not be able to minister to him. I realized quickly from ministering to inmates that I could have no hope of being effective if for a second I considered myself to be better than them. I must remember both that, as the apostle Paul says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,”[4] as well as that, as the ancient preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all.”[5] We are all sinners, and given the right circumstances, we may have been capable of both history’s worst atrocities as well as the pettiest of its crimes.

With Scott and I’s friend Mike, however, I had no such kindness. I put in the hours at my meaningless job and resented him for not having the backbone to do the same. When he ended up in prison, I was tired of his excuses, of his problems, of his story. I thought, “He deserved it; I’m done with him.” Lord Jesus, please forgive me this cold-hearted act of pride.

I ask you then, as I’m asking myself, how will you love your neighbor? If we identify and act as orthodox church-goers, do we also keep Christ’s command to love our neighbor by extending gracious kindness to those who don’t deserve it? Or are we content to label them—drunk, addict, sexually immoral, bum, thug? Or gay, liberal, Muslim, socialist? Or homophobe, fundamentalist, fascist, bigot? The church, the right, the left—all of them have labels and names meant to say “I am not like you.” Even “preacher” can become an epithet of derision or separation, assigning something like self-righteousness or self-promotion to one who proclaims the word—or maybe indicating detachment from so-called ordinary life. I am here to tell you, however, that though a preacher may be a, quote, “man of God,” he is still a man.

Paul’s accusation ought to gnaw at the edges of our conscience. No one is righteous. No one does the right thing. If this is so, how can any group or individual claim superiority to another? This is certainly a word we don’t want to hear. It’s natural to us to jostle for position, competing and comparing ourselves to one another. We take comfort in the notion that we’re not all that bad, not “the bad guys.” But in so doing we ignore Paul’s devastating critique of humanity. Again I quote Hebrews to you: “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking… how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”[6]

Let’s return again to our readings from last week. God proclaimed through Jeremiah, “Is not my word like fire, like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”[7] Jeremiah’s words undermined the whole nation of Israel, called their religious, political and economic life into question. Had they faithfully responded, God would have broken their public life in pieces in order to reconstruct it in his image. Since they were faithless, he tore the whole thing down and made them start over.

Therefore I ask, what are we doing in church? Isn’t our worship service flush with the word of God, that burning, rock-breaking hammer? Are we not coming, as it says today in Hebrews,

"to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumberable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel?"[8]

Like the Moses trembling at Mt. Sinai, we can never take God’s word for granted. We come to church, together, in the presence of Almighty God, and hear his words. They not only expose our society for its sinfulness, but ourselves as well. All of the ways we fall short of the glory of God.

As Anglicans, we affirm that God is powerfully present in the sacraments. Not only, beloved of God, ought we to faithfully remember and observe God’s story and word, but we also ought to be cognizant of the living God present here with us this morning! He is a God nearby, and not a God far off. As we prepare to receive the eucharist, let us examine ourselves. Do you need to repent of failing to love your neighbor? Is there a hard word God has been prodding your conscience with, one you would rather ignore or forget? In the presence of God, Jesus, the angels, the firstborn, we must repent of our wicked ways and receive the forgiveness of Christ.

We are about to encounter the living God in the body and blood of Jesus, so hear these words: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”[9]

[1] Hebrews 12:19b-21. This section must be modified based on whether the reading is actually modified by the bulletin and/or the reader.
[2] Luke 9:23.
[3] Hebrews 12:25.
[4] Romans 3:10.
[5] Ecclesiastes 9:11.
[6] Hebrews 12:25.
[7] Jeremiah 23:29.
[8] Hebrews 12:22-24.
[9] Hebrews 12:28-29.

Monday, August 16, 2010

My First Jeremiad

The following is a transcript of my first sermon, which I preached yesterday, August 15th, at St. George's Anglican in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.  Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes at the bottom, asterisks to comments I excised in the editing process because of excess erudition.  The readings for this week were as follows:  Psalm 82; Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 12:1-14; Luke 12:49-56.  This sermon is built around the Old Testament reading.

Where is God? Can anyone here tell me? Or show me? We might simply say, “everywhere,” right? As Christians we believe that God is omnipresent: he is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” (that’s from the creed) and he is “before all things, and in him all things hold together”[1] (that’s from Paul). In our Old Testament reading this morning, God put it this way through the prophet Jeremiah: “Am I a God near by, says Yahweh, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says Yahweh. Do I not fill heaven and earth?”[2] He is in all places at all times, and we can go nowhere where he cannot find us.

We know this is true, as doctrine. But, on a daily basis, how aware are we of God? Do we not often imagine him to be “a God far off”? I will speak for myself and admit that in my weakness I do not always believe and act as though God is present with me, as though he is acquainted with all my ways.[3] When we believe God to be absent, we sin with even less restraint. Those are not the moments in my life that I am proud of, or that I would be very happy to share with a group of strangers on a Sunday morning. Yet I made those decisions, I suppressed what I knew to be true about God, and so did you. All of us here today have at one point or another acted on the tacit assumption that God is not watching.

Please permit me, then, to tell a story about an ancient group of people who did the same. Israel, though the very ones chosen by God to bear his promises to the world, famously failed to live up to their high calling. In Israel’s long and winding road of a history, we find both grace and judgment at work in hundreds of messy stories involving ordinary people interacting with an extraordinary God. Grace because God chose them and stayed faithful to them regardless of their faithlessness, judgment because God did not forever tolerate their disobedience.

In the year five-hundred eighty-six, before Christ, an army of Babylon attacked Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s temple and carted off millions of Hebrews to be slaves in another land. It has been called “The Babylonian Captivity” and “The Exile,” and it was one of the most devastating moments in Jewish history. God’s chosen people lost the land God had promised to their forefathers and given to them through the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. God’s chosen people lost the building where Yahweh himself dwelled—Solomon’s temple, the holy of holies, heaven on earth.

Israel assumed Yahweh to be “a God far off” in the starkest way: by worshiping the fertility god Baal. Honoring and sacrificing to another god implies Yahweh is not who he says he is, that his covenants cannot be trusted, that his faithfulness amounts to nil. So God sent Babylon, called God’s army[4] by the prophet Joel, and they destroyed the keystone markers of Israel’s identity:  land and temple.  They were left with only confusion and despair. They suffered the sharp end of God’s ancient promise to them from the book of Deuteronomy: “If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”[5]

In the year six-hundred twenty-seven, before Christ, some forty years before the invasion, nothing could have been further from Israel’s mind. The people of God lived in the land which God had given them, and all was right with the world. But then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. “Jeremiah!” God says (I’m paraphrasing). “You’re a prophet!” Jeremiah says back, “But I’m only a boy.” “Don’t say that! You’ll speak my words to nations, and they’ll succeed or fail because of them.” Not so bad, right? Jeremiah was certainly handed a big task, and he was inexperienced. But he had God’s reassurance: “I am with you to deliver you.”[6] The turn of the screw, however, comes with the content of Jeremiah’s first assignment. God’s message to Israel? “Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”[7] What a task that was. First day on the job and already preaching doom and gloom. I can’t imagine (pause).

We can imagine, however, that bringing a message of destruction to a confident kingdom* would not have been easy. From Jeremiah’s story, we see that it wasn’t. His family opposed his work. He enraged the religious leaders and ended up beaten, imprisoned and alone. Even rival prophets went about contradicting his message: “How long?” Jeremiah asks in today’s reading, “Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and prophesy the deceit of their own heart?”[8] They recounted dreams and captivated Israel’s imagination with “a God far off,” leading the nation to accept a way of life marked by the absence of God.

It was Jeremiah’s job to call Israel to repentance, to recognize that, in fact, God was not far off but very near. Many of his oracles come as bittersweet supplication, such as God’s plea for his “faithless children” to return in chapter three—he says “I won’t be angry with you! Return to me, for I am merciful.” We see that the God who judges with armies is the God who loves and pleads with his chosen people to return to the sole worship of him. This was God’s message to faithless Israel, and they refused to hear it.

But how could they know? Why believe a naysaying loner when there are plenty of other prophets who say every thing will be alright? God asserts, “Is not my word like fire… like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”[9] It certainly proved to be so. Jeremiah prophesied it and God’s word eventually came to pass, with Babylon’s invasion breaking Israel in pieces. But this became clear to Israel only too late. At the time Jeremiah’s words may have only seemed a crude power-play, playing the proverbial God card in order to legitimize his message. I believe, however, that another message from Jeremiah helps clarify the choice they made as well as the choices we are making today.

Jeremiah, chapter six, verse sixteen: “Thus says Yahweh: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”[10] Beginning with story of Abraham, through the life of Jacob, the trials of Joseph, the exodus of Moses, and so on, ancient Israel had an even more ancient path laid out in example for them. The people God chose for his purposes always had the measuring rod of covenant, promise and command by which they could judge their lives. They could look to the stories of those who had gone before in order to know who God was, what he was like and what he had to do with their lives. Had they remembered Jacob, they would have known that God is not only near, but close enough to wrestle with. Had they remembered Moses, they would have known both of God’s love for Israel in the Exodus and his anger with them in decades of wandering in the Sinai wilderness.

The false prophets enticed the people, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!”[11] Something new, unusual, mystical. A feel-good spirituality affirming both the supernatural and the uncomplicated goodness of human life. Baal was a fertility god represented by a cow or calf, itself an ancient symbol of domestic security and stability. Our God certainly loves and blesses safe and happy homes—his original promise to Abraham was to bless all the families of the earth![12] But Baal-worship meant something of an attempt at short-circuiting God’s good intention, seeking prosperous homesteads without reference or devotion to the one true God. Jeremiah’s oracle retorts, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.”[13] The test of a prophet? Of a spiritual message? Agreement with the story of God so far, a faithful representation and reiteration of God’s relationship with and purpose for humanity. All spiritual messages must sink or swim by this standard.

We may not live in ancient Israel, constantly feeling the hot breath of pagan empires ready to storm through our little strip of land near the Mediterranean Sea. But we do live in a time and place, however, where time-tested securities and inherited values no longer seem as certain as they once were. Our nation is at war in two countries, swinging wildly between political extremes, deeply in debt and struggling to pick up the pieces of a massive economic failure. The confidence and resilience of post-War America have dissipated. Rather than cheer our sure footing as a world leader, we now wonder and doubt whether the king’s men can put Humpty Dumpty back together.

Our national religious life is similarly in tatters. Whereas fifty years ago mainline churches constituted the primary shapers of American religion, today a melting pot of spiritualities and philosophies attempts to eliminate religion from public life altogether. Whether saint or sinner, probably most Americans would have at one time recognized Christianity as basic American religion. As Johnny Cash once sung, “And there's nothing short a' dying / That's half as lonesome as the sound / Of the sleeping city sidewalk / And Sunday morning coming down.”[14] Even rogues and rebels like Cash knew they should be in church, even if they kept away. Today, however, the gospel seems to many as merely one truth claim among many. Our culture suffers a plurality of spiritual options, each seemingly as good as the other. As President Obama has said, we are no longer a Christian nation.

Here, in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, today, August the fifteenth of two-thousand ten, a question presses upon us: “Who ought we to listen to?” How do we tell the Jeremiahs from the false prophets? Like ancient Israel, America, nay, the world stands at a crossroads and God calls us to look to those ancient paths. ** In some sense each day for each individual is a crossroads, a new moment in which we must choose whether we will live as though the Father is “a God near by” or as though he is “a God far off.”

I know from experience that knowing the “God near by” does not happen by a sheer act of will. We cannot force ourselves to live every moment conscious of our Lord any more than we can think about every breath we take, or every time we blink. What then shall we do? We must commit ourselves to constant exposure to the bible’s big story, recalling each and every day the faithfulness of God to his people and the moral and ethical standards he calls them to live by. Through scripture, through prayer, through liturgy and eucharist, we remind ourselves of the nearness of God, we learn how intimately he is involved in our everyday lives.

Let us remember this week those ancient paths tread by God’s people, lives lived in the real world with all its problems, but nevertheless living testimonies to our Father in heaven, and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

* - orig. "a secure and content ethnic theocracy"
** - orig. "I am not here advocating some aggressive theocratic political agenda, but rather echoing the Bible’s ancient call to 'all people everywhere to repent.'[15]"

[1] Colossians 1:17.
[2] Jeremiah 23:23-24.
[3] Psalm 139:3.
[4] Joel 2:11.
[5] Deuteronomy 30:17-18.
[6] Jeremiah 1:8.
[7] Jeremiah 1:14.
[8] Jeremiah 23:26.
[9] Jeremiah 23:29.
[10] Jeremiah 6:16.
[11] Jeremiah 23:25.
[12] Genesis 12:3.
[13] Jeremiah 23:28.
[14] Johnny Cash, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
[15] Acts 17:30.