Thursday, September 9, 2021

Not a Hobby – a Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn, Diocese of Chicago
Pentecost 14, Proper 18, 9/9/01
Deut. 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-20, Luke 14:25-33

(Twenty years ago two days before 9/11)

It was a tough week for religion in the news. On Monday, another Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in an attempt to maim or kill others. Then, there were Protestants verbally harassing and stoning little Catholic girls on their way to school in Northern Ireland. The Taliban Islamic government of Afghanistan was also in the news bringing some relief workers to trial, accusing them of seeking to spread Christianity. And then yesterday, we heard about rioting in Nigeria between Moslems and Christians in which at least 50 people have been killed so far. It makes you wonder if you want to have anything to do with religion or god stuff if it’s that problematic. Maybe those who say that religion has done more harm than good in history are right after all.

I’m wondering because in this morning’s gospel Jesus calls us to a radical kind of loyalty. What kind of loyalty is he calling us to and to what? To God? What kind of god? No doubt each situation is more complicated than this, but in one way or another in the past week we have seen people kill or attempt some sort of violence in the name of some god. Or, at least, loyalty to an idea about god was involved. Is it right to do such things, to kill or be killed in the name of god? The question sounds preposterous to us. One reason, it sounds preposterous to us is because in western society we have become immunized to the power of faith. Culturally, and all too often, personally, we tend to think of religion as a sort of hobby, one step above stamp collecting or bird watching. Some people are into stamp collecting. Some people are into bird watching. Some people are into Christianity. Others are into Buddhism or something else. But it is all more or less a matter of private preference, a hobby; certainly nothing you would kill someone over, nothing you would risk dying for. Don’t those people in Palestine and Northern Ireland and Nigeria and Afghanistan and everywhere else get that? Don’t they understand this is not a matter of life and death?

Or is it? Is it wrong to kill or die in the name of God? The more I thought about it this week, the more it occurred to me that it is actually a rather interesting question. I’m not sure the answer is altogether obvious. If God is the ultimate reality, the ultimate and final good, what else would be worth killing or dying for? If I won’t kill or die in the name of God, why would I kill or die for the sake of something less? If not God, what about country? What about ideology, justice, or freedom? Or, as Jesus questions so offensively this morning, for the sake of family? For whom or what are we willing to kill? For whom or what are we willing to die? What is worth the ultimate sacrifice of my own life or the responsibility of taking someone else’s? To what to whom or to what do I pledge such allegiance? If we can answer that set of questions we will get pretty close to what “god” really is for us.  Whatever it is to which I am willing to give over that kind of allegiance or loyalty, that kind of sacrifice, is my god whether or not I call it religion. Is it O.K. to kill in the name of God?  Ultimately, it depends on what god we are talking about, what god we are seeking to follow and please. To what or whom do I pledge such allegiance?

Since their inception, nations and governments have demanded the ultimate sacrifice from their citizens. When your nation says go to this place and kill these people, you are expected to obey – to kill and to risk being killed. Others have done the same in the name of abstract ideas such as justice and freedom. More often than not, a varnish of god-talk is usually added to all of these to lend legitimacy. I don’t know if the suicide bomber did what he did for God or justice or revenge or some combination of these. I don’t know enough about Islam to know how he might have thought he was pleasing to the God he worshiped.  I do know that not all faithful Moslems would agree with him.

I do know a little bit about Jesus. Following Jesus rules that kind of thing out. You don’t have to be an absolute pacifist to read Jesus and find that his way is not the way of violence. It is hard to justify killing in the name of the one who said, “Turn the other cheek.” It is hard to justify killing in the name of the one who said, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” His is not the way of retribution. His is not the way of meanness. Whatever else the Protestants who were hurling invective and stones at the little Catholic girls thought they were doing, they were not following the way of Jesus. Though, tragically, it has been done; killing in the name of Jesus and the God we know through Jesus is an oxymoron.

To die in the name of Jesus and the God we know through him is a different matter. In fact, that is the point. When he says, “Count the cost. Decide now whether or not you are going to be able to finish the building,” that’s what he has in mind. Following Jesus into the heart of God is no hobby. In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he knows what is in store for him there. He is on a mission, but it is a mission that he knows ends only one way. It ends in his death. He is on his way to Jerusalem, the center of power – political and religious power – and he intends to throw a wrench in the works. He intends to throw a wrench in the usual way of things, the way of intimidation and oppression, the way of coercion, the way of control, the way of violence. More than throw a wrench into the works, Jesus intends to be the wrench in the works to upset the usual machinery of violence and bondage.

To those who are following him, he lays out his agenda pretty clearly. “If you think you are following me in some sort of victorious parade in which we are going to march into Jerusalem, take things over, kick the Romans out, and set the temple worship straight, you’ve got the wrong guy. If you want to follow me into Jerusalem, take up the cross and follow me. Take up the cross and prepare to die.” To follow Jesus is to follow him in that mission, the mission to upset the usual way of things – the way of things we see in the nightly news and in the morning paper. Sometimes that might mean actual martyrdom.” There have been places and times when people have literally died for the sake of that mission. There are people in the world now for whom that is a day-to-day possibility. But for most of us, most of the time, it is the daily martyrdom of dying to self and learning to live in love for the other. That, too, is taking up our cross and following Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Nowhere does he bid us to kill.

There is only one cross. Sometimes people talk about “their cross to bear” as if each of us had his or her own individual cross. “I have this problematic child and she is my cross to bear.” Or, “I have this illness and that is my cross to bear.” Or, “I am in this relationship where I am being abused and that is my cross to bear.”  That is a misappropriation of what Jesus is calling us to. Taking up your cross and following Jesus is not resigning yourself to being abused and trapped in a situation beyond your control. It is a call to servanthood not servitude. Taking up the cross of Christ is choosing freely to follow him in his mission of resistance, his mission of proclaiming mercy and grace, peace and justice. There is only one cross, and it is the cross of Christ.  Ultimately, he bears that cross with us.  He is on the cross with us and before us.

Jesus, in this morning’s gospel, challenges us to put all other loyalties in the context of his mission, all other loyalties in the context of the cross.  When Christians marry, they marry with that mission in mind. Marriage is one place and one way we can serve the mission. We can learn to love.  We can learn to give totally of ourselves. We can create space where the stranger is welcome and generosity is given. If we choose to be single, we choose to be single for the same reason, because sometimes being single is the best way to serve the mission. If we choose to have children that, too, is not something that just happens. That’s something we do because having children is a way of witnessing to the mission, to the kingdom, and to raise up new disciples, new witnesses. All loyalties – families, friends, nation – are redefined in the context of that ultimate loyalty to the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. Jesus does not say focus on the family; he says focus on the cross. And there are no precious moments on the way of the cross. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The cross of Christ destroyed the equation that religion equals happiness.” That might be overstating the case just a bit. As we sang in the opening hymn (483), the cross is also our life and our health. It is the way of grace, the way of joy. But certainly the call to take up our cross destroys the equation that religion, at least religion that is true to Jesus Christ, equals sentimentality and nostalgia. It also destroyed the equation that religion is compatible with the way of violence.

The way of the cross is the way of Jesus and it is the way to which he calls us. It is the way of dying to self and living toward the other. It is the way of servanthood. It is the way of reaching out to the stranger, of proclaiming God’s favor, God’s mercy. Those of us who have experienced that mercy are called to embody it to those who do not yet know it. We are called to be the peace of Christ, not just to pass it, but to be it. We are called to be people of forgiveness, people who know how to love our enemy, people who know what it means to welcome the stranger. Protestants welcome Catholics. Catholics welcome Protestants. Christians welcome Jews. Christians love and welcome Moslems. We are called to a life of resolute kindness and peace. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of Christ. It is a call to resist all that says no to the goodness of God’s creation and to the worth of each person. It is a call to be, in ways small and great, wrenches in the usual way of things, to break up the machinery of the way things usually go. It is a call to creatively and effectively disrupt the cycle of violence. It is a call to live lives of gentleness, kindness, peace, and justice in a world of violence and hate. It is a kind of martyrdom. It is not a hobby.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Generous Hermeneutic of Augustine of Hippo

(Relief from the pulpit of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin)

In an essay on Augustine’s Biblical Interpretation, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Williams shows that the great saint and theologian was willing to allow that there might be more than one true understanding and that the biblical author’s intended meaning might not be the only true one:

Suppose, then, that Augustine says Genesis 1:1 means x, and I say it means y; suppose further that upon consulting Christ as Inner Teacher we find that both x and y are true. The only question is, which did Moses mean, x or y? Augustine asks, why not both?

So when one person says “He meant what I say,” and another says “No, he meant what I say,” I think it would be more pious to say “Why not both, if both are true?” And if someone should see in his words a third truth, or a fourth, or indeed any other truth, why not believe that Moses saw all these truths? (Confessions 12.31.42)

Somewhat surprisingly, it is not pride but just good Augustinian theology (and epistemology) to suspect that we might find truths in Moses’ writings that had never crossed his mind:

Finally, Lord, you who are God and not flesh and blood, even if one who was merely a man did not see all there was to be seen, did not your good Spirit, who will lead me into the land of uprightness, know everything that you would reveal through these words to later readers, even if the one who uttered them was perhaps thinking of only one of the many true meanings? If so, let us suppose he was thinking of whichever meaning is most exalted. O Lord, show us that meaning; or if you please, show us some other true meaning. In this way, whether you show us just what you showed your servant, or something else that emerges from the same words, we will in any event be fed by you, not mocked by error (Conf. 12.32.43).6

[Augustine is able to be generous in allowing more than one true interpretation because of what he understands the purpose of scripture to be. Professor Williams continues with reference to Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching)]:

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is bankrupt, as far as Augustine is concerned. Such a pursuit springs from curiosity, which for him is no admirable trait but a vice; he identifies it with that “lust of the eyes” of which John wrote, “For all that is in the world—the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). So it is not surprising that when Augustine discusses the legitimacy of rival interpretations of Scripture, he reveals a deep concern with the morality of exegetical disputes. Undue attachment to one’s own exegesis manifests a sort of pride, the love of one’s own opinion simply because it is one’s own opinion. In Confessions 10 Augustine describes this as a form of the “pride of life,” the third of the unholy trinity of sins from 1 John 2:16. It is more grievous still when the exegete is driven by the desire for a reputation as a brilliant scholar; “this is a miserable life and revolting ostentation” (Conf. 10.36.59). Moreover, since truth is common property, one’s own opinion is not really one’s own at all if it is true; it is the common property of all rightthinking people, and no one has any individual stake in it: No one should regard anything as his own, except perhaps a lie, since all truth is from him who says, I am the truth’” (doctr. chr. Prologue, 8). Also, only temerity and insolence could justify such confidence in something we cannot actually know. We can know what Truth itself says, but we cannot know with any degree of certainty what Moses or Paul was thinking when he wrote the biblical text we are expounding. Most important of all, charity demands that we abstain from all such “pernicious disputes.”

For charity is the ultimate aim of all worthy exegesis. “Whoever thinks he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that his understanding does not build up the twin love of God and neighbor has not yet understood them at all” (doctr. chr. 1.36.40). Charity is, moreover, the unifying and animating theme of Augustine’s treatise on biblical interpretation, De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). Its message is this: Be always mindful of the end, and be on your guard against the pernicious tendency of means to encroach upon the ends. The end of all things, Augustine insists, is God. He alone is to be loved for his own sake—“enjoyed,” in Augustine’s terminology. Whatever else is to be loved should be “used,” that is, loved for the sake of God. Even human beings, including ourselves, should be “used” in this sense, which does not mean “exploited.” But Augustine cannot quite bring himself to talk consistently of “using” ourselves and our fellow human beings, and he defines charity as “the motion of the soul toward enjoying God for his own sake and oneself and one’s neighbor for God’s sake” (doctr. chr. 3.10.16). Its opposite, cupidity, is “the motion of the soul toward enjoying oneself, one’s neighbor, or any bodily thing for the sake of something other than God” (Ibid.). Scripture, Augustine says, “commands nothing but charity and condemns nothing but cupidity [inordinate desire]” (doctr. chr. 3.10.15).

Interest in Biblical interpretation for its own sake is one such form of cupidity; exegesis is to be used for the sake of charity, not enjoyed for its own sake. In Augustine’s metaphor, it is not the distant land where we will be happy, but merely a vehicle by which we may be conveyed there.

The fulfillment and end of the Law and of all divine Scripture is the love of a being that is to be enjoyed [i.e., God], and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us [i.e., our neighbor]. . . . That we might know this and be able to achieve it, the whole temporal dispensation was made by divine providence for our salvation. We should use it not with an abiding but with a transitory love and delight like that in a road or conveyances or any other means. . . . We should love those things by which we are carried for the sake of that towards which we are carried (doctr. chr. 1.35.39; see also 1.4.4).

So overriding is this end that even misreadings of Scripture are scarcely objectionable if they build up charity. Someone guilty of such a misreading is to be corrected only on pragmatic grounds, not in the interest of scholarly correctness (an ideal to which Augustine shows not the slightest allegiance):

He is deceived in the same way as someone who leaves a road by mistake but nonetheless goes on through a field to the same place to which the road leads. Still, he should be corrected and shown how much more useful it is not to leave the road, lest his habit of wandering off should force him to take the long way around, or the wrong way altogether (doctr. chr. 1.36.41).

See also:

Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture

Faith and Love are Always to be Mistresses of the Law

Friday, June 25, 2021

Taste and see that the LORD is good. But is he safe?

I am more than a bit baffled by what seems a sentimental, domesticated, and naïve understanding of God, Jesus, and the Church as the body of Christ, and, therefore, of the Eucharist. God is perfect love and truth, perfect goodness and beauty. That perfect love, truth, goodness, and beauty is more awesome and wilder than Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, or a powerful summer thunderstorm. If you think about it, it is daunting to imagine being in the presence of such given our own unlove and untruth. And yet, we believe God desires to draw us into the divine Presence and make us able to bear it. Making us able to bear that Presence—and even participate in it—is no small or comfortable thing. God is not just a warm bath of affirmation. God is a consuming fire prepared to burn away the dead wood of our sin (all that is unlove and untrue) making way for new growth or to melt us down and draw off the dross, refining us into the glorious beings of freedom, love, truth, and peace we are meant to be. That is why “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). As C. S. Lewis famously wrote of Aslan/Christ, he is good but that does not mean he is safe.

I think here of Annie Dillard’s famous dissuasive to supposing God is tame, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sun- day morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some- day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming into God's presence, particularly to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically, as we move through the eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The one into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God.

Though it is not often read these days, an exhortation before the rites of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer reads, in part:

if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves care- fully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord. (BCP, p. 316)

The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar, drawing closer to the eucharistic mystery. At intervals in the dance, we stop to acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness, and ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts that we may perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy Name … and we dance a little closer. We sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion, each of which asks again for mercy – closer still. Then, after hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, receive the promise of forgiveness, and exchange the peace, before dancing yet closer to the altar of the Prince of Peace. And on it goes—acknowledging God’s presence as holy (the Sanctus) and asking for forgiveness (the Lord’s Prayer). In every case, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the One with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of forgiveness and healing. And yet, by God’s amazing grace, we are invited and encouraged to draw near with confidence “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16)—a confidence that avoids presumption because it is born in baptism and trusts that the one who demands our transformation, loves us beyond our imagining.

More here: Baptized Into Eucharist

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Whose Table is it? Who is the Host and Who the Guest?

Altar, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Plymouth, Wisconsin

The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States have voted to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a push by conservative bishops to deny communion to President Biden and other politicians because of their support for legalized abortion. I am wary of criticizing another traditions application of the logic of their teaching. I will only say I think it unwise and I suspect that it has less to do with the logic of Roman Catholic teaching (the Pope has cautioned against such a move after all) than it has to do with the peculiar dynamics of American politics and culture war mentality.

The actions of the Roman Catholic bishops have prompted a larger discussion in their church and in others about the nature of the Eucharist. In particular, the question “Whose table is it?” has been raised. But, the answer to that question is less simple and less straightforward than some memes and soundbites suggest. Whose table it is depends on who is the host and who is the guest.

The ultimate host of the Eucharistic Feast is God, the mutual giving and receiving that is the Holy Trinity, manifested in Jesus and his self-sacrificial way on the cross. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of one who wills to reconfigure us in his own cruciform image.

But there is a penultimate eucharistic host, namely, the Church, the body of Christ itself, re-membered in mutual communion. If the Church is the penultimate host of the Eucharist, who then is the penultimate guest? Paradoxically, it is again God. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ, the Church, is both guest and host, and the divine Host is also the Guest.

We invite (as our guest) the Holy Spirit to “descend upon the gifts that they may be the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.” Because the Guest is nothing less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God.” We pray to be sanctified so we can faithfully receive this Host because, as Chrysostom writes, it is more awe-inducing than Elijah calling down fire from heaven in his contest with the priests of Baal for the Church to dare to call down the Holy Spirit upon the altar of the Eucharist.

It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is most often the guest at the table of others rather than the host. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered, hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the radical, life-altering expectations of Jesus. Likewise, as ones who have been incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our guest is and the expectations that Guest places upon the community that seeks to accommodate him.

As host and servant of Christ, the Church is the “steward of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1). And therefore, the Church has a stake in how the Eucharist is celebrated and administered. The altar is also the Church’s table because God has so authorized the Church.

Is it not marvelous, this mutual hosting? That God is both Host & Guest while empowering the Church to also be guest & host of the same feast is one way God invites the us to participate in the life of the Trinity which is itself mutual giving and receiving, hosting and guesting. It does raise the question, though. What does it mean to be good guests and good hosts?

Next: Taste and see that the LORD is good. But is he safe?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Can you imagine what it would be like to have a messenger of God show up in your room and speak these words to you? (Luke 1:26-38)

I love this painting of the Annunciation by 20th century African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner. I especially like the way the angel Gabriel is represented. Rather than a man with wings, here we have a beam of light. It has about it something of the eerie mystery that I expect comes with such an encounter with the Holy. It reminds me of the way C. S. Lewis represents angelic beings in Out of the Silent Planet (writing after Tanner painted, but as far as I know unaware of this painting). Except that in Lewis’ telling, the “eldila” appear slightly off kilter  but this is because it is our world that is askew being bent by sin.

I also appreciate that Mary looks more like a young Mediterranean peasant girl than in most renditions. There is a gritty realism to it. She looks like maybe Gabriel woke her up to greet her in God’s name. Her bed is unmade. And she really looks like she is perplexed and pondering what sort of greeting this might be.

And what a greeting it is, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” What an affirmation of God’s care and delight. Insignificant though she might have been considered in her society, God notices and cares. However unimportant she might have thought herself to be, God delights in her. God favors her. It is the word we all long to hear.

But there is more to God’s favor than affirmation. When the God Mary knew through the stories of her people favors someone, it involves a call. God favored Abraham. God favored Moses. God favored David. God favored the people of Israel. The affirmation in every case was accompanied by a call to participate in God's mission. And so it is with Mary. No wonder she pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

And the part she was being called to play in God’s mission of redemption was daunting indeed. Which is why the other part of the initial greeting is just as important as the affirmation and call of God’s favor: “The Lord is with you.” Much is being given to Mary and much is being asked of her. But the one who has favored her is also with her to give her strength to see it through. And nothing will be impossible with God. The angel continues, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Still, the angel – along with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven – awaits her reply. Will she dare to receive this word in her heart? Will she dare to conceive this Word in her womb? With Mary’s response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” human willingness is freely united with the will of God. Perhaps Tanner is right to have Gabriel beaming perpendicular. Perhaps in this one moment, in this room, with the response of this young woman, hope and history rhyme, heaven and earth are in sync, and the world is unbent. And the Baby she will bear will be the Unbent One, perfectly embodying the peace and joy of God’s favor.

The story doesn’t end there of course. Mary’s role in the story will get complicated. There will be confusion and heartache. But the Lord will be with her along with God’s favor.

And so it is with us. Given her role in the story of our salvation, Mary is particularly favored and we honor her for that. But Mary is also considered the prototypical disciple – the elder sister of all believers. If she is, then we should be able to hear the word she heard as being spoken to us as well. What if we knew ourselves to be addressed every morning with, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” and “Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.”? If what Christians believe about Mary’s son is true, then that is precisely what God is saying to you and to me each day. Whatever else the voices around us or within us are saying or not saying, God has declared his favor toward us in being made flesh. In spite of the bentness, in spite of sin and brokenness, God is with us and has addressed all that is bent in the world and in us.

As with Mary, God’s favor toward us is also a call to mission – to love God and to love and care for one another, to be bearers of forgiveness and healing. And, as with Mary, all the angels in heaven rejoice when we respond, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.

Today is the Feast of Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231). She was an impressive woman and I encourage you follow the link to read about her. Elizabeth came from a remarkable family. Her brother, Béla IV (1206-1270), was king of Hungary. He was himself a devout and faithful Christian who eventually became a Third Order [lay] Franciscan. He also uttered one of my favorite lines.

In 1241 the Mongols invade Eastern Europe. When it became clear they were headed for Hungary, King Béla gathered his nobles and ordered them to call up their knights and others so he could lead an army against the invaders. But the nobles balked. Everyone knew by then that the Mongols were invincible and the nobles feared going to war with them. They argued that the king should surrender and let the Mongols have their way. The king responded, “The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.” He challenged the nobles to ride with him for the honor of Hungary. And they did.
I like King Béla’s response, “The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.” I remember it frequently in these challenging days for the Church. Echoing King Béla, I can say, “The fate of the Diocese of Fond du Lac is in God’s hands; being as faithful as I can be in leading the diocese into faithfulness is in my hands. This is true for the leaders, lay and ordained, of any congregation. There are forces at work over which we have no control that make being church difficult. But we do have control over our own faithfulness. Though we hope fuller faithfulness will lead to growth, that faithfulness does not guarantee measurable success. The fate of the Church is in God's hands.
The Mongols did in fact annihilate the Hungarian army in the Battle of Mohi and devastated the country before their unexpected withdrawal in March 1242. But Béla, escaped and survived after the defeat and was able return to the throne and lead Hungary for many years.
The fate of the Church is in God’s hands. Faithfulness is in ours. That is not fatalism. I will continue to do what I can to help congregations thrive and grow. And I will encourage members of the diocese to be faithful disciples and witnesses. We are accountable for that faithfulness. But the fate of the Church is in God's hands.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

"Therefore, I will now allure her" – a Sermon on Hosea 2:14-23

Hosea 2:14-23

What kind of God have you gotten yourself mixed up with?

In the prophet Hosea, we have the God of Israel making a spectacle of himself as he pursues his wayward love. Israel had continually done him wrong, two-timed him, cheated on him. And yet, here he is saying, Therefore, I will now allure her.” I will now allure her. What kind of self-respecting God is that?

I wonder what the other gods would have thought (imagining for a moment that they existed.)

Marduk: I wonder what he sees in her. She’s not all that good looking. She certainly is not wealthy like the Great Babylon where I am worshiped. I’d have dumped her long ago.

Zeus: I like to play around like any other god, but this is ridiculous.

Anat: They say love is blind, but this is too much. At least my Lord Baal has the decency to have a goddess like myself as his consort. But Yahweh insists on consorting with this ragtag people, Israel, even after they have spurned his love over and over. You’d think he’d get the hint.

Here is Yahweh, shamelessly gone courting, inviting Israel to go on a sort of second honeymoon, back to the desert where it all began. He wants to recapture the spark that had existed between them. “Therefore, I will now allure her.” “I will speak tenderly to her” – whisper sweet nothings in her ear. In the presence of such public displays of tender affection and relentless love in spite of all, the other gods are too embarrassed to exist and they fade away.

Hosea lived in distressing times. The reign of the great king Jeroboam II had just ended. Jeroboam had reigned for 40 years during which Israel had enjoyed a golden age that rivaled that of Solomon’s. But, in the midst of prosperity, there was an internal rot. Injustice and oppression were rampant. Their worship of Yahweh was diluted as the people chased after other gods.

The prophet, Amos, had warned of a coming day of reckoning. Soon after Amos had gone back to dressing sycamore trees, Hosea picked up the refrain. Hosea also warned that Israel’s unfaithfulness would have consequences. Israel was headed for destruction and, this time, God was not going to intervene. Sure enough, it was not long before the Assyrian Empire invaded and conquered Israel. All appeared to be lost. Perhaps God would finally abandon Israel.

But Hosea has another theme – on the other end of Israel’s unfaithfulness, misery, and affliction is God's relentless love. Hosea learned this the hard way through personal experience. He was married to a woman with the unfortunate name of Gomer. Gomer proved to be an unfaithful wife, an adulteress. It is unclear whether she merely committed adultery in the conventional sense or if she served as a temple prostitute on behalf of one of the Canaanite Gods. But it is clear that she was not faithful to Hosea – just as Israel was not faithful to Yahweh. Hosea lived with the heartache of that betrayal, but he also learned from it. He came to a deeper understanding of God's faithfulness despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.

Though Israel would suffer the consequences of her unfaithfulness, Hosea knew that God was in the suffering with her and would be on the other end of it. The Valley of Achor, which means “affliction,” would be made a door of hope.  God had told Hosea to name one of his children, “Lo-ruhamah,” which means “No Pity” to demonstrate Israel’s dire predicament. Here, he is promising that there will be pity. Another child was named, “Lo-ammi,” which means “Not My People” to demonstrate how seriously God took Israel’s infidelity. Here, God is promising that he will yet say, “You are my people.” And the people will respond, “You are my God.”  God would not give up on Israel.

God even promises that Israel will “know the LORD.” The knowing referred to here is not a matter of head knowledge only, but an intimate knowledge born of deep experience. It is the language of intimacy. The Hebrew word for “know” used here is the same word used in Genesis where Adam “knew” Eve. There used to be a euphemism for intimacy – to know someone “in the biblical sense.” “And you shall know the LORD.” The double entendre is not accidental. God desires – and promises – intimacy with us beyond our imagining.

“Therefore, I will now allure her.”  God is like a long-suffering husband romancing his faithless bride back to his love.  “Therefore, I will now allure her.”  God will play the bridegroom once again.

It should come as no surprise that this is the language Jesus uses of himself. He is the bridegroom, come to allure Israel. It is no accident that his first miracle is performed at a wedding feast. The feasting that was typical of his ministry might very well have been enactments of the wedding feast to which all are invited. Jesus, with his twelve groomsmen, went about romancing Israel in a long wedding procession toward Jerusalem and the cross. Demonstrating once again there are no lengths to which God will not go to demonstrate his love.

“Therefore, I will now allure her.”

By the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to allure, to romance the world.  We need only pay attention.

He allures us through the Scripture. The Bible has been called a collection of love letters from God.

He romances us through creation. The lift in your heart at the first taste of spring points to the one who is our Eternal Spring. Walt Whitman, in his poem, ‘Song of Myself’ refers to a blade of grass as

. . . the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,

that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Jesus allures us through prayer. In her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, Julian of Norwich – woman who knew what it was to be loved by and to love God, wrote,

We shall by his sweet grace in our own meek continual prayer come into him now in this life by many secret touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feelings measured out to us as our simplicity may bear it.

Jesus allures through our relationships with others – friends, relatives, strangers. God is present in every encounter with another person inviting us to draw near to him through loving others.

Jesus allures us in the Eucharist. I heard the Eucharist once described as the kiss of Christ. No matter how much someone says he or she loves us, a hug, or kiss, or pat on the shoulder makes it real. You can hear in a sermon that God loves you. Receiving the Bread and the Wine, you can feel it.

Jesus allures us in the story of our own lives. We need only pay attention.

God in Christ continually allures us – wooing us into a people – we who were no people are now a people as 1 Peter says, quoting Hosea. And, of course, Paul calls the church the bride of Christ. We gentiles, who were no people, have been incorporated into the great love story of God and Israel – which points ultimately to the love story of God with all creation. And with each of us in it. However often we are as unfaithful as Gomer, God is yet more faithful.  His love is unrelenting.

What kind of God have you gotten yourself mixed up with? This kind:

A God who is alluring.

A God who is alluring you . . .