Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sermon 5 Lent A - March 9, 2008

5 Lent A - 9 March 2008
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
James V. Stockton

Especially in this season of Lent, it’s good for us Christians to note that of the various ideas inherent to Christian faith, the concept of new life is perhaps the one most welcome of all. New life is an apt metaphor for starting over, for making a new beginning today and for carrying on in new life tomorrow.

People like the idea, and rightly so. Starting over means leaving the former behind. And if this sounds good sometimes, it’s important to consider the most basic and original notion of new life held closely by the apostles and first generations of the followers of Christ Jesus. For them, new life pushed right up to the edge of all the metaphorical applications of the phrase the metaphor and beyond. It means that people’s entire foundation of understanding about life and its meaning and its limitations, of their most basic beliefs and assumptions, is undone and replaced with something unlike anything that has been before. The apostles understood this. The early Christians understood this. I’m convinced that people for whom the metaphor is appealing have need to understand this, too.

“We believe in order that we may understand.” It is the foundational statement of 11th century English theologian Anselm of Canterbury. And it sets him apart, for his approach is not to explain belief in God and faithfulness to God by citing appropriate scriptures. Instead, he calls upon one of the great gifts God gives to humanity, the gift of reason. It can be no accident of history that some 5 centuries later, having separated its affairs from the foreign influence of Rome, the Church of England comes to define itself as precisely grounded in the three authoritative sources of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. And we may rightly be thankful that, though having separated itself from the rule of England, the Episcopal Church in this country, in its Anglican heritage, does the same.

“We believe in order that we may understand.” It acknowledges, I think, that a relationship with God is rooted in the gift of faith. And it goes on to claim this gift of faith is intended by God to lead people almost automatically to the gift of a better understanding of the object of that faith, a better understanding of God. It implies, also, I think, that the reverse is not necessarily the case. People’s understanding of things does not necessarily lead them to God. Certainly, people may be able to come by themselves to the concept of a higher power. It’s also true, though, that people can bind themselves to the limits of their understanding, and thus confine themselves and their god to those limits.

Raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus pushes beyond the limits of the people’s assumptions and expectations. Raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is pushing the people beyond their limits, in order to bring them to new foundation for their faith and understanding.

‘Let’s go back to Judea,’ Jesus tells his disciples. ‘Jesus,’ they say, ‘they tried to stone you to death there once, already.’ ‘Are you sure you want to go back?’ ‘We have to go,’ says Jesus. ‘Our brother Lazarus has died.’ That’s when Thomas speaks from a faith pushed to the limit of its understanding. ‘Let’s all go,’ he says. ‘Even if we have to die there, at least we’ll be with him.’ They arrive and Martha the sister of the dead man comes to Jesus. In the midst of her mourning the death of her brother, she does her best to confesses her faith, her trust in Jesus. ‘You could have saved him,’ she says. ‘I know this. And I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’ ‘Know this, then’ Jesus tells her, ‘your brother will rise again.’ ‘I know that he will rise again on the last day,’ she says. ‘And I know that you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Likely, she is confused and overwhelmed by Jesus’ words. She goes to retrieve Mary. Maybe Mary will understand better what Jesus means. But she, like all, of them, has no other expectation than that the tomb contains only her brother’s dead body, and that some day, somehow, God will end her grief and she will begin again.

But if Jesus’ coming a sign of hope for his followers, it is something else entirely for Jesus’ critics. ‘Oh look, here’s Jesus,’ they say when he arrives. ‘He healed a man born blind; why couldn’t he have saved poor Lazarus?’ They aren’t really moved by the miracle that Jesus did in giving sight to the man born blind, of which we heard in last Sunday’s gospel. Jesus’ presence today and his recent miracle are simply opportunities to criticize him. For them, Jesus will never do enough, never be enough, to be the Messiah that they want.

The religious among them expect a pious wise man; learned, maybe elderly, reverencing tradition, and wrapping himself in the mantle of orthodoxy. The militant among them are looking for a rebel leader; a radical prepared to insight insurrection; someone with a sword, not so much ready to die for the cause, but certainly ready to kill for it. In either case, there should be no doubt that the critics of Jesus do have faith. It’s just that their faith is in a god that is bound by their own understanding. The hyper-religious define God by a code of righteousness and piety. They dissect every move that Jesus makes, they parse every word that he says, in order to charge him with technical violations. For theirs is the god of the fine print. The radically militant understand God according to wrath. Their understanding of God is expressed in violence, and in the pursuit of power. And they justify it all by claiming that it is ‘done in the name of a higher cause.’

And though we may say of Jesus’ critics that their faith is small, yet it is firmly placed, entrenched and immovable. And it is powerful enough to effect an unholy marriage of religious piety and religious violence that soon will place Jesus on the cross.

In the hearts and minds, then, of those who trust Jesus, there is something very different. It is a faith given and a faith received. It is God’s faith in them, which holds them, and a faith in God within them that leads them onward to the very edge of their understanding of God. None of them expects Jesus to do what he does next. That’s when he does the impossible.

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he does so not on the strength of anyone’s belief that he can do it, for no one thinks he can. And that’s exactly why Jesus must do this; so that all may experience God as more than they expect, as more than they understand, so that all may trust God more, and more may come to understand God better.

The new life given in relationship with God through Jesus Christ is an attractive and powerful idea. Notice this, this week. And notice how it is or might be also to the people all around us; and rightly so. When Jesus says that those who believe in him will live, many want to believe; many choose to believe; and by the gift and grace of God, they and we do believe.

Especially in this season of Lent, notice how, in believing, we find together that new foundation for understanding that the same Spirit of God that came upon Jesus at his baptism, comes upon each of us at our own. We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God of Scripture and tradition who defended Jesus in the wilderness is defending all of us, too. We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God who, in Jesus, bridged the suspicions of the Samaritan woman at the well in order to bring to her God’s love for her, is reaching across suspicions of every kind through you and me and those around us, and bringing to us God’s Love for all.

We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God who, in Jesus, restored sight to eyes of the man who had never seen, is giving to us that vision which God has always had for us all, and the gift of faith in God to make it real. We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God who, in Jesus, brings new life to one thought gone and lost to yesterday, brings us to the new life that is already ours today, that carries us forward and makes every tomorrow new.

And now may Almighty God, whose desires that all should come to know the gift of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, so inspire our faithfulness to God in word and deed that we may always know and share the blessings of life and life eternal; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sermon 4 Lent - March 2, 2008

4 Lent A - 2 March 2008
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9:1-41
James V. Stockton

Let’s be honest and admit it: if our journey through Lent shows us anything, it is that the ways of God are largely a mystery; and perhaps this is the way it should be. But at the same time it shows us that the simple fact that the ways of God differ from the ways of human beings is abundantly clear.

I read a little story. Arnold Palmer, the renowned professional golfer, once spoke at gathering to celebrate golfers who are disabled. After the ceremony, a man is introduced to Arnold as the top golfer of the group. Arnold is surprised because the man is blind. Together Arnold and the golfer who is blind go outside to the golf course. There the man explains how golf works for the visually disabled. “This really works?” asks Arnold. “It works very well!” says the man. “In fact, I’d like to challenge you to a round of golf.” Arnold is surprised, and wonders for a moment, will be fair for him to accept?

For good or bad, the ways of God, are the ways of the One who has dominion over all, who rules over all creation, who reigns in heaven and on earth. God’s ways are not the ways of human beings and this is abundantly clear. And the simple fact of the distinction, is important in its own right. When bad things happen to good people, as the saying goes, people want to know why it happened. Who is to blame for what happened that should not have? Who is to blame for what should have happened, but did not? It’s a very understandable way to approach the problem, and that’s how people can know that it is a very human way. In contrast, then, the way of God is a mystery. Yet that God’s way is different from the human way, this is abundantly clear.

From the earliest history of God’s people, they have found this to be exactly so. The very first king of Israel, was chosen by the will and the way of the people. He is King Saul and he turns out to be someone who repeatedly and deliberately contradicts the way of God. He offers not even the pretence of repentance and has no intention of turning back to God. The only way that God’s way will likely get through to him now is through those natural consequences that inevitably will weigh down upon him and upon anyone who ignores and resents the mystery of the way of God.

Though one might expect that a prophet of God will have a good understanding of God’s way. Yet even for Samuel, the fact that God’s ways are dramatically different from the ways of human beings becomes again abundantly clear. God tells Samuel to discern from among the sons of a man named Jesse a new king for God’s people. Predictably, I suppose, Samuel assumes that the new king is the eldest son of the father. The eldest has a lot of experience and presumably the wisdom that comes with it. For Samuel, he is the obvious choice.

But what is obvious to the human eye, to the human ear, to the human sense of things, is rarely related to the way of God. God’s vision goes deeper. Not the eldest son, nor the next, nor the next; God calls the least fit, the least prepared, the least expected. For Samuel, for Jesse, for his sons, for the new king David himself, God’s ways are a mystery. But the fact that God’s way is different from theirs, this is abundantly clear.

Last summer ECR was blessed to have a guest presenter Tom Snyder along with our own Ann Foxworth teaching our Adult Ed class. Tom is visually impaired; and he tells a story about an experience he once had when he spoke to a particular congregation about what it was like for him as a blind man in the fellowship of the Church. After his presentation Tom is meeting some of the lay leaders of the congregation. One of them asks Tom a question: “Mister,” the man says, “what did you do that made God decide to take away your sight?”

It’s basically the same question that the disciples ask in the Gospel reading for today. “What did this man do?” the disciples wonder. “What did you do?” the man asks Tom. I’m afraid this is not the time or place to pass along to you the answer that Tom gave in reply. Suffice it to say that Tom’s answer startled the man more than the man’s question startled Tom.

‘Who sinned,’ the disciples ask, that this man was born blind?’ It is a question rooted in the ways of human beings. Of course it’s God’s will that the man is blind. Of course the man’s misfortune is the result of the wrath of God. The way that they understand best is the human way of penalty and punishment. So, of course, they figure it so. The only question for them is: whom is God punishing, the man or his parents?

But God’s ways different from theirs. Ignoring the rules, Jesus labors on the Sabbath, making a salve of mud, and daring to heal on the day of rest. And in so doing, Jesus heals the man’s eyes, and more important he heals his heart as well. God’s ways open the eyes, the ears, the minds, the souls of people to whom others have gone blind and deaf, cold and willfully ignorant. God’s ways seek to convince all people of their own very real disability so that they may yet turn and come to perceive the way of God.

The golfer who is blind invites Arnold Palmer himself to a round of golf. “And,” he says, “I’ll bet you money that I beat you!” Challenged now, Arnold decides he must accept. “You asked for it,” Arnold says. “What time do we tee off?” “10:30” says the blind man. “10:30 tonight!”

Think for a moment: what are the ways of people around us? Think about it this week: what are your ways, what are mine, when we try to make sense of the misfortune of others, or of our own? Though people may not add God’s name to her misfortune, though we may not do so, either, yet there is for people, for us, an attraction to the notion that there is a kind of divine balance to the conditions of people around us, and to our own. It’s almost instinctive, isn’t it? Misfortune, disadvantage, and disability indicate that God has punished that person, those people; or that God has punished even you or me.

And Jesus comes to undo it all. As mysterious as it may be, the fact that the way of God is very different from the ways of us human beings is abundantly clear. And this is a blessing for which it is right to God thanks and praise. Yes, we bear responsibility for our actions; and yes, we bear responsibility for our failures to act. Yet, God knows that nearly every moment of every day, those around us, and you and I, really are doing just about the very best that we know how to do. God would like us to know this, too.

God sees what we see, hears what we hear, and knows what we know, assuming that we are able to admit it to ourselves. And it is that you’re a sinner, I’m a sinner, and the people around us are sinners, too. But is it really the way of God to punish you, to punish me, to punish those around us, even when we’re thinking that God should do exactly that? Or is it the way of God to reach past the obvious, and to be too busy loving you to punish you, loving me to punish me, loving those around us, and inviting us all of us to do exactly that?

If our journey through Lent shows us anything, it is that our way differs from God’s and God’s way from ours. It shows us that he way of God is for the way of God to find its way into your heart, your mind your soul, and mine. It shows us that the way of God is for the way of God to find its way through us into the world around us, that as more and more of us find the blessings of the way of God, more and more of us will find the way of God becoming abundantly clear.

And so may Almighty God, who bids us have no fear but the loss of Him, preserve us in His care, that no darkness of this mortal life may hide from us the light which is immortal, and which He has shown to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, One God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton