Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Stirred, Not Shaken" - Lenten Reflections on the Life of Faith (Guide Our Life)

Texts: Exodus 13:17-22, 2 Timothy 3:14-17

[enter to the "Raider March," complete with whip, fedora, and leather jacket]

Greetings, fellow adventurers!

I was in town to do some top-secret protection for the Picasso exhibit down at your museum of Fine Arts, and I heard about your Lenten Wednesday worship theme this year. Come to find out, it is based on a twist of one of my fellow adventurer’s martini orders. Indeed, my British counterpart, Agent 007, always orders his shaken, not stirred. I suppose I’d take mine the same way. I’ve never met Mr. Bond, but we lead a similar lifestyle: secret missions, international travel and intrigue, and the propensity to display calm, wit, and quick thinking in the face of danger (if I do say so myself). He always prefers things a little shaken up, not just stirred around.

But not you. Oh, no. You, on the other hand, have apparently ordered up a life that is stirred, not shaken. It’s a clever little reversal of wording. I suppose it calls attention to your desire to be stirred up by the Holy Spirit into service and courage rather than shaken into doubt and despair. Apparently you even pray for this type of life. That’s pretty admirable, especially to adrenaline junkies like me. In one of your worship services, the rite of confirmation, you even line up your young whipper-snappers up in front of the church to publicly affirm the promises of their baptism. And right there you pray for God’s Holy Spirit to keep them stirred, not shaken. As they are poised on the brink of adulthood—poised to grab hold of the grace that has been handed them by God—you look the challenges of life square in the eye and pray for the help that will keep them faithful.

Come to think of it, you sound like a fairly intrepid outfit that a guy like me might even fit in! And today/tonight you’re considering part of that prayer that I happen to know a little about: guide our life. Since I have a knack for tracking down my prize by following clues and sometimes raw instinct, I thought might be in order for me to swing by and give you a few pointers about good guidance. You see, I rely on guidance of all types: scholarly knowledge I’ve obtained in the academy, cryptic archaeological symbols, legendary oracles, and an internal sense of where danger might lurk. I know a thing or two about how to navigate adventure, believe you me. Maybe I can help you in your adventure to be stirred, not shaken.

Because, let’s be honest: life is an adventure. Whether you’re ranging all over the planet, attempting feats of daring and danger, or whether circumstances require that you live your whole life within a few square miles, life necessarily involves decisions, and those decisions carry with them the air of adventure. Life involves risk, choices, fear of regret, tiptoeing or diving headfirst into the unknown. What to do Friday night? Where to go to college next year? How to raise a family? What job to take? Which retirement facility to inhabit?—the adventurous aspects of life are inescapable. And for people of faith, there is the added dimension of how to live to the glory of God in each and everything you do. It is nice to know you may pray for some type of guidance in the midst of it all.

And it appears your God is not prepared leave you hanging in that department. Look at the ancient Israelites. As you know, I’ve studied their history very carefully. After God delivered them from their slavery in Egypt, God didn’t just slap them on the rear and turn them loose to their freedom. Against all odds, he found a way to guide them out of a hostile, oppressive environment into an even more hostile desert, right through the middle of a huge body of water, and, eventually, into a land God had set aside especially for them. They were dressed for battle action and carried with them the bones of their great ancestor Joseph as a reminder of who they were.

While they journeyed, of course, two pillars guided them: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Eventually, when they would obtain the Ark of the Covenant (which, as you know, now sits forgotten in some unmarked box amidst many others somewhere in a government warehouse), the cloud and the fire would rise and fall in the air over the ark. When this cloud would fall over the Ark, the Israelites would set up camp. As soon as it lifted into the air, they knew it was time to move on.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of things on this planet, but I have to say I can’t imagine what that would have looked like. But the Israelites knew it could be trusted. They knew it represented God’s real presence, slogging with them wherever they went.

That’s pretty cool—it’s like some divine GPS device—but what I find most interesting (as a person who likes to get straight to the treasure) is that this long stint in the wilderness was a part of the deal. The wandering is built-in, right from the start. As they get started on this adventure, God is set on leading them a roundabout way. Rather than taking the direct route through the land of the Philistines, God makes them traipse into the wilderness, southward, toward the banks of the Red Sea. And the wandering does not cease once they come out dry on the other side. For a total of forty years they meander through the barren wasteland of the Sinai Peninsula and the northern Arabian Desert before they finally reach where they’re supposed to be. Nevertheless God was with them the whole time, his mysterious pillars of cloud and fire leading the way, but also involved in their own wandering.

I don’t know how you read it, but there are a few things I would take from this account if you’re thinking about guidance. For one, the people of God traveled as a group and were guided as a group. They had leaders that helped mediate the course who struck out on their own occasionally, but the journey of faith was not a “lone ranger” thing. God is clearly interested in guiding a community, not just individuals. To receive God’s guidance, you might not want to stray too far from the desert caravan of your brothers and sisters.

Secondly, wilderness is part of the adventure. In your baptismal journey, you can expect times of wandering and wondering. You can assume there will be days and years you feel lost, miles from where you want to be. You may even feel lost from God. But you should never forget that he has promised to be in the midst of that wandering with you. This is where the sacraments are so important. Tangibility is part of your faith. You’ll need something to hold onto.

Another thing you may want to take from this lesson is to get rid of the idea that every single step of your life has been mapped out by God, and that it’s your job ahead of time to figure out what those steps are. It appears God doesn’t really guide like that, and God isn’t that much of a control freak. People of faith can often get stuck in that trap, though, always waiting for some special secret oracle, some clear signpost that will let them know which path at the fork in the road to take. They worry and wonder about which decision would actually be in God’s will. I mean, sometimes there may be signs, mentors, who can point away. But the danger is getting frozen in your tracks, paralyzed by the thought that your powers of decision may somehow nullify God’s ability to bring good from any circumstance.

There’s one guy who gave some pretty sound advice in this department—I think you may know him. He said, “If you are a sinner, then sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” I believe his name was Martin Luther, and he always had a knack for pointing to the cross.

For that’s really the heart of the matter here. When you Christians are thinking about God’s guidance, about the way through the wilderness, all thinking must begin with that cross. That Jesus…man, was he an adventurer! He thrust himself—body and soul—into his trust in God, and his life and death proved God’s promise to guide his people through any situation. The cross is evidence of God’s ability to redeem any decision we make. It is that guidepost of all guideposts. May I be so bold as to suggest that that the cross is those two pillars—set together—which still lead God’s people, assuring you God is with you at all times, no matter the depth of the danger, no matter the width of your waywardness. Maybe that’s just some crazy archaeologist’s hunch, but I’d run with it. No matter what, it should give you an idea of the form of God’s guidance so that you and all your young whipper-snappers may face life stirred, not shaken.

I suppose our journeying is beginning to look a little different, yours and mine. The nature of my adventure is the recovery of ancient artifacts, the acquisition of rare treasures and secrets. As an archaeologist, my life is committed to the uncovering of truths from the past. The Lost Ark, the Temple of Doom…they all are tokens of by-gone eras. But you, you are called to things ahead. You journey on with the promise of a time yet to come, agents of a kingdom of grace that is being established as we speak.

As the writer to Timothy says, you need to know that you are equipped for every good work. Any adventurer can assure you that in order to be truly guided one must have a place to go. To receive direction, there must be a destination. And that you have! You may walk and wander with the confidence that God will always be guiding you to the place where your gifts participate in the restoration of this world to God through Jesus.

And, just like the ancient Israelites carried with them the bones of their great ancestor Joseph, reminding them of their identity, you travel with the Scriptures in your safekeeping. They are “inspired by God,” as again the writer to Timothy says, “useful for teaching, for reproof…and for training in righteousness.” Let me tell you: don’t forget your own set of ancient texts, and how important those living bones are for your adventure. You may feel sometimes that they burden you down, but don’t ever downplay their ability to guide you and remind you who you are.

Well, it has been with great honor to offer you any words of wisdom tonight. You’ve got your mission as the people of God, rooted in your baptism. I am beginning to recognize that it is far more daring—and, at times, frustrating—than mine ever have been. But also far more exciting, this life of faith. You go forth with a clear vision, drawn ever deeper with your community into God’s redemption of the world. Use whatever gifts you’ve received. And go forth. Boldly make your decisions. Lead the adventure of a lifetime.

Oh, and if you happen to run across any, uh, any snakes—which I hear lurk sometimes in your story—then don’t let them shake you either. Be stirred, stirred to action, ever confident that God has chosen to guide you.

Well, with that, I’m off.  If I don't get back to my post, I can see a fifth episode: "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Picasso."

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

(as the inimitable Indiana Jones)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The First Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 13, 2011 (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Romans 5:12-19)

It was supposed to be an idyllic setting. The spot of earth they had come into was almost perfectly flat, ringed by just enough tall oak trees to provide comfortable shade but containing enough open space for them to till and work the earth in a small vegetable garden. And it was a sufficiently wild but never hostile environment. Animals like squirrels and raccoons and even deer often scampered across the lawn in a somewhat friendly manner, and the woods that abutted the back of the property were home to all kind of birds.

The wildlife teemed there, but the backyard was primarily idyllic because of what it offered the children. The instant they looked at it he and his wife could see their two young girls growing up in it. First, a small sandbox. Later would come a play house in the back corner. In the summer, a pool of water would offer refreshment from the heat and the lack of a slope made rolling snowballs for snowmen easy in the winter. But always: nature’s harmony. It was a place the two of them could envision the innocence and happiness of childhood taking shape.

Until the dead bird last week. It was a Hermit Thrush, white breast feathers belly-up for who knows what reason, right in the middle of the path to the shed. I, of course, had become somewhat hardened to such a sight, but how would I explain this to my daughter as she rounded the corner? Had she encountered something this disturbing, this out-of-the-ordinary before? Would it scar her? What kind of questions might she ask that I wouldn’t be able to answer? I found myself wanting to shield her from it, as if its very presence had marred the whole backyard experience, transforming it into something less-than. At first I tried to convince my wife that maybe I should have found a way to chuck it into the bushes before it was discovered by innocent eyes. But in the end, we confronted its reality head-on, but still not 100% satisfied with their explanation.  How does one really make sense of death? There is always a tendency to shield oneself from these awful realities.

The same can be said for other far more idyllic surroundings that have been marred with far worse: the pristine and picturesque Pacific coastline of northern Japan, the war-torn villages of Libya, the poverty- and AIDS-stricken villages of sub-Saharan Africa. We are speechless at the brokenness of creation, the brokenness of our lives, and we come up with any number of ways to rationalize it, or numb ourselves to it, or stitch together fig leaves to cover it up. One of the parishioners in the first congregation I served is the world’s oldest living hypnotherapist. One of his early assignments as an Air Force officer in the Pacific theater of World War II was to hypnotize soldiers who had served at Iwo Jima who were mentally and emotionally paralyzed by the gruesome carnage they had witnessed there. Wracked by those horrific scenes amidst what should also have been an idyllic setting, they came to him for a last-ditch fig-leaf shield. His hypnotherapy could never erase or undo the atrocities, he always acknowledged, but it offered some kind of relief, some kind of shield.

In a sense, this is what we all do to our gruesome human condition, a condition put into remarkably accurate and perceptive language by the ancient Hebrews thousands of years ago. The first man and first woman, set by God’s grace in the garden of Eden, transgress the law—the one law had been issued intended to keep appropriate and life-giving boundaries between the roles between Creator and the created. Tantalized, and also swindled by the tempter, that crafty spreader of lies, they seek God’s private knowledge, some false form of freedom, and they reach for power—they reach to occupy the role that the Creator fulfills.

And at that moment, as the apostle Paul explains, sin comes into the world. A force enters the idyllic backyard that immediately transforms their surroundings into something less-than. It is a force that has somehow both been unleashed by them and caught hold of them. With sin now free to spread its lies, things will never be the same. And the immediate effect is that their eyes are opened, but only to see their vulnerability. The immediate result of their temptation to sin is not wisdom or power, but shame and, eventually, fear…fear even of the one who created them.

For the apostle Paul, and for countless other people of faith, this story in Genesis explains with perfect truth the story of the human condition. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin…and death spread to all because all have sinned,” he says, tracing our condition back to the near-beginning, to the very first humans, but never taking us off the hook, either. It attempts to tell us something that we all know and feel from our own observation—by that inner sense implanted by the Creator—but that can never explained by even our best science; namely, that we look around and find ourselves in what should be an idyllic place, with life in full communion with God, with creation, with each other, and with ourselves—but which isn’t.

Theologians have long plumbed this story of man and woman’s fall to find the root cause or the main character of our sin. Is it, for example, a sense of rebellion, an urge of disobedience, as when woman and man willingly went against the law that had been established? Or is sin best described as disordered desire, a sense that we want the wrong things and turn away from the very things that are good for us? This would be suggested by the fact that woman sees the tree as good for food, a “delight to the eyes,” rather than as the deadly fare that God had maintained it was. So much of our brokenness is brought about by wanting and seeking the very things that do us in. Or is sin, at its root, pride, a craving to be like the Creator in all the Creator’s power? “When you eat of it,” the serpent promises, “you will be like God,” an offer that was—and still is—too good to turn down.  

Or, as Martin Luther and the other reformers proposed, is our sin rooted in our contempt for God’s Word?  When the serpent presses the woman about what God said, she incorrectly quotes what God originally said.  As Luther noted, man and woman were unable or unwilling to cling tightly enough to God’s Word, and there sin has its opening—with all of us (see typescript The Faith of the Christian Church, part II, David S. Yeago, pp 42-43).

"Adam and Eve" Albrecht Duerer, 1504

Perhaps, though, sin is something so insidious that it defies a tidy explanation. Try as we may, we can never really perfectly point at what has gone wrong. Nevertheless, the fact remains that when we open our eyes wide enough, we realize that things are not as they should be. Things like greed, vanity, and selfishness rule our hearts and our relationships far more than they should. Yes, this Genesis story is the story of our condition. From Adam and Eve to Moses, it is the story of you and me. From Moses and the prophets through the wayward years of Israel, God’s people, who tried to live by earthly definitions of power and who grasped after worldly riches and who lived by testing God’s faithfulness, this brief episode tells the story of our condition. From the blood-drenched shores of Iwo Jima to the awkward conversation about a bird’s death between a father and his daughter, this is the story of our condition, the story that something is not right. This is the story of us.

But—thanks be to God—it is not the end. For now there is the story of Jesus, the free gift. Now there is a new Man among us, one who comes to begin a rescue mission that will not just hypnotize us to sin’s effects, or erase the scars it leaves, but that will that will, in fact, miraculously undo its power. There is a new Man among us, born of God himself, yet clothed in flesh like one of us, who will triumphantly withstand the guile of the tempter and unravel his lies, one who will, on our account, cling to the Word of God so tightly that he will become inseparable from it. Now we have the story of Jesus, the free gift, and he will bring about a new birth that will give us new eyes that, when opened again, will see a world with limitless potential for service and love.

And, foremost, Jesus will prove God’s love for us. His rescue will focus on our hearts, to unspoil that which we have ruined, to put back together that which we have helped tear apart, to forgive that which we could never imagine being forgiven, to raise our blessed dead.

Now, my friends, there is the story of Jesus, the free gift, and it assures us that our story does not have the final word. I suppose this is what the American theologian Frederick Buechner meant when he said, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news,” that it is tragedy before it is comedy (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Harper SanFrancisco, 1977, p7).  We first must encounter our state of vulnerability, our state of being lost—in short, the fullness of our sin—before we realize we have been saved. We must come to terms with our need for redemption before we hear the good news of our redeeming. We must first recognize the totality of our filthiness before we hear that God loves us anyway, loves us to the core. We understand that we are wounded, and then we realize that this Jesus is also wounded for us.   
It is not just the season of Lent that asks us to grapple with these two stories—the story of us and the story of Jesus. Our entire faith is based on it. Too often we are lulled by the crafty tempter into thinking that nothing is really wrong with us or the world, or, at best, that death and sin are just a permanent part of the picture. Too often we are lured into thinking that belonging to the church or participating in congregational life is simply a way to get some good values and morals, or an avenue for serving others. We must never forget that Jesus’ life and death is not, at its core, about values or morals or even serving others. Jesus goes out into the wilderness to rescue us. He endures the cross to save us, to put a different, beautiful ending on the story we keep writing.

And, in the surprising way God would have it, it is not really a new ending, but, rather, another beginning. It is a beginning that goes on and on with the power to transform creation and our lives, once more, into something good. The challenge of our faith, rooted in baptism, is to see ourselves written into Jesus’ wonderful new beginning, to take hold of this free gift, to cling to his Word that transports us to the idyllic setting of grace that God always intended. 

It is about the challenge of knowing that, yes, we are lost.

But that we also have been found.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.