Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Sermon for Last Sunday

Sermon for Proper 15, Year A

From Matthew 15:28
"Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

“What you see is what you get.” This phrase is often used to describe something we are about to purchase; a kind of warning that what is seen is all there is; there isn’t any more. Or, the phrase may indicate that what is seen on a computer screen is exactly like the thing that will be printed out or as it will appear on a web site.

However, WYSIWYG has another at least one other meaning: what you think you are going to see, what you have become conditioned to see, is often what you WILL see, and what you WILL get.

I have a friend who is red/green colorblind. Last year, we were out camping and went for a hike on a sunny day in a glorious coastal forest. We came upon a red huckleberry bush, laden with bright read fruit. Both of us are avid berry-eaters. I pointed to the bush and said: “wow, that’s rare – a red huckleberry bush covered in berries.” My friend responded: what berries? I can’t see any.” Of course, to him it was a kind of grayish plant with all sorts of leaves – some pointed, and some round. Because I can distinguish between red and green, I could tell that the pointed leaves where really leaves, and the round ones were actually succulent, sweet-tart red hucks.

Like colorblindness, some people, I think, simply don’t have the right equipment to apprehend spiritual realities. For whatever reason, they simply can’t pick out things that aren’t concrete or physical. Some such people actually are members of the Church: they are attracted to something else about the Gospel, or Christ, or the worship, teachings, practice, or history of the Church.

Unlike colorblindness, which is a genetic condition, we can acquire spiritual blindness by how we have been formed, or by the choices we make. In the Old Testament Lesson today, Joseph’s brothers were blinded by the years of separation and by Joseph’s changed condition; they were also blinded by the sin that had led to them to consider killing Joseph, and then settling for selling him into slavery. This is the blindness of human sin; but Joseph’s words show that God’s purposes are so deep, and his love so vast, that even human sinfulness cannot overcome it. Joseph’s brothers’ blindness was ultimately used by God to bring about for them, their father, their families, and all the peoples of Egypt.

But there is another kind of spiritual blindness, even more entrenched than this; for, indeed, Joseph’s brothers repented for their earlier sin and overcame its effects by God’s grace. This other form of spiritual blindness is based on the belief that we know better than God. Spiritual blindness is most terrible when it produces smugness, arrogance, and self-certainty.

This is what Jesus condemns in the first part of today’s Gospel reading. It is not what we eat with the mouth, but what proceeds from out of our mouths, that defiles us. It is a supreme act of spiritual folly and blindness to think that we can justify ourselves by a code of purity. What God wants is not our religiosity, our capability to blindly follow rules, but a living faith, willing to contend, to risk, to grow, to engage a Living God.

The second part of today’s Gospel lesson is disturbing to many. Jesus seems to be cruel to this Canaanite woman. Yet, St. Matthew is carefully making a point. The pious, officially “religious” people in the previous verses reject Jesus because he rejects the automatic, almost vending-machine way of relating to God through outward observance. St. Matthew then places a story about a foreign woman (a doubly-difficult position in the culture of her day) who actually contends with Jesus as she seeks the healing of her daughter.

The Canaanite woman verbally wrestles with Jesus, not unlike Jacob wrestling with the Angel. In the end, she prevails and comes away with the blessing she sought. Jesus’ actions show that is precisely this sort of living, open-eyed and engaged faith – not the mechanical and ritualized faith of the Pharisees – that His God and Father wants.

And so we are bidden to ask ourselves a question today: what form of spiritual blindness do we suffer? Has a form of sinfulness, anger, or envy blinded us to the value and purpose of others in our life? Or, have we become complacent in our faith, looking at God as a sort of spiritual vending-machine fulfilling all our wants and needs because that’s His job?

In any case, the way we have come to see God, the expectations we bring, will help determine what we see when we raise our eyes at Communion this day: just some flat bread and some sweet wine with perhaps a little history and a good deal of sentiment attached, or the real presence of Christ Jesus, inviting us to contend with Him, so that we may join her in hearing the words said to her: “Great is your faith; let it be done for you as you wish.”

What you see is what you get. What do you see today?

Job's Lament

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: 
‘Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
“A man-child is conceived.”

How I would be lying down and quiet;
I would be asleep; then I would be at rest. There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. 
There the prisoners are at ease together;
they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster. 
The small and the great are there,
and the slaves are free from their masters.

Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?

These verses from Chapter 3 of Job form part of what is one of the greatest laments in Scripture. Challenged to “curse God and die” by his wife, Job determines rather to curse the day of his birth, his coming into conscious, sentient existence instead. Though not a cursing of God, this is obliquely a condemnation of God’s allowing for an entrance into the suffering and pain of life.

This chapter might be titled “The Lament for Humanity in the World as it has Come to Be.” It is a stark assessment of a world ruled by death, a world where suffering and want seem to be everywhere, and where power is substituted for truth in human relations. Job’s lament is an implicit critique of this earthly order; an order which God seems to do nothing to stop.

Out of the silence Job and his friends have known for seven days there breaks forth a keening and burning threnody of existential honesty. Which of us remembers agreeing to enter into this life? Who can say that they have never wondered why we came into being, especially as we see the suffering of innocents whose only apparent fault was being born into a particular time and place? Job’s song of regret brings up images of human agony covering the field: from the tragedy of a stillborn child to the cruelty of human politics and power. He laments the fact of such a world and his participation in it. He gives voice to what so many of us are afraid to say because the watered-down, unreal, and exterior faith we practice is unequal to the challenge. But the Hebrews were not so squeamish; they were willing to bring all of the heart’s offerings to the altar of God. Perhaps this is why so many of us today find some of the Psalms a great challenge. Like this lament, the Psalms can speak with an honesty and a directness we dare not.

Yet, we cannot proceed into the heart of this book – or the heart of the Christian faith – if we are willing only to stay on the surface, or in the comforts of a faith too shallow to accommodate the depth of our own life and experience. Job points the way into the mystery of God and humanity by first giving voice to what we often feel but cannot say. Perhaps it is the tension between our mind’s capability to wander amongst the stars yet to be so fragile that a single broken blood vessel in our body can bring our death. Or, it could be the inherent unfairness of the world into which we were born, the wrong of the suffering we see inflicted by humans or by fate. We can ignore it all if we choose, but in order to be fully human, we must respond. It may begin with recoiling in revulsion or anger; but it must proceed past that. This is the invitation of the Book of Job. The lament we read today is the necessary first step, the clearing of the throat in a tense room, the opening chords in a long song. We must have the courage to listen and to accept where Job’s words are our words; without doing so, we will never have the courage to journey on in this most challenging book to its profound, life-changing conclusions.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thinking about Job...

They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. – Job 2:13

The Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer has recently taken up a survey of the long and profound Book of Job. I look forward to each opportunity to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this extraordinary part of the Old Testament; for, along with Ecclesiastes, this was the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures I truly came to love.

The opening sections of Job seem almost like a fairy-tale. They present the story of an ideal man of faith, blessed with all that one could want. The setting is that of a far-away place (not in ancient Israel; yet Job is more faithful than the most obedient Hebrew, it seems). This setting allows for much of what follows: an experiment dealing with the very extremes of belief itself. So radical and dangerous is what follows, that is must be held with the spiritual equivalent of oven mitts.

First, God allows the Malevolent One (literally “the accuser”) to put this good man to the test: first by the destruction of his wealth and family, then the destruction of his health. In itself, this is a very menacing window into the vagaries of life. God allows evil to happen as part of some deeper testing. Of course, we know that at the end of the book, all will be restored. But, for now, the actors in the drama cannot know this. Job and those around him only know that all of God’s blessings have been taken away in a complete and seemingly final way. Why? So begins the main part of the book.

Indeed, the first chapters are really a lead up to this central section of the Job: the great inquiry into the question of why evil happens. The author of Job has skillfully engaged our interest, set the stage, and drawn us into what will be a difficult, long, and labyrinthine discussion of justice, good and evil, God’s purposes, human righteousness, and the ability of the human being to be justified before God. It is a heady, demanding book whose subtleties are greater than almost anything else in the entirety of Holy Writ.

So, as we begin, we need to notice what Job and his friends do before they begin the Great Discussion: they sit in silence for seven days. This holy silence is a fast: a fast from attempting to make painful situations easier by surface conversations, easy answers, or sentimental clap-trap. While much will be said in this book that is ultimately proven to be false or unwise, it begins in a spirit of compassion and deep purpose. As we read this book, we need to do the same. This book’s secrets can only be unlocked in this spirit, much as the Gospel's meaning and purpose can only be known by a spirit of humility and inner silence.

Let us approach this book in our daily readings, our faith in its practice day-by-day, and our neighbors in the encounters allowed us by God, with a spirit of silence and compassion. Let us confront our own selves -- the lies we tell, the pat answers we offer to ease our circumstances at the expense of the truth, and the prejudices we hold. These things rob our neighbor of full humanity and deny the Imago Dei in them. Then – and only then – will we gain the wisdom available in the encounters with God and humanity that is the very fabric of our Christian pilgrimage.

Now: let us read on in faith and courage!

Friday, August 15, 2008

St. Mary & Us

St. Timothy's is blessed to have a fairly long observance of the feast of St. Mary on August 15th,  with a special festival Eucharist and community meal following. Thanks to our roots in Catholic Anglicanism and a deep appreciation for the central role accorded St. Mary in the Scriptures and the teaching of the undivided Church, we are able to celebrate the truth about Our Lady: she is both a very human being like us and a remarkable, holy person who answered God’s call in a unique way. The Bible tells us a great deal about St. Mary, but it does so in ways that always point to Jesus – and to us.

Pointing to Jesus: From the moment of the Annunciation through the Pentecost, Mary is present as a witness and a participant in Jesus’ ministry. Mary gives her consent and her body in order that God might take flesh and dwell among us. In giving birth to Jesus, she becomes what the Early Church at the 4th Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451 A.D.) called her: the Theotokos, or God-bearer (see BCP p. 864). This leaves us with a great mystery to contemplate: her womb was at one and the same time a finite place where the Christ-child developed into a baby, and also contained eternity and infinity in the Godhead found in that hidden, growing child.

Mary’s entire life and ministry as recorded in Scripture points to Jesus. She both nurtures the child Jesus and must gradually come to grips with the nature of His calling. She is a follower, present at the Cross, and also a learner, “treasuring in her heart” the experiences and events she could not at that moment understand as she journeyed with her son. Always, one imagines, she bore in her mind the moment when God called her to this ministry, a moment both glorious and laden with risk. How much we can share in that understanding of discipleship, if we try!

Pointing to us: St. Mary has been seen from very early on in the Church as a kind of image for what faithful people need to be like. We need to be open to God’s call and will. We need to listen carefully to God’s word in our life, and treasure those things we do not yet understand when God speaks – awaiting the time in life when these seeds reach maturity, sprouting in mysterious ways. We, like Mary, must be loyal to Jesus when times are good and when they are difficult. As with St. Mary, we are called to “bear Christ” into the world in our own way, as God calls us.

Finally, we are to join St. Mary in pointing to Christ, and not to our own selves. It would be much easier to make life an ego-trip, but it is supposed to be a pilgrimage back to the Father. We are messengers, not the message. St. Mary is an icon of the Church, and we are called to follow her example. Her greatest feast-day, August 15th, is a celebration of her life, her death and repose with Christ in heaven forever, and our calling to join her in offering our lives in holiness, consecrated to a God who knows us each by name, and calls us each to be more than merely our ordinary selves: for within each human being there is a potential self than can only be found by saying, like St. Mary, “behold, I am the servant of the Lord: be it unto me according to your word.”