Sunday, November 21, 2021

Surrendering Unto Caesar

Over the summer, at McLean Bible Church, there was a crisis of leadership: the election of elders failed, and a second election had to be held. And the reason? Well, according to the chief pastor, David Pratt, as he related in a sermon on July fourth, a group was trying to take control of the church apparently to replace leadership with people who would espouse a more conservative line—that is, a more politically conservative line, for among other things, a rumor was passed that the three candidates were going to have church buildings sold to Muslims. And there certainly is a struggle going on: in researching this I found a Facebook page called “Save McLean Bible Church” which states the following:

MBC members have lost all confidence in the Elder Board and Pastoral Staff. The congregation is witnessing corruption, lack of transparency, deception, slandering, intimidation, and use of the pulpit to bully members of the church. The elder board and pastoral team continue to lie and peddle lies after lies. The vision and purpose of MBC is to make a gospel impact on Metro Washington with the message of Jesus Christ. This vision led to making disciples among all quarters of DC Metro area, including the influencers and policy makers in Washington, therefore, impacting the nations and even the world. We believed that this was a strategic mission because of the following reality: “Change Washington, change the world.” Join us in restoring McLean Bible Church to the purpose and vision for which it was founded upon!

In the end, the second election did seat the same candidates; even the first was quite close to the 75% margin needed to elect. The opposition was clearly a minority of the congregation. Nevertheless Pastor Pratt has been attacked in many places for his supposed leftist politics, as has Phil Vischer, whom you might recognize as one of the creators of the VeggieTales Christian videos. Another prominent evangelical pastor told Peter Wehner of The Atlantic that “Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke.”

And then of course there are the preachers who have gone all in on politics. To take just one example, we have Franklin Graham, Billy's son, who posted on Facebook: “The House Democrats impeached Trump because they hate him and want to do as much damage as they can. And these 10, from his own party, joined in the feeding frenzy. It makes you wonder what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal.” Thus he cast her as Caiaphas and the ten congressmen as Judas. I could go on for some time on this, for it is appallingly easy to find preachers claiming that the COVID vaccine is the Mark of the Beast, and not too difficult to find people making supposedly prophetic utterances that the previous president will be restored to office by this or that date.

My purpose, however, is not a enumeration of the sins of other churches, and I suspect that most of you already have some awareness of this, if not a grasp of its extent or depth. Given the day, though, I will spend a little time elaborating their vision of the Kingdom of God. First, I note the claim that “America is a Christian nation,” with the implication if not outright assertion that as a nation it is beset by satanic forces. The church, and thus the kingdom, is allegiance, and their purpose is first of all to defend it against outsiders. And thus, the second characteristic: the identification of church purpose with national purpose, which tends to reduce preaching to a reiteration of their social mores. Finally, their vision is apocalyptic: they look to the day when God's rule will be established again on earth, a rule gained by the crushing of God's enemies, which, of course, are also their enemies, and therefore their enemies are also God's enemies.

My description is, I will admit, something of a caricature, but the point in the end is that this vision is both militant and partisan. And here Pilate fits right in, for his question to Jesus reveals his concern: is Jesus a threat to the Roman state? Once he establishes that Jesus claims no civil authority, Pilate loses interest, and in the end only condemns Jesus to pacify the crowd and appease the Jewish authorities. Of course, we know better: we know that in the end Jesus' claim over all is God's claim, and earthly powers shall be swept away with the old earth itself. And yet, when we consider the many parables which describe the kingdom of God, they do not describe its establishment among humanity as a military campaign: it is growth, it is return on investment, it is the yield of the harvest, winnowed from among the weeds and barren places. The labor is that of the farmer, not of the soldier.

God's kingdom is not of this world, and yet, we are not apart from it—not yet. And as we act in the world, well, Jesus and the apostles teach us to minister to its citizens, not only by evangelizing and preaching, but in ordinary acts of love and mercy. This is the second great commandment, and we are taught that the neighbor whom we must love is the Samaritan, the Jew, the Muslim; those of other nations and races; those both above and below our social class; even the liar, the thief, and the murderer.

And, well, OK. We collect food for the poor, and we send them coats, and we make up gifts for the sailors, and no doubt we give to any number of other charitable works. Nothing wrong with that, though we are wrong if we think we work our salvation by those acts. But that is not all we must do, and we are confronted by the prospect of the ballot box and the judgment it asks of us. As to that, there are differing opinions. Anthony Bloom, the late Orthodox archbishop in Britain, once said in an interview:

The Church must never speak from a position of strength. It ought not to be one of the forces influencing this or that state. The Church ought to be, if you will, just as powerless as God himself, which does not coerce but which calls and unveils the beauty and the truth of things without imposing them. As soon as the Church begins to exercise power, it loses its most profound characteristic which is divine love [i.e.] the understanding of those it is called to save and not to smash.

And one could go on from this to assert that we as voters are not to consider ourselves agents of the church. I don't choose that for myself, and on the other side one may count Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an advocate for and embodiment of the need for the Christian to be involved in the world. Even among the Orthodox one may recall Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek church marching at Martin Luther King's side—literally so. But I think all of them would have agreed that our approach to the power that positions of authority provide must be reluctant, humble, other-serving, and ever-mindful of both the rebellion and the cruelty that lurk within our hearts. Bishop Bloom is surely correct in claiming that we are not ordained to rule the world for Christ.

Thus, when we look upon our political opponents, well, yes, obviously we must not demonize them. Easy to say, not so easy to do. One comes upon political candidates whose statements are cruel, contemptuous, full of lies and invective, and how hard it is to vote against them “in love”, and how hard not direct our own contempt against their supporters! And how easy it is to award those of our own affiliation with approval and congratulate ourselves simply for opposing the other side.

There is a further danger. Earlier I spoke of the confusion of the church's will with that of “conservative” culture. We here are not immune to that. “Culture catechizes,” says Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor. We are taught by radio, the news, our Facebook feeds, our college professors, our friends and our parents—well, at least so the latter hope. And in this age it is so very easy to filter out those who do not reinforce our own urges and identity. We are taught by the voices of the world day in and day out, and then we come to church and spend maybe a few hours hearing, God willing, the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than that of the spirits of the age. And thus Jacobs asked, “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week, and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out?” And he continues, “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right. People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.” Perhaps we want to believe otherwise, but it requires a constant effort to set aside the tenets, the prejudices, and, well, the communal sins of our own communities. It is terribly difficult to separate out what the world teaches about solving the problems of our lives and of those around us from the command that we love those around us; we are very much prone to confuse the need with the method. And we in this place are especially so tempted: well-educated, many of us set into positions within the government or its contractors, it is so very easy to know that we know what is best, without having to listen to others.

This world of constant chatter: it easily tempts us into unearned anger. Jacobs again: “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred. They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.” Yes, perhaps there is much to be angry about, and yes, even Jesus showed anger. But anger is consuming, and anger against others eventually drives out love and embeds hatred within the heart.

So where does this leave us, aspiring to the kingdom of heaven?

Well, I have no simple answer. I mean, there is a simple answer, which is to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love one another as Christ loves us. Simple, and yet in our fallen lives, finding room to love can be hard, even impossible in our sinfulness. But we do have some things to plainly avoid, through Christ's teaching and example. We may not lord it over others; we may not seek to harm others; we may not put our own lusts above the needs of others, nor may we be indifferent to their suffering. And therefore, as much as we participate in politics, it must be to the service of others, not to do battle with them. For Jesus' kingdom is not of this world: his strength is in our weakness, his authority is in our submission, and his eternal reign is manifest in every passing act of love we carry out. But I cannot tell you exactly what those acts should be, and I would very much doubt another person who claimed otherwise. It is our own judgment, under the direction of love, which we must take to the ballot box, and may the Spirit ever guide us there. And there, we shall fail, over and over, in carrying out the work of the kingdom, but if anyone sins they have an advocate in Jesus Christ, who redeems not only our sins, but those of the whole world—even our enemies and persecutors. The kingdom of God is folly to the world, and we cannot defend its borders through force of might; but those borders are extended in every act of love and mercy, until the day when, as the Father ordains, the Son shall return in glory, and under the Spirit love shall hold sway everywhere, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

We might as well be Nazarenes

preached on July 4 for Proper 9, Year B

In today's gospel we have a pair of stories in which miracles of healing play a part, but in what seem at first in opposite ways. The first story has Jesus returning to his home town, in which he receives a decidedly cold welcome. To us, accustomed to the modern trappings of celebrity, it is a strange reaction, for what modern place would not lay claim to a miracle worker? Perhaps the strangest statement, though, is this: “he could do no deed of power there.” For those of us who have heard this, every third year, for some time, perhaps it does not jump out at us. And yet, consider the implication: that the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate, to whom we ascribe all power and omnipotence not only because it is so revealed, but because it seems obvious—he is in this place incapable of exercising it.

Except.

The sentence continues, “except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” One's first impulse is to read this as simply illustrating the diminishing of Jesus' power, but there is a message in this little coda. Recall in last week's story, Jesus spoke to the woman with the hemorrhage and said, “daughter, your faith has made you well.” Of course, we cannot be sure, because the gospel does not say so, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that those who came for healing were also made well through faith. But of the rest, “he was amazed at their unbelief.” For surely they had heard tell of the wonders he had done: their words testify to that. And yet the fact that this was the boy they had known, who had grown up on their town, the son of a carpenter, somehow this was enough to “offend” them. And yet, had they heeded scripture, they should not have been so surprised, for in the history of salvation it is recorded over and over that God chose not the high nor the mighty, but the childless to be the father of many, the second over the firstborn, the least over the most. Likewise, the disciples were ordinary men, seemingly picked by Jesus at random. Mary sang, “he hath put down the mighty from their thrones, and hath exalted the humble and meek,” and so then is Jesus himself: God made humble, so that man shall be exalted, indeed, raised to sit at the right hand of the Father. But his former neighbors did not, it seems, remember their scripture.

Instead, familiarity bred contempt, and they raised up for themselves a stumbling block, and out of these blocks, made their town a fortress against the power of the incarnate Word. And note further: from many other stories, we can see that doubt is not necessarily an impediment to the entrance of divine power into our lives; Jesus says that even the smallest seed of faith is enough to call it forth. But contempt is different, and, well, we live in a contemptuous age. You need only to listen how we practice politics to see that. And as many a parable relates, how we treat our fellow humans is how we treat our God.

Now, our second story sees no such impediment; indeed, it turns away from Nazareth and into the rest of Judaea. Here we have the first mission of the apostles, though they are not named as such, and as Jesus sends them out in pairs, we may recall his promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” And in this first mission, we see the same division between faith and rejection: faith brings forth the power of God through the hands of the disciples, but where they are rejected, the implication is that this rejection is not innocent. The disciples are not to harm those who do not accept the gospel word, but they are to shake off the dust off their feet as a testimony against those who reject it. I am reminded of a story of related by Anthony Bloom, the great Orthodox writer and bishop in Britain. The story is of a very nasty, hateful woman, who unaccountably throws a turnip at a beggar to chase him away. After she dies, so the story goes, she is judged and sent to the flames of hell, but there, she sees the hand of Jesus holding out a turnip, and he says to her, “grab hold of this.” Even the smallest good, it seems, may give faith something to grasp, but conversely, both stories today teach that rejection of the divine touch is also within our grasp.

It is quite tempting to view ourselves in the position of the disciples, going out into the world to spread the word and power of Jesus, when we read the second story. And I would not discourage this reading, for, of course, we are also so commissioned. But here, today as on every Sunday, we are the hearers. And in our familiarity with its message, we might as well be Nazarenes ourselves. And thus the question is set before us, in every act we make: are we ourselves to be bearers of the word, or do we treat it with contempt? The first way is life; the second, to turn away from it. Therefore, choose life, that you may have it abundantly.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

In the Flesh

A piece of broiled fish, which he took and ate. An ordinary meal, an ordinary act, done every minute of every day all over the globe. And yet, it is a sign. The risen Jesus took food, and ate, ate like any man: put it to his lips, in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. And thus, the sign: Jesus is risen, truly, in reality, in the flesh. It is the fulfillment of the incarnation revealed: God has united to humanity in all its fullness, walking, breathing, eating, sleeping, in all ways human.

An artist friend of mine was once commissioned to paint Jesus “in the act of resurrecting.” We had a good chuckle over the image immediately brought to mind, of Jesus shoving aside the shroud and sitting up as if he were about to get out of bed and go to breakfast. I do not think one can so capture the miracle itself, and no gospel says a thing about it: the most we have is the story from Matthew of the earthquake and of the angel rolling away the stone. The miracle is and must remain a mystery, unseen in the tomb, unexplained in words, uncomprehended by the human mind. And yet, her patron was on the right track, in a way, for what he wanted to see, in the frame, was the resurrection not as a symbol or metaphor or myth; he wanted to see it in the flesh. And that is what today's reading provides: a Jesus who can be touched, whose flesh is still marked by the wounds he suffered, who breathes and eats and drinks and walks and speaks like any other human being. No ghost, no vision: he is still material, though transformed and raised, not just to life, but to a new life which transcends the old. His bodily being is what the old Adam was intended to be, but more, and when the first heaven and the first earth are passed away, and all things are made new in the new heaven and new earth, we too shall become what he already is: the new flesh of the new covenant, made suitable for the life everlasting to come. And not only our flesh, but our hearts, our souls, our minds, for as Jesus opened the disciples' minds, so ours too are taught, through them, through their writings and those of the church after them. We do not understand everything, but we know what is crucial:

Christ has died;

Christ is risen;

Christ will come again.

And thus we proclaim to all humanity repentance and forgiveness of sins, and we go out baptizing in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that all may be joined into the resurrected flesh of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to who be power and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

In the Wreckage

This night, we look upon what, for all the world, looks to be the wreckage of the divine plan. The angel said to Mary, “the Lord God will give to him the the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And where is that throne this night? Where is that kingdom? Mary said to Elizabeth, “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.” And where slept Pilate, and the priests, on that night, while the body of the incarnate God lay cold in the tomb? “He has put down the might from their thrones, and have exalted those of low degree.” Truly?

How did it come to this? Who was the guilty? Who was it despised him? Well, the authorities of course: the priests and the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas—and their guards and soldiers. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him directly, and the rest of the disciples, who fled into the night. The mob of Jerusalem, crying for his death. Here we have just heard the story of their collective treachery, as John tells it, though his version is not so very different from that of the other three evangelists.

And yet, does not the story range further? Who was the guilty? Who was it despised him? Was it their treachery alone, and not our own as well? No! Alas, my treason has also undone him—mine, and ours, and all of humanity. When he was hungry, and we did not feed him, or thirsty and did not give him drink, or naked and did not clothe him, or a stranger and did not welcome him, or a prisoner and did not visit him, we betrayed him; when we prayed, “we thank you, God, that we are not like those over there,” we betrayed him; when we made the dollar large and the measure small, we betrayed him. He carried all our sins, for in sinning against God, we sinned against his incarnation. We denied him; we crucified him, we and the whole fallen world.

And so, seemingly, the world got what it wanted: God made man, tortured to death. All was well with the world, again: the rich and powerful returned to their homes and slept the sleep of the self-righteous, Jesus' followers in disarray and the crowds turned away from him. The only thing left, seemingly, was for the women to return after the sabbath to finish the burial of God's revolt against his own people. But it is this seeming wreckage which is the point, for as is attested from the beginning of scripture, it is the willfulness of his creatures that made this wreckage. Our desires are warped, perverted, hateful; our hunger is greed, our will tyranny, our anger vicious. We have made a world built on exploitation, contempt, abuse, and war, and seemingly cannot stop it, except with more of the same.

And so, at the cross, the world got its way, and God did not resist, for it is this very lack of resistance through which the battle is won. Good did not triumph over evil through a show of divine force; it triumphed by making evil irrelevant. Even as sin got its way, it lost, because it could only “win” by bending creation, in all its goodness, against its creator; and Jesus did not bend, but instead laid his limbs upon the cross, transfixed in seeming helplessness against evil's force. And thus he lifted all with him, as he was lifted up to die. We too are are helpless in the face of evil, both its victims and its perpetrators, and we cannot combat it on its own terms; but in faith, now, that is a different story. But faith means trust in the weakness of Jesus on Calvary, in this world, and faith means directing our actions towards the care of our fellows, friends, family, and foes alike, but also trusting in God for our salvation. And it is that faith, made real through our works, that will bring us, on that last day, into the joy of the resurrection into which we are baptized, when all evil is wiped away for eternity, and when the new Jerusalem is founded forever on the wreckage of the old, dead world of sin.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Disobedient and Defiling

Preached on 16 August 2020

In today's gospel, we come into the middle of one story, and leave with another. We pick up the first after Jesus has contended with the Pharisees again, their bone to pick this time being that, against tradition, his disciples do not wash their hands before eating. And Jesus condemns them once again for their hypocrisy and for making up rules to escape from their holy obligations, but then he continues into the statements we hear today. “It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles;” that is plain enough, isn't it? The lies we speak, the slander we utter, the excuses we offer: these are the pollution we spread. Our acts of infidelity, of wrath, of treachery, of contempt, of theft: these are what alienate us from God, and thus from life.

I would think that, for us, this observation is so ingrained and so obvious as to be hardly worth making, especially for the overwhelming majority of Christians who were never subject to the laws of Moses and its rules of ritual purity. And yet, in this world of sin, the opposite is so often taught. We live in an angry, deceitful, contemptuous, greedy age, in which lying, cheating, violence, and just plain rudeness are exalted. We have created a new American religion of Politics, with its own rites of ritual purity, and in its name spew all manner of invective. And then there is the other great American God, Money, for nothing must interfere with Sacred Business and Commerce. Now, Jesus spends a great deal of time preaching about money, and many of the parables use investment as a metaphor for the work of the kingdom, and he even commends a dishonest servant for using his cheating of his master in order to win him friends. But we cannot serve God and Mammon; greed in our hearts issues forth and defiles us as certainly as any other disease of the heart.

We are so enmeshed in this world of sin, that without the Spirit upon us, it would seem hopeless to prevent our self-defilement. And here the words of Paul as we have just heard them make a strange claim: that it was meant this way. One hears, in the story of the Jewish kingdom, a depressing litany of kings who did not do as they were commanded, and before that, the story of the Israelites on the way through the desert is, if anything, worse. And in the end, the kingdom was split, and then each part destroyed in turn; but as we are told through the prophets, the Lord God did not abandon his people. In time, they were gathered back to Judea, and then, in the reign of Herod, God became, through the Son, incarnate in humanity, and brought salvation once and for all. Their disobedience was against God's will, but their disobedience came to serve God's plan of mercy. Therefore, when we sin—for who can fail to do so?—we are yet made clean through Jesus, even we who are not of Abraham's seed, and our sin provides the occasion for the glorification of God through this mercy.

Which brings us to the second story. The Canaanite woman has the rare distinction of arguing with Jesus and winning. And she bluntly acknowledges that she is outside God's people, and yet Jesus extends God's mercy to encompass her. Or is it a stretch? Her argument, after all, is that God's grace is great enough to extend beyond his own people the Jews, to which Jesus agrees. But what is it that leads him to agree? It is her faith. Faith is what extends the reach of salvation; faith is the vehicle of grace. And ultimately, faith is what has brought all of us, Jew or gentile, into the body of Christ.

And yet, faith without works, as James says, is dead. By this he does not mean that we earn salvation through our acts, but that in knowing that it is what comes from our mouth that defiles, we seek what purity we can, in acts of worship not only on our lips, but in how we live, in charity and harmony with each other and those around us. Our religion must not be empty observance and pious sayings, but needs be manifest in every word and deed by which we help—or harm—those about us. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we do the work of the kingdom of God, and look to its ultimate fulfillment on the last day, when every defiling word and deed will come to reckoning.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Cross, the Throne

On Tuesday the 24th of June, 2014, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, was invited to sit upon the Iron Throne of Westeros while visiting the sets of Game of Thrones. She declined the honor, perhaps because she did not feel herself properly robed for the occasion; but I have read that it is the ancient tradition of her line that the English monarch does not sit upon foreign thrones. It might also be observed that occupancy of that seat of power tended to bode ill for one's survival prospects, but this did not discourage many claimants from fighting for it, just as Elizabeth's predecessors waged the Wars of the Roses to gain what is now her seat.

And the throne of Jesus? Our thoughts first turn to the images of the Revelation, in which the word “throne” appears forty-four times in twenty-two chapters. This is the testimony of John:

And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.” And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, “Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” And the four beasts said, “Amen.” And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.
And this is the prophecy of Isaiah:
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
This is kingship in our mortal understanding: the monarch of heaven and earth, whose glory is beyond human toleration; whose rule is absolute; whose power the angels make manifest from creation to the world's doom. The temptation to arrogate these to ourselves is so very strong: to rule over others, to demand worship and servitude, to revel in wealth and pomp is so very appealing, even consuming; and when poisoned by our sin, so very cruel and destructive. Besides those of nations and states, we make thrones of industry and commerce, that we may rule over the work of others and command the fruits of their labors; even in our households, we establish our tyranny. We lust after power, and thus subjugate others; we lust after goods, and thus make slaves whose labor we exploit; we lust after adulation, and demand toadies and sycophants. Our kingship is entirely of this fallen world: cruel, greedy, arrogant and tyrannical. The glory of the throne of heaven we cannot reproduce, try as we might. But there is another throne, not welded of swords as in Westeros, nor cunningly wrought of stone or fine woods covered in gold and gems as in halls of state. This throne is made of two rough boards and a few nails, and he who reigns from it was crowned not with gold or silver, but with thorns. He who hung upon it (for it offers no seat) was not there worshipped, but mocked; wielded no sword nor scepter of power and authority; received no comfort or riches beyond a drink of ruined wine, but instead suffered under the greatest physical cruelty the state could devise. This throne was not to be desired for wealth or power or renown, but indeed delivers only (as the world sees it) humiliation, helplessness, pain and finally death. It is the ultimate expression of the world's contempt for its king.

And yet in this throne, the cross, there is all the power of the ages. In the cross there is exaltation and victory, abundance and life without measure. The cross is more glorious than every royal throne, every boardroom, every presidential desk, every seat by which men and women lord it over others; and its glory is in precise proportion to the world's contempt. It is from the cross that Jesus, the Son of the Father Almighty, the Lamb of God, the Word made Flesh, reigns over this age, so that in the age to come the throne of the Most High may blaze with the glory of a creation remade through his death.

And John tells us, in the mystery he relates, that there are other thrones in the new heaven, thrones for men and women reborn in Christ. If His throne be the cross, so must ours also be, and therefore he calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. The path to salvation gives, not power, not riches, not comfort, but death to the old life of sin—and life to those who so die. Thus our reign on earth is one of sacrifice, of relinquishing the rule which we so very much desire. It is to give and not to seize, to serve and not to dictate; this is the rule we are given, and our realms are not ours to command and exploit, but instead belong to the weak and powerless and hungry and abandoned and despised to whom we are called to minister.

This is not to say that I think that a Christian is forbidden to be a politician or a business executive or a bureaucrat or any other position of authority and title. Jesus numbered among his followers members of the Sanhedrin, Roman officers, and others of privilege and power, and while he asked of one young man that the latter abandon his wealth, it is not something he asked of all. On the other hand, I cannot say the opposite either, for Jesus did after all say that a rich man's passage to heaven is like unto that of a camel through a needle's eye. But surely if we are wealthy, if we are powerful, if we have others at our command and service, the way in which we exercise such office must reflect the service and sacrifice Jesus made of himself. If we must command and accumulate, we must be mindful that in the end it cannot be to our gratification and magnification, but to God's. I note that for all of the Crown's wealth and panoply, Queen Elizabeth's job is to serve through taking her presence to her people, a duty that by all accounts she takes with great seriousness. Even on her own, literal throne she is merely the mouthpiece of others; it was thus an entirely appropriate symbol that she refused the seat of the murderous, arrogant tyrants of Westeros, mere prop though it may be.

The thrones we erect on earth are likewise but imitations, nay, idols of that of heaven. Our own rule is still sinful, for while we are still of this earth, we carry its taint even as we also manifest the glory of its creator; and that earthly rule shall perish not only as we do, but in the lake of fire which will consume all that is false on the last day. But we may, through grace, extend the rule of heaven as its ministers, by giving up our lives to its service, and walking in righteousness and holiness all our days. And in so doing, we may enthrone King Jesus in our hearts, where he may live and reign forever, with the Father and the Spirit, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Prayers and Bargains

For Year C Proper 12, using the Genesis 18 reading

We pick up from last Sunday's reading in Genesis, with Abraham speaking to the men, the presence of the Lord, as they prepare to go to Sodom and Gomorrah. And Abraham is concerned, because Sodom is where his nephew Lot is living. And thus we have one of the most peculiar prayers in scripture: negotiations for the fate of those cities, negotiations which seemingly are completely successful and yet which are in the end utterly futile. For the men arrive at Sodom, where Lot takes them into his house, where the men of Sodom try and fail to break in for the express purpose of raping the divine guests. Lot and his family are made to flee, and the two cities are made the, um, fire and brimstone standard of the Lord's wrath, becoming watchwords through scripture both of wanton and willful immorality, and of divine retribution.

Abraham's deal-making with God is not listed among the seven types of prayer which our church commends to us. We are most familiar with petition (that is, asking God to do things for us) and intercession (asking him to do things for others), and I suppose that Abraham's bargaining could be classified as some form of the latter. We participate in other prayers on a Sunday, even if we do not name them as such: adoration (that is, worship), praise, thanksgiving, oblation (which is to say, making offerings), and penitence are all elements found in our liturgy, and they too are all ways of praying. But as a rule, the church does not encourage attempting to cut deals with the Lord God, and in reading on the subject, one is inclined to agree that it is unwise.

As to how we should pray: first, Jesus gives us the example of the Lord's Prayer, as related in Luke rather than the more familiar version from Matthew. But it is set in a different context in this gospel, for in Matthew it is delivered as part of the Sermon on the Mount, in the center of a longer passage on praying in general. Luke, however, relates it very briefly, and then follows it with a parable on the efficacy of praying. The Father, he says, will hear us and give us what is good, an egg, not a scorpion, and not because we merit it. Indeed, Jesus say, if a man will give another what he asks for simply to get rid of his persistent begging, how more so will the Father grant us out of love.

It is a statement to justify faith, a statement of hope. But it is also one of the hardest statements of the gospel, because so often it seems that nothing is forthcoming, not even no. Now in Matthew we are told not to make a public spectacle of our praying, and several other commands besides, but even those are not enough to account for the many times we sit on our beds, and beg and plead with God, and receive a silence that is not even stony, but only empty. Over the years many have tried to explain this, to provide reassurance, and even to deny that it represents any scandal. I will do no such thing, but only return to the oaks at Mamre.

Abraham's prayer is answered, oh, yes, more immediately and personally than any of us have a right to expect. And the Lord God does not go back on his word. And yet, the men arrive at Sodom, and are accosted, and they all but drag Lot and his family out of the city. The divine wrath rains down, and Sodom is no more. For all the fashionable universalism of our day, the warning is always there, that we must show our faith through our works to be truly faithful, as James writes; else, there is the fate of Sodom, and of the tares harvested with the wheat.

But one last look at the parable. A man goes to his neighbor, and his neighbor grants his prayer. And is it not so with us? God's purpose is not carried out only in miracles; we ourselves are his hands (as St. Teresa wrote), and we are the answers to the prayers of others. If the poor are to get their daily bread, then it is we who are well-endowed who must provide it; they must not be forced to rely on manna from heaven. It is we who can comfort, and can heal, and nourish. It is we who can refrain from wrath, and contempt, and treachery. It is our sin that is the cause of many of the world's ills—indeed, from the teaching of Genesis 3, we are responsible for all of it. But as we repent and refrain from sinning, we are also advancing the kingdom, so that “your will be done” can be realized in our daily lives.

We are not always answered as we please; we do not always hear the answer. And yet we are reassured, there is an answer, if we would but talk to God, the God who knows our needs before we ask, and what in our blindness we cannot ask. Therefore, I ask of you, pray without ceasing, to the Father who sees all, and hears all, and loves all through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. AMEN.