27 December 2009

Growing Before God

1 Samuel 2:18-20,26 & Luke 2: 41-52

First Sunday After Christmas/ 27th December 2009

This story from 1 Samuel is inextricably linked to the gospel reading for this Sunday in Christmastide. The theological themes in 1 Samuel are extended in Luke 2. When Luke wrote his account of Jesus in the temple, he had this story from 1 Samuel in mind. Both texts in both testaments coalesce around the experience of change and growth – the necessity of change and growth.

First to Samuel. Samuel’s development as a priest took place within the temple, a priest who embarked upon a new venture of faith and politics that eventually reformed temple practice. Samuel’s life, here his early life, is lived out within the wider context of God’s providential care and direction. Samuel doesn’t belong to himself. He belongs to God. Samuel’s destiny is in God’s hand and he will be used for God’s purpose to bring about change and reform.

Twice, in verse 21 and again in verse 26, we find similar statements that reinforce a significant theological claim. Of course the boy Samuel eventually grew up into a man, but the growth he experienced was “in the presence of Yahweh.” In his notes on this text, John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, stressed that Samuel, “Grew – Not only in age and stature; but especially in wisdom and goodness. Before the Lord – Not only before men, who might be deceived,” Wesley wrote,” but in the presence and judgment of the all-seeing God.” (1) It is one thing to grow naturally into adulthood and quite another to develop to maturity in the presence of God, so that God’s wisdom and strength fully inform the process and the goal of that growth.

It’s perhaps easy to overlook these two verses as throw-away lines, stating the obvious. Except that it is this idea of growing up in the presence of God – and the difference it makes in the formation of one’s identity, destiny, and purpose – that Luke chooses to use in his brief, although significant, telling of Jesus’ early development. Luke uses the language of 2.40, “The child grew and become strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – and then again after the temple scene in 2.52. Although the NRSV uses the world “strength” in v. 40, “vigor” is probably more accurate. Jesus’ growth was vigorous not only in the sense of physical strength, but also in terms of possessing considerable vitality, force, and dynamism.

By quoting the description of Samuel’s growth in the temple within the account of Jesus’ development in and around the temple, Luke sees in Jesus a priestly role. This is important for Luke. He lifts up the priestly role of Jesus. The role of a priest is to mediate the presence of God. The priest goes goes before God on behalf of God’s people. The authority Jesus will later fully claim for himself is dependent upon the time spent as a child growing in vigor, wisdom, and before both divine and human favor. Just as Samuel learned through obedience and training, so, too, does Jesus grow in maturity through a process of obedience, not to Mary, nor to Joseph, but to God. Jesus’ life does not belong to himself. It belongs to God.
Samuel was not born knowing all that he needed to be and do as a priest.

Similarly, Jesus, although fully divine was also fully human and therefore grew progressing through every stage of the life-cycle, the stages we will all progress through (Lord willing). The same eight stages of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) famously identified, starting with infancy, childhood, adulthood, to old age. (2) Here human development is linked with divine or theological development or awareness in Jesus. Again, it’s easy to overlook this, but this text leads us to pose an important question, Is there something theological, divine about human development? (3) What does human development, from infancy to old age, say about God? What does it mean for a human being to grow from infancy to old age in the presence of God? For what? Why were we born? For what purpose? What is the purpose of our lives?

It’s of the utmost significance that we see in Jesus’ life, from infancy through adolescence into adulthood, the growth of a human being within the presence of God. Granted, we don’t know much about his childhood or his adolescence – but we know he was born. He didn’t just arrive on the scene as an adult. He’s the same human being whose existence – born among us, full of grace and truth, who took on flesh – whose life was given to redeem humanity, not only mature adults, but through a redemptive process that has the power to bring healing to every stage of human development. I like to view Jesus’ life – from his birth through his death and resurrection – as a kind of template paced over our lives, his story over our stories, his life touching our lives at every stage of existence. Our lives then have the capacity to become sermons that proclaim the glory of God – like Jesus. Yes, Jesus was unique, but Jesus came to show us what our life can be, what we can become, the kind of people we can be through him. The early church father, Irenaeus (c.115-190) said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The life of Jesus in our lives has the capacity to make us more humane and human, more fully alive.

One of the leading theologians of the twentieth century was Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007). (I had occasion to meet him two and corresponded with him briefly for a time. His son, Iain Torrance, is now president of Princeton Theological Seminary). T. F. Torrance makes this point in one of his many reflections on the incarnation, particularly through a moving interpretation of Luke 2:52, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years.” Obedient as he was through his life, Jesus had to learn obedience to God in order to achieve reconciliation for humanity with God. As the Son of Adam he was “born in our alienation, our God-forsakeness and darkness, and grew up within our bondage and ignorance, so that he had to beat his way forward blow by blow, as St. Luke puts it, growing in wisdom, growing in grace, before God as well as before man.” It is Jesus as priest who “beat[s] his way forward” on our behalf, through every step along the way of human growth, offering his obedience and redeemed humanity up to God. Torrance wrote, “[Jesus] learned obedience by the things he suffered, for that obedience from within our alienated humanity was a struggle with our sin and temptation; it had to be fought out with strong crying and tears and achieved in desperate anguish and weakness…. Through the whole course of his life he bent the will of man in perfect submission to the will of God,…and offered a perfect obedience to the Father, that we might be redeemed and reconciled to him.” (4)

Although some of the images and language in Torrance’s theology might prove problematic to us and appear very abstract, this notion of Jesus redeeming humanity at every stage in its development with his life in order to present our lives back to God, reconciled and holy, is a very uplifting image. It elevates the idea that all of Jesus’ life was salvific for humanity, not only his death and resurrection. It’s the totality of Jesus’ life that saves.
As we sang here on Christmas Eve in the carol, Once in Royal David’s City, “He is our childhood pattern.” He is the pattern of our lives.

Yes, we know that Jesus was born to die, as the carols teach us. We often tell the Christmas story in such a way that we tend to think that Jesus was born only to die. Yes, we should not forget the cross, the destiny of the baby born in a manger. But there have been theologians and traditions in the history of the church that have refused to focus only on the cross, that want us to see the meaning of his entire life (and I would agree with them). If God’s love and grace were revealed in the cross and an empty tomb, if we see God’s love there, then we must also see God’s love and grace in this baby and his childhood and adolescence and his adulthood. For all these, too, tell us something about God, about how God chooses to live and be born in the world. To see Jesus as infant, teenager, adult, say something of God, how God is linked to us as infant, teenager, adult. Every step of our lives matter to God because we see that they matter in Jesus.

The birth and life of Jesus says something about our lives – that our lives, how we grow, how we develop in the presence of God is of ultimate value to God. Incarnation – that God took on flesh, tells us something of the significance about our flesh, of our lives. Jesus grew in the Lord. So, too, we who are in him must grow in the Lord – growing in likeness, growing in faith, growing in witness, growing along our own unique journey (as Jesus’ journey was unique), growing in love. Changing, ever constantly changing, becoming the people we were created by God to be – growing in the presence of God.

In his work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the American author James Agee (1909-1955) wrote, “In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” How much more for that child who “grew in the presence of Yahweh,” through whose life the world has been redeemed? To what extent is the potential of the human race born in you and me?


Photo: The Nativity Star, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem - the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.

1. John Wesley, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.ii.x.iii.ii.html. Emphasis added.
2. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, second edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963), 247ff.
3. See James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 27.
4. Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), 132. Emphasis added.
5. Text by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) and included in her Hymns for Little Children (1848).

25 December 2009

Born to Save

Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve/ 24th December 2009

One of the many challenges preaching on a text like Luke’s birth narrative is familiarity. How many times have we heard this story? There’s always the risk of thinking we’ve heard it all before. But when this happens we run the risk of losing that sense of holy awe and fear, the terror and wonder found in this extraordinary text, and we miss an opportunity to hear the Word of God with fresh ears, to have it dwell within us, to have it enfleshed in our bodies, dance in our hearts.

First as a boy and even now, Luke 2 never fails to leave me speechless. Luke’s way of telling the story is masterful, theologically, even politically astonishingly rich. It is bold and radical. There’s nothing “all is bright, all is calm” about it. Sometimes, I fear, we have domesticated and tamed this story, at times almost beyond recognition. We always need new eyes.

The word that caught my eye this year – and, I’ll admit, I never noticed it until just last week – is host as in “a multitude of heavenly host.” My study Bible has a little superscript that reads, army as an alternate reading of host, which I’ve overlooked. But then it hit me. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given what we know about this birth story. The Greek reads, stratia, an army, a band of soldiers, Roman soldiers. It’s the designation for a Roman army, except here in Luke we have an army of angels who bring not war or the threat of violence for stepping out of line, but peace, God’s peace. Luke is up to something.

Yes, the angels bring, “Good news of great joy for all the people.” That’s wonderful. But the subtext, the text behind this text, the story behind this story, the people behind the shepherds and Mary and Joseph, are the gods and armies of Rome. Indeed, the person in the foreground of Luke’s Christmas pageant, the person who is never depicted in any crèche scene, or pageants or nativity plays that I’ve ever seen is none other than Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), Emperor of Rome. That’s where the story begins – Augustus sets into motion the journey to Bethlehem. But he’s more than an incidental in this drama. The cultural, political background to this text, to this story that we celebrate tonight is none other than Rome. To our eyes it’s difficult to see; it’s implicit to Luke’s world. But scratch the surface, do a few word studies (pay attention to a word like host), and we find the historical setting for the birth of Jesus Christ – Imperial Rome.

Here’s another example. Supposed we traveled together to Berlin. I would take you into the Pergamum Museum. There we’ll find an inscription on marble that came from Turkey, near Ephesus. It’s a gift to mark the birth of a divine child. See if this sounds familiar: providence, “filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as savior – he who put an end to war and will order peace, …who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [good news] not only outdoing the benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactors in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings residing him.” (1) This is not a Christian inscription. It did mark the birth of one who claimed to be god, though: Caesar Augustus. It dates from 9 B.C. In Luke’s time Savior, soter, s_t_r, was a title given to Emperors, along with Divine, Son of God, God, God of God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the world. (2) Sounds like Luke 2, doesn’t it?

See what Luke was doing? Hear what he’s saying? All of these titles, along with other birth proclamations for the Emperor, would have been familiar in Luke’s church. He would have known about the birthday celebrations of Caesar and so would have the early church. Here we see just how courageous the early Christians really were. To use them to refer to the “new born Jesus is either low lampoon or high treason.” (3) The good news – the good tidings – God’s army of angels bring to the world, to you and to me that deafens every other competing voice is this:
Jesus is the true Benefactor of benefactors, not Caesar.
Jesus tends to the needs of his people, not Caesar.
Jesus is the true savior, not Caesar.
Jesus – and only Jesus – as Savior
has the power to bring the peace of God, not Caesar.
Jesus does not offer peace achieved by imperial violence
(which is not really peace),
but the peace given through healing,
compassion, and
table fellowship,
where he invites us to sit at table in the kingdom of God.

In this way, Jesus is the true savior to a world crying out in need. Luke wants us to know: this is how a true God, a true Savior is born.

This is real joy to the world. That’s what God’s heavenly army shouts from the heavens. Glory! Joy to the world – to all people, the people, the faces of the people. For the true giver of peace is born, born for the people, for common, ordinary people – like shepherds.

What we find at the heart of this story is this astounding, radical idea – that God refuses to be God without us. For you shall name him, Emmanuel, “God with us. (Matthew 1:23)” It is God’s graceful determination to not be God without us, to get mixed up with our humanity and not be God without it, without our flesh and blood, because he comes to save, to liberate, to redeem, to restore, to bring light to the darkest recesses of our souls. This is what the Incarnation of God announces to us that Jesus was born to live and in and through his living, he saves.

On this night we listen to a very old story that is ever new and real. It’s for this world, with all of its aches and pains, its sorrow and suffering that God comes down and comes close. It’s for you and me, for the faces of our loved ones, the faces of people we miss tonight of all nights, the faces of strangers we meet, the faces of children, hungry faces, tired and broken faces, young and old alike; faces of the unemployed; faces of people this night struggling with disease; the faces of our armies at war; faces of people who are alone, tired, confused, worried, people who are looking for a little peace. God comes to the world to save us from everything and everyone who seeks to destroy our lives. Whoever your Caesar might be – Caesar can’t save you, Caesar can’t give true peace, can’t give what your hearts are hungering for, can’t give us a hope that won’t disappoint.

There’s a choral piece written for this night. This is the text:
The hills are bare at Bethlehem,
No future for the world they show;
Yet here new life begins to grow,
From earth’s old dust a greenwood stem.

The heart is tired at Bethlehem,
No human dream unbroken stands;
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: ‘Amen.’
(4) Amen. Yes!

To a real world, full of broken dreams, God has come to save. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)” Into the world, to the world, in this world, in the darkness we proclaim the light. And never denying all the challenges of reality we face daily, into this real world comes the message that has the power to claim us and overwhelm us and even ravish us: God’s joy. By God’s grace we are called to bear to the world, God’s unspeakable joy. God’s joy. So let us live and so let us sing.


Photo: Duccio Di Buoninsengna (1308-1311), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

1. Inscription from Priene, cited in Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (HarperOne, 2007), 160.
2. Borg & Crossan, 63.
3. Borg & Crossan, 63.
4. “The Hills are Bare at Bethlehem, “ arr. Robert Scholz; text by Royce J. Scherf., Christmas at St. Olaf, Vol. VI, “What Wondrous Love,” (1993).

20 December 2009

The Godbearer

Luke 1: 39-45

For the Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 20th December 2009

We might expect from Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary a skeptical response, shock, surprise. But there’s nothing in the record. There’s no debate or even protest with Gabriel, there’s no, “I’m not worthy.” Instead, Luke tells us, Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word (Luke 1: 39).” There’s no argument from either Mary or Gabriel.

When one encounters the holiness of God – or God’s holy messengers – all one can do is be open to the experience, to receive it, humbly – and then share it. In the encounter with Gabriel, Mary came to know of the unfolding mystery of God’s work of salvation. Something happened and in that holy act Mary received an insight into the nature of the child growing within her. All she could do is receive this news, which is what she did. Some might view Mary’s response as unrealistic, unnatural – there’s no struggle, no doubt. But she did do something – again, she took the experience seriously and then she did as everyone who encountered the holiness of God has ever done: she bore witness to it. “With haste (Luke 1: 39),” Mary went into the hill country, to Judah, to see her cousin, Elizabeth. She had to tell someone.

This is how the God of the Bible moves in the world. Indeed, the foundations of the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition were shaken by the Judeo-Christian view that truth is not an idea, but a person. Truth, particularly religious or theological truth, is arrived at, is known through personal encounter. For example, “When speaking of how God is known, the Bible seldom speaks of insight or illumination or demonstration; rather, it says that God appeared, [God] did something, [God] showed [God]self, or spoke to someone…, the way to God begins not with arguments or proofs, [which we are wont to do in our skeptical, overly rationalistic world], but with discernment and faith.” This is because the “the Word of God makes its way not by argument but as men and women bear witness to what happened.” (1) When we bear witness to what we know, God is known.

This is what made and makes Mary so significant. She models a way for us to be open to the movement of God in our lives and then shows us how to respond to it. It’s in the midst of her witness to Elizabeth that Luke has Mary signing a song of praise in the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Yes, Mary is significant, of course. But, needless to say, Protestants have been hesitant when it comes to her important role in Jesus’ birth. Martin Luther (1483-1546) speaks for many when he preached in a Christmas sermon, “…the text does not proclaim the honor of the mother,… I am to accept the child and his birth and forget the mother, as far as possible, although her part cannot be forgotten, for where there is a birth there must be a mother.” Forget the mother? How? “We dare not put our faith in the mother,” he said, “but only in the fact that the child was born.” (2) At least Luther could admit and affirm, “Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, [and] prepared broth…for God.” (3) However, Luther, along with the other reformers, could not support the kind of Marian devotion that evolved in Roman Catholicism through the Middle Ages, using texts like, “Blessed are you among women (Luke 1: 42) or “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed (Luke 1: 48), as proof texts. Marian devotion within Catholicism continued and developed after the Reformation, maybe because of it. Beliefs about Mary were actually codified quite recently (without Biblical support, it must be said), such as Mary’s perpetual virginity, her freedom from actual and original sin (Immaculate Conception, 1854), and the idea that she did not die but was taken directly to heaven (Bodily Assumption, 1950). “We Protestants also get agitated about exalted language that sounds like Mary is a co-redeemer of humanity. And finally, in popular devotion the cult of Mary can drift into excess and superstition. For these reasons, Protestants emphasize a distinction that both Catholic and Orthodox believers acknowledge, that Christians honor or venerate (duleia) Mary as the Mother of God, but we don't worship her (latreia), which worship is due to God alone.” (4)

Perhaps a deeper theological claim can be made about Mary, one also shared across the ecumenical spectrum. It’s that Mary is significant because she shows us how to be receptive to God’s will. She demonstrates how one encounters the holiness of God, how we engage mystery.

The birth of God’s son is a mystery that overwhelms reason and thought; it cannot be demonstrated or argued. The ancient world made a distinction between a mystery and a puzzle. A mystery, by definition, cannot be explained or explained away. A puzzle can be solved, figured out. A mystery is not a puzzle. A mystery remains a mystery and in the presence of, engagement with, encounter with the mystery, knowledge is gained. Similarly, the birth of God’s son is a mystery – it is experienced and received with holy awe. It cannot be domesticated, made comfortable, or safe. It cannot be prettified, tamed, or contained. It cannot be put in a box, wrapped with a nice ribbon, placed under a Christmas tree, and adored from a distance. The Magnificat is Mary’s song of response to the mystery she encountered and was about to experience. It is sung in awe before the Holiness of God whose glory cannot be tame or contained, who chooses to dwell within humanity in order to redeem us and to restore us. The Akathistos Hymn, first sun for the Patriarch of Constantinople in 626 beautifully captured this image, “Hail, space for the uncontained God.”

The revealed, uncontained mystery unleashes the power of God’s redemptive work in the world. Mary’s blessing is shared with the world because of what God will do through her son. Then and now these claims – these amazing verses – are extraordinary: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away (Luke 1: 51-54).”

God will overturn the imbalance of power; all authority will be subjected to the authority of God. The song identifies and anchors God’s salvation in the lives of God’s people in concrete, physical, tangible ways; not only in “spiritual” ways, but in touchable, solid, real, and social ways. Through this one about to be born the proud and haughty will be scattered. God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and put the lowly ones there instead. He is coming and will be born for the hungry ones, not for those who are rich and satisfied. Radical stuff, indeed – it’s all there in the text. Now imagine this text circulating through the Roman Empire, under the nose of Caesar. This is what the birth of Jesus means in Luke’s gospel. These claims are unsettling, troublesome, disturbing, and disruptive. One of our church school teachers said to me once after reading this text, “We let third graders read this stuff?”

Mary models for us how to be servants of the mystery of God. She shows us how to say, “Yes,” to God, and through her life she bears the Son of God. In this way, Mary was literally Theotokos, the Godbearer, the title given to her at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Godbearer. It’s a powerful image. It’s an apt description of Mary. But, I wonder, if it doesn’t also, in some way, also apply to us? Yes, Mary was special and significant. There was only one, actual, Mother of God. Yet, if Mary is held up here as a model of faithful witness and discipleship, then I wonder if perhaps Luke wants us to also claim the “Mary” in all of us – both women and men. (5) I’m not talking literally here, of course (!), but metaphorically. We are not asked literally to bring Christ into the world as she did. But are we not filled with grace? When we receive this grace, can we recognize ourselves in the salutation, “Greetings, favored one!”? Are we not, too, the object of God’s address? Can we see ourselves this way? Do we not desire to be servants of this grace? Are we not then also in some sense called to be Godbearers – Godbearers who help to give birth to the presence of God in this world through concrete, tangible, physical, social ways for all to see? Are we not called, with Mary, to do the impossible, to bear the impossible into a world that forever wants to give up on hope? Are we not called to carry signs of new life and hope with our lives to the world in the name of Christ? “Christ is born!” we will proclaim on Christmas morning. But is it not also true that Christ is being born – and wants to be born – again and again through you and me? Is this not what we’re called to as followers of Christ? In this sense, then, we are Godbearers – bearing witness to God’s amazing grace and love, God’s tidings of great joy and peace and hope.

I close with an Advent Credo, written by the Roman Catholic priest, writer, activist, Daniel Berrigan. It calls us to affirm what the birth of Jesus means, to claim it’s truth, to live from it, to share it, encouraging us to bear witness to another reality, other than what the world wants us to believe is true. (If we were in worship this morning at Catonsville Presbyterian Church, we would have shared this responsively.)

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us [leave] Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world. (6)

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

1 Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 6.
2 Martin Luther in John D. Witvliet and David Vroege, eds. Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 109.
3 Cited in Time, March 13, 2005. For Protestant views of Mary see Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999) and Cynthia L. Rigby, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
4 Daniel B. Glendenin, Journey with Jesus, http://journeywithjesus.net/index.shtml.
5 Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XXI, Number 1(December 2009-January 2010): 8ff.
6 Daniel Berrigan, S. J., Testimony: The Word Made Flesh (Orbis Books, 2004).

07 December 2009

Transformation Required

Malachi 3: 1-6 & Luke 3: 1-6

Second Sunday of Advent/ 6th December

We could say that Ol’ Man Malachi needs a little Christmas cheer. He’s full of venom and judgment and warning. This is not the kind of text we really want to hear this time of year, is it? It’s not very Christmassy – at all. Instead of sugar plums, Malachi gives us soap – fuller’s soap, strong lye-based soap. Instead offering a festive spirit, Malachi gives us fire, not the warm-glow of a fire in a hearth, but a refiner’s fire, a fire’s forced-air, a white-hot blaze that melts metallic ores. With fuller’s soap and the refiner’s fire, God’s messenger prepares Israel for the coming of the Lord. “Who can endure the day of the [Lord’s] coming, and who can stand when he appears?” That’s the question before us. How does one prepare for such a day?

We're probably more familiar with the Luke text for today; we know how John asked us to prepare, bellowing out warning in the wilderness. Both texts are Advent texts because they offer some indication of what's required before the coming of the Lord. I want to focus on Malachi, for demanding as this text might sound it offers an amazing word of promise and hope, believe it or not. It tells us what is required before an encounter with God.

Malachi is the last prophet of Judah, the last book in the Old Testament. After Malachi there’s 450 years of prophetic silence. Before the end of the prophetic era Malachi extends a word of hope, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Malachi, as Yahweh’s messenger, envisions a day when God will fully dwell in the temple and all will know it. Judah is tired and weary (and wearing God down with their weariness), “You have wearied the LORD with your word,” he says. The people are asking, “Where is the God of justice? (Mal. 2:17)” They are people hoping, longing, desiring for the presence of God, for an appearance of God, eager for a time when the Lord of hosts will be seen, will be tangible, fully known by them. Malachi gives them this assurance. That time is coming and is near. The Lord is coming; one needs to prepare. But he never said when. And for centuries they waited and waited for a future promised by the messenger.

Yet, the people never gave up hope. The Lord, who is coming, is on the move. Israel’s God isn’t static. Malachi has a dynamic vision of God. God is about to do something new, to show up, to make an appearance, to “stand” before their eyes. By the time Jesus was born that sense of anticipation was enormous. As a people weighed down under Roman oppression, the Jewish people we’re waiting, hoping for something to happen. That’s why the crowds were flocking to John out in the wilderness. God is on the way, so prepare. But how? That’s the question before Malachi and the question before John and the question that’s before you and me whenever we anticipate a moment of encounter.

How does one prepare for an encounter with God? For, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” How does one stand before the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of Hosts, the great I AM? How does one stand before Holiness? Who can withstand the penetrating gaze of the God’s piercing eyes? Who can bear the “weight of glory,” to use C. S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) wonderful phrase, who is strong enough, who is holy enough, who is good enough, pure enough? Who can withstand the awesomeness of God? (1) That’s the question.

How we prepare for a divine encounter is largely conditioned by one’s image of God. Our image of God is of paramount significance. Our images of God are more often conditioned and fashioned by psychological determinants than from a theological reflection upon who we know God to be, particularly in the face of Jesus Christ. Wondering who can “endure” and withstand the coming of the Lord might seem that God’s coming is terrible and to be feared, filled with vengeance and anger instead of a spirit of joyful expectation; more awful than awe-filled. If we see God as only a fierce judge who is coming to judge and then destroy, well that’s going to have considerable impact upon how we relate to and prepare for God. If we’re conditioned by fear, then the coming is certainly not an occasion for hope. Malachi and John both see the coming of God as an occasion of hope. Yet, a destructive God image can easily be reinforced in the way one hears this text; it all depends upon that internal interpretative filter that processes verses 3 and 4. “For [the Lord] is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers soap” – ouch. How is this good news? (2) Why should one get so excited about the coming of a God coming with fire and lye? It doesn’t make sense.

That is unless we view this text as a purification process, as something done in and through grace in order to prepare us for an encounter with the Holy One of Israel. God comes with not just any kind of fire, but with a refiner’s fire – it’s the kind of fire a metal worker uses to melt metallic ores in order to bring their impurities to the surface and remove them, to leave in place something pure, of considerable value. And fuller’s soap, not just any kind of soap, filled with lye, is used to remove the impurities from material and cloth, especially wool. There’s nothing in the text – frightening as it is – that says the Lord will come and completely annihilate or destroy. If that’s how we hear it, well then that says something about our image of God, how we view God.

Malachi tells us that something has to happen before we stand before the Lord, a purification that prepares us to stand before a Holy God. For without this we’re not worthy or equipped or able to approach the holiness of God. Yes, there is judgment here, but it’s a judgment of all the impurities, of all that is sinful within us, everything within us that distorts God’s image in us. God judges sin in order to save us. Judgment is never for judgment sake. It’s sin that is judged so that we might be free from sin. It’s the impurities within us that are purged, leaving behind something – someone – better in its place, the people we were created by God to be. God judges to save. God purges to save. All is done in order to prepare us for a face-to-face meeting with the Holy.

Malachi’s focus is on meeting the Lord and he wants to prepare us for it – for an experience, that sense of holy awe and wonder when we stand before God’s glory, the Holy of Holies, that feeling of holy fear and trembling when we stand before God, the Wholly Other – not the god of our understanding, not our domesticated and trivial notions of god, not the god who agrees with our worldview or our opinions, not the god who always reassures and comforts us, but the Holy One who disturbs and shocks and offends and challenges us with the shattering grace of presence. It’s the experience of God in burning bushes that burn and burn, yet do not consume (Exodus 3:3). Before such encounters, before this awareness of God we take off our shoes, for we stand on holy ground. To see the Lord in the temple – or in a manger – calls for a change.

All this talk of purification, refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap, probably doesn’t speak to us. What the prophet is really getting at here is transformation (or as John the Baptist would say, repentance), a change in thinking, in behavior. If we really want to experience God, really want to have an encounter with God, then we need to know that something has to change. It’s as if there’s a door and on the other side of that door is God in all God’s holiness. The door is closed. To all who wish to enter, facing us is a sign of caution that reads: WARNING: TRANSFORMATION REQUIRED.

The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1962) said the critical turning point in analysis, when healing and transformation take place, often follows this searing realization: that “there are things higher than the ego’s will, and to these one must bow.”(3) What does it take for us to bow? It’s not unlike what Malachi and John the Baptist are saying, our hearts, our lives need to be “purified,” our impurities acknowledged, our brokenness, our sin confessed, everything that separates us from our neighbor or ourselves or God, a confession that we are not in control of the universe or of our lives. It all needs to be “burned away,” even our “virtues,” as Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) reminded us, need to be burned away, because they too have impurities that corrupt.(4) All this is done in grace, for the one doing the purifying is the Lord – who burns away all that which corrupts, all of our impurities, leaving in place the finest gold and silver, our truest holy selves as a gift to the Lord.

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, down in the undercroft of the nave there are two holy shrines. One marks the place of the manger; the other marks the site of Jesus’ birth. In order to see the site of his birth and the candles surrounding it you have to get down on your knees and look under a stone slab, you have to lower your heart and your head in order to see. This is how we “endure” or withstand or prepare for such an encounter. In a sense, we do not stand, but we bow, we kneel in awe before the coming of the Lord, before an infant whose weight of glory the world beheld with holy fear, before an infant whose weight of glory we behold with holy fear and trembling and exceeding joy.

1. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Edited, and with an Introduction by Walter Hooper (New York: Collier Books, 1980), 3-19.
2. Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XXI, Number 1(December 2009-January 2010): 8.
3. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and edited by Aniel Jaffé (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 181.
4. See Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.”

30 November 2009

Can't Wait

Jeremiah 33: 14-16 & Luke 21: 25-36

First Sunday of Advent/ 29th November 2009

“I can’t wait ‘til Christmas.” It’s a phrase we begin to hear a lot this time of year; particularly from the lips of children, but not exclusively so. We probably love to hear it most from children because it reminds us, perhaps, of our own longings for that day of days, of that time before, of what seemed like endless waiting as a child for Christmas Day to arrive. I can remember saying it over and over again. It probably began when the Sears & Roebuck Wish Book catalog arrived bursting with colorful images of all the toys we hoped Santa Claus would bring us. By “we,” I mean my brother, Craig, and me who fought –and I mean fought – over who would get first crack at that catalog.

There’s probably no other time of year and no other holiday that generates this kind of forward-looking hope, this extraordinary sense of anticipation and expectation than Christmas. As we wait, in the meantime, as we mark off every day on our Advent calendars, every day as we countdown to that day is informed and shaped by the day to come. Our present is informed and shaped by the future coming of that day. We wait and wait until we get to the point that it seems like we can’t wait any longer, can no longer bear the excruciating delay of Christmas morning. You can feel it in the air at the Family Service of Christmas Eve. At times it seems like our children are about to burst with tension and excitement. Bring it now. Hurry up and get here.

There’s probably no other time of year when we’re more thoroughly eschatological than the weeks leading up to Christmas. This time of year is the perfect opportunity to get into a mind frame that informs the writers of scripture. Eschatology means, literally, the study of end things or end times. It’s really one of the most important concepts embedded in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, but easy to miss and difficult to understand. I’m not throwing this word around to be difficult or to over-intellectualize the Bible. It’s there, infusing everything. It’s a word we’ve talked about quite a bit on Thursday morning during Bible study over the last nine years. Every book in the New Testament has been influenced by the meaning of this word. Without grasping the sense of this word, this outlook, we miss a considerable part of the good news.

Eschatology and its related word apocalyptic (meaning revelation) has to do with our perceptions of time, or orientation toward time, of how we view the past, the present, and the future. By reference to “end” we can mean, “the end,” as in finished or caput, but it can also mean end, as in purpose, or when we talk about the Great Ends of the Church. Think of the opening question of the Westminster Catechism. “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Eschatology has a future orientation – and that’s why this time of year, our perspective in Advent leaning toward Christmas is thoroughly eschatological. It’s a focus upon what’s coming.

When I reflected earlier on our waiting for Christmas, I intentionally used plenty of eschatological words, like “waiting,” “longing,” “day of days,” “that day,” “arrive,” “forward-looking hope,” “anticipation,” “expectation,” “meantime,” “day to come,” “excruciating delay,” “bursting,” “tension,” “excitement.” There are plenty more. They all have to do with time, how we envision the future, of what we sense is coming – coming, that, too, is an eschatological word – and how our day-to-day living is informed by the future we know is coming and about to break in, appear, and change our lives. Change, too, is an eschatological word, like conversion, and being born-again, and the most significant eschatological term: resurrection. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945) said Advent is like sitting in a prison cell. One cannot do anything except hope, pray, and wait; deliverance must come from the outside, he was being eschatological. (1) He’s sitting, waiting in hope, waiting for liberation, breaking into time from outside of history.

You can hear it in our text from Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel.” Can you hear the orientation to time? “In those days and at that time,” the text says,” I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…” “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” Can you hear it? The focus is on the future, of a day that is on its way coming to meet us – not a product of the past, not coming out to us through the progress of history, not from yesterday, but from tomorrow, from the future. And not just any future, the new future, the new day, the salvation of God that will yield something new in the midst of time.

Our Luke text, not surprisingly, is also full of eschatological and apocalyptic imagery. It’s why both of these texts are chosen for the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is thoroughly eschatological. In fact, embedded in the Greek of Luke’s text is the word “advent” – coming. Something is coming. Someone is coming who will be and is the salvation of the world. Something is coming. Someone is coming who will put the world to right, who will establish justice, who will embody the love and mercy of God.

Now, this Luke text is not, obviously, a text that points to the coming birth of Jesus. It’s a reference to the coming of Christ in glory at the culmination of time. So why are we hearing this on the first Sunday of Advent when we really want to sing Christmas carols because we can’t wait for Christmas? Because Advent is more than remembering the “first coming” at Christmas, it’s more than remembering Jesus’ birth back when. And Advent is more than getting ready because Christmas is coming again, when it seems like we just did this only yesterday. This is not the focus of our hope during Advent. But, rather, purpose of this season is to intensify our expectation for God’s final fulfillment. It points to the future when all the things God promised in and through Jesus Christ will be fully realized, embodied and enfleshed in the world. The world Jesus promised is not here yet.

Advent means coming. It’s a rendering of the Greek word parousia, which is what we find here in Luke. In secular Greek, parousia means the coming of persons, or the happening of events, and literally means presence; but the language of the prophets and apostles has brought into the word the messianic dimension of hope. The expectation of the parousia is an advent hope. In the New Testament, it is used exclusively for Christ’s coming presence in glory. Some have translated parousia as Jesus “coming again” or “second coming.” But both are wrong, because they presuppose a temporary absence of Christ.

Christmas celebrates that Christ is born. Advent turns our attention that Christ is coming. Christ is and is still coming. Christ is born and still being born within us and within the world. This is the tension of the Christian life. We live in the now and the not-yet. This is Advent. It is dark. It’s full of unresolved tension. It’s why we sing Advent carols in minor keys. We’re called to be alert.

All this talk of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,…distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves,” is not some kind of ancient prophecy about the destruction of the world, something you might see in the new movie, “2012.” What we find here is evocative, fanciful language that should not be taken literally. It’s typical of apocalyptic literature; it’s full of symbols and metaphors. It’s a way of saying, pay attention to the signs. Be alert! For the “the Son of Man” is “coming in a cloud,” with power and great glory.” Be ready, for “your redemption is drawing near.” Be alert. Watch.

Wait for what? Do we wait forever and like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s (1906-1989) play, “Waiting for Godot,” who wait for someone to arrive who never shows? In a world consumed by war and pain, injustice and abject poverty, sorrow and death, haven’t we waited long enough? How long, O Lord, how long? How long?

Yet, for the writers of scripture, waiting is never in vain, because in the waiting we also experience the one who is coming toward us. “Peace to you,” begins the book of Revelation, “from him who is, and who was, and who is to come (1:4).” The God of the Bible is the one who is on the move and on the way to us. Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann says it well, “The God of hope is himself the coming God. When God comes in his glory, he will fill the universe with his radiance, everyone will see him, and he will swallow up death forever. This future is God’s mode of being in history. The power of the future is his power in time. His eternity is not timeless simultaneity; it is the power of his future over every historical time.” (2) God’s future is coming toward us all the time. Isaiah declared, “Arise, become light, for your light is coming and the glory of the Lord is rising upon you (Is. 60:1).” The proclamation of the near – the coming – the arriving kingdom of God makes human conversion to this future possible.”

What are you waiting for? For whom are you waiting?

The Christian posture is always leaning into the future. We don’t lean into the past; we don’t look backward with nostalgia, but forward in hope, with hope. Advent is a season in the church that calls us to pay attention – to the future, to the new thing God is doing in our midst, of Christ being birthed into our lives in new and profound ways. As the culture so easily becomes seduced by nostalgia this time of year, of Christmases past long ago, the church is called to look forward, to hope and wait – to sit in waiting, to wait because we can – until that day when the glory of God is revealed and in the face of Christ find all our hopes and longings, our dreams and our waiting find their meaning in him.

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Dated 21 November 1943, Tegel Prison, Berlin, Germany (New York: Macmillan 1972), 134.
2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996),25-26.

14 November 2009

An Undivided Life

Joshua 24 & Matthew 6: 19-21; 24-34

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 15th November 2009

This past week we marked the twentieth anniversary of the toppling of the Berlin Wall, eventually leading to the reunification of a divided Germany. We have heard the stories of what it was like to live in a divided city, a divided country, of families, friends forever separated, of couples engaged to be married who were evermore divided as a result of that insidious wall. Seventh months after the wall came down I was in West Germany with my brother, Craig, and we drove through East Germany into the British sector of West Berlin. We made our way to the Brandenburg Gate and to the wall. We rented a hammer and chisel and broke off graffiti-sprayed pieces from the wall, which I still have. Dividing walls can come down – it’s difficult and risky and costly – but it’s possible. Other walls need to come down, like the so-called “security” wall snaking through Israel today (but that’s another sermon).

We were not born to live divided lives. Scripture has much to say about the enormous cost we pay when we live divided. The Joshua text invites us to “choose this day” whom we will serve. Will we serve God or something other than God. The issue of choice goes back to Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose self-interest over obedience to God, with a terrible price to pay. That’s a choice that wasn’t made once, but time and again and every time we make similar decisions; when our wills matter more than God’s will, we fall.

Choice runs through Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus loves to heighten the tension, particularly through the use of parables, in moments of conflict where we’re given two alternatives in which we have to choose. It’s the context behind Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve both God and wealth (mammon). He increases the tension here. It’s can’t be both/and, although that’s what we prefer. That’s impossible, Jesus says. Choose.

Now when Jesus invites us to choose he is not saying that wealth is bad. He’s not saying: God good; wealth bad. Wealth as wealth is not bad. Jesus is not saying that money is the root of all evil, because it isn’t. The problem comes when it’s an end in itself. An enormous amount of good can and is accomplished through money, particularly when wealthy people are generous with their resources. Then wealth is serving God, pressed into serving the Kingdom.

Whenever we hear Jesus preach about treasures, against serving wealth, about not to worry, we tend to receive these texts as a long list of negatives. Yes, Jesus is giving us a law here, a clear set of don’ts. “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth…store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” “You cannot serve God and wealth.” “Do not worry.” But my guess is when you hear these verses you probably don’t hear them as good news, as the extraordinary declaration of God’s joy given to you. My guess is the first reaction is probably guilt and then maybe shame. Because…yes, I do have a lot of treasures and baubles and more treasures and baubles than I really need to make me happy and more than I can fit in my house or apartment and probably more than I can afford. And, yes, far too often I’m a servant of wealth than a servant of God, because I work to have more and more, a bigger house, a better car, to live in a better neighborhood with a better school system, to have a bigger portfolio and a bigger nest-egg that will hatch into the best retirement one could ever possibly imagine. And yes, we worry – man, do we worry – about everything, about not having enough, about the future, about all the “what if’s” that preoccupy our living and our sleeping – or that keep us from sleeping.

These are tough verses to hear. W. C. Fields (1880-1946) was once seen feverishly studying, reading through the Bible. Someone came up to him and ask, “W.C., what are you doing?” He said, “I’m look for loopholes.”

You see, Jesus gives these warnings because he knows what we’re like. He knows how materialist the human being can be. He knows how often we go astray. He knows how much we love money and our wealth – and all the comfort and security that go with it. Perhaps we love security more than our wealth, because when we are secure (especially financially secure), we think we’ll never have to worry again. But I know a lot of wealthy people who worry sick. Jesus is a brilliant psychoanalyst who pierces the human heart, the human psyche – who knows our drives better than we know them ourselves. Jesus knows what troubles us, what disturbs us, what robs us of life, what makes us sick, and troubled, and depressed. And he came, sent by the Living God to change this. As Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” (This is the verse we chose for the door hangers we distributed to our neighbors yesterday.) Jesus knows the waywardness of the human heart because the human heart is divided.

So, what is the cure to our divisiveness? What will yield reconciliation for our alienated hearts, for the estrangement that we know exists inside? What will make us whole? There’s one answer, one word, Jesus would say: God. This might sound overly simplistic. But it’s really this simple – and this difficult. Jesus gives us these laws to live by in love; laws that seek to heal the split and offer a better life, a truer life. St. Augustine (354-430) famously said, “My heart is restless, O Lord, until it rests in thee.” That’s what Jesus is getting at here in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in these verses that deal with treasures and wealth and worry.

Jesus wants us to see that we were created for God to be at the center of our lives. To be authentically human means to put God at the center of our lives. We were created for God – I’m not talking about belief in God, but life in God, with God, through God. That’s what we were created for and our heart of hearts knows it and longs for it. We were made for God. But there’s something in us – call it sin – that turns us away, that in fear puts the self at the center of all things. There’s something in us that is not satisfied with God and so we turn to other gods which are no God – and sometimes the god we worship the most is the god called Ego, or simply, I or Me.

Jesus comes with the good news that life is not about Ego, or I, or Me. It’s not about you and it’s not about me, but about something far more meaningful, profound, and expansive, beautiful and good. It’s about the kingdom of God and God’s justice.

Jesus calls us to be God-centered, theo-centric, focused on God. He’s not saying this to make our lives difficult (although that will happen), he’s not trying to take the joy out of our lives, he’s not trying to be a sourpuss. He’s offering this in love because he sees how much damage is done in our hearts and in the world when the focus is on anything other than God.

That’s why he calls us not to trust in our treasures because they will always disappoint, but to really trust in God. Put your trust and your energy in things that matter and will last, not in things that will rust and decay and be remembered no more. Put your heart in something worthy to be treasured – and what can be of more value than God and God’s kingdom?

That’s why he says we can’t serve two masters, even though we want to or think we can, because we will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Love and hate, devotion and loathing are false alternatives for God’s people. Have one master, have one focus, put God first. You can put wealth first, it’s possible and plenty of people do it. But we will reap what we sow. We can live focused upon wealth, but this will inevitably put God in competition for our allegiance, we then run the risk of loving wealth and despising, if not hating God – if not in thought then certainly in action – because we will be serving something other God.

Serving wealth means we’re not serving God. Focusing on wealth, placing our trust it in and its treasures means we’re not trusting in God. This means that for all of us on any given day, if you think about it, we are always dangerously close to a-theism, it’s always there on the margins – believing and acting as if God doesn’t exist. And when we live that way we’ve lost the focus and the deepest desire of the human heart, which is for God. For the truth is, we’re all serving something, whether it’s the petty gods of our own creation, our ego, our careers, our security, or the Living God our creator. Either way, we’re all serving something or someone -- and we become the thing or the person we worship and serve. We’re always dabbling on the edge of idolatry. That’s why Jesus gives us this warning in love – he knows what makes us tick and what makes us sick, he knows what we need to make us whole.

There’s an enormous cost when we live divided lives, a price we cannot really afford to pay, causing so much suffering and pain in the world. When Jesus says, “Serve God,” he’s saying, “Here is the way to be made whole.” It’s all summed up in Jesus’ command: “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you.” And what are these things? Clothes, shelter, food – you know, all the things we worry about. This is not some kind of prosperity gospel message – just believe in God and you’ll get whatever you want. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Prosperity gospels are not really gospels at all because the focus is on prosperity and not God and that isn’t good news.

When people are fearful and worry and operate with an assumption of scarcity (that there’s not enough food, shelter, clothing, money, anything), we pull back, hold back, save, conserve – and do not share. Self-interest trumps sharing – I need to put “Me and my family” first. There’s a direct correlation between obsession with scarcity and an obsession with security (securing safety for ourselves because we can’t trust anyone else). “Compulsion toward security leaves no energy for imaging a different, more just world.” One fear leads to more worry leads to more fear, one thing leads to the other. Divisions begin to surface within and without. Over and over again in scripture, Jesus says, God says, “Do not worry.” Trust me.

Into the heart of all our fears and worry, Jesus says, you’re missing the point, you’ve forgotten what it’s all about, you’re striving for the wrong things, stop, calm down, remember what matters about all else: Strive first for the kingdom of God – strive for God’s justice. What a marvelous elixir for our worry-sick souls. Stop looking at yourself and direct your focus upon God. Strive for the kingdom of God – strive for God’s justice, when we do everything else we strive for will be put into perspective and we’ll know what matters and doesn’t matter. Jesus invites us to live our lives with a different set of assumptions: in God’s kingdom there’s more than enough, there’s always enough – and enough is as good as a feast.

Jesus was foolish enough to believe that when people put God first and strive after God’s justice and when God’s justice is present, there is always enough to go around. When we’re striving for God’s justice, then the hungry are fed. When we’re striving for justice, the homeless have a place to live. When we’re striving for justice, the naked are clothed. When we’re striving for justice – here in the church or in the world – there is more than enough, needs are met. Parker Palmer writes, “The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.” So is justice. Choose. Striving first after the Kingdom liberates because it puts all our other strivings into perspective, it focuses our attention, it heals the divisions in our heart; it has the capacity to make us whole. That’s the good news.

M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12.

Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 17. Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin: “We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole. But choosing wholeness, which sounds like a good thing, turns out to be risky business, make us vulnerable in ways we would prefer to avoid.”(9).

Photo: Construction of the Berlin Wall, 1961.

08 November 2009

The Heart of God

Isaiah 61

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 8th November 2009

I’ll get right to the heart of the matter this morning: it’s about mission. What it is; what it isn’t. What it looks like; what it doesn’t look like. Say the word and immediately we conjure up all kinds of definitions and associations. We hear “mission” and think, “out there,” “overseas,” foreign lands, distant shores. We think of mission outposts deep in the jungle of Africa or China, of missionaries who go around the world to preach the gospel in order to convert people to Christ. Mission is viewed as something that takes place “over there,” wherever “there” might be. Wherever it is, it’s assumed that it’s not here, but some place else.

This leads to another association. Somewhere we developed a dualist way of thinking. There’s the church and then there’s mission. There’s the worship and fellowship and organizational aspects of a church and then mission is seen as something in addition to everything else that a church might do. Mission is then seen as an addendum, something tacked on to everything else a church does, in addition to, on the side. It’s easy to see why mission is seen as a dispensable part of ministry – something done when everything else is tended to, financial support is given when there’s something left over at the end of the year’s budget or the first to go when faced with a budget deficit. It’s not surprising that some see mission in the church as a diversion. Why should we worry about people beyond our community or our state? We have enough people to support close to home.

Others think of mission as “charity,” financial gifts of good-will. Often done, let’s be honest, to assuage any guilt we might have for knowing just how rich and blessed we are.

So, I’ll get right to the heart of the matter. Mission is not something on the side, it’s not an option, it’s not a diversion, it’s certainly not charity or acts of good-will, and not what we do when we have time to spare or money left over at the end of the year.

Mission is the heart of God. Plain and simple. The heart of God is missional. Mission is what God desires and demands of God’s people. It what God hopes for, imagines, and wants to see realized through us in the world. We will be judged by how well we treated “the least of these (Matthew 25:40),” because there’s a special place in the heart of God for the least. Mission is at the heart of God because mission is what God does.

What does this mean? The literal meaning of the Latin, missio, means simply, “sent.” Mission is being sent, it’s an experience of sending. And if we think about it, the very Being of God is missional because God always seems to be in a sending mode. Yahweh is a sending God. Yahweh never leaves us in one place, but sends us to do something. If we think about it, there is no understanding of God found in the Bible that does not involve some kind of action, of movement, of sending. Even the name, Yahweh (Exodus 3:14), means, literally, “I am who I am; I was who I was; and I will be who I will be.” There’s movement, dynamism in the name. God is a missionary God.

If God is a sending God, that means we are a people sent with the missio Dei – the mission of God. That’s the understanding of the church we find in scripture. The church is essentially missionary: all that we do is mission. “It’s not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” Mission is the movement, the sending of God to the world; the church, then, comes to see itself as an instrument for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love. The focus is not on the church. The church does not send one out to do mission, as if mission belonged to the church. The church is not the sender, but the one sent. Mission is not contained within the church; the church is contained within the wider mission of God. That’s why for a church, mission can’t be secondary. So we come to see that “mission is not a ‘fringe activity of a strongly established Church, a pious cause that [may] be attended to when the home fires [are] first brightly burning….Missionary activity is not so much the work of the church as simply the Church at work.

Then what are we sent to do? It’s all there in Isaiah 61. We hear the voice of Isaiah who feels compels to act and understands himself as one acted upon by God. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me;” he says, “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.” Hear that? Sent!

To do what? To give expression to the very heart of God. This is what is means to be a child of God, this is what it means to be human, this is what we were created to be and do: To proclaim good news to the oppressed and liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the Lord’s favor, the day of God’s judgment against all that resists, hinders, and undermines God’s vision of justice; to comfort those who mourn, allowing praise to well up from the people instead of wailing. To build up the ruins, the former places of devastation, and repair the homes of God’ people, the ruined cities, thus giving a place for people to live. How can we hear this and not think of our work with Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity? We learned this morning from Jayna Powell of Habitat that there are between 9,000 and 40,000 abandoned row houses in Baltimore City – places in ruins that need to be rebuilt so people will have a place to live.

Isaiah 61 calls us to welcome the stranger, the lonely, the fearful. To welcome and care for the immigrant – whether they’re legal or not. To provide for those in need. To share our wealth, our resources. To share. To give. Why? Because this is what justice looks like – this is putting the world to right through acts of reconciliation and healing, it’s providing hope and extending a future to people who cannot see past yesterday. All of this – and more – is contained in the biblical understanding of justice. And why is this important? Because, “I Yahweh love justice (Is. 61:8).” And the justice of God unsettles the world.

There’s a very close tie here between mission (being sent) and justice. A biblical view of justice does not mean “just deserts” or a system of retribution, of inflicting a punishment equal to the crime. When Yahweh says, “I love justice,” that’s not the kind of justice that God loves. Justice is mercy, healing, forgiveness, and love; it’s about reconciliation, wholeness. It means, in scripture, setting the world right, it means fighting and struggling and working for a world that reflects God’s will, God’s heart, God’s imagination. It’s about engaging in acts of liberation and restoration, of extending God’s welcome and inclusion to everyone who feels like an alien, out of place in the world or the church. For us to have the heart of God means these causes are at the heart of our lives and at the very center of the church, the foundational values of what defines a church of Jesus Christ.

Justice is mission; mission is justice. Justice and mission are at the very core of God’s being. Like mission, justice is never an option for the church. Some might think of justice as being too political, too controversial for the church. The good news of God is controversial and it’s political, always has and always will be – because it has to do with the critique of structures of power, the good news is addressed to people oppressed under demonic structures of power that rob people of their freedom, undermine their dignity, and withhold from them hope. It’s political because politics is concerned with the way people live in the polis, in the city. We sometimes forget that a biblical view of justice is also related to justification, a word we Protestants like to throw around a lot (justification by “grace through faith,” Ephesians 2:8). Justice, justification, even righteousness – they’re all related. Just as we are made right with God through Christ, the justice of God wants to put the world right.

Every week we say Jesus’ prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” But what is God’s will? God’s will is mission. The kingdom is justice. Mission and justice – it’s what we are to pray for, work for, fight, protest, march, struggle, and advocate for, even if its unsettling, so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.”

It’s not by accident that when Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very start of his ministry, standing there with everyone to hear him, he selected as his text, these words from Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives… (Luke 4:18-19).” Hear it? Sent. Isaiah 61 is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It’s Jesus’ mission. It was what he was sent to do. As the Son of God, as God himself, his will, his heart is the will and heart of his Father. To see one is to see the other. The work, the mission of one is the work, the mission of the other. And the mission of the Holy Spirit (who is always being sent on behalf of Christ) is the work of the Father and of the Son and so sends us.

Mission is the heart of God: it’s to work tirelessly for the liberation of God’s people, to extend hope, release, and promise. Not as some idealized goal, but in concrete, risk-taking, seemingly foolish ways. This is what Jesus invites us to when we live in his kingdom and pray for the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).” “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5: 7).” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be children of God (Matthew 5: 9).”

That’s kingdom life – Christians are called to be “kingdom people,” not “church people.” Jesus never said, Come follow me and become part of a church, but to “strive first for the kingdom” (Mathew 6:33). “Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns for justice, mercy, and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; Kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world.” Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21).”

Today, we give thanks to God for all the ways we are being sent out into the world, of the sending capacity of Catonsville Presbyterian Church. Walk around the displays in fellowship hall and see the face of God in all that we do. Consider the extraordinary mission work of this church. So many would say it’s one of our greatest assets. We are church sent. This week Chris Roseland of the World Ministries office of the PCUSA in Louisville called me this week. He was looking over his reports and wondered how we came to give $16000 to the Good Shepherd Hospital in Kananga. I told him and he was impressed, but that I said, “That’s not all.” So I told him about how we rebuilt the pediatric ward at Lubondai hospital in the Congo, and paid for a new electric generator. Just think of the impact the mission tithe component in the Capital Campaign had upon so many people. We share meals with the hungry. Lee Van Koten volunteers two days a week at the International Seafarer’s Center in Baltimore harbor. Just this week I received a card from their chaplain, Reverend Mary Davisson, expressing appreciation for Lee’s work with the center. He is a blessing to their work and to the people they serve. Think of the Pastoral Counseling Center based in our Church House, the Santi School in Nepal ($8,000 of the $70,000 it cost to build the school came from CPC), our work with Habitat, IMA, on and on and on.

See all the ways as kingdom people, following Christ, we can see the promise of Isaiah 61 fulfilled, concretely, physically in the mission of this church, the beating heart of God.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, cited in David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), 390.

Bosch, 390. “Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; thee is mission because God loves people.”

Bosch, 372.

Howard Synder, Liberating the Church, cited in Bosch, 378.

02 November 2009

Removing Every Tear

Isaiah 25: 6-9 and Revelation 21: 1-6a
All Saints’ Day, 1st November 2009/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

I was recently asked, “Where have you suffered?” The question took me aback and knocked me off-guard. It was asked by someone whom I really didn’t know very well and so I was reluctant to respond from the heart. For this is a heart, a soul question.

I thought about it and answered: I have suffered most in my losses. In saying this, I can think of plenty of people I know whose losses have been significantly greater than mine. Comparatively-speaking, I guess, some might say my losses are manageable (and to a considerable extent they are). But they are nevertheless mine, as yours are yours.

In my life, I’ve had to say good-bye to far too many very dear family members and close friends. I was born almost three months to the day of my maternal grandfather’s death. My mother was carrying me when she said good-bye to her father. I entered into a household full of mourning and loss. Years later as a boy, I remember feeling the loss, especially around holidays. I became aware, very early, earlier than I should have, that life is precarious and that death is never far away. I’ve always had an existential bent; life is serious and important and fragile. I came aware of my own finitude at an early age. (This is probably why I tend to be pretty serious at times.). When I was in fifth grade I lost a classmate to cancer and then my fifth-grade math teacher died. I lost uncles to whom I was very close when I was in sixth grade. A mentor friend died when I was in high school, Jim Loebell. My mother, Grace, died at 59 in 1992, her mother, Ann, died in 2000. In the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation, there’s dedicatory page to all the people I lost along the way in the writing of the thesis. I’ve had a lot of personal loss. Add to the loss all the people I’ve come to know and love as a pastor for twenty years. On All Saints’ Day, I think of them and see their faces.

You have your memorial list. You have the names and faces of people who have gone on before you. The longer we live, the longer the list. Sometimes human grief is overwhelming. The tears just keep on flowing. “Time heals all wounds,” is a lie. For many the wounds are raw and real. Most folks work through their grief in healthy ways, but many don’t. Most folks find a way to carry on, but many don’t. Many suffer silently. They offer prayers to God with groans too deep for words. And the tears just keep on flowing.

We grieve for our losses. We grieve for our neighbor’s losses. We grieve for a world that is drenched with tears. That’s what we do in the church. We don’t advertise ourselves this way. We don’t have, “Come and grieve with us,” out on the Frederick Road sign. But this is what we do. Where else can people go with their grief, their sorrow? Where else can it be held by a community with love and care? If we’re not grieving in one way or the other, we’re probably not paying attention – to the tears of the world, to tears of our neighbors and friends and loved ones, of the silent tears of our hearts. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).” Happy, exceedingly happy are those who mourn. Happy, blessed is the one who can grieve. In his translation of the New Testament from Greek into German, Martin Luther (1483-1546) translated “mourn” with Leidtragen, meaning “sorrow-bearing.” It’s an odd blessing until we realize that what Jesus was getting at was this: blessed is the one who bears the sorrows of the world and neighbor and self, because those who mourn have God’s ear – and they will be comforted.

In Isaiah 25, we heard God’s promise that there will come a day when all will be put to right. “On this mountain Yahweh will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled marrow of well-aged wines strained clear. And Yahweh will destroy on this mountain the shroud – the funeral pall – that is cast over all peoples….Then Yahweh will wipe away the tears from all faces….” That’s Isaiah’s vision for the time to come. It is a powerful, confident in the identity and purpose of God, a God who does not intend God’s people to suffer and mourn and cry, but to sit at a feast of rich food.

Centuries later the Holy Spirit gave a revelation to John on the Island of Patmos. In that vision he saw way into the future and like Isaiah received a glimpse into the future God will bring about, of a promise fulfilled. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more: mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away….Behold, Jesus says to John, “I am making all things new….I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end.” In other words all of time is wrapped up in him, the Resurrected One. In him all the peoples of the world will find their rest. In time, there will come a time when everything lost will be restored and made new again. In him, there is a hope that despite the pain and sorrow and suffering and loss of our lives, the pain and sorrow and suffering and loss never – never! – have the last word.

As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, as Christian, as a human being who has felt the sting of death, I wish I never had to do another funeral again. But I’ll tell you there is no greater privilege in being a minister than standing with a family in the throes of grief and loss, in the intimacy of those places – seeing things, hearing things, experiencing things most people will never see or hear or know. I know Dorothy Boulton shares this view. And there’s no greater joy than to stand in this pulpit or sit at a bedside and declare the gospel, to read from Revelation 21 with conviction and assurance and give witness to the power of the resurrection – because if it’s not true in those heart-wrenching moments then it isn’t true in any other moment. I don’t say this because you pay me to, because I’m a minister, but because experience yields conviction and conviction demands faithfulness. It’s what I’ve come to know in and through my suffering.

How can I say all of this? Only because of grace. The gospel is true. Something happens when we gather as a community around those we love with the love and support and grace of Christ. It’s what makes the church so unique. There’s no place like it. This is the place where we hold each other’s sorrow and grief. When we share our sorrows and our grief, Christ is present there. The cross stands at the heart of all that we do and there’s no getting around it. Christ’s message from the cross says to us: in your suffering you’re not alone. In your suffering you’ll find me. In your losses I am present because I am greater than death.

On this All Saints’ Day, we are reminded of our losses. It’s a heavy day, this is a heavy sermon, intentionally so. It’s sobering, but not meant to be grim, but to be real, honest. It’s an invitation for us as a church to share our sorrow, to carry one another along in our losses and grief. There’s an old Egyptian proverb that goes, “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a hard battle.” We are all broken. We all know loss. But we are given the gift of one another so that as a church – with saints above and saints below – we can share our sorrow and when we do we soon discover Christ’s presence among and within us. Christ showed us that we experience God’s grace in the broken places, in the sorrowful, tearful, crying places. Why does it have to be this way? I haven’t a clue, that’s the way it is. God’s grace is known the strongest in the weak and hurting and broken places – which is precisely the point of this Table and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and why he invites us to share this meal. Here we remember our loss of him, but how he was known to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35). But it has to be broken and then shared; then the meal takes on life, the life of Jesus who was broken for us and shared his life. It has to be broken and then shared; when lives break, when broken lives share, Jesus promises to be there too. An unwillingness to be broken and to share means we miss the Christ.

A friend of mine tells the story of a church with a lot of customs and traditions and they didn’t like anybody disrupting them. The church had an interim minister who was trying to shack things up a bit, but wasn’t being too successful. This church had the custom of putting a loaf of bread on a communion plate on the table every week. They don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, but they have a symbol of the sacrament. If you think that would be expensive or wasteful to have an unused loaf of bread on the Commmunion table every week, don’t worry. They use the same loaf. It is a large unsliced loaf of Italian bread covered with polyurethane. So they use the same bread over and over again. One Sunday the minster was leading people in Communion. He lifted the ceremonial loaf of bread, said, “Take eat, this is my body.” Then he cracked it open and ripped it apart.

There was a collective gasp in the congregation. Then it was absolutely silent as he continued to break the bread into large chunks to place on the Communion trays. It took a few minutes for people to realize the minister has switched the polyurethane bread with a real loaf. Afterward, someone said, “You really had us going there for a minutes. We thought you actually broke our Communion bread.”

The minister said, “If it isn’t broken, it can’t be shared.”

On this Sunday we acknowledge our losses, all the broken, hurting places in our lives and we share them, in and through this meal. As we do we will find the Risen Christ, because that’s where he is known to us, in our losses.

“O blest Communion, fellowship divine. We feebly struggle, they glory shine. Yet all are one in Thee for all are Thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963[1937]), 121. “For the emphasis lies on the bearing of sorrow. The disciple-community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it. And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity.” (121-122).

Sermon by William G. Carter, “If There Isn’t Enough to Go Around,” William G. Carter, ed. Speaking of Stewardship: Model Sermons on Money and Possessions (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1989), 117-118.

William W. How, “For all the Saints” (1864).

Photo: K E Kovacs, St. John's Cross at Dusk, Iona, Scotland (June, 2008).

30 October 2009

The Eyes of Experience

Job 42:1-6(10-17) & Mark 10:46-52
Reformation Sunday/ 25th October 2009

Preached at Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton, New Jersey

Somewhere along the way, I wish scribes had etched in the text of Job, right here at the start of chapter 42, in big, bold letters: STOP: SILENCE. When we consider Scripture, obviously full of words, and think of our Presbyterian world, also full of words (you have to admit, we really are a wordy bunch), it’s easy to read past, speak over the silence, fail to dwell in the silence before the word. The mystics tell us all wisdom flows from silence and all wisdom leads to silence. Job is all about wisdom; which means silence can’t be far away. Yet, we find a seamless transition from the end of chapter 41 to these extraordinary six verses of chapter 42.

What’s in 41? The culmination of Yahweh’s wild sermons out of the whirlwind, Yahweh’s answer to Job’s unyielding demands for an explanation regarding his suffering. Earlier, Yahweh says to Job: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding (Job 28: 2-4).” Yahweh cross-examines Job with question after question. The Voice graciously shakes Job’s foundation, shatters everything he assumed – of himself, of his neighbors, his precarious hold on reality, his place in the universe, even his image of the God he thought he knew. On and on Yahweh graciously assaults his sensibilities and his reason, questions everything Job thought he knew about just about everything. And then Yahweh stops at the end of 41. It’s here, just before 42, in this liminal space, I believe, we need silence: hold your tongue, listen, consider, behold. I imagine Job at that point speechless, breathless, gasping for air, in shock. Here before him out of the whirlwind is the voice of the Unnamable One, the Holy of Holies, what Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) called, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, this mystery that evokes both frightens and fascinates. (1) What do you say in such moments? What would you say? What is there to say?

Then…when the time was right, out of the silence, with humbled conviction born of experience, Job begins to speak. Here is the goal of this wisdom tale, the theological nerve-center of the text, it’s wild and electric like the voice of God. “I know you can do all things,” Job says, “and nothing you wish is impossible.” Then Job verbalizes, as if mumbling to himself the earlier question posed to him by Yahweh: “Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness?” Job continues: “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.” Again, he remembers what Yahweh said, “Listen and I will speak: I will question you, please, instruct me.” Then Job finally gets it and says: “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes – my eyes – have seen you. Therefore, I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (2) From silence to silence.

It might be easy to miss the significance of Job’s confession. Many turn to the book of Job searching for answer to the theodicy question, of why the innocent suffer and how can a just God allow it. Sure, in the epilogue we see Job’s life is restored, but if we expect some resolution to these questions we will leave grieving, feeling unsettled. We will leave disappointed and troubled with an image of God who likes to cuts deals with Satan to test us.

But it was the wise William Blake (1757-1827) who centuries ago offered a different perspective that warrants our attention. Blake spent a lot of time with Job’s story, eventually producing those marvelous engravings of scenes from the book of Job. For Blake, the text is less about theodicy than it is about transformation. (3) It’s about the transformation, change, metanoia that occurs when we come to the limits of our knowing and find ourselves confronted by the face of the living God.

You see, prior to the whirlwind, Job’s world revolved around a clear understanding of right and wrong, individuals were rewarded appropriately with blessing or punishment within a retributive system administered by a just God. “Job’s case against God assumes not that the system is wrong …but that God has failed to govern the created order justly.” And so he questions God’s justice. (4) But Job is searched and questioned by God and in the process discovers there is more going on around him than meets the eye.

Then, at the point of exhaustion and desperation Job hits a theological wall. He discovers that the religious view of his community, his friends, his tradition – what he was taught in Sabbath school, as it were – are not equal to the existential challenge facing him. Job’s theological perspective is insufficient to speak to the complexity of his trauma, this man who has been to hell and back, who has seen into the face of the void, lost family, friends, the flesh on his bones, body full of sores and grieving in ashes asking, Why? Why? Why? His trauma calls into question everything. He gets to a point where his understanding of God can no longer yield meaning in the face of such tragedy. While Job never gives up on God, although his wife said, just curse God and die (Job 2:9), and his friends weren’t much help either, in the end he had to give up his old understanding of God and God’s justice in order to yield to something new. He couldn’t do that alone.

There comes a time when we must yield to a “higher intelligibility,” a wider frame of knowing. (5) At one point or at many we all hit that theological wall, when we admit that our perspectives are too narrow and limited. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) once described the work of poetry as “purging the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.” (6) Something of the same is involved when we “see” God. The “film of familiarity” is wiped away and we are transformed and we see something new. Job confronts the inadequacy of his former way of seeing the world. His experience of God then yields a wider, more comprehensive view of reality, of justice, of God. It’s the gracious reframing of the world, the self, even the God he thought he knew for something far more profound and grand and expansive. Job discovers that, “The world is a manifold of intensities each with its created integrity, mystery and even untamable wildness, not to be humanly comprehended or controlled.” (7) It’s the vision that changes everything.

I believe it’s still possible for us to have visions – yes, even Presbyterians (believe it or not). Whether gradually over a lifetime or in the moment, moments of extraordinary insight, numinous, religious experiences like this, of significant power, and terror, and even beauty, when the Holy helps us see what we could not see before, to learn anew. Giving us new “spectacles,” as Calvin (1509-1564) would have said, that allow us to see more clearly in the “theatre” of God’s glory.(8)

To see; that’s the critical point. “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes see you.” More than hearing about God, Job has seen God for himself. After the whirlwind, Job also discovers the inadequacy of a faith that comes only by hearsay, passed on, received passively. It’s been said, “The person who hungers and thirsts after justice is not satisfied with a menu. It is not enough for [one] to hope or believe or know that there is absolute justice in the universe: [one] must taste and see it.” (9) Sure, Job heard all about God, heard about what God was like, and he lived assured in that world until everything fell apart. What he graciously received in the end was not the inherited faith of family or the pious platitudes of well-meaning friends, but something that came through his own existential encounter with God, face-to-face, a journey that only he could take, yielding a wisdom that came not from a distance, but from, through, and within his gut, his heart. It was something of God that couldn’t be taught, it had to be evoked, experienced, encountered.

For those of us in the Reformed tradition, talk about personal experience generally makes us uneasy. There is an ongoing struggle for us between the authority of revelation – that is, God’s insight, wisdom, and grace that comes upon us, that comes from above, that breaks into our lives – and the authority of personal experience. We tend to talk about revelation, maybe it’s safer. Now, I know this is tricky and complicated theological ground. We are right to be skeptical of anything that smacks of individualism or subjectivism. Yet, I fear we’re losing touch with the individual, the personal. Every experience is not of God. Every voice we hear is not of God. Just this week I received a seven-page, single-space letter from someone claiming to be, “The ONLY True Prophet of God,” writing to tell me the “Truth about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Homosexuals, and Dinosaurs.” Yet, there are people in the church and outside it who want to take their experience seriously, as valid, but don’t know how. There are folks in the church who have had profound religious experiences, but never say a word about it. There are people who want to share what they are learning, like Job, through their ongoing encounter and relationship with God, particularly through Christ, and want to be faithful to it.

I’m particularly sensitive around this issue. Here’s why. In my middler year at Princeton Seminary I took a class on Calvin; I wrote my final paper on the opening sentence of the Institutes (1559), “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (I.1.1)” Calvin goes on to say, determining “which precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. (I.1.1.)” Knowledge – for Calvin, an existential apprehension – of ourselves leads to a knowledge of God and from knowledge of God we turn to a true knowledge of ourselves. (10) Well, I was in a state of existential shock when I opened the envelope with my paper in it and saw the red-penciled grade: D-. Now, I had pretty good grades at the seminary, but was struggling in this class, with others (I might add), with a C+ going into the final. So, yes, this means I have a D+ on my transcript from Princeton Seminary in Calvin. What doctoral program would ever admit me? What presbytery would ever ordain me? – I thought my life as a Presbyterian was over! The professor said I didn’t place a sufficient emphasis on revelation in the knowledge of God. Personal knowledge alone is incapable of knowing God. I had another professor look it over and he said it definitely wasn’t a D paper. But, I decided not to fight it.

It was humbling, to say the least. Revelation now plays a significant role in my theology! But after twenty-one years (yikes), I’m still not thoroughly convinced it’s that simple. My own journey has brought me back to this again and again. How we know anything in this mysterious universe is far more complicated than Calvin ever could have imagined. As Stacy Johnson says in his recent book on Calvin, “knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately linked.” (11) A true knowledge of ourselves means being real and honest about who we are and aren’t, what we can and cannot know. But our experience still has to count for something: what our hearts know, deep in our souls, all our losses, our traumas, our sufferings, our relationships, our gifts, our personalities, all get caught up in the mix in what we know of God and how we know God. Augustine (354-430) asserted, “To know myself is to know you,” O God. (12) Sure, theology is not biography, but we can’t totally disconnect them. Theology is not anthropology, but we can’t completely sever them in human experience. For what else do we have except our experience, limited as it is?

Sometimes experience of God is prior to dogmatic formulation, experience grounds conviction. In one of her letters, Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) wisely wrote, "Conviction without experience makes for harshness." (13) We run the risk of becoming exceptionally harsh in emphasizing conviction and ignoring, if not silencing the experience of many sisters and brothers who want to tell us something of Christ's love and what the Spirit is doing in their lives. In my ministry I find that far too many people fail to honor their experience. I have, regrettably, far too many times discounted the value of mine. In his recent book, theologian David Ford suggests in his reading of Job this amazing gift, that God might actually be “pleased with those who refuse to fit new experience unquestioningly into traditional teaching about God, who ask radical questions about God, their experience and their traditions, who never let their desire for the truth of God and God’s justice be quenched, who are open to new possibilities and surprises even in the sphere of their core convictions, and who above all cry out with integrity before God and resist all attempts to misinterpret, marginalize, or stifle that cry. (14)

One person for whom this was powerfully true was Carl Jung (1875-1961), the depth psychologist. I’ll close with this account. Jung’s father was a Swiss Reformed pastor near Basel, but he did not find any life in his father’s faith. Jung was told his First Communion would be a great experience. Instead, nothing. “For me,” he said, “it was an absence of God and no religion. Church was a place to which I no longer could go. There was no life there, but death.” Yet, early in his life he had profound encounters of the Holy that forever changed the course of his life; even though they overwhelmed and scared him, he knew there was power to heal in them, they offered hope, and he spent the rest of his life trying to be faithful to those experiences – despite considerable resistance. He said they were moments of an immediate, “direct living God…,” the God that his father lacked and could not give him. As Jung put it, “God alone was real – annihilating fire and an indescribable grace.” (15) Annihilating fire; indescribable grace. I love that.

Job’s story says: this is what it’s like to encounter the living God, to know God, not know about God. Not someone else’s encounter, not someone else’s story, not someone else’s experience, not a dead tradition, but a living faith. It looks something like this: a life-changing, frame-bending experience of earth shattering significance, radical insight, insight of cosmic proportions that comes over, around, in, through, and to us and opens our eyes – our eyes, not someone’s else’s eyes – and allows us to see reality transformed and transfigured; to see a new world which despite all the pain and suffering and sorrow of our lives still has the capacity to yield meaning; an experience of the Living God that grounds all of our theological claims and creeds, that sets our hearts on fire and fires our imaginations, that sends us down new roads, wherever the Lord wants to take us, following him, like Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 52), with eyes that now can see.

Prayer: Holy One, give us more to see, give us ever more to see. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Image: William Blake, "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind," Plate XIII, "Illustrations of the Book of Job" [1823].

1. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John H. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 13-30.

2. Stephen Mitchell’s translation, The Book of Job, trans. and with an introduction by Stephen Mitchell (HarperPerennial, 1992), 88.

3. Mitchell’s helpful essay on the meaning of Job, xxix.

4. David C. Hester, Job (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 88

5. James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, second edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 216.

6. A Defense of Poetry (182), cited in Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: A Commentary (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 50.

7.David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 114.

8.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.6.1; 1.14.1); Commentary on Psalm 104:31, cited by William J. Bouswma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 135.

9.  Mitchell, xxvii.

10. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1n., 36. On this seeming ambiguity in the relation between divine knowledge and self-knowledge, see Serene Jones, “An Apology for Divine Wisdom,” in Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 87-120.

11. William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51.

12. Viderim me, viderim te, quoted by St. Teresa of Ávila [1515-1582], The Interior Castle, The Complete Works of St. Teresa, vol.2, trans. and ed. E. Ellison Peers (London: Sheed & Ward, 1957).

13. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Selected and Edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1995), 97.

14. Ford, 129.

15. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and Edited by Aniela Jaffé; trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 57, 73. C. G. Jung, The Red Book (Liber Novus), ed. Sonu Shamdasani, preface by Ulrich Hoerni, trans. by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, Sonu Shamdasani. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2009). See Shamdasani’s Introduction, 194.