Monday, March 28, 2011

Being Sheep

Lent 3, March 27, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, the Rev. Paul Moore

Our Lenten Psalm for this 3rd Sunday of Lent is Psalm 95. It was probably used liturgically like the Psalms of Ascent, as music for a procession to the Temple, recognizing God for who God is, and warning against rebellion against the heavenly King. But more specifically it is classed as what is called a psalm of enthronement. It has two parts: It speaks of God as King. He is King of all the gods of the Canaanites. He is King of creation, holding it in His hands. He is the God of the Exodus who saved His people through the "sea" on "dry land." Now His worshippers are like sheep with their shepherd—a common image for a good king. But that required a response from them. They are warned not be stiff-necked or hard-hearted, nor to turn to the gods of the nations, for there are consequences for rebellion, and those consequences are always enslaving. To this day, to be a Jew means to live one’s life as a faithful response to the Exodus.

The hinge between the two parts is the second half of Vs. 7. The key word is "today." Today is not yesterday, when the people rebelled at Meribah and Massah. Massah and Meribah both refer to a place in the Exodus wilderness wanderings where the people had no water. God provided water from a rock that satisfied their thirst and that of their livestock. But the place was called "Meribah.” Meribah means "quarrelling.” Here the people quarreled with the Lord. Every quarrel is at its root a challenge to authority.

Today, while it is the present and has not yet slipped into the immutable past presents the chance to choose once more. One can choose death in the wilderness again, in which case “today” becomes indistinguishable from “yesterday.” It may sound like a rather harsh judgment, but the issue is not God's arbitrary wrath. If I walk out into the West Texas sun and don't take any water I will dehydrate, and I could die. My choice to be foolish is my own choice, my death the reward of my foolishness. In the same way we are made for community with one another under the lordship of God. To choose to be one's own lord is to walk out into the wilderness, and to separate oneself from the source of life and rest.

But “today” can also be different from “yesterday.” Now is the only real time: The past is a memory, the future is yet to be determined. Now is the moment in history when you are radically free. Just as freely as we chose death we can choose a new day, in which life and rest come to us by choosing submission to God in Christ rather than the quarrel of self-determination.

Here, of course, is the Lenten message for us.

Lent always starts with the sovereignty of God. We must, in the final analysis, admit that we did not create ourselves. There is a God whose purposes will prevail either because of us or in spite of us. That God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Whereas we influence our destiny, ultimately it comes from beyond us, granted through that same Jesus Christ.

Lent must move us to respond to that truth. The thought that we owe allegiance to a higher power at first feels foreign to us Americans dedicated to liberty, but it is a true thought, and ultimately is not foreign to personal freedom at all. We have freedom to choose to quarrel, and we have freedom to choose to submit. Therein lies our freedom. The God of Jesus Christ is the master we must choose if we are to choose our own truest selves. To be Christian is to live one’s life as a response to the Incarnation.

I spoke in a previous sermon about a Christian teacher who claims that American Christians are essentially practicing agnostics. These are harsh words, to be sure, but perhaps truer than we would like to admit. There is one aspect about this psalm that you may not have noticed, yet it challenges the very fiber of our individualistic American psyches. In no verse of this psalm are we addressed as individuals, everywhere we respond to God as a group, and God works with us as a group.

Perhaps we show our agnosticism most clearly in our attitudes towards the family of God. I often hear, “I don't need to attend Church, I can worship God anywhere.” The truth is that we actually can, but it's like trying to stay healthy by not eating any vegetables. Some claim no affiliation, but worship equally at all churches, and it sounds magnanimous, but it's really more culturally American than it is Biblically Christian. A constant diet of "any church" is like trying to build a marriage by dancing with everyone at the party.

There are currently more than 3000 recognized Christian denominations in this land. We split over theology faster than ranches near the suburbs and atoms in a reactor. But choosing a church based on one's own individual ideas of what constitutes good theology rather misses the point. It is undeniably important to every church to be built on a solid theological foundation, but churches are groups of people in relationship with one another and with God in Jesus Christ with the mission to bring the world into that relationship. They are not propositional platforms for one's own imperfect formulations of ontological truth.

God calls us into relationship as a group, and it is in the context of the relationships we have with one another that we live out our relationship with God. The word "Sheep" is both plural and singular. What a happy theological coincidence!

I submit to you that this Psalm is a radical Lenten call to community. To be the community that worships the King of creation, the King of our redemption, and the King of our salvation, not only by gathering in worship every Sunday morning, but by living in harmony and unity with one another and vital engagement with the world around us all week long.

The Tyranny of Second Best

Lent 2, March 20, 2011St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, the Rev. Paul Moore

Psalm 121 is the second of a series of psalms called the Psalms of Ascent. They are usually thought to be used in procession as worshippers approached the Holy Mount on which the Temple stood. They tend to be upbeat and hopeful, it seems almost strange to be reciting a Psalm of Ascent during Lent. But on closer inspection it fits rather nicely.

In this psalm there are two predominant images, that of the hills, and that of the Lord. The Hills represent everything that is penultimate in life. One interpretation of "the hills" in vs. 1 is in reference to the "high places" of the Old Testament. These were shrines located at the tops of strategic hills, dedicated to the “baals,” the gods of water and fertility of the Canaanites. Against these the prophets railed incessantly. Why? Because Israel's God is different. Israel's God is not merely the god of recurrent seasons, of the necessities of agricultural life, or of locations precious to the worshippers. The gods of these things are not ultimate. They are the gods of the created order, and of recurrent events, and of local places. But Israel's God revealed Himself in the Exodus, a breaking into human history and altering the direction of things, a once-for-all revelation. Therefore Israel's God, while concerned with agriculture, is just as concerned with politics, that is, with issues of justice and peace and social relations. The psalmist might be saying, then, Do I look to the local gods for my help? No, my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Another interpretation applies "the hills" to the very hills upon which Jerusalem sits, and therefore to the Holy Mount itself. Interesting, then, that the psalmist denies even this hill as the source of his help. His help is still from the Lord, the one worshipped on the Holy Mount. The result is the same. Even the Holy Mount itself is penultimate, it points to something greater than itself, it points to the true source of help, the Lord Himself.

The Lord is described in the bulk of the text of the psalm. The Lord is the maker of heaven and earth. He is not merely the controller of local seasonal shifts and changes, He is not the just one whose hand is on the floodgates of the rain. He is the maker of both of those things! As sure as the Lord is master of heaven and earth, so sure is His care for His worshippers. Slumber, that element of created life that steals from us our awareness for a requisite time, is not something to which He is subject, for He is subject to no one and no thing.

The movements of the procession up to the Holy Mount are no different from the movements of the soul toward heaven. Over all the Lord is the guardian, the providential presence guiding and sustaining and keeping. The Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun, with its Middle-Eastern or Texan heat will not overcome you, neither need you fear the sun-gods of the Egyptians, nor the moon-god with links to orchards and fruit in Canaan, nor even Shachar and Shalim, twin gods of dawn and dusk, the morning and evening stars. We might say in today's world, the gas prices, or the stock market, or the cost of health care, or votes in Congress about funding. It is the Lord who will keep you safe from all evil. The Lord shall watch over your going out from the Temple into the business of daily living, and your return to the temple for worship, renewal and strengthening. God, the creator of heaven and earth, is Lord of not just part of life, but all of it.

We find our Lenten theme in the transition from vs. 1 to vs. 2. The spiritual masters called it an apophatic move, away from that which is unessential, stripping away of secondary things, to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. The Lenten message then, on this second Sunday of Lent, is to fearlessly forge beyond all that is penultimate. There is no hill or high place, there is no god of sun, moon, or economy of this world, there is no deity of fame or fortune whose allegiance is equal to the allegiance due to the God of Heaven and Earth. It is not that these penultimate things are bad, only that when our hope is in them we lose sight of the true source of help, and end up like Nicodemus, in the night, asking questions to which we cannot understand the answers. It is only when the God of Heaven and Earth is our help that all the rest takes its proper place.

Do not look to the hills. Sacrifice their magnificence, their splendor and their seductive attractiveness. Settle for nothing less than the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

The Ecstasy of Forgiveness

Lent 1, March 13, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, the Rev. Paul Moore

Psalm 32, is a psalm of thanksgiving for the joy of forgiveness. It is very fitting for Lent, very fitting for the first Sunday of Lent. Let us consider for a moment 4 themes reflected in the Psalm, ideas that contrast or complement one another.

Water: In this Psalm water is both good and bad. The psalmist speaks of his unrepentant state as being dried up as in the heat of summer. The heat of the Middle-Eastern sun is like the heat of west Texas in summer. Ugly as it might seem, think of a desiccated animal on the side of the road in west Texas. It lasts forever because not even the buzzards and the raccoons will eat it, but it doesn't do anything any good, either. It just lays there as a constant reminder of death. This is the effect of unconfessed sin. It dries up the soul, it cuts one off from happiness and freedom. It alienates and desiccates and leaves one feeling empty and useless. And the pain of it all is intended to drive one to confession.

Because of God's mercy and forgiveness, then the psalmist claims God as his hiding place, because of the flood of relief and joy known in forgiveness, therefore, the psalmist says, the faithful (those who know what forgiveness is and means) will make their prayer to God. When the great waters overflow they shall not reach them. We have seen images all week of the flooding along the east coast and mid-west; people whose lives and homes have been devastated not by too little water, but by too much. Where cars should be driving boats float, where kids should be playing people are being rescued. Too much water in the Bible is a symbol of chaos, death and destruction, all the opposites of the joy, life and reconciliation of forgiveness. Those who seek forgiveness come into a quality of life that puts the problems of life in their proper perspective. Those who know the forgiveness of the Lord will not be swept away by the issues of daily living.

Forgiveness: Guilt is one reality, forgiveness is quite another. Guilt alienates. The psalmist writes, “When I held my tongue my bones withered away.” The implications later in the psalm are that the relationships of the unforgiven guilty person are forced, like a horse that but for a bridle would not stay near its owner. It is a fitting image. Who wants to be with one who groans all day long?

Notice, however, that God has not left the sinner, for His hand is heavy upon him. What God wants more than anything else is reconciliation, as Michael Card sings, "Love will fight us to be found." If guilt alienates, happiness belongs to the forgiven. It does not belong to the one who has the trophy wife, or the Lexus or high-ranking husband, or the 6-digit income, or all the toys of life, but to the forgiven. Why? Because we were made for community, and none of the above will bring one into community by itself. Offense alienates and brings sorrow, but forgiveness reconciles us into joy.

Speech: Silence may be golden, but sometimes speech is divine. Atahualpa Yupanqui, one of my favorite Argentine singers, has a song whose title translates, "I Rage at Silence." In it he describes in beautiful, haunting lyrics just what keeping silence has cost him. It cost him his rights, it cost him opportunities and beautiful chances, it cost him love. It cost him, in the end, the richness of life itself.

Truly, for every time I wished I had held my tongue I have two in which I wished I had spoken up, or said more than I did, or remembered to let someone know some piece of important information, some element of a situation they needed to know, but more importantly, what the other person meant to me. My late brother-in-law gave one of my sister's sons one of the greatest gifts a man can give. He died very unexpectedly one morning after sending the boy on an errand. The last thing he said to him, as he always did was, "I love you." Moments later, with the boy out of the house, he collapsed and died...and these are my nephew's final memories of the man he most admired in life. How much more, then, shall we speak up to God, tell God just what has not been said, tell God about the ugly truth, the buried garbage, and the rotten core. How can one know forgiveness if one has not first owned the truth of one's sin?

Community: Alienation is our unforgiven state, community is our reconciled home. There is a recurrent theme throughout these meditations. God wants to be in relationship with us. Why? Because God is the God of community. God is perfect community within the godhead, God created the world and us to be in community with Him, and the issue with the world is precisely the alienation that occurs when we violate our relationships, first with God, then with one another, and also with the rest of creation.

When there is alienation the only remedy, the only medicine for the sickness of our radical, existential loneliness, the only cure is forgiveness. Therefore Jesus came, therefore we are enjoined to seek forgiveness, therefore we are commanded to forgive others who have wronged us and work to rebuild the community lost with God, with each other and with the earth itself.

Kids Must Be Kids

Abercrombie & Fitche is selling padded bikinis for pre-teen girls! No Way! What are they thinking? Is everything about nubility and those hormone-infused frenzies of the second and third decades of life? Let little girls be little girls. God knows they'll be big girls for a whole lot longer, let them cherish it while they can. Madeleine L'Engle, child author and one time head librarian at the Episcopal Library said very wisely once, "The church's best theologians are 8 years old." Let's not silence the precious voices of the wee wise ones by hurring them into psycological puberty before their time! I'm downright offended--if you feel like me stop buying anything from Abercrombie & Fitche for the next 6 months. They're doing it for the dollars, so let's make it not worth it.

Eyes Wide Open

I think I finally got the last oak leaf out of the rectory pool, just in time for the catkins to begin falling. This is the double-ritual of central Texas when you have Live Oaks. You rake leaves in March and sweep up catkins in April. I’m always glad to get the last of the double-whammy picked up and composted. The water in the pool is not warm enough before they are gone. This chore tends to go hand-in-hand with the chores of Spring that announce that Summer is not far away.

If I’m not careful, however, these events go by without noticing them, I mean, really noticing them. When I stop and think about it, the Oak leaves all fell in the space of a week when normally it takes most of a month. The big Live Oaks at the seminary in Austin are about a week ahead of mine, due to reasons beyond my knowledge. The catkins seem furrier and more abundant this year than last. Are we in for another bumper crop of acorns this year? Are all these changes due to the two really cold spells we had this year, or some other reason? I do not know. But I bet my son Landon either knows or knows where to go to find out. He knows how to think about things like this.

It makes me think about taking a closer look at other things in my life, things like my marriage and the amount of time I spend doing what I do and my friendships and what I think of what is going on in the world. Our Lenten Program this year helps us to do that. Fireproof your Marriage takes that most important relationship in your whole life outside of your faith and strengthens it with the help of your faith. Fireproof Your Life focuses the truths of your faith on the different aspects of your life with the same intent. What is going on? Why? Is there something that you can expect from what is going on? Is there something that you wish to change?

Living with your eyes open like this is work. It asks questions you haven’t considered and requires thinking about things you’d rather treat on auto-pilot. Hopefully it is digging into areas that perhaps need attention and hasn’t had it lately. Hopefully these programs will help you know how to think about things like this.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Missing the Point

Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

I recently heard a Christian teacher say that the majority of Christians today are really functional agnostics; he did not mean in the traditional sense of a belief that God is disconnected from human affairs, and that therefore humanity must get along with the light it has from the various wisdom sources. What he meant was more sinister, really.

We don’t think about God not really being engaged in human day-to-day living, that’s too big of an idea. What he meant was that we keep the influence of our faith out of our day-to-day living. When we are called upon to make decisions we do not orient those decisions by the dictates of our faith, but rather on cultural assumptions about the way things work. This person went on to say that we typically draw life lessons more readily from sports than from the Gospels, to the extent that Sunday Morning sports events draw a greater following than Sunday Morning worship. And we do not hear the voice of the churches protesting in any way what schools and sports clubs are doing to our primary worship time.

He attributes it to a breakdown in Christian formation; I see his point, but I see it as a lack of conversion. The mainline American Church still thinks that the Christian faith is one of those pillars of a good society. The faith exists to make sure we live well; it is one of the several pillars that support, explain and justify our way of life.

If that is the case then we've totally lost sight of Jesus Christ. Jesus was really strange for His day. On the one hand He wholeheartedly embraced the liberal Hellenistic influence on Judaism repudiated by the rich ruling (and traditionalist) class of Sadducees, and on the other he expounded a rigorist, over-the-top interpretation of the ancient teachings on morality. He was, in short, a radical, iconoclastic rabble-rouser! And He had nothing to say whatsoever about the American way of life.

Today's Gospel lesson is one of those rigorist interpretations of the ancient teaching. Isaiah taught us tonight that the fasts to which you call the people are not what God wants. God wants a fast of doing justice and loving mercy and living humbly. Jesus amplifies and expands this. He says, and I paraphrase, "Do your good works in such a way that God will reward you rather than the people." Another way of saying the same thing is, “The works of mercy and justice that God requires will not necessarily be the kind that this world's economy rewards, but your Father in Heaven will.”

Any time that works of justice and mercy are met with the approval of this world's economy there is room for suspicion. That suspicion lies precisely in the consequent inability to distinguish between the good of the Kingdom and one's self-directed ends. Let me illustrate: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently made a donation of $10M to the Liquidia Pharmaceutical Corporation for development of a malaria vaccine. On the surface this seems a very well-intentioned work of justice and mercy. Anyone who has had malaria will vouch for the need for a vaccine, and anyone who has taken the regular Quinine-based treatment will back it up—you wonder if the cure will kill you faster than the disease. But vaccines in developing countries are often out of reach of the people in the rural areas who most need it, they often come under the control of local government officials who use the leverage to garner favors unrelated to health issues, and you can be sure that for-profit corporations like Liquidia are not going to do this on the kind of scale needed to make a serious difference in malaria around the world. It’s a little like the fox in the hen-house. They make money off the cures as well! In the final analysis the only guaranteed good is the PR the pharmaceutical company and the donor receive.

Jesus had no interest in building a pillar of society. He had every interest in redeeming creation by bringing people into right relationship with God, with humanity and with creation, and especially at the expense of any sense of the absolute reign of the local economy. His is not one voice among many, but the ONE voice to which a real Christian first listens.

What acts, then, comprise God's chosen fast for you this Lent? Go ahead and give up your chocolate or beer, take up an exercise program or call your mother more often. These are good things, but unless cast in the right light they unwittingly miss the point. The point of Lent is not just to make you a better person but to make the world a better place, and "a better place" is defined in terms of the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where the values God stands for rule in hearts and minds and decisions about expenses and votes, and actions that benefit others for the sake of the creation they are.

The late Dr. Edmund Friedman, rabbi, Ph. D in psychology and noted family therapist, worked with dysfunctional family systems. He would take the healthiest person of the family and work with that person, thereby de-facto putting the whole family in therapy. St. Irenaeus said in the 3rd century that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Lent is therapy for incomplete living. By putting us in therapy to make us fully alive God de-facto puts the whole world in therapy.

So, this Lent we have two programs running side by side. One is called The Love Dare, and it's for couples. The other is called "Fireproof Your Life" and it’s designed for singles. Details are available in the Church office, the programs kick off the evening of March 23rd at 6:00 p.m. and run every Wednesday for 40 days. Sign up, show up, and do the work, and may God grant you a truly blessed Lent.