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.

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