This coming Tuesday, we’ll meet as per usual, 7:30am at the Cathedral; no compulsion to pre-read, but if you’re hankering for Scripture, look up Exodus 2:1-10 & chapters 14-16. We’ll learn from Moses, Aaron, and Miriam!
Gospel Lesson: John 1:1-18
Epistle: Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
In the 1950’s, there was a missionary named Jim Elliot who felt called by God to go to Ecuador to minister to native peoples there. Along with his team, he started to build relationships with a particularly remote tribe—first dropping gifts from their missionary plane, then working toward introducing themselves, continuing to clear the way with more presents to show their goodwill. Finally delegations from each group met. On this big day, Jim took a photo from his pocket to show the tribespeople that the missionaries were friends with a member of their tribe.
Having never seen a photograph, they assumed that Jim had eaten brother, since he had taken the likeness of this person out of his body to show them. They murdered Jim and his companions immediately.
I wonder if we sometimes make the opposite mistake about Jesus. I wonder if we take Jesus to be just a picture of God—only an image or likeness, but not really God himself. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but if I had my choice I’d take the thousand words every time—there’s so much more to learn from studying a description of someone than reducing a whole person to a single photograph.
Our Gospel passage today is bursting with poetic description of God; it harkens to another description of God elsewhere.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That description goes on to reveal that God created humanity “in God’s image”—which means that we ourselves are a sort of photo in some way—and when God created humanity, he furnished a place for his people to live and provided for their every need. You know this story—here’s where the montage of Adam and Eve frolicking and eating and naming animals fits in—and then something goes wrong. (you can imagine the sound of a pin dragging against vinyl) Adam and Eve decide that God may have been lying to them after all, and they test the truth God had told them—whether it really did matter so much how they lived.
Now we really learn something about God: that evening, arriving for their daily walk, God calls out for his companions, his cherished creatures. They’re hiding—they know they shouldn’t have tested God and shouldn’t have doubted that God was telling the truth, but they really would rather not face up to it.
We’re not that different, are we? Instead of recognizing our crookedness, we bury it and move on. I read a story this week of a professor who, when his desk got too full of letters to be answered and tasks to complete, he’d spread out an edition of the New York Times and then start over as if his desk was clean. We paper over our sins, too, instead of owning up to them before God.
On that evening, God knew exactly what had happened and where his creatures were; he could have come rushing in, screaming, demanding that they leave immediately, as if he was a righteous landlord. But that’s not the description of God that we’re shown here at the very beginning of Scripture.
Scripture begins with a God that is so full of love that he dreams each of us up out of nothing. Then, when each of us, as we all do, decides to test out whether God is really telling the truth, he gently asks what it is that we’re doing—giving us a chance to tell him the truth and to own up to our schemes. We grab a New York Times, or a fig leaf, to try to cover up the mess we’ve made, even though God can already see the mess. The God who’s described here in the pages of Genesis is the same one described in the first verses of the Gospel of John—the God full of grace and full of truth.
Being full of grace and truth sounds lovely, but I argue this morning that it makes God very off-putting. That same professor didn’t cover his desk with a newspaper just once, but did it habitually—when he finally died, they dug down many layers of newsprint, finding all sorts of unpaid invoices, unanswered inquiries, and unfinished assignments. Can you imagine the horror he might have felt if this practice had been discovered and challenged while he was alive? God knows all the layers of newsprint we’ve used to paper up our lives. Even when I’ve lost count of the path and number of lies I’ve used to cover up various deeds—done and left undone—God knows each and every one. God is full of truth, and that sounds kind of terrible.
Thomas Keating, a 20th century monk, says that when it starts to dawn on us just how many layers of deception we’ve built our lives on, we think we’re getting worse, but truly, we’re just realizing how bad off we always were, and that, he says, is an enormous grace.
We look up at God from the bottom of our crumpled-paper and sticky-sin lives, and he reaches down and scoops us up in his hand, brushing away the debris. This is grace. While truth is hard, I think grace might be harder. The law, our epistle says, was our disciplinarian before Christ came. The law, or rule-following, lets me continually hit myself against a wall when I do something wrong. I punish myself and pay for the wrong I’ve committed. All the time, I’m trying to be dependent only on myself.
This isn’t how we were made to be, though. We were made to be in the midst of God’s grace and truth. God’s grace is the hand that comes down to the cave of our sin and scoops us up and out of it—we don’t have to run ourselves against a wall, we don’t have to sit in the dog house for months on end; we’re forgiven. The hard part is to accept God’s grace, to live as if we are truly forgiven, not punishing ourselves any more, but acknowledging honestly the shortcomings we suffer.
I’ll close with a bit of a poem by W.H. Auden:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.
God is full of truth—he knows what’s under your newspaper. God is full of grace—he brushes away all the debris by his death on the cross and resurrection.
Will you accept his hand?
2 Kings 5:1-15 & Luke 17:11-19
When you stepped over the threshold of the building you’re sitting in this morning, you left the United States of America. You left American society. Be not afraid! (have you heard that one before?) You see–it’s more that you entered God’s Embassy than that you left American soil, but here, in the church, we are now on God’s turf. Here, God’s rules carry the day, we are on holy ground that has been consecrated to be the place where we encounter God in the sacraments and are changed by our interaction with the Holy One. The rules here are different than the ones we often follow outside these doors, the social customs are different here than the ones we’re used to following walking down the streets of Columbia, South Carolina. These differences aren’t just nuances or quirks–there is significance to the way that God’s kingdom works; it’s sometimes in opposition to the way we’re used to behaving.
Here, in the Bible, we see dozens of accounts that show us the way that God desires for the world to look. When we read holy Scripture together we learn about God’s kingdom, the world that we step into when we are in this holy place, the world that God desires for all of creation to become. This morning, we read the story of Naaman, a powerful Syrian who is paradoxically, a sufferer of leprosy. In the ancient world, leprosy was a disease the counted its victims among the weak, the marginalized; people with leprosy, as we saw in today’s Gospel lesson, were separated from society, ostracized. Naaman, however, somehow manages to preserve his place of power despite this disease, though he clearly desires very much to be rid of the affliction. Who is it that notices the skin lesions and suggests where he might seek treatment? His Israeli slave girl–this nameless girl has a quotation in Holy Scripture, how strange that a being not even considered a real, full person by her society would get a shout out in the Bible. She says that there’s a prophet in her home country who could definitely cure her master’s ailment.
Naaman goes to this holy man, Elisha, and parks his chariot outside Elisha’s front door. Naaman clearly expects Elisha to dash out to his driveway and greet his Most Esteemed guest. Elisha does nothing of the sort–he sends his servant out the front door with a message. Naaman’s eyebrows raise, verse 11 says that he “became furious”–Elisha, this big-time prophet, was supposed to hurry out to the chariot and wave his hands about and shout in a loud voice. Look at your Bible, it actually says that!
To add insult to injury, another low-life is now giving Naaman directions… The messenger tells Naaman that if he will go and wash in the Jordan River seven times, he will become healed of his ailment. Naaman grumbles. Not only is the Jordan River a pathetic stream compared to the wide, beautiful rivers of Syria, but what sort of pathetic quest is a bath? Couldn’t Naaman, the great military general at least prove his strength or daring or mental acuity in order to be healed?
For a third time, a servant corrects Naaman (I’m almost surprised that more slaves and messengers and servants aren’t killed or banished in this story!), saying in verse 13, “Well, sir, if you had been told to do something super impressive, you would have dashed right off to do it. Why not go do this super easy thing? We might even get back home in time to catch the end of the football game!” Naaman takes a deep breath–I think he must be a very patient, and exceptionally magnanimous nobleman of his time–and agrees with the servant. He makes his way down to the Jordan River, he immerses himself seven times–which is the Biblical number which means “complete” or “total”–and Naaman’s skin is made, it says, “like the flesh of a little child.” “As smooth as a baby’s bottom,” if you’ll pardon the saying so early in the morning.
Did you catch that? Naaman is in danger of societal death, perhaps even bodily death, depending on how bad his leprosy was, and Elisha sends him to be baptized in the Jordan River, which heals him. Naaman, the Syrian, the foreigner, is made healthy and whole again by command of a holy man and the application of a bit of water.
Naaman has borne the insubordination and the humiliation of being directed about by his slave, Elisha’s messenger, and a servant; he has submitted himself to the “easy” task of taking a bath instead of showing his might and earning his reward. He returns to Elisha–Naaman himself goes up and knocks on the prophet’s front door this time–and says, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now, therefore, please take a gift from your servant.” (v. 15) Naaman still wants to make sure he pays his debts and doesn’t leave himself beholden to anyone. He’s got a reputation to uphold, and he can’t let it get out that he’s dependent on this holy man for his healing.
Elisha can sense when he’s being bought off, and will have nothing of it. He doesn’t want an offering with psychological strings attached, God’s power is not for sale, and nor is the truth of God’s healing to be silenced with gold. Naaman has learned–he’s been brought very low throughout this experience, and catches himself where he’s gone wrong. He changes his request, asking instead that he might have some soil from Elisha in order to build an altar that Naaman himself might use for his worship of the Living God when he goes back to his own land. I imagine Elisha finally smiled and nodded.
Naaman finally realized what the slave girl and the messenger and the servant had learned long ago because of their necessarily vulnerable place in society: you cannot do anything to insulate yourself from God. Naaman tries to use his impressive strength and mind, desiring a more demanding cure, and then tries to use his money–all to keep God at arm’s length. He finally learns that whether he pledges 2% or 55% to God, none of it is close to a repayment of the life that God, through the Jordan River, has given back to Naaman.
What would you pay for your life being saved? We pay plenty to doctors and car makers and insurers and our government for protection, safety, and insulation from danger or dangerous circumstances. God, through Jesus Christ, has saved us from eternal death.
Have you come back to Jesus’ feet, glorifying God and praising him with a loud voice?
This subject matter deserves all kinds of reflection and discussion (which is why it’s taken me a week to even make a draft of this post…), but in the interest of trying to say something rather than nothing, here’s a little recap of our conversation at Trinity last week, some passages we considered, and a video to stir into the mix as well.
Thinking about singleness and marriage brought up discussion about divorce, loneliness, cultural perceptions and expectations about marriage, singleness, and divorce, and concerns about intimate relationships in the church community.
Our conversation about loneliness considered technology’s impact on our culture, especially our close, or intimate, relationships; this video supplements the discussion we had very well.
With respect to marriage and divorce, we talked about the sacramental commitment made during a wedding service, and how little this covenant is discussed and emphasized in our culture–perhaps taking marriage less seriously than we ought is part of the reason for our divorce rate (though, we noted quickly, the covenant takes two people, and sometimes one is much more commitment to the sacrament than the other, and also that because we are imperfect humans, we can and do hurt each other beyond the point of relational repair sometimes, which causes divorce too). (a sermon from last year on the subject)
Finally, and perhaps most fruitfully, we talked about how counter-cultural the church is and ought to be with respect to community. Our blood relations aren’t our be-all, end-all “tribe” if we are Christians; our brothers and sisters in baptism are our family. They are just as important as any person who happens to share our genes–it’s a truth that tended to mean a lot to those of us at the event who either didn’t have much family left, or didn’t have family nearby.
How does being a Christian affect your life as a single person or as a married person?
How is the church counter-cultural when it comes to community?
What are we made for, as humans?
We looked at:
(what do YOU think?)
A homily on Genesis 16:1-16
Sarai’s getting old. She’s getting worried. God has just made a promise to Abram, but there’s got to be some kind of work-around. In chapter 15 of Genesis, God makes a covenant, promising that Abram’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. As chapter 16 opens, Sarai seems to realize that there’s no way that she herself is going to be able to produce an heir, and she’s trying to help God save face. She wants to save God the embarrassment if it turns out he can’t make good on his promise due to obvious biological restrictions.
I often try to hedge my bets with God. I pray safe, small, could-just-be-coincidence prayers. I dutifully go about my day at “medium”–not stepping out too far in faith, lest I get embarrassed because I wasn’t listening to God, or lest God get embarrassed because I’m trusting him too much.
The Bible is full of examples of people–the history of the church is full of examples!–who want to help God along, to provide needed assistance in his great plan, or to let him out of his promises altogether.
Indeed, God does call us to action, to trust, and faith, and personal relationship. But we aren’t to make God out to be a child–he isn’t in need of our help to figure out how to make his plans real or help clean up messes. We are the children. We are the ones who can never quite understand the whole picture. God does not need us to excuse him from his promises, he desires our trust that his promises are the only thing upon which we can depend.
God desires our obedience. We don’t have to worry about how to get somewhere or how to make God’s dream come true. God is big enough to keep the promises he makes, and we only need to learn how to listen quietly, and to believe that God keeps his promises to us. There is no easy way to learn to listen and to be quiet–no short cut of prayers to engage or practices to enact. As God offers his promises to us, we are invited to respond with the hard, disciplined work of faithfulness.
Let us seek after God–not interested in sinning boldly, but in living faithfully–knowing, as we’re shown in Scripture, that when we fail, the almighty God will weave our missteps and doubts back toward his purposes.