Monday, June 15, 2015

Fear and Living Life

Fear is such a predominant theme in the Bible.  That is so, I think, because it is such a predominant theme in life and such a powerful motivation for us.  It is no wonder that the first words of angels are often “Do not be afraid.”  Both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings for this week deal with it.  “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”  (1 Samuel 17:11)  And again, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mk. 4:40)

I have preached many sermons over the years about fear, all of them dealing on some level with my own.  It is a subject that would be hard to avoid.  I once preached what I’m sure was a bang-up sermon on this subject and the threat fear is to faith.  I think it had to do with the fact that human beings come with few natural fears, really only two—loud noises and falling (although I think there are differences of psychological opinion about this).  A member of the congregation, one I thought would wholeheartedly agree with what I had said, made an observation afterwards that has made me think about fear sermons more carefully ever since.  He reminded me that not all fears are irrational, and indeed, some contribute to survival, which would have to make them beneficial.  Fear, he argued, is not all bad.

I’ve struggled with that idea over the years.  I still do.  Here’s where I am now, though.
Fear, it seems to me, is neither inherently bad nor inherently good.  My parishioner is right.  Fear has its usefulness. 

But the issue isn’t the one he posed, whether fear is rational or not.  The issue is whether it gets in the way of living life to the fullest, living the lives we are called to live, living the lives we desire, in our heart of hearts, to live.  And when that happens, whether the fear is rational or not really is beside the point. 

Facing Goliath on the field of battle does not strike me as an irrational fear.  David did anyway.  To do otherwise would have interfered with the life David wanted to live.  A storm on the open sea doesn’t strike me as an irrational fear for people in a small boat.  The problem is that fear got in the way of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus, and that was the whole purpose of being in the boat to begin with.

Rational or not, the spiritual message is that a courageous life is a life more fully lived than a fearful one.  I suspect that is because it is a more fully human one.  The natural fears of human beings, after all, are few.  And faithful fears are fewer still if they exist at all.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Kudzu and Mustard Seeds

About 130 years ago, someone in the United States got a bright idea, to import into our country a vine that had use both as a decorative ground cover, something like ivy, and also for controlling soil erosion, particularly in the South. The vine is known as kudzu, and it came to us from Japan.

It was not long before the kudzu, particularly when it was left unattended when used for erosion control, got out of control.In my home state of Georgia it literally covers everything. It overgrows telephone poles and trees. It grows incredibly quickly. It is a constant effort to keep it trimmed back along interstate highways. It is generally considered a terrible nuisance and people in Georgia rue that day that it was introduced to our state. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but most anyone I know would tell you that kudzu, was a terrible mistake.

And that it is why it is startling to me that Jesus said the kingdom of God is like another noxious botanical monster, the mustard plant. The mustard plant and kudzu have a lot in common. They are both considered weeds. They both grow rapidly. They are both considered by farmers to be damaging. They are both almost impossible to control.

And that is why it is so surprising to me that Jesus, going about the rural country of Galilee as he was, speaking to farmers and those who depended on the land to earn a living, seeking to proclaim the good news among those who would have more than a passing acquaintance with mustard plants and for whom mustard plants would have had a very negative connotation, would look precisely there for a way to describe the coming kingdom.

The kingdom, he said, “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." What Jesus is saying is that the kingdom, mustard plants, and kudzu are very much alike. They start benignly and that grow uncontrollably until they take over everything around, in the case of kudu until it covers the telephone poles as if they weren’t there, and in the case of mustard plants, until they grow so large that the birds of the air make nests in their shade. That is what the kingdom of God is like, first and foremost, completely out of control.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Original Sin

There is a story in Genesis that I think is beautiful in many respects, and also quite disturbing.  It involves God’s discovery of the brokenness that had transpired in the Garden, that the serpent had misled the man and the woman and that the man and the woman had hidden themselves from God as a result.  Separation, after all, is the very root of sin. 
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”  He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  (Gen. 3:8-10)

Theologians often describe this as being the root having something known as original sin, the idea that the human actions in the Garden have infected humankind at the deepest level.  All subsequent human beings, it is said, share in the sin introduced by Adam and are inherently sinful because of it. 

I have always rebelled at the idea.  Until now. 

What has changed for me is a new understanding of exactly what the sin of Adam was.  It appears on the surface to be disobedience. God had commanded the human couple, after all, not to eat of the tree of knowledge.  They disobeyed.  And all the bad consequences flowed from that.
Something never seemed quite right about that to me.  After all, God had to realize from the beginning that disobedience was going to happen.  And disobedient or not, knowledge always seemed like a strange source of something so calamitous. 

But now I’m seeing the sin differently.  It is not disobedience.  It is shame. 

The man and the woman do not separate themselves from God because of their disobedience or even shame at their disobedience.  They separate themselves from God for shame at their nakedness, which is to say for shame at their humanity, for shame at themselves. 

It is shame and not disobedience at which God is displeased and also apparently surprised.  I’m not sure even God saw coming that the creation, indeed the part of the creation most like Godself, would be ashamed of its own nature.  It is a sin, I think, that is unique to human beings.  And it is profoundly disturbing to think of a creature ashamed of itself as God had created it.  And that fundamental sin, shame, has led to most of the other sins of the world.

Disobedience is something human beings have long since learned to overcome, as every human parent knows.  Shame, though, is a much more difficult thing.  Its remedy seems quite beyond us.  The doctrine of original sin says it can be overcome only by God.  On this point I wholeheartedly agree.

Original sin or not, shame is a sin that human beings do seem to just come with.  It takes us a while to grow into it, but grow into it we inevitably do.  Its only antidote is the message implicit in the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  Humanity’s shame need be no more. God has proclaimed its sanctity, shame is defeated.   Just as we are, naked as the day we were born.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

If You Have to Ask . . .

It was almost four years into marriage before Ginger and I adopted our first child.  Like many newlyweds making a start in life, we asked ourselves when the moment would be that we could afford children.  It is, of course, one of the silliest questions ever asked, when children become affordable.  Like so many things in life, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. 
Thirty-two years into the adventure of parenthood, I’m still hoping to hit the sweet spot when my children, now well into adulthood, become affordable.  It turns out that they were never more affordable than in those first days when they were so new and their needs were so simple.  Diapers and baby food are nothing next to car insurance, tuition, and weddings. 
It is so like me as an only child to ask whether there would be enough to go around, having never known a time when there wasn’t.  But having grown up without siblings, I had no first-hand knowledge that more people to be cared for would not necessarily put a strain on the ability to care for those already there.  The question children posed for me went beyond affordability to a more basic question of subsistence, maybe even survival.  As ridiculous as it sounds from my very privileged point-of-view, with more mouths to feed, I worried about whether there would be enough.  The logic seemed simple enough.  The things necessary to sustain life are finite.  More people around means less to go around.  The basic affordability question did not look good. 
By the time we adopted our second child, I was in seminary with no income and Ginger was in a low-paying job at the seminary.  There was a good deal less than when the first one arrived to a lawyer father a year away from partnership and a teacher mom just named one of three teachers of the year in the Atlanta Public Schools well-settled in their first house in the suburbs. 
Here’s the interesting thing.  The question of affordability, to say nothing of whether there would be enough, never entered into the discussion the second time.  We just decided to adopt another child.  We had saved the fees from our previous life, and we just had enough experience to know that there would be enough.  Having one just naturally led to the second. 
It didn’t take balancing the checkbook to know that another baby was affordable because we would find a way for it to be.  So we set up the crib and changing table under the loft bed in our very small apartment and went about growing a family. 
The epistle for this Sunday bears repeating:
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  (Rom. 8:12-17)
I may have once lived by a spirit of fear, especially the vague fear of whether or not there would be enough.  I still fall into it from time to time.  But welcoming Andrew and Matthew into our home so many years ago has given me a glimpse of the spirit of adoption about which Paul wrote and that  urges my heart to cry, “Abba! Father!” and “Ama!” “Mamma!” 
It’s what I would expect from a God whose nature is to exist not simply as one but whose oneness is based on more than one, and whose very nature leads God to create the other in order to share.  As the old adage puts it, as Paul knew, and as the nature of God undergirds, “If you ask to ask how much, you can’t afford it.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Broken Heartedness and the Spirit of God

There are two very different themes set for the Day of Pentecost.  One is joy in the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-21), so uninhibited that its witnesses mistook it for inebriation.  The other is broken hearted despair on the night before Jesus died (Jn. 15:26-27; 16:4b-15).  In truth, they go together.  
We do not associate broken hearts with the good news of Easter or with the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but I think we should.  Broken hearts, if the Gospel is true, are the guarantee both of our resurrection and the life of the Spirit of Christ.  And broken hearts are something we have some experience of when resurrection is something we do not, at least not fully.  If Christ went not up to glory but first he suffered pain, we will not go to glory either without suffering the pain of a broken heart.  There is no other way.
It is into the broken heartedness that Christ promises the Holy Spirit.  It is also into the scene of ecstatic joy that the Holy Spirit descends on the first Pentecost.  In our broken heartedness, the Spirit of God is present.  In our ecstasy, the Spirit of God is present there, too.  And in both, the Spirit calls us forth, forth from our broken heartedness and forth from our joy into the reality that marked Christ’s life, which is love.  Love, with all its attendant risks, with all its possibility of hurt, with all of its possibility of disappointment, with all of its possibility of happiness—with all that the Spirit calls us to be on about the work of Christ in the world, which is to love.  And it is especially to love one another.
If it is in the brokenness of heart that we feel love most acutely, then all of us know something of the fullness of love, even if only a glimpse.  It is our broken heartedness that is the sign of our risen life because our risen life will be dominated by love and our broken heartedness is the sign of our submission to love, of our willingness to risk love, of our surrender to love, which of course, is to surrender to God.  And in that is our only life.  We have seen in that brokenness of heart a glimpse of God’s broken heart for us.  And in that we see the tiniest glimpse of what the love of God has planned for us.  It is that brokenness of heart that allows us to know in our hearts that Christ is risen.  And so shall we be.  And the Spirit is come to call us into that very life.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Love and Leaving

As the Easter season draws to a close, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension this Thursday, and in most places, Sunday.  We remember that the resurrected Jesus is removed from the disciples and taken up into heaven.  Luke tells it this way.

“[A]s they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:9-11)

After 40 days of renewed life with the disciples, Jesus is taken from them.  Almost no sooner had he been restored to them than he was gone again.  It seems to have left the disciples a bit confused.  Their community of love, only just renewed, had again been disrupted.  If I had been among them, I would have remembered what he had said on the night before his death, which happens to have been the gospel for yesterday, and I would have wondered.  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  (Jn. 15:9)   How does love go together with leaving?  And the disciples are left looking, perhaps somewhat aimlessly, into heaven.

Somewhere along the line I heard someone share something very important about parenting.  Parents love their children, it was said, not so that their children will love them but so that their children will in turn love their children.  To that, I might add, and love others.

Parents, from whom most of us first learn to love, love us not so that we return the love but so that we pass along the love.  Surely that is how the Father loved Jesus.  It is also how Jesus loved us, so that we might love others in the same way. 

Parents’ love for their children is not about the parents.  It is about the children.  Jesus’ love for his disciples is not about Jesus.  It is about the disciples.  Both are about passing love along. 

So it is important in the story that Jesus be taken from the disciples, even permanently.  The Jesus story is not so much about Jesus loving us as it is about us loving others as we learned to love from him.  The Jesus story is not so much about Jesus as it is about us. And that is so our stories may be not so much about us as about those we loved.  And taught to love by being loved. 

That is why I think this story of Jesus’ departure begins the Book of Acts, the story of the disciples' spreading of love.  It is why the mysterious men from heaven in the story of the Ascension say to the puzzled disciples, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  He will come the same way he left, in love, this time your love.