Tuesday, March 15, 2011

First Sunday in Lent, Year A, March 13, 2011

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Preached by Rev. Haddox

Our scripture readings this morning present two stories—two deep, strong, rich stories about God’s invitation and how people responded to that invitation. Our first lesson, from the Book of Genesis, tells of the coming of evil into the created order. Adam and Eve walk together with the Lord God in the garden—full of beauty and abundance, plenty to eat and sustain life. And yet, there was something missing…

They both had wondered about that tree, you know. That one, particular, peculiar tree. It didn’t really look any different than the others, but somehow, at certain times of the day, it did. They both walked past it, looking and wondering.

The serpent was watching, to see what they would do. How they would react, just by walking and looking and wondering. And when he saw an opportunity, he took it. He promised them that they would be like God’s own self. And they both took, and ate, and were transformed by what they had consumed. And thus began a transaction, the story of a single moment, that has informed our imaginations and our theology for centuries.

What changed, that day? For the story says that, at least at that moment, they did not die. They didn’t fall down dead on the spot. But they knew something that they had not known before, something that changed everything: their relationship to each other, and to God, and to the creation. They were vulnerable to that knowledge—frightened by it—and confused and ashamed. And they tried to hide—from God, from each other, from themselves. They gained knowledge, and a sort of wisdom. But at a price.

God did not leave them there in that condition. It wasn’t safe, not now. They knew just that much too much—not enough yet, but enough to be disastrously dangerous if they were left alone. So God did not leave them there—God sent them out, and barred the way back. But God did not stay behind in paradise, watching them leave through the whirling of that fiery sword. God went into exile with them, away from Eden, every step of the way into the rest of their lives. They were not simply abandoned to their own devices even then.

In the Gospel, Jesus is sent out into an exile of his own, after his baptism. He has heard the voice of God over him, descending like a dove as he rises, dripping, from the waters of the Jordan River: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And straightaway he is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.” (Mark says that “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.”) A mysterious, irresistible force compels him to go, fasting for forty days and nights, into the place where the children of Israel went wandering for forty years. Into the place where Adam and Eve were sent. And there he too is watched and observed, to see what he will do.

When he is vulnerable and tired and hungry, the tempter suggests that Jesus manipulate or fix the situation. “If you are the Son of God…you can make bread from these stones. You can fly through the air. You can have all the kingdoms of this world at your feet.” Physical comfort; amazing wonders; POWER! In other words—you will be just like God’s own self—you will need nothing, no one. You can have it all, all by yourself.

This lie, the same one told in the garden to our first parents, is the same one we hear every day of our own lives. That if we just buy this product, or follow that program, or eat this or drink that or whatever it may be—that we will have it all. That we will never get old, or sick, or vulnerable. That we will need nothing, no one. That we can be God, all by ourselves.

Jesus will have none of it. He quotes scripture, refusing both the physical comfort of food to relieve his hunger, and the pyrotechnical display of unassisted flight to shore up his ego. Then third, and last, he asserts unequivocally: God is God, and no one else. And no-thing else.

“If you are the Son of God” is just as unequivocal. For Matthew, that’s exactly who Jesus is. No question about it. But ultimately Jesus does not—will not—use that identity to his own advantage. He willingly allows others—those who follow him, and those who turn away from him, and even those who put him to death—to choose their own way. He does not force them to love him, or receive him, or follow him. That knowledge for which Adam and Eve paid so dearly—the knowledge of good and evil, the ability to decide and to act, based on that knowledge—is not taken away from their children.

That contrast, the choice between the two ways of life or death, appears in the second lesson this morning. In the letter to the Romans, Paul is setting forth two lists, two stories. He compares the action of Adam (the willful disobedience of one man) with the action of Jesus (the intentional, self-conscious obedience of one man) as the antidote, the latter for the former. The argument is typical Paul—looping back on itself, contrasting between “the way of sin and death” and “the way of grace and life.” At its heart is the understanding that in Jesus, by his death and resurrection, we too are raised from death (in whatever form it may come) to new life. Hear again verse seventeen: “If, because of the one man’s trespass (that is, Adam), death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

“Those who receive…grace and…righteousness.” That’s US, folks. You and me, and all who have claimed and looked for, sometimes begged for, and even sometimes run away from, the presence of Jesus in our lives. That’s what Paul is claiming as a foundational reality for all of us—that in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, we are put back into right relationship with God, restored to the condition from which Adam and Eve turned away.

That is quite a claim, isn’t it? And it’s not about whether we “feel like it” or not. Sometimes we don’t feel that way at all. “Exercising dominion in life” feels very far away indeed. We’re sometimes up, and sometimes down, and sometimes almost to the ground. But even then, even in the midst of ugliness and horror, even when the circumstances of our own lives are a complete mess, even when the nightly news is screaming panic and disaster in our ears…even then—even now—we are part of something bigger than our own feelings. Bigger than all our fears. Bigger than anything we can dream of. We’re part of Jesus’ work of redeeming—which means we’ve been bought back from the slave-traders who would hold us captive. We are made righteous—set into right relationship with God, and with one another. We are not who the advertising agencies or the critics or the powers of darkness want to tell us we are; in Jesus Christ we too are the sons and daughters of the most high God.

Jesus knew that, when he went into the wilderness. And when he taught and healed and fed people who needed him. And even when he hung on the cross. That was who he was; that is who we are. And no power, in heaven or on earth, can undo that essential reality, or take it away.

This is not the truth of the right hand, the logical brain; but rather the truth of the left hand, of the intuition. Such a story cannot be described; it must be sung.

So then, let the poet come.
From the hymnwriter John Mason Neale (Hymnal 270):

Gabriel’s message does away
Satan’s curse and Satan’s sway,
Out of darkness brings our day.

He that comes despised shall reign;
He that cannot die, be slain;
Death by death its death shall gain.

Weakness shall the strong confound;
by the hands in graveclothes wound,
Adam’s chains shall be unbound.

Art by art shall be assailed;
To the cross shall Life be nailed;
From the grave shall Hope be hailed.

So, behold, all the gates of heaven unfold.

So, go then. Go this week, to the places of wilderness and trial where God may send you, in the sure and certain knowledge that this is who you are. And whose you are. Now and always.

Ash Wednesday, Year A, 9 March 2011

Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Before it was about anything else, the church season of Lent was about getting ready. The event had been on the calendar for months, even years in advance, and this was the time to make the final preparations for the great day.

At first it was just a day or two of preparation—the kind of last minute anticipation that makes it almost impossible to eat or sleep, because you’re just so excited. Over time it became a week of anticipation, and the whole church family would assist by preparing themselves as well, with prayers and rereading the great stories of Scripture, and worrying less about “what shall we eat, or what shall we drink” just as Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount. Simpler food means less time spent in the kitchen, and therefore more time to pray and study and be together; less meat on the table means less money spent on groceries, and therefore more money to give to the poor and needy.

All this fasting and prayer, reading of the Bible and caring for those in need, had a goal in mind. These were never meant to be activities for their own sake, or for the super-religious people within a given congregation. All this was—and still is—about preparing us for the event we call Easter.

And it is “event” by the way, not a series of “events.” They are all one unit. Good Friday and the Resurrection are two sides of the same coin— one cannot exist without the other. Without the Resurrection, Good Friday merely commemorates another violent death among the millions that have occurred since the world began. Without Good Friday, the Resurrection is simply a celebration of spring and flowers and birds migrating north; or as I have called it before: “Bunnies and bonnets and brunch.”

It is more—so much more than that. And the fasting and prayers, the bible study and almsgiving, are all encouraged to help us get ready for the Easter event. And particularly, all these good things to do in the season of preparation are leading toward the event we know as Holy Baptism.

Long before baptism had any associations with white lacy christening gowns, and photographs with the baby, and a special dinner, and a big beautiful cake…it was about conversion. It was about Metanoia: the realization that you were going in the wrong direction, and the moment of turning around. Not only that you were going in the wrong direction, but that you might be about to drive off of a cliff!

Wake up! Heads up! Pay attention! This is the shout of Isaiah in the first reading: All your good-doing may look very well, but you’re not changing your hearts or minds or attitudes in the slightest. Never mind all the religious activities—what about how you deal with one another? What about how you deal with those nearest to you—and those it would be easy to ignore or overlook? What about how you deal with yourselves?

Sometimes we go very far out of the way before we realize we’re lost and need to turn around. The Recovery Minstry folks among us would use the language of “hitting bottom”, when we finally, at last, figure out that to go any further in some direction will lead to death—physical or otherwise.

Sometimes it’s not nearly as dramatic as that. We realize earlier, when it is much easier to change direction, that we want to follow the way of God. When I was in middle and high school, my family attended a couple of churches that had spring and fall revival meetings. A speaker would come to preach the services, often a famous evangelist, who would share his (always his) testimony about God’s saving help delivering him from the powers of drugs or alcohol or some depravity or other—and it was always very exciting. And I remember thinking three things—all at once:

1) That’s really great—thank God for this mighty work!
2) I’m really glad I didn’t have to go through all that!
3) I kind of wish I had a story like that…that would be cool!

What I didn’t realize then was that I did have a story—about how God had worked in my life. And so do you. So do all of us.

We each have our own story to tell, to share with other people. Not to force on them by sheer brute willpower, or with the threat of damnation if they don’t accept it immediately. Not at all. But to tell someone who is going in the wrong direction, “Hey, I think I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there…let me show you something wonderful, that might help.”

For those of us who have already been baptized, Lent offers a chance to re-examine what that means.
So what—that we are washed with water and adopted into the family of Jesus?
So what—that we are anointed with oil and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever?
So what—that sins are forgiven, and we are restored to grace and holiness of life?

So—what, indeed? What about it? What do we do with it?
What does that reality call us to do? And how are we already doing it, maybe without knowing it?

Because this is NOT about “Doing More Stuff” in order to earn God’s approval. In fact, that may be a sort of moral hoarding—salvation by busyness.

Maybe God’s call is for us to DO less. One year Shannon and I gave up church for Lent. We realized that every night of the week one or the other of us had some church activity or appointment on the calendar, and we said “this is nuts.” We agreed to come on Sundays, and Thursday night was choir rehearsal, but everything else we just said “See you after Easter.” And we spent that time together—walking and reading to each other and reconnecting. That was a very good Lent for us.

The getting-ready season is just that—getting ready for what is to come. It’s about simplifying the clutter, clearing away the trivial and the unnecessary, to make room for what is truly Important. Maybe taking on something as a cultivated habit—daily prayer, or Bible reading, or acts of service to the poor and needy—in order to honor what is truly Important. Above all it is about Paying Attention—to the story of God, revealed in the Bible, and discovering where our story—yours and mine, and ours together—is woven into that great Story.

May it be so for us; may it be so among us.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Eighth Sunday of Epiphany, Year A, 27 February 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; I Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry…”

But Jesus, you don’t understand! There’s so much to worry about! And life is complicated…much more so than it was then, there, in that part of the world, in that time of history.

Or so we’d like to think—that it was much easier then, much less complicated, they didn’t have all the things we have to worry about. No, but they had worries enough.

The “therefore” in this Gospel passage is the hinge. There’s a transition in that moment. Jesus has just been speaking to those who listen to him and saying “You cannot serve two masters.” No slave can be loyal to two sovereigns—they will either love one and despise the other, or they will be devoted to this one and hate the other; they will be going back and forth and back and forth and make themselves sick. That divided loyalty gets you nowhere, except spinning in circles.

For this reason—therefore—do not worry about these things, because that worry will only distract you.

You cannot serve God and wealth. The word “wealth” in this passage is an Aramaic word, “mammon”—some of us may remember that word in the older translations—it is sort of a personification of “Stuff.” When I moved to Georgia from New Jersey, a hundred and fifty boxes of books went on the moving van. And I looked around my library this week, as I was preparing this sermon, and thought “Now, come on.” And yet three more arrived from Amazon.com this week.

We may have a problem.

For someone else it may be shoes. Or hats. Or—who knows what? But this notion that Stuff, somehow in and of itself, is salvific, that by having enough of IT, whether it is money or degrees on the wall or cans of tuna fish in the pantry or whatever—that in and of themselves those things have the ability to save. They do not.

And Jesus is not condemning Stuff as such. This is the same Jesus of whom it is said: “For God so loved the world, that he sent the only-begotten One…not to condemn the world but that…the world might be saved.” That’s not just the good people, or the smart people, or the people who seem to have gotten their lives together, that’s the World, the created order itself. And before that, in the Beginning…God created, God created, God created and God said : It is good, it is good, it is very, very good. We have as our first reading this morning the passage from Isaiah that ends with this striking image: “I have carved you on the palms of my hands.” (Preacher touches his own hands, then gestures to the cross hanging over the altar)

And there in the window, the Hand of God, reaching to create the proto-atom—which is also the proto-Adam. All sorts of images at play, in this place today.

So Jesus is not speaking against creation, or the created order, or any of the stuff in it. But he is saying something about how it is to be valued. This passage, like all the passages we’ve been reading the last few weeks as our Gospel lessons, from the Sermon on the Mount, all say the same thing, they are all pointing in the same direction, which is about re-orientation. It is about recognizing a different set of values by which the Kingdom of God is enacted in this world.

“Metanoia”—turn around, you missed your exit on the freeway, you don’t want to go to Columbia, you want to go to Atlanta. Turn around!

It’s not all about us, for one thing. Look with me in the prayer book, Psalm 24 on page 613.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it; the world and all who dwell therein.
For it is he who founded it upon the seas, and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep.
Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
nor sworn by what is a fraud.
They shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and a just reward from the God of their salvation.

The earth is the Lord’s. The earth is the Lord’s. We are stewards, we have opportunities to share these good things and to use them, but they are not ours by possession. And this language of “purity of heart” reminds us of an earlier moment in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. That dividedness, that “trying to serve two masters” is the antithesis of purity of heart. This is not a moralistic quality, it is an intention. “I’m going this direction, I’m going to do this thing, my heart is set, my mind is made up, my intention is clear, here I will go.” No turning back, no turning aside. The slave who attempts to serve two masters just ends up seasick and spinning in place.

One thing is needful. One heart, one loyalty, one mind, one intention.

It’s not that the stuff doesn’t matter, of course it matters. Jesus is very clear: Your heavenly Father knows you need food and clothing and shelter and all of these things. But “you” is collective: This is “y’all”…it’s not just about my needs on a given day, it is about the needs of the world. And how it is possible for me to have much, and share with someone who has less, who has need of some books. Or some shoes. Or some food, or a place to sleep.

Hospitality to the stranger, and comfort for those who are lonely or sick or in prison. And when you go out of church this morning, when you walk out those doors, and you are confronted again with those windows in the narthex, down at the bottom: Drink for the thirsty and food for the hungry, clothing and shelter and freedom for the prisoners—remember, and take heart. For this is the Kingdom of God come among us, and of which we are called to be agents, stewards, servants, God’s ministers in this world.

May it be so for us;
May it be so among us.