Benediction Online

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Our God is a consuming fire...

Here are the headlines of today’s sermon:
Keeping Sabbath is one of the holy habits that we are following as one principle of total stewardship.
However, it can be an excuse not to minister to others.
When we make rules about how and when we provide help then we are in danger of getting stuck in the form and losing sight of the substance.
Keeping Sabbath is also a justice issue because there are many in our community living on such low wages that they have to juggle several jobs and cannot take Sabbath time.

Any questions?

Good. That’s not the sermon I want to preach today but we needed to get it out of the way.

(In order to understand the rest of this you'll need to look at Hebrews 12:18-29 )

I’m rather more interested by the second reading, the one from Hebrews. Reading that is a little like parachuting into an alien landscape with no map and a compass whose needle just spins. So let’s start by getting some orientation.

It is generally thought that the Letter to the Hebrews was written in the second half of the first century, but no-one knows who wrote it. Its intended audience were probably Christians in Italy. The author combines scriptural exposition with exhorting his or her readers to move towards Christ and to endure the world which challenges their commitment. The letter has been described as a ‘masterpiece of Christian homiletics’.

We have this morning parachuted into part of the final section where Sinai and the Heavenly Jerusalem are being compared. The author is referring to the experience of the People of Israel, especially as described in Deuteronomy Chapters 4 and 9, and comparing it with the hope of Christians.

So lets do a flash back to Deuteronomy Chapter 4. Moses is giving his great farewell speech. He reminds the people of the time when they gathered at the foot of the mountain and the mountain burned with fire, cloud and thick darkness. Out of this fire and cloud came the voice of Yahweh giving them the Ten Commandments. Moses reminds the people that though they heard God they didn’t see any form and that they must never make what they think is a likeness of God and worship it. This would be just like making an idol and their God is a jealous God who is like a consuming fire. In Chapter 9 the story is remembered differently – while Moses is up on the mountain receiving the law from God, the people make a golden calf – which was a common symbol of the Canaanite deities. Yahweh was furious and Moses had to beg for the Israelites’ lives from that same jealous God.

Back to Hebrews. The writer has taken both versions of this story and embellished them a little – making it an awesome scene of fire, smoke and danger. But he goes on to say that this is not the reality of the readers. They are not at the foot of a physical mountain which can be touched, even though it must not be touched on pain of death.

They are, instead, at ‘Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’. This is an image, a picture of the end times, what is known in jargon as ‘eschatological’. Mount Zion in Jerusalem was considered to be the place of God’s presence. The heavenly Jerusalem was an image that was frequently used in apocalyptic writing – Revelation talks of the beautiful city coming down from heaven. Christians have, in the imagery of the writer to the Hebrews, come to the heavenly court where those who have been made perfect are gathered in the presence of God. Jesus is also there in his role as Mediator – the one who makes it possible for us to be in God’s presence. When Abel was killed by Cain his blood called for retribution, but Jesus’ sprinkled blood sealed the new covenant which takes away calls for retribution for our sin and instead brings grace.

Then there’s an abrupt change in the text as the writer turns from exposition to exhortation. Possibly those who did not escape having refused God, is a reference back to the possibility of death as a result of touching the mountain. At that time God’s voice shook the earth, but ultimately everything will be shaken until it exists no more, leaving only that which cannot be shaken. Those are the abiding realities. It is the reign of God which cannot be shaken. The passage ends with an echo of Moses’ reminder not to worship false idols – our God is a consuming fire.

So now we have our bearings in this passage, what are we to make of it?

I think that we have lost a great deal in our understanding of Christianity. In an attempt to make it more palatable, more understandable and therefore we hope acceptable, we have created a very pale and insipid religion. On the one hand we have made it about ethics – about how to be a good person – in some cases codes of behavior become the deciding factor about whether someone is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the church. On the other hand we talk about having a relationship with God – what a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear – as if Jesus is there purely for our convenience.

This passage from Hebrews talks about the awe that God inspires. Our hope is that we too will come to Mount Zion, the Holy City, the heavenly court where the saints and angelic host worship the living God. But the writer doesn’t put it in the future tense. ‘You have come to Mount Zion’ she says, and so I say to you, “You have come to Mount Zion” and being 21st century Americans you say ‘Where is it?’

There were many people in the 1970s who thought that they were in communication with beings from outer space. When the planets were correctly aligned, some friends of mine came from the East Coast to Mt Shasta in a group led by a psychic to greet a flying saucer. At the appointed time the psychic declared the saucer had arrived and took them on a guided tour. They saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing. As they were getting into bed that night they turned to each other and said, “I think we’ve been had”.

We can’t see, hear or feel the heavenly court gathered at Mount Zion and being the rational creatures that we are, we don’t think about it. It doesn’t exist for us. But it does exist in our liturgy. In a few minutes I will say or sing ‘joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn’. That’s a reference to the heavenly court - when we sing the Sanctus we are joining our voices with those singing on Mt Zion. This is our future reality but it is already ours. Like when you buy a stove and you say ‘I’ve got a new stove’ but you may have to wait several days until it’s delivered. You have it but it just isn’t in your kitchen yet.

We are the people who have been perfected, completed, healed, made who God intended them to be, who are gathered in the heavenly court in New Jerusalem singing “Holy, holy, holy” but we are also the very imperfect people who continue to sin even when we know we’re doing it.

Our God is a jealous God. Our God is a consuming fire. It is difficult for us to understand God as jealous because we believe jealousy to be sinful and how can God have sin at the core of Godself? There isn’t a word for fiercely possessively loving and yet able to allow freedom. That’s God’s kind of jealousy. We are free just as God is free. But God loves us with such passion that she doesn’t just watch quietly when we wander off and make other things more important than our relationship with him.

All sin is a form of idolatry because it is making something more important than God – even when you are just coveting your neighbor’s Lexus that is making a car more important than God’s command not to covet anything your neighbor has. Moses warned the people of Israel that they should not make idols because ‘our God is a consuming fire’.

God is fire that burns in our souls. As we commit ourselves to the path of discipleship, as we commit ourselves to living a holy life, so that fire burns away the dross. I looked ‘dross’ up in the dictionary because I’ve only ever heard it used in this context. It means the scum that forms on the top of molten metal or any kind of waste material. Dross is everything that gets in the way of us being perfected – made whole, completed. Dross is what drives us to get therapy. Dross is our illusions of who we are. Dross is everything we think of when we confess our sins. Dross is stuff we aren’t even aware of, but God is.

God is a consuming fire. We are worshipping in the heavenly court with the angels and archangels and all those who have gone before us and already stand in that great assembly worshipping God. We are included in the new covenant sealed by the blood of the divine lamb. This is the language of image and symbol. This is the language of our reality. This is why we need to include music and art in our community life, because they show us other aspects of God. They deepen our perspective and help us to connect with spirit with our bodies and our souls not just our minds.

God is a consuming fire. Not a teddy bear that we take to bed at night to keep us feeling safe, not just a friend, all our sins and griefs to bear, but a demanding, challenging, all-consuming fire.

As we continue our worship this morning let us remember that we are joining with the company of heaven in worship of the God who is fire.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Challenge Authority

“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk 12:56)
Interpreting the present time, understanding what’s going on and how to respond, may be one of the most difficult things for us to do. As we watch television and read the newspaper, and as we pray about our world, how do we make sense of what we see? We certainly see people in difficulty and in distress but without being sure of the causes or the best course of action it’s difficult to know how to respond. There is no doubt in my mind that we are called to be ministers of God’s love, and that means standing up against injustice and standing for gospel values but knowing exactly where and when to take a stand is much more complicated. It’s clear that things are not well in Iraq, but should we withdraw our troops? will that make things worse or better?

Our first reading today is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in Judah just before the Babylonian invasion and subsequent exile. He was not a popular person. In fact he was accused of treason because he recommended surrender to the Babylonians. Jeremiah knew that the country’s failure to protect the poor and oppressed had opened it to God’s wrath and that if Babylonia were successful, Judah had only itself to blame. Jeremiah’s words were not welcomed by the king or by his fellow countrymen – there were plenty of other prophets around saying much nicer things. Today’s reading is an excerpt from a lengthy speech about false prophets who reassure the people falsely. “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

In the gospel reading, Jesus uses a similar image. “I came to bring fire to the earth… do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division!” These are not comfortable words. When I read today’s readings I wished it were Faye’s turn to preach! If I’d been a prophet in Jeremiah’s day I suspect I’d have been a false prophet. I’d rather preach peace, love, acceptance and hope than fire and division.

But that, I think, is one of the signs of the times. We want to have a quiet, gentle spirituality which makes us feel good. We don’t want to have to grapple with a God who is demanding and challenging, who calls us to take difficult, unpopular positions. We want to go with the flow, to live in the zone, to know ‘the secret’ to getting what we want. I want to preach a God who is unconditionally loving and accepting, gentle Jesus meek and mild. When conflict arises I want to sweep it under the carpet and preach unity and abundance.

But that is not the God of Jeremiah, or the God of Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading is harsh - it depicts Jesus in a very different state of mind than when he’s preaching or healing. Jesus was heading towards Jerusalem and towards a very difficult encounter with dominant culture. I think that, after all these years of hearing the stories about Jesus, we have forgotten just how shocking and how revolutionary his teachings and his actions were. He challenged the morality of the day – he made lepers clean, he ate with sinners, he allowed a hemorrhaging woman to touch him – he broke down the boundaries between clean and unclean. He talked with women, he conversed with Samaritans and foreigners. He challenged the current notions of who was in and who was out.

With 20/20 hindsight we may say that Jesus died on the cross to bring us salvation, but in the moment he died on the cross because he was so threatening to the authorities that they couldn’t allow him to live any longer.

When we are moved by the Spirit of God it is deeply disturbing. Yes there is, much of the time, an underlying peace, a knowledge that we are being held. But our God is a God of fire as well as a God of peace. Fire which is fierce, demanding, purifying and transforming. When God gets involved things get stirred up. Business as usual no longer exists.

So we have paradox. On the one hand we are to be peacemakers and to be one with each other in the Body of Christ. On the other hand Jesus brings division. And as we can see from the current situation in the Anglican Communion, that division comes not just between us and them, but between us and us.

However conflict and division also come from the work of our little egos. Sometimes I get stuck on the way I think something should be done and it’s hard for me to let go. When I am determined to have things my way, when I am caught up in my own importance it can create conflict. It’s important to distinguish between the two, conflict for the kingdom or conflict for and by the little ego. One way of discerning the difference is to ask, how does this contribute to increasing the kingdom of God? If it doesn’t, then it’s probably just my ego getting in the way.

Jeremiah, like Jesus, challenged the authorities. It didn’t make him popular. It won’t make us popular either. But if we are to be disciples of Christ then it is an inevitable and vital part of our calling. There are two levels of authority that we have to challenge. Both are important – one without the other is only a partial response to the gospel.

The first is within ourselves and our own lives. We have to fight the authority of the little ego and the dominant culture, what the Bible often calls the world, and sometimes the devil. We have to fight all the ways that it keeps us trapped in layer upon layer of stuff. It tells us that we need to hold on, tightly. That we will be lost if we let go of anger, resentment, depression. That something terrible will happen if we don’t keep getting more things, or watching our investments. The dominant culture tells us that we are basically insecure and at risk and the best thing to do is to hang on for dear life.

It is a very powerful voice but the gospel, the good news is that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God and there is nothing, nothing to fear. That is the hope that allowed the martyrs to face often painful deaths. That is the hope that leads us on. There is nothing to fear and so we can dare to forgive, we can dare to let go, we can dare to give generously. We can dare to be counter-cultural in the way we think and the way we act.

The second place where we challenge authority is in the outer world - in our work for social justice. If we are truly working for the increase of God’s Reign on earth we are going to ruffle some feathers. We are going to be unpopular with some people.
Working for social justice would be much easier if we could be sure that we were doing the right thing, but there is rarely an open and shut case in any area of human life. Now we can see that the slave trade was wrong, but in its time there were many reasons why it was good for slaves to be slaves – after all it would be cruel to free them when they didn’t know how to act as free people. Today we are proud that the Episcopal Church was involved in the civil rights movement but in the 1960s many people thought it was quite improper. We may take a position believing it to be the very best thing and find in twenty years that it didn’t work out the way we expected.

If we are to be disciples of Christ we will work for unpopular causes. Not just talk about them and think good thoughts, but really work to change the world so that all beings can be free and know the joy of their own true natures. It’s not easy. We are to interpret the present time and work within it for the reign of God.

Being a follower of Christ is not easy. But the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that we are not alone. We are just the current team in a relay race that has been going on for millennia, and those who have run before us are now cheering us on. While we have the baton, our job is to do all we can to challenge the authority of the dominant culture. When the going gets hard we look to Jesus for encouragement.

My friends, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith and Faithfulness

I expect that most of you have read CS Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or seen one of the TV or film versions. If you have not, then I strongly recommend the book which is an easy read. Four children find themselves in Narnia, an alternative world where the White Witch is pitted against the lion Aslan. The White Witch is a dangerous creature who turns anyone who dares to oppose her into a frozen statue and keeps the land in a permanent state of winter. Aslan, on the other hand, is a powerful and fearsome beast who is also deeply loving, and in turn is loved by the creatures of the forest.

This morning I’m going to talk about faith and faithfulness.

Faith is one of those words which has several different, somewhat confusing, uses. So first of all I’m going to talk about a definition that reminds me of the White Witch then with that out of the way we’ll talk about the faith that Aslan represents.

We often use ‘faith’ to mean a system of belief and ritual, for example when we say the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ or the ‘Christian faith’. Used like this ‘faith’ suggests two things – firstly that the Christian faith consists primarily of a specific belief system, and secondly that the Christian faith is something one joins or participates in by believing those specific things. When we use ‘faith’ in this way we are essentially using it to mean the same thing as religion.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who was a Canadian scholar of comparative religion, argued that those who are involved in living out a particular faith path – people like us - don’t see it as a system of beliefs and rituals – but as a fundamental life-giving orientation. He argued that those who first studied ‘religion’ took something that was fluid and meaningful to its practitioners and made it static and systematically defined by outsiders.

I agree with Wilfred Cantwell Smith – when we define Christianity as a set of beliefs or even a set of belief and rituals, it becomes lifeless and rigid. It’s as though the White Witch has cast a spell on faith, making it cold and static, lifeless and even rather boring. It becomes a list of things to believe, many of which require a suspension of disbelief, and a list of rules to follow.

That kind of White Witch faith does not interest me at all. And I don’t think it’s very Biblical. In fact I think that Jesus specifically preached against a cold winter faith which required keeping a set of rules and believing three or more impossible things before breakfast.

In today’s readings we hear that Abraham obeyed God because of his faith. This is a very different use of the word ‘faith’. Abraham did not obey God because he held a set of beliefs or had been taught specific rules about behavior. His faith was different - more like the faith we mean when we say that someone ‘kept faith’. Aslan kept faith with the creatures of Narnia when he came back to take their side against the White Witch. Abraham kept faith when he left Ur and set out into Palestine, not knowing where he was going. Yahweh kept faith when Abraham and Sarah finally had a son.

One of the significant themes of the Old Testament is that of the covenant between God and man, and God’s faithfulness to the covenant. God made a covenant with Noah that God would not again flood the entire earth, and the rainbow was the sign of this covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendents would be as many as the stars and that he would receive the land as an inheritance.

The writer to the Hebrews in today’s New Testament lesson has an interesting interpretation of this promise. He (or she) says that Abraham only lived in that land as a transient ‘for he looked forward to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’. And at the end of the passage the writer says that ‘they’, ie the patriarchs and matriarchs, ‘desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.’ Apparently the writer to the Hebrews didn’t take the promise of the land as literally as most interpreters but saw it as a promise of the future in a heavenly country.

However the important thing for our discussion this morning is the idea of Abraham’s faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” Because their faith was a trust in God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Their faith was their trust that God would be faithful, that God would keep faith.

We are always having faith in, or trusting things that we can’t see or touch. I trust my spleen. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never touched it. I’m not even sure where it is. I’ve never had an x-ray to make sure it’s there, where it’s supposed to be. But I trust that its there and go about my everyday life in the faith that it is and I know that if it ever stops working I’ll notice the difference.

That’s like the faith that we have in God. We don’t see God, we don’t know where God is, but we trust that God is active in our lives and we see the difference.

But on the other hand, that isn’t like the faith we have in God because it’s very passive. I don’t actively and intentionally engage with my spleen. We are called to keep faith with God in an active relationship.

Aslan the lion is a warm-blooded, active being who is deeply relational. The creatures of the Narnian forest talk about him and look forward to his coming. Our faith in God is similarly relational. It isn’t keeping to a religious system but having a relationship with the divine. Our faith is a response to God’s faithfulness. God is faithful in good times and in bad. But our faith is often weak in response.

There are many ways we can work to increase our faith, to increase our responsiveness to God’s love and the movement of God’s spirit in our lives. Developing holy habits is the most fundamental. By turning to God everyday in prayer, by spiritual reading, by keeping Sabbath and by tithing, we show our faithful response to God. Sometimes we don’t feel like doing it, sometimes prayer seems empty and shallow, but our faithfulness is found in showing up and doing it anyway.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms.’” Do not be afraid… for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. It takes tremendous courage then and now to give up our attachment to things, to busyness and to money in the bank.

When we take the risk to tithe, when we take the risk to allow a full day of Sabbath rest, when we take the risk to pray and turn our lives over to God… when we take the risk to trust in God’s faithfulness… we get to experience the kingdom of God in a whole new way.

Keeping faith with God is watching for the signs of God’s spirit moving and being ready to play your part in bringing God’s kingdom on earth. It’s more than trusting that there is a God, just as I trust I have a spleen. It is actively turning our attention away from the world and towards God.

We may not, like Abram, be called to leave life as we know it behind to go on a great journey. We may not be sent to serve God in deepest Africa. But we are called everyday to leave life as the world knows it behind and to put our focus, our trust in the living God. We are called to refuse the cold breath of the White Witch and to work for the return of Aslan with a faith that is vibrant, warm and earthy.

It may not be glamorous. We may not amount to much in the eyes of the world, but as Sister Teresa said, We are not called to be successful, just faithful’. May God help us all to be faithful to Spirit’s call.