Sunday, August 26, 2012

You Gotta Be Bad, You Gotta Be Tough

The New Testament letters sound as if
 they were written this very week.
They speak urgently because they are written
         in the midst of crisis.
And when are we not in the midst of crisis?

War and betrayal in Afghanistan
     terrorism in Wisconsin
     crazy gunmen in Colorado and New York.
My childhood memories recall the Suez Crisis,         
         the Berlin crisis of 61, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,
                  to name a few.
My young adult memories are of the Energy Crisis,
         the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the S&L Crisis
– the list goes on to the present day.

On the personal front,
         I wouldn’t call my life a constant crisis.
But I’ve had my share of sleepless nights,
         and the threat of the next crisis is always looming.
Karl Barth, the most influential theologian
         of the 20th Century called his thinking
                  “Crisis Theology” because he based his work
         on the New Testament and
the New Testament letters are about the archetypal crisis.
Jesus had just lived, died, and risen.
God had struck the earth with Jesus
like a thunderbolt of goodness.
And the earth was shaken.
Peace and reconciliation, healing and redemption
         were breaking out.

So there was naturally a backlash of evil.
When Ephesians was written, persecutions had already begun.
But they were nothing compared to what was coming.
The persecutions during the reigns
of the Emperors Decius, Domitian, and Galerius
         would eclipse all previous hardships in blood and horror.
It wasn’t just Christians who suffered.
Read Suetonius’ history of Rome in those days
or the modern version, I Claudius.
It was a perilous time.
The author of Ephesians saw this coming.
He saw that the breaking in of God’s light
         would meet with powerful resistance.
He saw that life would be hard for God’s people.
So he wrote this letter to give them strength.

If there is anyone here whose life is never hard,
         if there is anyone here who doesn’t need
         more strength to face emotional, moral,
and spiritual challenges,
then this letter is not written to you.
But if you could use some strength, courage, and hope
         to get you by – then this is your letter.

The author wants to help us in two ways.
First he wants us to understand what we’re up against.
Second, he tells us how to face it.

So what are we up against?
His answer is simple but hard to keep in mind.
He says “don’t’ blame the people.”
“Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood,”
         he writes.
If we have trouble, we usually put a human face on it
     someone who is behaving badly.
We blame them for our problems, call them names,
         maybe even wish them harm.
But the Bible says, “don’t blame the people.”

There are larger forces at work pulling their strings.
The Bible talks about cosmic powers.
We might speak of isms --
habits of thought and behavior
         embedded in our culture
 – racism, sexism, age-ism, nationalism,
         all manner of prejudices and patterns of blame shifting
                  and scapegoating.
They are at work in society and they are at work
          in the relationships of every family I know.

Addictive patterns of thinking and acting
         like alcoholism take people over                                                                       – take us over
     and make us do things that are quite beneath us.
I am repeatedly appalled by things
 good church people do to each other
         and by their callous indifference to suffering in the world.
People, created in the image of God,
         redeemed by the blood of Jesus,
and nourished by the sacraments
                  do really bad things, cruel things.

Ephesians says, “don’t blame the people,
         first because they are not free;
         anti-God forces in the heavens and in the culture
                  are pulling their strings;
         and second, because those same Anti-God forces
                  are at work in us;
         so we need to focus or efforts not on the enemies
                  out there – but on the enemies inside us.

Focusing on what the other person is doing
         just distracts us from the far more serious problem
                  of how we are reacting.
 So work within. If we work effectively within,
         that can eventually change the situation without.

But how do we work within to combat
         the threatening forces of chaos and turmoil?
Ephesians is emphatic.
Our strategy is a powerful stillness.

“Stand firm,” Ephesians says.
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”//
“Stand therefore . . . Stand firm.”
There is an old Buddhist slogan about coping with crisis.
“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
The Psalms say, “Be still and know that am God.”
Isaiah prayed, “O God you will keep in perfect peace
         those whose minds are fixed on you;
         for in returning and rest we shall be saved;
         in quietness and trust will be our strength.”

But how is that possible?
When the threats of life assail us with anxiety,
         when troubles charge at us like
         a thundering herd of stampeding bison,
                  how can we “stand firm?”
Ephesians answers with a 7-point metaphor summed up
         as putting on the whole armor of God.
We have here the framework of a whole spiritual life,
         because the ability to deal with crisis requires
daily spiritual discipline.
Trying in the middle of a crisis to grab  up a new spiritual practice
         is like learning to drive on an icy road.
So, day in and day out, we put on the whole armor of God.

It starts with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.
I can’t begin to count how many times
I have prayed Isaiah’s words,
         “Surely it is God who saves me.
         I will trust in him and not be afraid.
         For he is my stronghold and my sure defense.
         And he will be my savior.”
We take refuge behind the shield of faith.
It’s stronger than Xanax and you can safely mix
         It with more stuff.

Then we gird ourselves with the belt of truth,
         because we can be a lot braver
when we are telling the truth
than when we’re living a lie.

We don the breastplate of righteousness
         which means we get our relationships right.
We do our duty by each other.
On our feet we wear the gospel of peace.
We take the stand of peacemakers in all our situations.
Peacemakers get shot at too,
         but we can take a shot with serenity
                  if we aren’t shooting too.

“Take the sword of the Spirit,” Ephesians says,
         ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.”
When troubles come, we need to know some Scripture.
We need those words of Scripture, especially the ones
         in our Book of Common Prayer.
We need them rolling through our heads already.

The Bible doesn’t just teach us to be nice.
It teaches us to be strong.

A few years ago a hit song by Des’ree summarized
         Ephesians 6. It went:
You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold,
You gotta be wiser, you gotta be hard,
You gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger
You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm.
You gotta stay together.

Ephesians 6 tells us of how to do that.
Ephesians is the construction manual for a Christian backbone.
When we confirm new members today,
         they will put on the whole armor of God
         and we will do it with them.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Absalom, Absalom

Some people who like to thump their Bibles
         haven’t read them.
Bible thumpers think the Bible is a rulebook.
But it’s actually a storybook and the lessons
         are a lot more complicated than
                  “Do this. Don’t do that.”
The Bible is an all too human story.

Take King David.
He struggled with all the complexity of family life
         multiplied by having several wives
                  and children by each of them.
The backstory of today’s lesson is this:
         David’s son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar.
         Tamar’s full brother Absalom was coldly furious.
After biding his time until he got his chance,
 Absalom murdered Amnon.

For this murder, Absalom was banished for a while.
Eventually, David relented and let Absalom come home.
But Absalom never forgave his father for banishing him.
His grievance fuelled his ambition.
Absalom spent years telling political lies to undermine David
         and to build a coalition of all the disaffected people in Israel.
He was as handsome and charming
as David had been in his youth;
         so he was successful in turning people to his side.

David did nothing to stop his son because he loved him.
Eventually, Absalom organized an army to depose his father.
When they marched on Jerusalem,
         David and the loyalist part of the army fled.
But Absalom wanted a complete victory,
         so he had his army pursued David
                  across the Kidron Valley, across the River Jordan,
         all the way to the Forest of Ephraim,
         before David finally stopped and took his stand.
As David sent his men into battle,
he didn’t give one of those battle speeches
the hero always gives before the decisive battle.
He did not say “Win a might victory for God and country.”
David said, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom.
                           Don’t hurt my son.”

But the army did win a mighty victory.
When the messenger came to tell David they had won
         and the kingdom was saved,
         David asked “Is Absalom safe?”

 Hearing the fatal news
         old David buried his face in his hands and said,
         “O Absalom, my son, my son. Absalom!
          Would that I had died instead of you.
          O Absalom, my son, my son.”

The discord and even violence in David’s family
         did not end that day.
It went on until his death and after his death.
To keep this story in perspective,
         we need to remember that this was
                  the Golden Age of Israel
     and right to the day of Jesus,
people were hoping for a messiah to restore the Kingdom,
         to get things back they were in David’s time.

So what’s the moral of this story?
There isn’t one.
No, David is not being punished for his sin
         with Bathsheba and Uriah.
That has already been dealt with and forgiven.
Was he too cruel in banishing Absalom
         or too lenient in letting him get away with the sedition?
Maybe, but mostly Absalom just seems to have been
         a proud rebellious young upstart who wanted Daddy’s throne.
David wasn’t out of favor with God.
God never loved anybody as much as he loved David.
But all this happened anyway.

The point of this true story is say this is how it is.
This happens.
When you see your child going off the rails, it is hell.
When someone you love too much hates you,
         it is hell.
When you lose a child, it is hell.

Does the turmoil of David’s life still happen?
Just this week I spoke with a priest who had been
         at a court sentencing with her parishioners.
One son had injured their daughter.
Then another son killed the first son.
He got life in prison. It happens.

That moment in the Ephraim Forest where David cries,
         “O Absalom my son, would that I had died
                  instead of you”
         -- that is part of the human experience.
The Bible does not shrink from that.
It doesn’t say suffering is an illusion.
It doesn’t say suffering is optional
– if you just get your mind right
                  and think happy thoughts,
                  everything will go fine.

The Bible doesn’t claim there is an infallible spiritual technology
         for a family harmony, business prosperity,
                  and good digestion.
The Bible tells the truth.
Life is beautiful and wonderful and glorious
         but it also hurts.

 The Bible says a lot of different things about human pain.
One writer says such and such about one kind of suffering.
Another writer says something else about another kind of suffering.
But the bottom line is the Bible doesn’t explain suffering.
It acknowledges that suffering is real
and it answers suffering with hope.

Paul says to the Thessalonians,
         “We do not suffer as those who have no hope.”
1st Peter assures us that our personal heartaches
         share in the suffering of Christ,
         but we shall also share in the resurrection joy of Christ.

The Bible’s answer to suffering isn’t an explanation
         or a prescription on how to avoid it.
The Bible’s answer is the love of God
         which is powerful enough to heal our hearts
                  and redeem our lives from any of the pits
                           into which we fall.
Sometimes that redemption happens here in this life
         at unforeseen times and in unforeseen ways.
Grace almost always comes as a surprise out of left field.

But our ultimate hope does not lie in this life.
Our ultimate hope is in eternity.
The Bible answers suffering in the Book of Revelation, Ch. 21:
         “He will wipe away ever tear from their eyes,
          and death will be no more,
          neither shall there be mourning nor crying
nor pain anymore,
         for the old order of things has passed away.”

The Bible promises us a glory and a joy
         in union with God that is great enough
                  to swallow up even the memories of old pains.
It promises us a destiny that makes our worst ordeals worth it.

St. Paul was no stranger to hardship himself.
He knew as much about the human predicament as anybody.
Paul wrote to the Romans,
         “The sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing
                  to the glory that is to be revealed.”
That’s what we mean by faith.
With faith we don’t suffer any less,
         but our suffering is wrapped in hope,
                  and never despair.