Thursday, February 25, 2010

Abounding in Steadfast Love

By the Rev. Margay Jo Whitlock

Ash Wednesday 2010
Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Mathew 6:1-6; 16-21

I was thinking about giving up sandwiches for Lent.  But, then, I thought about the prophet Joel.  “Rend your heart and not your garments”, says Joel.  Or in my case “your menus”.

Joel is one of the so-called Minor Prophets, meaning his book doesn’t take all that long to read.  Joel writes about the fallout from a plague of locusts.  Alas!  There are no grapes to make the wine.  There is no grain to be harvested to make the flour.  Blow the trumpet!  (Not a modern trumpet, but a ram’s horn – a shofar.)  Summon the people!  Gather together for a fast.

Well, that’s interesting… gather together for a fast.  So, it’s not about what I am going to give up; it’s about what we are going to give up.  There’s also some irony here: a fast is called, but what would they eat anyway?  All of the crops had been destroyed.  Talk about a downturn in the economy!  This is serious business.

When you come to church, you are supposed to remember to bring your envelope.  But, Joel says, don’t worry that you can’t bring your proper offering.  Who knows?  Maybe the Lord himself will provide the offering.  Instead, think of what you can give – your heart.  And no, not your “achy breaky heart”.

In Joel’s time, the heart was thought to be the seat of the will, as opposed to the seat of emotion.  Joel is telling us to break our wills to God, to offer our broken agendas to God.  “Return to the Lord your God”, says Joel.  Turn around.  Face God.  Proclaim a fast.  A fast that’s not about giving up sandwiches, or chocolate, or alcohol, or whatever…  This is a communal fast, meaning we are called to come together as a congregation and to give up the dividing walls between us.

How are we going to do this?  By relying on the steadfast love of God.  This Hebrew concept of the steadfast love of God is in essence the same thing as Lutherans talk about when they use the word gospel – as in law and gospel.  God’s word comes to us in two ways: the law tells us what God wants us to do – return to the Lord, call a fast, come to church – and the gospel tells us what God does.  God is gracious and merciful.  And because God is gracious and merciful, we have courage to repent.

If our main concept of God is that of a judge dangling us over the pit, we’re not going to want to go there.  But, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, we are given the necessary motivation to turn back and face God.  The Law is what we do, or are supposed to do.  The Gospel is what God does.

One of the problems of being human is that we like to pretend we are in charge.  So, we like scenarios that fool us into believing we are in charge and that we can earn God’s love.  If I act in this certain way, or if I don’t act in this other way, then God will love me.  This is the human way of thinking.  But, here is God’s way of thinking: because I love you so much, therefore, you will return my love.  As Christians, we see God’s steadfast love in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  As followers of Jesus, we join together with other followers of Jesus to radiate his steadfast love to everyone we meet.  We are called to welcome all people as children of God, and to love them as God loves us.

There can be no mistake.  If it comes down to the law versus the gospel, the gospel will always win.  Yes, the law is there for a reason – two reasons, actually: to keep good order in society, and to drive us back into the arms of Christ.  So, you see, the gospel always trumps the law.  And even though you are dust, and to dust you shall return, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Abounding in steadfast love.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

American Areopagus

By John Page

It always seems odd to me when I observe people trying to “evangelize” others by quoting Scripture at them.  There’s a presumption that the content of Scripture is recognized by non-Christians as somehow relevant to them.  But why should that be?  Why would people who do not see themselves among the people of faith from whom, about whom, and to whom the Scriptures were written, consider the witness of Scriptures to be meaningful to their own lives and experiences?

St. Paul seems to have recognized this point himself.  During his missionary journeys, according to the Book of Acts, he routinely visited the Jewish synagogues to worship and witness to Christ, pointing to the Jewish Scriptures to argue that Jesus was the Messiah the prophets had long anticipated.  At that time, Christianity was still understood as a Jewish sect, and it made perfect sense that Paul would worship among fellow Jews and communicate with them in the context they understood and found meaningful.

But when Paul visited Athens, and stood in the Areopagus among people who were neither Jewish nor Christian, he took a different approach.  Arguing his point from the witness of the prophets would not have been very meaningful or compelling to pagan Athenians, for whom the Jewish prophets were total strangers, and the narratives of Israel’s people and their historical experiences with God were of little or no import.  Instead, Paul appealed to what the Athenians already knew.  Starting with the common experiences of all people, as it were, Paul was able to make the particular experiences of one people more relevant. (Acts 17:16-34)

Some time ago, I read that America is becoming an increasingly pre-Christian society.  Pre-Christian implies before Christianity became widespread and commonplace, as distinct from the term non-Christian, which simply implies that one is not now Christian, even if one may have been at some time.  There was a time – a time in which many of us alive today actually lived – when most Americans could reasonably assume that everyone around us had some knowledge of and experience with Christianity, even if they weren’t active church-goers themselves.  But that assumption is no longer valid.  Surveys in recent years suggest increases in the percentages of people who have never been Christians, have never received any instruction in the Christian faith, and whose experience of Christian worship – if it is worship – is limited to the occasional wedding or funeral of an acquaintance.  What these people may know of Christianity is largely what they observe in the popular media, which may well explain why Christianity is in decline; the headline hogs don’t typically offer flattering or accurate depictions of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth.  While the percentage of pre-Christian and non-Christian peoples increases, the percentage of Christians in America declines.  We are more and more likely to find ourselves today, and in the near future, in St. Paul’s position in the Areopagus.

So, how might we witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in the American Areopagus?  Here’s my go at it…

We are Christians. 

We believe that there is one God who created all things, and that God’s love is the sine qua non for understanding the relationship between God and creation.  God created humankind in God’s own image, to bear God’s love in the world as both stewards of creation and beneficiaries of creation’s gifts and God’s abundant peace.

This was, and is, God’s vision and intention.  But realistically, we all know how far removed the world is from that vision.  Strained relationships, violence, poverty, sickness, greed, injustice, and indifference abound.  No one completely escapes the consequences of our present circumstances; people, all living things, and the earth itself suffer.  Even natural disasters testify to the magnitude of the chasm between God’s vision and the reality of our condition.

We recognize that much of what we and all of creation suffer is the consequence of our own human actions.  We bear responsibility for what we do and what we leave undone, and all actions and inactions have consequences.  The consequences may affect us now, but may just as well affect generations to come.  We may see the cause-and-effect relationships clearly or not so clearly.  We may even willfully turn a blind eye to the relationships to disingenuously deny our responsibility.

As people of faith, we understand that we must own up and accept responsibility.  Strained relationships, violence, poverty, sickness, greed, injustice, and indifference are not the consequences of loving relationships; they exist because we become indifferent, or even hostile, to love as central to creation’s order.   Whether by accident or design, in abandoning love, we have effectively rebelled against God and God’s vision. 

But God does not abandon what God loves.  We know this from our long history of recognizing God active in our lives and in the lives of our ancestors in faith.  God’s love is willful and intentional; time and again, God reaches out to humankind to set our relationships right.  God is determined that God’s vision will be our reality.

From among all the peoples of the earth, God called a wandering Aramean named Abraham to serve God, promising that from him and his wife Sarah a particular people would be the instruments of God’s reconciliation with all of humankind.  Some two thousand years ago, that promise came to fruition when God came into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, one of Abraham and Sarah’s descendents.  That singular event in history inaugurated the process by which God puts all things right by God’s own decisive action.  God calls all people to be recreated in God’s image, specifically in the image of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, who, sharing our humanity with us, draws us back to God and makes us the people we were meant to be from the very beginning.  This is what we mean when we say we are to “put on Christ”.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ: God loves humankind and always will, and through the person of Jesus, God assures us that God’s peace will be a reality in this world.  Through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God recreates us to be God’s image-bearers in the world, commands us to love all as we have been loved by Christ, and commissions us to share this good news with everyone by word and by deed.

And this, by the way, is why we at Zion summarize our own mission with the words: Love God, Love your neighbor, Tell the world!