Monday, August 29, 2011

Pentecost 11A

 Today’s lessons give us three radical ways of seeing and living in the world; visions and living convictions and practices that make all things new. Moses turns around to see the burning bush and finds himself moving to enemy territory to save his people, to let the slaves of Egypt find freedom in a new and faithful pilgrimage.  Paul loses his allegiance to the old laws and is enlightened by a new understanding of God’s charity in the middle of the world, God’s word of love where he had never expected to find it: and Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, and take up our cross and follow him into a future that lives beyond death, that can only be found in faith.

So it needs to said right away, that when you step on this pilgrims’ path, it’s not always an easy road. Things go wrong. Moses gets the people past the deep water, well on the way to freedom and they start to complain that they preferred the certainties of Egypt to the risks of the road. Paul calls us to the great liberty of being a new creation in God and then starts backtracking to old rules and expectations: and the day before he takes up his cross, Jesus asks that he might be relieved of it. It seems the road forward doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally go backward. That was true then and it still happens now, with them and with all of us.

Linking to this, Walter Brueggemann, in a book called “The Prophetic Imagination” talks about two ways of living with God that he sees in the Old Testament as well as in the history of the church. The first is the “prophetic” stance we see the in faithful walk of Moses and the prophets; calling and looking for mercy and justice, for faith and love, for a faithful and living relationship with God fired by, awe, love and compassion.  Bruegemann contrasts this with the “royal” consciousness” that’s seen in the world of King Solomon; where the world is “safe” and God and the power structure are one, where everything under control, where the ongoing conversation between God and humankind we see with Moses and the prophets is replaced by a monotone of the more officially approved reality: God was in the temple, near the king, under wraps, and the people are living under a myth that keeps away the larger living questions about death and limits and responsibility and what it might mean to be human.

I might have told the story before about a young student who came to see me when I was a chaplain at RMIT University. Suffering from severe depression, she was a single mother, a first-generation Asian Australian and she didn’t know what to do with her life. At one point she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I look on the web and go to the mall and I don’t see anything that looks like me; what is wrong with me?”

 I couldn’t tell her at the time, but what was wrong with her was that her vision was  drugged, her sight was skewed, she saw only what she was supposed to see, and in that world she would never be enough. Like the world of Solomon and the mall of his Jerusalem, that is the story of so much of what we hear and see on the web and at the mall: the world for so many of our friends, so many of the people we love.

And it is understandable. It’s a mall with great promises and shiny prizes,  where all things are vaguely possible, subtly encouraging us to be self-centered, controlling, living from crisis to crisis, fighting depression and stress while we strive for some great perfection that is always found just round the corner.  it is a world where everything seems possible sometime soon, an addictive world that drugs its life so that it will not feel the threat of death.

Some 25 years ago, Alan Jones, the Dean of Grace Cathedral, said we are invited to exchange a living death for the dying life of Jesus Christ. It made me stop and think then and it does the same now. Because Christ calls us to look at ourselves and the world in a whole new way, his life and ministry and the family he calls us to join are closer to the call of Moses than the courts of Solomon. Look at the Beatitudes! Look at the radical inclusivity and the wide open welcome of the Gospels that are echoed in Paul writing to the church at Rome.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

The story, the reality, of the life death and resurrection of Jesus shines a bright light, a deep truth, a burning love on our own lives, makes us turn around and leave the taken for granted world and all its worldly ways, call us to walk barefoot like a child to see this new life blooming in a place where we never would have looked. Jesus takes us to learn to look at death so that we can really see and love life, so that we can really live! It is a story, a pilgrimage, that is not easy to understand because it’s hard to focus on it. It’s like the action is bigger than the stage, it’s like Jesus the actor takes us out of the theatre where we view the world,  calling us to unwind the web, open up the mall, take off our shoes and let ourselves be made anew on this new road  which we can only walk by faith.

And look where it goes. Jesus renews Jerusalem by dying in Jerusalem. Jesus lives out a life of love by letting it go, give himself away as an offering to the God who is who is bigger than life. Just like Moses begins a journey that will take him beyond himself and bring a captive people home, just like Paul sees a love that is larger than law; so Jesus pours himself out into the lives of people he loves, so that we may be baptized, incorporated, into his death and life; so that we can rise with him into new life. But this cannot be easily understood.

Someone said, years ago,”The real question is how uncomfortable are you willing to let yourself be for the kingdom of heaven, the new creation, for God’s kingdom to come?” It is not easy to hear this, to live with this, but it is a very real question for all of us who are concerned about the future of the church, of living out God’s life and love in a world that is so tied up with the web and the mall.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 To follow Jesus to Jerusalem is to walk into the unknown, to go into the old city in a new way, go beyond the old understanding of death into a new understanding of life. This is not easy to live with. I think Jesus keeps it a secret in Mark’s Gospel, because it is easier to talk it then to walk it, to try to think it out than to live it out. A professor of mine once said that, “Students came to seminary to learn to be godly and ended up being somewhat lordly instead”. That’s the risk, the problem for all of us. It is so easy to make our religion a way to spend time -- like the mall or the web -- rather than a pilgrimage, a place to pour ourselves out to the world God loves in the way of Jesus. To die in Jerusalem so that we might rise in larger life.

The young woman at RMIT did not just need a new credit card to buy new shoes to wear to the old mall; she needed to take off her shoes and see a new world, with a bigger vision of God than she ever knew, with a better understanding of herself than she ever hoped.She didn’t need to buy something, she needed to know there was a gift offered, that she should be ready to receive, and that is the same gift that we need to to be ready to receive, and that is why we’re here.

This Eucharist is a homecoming feast but it is also food for pilgrimage. It serves, to misquote St. Paul elsewhere, “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  It is a recipe for renewal and rebirth as well as a comfort in times of sickness and sorrow. And finally the Eucharist serves us so that we can go farther than we thought, be more than we knew, and give more than we ever knew we possessed.  It is where the poet Wendell Berry tells us, we must do something that does not compute: we must “Practice resurrection.”  And that is good news!

In the name of Christ.

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