Saturday, July 26, 2008

Whew! Grace happens...

This week's lectionary (Proper 12 RCL) finally gets us to Paul's core theological claim:
I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I know I am not alone in holding this particular text dear to my heart and spiritual journey (this passage is actually on the back of my Cursillo team shirt). I'm glad we finally got here ... after several weeks of Paul pounding us with SIN (capital letters intentional), it's kind of nice to know we're not left wallowing in it!

I have a love/hate relationship with the lectionary. I like the fact it forces me to deal with a lot of different texts all over the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. As a lectionary preacher, I don't have the luxury of picking my personal "text du jour" and constructing my whole worship experience around that one favorite passage (which is not to say that some of my favorite passages are not in the lectionary ... this week proves they do come around). What I don't like is that some of the readings get chopped up in weird ways that aren't always helpful and some authors (like Paul) are not good as "sound bites."

Three weeks ago, I was serving at St. Andrew's Episcopal in Clear Spring. We were squarely into Paul's rhetoric on the power of SIN (primarily in Romans 6 & 7 ... but the "front end" of Romans has a lot of "sin talk"). I told the congregation that I'm not a fan of "sound bite Paul." To really get what Paul is doing with his rhetoric here, you need to read the whole of Romans 1-8 (the second half of the letter goes into other topics). Paul synopsizes his theological point that we are justified sinners, the nature of the power of SIN as a big cosmic force, and how Jesus Christ defeated the power of SIN once for all. The problem with lectionary "sound bites" is they chop up Paul's argument so that it is hard to see his line of thinking.

Paul tends to beat you over the head with SIN to the point that when he gets to the subject of grace, it's as if he shifts gears without a clutch and grabs your attention. You're hearing:
  • SIN
  • SIN
  • SIN
  • SIN
and trotting down that rhetorical road with Paul only to be caught off guard when he opens Romans 8 with the good news,
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
"What??!! Huh??!! Hang on ... I thought we were talking about sin. 'No condemnation??' Now you've got my attention!!"
And that's where we are this week ... the point where Paul is persuaded that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus. I love how he says he is "persuaded." Paul didn't just swallow this story without some work. He has heard, considered, prayed over, and finally accepted that absolutely nothing will separate us from God's love.

I'm blessed to be going back to St. Andrew's this week again to preach on this text. It's like the continuation of a good story and it's nice to be able to preach on the completion of Paul's thoughts.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In the fullness of time

Wow ... can't believe I haven't blogged in over a month! Well, it's summer and time gets even more unstructured in the Mercenary Presbyter's world. :-D Oldest daughter is at our diocesan retreat center for summer camp and Dad (a/k/a Director of Operations) is playing it cool so as not to embarrass her out of existence. Youngest daughter was at camp there last week. We'll blink and soon be back to school!

Ever had one of those weeks that seemed to encompass a lifetime? One where so much happened that you got to the end and it felt like years since last week? That's the week I've had this week.

I spent the first three days of this week helping my younger sister (who will one day be my older sister when she passes me up) move to a new home. It was not the easiest move as it entailed the emotional stress of ending a 13 year marriage. In truth, it had not been a real marriage for a long time and her departure from this relationship just took longer than any of us expected. We honestly weren't sure it would ever happen ... but it did. This change is a good thing for her and their 12 year old son ... but it is still hard and the death of a relationship is a difficult life passage.

On Tuesday evening, I sat at the dinner table with her and my parents and a friend of hers from work in her new home. She said, "Tell the truth. Who among you ever thought you would see this day?" We all laughed, but not one hand went up. She went on to say, "I know you thought it would never come, but I had to wait for the right time." The right time ... "in the fullness of time" we like to say in the church.

This reminds me of this week's Gospel reading - Matthew's version of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (or if you like the KJV, the Wheat and the Tares). In the parable, the Master sows wheat and the "enemy" sows weeds among the wheat. The weeds in question are very specific: darnel. Darnel is an interesting weed because it looks exactly like wheat - in fact, it is called "false wheat." The only time you can tell darnel apart from wheat is at the harvest. Wheat will have full heads of grain to the point of drooping over and darnel will stand straight up.

In the parable, the servants go to the Master quite early and point out the weeds among the wheat. Their solution is to pull them up ... but that would have destroyed the good wheat and the entire harvest would be lost. Instead, the Master told them to have patience and wait until the difference between the wheat and weeds was evident - at harvest time.

Some use this parable to justify putting up with destructive behavior indefinitely within the church, our families, or our workplaces. Their justification is that we should leave it to God to sort it out. Considering Matthew goes on to provide a disciplinary rubric for the early church (see Matthew 18:15-18), I don't think the concept of putting up with sinful behavior is the point of this parable. Instead, I think it has something to say about patience.

I'm not good at patience ... it's a learned skill for most of us. "Lord grant me patience ... RIGHT NOW!" is our collective prayer most of the time. The servants, in their anxiety driven desire to fix things for the Master, offer to pull up the weeds. The Master, in his/her wisdom, rejects this idea because it would destroy the wheat crop. The Master understands that patience is called for to give proper discernment and planning for the rectification of the situation.

It is not uncommon to jump to the first solution to fix a situation which provokes anxiety. We don't like anxiety. We want to fix it. Often, in our desire to "fix it," we go into action without thinking the ramifications through completely. In the end, we do more damage rather than resolving the issue.

As our bishops gather in Lambeth, our church is facing issues which provoke anxiety. Questions of unity vs. uniformity, Biblical authority (or more precisely, "Whose Biblical interpretation will be authoritative?"), cultural clashes, ecclesiology, and others are hanging over the Conference. Our desire is for something to ameliorate our collective anxiety. But if we take this parable seriously, we need to be patient and willing to sit with our anxiety over an unsettled situation ... maybe for the rest of our lives. These questions have been around since the beginning of the Church ... and we wrestle with them in new forms anew.

"I had to wait for the right time." My sister showed me the difficulty and importance of waiting for the right time. Patience really is a virtue.