Saturday, May 31, 2008

3 Pentecost

June 1, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Matthew 7.21-29

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father, who is in heaven.”

Most of us, when we hear this, have a pretty clear understanding of what Jesus is getting at, because, let’s face it—we’ve all done it. We have all talked Christianity with our lips and yet haven’t lived it out in our lives. We’ve talked the talk, so to speak, but haven’t walked the walk.

What Jesus is talking about today is that we can go through the motions all we want when it comes to our religion, but if we have no faith—and if we don’t actually go out and live our faith—then we have failed. We have failed God, we have failed each other as Christians and we have failed ourselves.

Faith is essential to being a Christian. Faith is more than just going through the motions. Faith is something that transforms us and makes us better. It motivates us and changes us. It makes us live out that faith.

As we are no doubt aware of, one can be religious without having any real faith. We can say “Lord, Lord” all we want, yet we don’t feel anything in our heart. There was has been a theological movement over the last couple hundred years called “religious atheism” or “Christian atheism.” The belief was that one could be a Christian without believing anything. One didn’t have to believe in the miracles stories of Jesus or the Old Testament. One didn’t have to believe in the fact that Jesus was the Son of God or God in the flesh. One didn’t have to believe in the Resurrection. One didn’t even have to believe in God. But as long as one believed in the moral teaching of Jesus—as long as one believed in what Jesus said, rather than what Jesus did—one could still be a Christian. That movement hasn’t gained a whole lot of momentum and it has flamed and fizzled quite often over the years. But these days we do still have some very popular theologians who like to push the edge on thinking like this.

It really does make one think about what he is hoping in and believing in when he prays, Lord, Lord. To me, this kind of atheistic Christianity seems empty. It seems like a pitcher without water. It seems to me to be a perfect example of people making religion an idol in their lives. And we can, in a sense, truly make religion an idol in our lives.

Last Sunday, in our Gospel reading, we heard Jesus saying: One cannot serve two masters. One cannot serve God and wealth—wealth here really in a sense being a symbol for ourselves. We cannot serve both God and ourselves. Religion without faith becomes a very demanding master in our lives. It becomes an idol.

I preached last week at the Cathedral about idols and I asked then: what do you think of when you think of an idol? No doubt, we think of those stone statues pagans worship. But for us, idols mean more than just statues. Idols for us are anything that come between us and God.

The fact is: religion really can become an idol for us as well. What Jesus is referring to in today’s Gospel reading is truly an instance of making religion an idol. If we go through all the motions of religion—of going to church, of praying prayers without believing, of keeping our Christian faith insular, private, if we keep it to ourselves, then it has become an empty, lifeless idol in our lives. It has become the water pitcher without water.

Christianity isn’t about us as individuals. It can never be just about us. The Church is not just about me. It is always about us—as a whole.

Every so often, I find someone coming up to me and saying, Father, I have a real problem the Creed. I don’t believe in the Resurrection of the Body. Or I don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected. Is it all right for me to keep quiet during those parts of the Creed I don’t believe?

My answer to that question is a simple one: No. It isn’t all right. Kathleen Norris, when this same question was posed to her, was clear: The creed isn’t about me as an individual. It’s about us as a whole.

When we profess the words of the Creed, we do it as a whole, not as individuals. This is what we believe, not what I believe. If I have trouble with aspects of the Creed, and sometimes I do, I need to work that out on my own. I need to work that out with God. But I have no right coming to Church and selectively keeping quiet on certain tenets of the Creed with which I’m struggling, because, when I am in Church, I am a part of something bigger than me.

The Church is about us, as a Whole. And more than that, Church is about taking what we share here—the Word, the Sacrament of the Altar, the love and the faith we learn and live out here—and taking that faith out into the world. It means living out our Christian faith in every part of our lives.

The fact is: we are Christians at all times. We are Christians when are awake and when we are asleep. We are Christians when we are in church and when we are not. We are Christians when we are driving, when we are at home, when we are at work. And because we are, we need to live out that faith. I don’t mean proselytizing necessarily. I’m not a real defender of people who constantly spout off about Jesus to the chagrin and frustration of others. People who do that are similar in many ways to what Jesus is talking about today in the Gospel reading, with their empty “Lord-this” and “Lord-that.”

I knew a priest who loved to quote that familiar dictum of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.” I would say, rather, “Preach the Gospel, use actions if necessary.” Because, let’s face it, our actions more often than not, speak much louder than words. Living out our faith as Christians means more than just preaching. It means being an example to others. It means being unashamed of letting others know that we are Christians. It means letting our faith in Christ shine through us.

There is a wonderful image in the poem "The Windows" by the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert that I have always loved. Herbert writes of God would shine through the preacher like a light through a window pane. I love that image. It works so well in all of our lives. The window pane doesn’t have to be perfect to let God’s Light shine through. It can be dirty or it can be cracked, but still God’s Light will shine through.

That’s what it means to be a Christian. We need to be the window pane through which the Light of God shines. It means being an example to others. It means being a Christian in every aspect of our lives. It means not letting the idols of our lives get in the way of our relationship with God.

Religion is what bridges the gap between ourselves and God. Religion is what opens the way to God. It should never be a barrier in the openness to God. And whenever we use religion for anything other than a means of bringing God to us and to each other and vice versa, it becomes an idol—a barrier in our relationship with God. That also means that whenever we use religion to bash or put others down, then we are using our religion as an idol as well.

With religion, all we need to do to not make it an idol is to infuse it with faith. We need to let God’s life-giving presence come into our lives. In doing so, God will destroy those dead and lifeless idols of our lives, and give us life. We need to fill our pitcher with pure, clean, life-giving water. And we need to share that water with others. When we do so, we will find ourselves doing the will of our Father who is in heaven.

So, live out your faith. Preach the Gospel; use actions if necessary. Be the window pane through which God’s light shines onto others. Be the conduit through which God can work wonders in your life and other’s lives as well. And. if you do, you will find the kingdom of God in your midst.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

2 Pentecost


May 25, 2008
Gethsemane Cathedral

Matthew 6.24-34

What do you think of when you think of an idol? We no doubt think of tiki statues of the South Pacific or the stone statues of Greek and Roman gods. We think of paganism and strange ancient religions. And those certainly are idols.

An idol by definition is: A human-made image, an object that is venerated and worhsipped as a kind of deity or god. In other words they are created things that we hold up on par with God.

Throughout scripture, we find idolatry to be a major issue. In the Old Testament, Moses is constantly reminding the Israelites not to worship human-made images. And the Israelites should have known better. Even when they saw the miracles that they did—the Red Sea parting, a pillar of cloud leading them during the day, a pillar of fire by night, the awesome display that settled atop Mount Sinai—they turned away from that, melted their gold down and made a golden calf to worship. And over and over again in scripture, we find God angered over this constant temptation to worship images.

It might seem strange for us, in this day and age, to imagine anyone worshipping idols. But when we think long and hard about it for a moment, we might actually see what those early worshippers saw in idols Faced with the choice between a god one can look at, touch, feed, dress, carry around—a god that sort of looks like ourselves to some extent—and a God that is invisible, a God that seems distant and so far beyond us, a God that makes great demands on us, that makes demands on us to be good, to deny ourselves, to not do what everyone else thinks is fun, the choice might actually be simpler than we, at first, thought. It is easier to worship an idol, to look to something kind of like us and worship it.

But we –modern people that we are—know better. We don’t need golden calves, or tikis, or stone statues of Zeus. We would be uncomfortable bowing down and praying to a statue of anyone.

The fact is, idols still do exist and we still do worship them. They aren’t statues, or even other celestial gods necessarily. The idols in our midst though are just as arrogantly real.

What was the top rated TV show last week? None other than: American Idol. And that word “idol” isn’t just a misnomer. It is a perfect example of the idols in our midst.

Idols are anything human-made that we hold up and adore. Idols are anything created that we put on par with God. And in our society, we do put our celebrities, and our politicians and our athletes on a level higher than us and higher even than our faith in God.

To make it even simpler, the definition of an idol is anything that comes between us and God. It is anything that we give equal or more importance to than God. When we look at idols with this definition, and begin an inventory of our lives, we find that we have many idols in our lives. The idols in our lives are things we might not have seen as idols originally.

The idols in our lives our things like”

Our Jobs. Although we might find it uncomfortable to admit, the fact is our jobs sometimes do take on an importance in our lives. Certainly, we can see why. Our jobs are often more than just jobs. Often we define ourselves and who we are by what we do. Our jobs are the sources of our sustenance. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to live. But when we become workaholics—when our jobs take precedence over our families and our faith in God, then it has become something bad in our lives. It has become an idol.

Our leisure time is another idol of sorts. I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me and said, “Why do I need to go to church? I worship God in the beauty of my yard. I find God at the lake. I feel the presence of God more acutely while I’m in the woods.” As beautiful as that is, as many times as I have experienced God in those places, to say we will not go to church on Sundays because our leisure time takes precedence over that, is, in sense, making our leisure time an idol. Our responsibility as Christians are come to church, to share the Word and the Sacrament of the Altar together. By saying that we don’t need church because we can find God on our own is to make an idol of ourselves to some extent. As Christians, we believe that when we gather together to worship, the presence of Christ is in our midst and our collective presence becomes the Body of Christ. We need each other on Sundays. Being a Christian is not just about ME, as an individual. It is about US, together. And that is why it is important that we come together on Sundays, even when that cuts into our leisure time.

Of course, I’m preaching here to the converted. You’re here, on this Memorial Day weekend, when you could be somewhere else. So, this doesn’t probably mean much to you. Leisure time is obviously not an idol or any of you.

Another source of idolatry in our midst is, of course, sports. When we hear comments about sports being such things as “our national obsession,” or “football is god,” those are statements that have more meaning than we care to admit. If we look at how people act at sporting events—shouting, crying, screaming, jumping up and down, waving their hands around—those are things that any good Episcopalian would frown on if it were done in church. But we find ourselves doing it at home watching the game, or at the stadium. We find people absolutely obsessed by sports.

Even religion itself can be an idol. Sometimes we all go through the motions of church and religion. Or worse, sometimes we use religion to condemn and bash others. When we do any of these things, we make religion an idol as well.

I am not, of course, saying these things, in and of themselves are idols or are bad. It is when we put them in that place in our lives that belongs to God and to the Church that they do, in fact, become idols.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is clear when he talks about serving two masters. We cannot do it. We cannot serve God and money, which is a symbol in many of ways all the idols in our lives. We cannot serve both God and our own self. When we serve anything else but God, we find ourselves overcome with anxiety. We find ourselves worrying over where and how we are going to get what we need to live, rather than trusting in the God who provides us with everything we need. This undue anxiety really is a slap in God’s face. It really is a sign of our own idolatry.

The great theologian Reginald Fuller said, “Anxiety arises from making something other than God our ultimate concern.” He expands on this thinking when he said: “”Anxiety is the result of listening to the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve; ‘You shall be gods.’ It is attempting to be our own gods, to usurp God’s function as Creator.”

If we examine our own anxieties in our lives, we find that most of our anxieties come from control issues. We feel anxiety when a situation arises that we cannot control.

Henri Nouwen, one of the best Christian writers in recent years, wrote a wonderful book during a complete emotional breakdown, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom.

In it Nouwen addresses himself. He describes the need to not allow anything to come between us and God, not even our own sense of control.

He writes: “Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. And the more you get in touch with that divine power, the easier it will be to confess to yourself and to others your basic powerlessness.”

Nouwen goes on to explain that most of us, when we can’t control our lives, often find ourselves running away. He says that we should, instead, be like a seed.

“A seed only flourishes by staying in the ground,” Nouwen wrote. “When you keep digging the seed up to check whether it is growing, it will never bear fruit. Think about yourself as a little seed planted in rich soil. All you have to do is stay there and trust that soil contains everything you need to grow.”

The fact is, we will not find ultimate peace in anything other than God in our lives. God is the ultimate and only source of peace and joy and happiness in our lives. And our job, as Christians, as followers of Christ, is to not serve two Masters, but only the One. Our job is never let anything get in the way of our worship and obedience to God.

In the Old Testament, in the Book of Joshua, we find a horrendous story. The Israelites are about to cross the River Jordan into the land promised to them by God. There’s a problem however. Other people already live there. These people are idolaters. They worship idols—a huge variety of idols that are absolutely horrendous. There were idols like the idol of Moloch, in which the stone hands were mechanized so that babies scarified to Moloch were crushed in those hands. There were fertility idols and idols of cursing, idols to make someone love you, and idols that needed to be bathed daily.

As they were about to cross the Jordan, God commanded the Israelites to do something we find abhorrent now. God commanded the Israelites to go into the Promised Land and to kill every Canaanite. Every man, woman, child and animal. The Hebrew word for this “righteous slaughter” is herem. I’m not talking about a harem—a stable of wives. Herem in this sense means “slaughter in the strictest sense of that word.

For us, the idea of herem is incomprehensible. How could the God of love that we come together to worship command such a horrible and violent thing? But, we need to look at herem for what it was. God knew how weak the Israelites were. They had strayed before, even despite all the miracles they had seen with their own eyes. God knew that, as they entered the land of Canaan, the men would be seduced by the beautiful women there, and that it wouldn’t be hard for them to take on the idolatrous religion of Canaanites.

The gist of herem was this then: let nothing come between you and God. If something comes between you and God, destroy it. Wipe it from your vision. Utterly destroy whatever might come between you and God.

Now, wholesale slaughter is extreme and violent to us now. But for the people at that time, who lived a world much more violent than ours, who were about to enter into a land of people who known for their unmerciful violence, this was something they would have understood. In the case of the Israelites, they did not fully follow the command of God regarding herem. There came a point in which their temptations got the better of them. They spared some of the Canaanite women, whom they married, and as a result, they were led astray by their wives’ idolatry. And because they did not do as God commanded, idolatry became a plague on the Israelites for centuries.

We can take a healthier view of herem and apply it more productively to our own lives. For us, the message of herem is not one of violence. It is rather a message of making sure that nothing comes between you and God.

If you are weak, if you are easily led astray, separate from yourself those things that easily come between you and God. If your job, your leisure time, your sports—even your religion—come between you and God, destroy the hold those things have on you. Look at each of them not as masters, not as idols, not as things you can control, but rather as what they are—gifts from the One true God, who is your Master.

Let nothing in your life come between you and God. Serve the One Master of your life, and in serving that Master, let nothing come between the two of you. In everything you do, in wherever you go, heed the words of Jesus from this morning’s Gospel: “seek first the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness.”

If you that, if, in everything you do, you seek first God’s working your life, the power of the idols in your life will be broken. And God, who is righteous, will grant you the peace, the joy and happiness you have been longing for in your life.