Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Our Wedding Jitters

Preached on Sunday, August 13, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 19:1-19; Hebrews 12:18-29
Seeing that I’ve never been married, it might not surprise you to know what I think about this part of the Exodus. When I read this story about the promises made at the foot of Mount Sinai, between God and his people, it reminds me of a wedding.
Mission San Diego de Alcala
San Diego, CA
June 2017
Yes, it does. Actually, this is a very Biblical idea. The Old Testament has lots of references to Israel being the Lord’s bride. And the New Testament is full of references to the Church being the bride of Christ.
We believe that those two marriages are the very same marriage. But think of that idea: the idea of getting married to God; because that’s exactly what we are.
In Exodus, though, we see a problem with this marriage. We see a lot of fear and caution before the wedding. How crazy is that: feeling fear before your wedding? How could that possibly happen, when weddings are about love?
Maybe there are reasons to be afraid. You might find yourself wondering if you are actually capable of being a good husband, or a good wife; and, later on, wondering if you are capable of being a good parent. Perhaps, just as with the process of getting old, these things are not for the faint of heart.
Promises can be scary, can’t they? Maybe this shows our deepest need for God. It is the nature of God to make what’s called a covenant with his people. The promises we make in marriage are promises of the covenant kind. For me, that defines covenant as a relationship based on promises, which we find scary.
Some people define a covenant as a contract. I don’t think that’s right.
Contracts tend to be conditional. Marriage might be more of a contract when it includes a prenuptial agreement. But I don’t like hearing about that kind of marriage.
It’s true that the covenant between God and his people seems to have conditions. It sets conditions of obedience, but it really only has conditions for happiness. Obedience, or submission are necessary conditions for happiness. God’s people broke those conditions constantly. That’s the lesson of the Old Testament. That’s a lesson for us, because the Bible is a picture of God, and a picture of us.
The Lord began the covenant with his people on his own initiative. The only condition his people met, at that time, was that they were in great need of help.
Up until this point in the story of God recreating a human family for himself, all of the basic, fundamental promises, and qualifications, were made on his side. At the foot of Mount Sinai, the Lord told his people how he had started the next level of his promises. He said: “I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” (19:4)
God was starting the wedding by acting and proposing unconditionally. This is what brought them through the desert to Mount Sinai.
God knew what would follow. The wedding would follow. His people would say “I do”. They would make the promise: “We will do everything the Lord has said.” (19:8) But they never kept their promise.
Surely the Lord was not surprised by this. The Lord was well prepared enough to see to it that the happiness of the marriage would be conditional, but that the marriage itself would be unconditional. That’s how it worked out in the course of things. Marriage with God is like that, all through the Bible. In our marriage with God, there are conditions set for our happiness, but our marriage itself is unconditional. It will go on.
In Jesus, God won our hand in marriage by his death for our sins on the cross. There is the condition of saying yes, I do, but to truly see Jesus on the cross, unable to kneel at his proposal to you only because of the nails in his hands and feet: to truly see this, robs your heart of the power to say “no”. And you know that it’s always unconditional when you see that there is nothing you can do to adequately repay him for it. Your gifts to him can never equal his gifts to you.
Marriage is a new life for those who undertake it. In marriage, something has got to give; and, in this way, we could compare marriage to faith, as faith is shaped by Jesus. With Jesus, something within us has got to give. In Jesus, we die to ourselves and we rise to a new life.
It’s another way of looking at what Jesus meant when he said: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7) But I don’t think we understand what it means to say, “I’m born again,” unless we can say, “I’m married to Jesus.”
Are you married to Jesus? Can you remember if you got the wedding jitters before you went through with it? Have you exchanged vows with God?
Here’s one of the questions I ask the bride and groom in a wedding. The words are the same for both, except for the personal pronouns. “Will you pledge your loyalty to him, in all love and honor, in all duty and service, in all faith and tenderness, to live with him and cherish him, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?” Are you married to the Lord? Are you married to Jesus?
The problem is that, in Exodus chapter nineteen, something seems wrong with the proceedings of the wedding. There was fire on the mountain, and a dark, gathering smoke, and the flashing of lightening, and some sort of trumpet-like sound that got louder, and louder, and louder. The ground shook. Scurries of rock clattered down the sides of the mountain above them. The Lord was coming to their wedding! What does this say about God?
There’s violence in the long course of this story. There were the plagues in Egypt, and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red sea. God’s people have had to fight battles, and face thirst and hunger. It’s been a hard journey, so far, and there’s so much more to come. God has gotten angry with his people. God has gotten angry with Moses.
We don’t know what to think of this. God’s people didn’t know what to think, and it terrified them. Then they and we, both, think of the same thing. We think that God is dangerous, and that following God is dangerous. We think of God’s anger. That fire and lightening could turn out to be quite effective weapons.
Jesus seems like an antidote to the anger of God, but even Jesus got angry, and not just with the money-changers and the Pharisees. Jesus got angry at his own disciples. When Peter protested about the inevitability of the cross, Jesus got mad and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) But we hope he’s gotten over that, now that he’s been crucified and resurrected.
When I was five, I stuck a wire coat-hanger in a wall socket and got a painful shock, and I screamed really loud. I remember my mother running from the kitchen, and she saw what I had done, and then she screamed at me, and then she hugged me, and then she scolded me, and then she got ice to put on the burn: the big red welt that ran across my hand.
Her screaming and her scolding were a part of her love for an endangered and accident-prone child: which I sort of have been all my life.
There were many other times when I did something I knew I shouldn’t do, when I deserved to be screamed at, or yelled at, by my parents. They did this because they loved me.
The whole story of the Lord freeing his people from slavery, and leading them through the desert to the Promised Land, is a story of love. In spite of his frequent anger with them, and his punishment of them, the Lord never left them. The Lord saw them through to the end of their journey, and beyond. The Lord is with his people, Israel, still.
What other tiny nation of people has maintained its existence for four thousand years? It’s a miracle. It’s love.
God is with us in the same way.
The Letter to the Hebrews (meaning the Hebrew Christians) talks about two mountains. It tells of the scary mountain of Moses, in the Exodus, and the happy mountain of Jesus, called Zion.
It’s very strange that one of the happy things on the happy mountain is also a very scary thing. The scary thing is blood. The blood of Jesus has gotten on everyone who enjoys life with Jesus on that mountain.
There was a time when Mount Zion had crosses nearby, and Jesus hung on the cross. There wasn’t smoke, but there was darkness. Mount Zion shook, just like Mount Sinai, when Jesus sacrificed himself for us there. It was scary, but it was love, and it was a miracle.
We live here on Mount Zion with our spouse, Jesus. And we live here reliving that scary thing. We meet with Jesus as he now is, crucified, and risen, and full of glory, and we receive him into ourselves. We eat and drink, and he comes into us through that eating and drinking. Jesus says that we take into ourselves his body and his blood in the Lord’s Supper; and, so, we live the good news because of a scary thing. We die and we rise with him.
Saint Augustine, back in the late fourth and early fifth century, said that this is a miraculous food. Everything else that we eat and drink we change into ourselves. The food and drink of the Lord’s Table, the body and blood of Jesus, turn us into him.
This changes us. Something gives way. There are so many ways and opportunities to get more of Jesus and grow in our union with him: our marriage with Jesus; two lives growing together, two hearts beating as one.
The love of God is like the sun that shines upon our world. There would be no life without the sun. But the sun is dangerous. It can make you sick. It can even kill you. The sun can blind you, because our eyes are too weak to look at it, and truly see it, and survive.
Only a total solar eclipse can enable us to look into some of the mysteries of the sun. But, even then, the sun will destroy our sight, unless our eyes are properly protected.
Love thundered, and lightninged, and burned, and smoked on Mount Sinai, but it was all love. Perhaps the smoke made it possible for God’s people to see a bit more of him than other ordinary people. The smoke was like the moon that shields us from the sun in its eclipse.
We think that we want love, and we do. We are made for love that never ends. We are made to experience miracles of grace and love. We are made to love, and to be loved, forever.
But our love is weak. We often know this in the marriages and families that form our lives. Love requires great emotional, spiritual, mental, and even physical efforts from us. Sometimes we rise to them. Even when we do so, we see that giving more would be better. Sometimes we know that we have not, or cannot, meet the needs that call to us. Our love may prove very strong indeed, but our fall from what we were created to be has made our love too weak to see, face to face, the holy love that has created each one of us. Our fall has made our love too weak to see all of the love God wants to give to others, and to our world, through us.
The warnings against getting too close were not warnings of anger, but warnings of love. It’s as if the sun could speak, and thunder, and shake us, so that we knew better than to look straight at it.
There are discoveries and understandings that we are not ready for. God, in his love, has the power to give us what we need (and what we are ready for) in knowing and seeing him. That’s why we are told, in another place in Hebrews: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
The dangers of our going too far in, or seeing too much that we’re not ready for, are like the dangers of a baby who has immune deficiencies, who needs the shelter of a bubble, and the parents can only hold their child with gloves that are extensions of the bubble, through which they put their arms and hands. It’s what their child needs, and so they do it. Jesus is like the gloved hand of God reaching through and holding us; getting as close to us as our current health will allow.
But there’s more. The message of Mount Sinai had the power to warn and to teach God’s people, and that message was a gift of love and grace. It’s grace to have good warnings and good learning. But learning may not transform us. The message of Sinai could not transform God’s people, and they showed this all the way through their history.
God becoming one of us, in Jesus, his living our life in our own flesh and blood, his living as a servant, his sharing the darkness of death, his dying for our sins, and conquering sin and death for us: this is the grace that enters us, and changes us.
Only grace can complete us, make us whole, fulfill us, and bring us to what God has created us for; what God has in mind. The old mountain is actually a good place, a good covenant, a good promise, but the mountain we live on with Jesus is so much “better in every way”.
Grace enables us to approach and serve. Grace empowers us to be bridges and mediators of grace to the people and the world around us. That’s what it means to be “a kingdom of priests” like Jesus. Priests are mediators. They are go-betweens.
Grace, in the blood of Jesus, bridges the gap we could never cross by ourselves. It empowers us to become what we could never fully be on our own.
There was a wedding at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was a wedding of God with his people. Well, it was not the full-fledged wedding. It was only one of many rehearsals for the real thing. We have the real thing in Jesus, the real wedding that gives us a new life.
The truth is that the wedding still isn’t finished. We are just in the process of making our vows. When God’s plan for this world is complete, Jesus will step over to us and lift the veil for a kiss. Then all the jitters will be over.
Right now, it can still be awkward. We’re in the middle of our vows. But this is the time for us to say: “I’m doing it! We’re doing it together! We’re getting married together.”

We’re marrying Jesus now. Let’s get into it. Let’s live into it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Tangent II

The airish* people have their charm,
The leprechaun his treasured gold,
The fearsome jinn his wishes three,
The elven maid her snares of love,
But they are fleeting as the breath
Of coolness on an August eve
(No more substantial are their gifts).
Our quest for magic drives us on
To seek in flesh, and blood, and more,
A fuller magic than before.

Written ‘79

*”Airish” people is archaic English for “aerial” beings, such as sprites, etc..

Tangent I

How foolish I am,
Have I lost my heart?
Mislaid it somewhere,
Until all my art 
Is spent in searching,
And not in giving?

written 1979