Friday, October 26, 2007

“When, If, Then”
II Chronicles 7:12-14; Luke 7:36-50 (21st Sunday after Pentecost; October 21, 2007)


The other day my wife Jo and I were driving across a bridge which spanned an inlet of Lake Wylie, South Carolina. I saw not one but two pontoon boats sitting on mud. Later, crossing the Catawaba, on the so-called riverfront itself, I saw piers whose steps descended to grass, twenty feet or more from what remained of the retreating lake’s near edge.

I have to admit to a certain perverse fascination regarding our present crisis—and most of it centered here in the Bible belt, if you have not noticed—this draught, this rainlessness: it reminds us, if you will forgive the pun, of the essential nature of things.

In the vanity of our imaginations, we are so easily inclined to believe that we are in control, the masters of our own fates and destinies, and even the fates and destinies of others, what with all our knowledge and technology, all our sophistication and smarts. Time and time again, however—and to our protracted horror—we rediscover otherwise. On one side of the globe we are learning that that superior weaponry and even night vision goggles do not an insurrection quell (or as the Bible says in Psalm 33:16

a King is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength;
the war horse is a vain hope for victory
and by its might it cannot save.)

And back home? Should it stop raining long enough, TVA and Duke Energy have to start stopping the reactors. Electricity may get scarce while rolling blackouts and brownouts may be plentiful…while our lives, as we have made them, slowly grind to a halt. If rain does not come soon, we may be left with life as God gave it…but that may not be a bad thing, all in all.


In Bible Study on this last Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I began our prayer time by reading II Chronicles 7:13-14. The context for the passage is a dream: God comes to Solomon by night. Solomon has just finished building the Temple, the great place of worship for all of Israel, where sacrifices and prayers will be offered by the people, and Solomon has prayed to God, that God’s “eyes may be opened night and day toward this house…” that God would “hearken to the supplication of (the) people Israel, that when (God hears those prayers, that God would forgive” (I Kings 9:28-30, passim).

God appears to Solomon and answers: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

I read that text, Wednesday night and Thursday. I said to each group, “We seem to be in one of those “when’s” God mentions.” And then I asked each group, “Which of those ifs is the hardest?” Very quickly, very quickly—immediately­­­­ came the reply—“humble ourselves!” Everyone agreed. And why is that so hard? For each of us, for all of us together, to humble ourselves?

Why is it hard even to see that we need to do such a thing? That it’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my brother or my sister but it’s me, O Lord; not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord; not my children or my students but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Why is it so hard to sing that song, to say those words, to pray that prayer…really pray it and say it and believe that it is me, it’s me, it is me, God knows, who needs to humble myself? Why is that so hard?

Well, maybe, because it is so much easier, so much more natural (and fun!) for us to exalt ourselves, to think better of myself and my opinions that I do of other people and their opinions. Whether because of race or education, upbringing or privilege, even tenure—My father used to say, “Tom, when you have been around as long as I have, you will see that I am right”—it is so much easier to assume we are right, whatever our rationale; natural, really, to discount the views or opinions or character of another—because they don’t look like we do, don’t sound like we do, don’t vote like we do, don’t see things and think like we do (John Locke said that all of us are predisposed toward our own opinions). It is so much more fun to imagine that if “they” were more like me, then they would see that I am always right.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3), but we readily reject his counsel. Others? Her? HIM?! Better than ME? Then you don’t know him like I do! In the same text Paul also says, “Do all things without murmuring or arguing; do nothing from selfishness or conceit.” Some places I know do nothing without murmuring and arguing, do everything from conceit… another word for conceit being “pride.”


Soon after 9/11 I began to see bumper stickers on cars in Marshville and Monroe, other places too: The Power of Pride, they read. Perhaps you saw them too. I understood, I think, still understand the sentiment—in bad times you rally around the flag, circle the wagons, all that. But I was uncomfortable with the bumper stickers all the same. Why? Because Pride, according to our faith tradition, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins; and the power that results from pride is never, according to Holy Scripture, a good thing.

Power is the polar opposite of selflessness and sacrifice, the virtues to which Jesus calls us. And pride is a “source” sin, not just one among the others but the root, the fountainhead of the other six: greed, lust, gluttony, boredom, despair and anger. Let’s think about Anger for a moment.
Not all anger is sinful, God knows. Anger is a good emotion that God has given us, to alert us that something is awful bad wrong. Parents rightly get angry if a child puts themself in harm’s way. Citizens rightly get angry when the well-being of all children becomes a political football and every one, on both sides of the aisle, are trying to score points. It can be good to be angry at injustice, at political gamesmanship—sometimes if we are not angry we are not paying attention.
That said, there is anger which is quite sinful indeed. I will speak for myself: sometimes my hottest, bitterest anger concerns, not the great issues of the day but the little issues of my little days—those real and imagined slights that offend my pride, that insult my position, that question my opinions. My heart can become a blast furnace, one I stoke with coals of resentment and jealousy. I burn hotter and hotter. I pour in tender by the ton: kindling grudges and chips off my shoulder, the sawdust specks from another’s eyes. Hotter and hotter.
The fire is pride. When I cannot forgive: that is pride. When I cannot congratulate or bless or celebrate another and their accomplishments, that is pride. When I have to have my own way: pride. When I want control, need control, will not relinquish control: that is pride. When I see the pride in others before I see it in myself…you know what causes that? You know what opens my eyes to the sin of another and closes them to my own sin: Why, friends, that is pride.
Pride is sinister. It is insidious. It is like a killer weed in every heart’s garden. It is a grace-resistant infection in the bloodstream of the soul. It makes MRSA look like a bad cold. And all of us are infected. All of us are infected. If we think we are not, guess what makes us think that? Pride. When we reject the text or teaching of Scripture because “these days we know better than that…” Know what kind of glasses you are wearing? Prideful ones.
A Pharisee named Simon gave a great dinner party and invited Jesus to come. As was the custom, Simon had the tables arranged near the outer courtyard of his house so that the townsfolk could get near enough to watch the festivities, ooh and ahh at the guests as they ate. There was no People magazine in those days; no paparazzi—this is how common people basked in the glow of celebrity. Jesus came but seems to have taken a place far enough away from the head table that a woman of the street, unwashed, a sinner—a prostitute—was able to get near enough to make a further spectacle of herself. She weeps on his feet, dries them with her hair, anoints them with fine oil, never stops kissing them… And Simon is aghast. When he sees it, what is happening, he does not say anything, but takes a condescending breath and thinks to himself—“If this man were a prophet (and clearly, now, he has his doubts about the reports he has heard), he would know what kind of woman this is who is touching him.” Simon’s rationale is clear: if Jesus were righteous, he would not let a sinner so near him; if he lets a sinner near him, he is not righteous.
Simon is righteous, he is clear on that: he is a Pharisee, a good host with good morals and the good sense to be appalled by the way his guest and this woman’s are acting in polite company.
Jesus says, “Simon, I have something to say to you…” And for my money that may be the scariest thing Jesus says to anyone anywhere in Scripture. I have had people say that to me, parents, professors, bishops, spouse: “Tom, I have something to say to you.” That is never a comfortable way to start a conversation because I know I am being called on the carpet.
I wonder if Jesus would say that to me now? Today? To the rest of us? “I have something to say to you…” Forget the woman. Forget the one you so easily criticize and blame. Forget the one who offends you…I have something to say to you.
Turns out Simon was not that great a host after all. He did not give Jesus water to wash his feet. He did not give Jesus oil to anoint his hair. He did not give Jesus a welcoming kiss—all of that was customary and Simon has failed the test. His self-satisfaction, his self-congratulations, his self-righteousness made his offense all the worse.
I sometimes forget why I come here, what I am doing. Sometimes, in the vanity of my imaginations, I imagine that I am your host, or that we are the hosts—arranging things here so that guests can see us, who we are, what we do, so they will be impressed, ooh and ahh. I forget sometimes to ask whether I have welcomed Jesus into our midst, whether I have given him all he is due as he comes to be with us.
If I do not welcome him, do not give him the place of honor and the gifts due my Guest, if I do not invite him to speak before I draw the first self-righteous breath, then perhaps it is because I, too, dare believe I do not need forgiveness and grace he offers, or at least not much of it—after all, I am one of the righteous ones. All of us are. We do not imagine that we need much grace, even though that is what we preach, not like others need it. Because we do not sin like other people; we are not sinners like other people are. We are better than that, smarter, richer, more sophisticated, more polite than that. We look around at the world and then back at ourselves and feel pretty good about thing, and thank God I am not like that person, those people, in that town doing those things.
But the drought is here, is it not? Here, in the Bible belt? Where church, the Great Ship of Zion, can come to look like a pontoon boat in the mud; whose piers do not lead down into the river to pray but end far short of the near edges of God’s healing grace; where our hearts, our classes, our congregations can look something like a dinner party for the Pharisees, little circles of self-congratulation and blame, little fists of pride, and full of murmuring and arguing; where not many of God’s people, starting first with the preachers, humbly regard others as better than themselves… no wonder, really, our predicament.
But we have prayed over this place, much as Solomon did the Temple. We have asked God to watch over us and hear our supplication. And God is merciful. Because we believe God is the same yesterday, today and forever, whose property is always to have pity, who makes it rain on the just and unjust alike, we can trust that God appears to us this day and says once more, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
When…and if…then…
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Bill Taylor said...

Long entries ... I like them ... good to know your updating your blog more frequently now.

Kathy, the kids and I think of you and Jo and Bethany and Jacob often.