Monday, August 16, 2010

The Political Act of Worship

Scripture read on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56

I’ll venture the guess that most of us would prefer the company of Jesus the Good Shepherd, or Jesus the engaging parable-teller, or Jesus who washes the feet of disciples, than this fire-breathing, fierce truth-telling, unapologetically confrontational Jesus we meet today in the Gospel of Luke.

Heavy lifting for a summer Sunday, this kindling of the earth, this stressful baptism, this dividing of households, this accusation of hypocrisy.

You came to church to sing a song or two, feel reconnected to a cheerful sense of belonging, perhaps leave feeling better about yourself? I understand. Instead, we’d better figure out how to explain our singed eyebrows and that soot in our hair, the dazed look we may have as we go from here to whoever we’re meeting next. And won’t that be a challenge if it’s a spouse or a friend who isn’t in the habit of worshiping in church, and who wonders exactly why it is that we get up and make the effort?

Let me tell you one thing that this Gospel gives me. It helps me understand a statement I read, last week, by biblical scholar Paul D. Hanson: “Worship is the most political act in which a person of faith can engage!”

In the language of one of our lessons today, in worship we place ourselves where we will be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who will urge us to lay aside the past and the sin that clings so closely, and look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

“Worship is the most political act in which a person of faith can engage!” Hanson is arguing against an overly-private view of religion. When I first came upon his words, I thought, “Wow, that might surprise some Episcopalians…” Little did I know that his claim would be borne-out by the Word of God today.

In Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus asks the most political of questions: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

An example. What do we make of the sharp fiery resistance to the building of a mosque and Islamic community center near Ground Zero? What is that about?

Another example. How do we understand the extremes of weather we’ve experienced this summer, all that steam heat, all those those sudden intense monsoons?

Here’s another. The Gulf Coast is reported to be healing itself after disastrous months of oil spill. Who is saying that, and why?

And one more. As free citizens of a democracy, we look to our elected senators and representatives to, well, represent and lead us. But they keep fighting against each other, producing very little and taking vast amounts of time and money to keep their fights going. What is that about? And why do we allow it?

I agree: enough, already. It’s a summer Sunday, for heaven’s sake; and it’s not as if, by raising these questions, I propose to answer them. But if we find these issues irritating, our Gospel today tells us that there is a holy use for irritation. Why not allow this fiery Jesus to gather up our irritations and use them for his purposes? Isn’t that what we see him doing, in Luke’s apocalyptic teachings?

Try to answer any of those questions I lifted from the daily news, and you’ll find yourself in a swirling vortex of opinions, reasons, ideas, and ideologies. Each issue will generate placards to hold and sound bytes to distort, and ideologies to defend or attack.

And that state of affairs in our present time helps me understand another statement I read recently, by theologian James Alison: “Ideology is what you have when you don’t have faith.”

He was commenting on the Church’s desire for sharply-defined doctrine, and rules, and clear boundaries. All of which, to his theological ear, has more to do with the closed-mindedness of ideology than with the open-heartedness of faith.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” So says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, just verses before the ones we heard today.

And what we did hear was a series of astounding movie trailers, reminders of all the great action thrillers that fill the books of the Hebrew Bible, an impressive catalog of examples of faith in action, stories replete with blood and guts, sex and spies, wild animals, raging fires, sharp swords, you name it. Stories abounding with courage and perseverance, promises kept, suffering accepted, insurmountable obstacles overcome. All realized by the spirit, the attitude, the power, of faith in God.

Then a most astonishing thing is said. “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

Not apart from us. Our practice of faith, sleepy-eyed us, we who may come to church with fairly low expectations (especially in summer), it is our faith in God and how we live it that is to complete, perfect, transform what has gone before us. We are to be part of the “something better” that makes the world better. We are to burn with the love of Christ that kindles, to recognize him baptizing with his presence all human experience, and to tell his truth which sets people free. We are to learn his way of looking into what irritates us, and looking beyond what is seen, into what is not visible but is of God.

And there we may see, in the question of where a mosque is situated, the deeper and most urgent question about reconciling love: Is there enough to go around? And, as we address the question of this particular building, will we insist that destructive prejudice be uprooted from our society?

And there, in the deep realm within and beyond what is seen, we may recognize, in the phenomena of nature, evidence that God calls us to a challenging stewardship that admits no easy answers. And evidence that, to support responsible stewardship of the earth, we must call on our elected leaders to lead.

“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

To run with perseverance the race that is before us, we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. When we do, sometimes we see the Good Shepherd, seeking and succoring his flock. Sometimes we sit at the feet of the story-teller who engages our imagination, and we enjoy that. At times, we find we’re having our feet washed and our priorities reordered by Jesus the servant.

And sometimes we meet this fire-breathing, fierce truth-telling, unapologetically confrontational Jesus we encounter today in the Gospel of Luke. He asks us to learn his way of looking into and beyond what is seen, into what is not visible but is of God. He teaches us to look into what irritates our status quo and discern what that’s really about. He asks of us not the closed-mindedness of ideology, but the open-heartedness of faith, a power that can transform what has gone before us, and make this world better.