Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Once for All

Scripture for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Kings 17:8-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Within the hour, the Veterans Day National Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery will start, precisely at 11:00 a.m., with a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Then, inside the Memorial Amphitheater, a parade of colors by veterans' organizations will follow, and remarks from dignitaries. The ceremony is intended to honor and thank all who served in the United States Armed Forces.

There is a short phrase in our second lesson today which cuts to the chase of the Christian Gospel. It is the phrase, “once for all.” Those three words could be the title of all the collected theological writings of the ages. They sum up the heart of the good news. They are the pulsing of God’s love and the foundation for the Christian hope.

Before we try to unpack what these words mean to us, I can’t help wondering if they weren’t on the lips of most of the men and women who entered military service, whether voluntarily or drafted. What helped them wrench themselves away from their daily lives at home and work and farm and factory was the hope that their sacrifices would rid the world of tyrants and treachery, once and for all.

History tells us that war, however heroically fought, cannot fulfill the hope of “once for all.” It is the Prince of Peace, the humble servant anointed by God, the holy one who has no army, no flag, no currency, and no boundaries, he is the one who fulfills the promise of these words of hope for which humanity has always yearned.

Once, in the fullness of time, the relentless abundant love which created the universe crossed the membrane of heaven and earth, broke the barrier between the “kairos” of eternity and the “chronos” of clock time, set the loom for a new weaving of spirit and flesh—and did all this hidden under cover of what could have disqualified the whole mission.

There was no more unsettled a place than Palestine, then as now. There was no tighter a vise grip on human freedoms than the Roman imperial presence in occupied lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Trade was causing exchange of cultures, but it was a time of sharp aversion to foreigners and things foreign. It was a time when a woman wasn’t counted to be even three-fifths of a man, yet a womb (and the womb of a very young woman not yet defined by marriage) would be the chosen doorway to an entirely new creation.

Once, there and then, at what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the end of the age, God’s relentless long-hidden gracious purpose was revealed. Not in the violent mode of eliminating the old, but in an organic peaceable evolutionary way of birthing the new, a power of transformation was released into this world, available not just to some, but to all… a tiny word we are still struggling to comprehend and practice.

Once. Surgically certain, clearly confident is this short word that means: what has happened in Jesus Christ meets and exceeds all the requirements of God and of humanity to be the foundation for reconciling all alienation. Given, not earned or negotiated, is the power to build on that foundation. No more is needed to fix the foundation or to obtain the power, than what is given in abundant love and received by honest trust. The building, that’s for us to do. The building of unity, the reconciling of opposing sides, that is what we are given to do—and the greatest giving is the power God has already released to do it.

How to do that building? There is a saying by an ancient Christian sage—I did a quick Google search but couldn’t find the source, which won’t prevent me from using it—“The desire to please God pleases God.” The desire to build with God is the beginning to building with God. The desire to reconcile is how reconciliation is built.

What a critical need this is, in post-election America! And if I may put a Veterans’ Day spin on this urgency: the men and women who have generously given military service to this nation did not make the sacrifices they made so that two political parties can refuse reconciliation and paralyze this nation.

Our desire for reconciliation and cooperation is how these outcomes will be built. We may doubt we have much sway over these things—the widow in today’s Gospel is here to tell us otherwise: do what you can with what you have, she tells us. Using our voices to put our own elected representatives on notice that we want unity of purpose is the might we have.

That phrase “once for all” is meant to bring relief to anyone who longs for a fresh start. We don’t have to know how to make things right, how to invent the right approach, how to turn the past around to a better future. We need to allow our longing to open us to welcome the relentless abundant love which is given and is for us to receive and build upon. It is as dependable as that jug of oil in the hands of Elijah. And, as we were taught last Sunday, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves is all of a piece, wound like the strands of a rope, woven as warp and weft. So the building that is ours to do in our own fresh starts is not done in isolation, but in community.

And communities, congregations, nations need, now and again, fresh starts. As Christians, we believe there is grace in the gift given, once for all, to keep building on foundations that God provides, broad and roomy enough for all.