Friday, January 30, 2015

The Form of This World Is Passing Away

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Jonah 3:1-5, 10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

“For the present form of this world is passing away.”

President Obama, in his State of the Union address, encouraged us to identify a number of ways in which our nation’s strengths can be recognized. I have an enduring trust in him and what he says, and if his purpose was to nudge us into a finer gratitude for the life we enjoy in this country, I’m all for it. Grateful hearts could serve us well at this time in our history, and I would by far prefer the future to be shaped by a union of grateful hearts than by a pack of ungrateful hearts.

But even our Encourager-in-Chief addresses the fact that the present form of this world is passing away when he turns to the subject of global warming and climate change. That’s because there’s really no other way as yet to address the profoundly disturbing state of the earth without dwelling on the diagnosis. The treatment, the remedy, remains elusive. We’d like a lot more success stories to tell, but as a nation the movement to invest sacrificially in order to achieve success is still in its infancy. And the gang in Washington isn’t leading us there.

Listening to news emanating from the Middle East, where a collapsed government in Yemen lies between our old pals in Saudi Arabia and a caliphate-in-the-making of the remains of Syria and Iraq, is enough to persuade us yet again that the present form of this world is passing away.

I’ll bet we could create a longer list yet of examples of this chilling observation. But how much chill can we stand all at once on a winter Sunday? And where is there good news to be found to encourage us?

Isn’t there a degree of good news in that this grim headline of transience comes to us from an apostle writing to one of his church plantings two thousand years ago? St. Paul’s examples of a disintegrating society would surely be different from those I’ve led off with, but clearly the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Paul knows it addresses the state of the union between God and humanity as a bond of redeeming love equal to the task of dealing with world orders that sooner or later, all of them, pass away.

Each of our three readings models an insight that will help us faithfully deal with potentially overwhelming times.

The first might be called revolutionary, even treasonous. It is to accept the startling fact that God loves the very people who stand on the opposite sides of our social, cultural, religious, political, and international divides. This lesson from the story of Jonah takes us to ancient Nineveh, one of the oldest and greatest cities of Mesopotamia. If the past twenty-four years of war in Iraq haven’t obliterated the site entirely, the city’s remains are on the east side of the Tigris River, directly across from present-day Mosul.

Jonah has been sent there to give the residents of Nineveh a chance to repent and so escape calamity. It is God who has called the Hebrew prophet Jonah to undertake this mission, requiring Jonah to enter Assyria, Israel’s sworn enemy, and in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, to do open-air preaching of a message that made Jonah’s skin crawl. It felt like aiding and abetting the enemy, but he was told to warn those Ninevites that their great city would go under unless they relented from their long-standing oppression of Israel.

This might be like sending Benjamin Netanyahu to Tehran to persuade the Iranians to beat their swords into plowshares. Not that re-purposing swords wouldn’t be desirable; but neither Jonah nor Netanyahu would believe it possible, hardened as they are against their foes. It’s no wonder that Jonah tried his darnedest to avoid this mission, jumping onto a ship heading the opposite direction from Nineveh, only to have to jump from that ship into his famous encounter with a whale that knew more about obedience to God than Jonah did, spitting him back into active duty.

And the point of the little Book of Jonah, the reason for its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible (against sizeable odds), and the reason for it being cited in the New Testament, is to announce that God’s love is wide enough and deep enough to include one’s most hated enemies. For Israelites to boast of being God’s People and then to treat Gentiles as if they were despised by God, is unacceptable to God, says the Book of Jonah.

So there is one insight to help us deal with the overwhelming times we are in: Be wary of vilifying and dehumanizing people on the other sides of our social divisions.

A second appears in that letter from Paul. It boils down to this puzzle: Deal with the world as though you have no dealings with it. Right.

What I believe he means is suggested by his examples of havings. Each of them—having a spouse, mourning a loss, celebrating a gain, buying and owning—each of these most basic states could shut out the rest of the world, the rest of life. Each instance of me/my/mine may generate tunnel vision, exclusivity, preoccupation that prevents us from seeing choices worth considering, blocks the freedom that is our truer state, prevents a more generous sharing.

At Vespers on Thursday, we observed the feast day of Phillips Brooks, late 19th-century preacher, poet, and bishop. I came upon a sermon he preached on the subject of humility. I expect it was given from one of the Philadelphia pulpits he occupied, or from his early years at Trinity Church, Boston. In any case, an upscale audience warming up to enjoying the Gilded Age.

He took aim. “It is the narrowness of our life that makes us proud. I should think one of you merchants would be proud of his successful business if he saw nothing beyond it. I should think you men and women would be proud of your splendid houses if you look no farther. But if you could only see God forever present in your life, and Jesus dying for your soul, and your soul worth Jesus’ dying for, and the souls of your brethren precious in His sight, and the whole universe teeming with work for Him, then must come the humility of the Christian. To that humility let us devote ourselves, for in a humility like that alone is peace.”

A second insight into dealing with the present form of this world passing away, say the saints Paul and Phillips, is to look farther, to look beyond what could narrow our hearts and to require of ourselves what God requires and causes: broad and open hearts.

And that brings us to the doorway of a third insight—more accurately, to the seashore, the Sea of Galilee. In this liminal thin place where earth and sea and sky touch, Jesus announces a parallel reality to the disintegrating world Paul names. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Both men are right. The present order is passing away; at the same time, God is doing a new thing. Entering human flesh, God is working great purpose out from within the human heart, broadening it, opening it.

On which side of the liminal divide will we choose to live?

To vilify our opponents and adversaries is to lock ourselves into the present form of this world.

To look no farther than our own business and not beyond our homes and belongings, our plans and feelings, is to be married to the present form of the world.

To obey when we hear Jesus say, “Follow me,” is to let him set our course in a parallel reality to a disintegrating world. To follow him there is to learn to practice a stewardship shaped by God’s fulfilment. To welcome the nearing Kingdom of God is to learn skills of repentance, humility, and belief that will cross the thin divide and bring to this world the grace it needs.

(Brooks’s sermon is found in his collection “The Purpose and Use of Comfort, and Other Sermons”, E. P. Dutton and Company, 1906, pp. 352-352.)