Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Today concludes my Lenten journey with the good people of Christ Church, Rochdale. The readings for today can be found here.

I had a friend was a big baseball player
back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
but all he kept talking about was
Glory days well they'll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days

You can’t have me here for five weeks in a row and not get some Bruce Springsteen from me! You are lucky, however, that I didn’t sing it!

Now even for those of you who didn't recognize the words of that great American theologian, Bruce Springsteen, I bet you know what he’s talking about. It’s a sad state of affairs when someone reaches middle age but is still living in the past. Glory Days. 

Sometimes we can get ourselves stuck in a moment (to quote another songwriter-theologian). Sometimes we can get ourselves stuck in a grief or loss and it wears us down. We can’t move on and we can’t let it go because the pain is too great.

But we can also get ourselves stuck in moments that were quite profound and happy and positive. It’s cool to be a star athlete in high school. And it only becomes sad when you are getting ready for your twenty-fifth high school reunion and are still wearing your high school colors down at the local bar. Life is like a river; and rivers are about change. You cannot step into the same river twice. And besides all that sometimes our memories of the past are sometimes a little skewed.

Two of the voices that speak to us today from Holy Scripture are talking about letting go and moving on, not from a tragedy or loss, but from the temptation to nostalgia. The prophet Isaiah worries that the glory days of the Exodus, when God "made a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” are keeping the people of his day from noticing what God is up to in a new time and place. Certainly God was present on that day when the chariots and horses and riders of Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea and Miriam led the Israelites in song: “free at least, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last!” The Exodus was an amazing and extraordinary event.

But it happened a very long time ago. We are meant to sing of the faith of our fathers (and mothers) so that it might be a faith that is living still - a faith that is alive enough to pass on to our children and our grandchildren. It’s possible to get so caught up in Exodus talk that you will miss the new thing God is doing today. It happens to individuals like the guy in Bruce’s song. It can happen in families and even to nations. And yes, it can even happen to congregations. Where are the leaders we had back in the latter part of the eighteenth century, we sometimes ask? How come we don’t get leaders like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln anymore? Where are the pastors like the pastors of old? How come kids today don’t appreciate things the way that those who lived through the Great Depression did?

Sometimes our questions are fair. But more often we have done some revisionism, intentionally or not. I’ve become something of a buff over the past decade or so in reading about the founding fathers and I’ll tell you this: while there is no doubt that they were a great generation, they were also quite human and we do them and ourselves a disservice when we forget that democracy has never been easy. Before they had memorials on the lawn in Washington, DC, Washington and Jefferson (not to mention Adams and Madison) all had their foibles. All played petty politics. All let personal agendas sometimes get in the way of making good public policy. That isn’t to say that they didn’t on occasion rise above all of that; nor to in any way diminish their greatness. It is simply to say that nostalgia for the "glory days" of this Republic will not help us deal with the messes we face today. 

These are the good old days. Or at least, with God’s help, they have the potential to be. For sure they are the days we are called to live - with God's help. These are the days that God is at work in our lives, our families, our community and our nation. And my friends, these are the days that God is at work in this congregation. Keep your eyes and ears open.  

So the prophet Isaiah says something very strong: he tells people whose whole faith is built on the Exodus: forget about it. Why would he say that? I think it’s because if you are only looking to see what God did “once upon a time” then you are in danger of missing what God is doing right now. Isaiah says, even now, God is about to do a new thing. And you will not be able to perceive it if you are looking back. You can’t drive a car forward looking in the rear-view mirror. So keep your eyes on the prize, by paying attention to the sacrament of this present moment, to this time and place. If you turn around and look back to the Exodus then you will not see what is happening right now. 

St. Paul says something of the same thing as he thinks back on his old life as a respected Pharisee. In his own inimitable way, Paul says to his brothers and sisters in Philippi: “look, if anyone had reason to brag it was me! I was
  • circumcised on the eighth day
  • a member of the people of Israel
  • of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born of Hebrews
  • as to the law, a Pharisee
  • as to zeal, a persecutor of the church
  • as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

But Paul, too, says, “forget about it.” It is rubbish compared to what I’m moving towards. I know I’m not there yet, Paul says. But I know what I’m striving towards and so “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Forgetting what lies behind us—not just the crappy stuff but the glory days—in order to strain forward, to press on to what lies ahead. Isaiah and Paul and Bruce all agree that sitting around and talking about “glory days,” even God’s glory days, gets boring pretty fast. The challenge of faith is to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us. And sometimes we need to forget some things, let some things go, not just the difficult stuff we want to let go, but even the really great stuff that we think defines who we are, so that we can become the new creation God yearns for us to be.

Now I haven’t known you all for all that long. But over the past five weeks I’ve been really grateful to be among you. Thank you for your hospitality. I won’t pretend in five weeks to really know the story of this congregation like any of you do, who have been here for years and even decades. But I do know something about congregations in transition and I know that this Word is from the Lord – that God is not in the past but in this time right now, this in-between the trapeze bars time.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is at the home of his friends in Bethany – the home of Lazarus and Mary and Martha. Word has it that Martha is a really excellent cook, although she is prone to get a little uptight in the kitchen. But it is Mary who has this knack of paying attention to the moment – of knowing what time it is. This is a kind of last supper before The Last Supper. Jesus is away from the conflicts of the day and away from the paparazzi, just relaxing with friends. But he knows, and they know, what is coming. And so Mary breaks open the finest nard and anoints his feet, filling the house with the fragrance. It is a bold and extravagant act of love.

We know as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter that the whole week is about God’s extravagant love for not just us but the whole world. God so loved the whole world. May we live our lives like we believe that, not just as words on our lips but in our lives.

Today’s collect reminds us that we live in the midst of “swift and varied changes” of the world. Indeed. As if we didn’t all know that before we came here today! Time passes by very quickly and it’s really easy to understand how we can try to hold onto the anchor of good and happy memories of a better time and place. But we cannot go back in time. If our better time and place is in the past, we are certain to miss what God is doing right now in our lives and our world. And so we prayed that “our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” 

Where is that? Where can we fix our hearts in a world where time is an ever-flowing stream? The answer, of course, is to fix our hearts on God. That is the work God has given this congregation to do right now – keep your hearts fixed on God. Do not consider the former things—the glory days of a distant or recent past. Set your hearts and minds on God and press on toward the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ. Keep your eyes on the prize, and know that you will be in my prayers, and the prayers of our bishop.

No comments:

Post a Comment