Sunday, December 8, 2013

Wild and Holy is Our God (Sermon)

Advent 2

Ezekiel 37:1-14

            God is wild and holy, untamed by our efforts to tame, contain, or fully understand. The book of Ezekiel reveals some of the nature of a wild and holy God. The prophet Ezekiel speaks to the people of Israel as they are in exile in Babylon. He is among the first deportation from Israel and is still there as two generations of children have been born on Babylonian soil.

            Ezekiel rails against Israel’s idolatry (worshipping of other gods) and failure to trust in the covenant God has made with them. He receives and presents visions of God’s holiness that pursues Israel in a chariot, seeking to overtake them, even as God’s people flee to other paths.

            Ezekiel notes the unfaithfulness of the people again and again. In almost the same breath, he pours forth promises from the Lord that the covenant will still be upheld from the Lord’s end. That God will not fail to keep God’s word is the refrain of the fiercesome song that is the book of this prophet.

            In chapter 33, Ezekiel gets word from a refugee from Jerusalem. The temple has fallen. The place where God was believed to reside was now a pile of rubble. What does that mean for where God is now? How can God act without a base of operations? What will become of those who called themselves people of God?

            Now you will see, Ezekiel says. Now you will understand God’s faithfulness, God’s holiness, God’s way of being in the world and beyond. And so we come to the vision described in chapter 37. Up to this point, Ezekiel has been describing the destruction and pain of the Israelites in Babylon and scattered throughout Egypt and along the trade routes of Northern Africa and toward India.

            The scene we see at the beginning of 37 is a battlefield. In ancient (and not so ancient) tradition, the victors did not bury the bodies of the defeated. Those who lost in battle and who lost their lives were left where they fell. Presumably the victors carried any living off into slavery or also slew them on the spot. The dead lay out, under the hot sun, as carrion for all predators, including the birds of prey. The bones would have been picked clean and then sun-bleached. The battlefield, with its dry, gruesome memorial, would have been a testament to the strength of the victors.

            So we are talking about a scene of death. Nothing living. Nothing even rotting. Just death. Yet nothing is too dead for God. Nothing is beyond God’s ability to restore life and bring wholeness. Nothing is past where God can heal and bring peace.

            This is the vision and message that God brings to Ezekiel to tell the people who are prepared to abandon all hope. God doesn’t need a base camp. God is wild and free and able to bring life out of death.

            For we who are Easter people, that God brings life out of death is a refrain we are almost too used to hearing. Yet, that was not the case in this time period. The people of Israel, at this time, did not have a fully developed embrace of resurrection. It was not part of their religious faith or understanding. Thus, this vision was ASTOUNDING. God would bring dead things back to life… God would restore life to Israel… a life of promise and possibility… enfleshed, muscled, and filled with breath, with the Spirit.

            Why does God do this? We would be quick to say because of grace. Others would say it is for the sake of God’s reputation. I don’t think it is grace or because God is worried about what people think.  Instead, this vision is a revelation, like so many from Scripture, about the fundamental nature of God. God is a God of revelation, resurrection, and reformation. Not just in Babylon, not just in 15th century Germany, not just in the person of Jesus (though especially in the person of Jesus), but in all times and all places.

            God brings life out of death… creation out of a void… light out of darkness in all times and all places. This is who and what God is about. That is the essence of the wild and holy nature of God. What we might declare dry, life pours out of – by the hand of God. What we would declare dead lives- by the hand of God. What we would declare unchangeable is recreated- by the hand of God.

            There is nothing that is too dead for the God who has called us, named us, and claimed us. Not society, not creation, not the church, not anything in our lives. Thus, we are called to look- look for real signs of life, look for the shoots of promise growing, look for springs of hope pouring forth. We too, like the Israelites, must avoid the idolatry of resignation, of impatience, of lack of eager anticipation. What in your life, in your neighborhood, in the world needs resurrection? What is the vision God is giving you of flesh on that skeleton, of breath in that body, of movement in what was previously still?

            Many centuries ago, Advent lasted until Epiphany. It was much more clearly a season marked by prayer and anticipation of God’s promises in Christ. Slowly, as Christmas became a bigger celebration, Advent became smaller. It was still a marker to think about Christ coming again, but as that became intertwined with anticipating the celebration of Jesus’ birth… Advent became somewhat secondary.

            However, Advent is the season to speak to dry bones. Advent is the season that speaks to God’s wild holiness. Advent is the season that says we are engaged in a mystery- a mystery which we cannot fully understand or resolve, but in which we are called to full participation.

            If you are here, if you can hear my voice, if you are reading this… you, like Ezekiel, are called to speak to dry bones- whatever they might be in your life. Declare that the very nature of God is to restore life to what seems dead. Speak firmly that nothing, nothing is too dead for God. The very hope we have in the Christ we await is the clearest revelation of that truth: nothing is too dead for resurrection. God is wild and holy, untamed by our efforts to tame, contain, or fully understand.

Thanks be to God.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Ubi Caritas

Originally posted at RevGalBlogPals.

            This past Sunday, I read The Sparkle Box to a group of children. The premise behind this book is that a family notes the things they do to help other people during the Christmas season. They write down their efforts- donating to blankets, funding a well, giving mittens- and put the slips of paper in a sparkly box under the tree. Their deeds are their gift to Jesus on his birthday.

            As I read the story to the kids, who were very engaged, I also explained how we could do this kind of thing, not just at Christmas, but also during any time of the year. Even as I spoke, I watched the reactions of parents. I could see some who were nodded and interested. I could also see those who were skeptical and some who frowned.

            I knew some of the frowners wanted to point out that the man who was sleeping in the park could have made better choices, that food distribution goes to support “welfare queens”, that building wells doesn’t help people change their system or their behavior. We have moved from understanding “charity” not to be associated with caritas (Latin: costliness, esteem, affection), but to be something that is anathema to many, including those who might give and those who might receive.

            We argue about enabling, about worthiness, about “feel-good” measures. We lament and, often, we become resigned to systems and ways of thinking that seem unchangeable. Injustice and a culture of death seem insurmountable. Thus, charity becomes something we all wrestle with, that causes mixed feelings, that is never elevated to the caritas and mutual benefit that is the desire of God- when we are commanded and commended to the care of the poor.

            This week was filled with gushing commentary on Evangelii Gaudium, the urgent letter from Pope Francis to clergy, religious, and all people of faith in the world. Some people could not say enough about the letter, which lifted up the plight of the poor, urged joy in evangelism, and encouraged a posture of reason and rationality among the Church’s faithful. Others howled that the letter encouraged “Marxism” and denounced capitalism.

            Pope Francis never mentions capitalism at all, but instead speaks firmly and forcefully against the way that money has come to possess our minds and habits, rather than being a tool of or for them. The pursuit of money causes people, churches, governments, and nations to trample over what is perceived as weak or weakness. The greater gain triumphs over the greater good.

            In abandoning caritas, we reject the truth of Mary’s Magnificat- that God can, has, and will bring down those who are in high places and lift up the lowly. God’s desire and plan is for those who are hungry to feast and for those who are wealthy to learn what it means to do without. We grow used to hearing arguments about people who “don’t try” or who “game the system”. We feel frustrated by the assumptions we make about the people around us, without knowing their whole story. Exhausted by what seems to be a never-ending need, we start to dial back our efforts- certain that the problem can never be fixed.

            Pope Francis writes:

Realities are more important than ideas[1]

 231. There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. So a third principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom. 

232. Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis. Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Formal nominalism has to give way to harmonious objectivity. Otherwise, the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies… We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric. Others have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people. 

233. Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bimillennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism.

            Dealing with reality is more important that holding onto ideals that never come to fruition. Where have we seen this in practice? Certainly this principle was visible in the work and life of Nelson Mandela. Had he simply held that apartheid was evil and should be ended, without acknowledging the serious work that would be part of tearing down that practice, it might well continue today.

            If Mandela had said, “We need to come together,” but never donned the soccer jersey and strode onto the field during the World Cup in 1995, his ideals would have been nothing more than symbolic. His willingness to put into practice, to live out what he hoped would become true exactly undergirds what Pope Francis is explaining now: a failure to heed realities makes a mockery of truth.

            Certainly Advent is a season of acknowledging reality. We wonder if Jesus is really returning. We are no longer certain that peace can happen in our lifetimes. We despair that anything will be better for our children. We are resigned that our efforts to improve the plight of the poor actually makes any difference.

            The difference between charity and caritas is the difference between the idea and the reality. The idea behind charity, as we have come to say the word today, is improving the situation of our neighbors. The reality of charity is that the improvement is usually short-term and rarely (but sometimes!) systemic.

            The idea behind caritas is a lifting of all boats, a growth in understanding of our neighbors, a genuine sharing of what is deep, essential, and costly. The reality of caritas is that, when lived out, everyone can participate. Every person can give of what is costly to him or herself for the sake of neighbors, for the sake of the world, for the sake of Christ. Caritas is what brings ideas into being new realities. Caritas is what works to end oppression, division, and strife. Caritas is how God brings the kingdom through our hands. Caritas goes beyond the sparkle box to the manger to where God’s ideals of mercy and grace became the reality of Emmanuel. To again quote Pope Francis, and to channel Nelson Mandela: Caritas… “Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and [ignorance of material truths]”.