Saturday, September 6, 2008

Eleventh after Pentecost, 2007

August 12, 2007 XI Pentecost (RCL Proper 14C) Is. 1:1, 10-20; Luke 12: 32-40

Everyone was shocked, shocked, when they heard that Mr. and Mrs. Jones were separating. It was a close-knit neighborhood, and people were always bumping into one another—dropping the kids off at school or taking their turn driving the soccer team, walking dogs in the evening, chatting about the news while standing in line at the local coffee shop or while visiting on one another’s front porches. And it wasn’t just the neighbors who were taken by surprise: even their families, parents, brothers and sisters. The kids had known for a while that something was going on, of course—a certain tension in the air, but even for them the news landed like a ton of bricks.

The thing is: some of us are better at this than others. And even though we all do it, we still get caught up short when we’re on the receiving end. The games people play, the roles we adopt, the costumes we wear, the sets we design, the scripts we manufacture: doing what we can to manage how we are perceived. Keeping secrets. Strategies to camouflage the parts of ourselves we want to keep hidden away. –Remembering occasional tabloid news stories about bigamists who maintain separate households for many years—or the stories that came out of East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the opening of the records of the stasi. Husbands discovered that their wives had for years been reporting on neighbors, even on family members. Parish priests had been hearing confessions on Saturday and meeting with their spy-agency handlers on Monday morning. Secret identities spread out in multiple directions, with layers of interaction, and many had to confront the uncertainty about whether the sustaining relationships of their lives might have been little more than a cover story. What was real?

Most of our stories may not be quite so dramatic, but many of us, again, are still pretty good at projecting an image. Sometimes we get so good at it that we even forget we’re doing it—begin to believe our own stories, the line between our imaginary and our authentic selves blurring, maybe even disappearing altogether. Sometimes this about relatively minor things, a bit of cosmetic cover-up without such dramatic consequences. But sometimes even all the little things begin to add up. The reality is, of course, that sooner or later our chickens come home to roost. You can build a house out of textured cardboard that looks pretty good from the street. But when the rains come, the truth of the matter will be revealed. You look in the mirror in the morning and ask the question, is this really me?

So: Isaiah this morning. Unlike some of the other prophets, Isaiah doesn’t come at the community as an outsider. He’s one of the elite. An aristocrat. Well-educated. Highly respected in society and highly placed in government, a senior advisor to the king, maybe something like the Secretary of State. But he’s not one of those advisors who only tells the king the things he knows the king wants to hear. He’s not like one of those political figures running for office who read the opinion polls and tell people what they want to hear. He’s a straight-talker, and what he has to say doesn’t make anybody happy. And our sense historically is that maybe folks didn’t pay too much attention to him at the time. He’s like the financial guys who were worried about a “bubble” in technology stocks in 1999 or housing prices in 2005. Nobody pays much attention to the naysayer in the midst of so much effervescent good news. But sometimes in hindsight they look like geniuses. And after the Iraqi armies had swept over the land and flattened the cities, turned the vast Kidron Valley into a graveyard and reduced the heritage of David’s kingdom to a smouldering ruin, those who were left, scratching out an existence in the remote countryside or in Babylonian refugee camps and Egyptian slums began to sort through their experiences--and suddenly now old Isaiah doesn’t look like such a crazy guy after all.

What Isaiah had to say: that our health as a nation isn’t measured by quarterly consumer confidence reports, that our strength isn’t measured by the size of our army or our enthusiastic patriotic parades, but that what matters most, as the foundation, is the integrity of our lives in relationship to God and to one another. It’s not about how successful we appear, but about “walking the walk.” Justice and mercy, equity, true respect for one another, compassion, true worship and good stewardship.

What God says to Isaiah: It makes me sick when people put on these ornamented vestments and act out these elaborate ceremonies and offer their poetic prayers and sing their majestic hymns, when what is in their hearts is disloyalty, self-centered greed, the idolatry of consumerism, prejudice, violence. Sunday makes me sick when it has nothing to do with the other six days of the week. Forget the lamb on the altar. What matters to me is the sacrifice of an obedient heart.

It’s the sermon that John the Baptist would be preaching 600 years later, turn around, repent, before it’s too late . . . and Jesus, with that parable about the man who built his house on the sand. Sometimes we hear the sermon the first time and it doesn’t seem to have much to do with us. But then the rain starts to fall, and the winds begin to blow. The NASDAQ plunges, subprime mortages go bad, and we think to ourselves: “Maybe I should have paid more attention to Isaiah when I could have done something about it.” Too soon old, too late smart, as the saying goes. Which is a theme reflected in our gospel lesson—the tragic moment of recrimination. “If only I had known, if only I had listened.” Well, we’ve all been there too, and we’ll be there again, no question about it. "If only."

In any case, we sing, we pray in stately Elizabethan English, we wear ornamented vestments—and even on summer Sundays make a fuss about grand entrances. We’re Episcopalians, after all. But the challenge is always about connecting. About whether this is an aestheic interlude, or even an anaesthetic interlude, a retreat from, or whether in the midst of the busyness and messiness of our lives day by day the words we sing and the songs we sing become bit by bit a reflection and expression of who we actually are, of who we are trying to be, making a difference, in sincerity and truth, and not just a part of a costume. Always a challenge. Not a mountain we ever can say we climb to the summit, but a few steps forward, upward, then sliding back, but always taking a breath and going at it again.

In any case, Isaiah reminds me to say this morning that what I’m most thankful for in the life that we share as a parish family are not the perfect and elegant moments—though of course we do have a few of those from time to time—but instead are those kind of messy, fumbling, slipping-and-sliding moments when something breaks through and really gets real. Sometimes that’s in church, and sometimes it’s at a Vestry meeting or at Coffee Hour or in the animated debate of a cottage meeting, or in a casual conversation while we’re dropping the kids off upstairs in the Nursery. Not always, anyway, at the moment you would have guessed. But a gift that does something real for us and in us. When the costumes are forgotten, the scripts set aside. When there is forgiveness and healing, the genuine article, and when there is a turning of the heart to the needs of another--when there is a deepening in the spirit of the living Christ that settles in for us in a place deeper than any place where words are ever able to go.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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