Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fifteenth after Pentecost: Crash Helmets

(RCL-1 Proper 18C)

Grace to you and peace, on this summer Sunday, a holiday weekend, and just leaning forward into the Fall. School under way most places, which always feels odd to me, as when we were kids we never had first day of school until after Labor Day. Of course here, after the summer interval back now to our fall/winter/spring schedule of Sunday services at 9 and 11--and next Sunday, Round Up Sunday, all the fun of the first day of Church School and with full Choir at the later service. Lots of things going on all around us—building and grounds, church school, adult education, music and choir. I certainly get a sense of a lot of great energy. Looking forward to it.

With all these good things, and of course with the enjoyment we have with one another, friends and family together, the readings from Jeremiah and Luke sound something of an unsettling note, I think. Words about judgment in Jeremiah. Words about costly discipleship in St. Luke.

In both readings, at a moment perhaps when we’d rather just lie back in the hammock and enjoy a lazy summer afternoon--all about strict accountability and serious consequences. Just to take a deep breath.

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Pittsburgher Annie Dillard has this very memorable comment:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions.” [I love that: “sensible of the conditions.”] She goes on, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

There we have Jeremiah and Luke in a nutshell: that God may wake someday and see who we are and what we are doing, and take offense; or that he may take us up on the language of our hymns and Prayer Book prayers and—lift us up and fill our sails and carry us far out to sea, past the sight of land. Just a lot easier for all of us if he keeps snoozing. If that’s really what he’s doing . . . .

Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.

So, anyway: we have this image before us in Jeremiah. God as the potter, certainly emphasizing our wet-clay provisionality, our state of absolute dependence upon him, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” ready whenever the creation in his hands begins to go off center to push it all back down onto the wheel and start again.

The point is that sooner or later we will be what he makes us to be. Even if he has to bring us back to first principles again and again and again along the way. A judgment that can fall upon nations and peoples, and upon each one of us, one by one. As the old joke goes, God asks us, “what made you think that those were the ‘10 Suggestions?’”

We say about teenagers sometimes, and with some anxiety, when they first pick up the car keys and head out on their own, “they think they’re immortal.” Says the Potter to the Clay: “if you think you’re in charge here, think again.”

Or then as Jesus in Luke says to that bustle of a crowd following him, enjoying the day and the company, entertained by the parables and dazzled by the miracles: kings don’t go to war without running an inventory of troops, weapons, supplies, to be sure they have a reasonable chance of survival and even of success. That’s how kings stay kings. The ones who don’t, don’t last long. This may all seem like fun and games for the moment. But read the fine print. Maybe this like those pharmaceutical ads on television. Read the fine print, he says, as he points them from where they are standing on that sunny afternoon over all the hills and valleys, to Jerusalem, and to the Cross.

First Sunday of the fall, and we may be a long way away from Holy Week and Good Friday. But friends, we will get there, no question about it, and it will seem like the blink of an eye. Not just him, long ago and far away. But all who follow him. Wake up and smell the coffee.

So again, as Annie Dillard, “we should all be wearing crash helmets.” It’s about waking up. Being “sensible of the conditions.” I used to run every fall for seven or eight years in the Ikea/Montour Run Half Marathon, a 13.1 mile course that begins way up high in the Ikea parking lot in Robinson Township, and then turns dramatically downhill for the first mile or so of the race. And I’ll tell you—very tempting to lean into that, because you can really get going. But it has to be in your mind at the same time: 12 miles to go afterwards, after you get to the bottom of the hill, and in fact the last 6 will be on a gradual upgrade the whole way. If you want to finish, and finish strong, you need to be thinking about that from the very beginning of the race. “Sensible of the conditions.”

The point is that this is a big deal, what we’re about here this morning. Coming into his presence. Not that we don’t all know this at some level. But sometimes it seems a little too easy, maybe. The Sunday morning routine. An interval between coffee and brunch. For Annie Dillard: children on the floor with our toy chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT. Looks like fun and games, but watch out . . . .

The reality is that our lives are in the balance. Perhaps sometimes that seems very clear to us. But I think often it slips by. Who we are. What we will become. As we choose to follow Jesus. A choice about fundamental identity and allegiance.
A choice that we make or decide not to make a hundred times a day. With different vocabularies, in different contexts of our lives. But to say, today, that this meal not a midmorning snack, but the living presence of the one who is necessary for our life, and our salvation. And not just about us as individuals, but in a meaningful way, the whole of the created order, the heavens and the earth, at the point of transformation. Something beyond our imagination.

We meet him here. He meets us. And every moment, every gesture. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel. Carefully, though. Sensible of conditions. The big picture of our lives. Every moment a crossroads. Amazing to think of all the roads, all the journeys that have brought us here to this place, this morning. Again and again and again, a place of decision. Because it is our choice always. We open our hands to receive him. The Bread of Life. The New Wine of the Kingdom. Born that winter night in Bethlehem, lifted up on a spring afternoon outside of Jerusalem. Go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise. If we would say, “this is who I am now. This is what I will be.” First the caterpillar, then the butterfly. That’s a nice image on a poster. It almost looks easy. But a challenging one to apply to ourselves. Clay in the Potter's hands. Death and resurrection. To be a part of God’s future. Our lives, as we decide about them this morning. The old is gone, and behold, something new being born.

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