Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pentecost 20B, 2012: Seek the Lord and live

Proper 23 Lectionary: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As many of you know, I am the child of a recovering alcoholic. In fact, I’m my Dad’s A.A. baby which means I was conceived and born in his sobriety. I grew up immersed in the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. I knew my Dad’s story well, having heard him tell of his descent into a prison that was truly hell for him and for everyone who loved him, and how though A.A. he found life and freedom again – one day at a time.

My dad was and still is very active in “the program,” as he calls it. Growing up we often awoke to find some guy asleep on our couch, “drying out” Dad would say, especially around the holidays. I don’t ever remember feeling like they were intruders in our home or our holiday. We knew somehow, that we were modeling for them what family was (imperfect as we were).

My Dad was a tough guy – a street kid from Washington Heights in NYC. He was a boxer in the Navy and a pretty aggressive businessman. But I learned more about sin and salvation, about non-judgmental compassion and service to God from Dad’s ministry to those alcoholics than from almost anywhere else – including church.

I thought of this as I pondered our lectionary for today which calls us to examine what we believe about sin, goodness, good works, and salvation, and it asks us to be honest about it.

The Old Testament reading from the prophet Amos offers a simple message: “Seek the Lord and live.” What is there to seek besides the Lord? Ourselves, and our own desires.

When we do that, the prophet warns, we lose our way and head into destruction, and what the consequences of that looks like are clearly described by Amos. But is isn’t just our own destruction the prophet warns us about. When our attention is focused on ourselves, on our own desires, our own will we do harm to others as well. Ask any alcoholic

Many people approach the Old Testament, especially the prophets, as if they are threatening:
do the right thing or be wiped out by a vengeful God. I watched a documentary last night about a Christian sect whose leader preaches mostly about hell which he says is “a literal hell, with literal fires burning right now.” (Now ‘m not making a judgment here about what he believes. He could be right.) But he goes on to say, “I was saved, because I didn’t want to die and go to hell.”

In that same documentary, I learned of a place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, which is believed to be a portal into hell. It’s on an island in Ireland, and pilgrims still go there to fast, make sacrifices, and do penance in hopes of avoiding hell in the next life. The legend says if you go there three times you will never enter into hell.

I confess that I cannot understand salvation this way. I can’t understand becoming a follower out of fear rather than in response to the overwhelming Love of God.

When the prophet Amos says, “Seek the Lord and live” he’s saying that God, who is Love, is the source of life. The breath of God, the spirit of God gives us life. What can exist outside of the will of God? Who can live unless God chooses to breathe life into us?

“Seek the Lord and live.” Our life is found only in God who is gracious, and when God’s grace is upon us, the works of our hands are prospered, that is, we are given to good works.

In order for the graciousness of God to be upon us, we must, as medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said, detach from all else – from ourselves, from our wills, from our desires. We must turn our attention from what we want, from our goals, and seek only what God desires… what God wills.

But that’s hard to do. We live in a world which constantly tells us that we should want to be happy, beautiful, successful, and adored. We live in a world where “true love” is found buffet-style on reality TV, where body plastic has become the norm, where apprenticeships are won by the most manipulative and deceitful, and where personal value is calculated by the number of followers one has on Twitter or the heftiness of one’s bank account.

The message is: more is better. More stuff. More clout. More blessing. It’s an addiction in its truest form, and it isn’t so different for the rich man in today’s gospel story. A faithful believer, the rich man asks an honest question of Jesus – how can I be sure I will inherit eternal life?

Jesus answers like a rabbi would: ‘You know the commandments… don’t murder or commit adultery… don’t steal or bear false witness… don’t defraud… and honor your father and mother.' Isn’t that an interesting group of 6 of the 10 commandments Jesus chose to highlight?

And anyway, who can tell me… what number was the “thou shalt not defraud” commandment? It wasn’t. Jesus interpreted the “thou shalt not covet” commandment (# 10) for this rich man, who probably didn’t want much of what his neighbors had.

‘But I’ve kept these commandments from my youth,’ the rich man tells Jesus. I’ve lived a righteous life. See how blessed I am.

Jesus looks at him, looks deeply into his heart, and sees the sin there. Our Prayer Book says, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God…” (Catechism, BCP, 848) And as Paul Tillich says, sin is the state of being that separates us from God. Like this rich man, we can obey all of the rules and still sin.

So Jesus looks deeply, thoroughly, lovingly at this man and offers him a balm for his deepest suffering: freedom from his sin.

“There is one thing you lack,” Jesus says to him. ‘Detach from your stuff – from the symbols of your happiness, the evidence of your blessing. Give to the poor – empty yourself and your life of all that distracts you. Then come and follow me.’

Or, as Amos said it, ‘Seek the Lord and live.’

Mark tells us that the man was shocked by what Jesus said, and that “he went away grieving because he had many possessions.” It doesn’t say the man didn’t do as Jesus asked, only that he left deeply saddened and distressed by what God had asked of him.

I think most of us have this same kind of response when we get real about what God is asking from us… partly because God’s desire for us is so radically different from what the world teaches us to desire for ourselves; and partly because it’s just plain hard to detach.

After his encounter with the rich man, Jesus turns to his disciples and helps them detach from an idea that is a hindrance to their understanding of and service to God: the notion that living righteously will bring God’s blessing and living sinfully will bring God’s curse upon our lives.

Jesus says to them, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" This totally unhinges the disciples, who wonder… ‘if one whose life is clearly blessed by God can’t enter the kingdom of God…’ “Then who can be saved?”

Peter responds like the rich man did. ‘But Jesus, we’ve done that. We’ve left our homes and our families to follow you. What else do we need to do?’

And Jesus assures them, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be rewarded for your faithfulness, here in this life and eternally. But remember, it is God’s way, God’s will that is at work here so it may not look like or be like you’re expecting.

There are many who think they will be first in line to the kingdom of God because of their goodness or their good works, but they will be last because God knows the sin that lives in their hearts. And those who know their sin and stand humbly in the presence of God, those who willingly hold the last place in line will be the first ones welcomed into the kingdom.

Good works cannot save us. Following rules cannot save us. Only God can save us – and God has done that already in Jesus Christ because God loves us.

Our salvation doesn’t make us sinless. It makes us forgiven. It makes us free.

I close with the Prayer for the Victims of Addiction because it applies to all of us: O blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom. Restore to them the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love. Amen. (BCP, 831)

Note: The icon used as illustration is an 18th century Russian icon of the prophet Amos (Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church,Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia).

No comments: