Monday, February 12, 2007

Misplaced Trust

SJF • Epiphany 6c • Tobias Haller BSG
Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
A couple of weeks ago I got a pair of those computer glasses designed for working while sitting in front of the computer. The focus of these glasses is fixed about two feet in front of my face. What I’d found is that with my bifocals, I was having to bend over and lean forward in order to see the computer screen and it was giving me an awful pain in the neck. Anyway, the new glasses seemed to work fine — at least as long as I was sitting in front of the computer. But I learned very quickly that it was dangerous to keep them on if I had to get up from my desk to do anything else. At one point I had to go downstairs, and very nearly fell down them! The short-range focus on my computer glasses caused me to miss an entire step which I didn’t even see was there. There’s an old saying, “I couldn’t believe my eyes!” And in this case I shouldn’t have.

As I might say, in keeping with the reading from Jeremiah, I put my trust in my own mortal flesh — or my eyeballs, anyway. Now, of course, Jeremiah is talking about much more serious things than a stumble on a staircase. He’s speaking about the lousy leadership that his nation has experienced for centuries. Out of all the kings of Judah, only a handful have been decent, godly, and righteous. Most of them have gone from bad to worse, and as Jeremiah predicts, the kingdom is on its last legs — and he would live to see its fall.

So Jeremiah’s warning, not to put your trust in mere mortals, is based on hard experience. You can sense just how miserable he feels in his description of those who do put their trust in mortals: they are like a shrub in the desert, far from water, destined to shrivel and wither in a parched wilderness, an uninhabited salt land.

+ + +

Have you ever felt like such a shrub? I mean, have you ever felt betrayed or deceived or disappointed because you put your trust in someone who didn’t live up to your expectations? If you’ve never felt this way, you are either incredibly lucky, or you just haven’t been paying attention! I think most of us have been let down by people in the past — friends or family, children or parents or spouses. And who of us hasn’t, at one time or another in our lives, felt betrayed by our elected leaders, from City Hall to the White House? Just like Jeremiah, we’ve learned that kings are not always good and wise and righteous.

The problem is that we often trust our eyes — or we’ve got the wrong kind of glasses on — able only to see two feet ahead of our faces. We see what we want to see, we believe what we want to believe, rather than listening to that quiet little voice of God’s angel sitting on our shoulder, saying, “Watch out!” We want to trust people, especially our leaders, whether in the state or the church — we don’t want to constantly have to go around with an attitude of suspicion and mistrust, not believing anything we hear. And yet, we keep getting burned by the bad leadership of those in whom we placed our trust. And as I say, this can happen in the church just as much as it happens with City Hall or Congress.

We see a good example of this in Saint Paul’s ongoing struggle with the church of Corinth. What a handful they were! It’s sometimes as if not only did they have the wrong kind of glasses on but were wearing blindfolds. They seem eager to believe what anybody tells them — and in the passage today it’s a serious misconception they’ve stepped into. Someone’s been telling them there is no resurrection of the dead. Now, all other things aside, the resurrection of the dead is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. You can sense how frustrated Paul must’ve been trying to explain this to the Corinthians. It is said, by the way, that Saint Paul was bald — at least he is always shown that way in the old icons — and no doubt he pulled out a few hairs over the Corinthians. He’s saying to them, if there’s no resurrection, what’s the point? It’s like wanting to study mathematics without being bothered with numbers.

It reminds me of something from my childhood. My aunt Barbara was taking me to the movies to see the film version of the Broadway musical, The Music Man. We got into the taxi and she told the driver to go to the theater. As we went along, the driver said, “I saw that movie. I didn’t understand it; I mean, every once in a while, the people would stop talking and start singing! It didn’t make any sense.” I can still remember the look on Aunt Barbara’s face as she turned to me in silence as we sat in the back seat of the taxi!

This must be something like how Saint Paul felt about the Corinthians — they want to be Christians, but without all that stuff about Easter! — like a musical without music.

The question is, Why would these Corinthians have trusted anyone who came to them with a message so out of keeping with the heart of the gospel they’d already received, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” How could they have placed their trust in someone giving them such an off-the-wall rendition of the gospel?

Well, there was a stream of thought in Greek philosophy — and let’s remember that Corinth is in Greece — that spiritual and bodily don’t go together, that they are opposed to each other. This philosophy taught that the spirit is good, and that the body is bad. The pagan Greeks had no trouble believing in the immortality of the soul in an afterlife. But it was a disembodied kind of afterlife. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead must have seemed to them to be just, well, icky. The idea of dead bodies getting up and walking around, re-animated corpses, was repulsive. And someone must have taken advantage of this repulsion to start teaching a new gospel in which there was no such resurrection.

So Saint Paul begins, in the passage we have today, by saying that if there is no resurrection of the dead we might just as well close up shopright now. He will go on to explain that the resurrection of the dead is not a disembodied kind of resurrection — but nor is it simply the re-animation of a corpse. Spirit and body are not opposed — especially since the Word of God himself became flesh and took on a human body — and our resurrection is like the Incarnation in reverse — when our bodies shall take on that spiritual reality, and we shall be like him. This is the Gospel of Christ, after all, not “Night of the Living Dead”! Paul will explain that the resurrection body is not just the physical body reanimated — but a whole new kind of body, indeed, a spiritual body: a body no more like the bodies we have now than a growing stalk of wheat is like the seed that gives rise to it — more living, more vibrant, more productive, more solid and real than our merely physical bodies. Christ’s body, and our bodies, are like seeds that have grown (in his case) and will grow (in ours) into something wonderful and unexpected.

+ + +

We don’t know if the Corinthians ever understood Paul’s teaching. He had to write to them again, and Saint Clement did too, decades later. But this serves as a lesson to us — not to put our trust in mere earthly concepts, or to trust the pared down version of the faith that some might be tempted to offer us rather than its fullness and its glory. It is easier sometimes to accept these bargain-basement explanations; just as it is easy to forget to change your glasses when you get up from working at the computer —believe me! It is easier to put your trust in what you think you see, what you think you know, what you want to hear, than to wait and keep your trust for what you hope and believe from God. It is easy to jump to simple answers rather than work through the hard challenges God places upon us.

+ + +

Which brings me to the present day, and not the human body, but the body of the church. In the next few weeks there are going to be some major meetings concerning the future of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a member. As you know, some of the other parts of the Anglican Communion haven’t been too happy with us for a while. Some of them would like to see the Anglican Communion radically altered: from a fellowship of self-governing churches into a kind of constitutional empire with a strong central government: designed mostly to prevent the individual members from doing anything the majority doesn’t approve; and chopping them off if they don’t toe the line. I don’t honestly expect much to come of this — as I don’t think some of those most eager to govern others would like to be governed in this way themselves — as they may realize before they sign on the dotted line.

Besides that, this form of government for the church seems a shortsighted step backward. It’s as if these church leaders still have their computer glasses on, only able to see two feet ahead, rather than to see the long sweep of Christian history behind us and of the Christian hope before us — so that their eyes aren’t properly focused on Christ, and what he would have us do, but only on the immediate troubles. It is as if they are trying to encase the body of the church in some kind of preservative — always to keep it the same — even though history shows us that the church is constantly growing and changing because it is alive — alive with the Risen life of Christ. For Christ came to offer us new life — and if fear of what is new drives us only to hold on to what is old, instead of the wonderful resurrection of the dead — transformed and transfigured in ways we cannot expect or predict — we will end up with a church that just goes through the motions — like a preserved dead body pulled by strings, twitching in a semblance of life but not truly alive.

One of the reasons I am an Anglican, an Episcopalian, is because Anglicans say, right up front, something that most other churches are unwilling to admit, and that is: “the Church makes mistakes.” It was a big step forward to be able to say that. And it was a big step apart from both the Roman Catholics who relied on the authority of the Pope, and from the Reformers who relied on their supposedly infallible understanding of the Scriptures. This attitude of humility that Anglicans adopted, not just to be different, but to affirm a deep truth, reflected what Saint Paul tells the Corinthians later in this letter: our knowledge is incomplete, and there is much more to be revealed. And we’ll hear more about that passage next week. And that is why Anglicans rejected at the beginning, and have avoided ever since, a church with a strong central government that suppresses discussion or exploration of new ideas — for we learn from our mistakes as well as from the things we get right, just as I learned to take off my computer glasses when I get up to go downstairs. We know that we mortals are fallible — yet we trust in the resurrection of the dead — that God has still better things planned for us than we can ask or imagine.

Queen Elizabeth the First, who ruled when the Anglican way was emerging into its reality, rejected the title her father Henry the VIII assumed — Head of the Church. Elizabeth knew that title belonged to Jesus, and she chose the more modest title of “Governor in earth of the Church of England.” She had no wish to make the error of absolutism — as if any mortal, whether pope or monarch, could have the last word that belongs to God alone.

And so it is that we classical Anglicans do not put our trust in mortals, even bishops and primates and monarchs — but in God, who, we are confident, can help us to work through our errors and bring us into his truth: a truth to which we can never come if we try to stand still in a changing world. For that is how the shrub ends up stuck in the middle of the desert — unable to move when the stream that nourishes it changes course, and unable to send out its roots to follow the stream — and so ends up in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. If we close our eyes and our hearts and our minds to God’s Holy Spirit working even through our mistakes; if we trust in government by earthlyleaders instead of spiritually embodied communion with each other in a fellowship of equals, there will be little hope for us.

So let us pray, sisters and brothers, that what lies before us is an opportunity for resurrection, for new life, transformed and transfigured by grace through faith. Otherwise we may find ourselves in a desert without water, a musical without singing, a vision set only two feet before our faces, a life with no future, a church with no spirit. “If for this alone we hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” For freedom Christ has made us free, so let us turn to him, and not to mortals, to make mere flesh our strength. Blessed are you, our Lord assures us, when people hate you, when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of God. He has better things prepared for us than any Primates could concoct or connive. And he it is whom we proclaim our only governor, our mediator and our advocate, and our Lord and God.+


4 comments:

John-Julian, OJN said...

Yes, indeed!

I preached recently on "Formaldehyde Faith" The kind that is dead and kept in bottles on a shelf!

Chip Johnson+, cj said...

“the Church makes mistakes.”

Exactly, and after admitting this to ourselves, as the Church, what can or must we do about it? The waffling at GC2006 solved no problems, answered no questions of faith, it rather intensified them. If the Tanzania meeting calls for additional strictures, what will the Church then do at GC2009?
Pardon me for not making comments directly to the sermon itself, but your phrase about error was quite telling, and it must be considered as it stands...what can/will/must be done to correct this present error in the Church?

Tobias said...

Chip,
The acts of GC2003 have not at this point been shown to have been in error. Only a certain amount of time will tell if this was a right decision or not. A bunch of people disagreeing with it is no more proof of error than the railing of the Sanhedrin against the early church's witness. The advice of Gamaliel, to wait and see if it is of God, is commendable.
I, and a majority of the Episcopal Church, do not at this point believe we are in error. It will take more than a kind of global "Yes you are!" to convince us of the error of our ways. In the meantime, it is better to be persecuted for what you belive to be right, than to please mere mortals in positions of leadership -- who may just as well be wrong.

Anonymous said...

I have never seen the resurrected spiritual body described this way—not a Night of the Living Dead but something much better, analogous to the living Church. Wow. I bet lots of people in the pews would enjoy hearing more about this. Thank you!

Josh Thomas