Sunday, March 18, 2012

When God's Kingdom Is Scary

It’s Spring Break.  Woohoo!  At least for another twenty-two hours, it’s still Spring Break.  And you’re here.  A minor miracle.  Praise God: we’re here, praising God.  As a kid, when Spring Break shared time with the Daylight Savings Time change, as it did last weekend, I always figured it was my teachers’ fault.  I imagined my teachers circled up in that mysterious room they called the "teacher's lounge," conspiring to make sure that my Spring Break week was as short as humanly possible.  “Give them the week they lose the hour,” I imagined them saying.  

Spring Break.  And I think of the beach and Frisbees and all kinds of games.  Outdoor games, mostly.  March Madness, of course, college basketball.  A few nights ago, on our family walk, I saw some wee ones - they couldn’t have been more than four years old - and they’d been collected by their parents in a parking lot and given over-sized mitts and hats that fell over their eyes.  Learning baseball, during Spring Break.  Picking up that great American pastime. 

Of course, not everyone learns games like these so early on in life, as children.  My father-in-law remembers hearing the neighborhood kids outside in the streets, playing some kind of ball, as he stared down a stack of sheet music, cello in hand.  He wanted to play the french horn, or - even better - to be outside with friends, playing ball.  Alas, on most days, this was not to be.

My own father would take my brothers and me outside frequently, in the days of longer light, the days of Spring, and gently teach us the fine art of the button-hook route or the bank shot or the high fly ball properly caught, with two hands.

And whether baseball or football or tennis or golf or racquetball or soccer or basketball (at least on defense) or softball or anything else, it seemed like the instructional refrain was always the same: “Keep your eye on the ball.”

Keep your eye on the ball.  Those sweet, familiar words.  Because situations around you may change.  But your responsibility in the moment never begins with more or less than your relationship to the ball.  In the midst of great excitement, pressure, and change, can you both read the situation and fundamentally remain unchanged in your focus?  This is the great challenge.  Because if you miss the ball, whatever other plans or great plays you had imagined for yourself or your team come up empty.  Everything depends on the commitment of each teammate to these six words:

Keep your eye on the ball.

Because it’s easy to become distracted, even - indeed, especially - by important looking things.

You’ve probably gathered by now that the preacher is talking about more than pop flies and well struck volleys.  Or at least he intends to.  I want to suggest this morning that “keep your eye on the ball,” is more than good sports advice; it’s the fundamental chorus of the season we’re walking just now as Christians: this season called Lent.

Today we celebrate the fourth Sunday in Lent, and I want to share with you three short stories about distraction and focus: keeping one’s eye on the ball. 

The first short story comes from the Old Testament lesson: the people have been delivered out of slavery in Egypt by the Lord their God.  The Lord their God has promised them a good land of rich promise: overflowing with milk and honey.  A few books back, the people complained: they had grown hungry on the road-trip.  God heard their complaints and arranged for the people to eat manna from heaven - the bread of angels - and as long as they only gathered enough for that day (but not more - no stuffing it into their pockets, a la Napoleon Dynomite), they had more than enough.  Today, though, they’re tired of culinary reruns.  They’re grouchy.  It’s not that they’re not being fed; they just don’t like the food.  Like cranky kids is a school cafeteria.  The people are a half step away from preferring the food and slavery of Egypt - or starving! - to the promise and provision of God.  They are distracted. 

In the story, God sends snakes to bite their feet because he’s tired of their ingratitude.  The people get the message, they repent, say they’re sorry, and the Lord instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole, and the people who look at the serpent will be healed and live.  The bronze snake serves as an occasion for repentance for the people and a visually symbolic refocusing of the people by their obedience to God.

The second short story of distraction and focus comes from John’s gospel: Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and Jesus tells Nicodemus that the people, some thousands of years later, have become as distracted by their sins as the Israelites in the wilderness were by their appetites and the snakes.  Jesus especially names the sin of deception, which is the people’s desire to hide their sins from others.  They don’t want their deeds exposed.  Somebody told me once that nobody wants to be deceived, but everyone wants to retain the power to deceive someone else, you know, in case it ever comes in handy.  Consequently, the people have grown to prefer darkness to light.  And the only ones they’re fooling - the only ones they’re deceiving - are themselves. 

The people are distracted, Jesus says.  They need to be refocused.  And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, Jesus himself will be lifted up on the cross.  An occasion for repentance and refocus in the obedience of God’s Son, even to death.

The last short story of distraction and focus - keeping one’s eye on the ball, on that which has the power to heal - is us.  We who are four weeks into this Lenten journey.  You’ll remember that two weeks ago, Jesus told his disciples that God’s victory would lead Jesus to Jerusalem, where he would be killed.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...” we remember from our gospel.  But this made as much sense to Jesus' friends and followers as looking to a snake to be rid of snakes must have made to the Israelites.  At the time, Peter rebuked Jesus and told him that that was no way to run a Kingdom of God.  Jesus told Peter he didn’t know what he was talking about.

So you and I become the last short story of distraction and focus when it becomes clear that the Lord that we love is preparing to die for us - even when to all eyes this looks like the end of the game - and we discover the question:

“Will you keep your eyes on Christ - even when things get scary?”

Even when you see him going to places that frighten you.  Even when you find yourself, like one of the trembling, first disciples, wanting with all that is in you to see him choose a path not as costly as the cross.  We’re told that when Jesus set his face like flint toward Jerusalem, many disciples turned away.  Indeed, nearly all of them will desert him by the time he’s left for dead.  Like the wandering people in the wilderness, the disciples learn what it is to feel God disappoint their expectations.

I wonder if God has ever disappointed your expectations?  I wonder what those expectations were?  I wonder if you’ve ever wanted to turn back to Egypt?   I wonder if you've ever disappointed your own expectations of yourself?  I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself lingering in an empty, stomach-churning place, wild in the wilderness, seemingly beyond all hope?

Can you, will you, keep your eyes on Christ - even when it’s scary?

Will you keep your eyes on Christ, even as Lent gives way to Golgotha - when the only promise given you there is that you will find him?

Keep your eyes on Christ.  Even when to do so is frightening, keep your eyes on Christ.  Like Peter walking on the water through the storm.  Because situations around you may change; they almost certainly will.  But your responsibility in the moment never begins with more or less than your relationship Christ.  In the midst of great excitement, mounting pressure, and great change, can you both read the situation rightly and fundamentally remain unchanged in your abiding focus on him? 

Keep your eyes on Christ: spiritually, yes, and concretely, by two things - as close to homework as you’ll get in church:

Go back to page three hundred and four of the Prayer Book this week.  Take a Prayer Book home if you need to.  Pray through the five questions asked of you at your baptism.  Read it yes, then pray it: Lord, how might these questions come to greater life in my life?  Pray the questions of your baptism - your baptism, at which you were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

And second, read one of the passion accounts in these last two weeks before Holy Week.  By "passion" is generally meant that part of Jesus' story beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and culminating on the cross - we'll save resurrection for Easter.  Commit to reading through one of these narratives in the days before Holy Week.

In Matthew’s gospel: chapters 21 through 27.
Mark’s gospel: 11 through 15.  (And consider that Mark’s gospel only has 16 chapters and that the last six of them - or 3/8ths of his gospel! - concern the events of Holy Week.)
Luke’s gospel: chapters 19 through 23.
John’s gospel: 12 through 19.

So pray through your baptism, and, the second bit of homework: choose one of the gospels and read through the events of Holy Week.  As you read it and reread it: keep your eyes on Jesus.  Imagine yourself as one of the crowd.  What do you notice about him?  What stands out?  What impresses you?  What perplexes you?  What flat-out scares you?  Let your eyes follow him. 

As you pray and as you read, keep your eyes on Jesus. 

This is the great challenge.  Even when it's frightening.  Because if you miss Jesus - if we miss Jesus -  take our eyes off of him, whatever other plans or great plays we had imagined for ourselves or our team come up empty.  Everything depends on the commitment of each teammate to these six words:

Keep your eyes fixed on Christ.


[A sermon preached March 18, 2012, Lent 4, at St Christopher's by-the-Sea]

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