Sunday, February 24, 2013

With God's Help


Randy, an outdoor painter, often thinned his paint to make it go farther. The Baptist Church decided to restore its biggest building. Randy put in a low bid and got the job. He bought the paint, and, predictably, thinned it with turpentine. Well, Randy was painting away, the job nearly completed, when suddenly there was a clap of thunder. The sky opened, and the rain poured down. It washed the thinned paint off the church walls. Randy fell from the scaffold, landing among the gravestones. He was no fool. He knew this was the judgment of the Almighty. Randy raised his voice to the heavens, crying, "Oh, God, forgive me; what should I do?" And from above, a mighty voice roared: “Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!"

You’re welcome.

Lent is that season that invites us to acts of repentance and self-examination – “Repaint and thin no more.” We name those things that draw us away from the love of God, and we commit to new things, maybe recommit to old ones, that deepen and strengthen our love for God. Pretty straightforward.

A superficial interpretation might say that Lent invites us to stop doing bad things and start doing good things. A helpful caveat, however, to take us deeper would add the proviso that good things are defined in terms of drawing you closer to God. That is, if goodness were an equation, with algebraic variables and all the rest, the first step would be to solve the equation of goodness in terms of God. Something is good – of God – when it works to bring God and God’s creation into living, breathing, speaking relationship with one another.

So, in the beginning, God created the heavens, the earth, and all that is in them, the man and the woman, who walked in the garden with God. And God called it very good. This is “goodness” as not just the opposite of getting in trouble. Not goodness as being able to pass the pop-quiz or your keeping your cruising speed hidden from the detection of the highway patrolman. This goodness is not just doing no harm, and so this goodness, emphatically, is not just another name for the exercise of even well-behaved, western independence.

Goodness is life in communion with God.

The fruit of the first sin was Adam’s hiding from God, preferring a life where goodness could be imagined and achieved apart from God. Baptism (which we've been talking about a lot these first weeks of Lent) announces an end to the hiding with the candidate’s response, “I will, with God’s help” - the heart-yielding words with which each of the baptismal promises is answered. 

And so we’re clear, let me say it again, from God’s vantage point, to be good is not to be self-sufficient, is not to have met a standard abstracted from God without the help of God, is not to be without need of God. From God’s vantage point, to be good is to rely on God’s help; like the psalmist, to presume upon it, indeed, to stake one’s life on it.

For goodness is life in communion with God.

Once upon a time, the city of Jerusalem was meant to be a symbol of goodness, was meant to embody life in communion with God; built to pulse with the praise of God’s People for the God who had brought them out of their slavery in Egypt. Indeed, Jerusalem represented the fulfillment of a still more ancient promise – the one made by God to Abraham, when Abraham felt that terrifying darkness descend on him and saw the fire pot and flaming torch pass between the pieces of the animals slaughtered to solemnize the covenant: God’s promise not to be, except to be for Abraham, to bless every nation through Abraham. It was at Jerusalem that Abraham was blessed, at Jerusalem where Abraham bound Isaac. At Jerusalem where David later centered Israel’s life in the land of promise; at Jerusalem where Solomon built the first great Temple, the place of the Lord’s residing. Jerusalem as the place of communion with God. Jerusalem as very good again.

And yet, as Jesus stands in Luke’s gospel before Jerusalem, and grieves for what might have been, he speaks God’s longing for an intimacy Jerusalem has rejected.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Jerusalem names the reality that it is quite possible to be a do-gooder apart from true goodness. Highly probably, that the life of faith will from time to time wander into the wilderness of façade and show. Style without substance. Rules, regulations, false piety, that do not remember our need, at every step, for the help and presence, the mercy, of our Creator.

I wonder why a city would do that. I wonder, if you or I were to put ourselves in the place of Jerusalem, what advantages we would find to this distance Jerusalem created between herself and the God who had come to live with her. I wonder if there would be a safety in the distance, the self-reliance; a certainty, or element of control. I wonder if Jerusalem, once distanced, found it hard to ask for help. I wonder about Jerusalem’s unspoken fear of what things like intimacy, dependence, forgiveness, and grace might mean in relationship with God.

I remember the day, Rebekah and I were still dating, she was acting strange, and I asked her what was up. Was it us? She said it was, that we were close, and getting closer, and that she wanted this, but that she also realized that to get any closer would guarantee that she would hurt me, not on purpose, but deeper, perhaps, than she’d ever hurt anyone before. Because, she rightly recognized, intimacy meant love’s vulnerability.

God knows the pangs of love’s vulnerability. He learns it there, in the darkness, with the fire pot and flaming torch, promising God’s self to Abraham, no matter what; God knows it again as Jesus casts a long and longing gaze on Jerusalem, the city destined for goodness, meant to mean communion with God, knowing that, there, God’s Son will give up his life, and strangely, impossibly, restore us to communion with God, the measure of goodness. So even that dark, deadly Friday will be good. 

Goodness is life in communion with God. 

This place, like Jerusalem, is a place meant for communion with God. Foretaste of the New Jerusalem. A place where holiness is not measured in self-sufficient strength, accumulated trophies, victories won through weapons of power, guilt, or shame, or in admitting no weakness; but rather, this is a place where holiness is learned in begging one’s bread, knowing one’s need, forgiving as you have been forgiven, in drinking the wine of a salvation not your own, and finding forgiveness in the cup. In the binding of wounds. In life with the poor. In friendship with God. In courage, to say, “I will, with God’s help.”

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Amen.

SFH.2.24.13

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