Sunday, December 16, 2012

Finding Grace in the Wilderness - Amazing!

Three years ago, when I turned fifty, I decided to journey into the wilderness to meet a prophet.  The wilderness turned out to be the football stadium in Charlottesville and the prophet was Bono and the rock band U2 performing during their 360 Tour.  The huge staging, which was taller that the stadium itself, was a technological marvel that enabled every one of the 75,000 people in attendance to be intimately connected with the band as it performed.  The show was part rock concert, part visual spectacle, and part revival.  U2’s lyrics are boldly religious; calling and prodding and inviting listeners to live in a human community marked by love, respect, hope, and caring.  Toward the end of the concert Bono sang the song One and, as with every other song that night, the audience sang right along with him, word for word:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
One... life

And then, as the music faded, Bono did something I will never forget.  Standing at the microphone, his image broadcast on a huge screen hovering above the band, he sang a cappella:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
      that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
      was blind, but now I see.

And as he sang, every person present sang with him.  What does it say that, in a society which is becoming more and more unchurched, 75,000 people know the words of this hymn by heart?  At the very least it hints at how deeply infused it is in our personal and national spirit.

Most people know something of the story of John Newton, the hymn’s writer.  He was born in London in 1725.  His father was a sea captain.  His mother was deeply spiritual, but she died when John was only six years old.  By the time he was eleven Newton was sailing with his father.  As he grew in years he rose in rank.  The rough and rowdy life of a sailor suited Newton well.  He renounced whatever faith remained in him from his mother’s influence and embraced wine, women, and the sea.  

Eventually John Newton came to captain The Greyhound, a merchant ship used in slave trading.  It was a lucrative enterprise that came at the cost of horrible human degradation.  Newton oversaw how the captives he crowded on board got imprisoned in the decks below; each trip taking the lives of countless people.  Imagine what it takes to be indifferent to the stench of human excrement and death; to the ongoing cries of suffering, physical agony, and unimaginable anguish.  That is John Newton did day in a day out.  He simply tuned it out.

During this period Newton himself almost died twice: once when he contracted a deadly fever and another time when a severe storm almost sank his ship.  It was the second experience that changed Newton’s life.  The Greyhound was taking on water so badly that he cried out to God for help.  I wonder how many times on that ship prayed that it would sink and end their suffering.  But on this trip it was returning from America with a cargo of beeswax and wood.  As water poured into the hull and the vessel rocked on the waves, the cargo shifted and blocked the holes where water was leaking in, enabling the ship to drift to safe harbor in West Africa.   

Repairs where made and as they sailed home to England Newton began to read the bible and other religious literature.  On March 10, 1748 he embraced the Christian faith.  From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking.  He continued in the slave trade, captaining three more voyages before renouncing it all together and becoming a strong abolitionist.  Newton eventually pursued a call to the ministry and was ordained in the Church of England.  During this time he became a prolific hymn writer and we still sing several of his works – Glorious things of Thee are spoken being one of them – but Amazing Grace is far and away the best known. 

As one commentator puts it,

“Newton’s disgraceful past never left his memory and he was completely dumbfounded over the privilege of living joyously free under the divine grace of God.  In an intense moment of inspiration, when he was thinking of the wonder of the grace of God which had saved even a wretch like him, he wrote the hymn.”

It is a hymn rooted so deeply in the human experience of life and of God that 75,000 people crowed into a college stadium could sing in unison led by the most influential rock performer in the world today. 

Amazing Grace is a hymn about how God pursues us throughout life no matter where we are and no matter how far away from God we go.  It is a hymn about God’s unflagging love for us.  And it is a hymn about the personal transformation we undergo every time welcome God to be with us. 

Had it been around back in the day, I am confident John the Baptist would have led its singing with those crowds who came to see him in the wilderness.  He preached that God’s Anointed One was coming soon.  It was a message of God’s profound love for humanity.  And he preached that it is time for each and every one of us to live in this world in a manner in keeping with God’s love and God’s dream for us: a sentiment expressed so beautifully in our Gospel Hymn:

Then cleansed be ever heart from sin;
   make straight the way for God within,
and let each heart prepare a home
   where such a mighty guest may come.

Soldiers, tax-collectors, and people overflowing with material abundance all wanted to know the same thing that John Newton began to explore at his conversion… how am I to live my life here and now and from this moment forward? 

The amazing thing about grace is how it proclaims the past is past.  What matters most is now and what is ahead and what you do with it.  John the Baptist called on his listeners to repent.  Today I fear that many of us associate the word ‘repentance’ with the word ‘shame’; as if it is a call to feel really, really, really bad about yourself and all the things you have done.  But the biblical notion of repentance focuses not on feelings, but on actions.  To repent means to change; change your behavior, your attitudes, your actions, your life.

I’ll give you an example.  Do you remember how in the comic strip Peanuts Lucy held the football for Charlie Brown to kick, but always pulled it away at the last second?  Charles Schultz drew up one strip where the two are arguing about this until Lucy breaks down in tears and admits, “Charlie Brown I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have.  I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways!  I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you.  I’ve been wrong, so wrong.  Won’t you give a poor penitent girl another chance?”  Charlie Brown is so moved by her remorse that he says, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.”  He then steps back and runs as Lucy holds the ball.  But at the last moment, she pulls it away and Charlie Brown once again falls flat on his back.  Lucy’s last words are these: “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”  In the bible, repentance is not about recognition, it is about change – change empowered by grace.

And in the bible, judgment is always wrapped in tones of grace.  How else can we explain the final verse in today’s Gospel reading: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”  What is the good news in John’s long list of exhortations?  It is the same good news that stirred John Newton so long ago: “Your life is way off course [that is the judgment part], but you can choose now to live a new and better way [that is the good news].  The Methodist worker and hymn writer Fanny Crosby, perhaps best known for writing Blessed Assurance, once said, “Don’t tell a man he’s a sinner; he knows that already.  Tell him there is pardon and love waiting for him… and never give him up!  People want and need love.”

That is the message John the Baptist preached in the wilderness and it is the message Bono delivers at every performance.  It is the message that changed John Newton’s life.  And it is God’s message to you and me this Advent season: God is coming in the fullness of love.  Get ready to receive it and live now in a way befitting of it.  The world always, always needs to hear this Advent message of hope and light and new beginnings and better days to come. 

Friday night I sat weeping after reading a single headline: “20 Children, 6 Teachers Dead in CT School Shooting.”  I’ve read nothing more about the incident than what the headlines tell me.  I’ve avoided the TV because I know I can’t bear the images and stories on it.  I have followed people’s reactions on facebook and have had several conversations with friends and colleagues.  What I have done most is pray.

I have prayed for families who lost a child or parent, for school children who have been through hell at such a tender age, for parents and teachers everywhere whose experience of this horror from afar brings into focus a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.    I’ve prayed for all of us who are shocked and saddened and confused as to how horrors like this seemingly have become commonplace in our society.

And I have found myself going back to the wilderness to hear again the Advent voice of John the Baptist.  What comfort I have found rises out of the poetic language of Advent – a language that often seems obscure and harsh and typically does little more than tisk-tisk-tisk the faithful who dare to express Christmas cheer before the liturgically appointed date.  Advent has always felt more like a countdown and less like a message. 

But now its images of light in the darkness, hope in the midst of gloom, and joy in the midst of sadness resonate as never before.  Oh, how I long for the rough places where people live in loneliness, alienation, confusion, hurt, pain to be made smooth.  Oh, how I yearn for the crocked places of anger and violence to be made straight.  Oh, how I ache for those of live in the valley of sorrow and grief to be raised up.  Oh, how I thirst for the lofty places where the high and haughty reside to be brought down to the level where we all live.   Oh, how I look for the appearing of the One who comes with healing in his wings.

Earlier I told you that John Newton wrote many hymns.  Had Bono sung this one doubtless only a few in the crowd even would have recognized it, but on this day it seems just as powerful and appropriate as the one we all know by heart:

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.
Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!
By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.
Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.
Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death!

Why Does God's Appearance Need to be Announced?

Today’s gospel reading heralds the arrival of a king.  Messengers with such a message were not uncommon in Biblical times.  A king traveling by caravan would send ahead an ambassador to announce his imminent appearance.  Upon receiving such news villagers would scurry about to make preparations.  Potholes would be filled, ruts leveled, and banquets prepared.  The king’s visit was surely a happening that would not soon be forgotten.

So we read again of John the Baptist who heralds the arrival of God’s salvation.  He called on 1st Century Palestine to be prepared for the One promised from long ago.  His words remind us to be on the lookout because we never know when God will break into our lives in some startling form or surprising fashion. 

We might want to ask why God needs to be announced?  Why do we need a John the Baptist to let us know of God’s impending advent?  Shouldn’t God’s revelation be self-evident?  How could anyone miss the fact that God has something to say?

I want to explore this basic, straightforward question by probing into a very complex subject that has to do with what is termed the ‘psychology of religion’.  This field of study explores how people come to have an image of God and how that image functions in their life.  I want to spend a few moments describing the work of Ann-Marie Rizzuto put forward in her book, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study.  Her ideas are somewhat complicated, and I admit that I myself don’t grasp it all, but I want to do my best to let you know what I do understand because I think it has something important to say to each one of us. 

Rizzuto talks about a person’s “representation” of God.  By this she means the image and understanding of God that each of us puts together for ourselves.  Just as a portrait ‘represents’ the subject, but is not the subject, so too our representations of God are not God; although the more we work at it, the more closely our representations can accurately reflect God.

Rizzuto’s studies have led her to two conclusions.  The first is that every child forms some kind of rudimentary representation of God for himself or herself.  This initial formulation occurs at a very early age, well before the child turns three.  Second, her findings indicate that a child’s initial representation of God is formulated from a combination of father representations, mother representations, self-representations, and a healthy dose of pure fantasy.  Stay with me here.

So, for example, if father frequently comes home from work frustrated and angry, the child may think God gets angry with us, sometimes for no reason.  If mother stands back silent and helpless in the face of father’s fury, the child’s understanding of God may incorporate traits of powerlessness and suffering.  If the child is confused by the environment in which he is raised, he may come to believe that God doesn’t always understand why people mistreat one another.   In terms of fantasy, I remember the year my young daughter thought Jesus would have Santa bring back to life her hamster and give it to her for a Christmas present.  Rizzuto’s guiding principle is that the child’s representation of God will take on traits that suit the child’s needs for safety and self-worth.

As the child matures psychologically his or her God representation goes through revision, as do representations of parents and self.  This new understanding may become the basis for faith or for unfaith.  It may also be left untouched, even though the child continues to revise the way she understands her parents and her self.  So while the child continues to grow into adolescence and adulthood, her idea of God may stay frozen in a time when she was four or eight or sixteen or whenever.  If one’s view of God is not revised to keep pace with one’s own development and maturing, the person will come to perceive the notion of God as ridiculous or irrelevant or, depending of the image, perhaps even threatening and dangerous. 

While most children will move beyond an early stage of how they understand their parents, what if they don’t move beyond it in their understanding of God?  Rizzuto states there is a great tendency for our representations of God to become rather fixed and impervious to modification or change.  If that happens the child’s frozen notion of God may be domineering, neglected, or actively repressed as the child grows into adulthood.

Through her studies of various adults, Rizzuto concludes that with regard to their relation with God all of her subjects fit into one of the four categories.  Listen carefully and honestly to see if you can figure out where you fit in:

1.     There are those who believe in God and relate to God. 
2.     There are those who don’t know if God really exists. 
3.     There are those who are not interested in God and are puzzled (or even angered) by those who do. 
4.     There are those who struggle with an image of God; an image which is harsh and demanding.

I suspect that there is a least one person here this morning for each of these categories and if you think about spouses and adult children who are not here or in any church this morning, it is certain that we cover all four categories.  These varieties make perfect sense if you understand that a person’s representation of God may lie unexamined and unrevised for years and years.  That, says Rizzuto, is a very common tendency. 

So if your understanding of God is a combination of toddler fantasy and early images of your parents, then you will struggle with how religion makes sense in your present adult world.  A frozen understanding of God either will be irrelevant or absurd or an impediment to getting on with the business of life.  The same holds true if your idea of God has escaped revision since the time you were 8 or 12 or 22.

In truth, a part of the business of life is to continue to integrate our experience in the journey of life with our understanding of God.  Perhaps no one ever told you that before.  The representation you had of God in the past does not have to be the representation you have of God today.  Nor does today’s representation demand to be tomorrow’s. 

We began this sermon with a simple question:  why does God’s appearance need to be announced?  How could anyone miss what God has to say to him or to her?  The complicated answer I put forward can be boiled down to this:  we may miss it because the God who appears and the God who speaks is not the God we know or are listening for.  And of this you can be sure: on this side of glory the God you know, which is your representation of God, will never be exactly who God really is. 

The good news is that the true and living God keeps coming to us throughout our lives; revealing God’s self in Word and Sacrament, in all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, in the poor, through the beauty of creation, in the valley of the shadow death, in the quiet moment, through a still small inner voice, in the Incarnation, and on the Cross.  God speaks to us… not just once or twice in our lifetime, but throughout.  And each time God speaks and each time we listen, our representation of God becomes clearer and more authentic. 

God can surprise us.  God will do things that we never dreamed or anticipated.  God often is not who we expect.  But when we approach the religious dimension of life with the knowledge that our life’s work is to continue to pursue God’s true Self, then the unexpected will become the norm and it will be integrated into our humble representation of the Holy One.  If we cultivate this spiritual disposition then we will be forever on the lookout for God’s Advent.  We will meet the herald of an ambassador with an open heart and arms ready to embrace because we understand that the God we know always desires to introduce us to the God who is.