Saturday, November 21, 2009

There is a God Who is Not Ashamed

Sermon preached at St. Stephen's Church on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28B): Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

It’s been a long birth, longer than anyone ever expected. The labor of which Jesus speaks has been endless: 2,000 years, give or take. When will the reign of God finally be born? When will it stop being “near at hand” and be finally here?

Jesus promised, “The meek will inherit the earth.” Well, I say, the meek are ready. They’ve been ready, for quite some time now. The t-shirt says, “Jesus is coming back. Look busy!” But most of us have a question for him. “Where the hell have you been?”

My sister Leann’s first child—my first nephew—was born after a day’s hard and exhausting labor. She had been determined not to have a Cesarean birth, but finally she could take it no longer, and we could hear her from the hallway, “OK, get it out of me!”

Some days feel like that in this long birth of the kingdom of God, don’t they? Only, there’s no Cesarean option. You can create as many watershed moments as you want—you can win the lottery, re-elect your favorite political party, finally retire, whatever—and the birth pangs go on. Sometimes you can take a little break from them—go on vacation—but even then sometimes they have the audacity to follow you to Bermuda and, if nothing else, they’ll be guaranteed to be waiting for you when you get back.

There will be “wars and rumors of wars…nation will rise against nation…there will be earthquakes…famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” It is not the most popular of Jesus’ promises to his followers, but perhaps the one that has turned out to be most consistently true.

What are we to do in this long, hard age of the birth pangs?

By the time whoever it was sat down to write the letter to the Hebrews, he or she (I’ll call her she—why not, since the metaphor of the day is birth?) knew that we were in this for the long haul. She writes eloquently, movingly, in the chapter that follows our passage from this morning, of the saints who glimpse the reign of God, but only get to glimpse it.

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Her answer is, “Keep seeking a homeland. Keep desiring a better country. And know, most of all, that, no matter what, God is not ashamed to be called your God.”

This is easier said than done when we are in hard labor. That is why previously, in the passage we heard this morning, she set the vitally important context for this seeking and desiring and clinging to the “not ashamed” God.

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Provoke one another. Meet together. Encourage one another. There are some wonderful sentiments there.

Provoke one another. “Provoke” is a great English word, even though I first learned it as a negative. My paternal grandmother was frequently “provoked about something,” and I learned at an early age that I needed to not be the one who “provoked” her. The word means literally “call forth.” And here it is not something to avoid but to do, and urgently. Provoke one another; call forth from one another love and good deeds.

Meet together. The interesting word here is not in English but in Greek: episynagogein. Synagogue is a Greek word for a meeting. It became the word for meetings of Jews who lived in the diaspora, away from worship in the Temple. It is a particular kind of meeting, what I would call a “formative” meeting that is much about identity. Meet together. Maintain your identity. Don’t forget who you are and whose you are.

I think this links directly to the writer’s later exhortation to cling to the God who is not ashamed to be your God. There is the profoundly important insight here that this only happens together. The God we can supposedly meet on the golf course is a different God, at least a less robust God, than then the God who is present when we meet together.

Encourage one another. “Encourage” is one of my favorite words, one that does not even need much explanation. Give courage to one another, and courage is certainly what we need in these long days of the birth pangs. “Hang in there” is a trite response to someone who is troubled, but it is one of the most important things we can enable one another to do in this world.

Provoke one another. Meet together. Encourage one another. And all these during the birth pangs, as we “see the Day approaching.” “The Day,” the consummation of the dream of God, the day for which we Christians, even after 2,000 years, stubbornly persist in our watching and waiting, because that is what keeps us alive. And God is stubbornly and persistently giving us glimpses of it—especially the one so very important to us in our tradition, this weekly gathering around this Table, our meeting together to be provoked and encouraged to life by the One we call God, and Savior, and Friend.

It should be obvious this morning that the tone of the readings and this sermon move us toward Advent, as they always do as the church year draws to a close. Advent is that time when we remind ourselves as Christians that watching and waiting for the glimpses of God’s reign is what we do. Hope is what we are about as a people. Despair is what we struggle against most ferociously as believers in the God of Jesus Christ who taught us about the never-ending birth pangs.

Hope for Christians is never any kind of cheap optimism. It is painfully won in the midst of the birth pangs. It is provoked by one another and encouraged in one another as we meet together. It is a conscious and stubborn choice to believe that there is a God for everyone, a God who is not ashamed to be called our God.

The “holidays” we are approaching can be joyous, life-giving times, but they can also be difficult, death-dealing times, mostly because the life they try to sell us, the faith and hope and love they try to sell us, is cheap. There is no depth to them, they are throw away commodities like most everything in this world, and so it is no wonder that so many people get the impression in this “most wonderful time of the year” that they are just “throw away” people, and that things like faith and hope and love are mostly useless drivel.

Let us struggle against these things. Let us be people of Advent through these days, trained at something deeper and more lasting than tinsel and mistletoe, the real, deep faith and hope and love that we provoke and encourage in one another, the ability to see glimpses of God’s reign even in the endless pangs of birth in our lives and in the life of the world around us from our own city streets to the streets of Kabul. There is a God who is not ashamed to be called our God.

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