Sunday, August 29, 2010

Living on Mount Zion

Sermon preached on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Hebrews 12:18-29

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24, Luke 13:10-17

Christianity is sometimes cast as a decision that must be made, a decision about what to believe and how to live. I think that us Episcopalians are more aware than most that this decision—whatever its precise nature—is neither an easy nor an obvious thing. Neither is it a one-time thing. The decision that followers of Jesus have to make must be made over and over and over again. The decision is more daily than it is once in a lifetime.

There are so many ways of talking about this decision. We can talk simply about “right and wrong,” of course, but there are times when that is not particularly helpful. We can talk about it in terms of “belief or un-belief,” but that is often far too simplistic.

It is better to talk about it in terms of images and metaphors, or the parables that Jesus taught, including at least some of the miracle stories which are like enacted parables.

Healing a woman on the Sabbath, as Jesus does in this morning’s gospel reading, is an example. Like a lot of the miracle stories in the gospels, this story is not so much about the healing itself as it is how it takes place. We see Jesus here making a decision as an example for us. He could have passed the woman by. He did not. He chose as well to touch her, which most people in his day would not have done. And, finally, he chose to heal on the Sabbath, which he would have known would get him into trouble. He could have easily said to the woman, “Catch me tomorrow.” But he chose to be provocative, a wonderful word which literally means to “call forth.” A provocative act calls forth a response in others. And he certainly got it in his exchange with the religious authorities who complained about what he had done.

This little story teaches us that when we are called to make decisions as followers of this Jesus, we should not be afraid to fly in the face of mainstream thought, even mainstream religious thought. This is especially true when justice for another human being is involved. Jesus certainly saw her need of healing as a justice issue.

And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?

The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews contains two contrasting images that are also helpful for us in thinking about what it is to make a decision as followers of Jesus. The writer contrasts two mountains: the first he does not actually name, but is clearly Mt. Sinai, since he quotes from the story of the giving of the Law. The second he calls Mt. Zion, Zion being a name that in Israel’s history became synonymous with Jerusalem, especially Jerusalem as a symbol for Israel and a vision of Israel’s destiny.

The contrast, put simply, is the contrast between fear and joy. So the decision we have to make day by day is the decision as to whether we will live on the mountain of fear or the mountain of joy. And the mountain of joy is the mountain of joy because, as the writer says, it is God who judges, and God’s judgment is mercy. That word “mercy,” many commentators have believed from ancient times, is the “better word” which speaks to us, better, the writer says, than the word from the blood of Abel, which the writer probably means to be the word of vengeance.

Shall we live on the mountain of fear or the mountain of joy? Shall we live in the city of the living God of mercy or the city of vengeance?

Those questions could be before us every day; they are, in fact, before us every day.

I think they are before us, for instance, in thinking about the controversy around the establishing of a Muslim Community Center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. This controversy has taken on a life of its own in the last couple of weeks, and, of course, has gotten all entangled in the politics of the day. What might we think about this as Christians?

I think it is very easy for us to give into the fear impulse in this circumstance. The fear impulse causes us to think in prejudicial ways and to betray our own values. We’ve been struggling with fear and anger as a country ever since 9-11-2001, and this incident should, if nothing else, prove to us that we still have a long way to go.

I don’t think any of us can be so na├»ve as to think that this should be an easy thing to deal with, especially for those intimately involved with the loss of life at the Trade Center. I don’t have any doubt that it raises excruciating feelings particularly for those who lost loved ones that terrible day. And yet are not there times when each one of us, and we as a nation, have to face into our fears and our hurt and our anger and take a step toward reconciliation? Take a step away from fear and toward mercy and joy?

I believe this is one of those moments. Feel free to disagree with me, but please at least think and pray with me through the dynamics of what is going on. And even if you disagree with me, find ways to speak out against the extreme rhetoric which is being used, typified, I think, by the following quote from Newt Gingrich:

The folks who want to build this mosque—who are really radical Islamists who want to triumphally prove that they can build a mosque right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists—those folks don’t have any interest in reaching out to the community. They’re trying to make a case for supremacy.

Mr. Gingrich is lying. There isn’t anything about that statement that is true, and yet I’m willing to believe that half of the people of this country or more—and most of them calling themselves Christians—are willing to believe him. They are pitching their tents—nay, building mansions—on the mountain of fear.

Muslims, my friends, are our brothers and sisters in faith. There is an ugly and murderous fundamentalist fringe among them. We Christians are not without them ourselves, and our history, whether we want to believe it or not, is just as ugly and murderous. Christians have killed Muslims and Jews and others in staggering numbers over the centuries in the name of our God and of our Church. We all have much for which to atone.

What does it mean for me today to choose to live on Mount Zion? The question requires a certain amount of willingness to examine my prejudices and fears and exercise a fair amount of humility and mercy. Why does lower Manhattan have to be the mountain of fear? Why can it not be Mount Zion?

Let us all learn to ask these kinds of questions day by day and thus strive to make decisions that Jesus would recognize as faithful.

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