Sunday, October 14, 2012

Proper 23

Hebrews 4
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Four years later and everything seems the same.

There is a tight race for the White House unfolding, the incumbent it far more popular in Canada than the United States, and we sit on the sidelines scratching our heads. How could they be split so evenly? Don’t they see what we see? I’m sure the challenger and his ernest young running-mate are fine people, but win the election?

I must confess I was a little obsessed last time around. Maybe I brought this to the pulpit, I don’t know. I was my first “season” here, and in my mind’s eye I worry that all the CNN and John King’s magic map took me to the edge of the homiletical abyss. Too political, and you lose people. Too other-worldly, without reference to the present day, and you lose people. Preachers try to find the sweet spot, looking for heaven on earth, or “on earth, as it is in heaven,” or some such.

Now, if we took the idea of election, and traveled back in time to 1821, to the rough-hewn church at the corner of two muddy streets that would some day become Weston Road and King, it would have a very different meaning. Yes, some might think of the recent election, where the good people of Upper Canada elected the 8th Parliament. They may have even thought of the election with some regret, having elected the Family Compact, particularly unpopular with Methodists.

(As an aside, the leader of this Parliament was Sir John Robinson, 1st Baronet of Toronto, an effort by the Crown to add a little Downton Abbey to our humble colony).

More likely, though, the topic of election would have put them in mind of the state of their soul. For you see, election, or who is going to heaven and who will not, was generally more top-of-mind in a time when mortality was more present to people. People thought about salvation, who might have it, and who might not, a topic that we have largely pushed from view.

The reasons may be more complex than time or interest allows, but it might be enough to say that in an age of modern medicine, religious diversity, and an acute interest in fairness, we have moved away from the discussion of who is in and who is out. We tend toward universalism, demanding equality of opportunity from a God that may or may not be able to provide it. But more on that later.

Any conversation about election would likely begin with John Calvin. Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian stream of our denomination, is closely associated with the idea that only an elect few will enjoy eternity with God. The identity of the elect, according to Calvin, is unknown, or known only to God. Each of us, therefore, should live as a member of the elect, but not take it for granted. It seems a tense way to live.

Tense, perhaps, but it also points to the idea that salvation cannot be earned. The elect are simply elected, they don’t earn election, it is a gift that is freely given, apart from whatever we do or fail to do. Still, with the overall idea that there is only salvation for some, most will be left feeling unsatisfied.

Over here on the Methodist side of the street, election might begin with Calvin, but lead to Wesley. There was a sense in Methodist circles that all the emphasis on holiness and purity, and turning your life around, must lead to the opportunity for salvation. Perhaps, they argued, the elect are a self-selecting group, that by turning to Jesus for salvation people become the elect. We can choose faith or reject it, but that choice must have some bearing on the state of our soul.

One thing everyone could agree on was the importance of Hebrews 4. The passage that Kathy read comes to us in two parts: the sword that we have conveniently located there in your pew, and High Priest who uses the sword to understand our weakness. Let me explain.

The sword, according to the author of Hebrews, is the word of God. And without moving to “M for Mature,” the sword reveals what is in our soul, opening to the heart, allowing God to see deep within. It is not a pretty sight. Both sides of the street, Calvinist and Methodist, would peer into the soul and see that we are depraved.

Again, we don’t tend to use the word depravity much anymore, or at least not when referring to the state of our souls, but this would have come as second nature to our forebears. They would have freely admitted to being depraved, at least in God’s eyes, and accept that God would look beyond their depravity to offer the gift of grace.

Now, unlike the discussion of eternity that has largely vanished from our midst, the discussion of depravity has not. It seems to speak to our worldview, and you likely have a strong opinion on this question whether you want to or not. And this discussion seems to spill into the news a great deal, lurking underneath the narrative.

First a confession. I have been having the same argument with my dear friend and colleague on this question for nearly a decade. I will protect his identity, since he is wrong, and call him only “the Jimmy.” The Jimmy, you see, believes that people are basically good but will occasionally do bad things. I call this the Canadian argument. Trusting, very generous, and in my view, wrong.

I believe that people are basically bad and will occasionally do good things. Now, I can see that you are already siding with the Jimmy. I may have lost you already, but let me explain.

I’m not standing in my beautifully carved pulpit and pointing a finger at anyone in particular. I am making the argument that if you look at the long track of human history, we never learn. We endlessly repeat the same mistakes, we retrace the same foolish steps, we think it’s ‘onward and upward’ but it seldom is. If you took the lessons of the past and cleverness of the present age it would seen impossible that we could go on repeating all that we regret: but we do.

The same argument plays itself out around us every day. Take that large daily newspaper that some of you read, and that I find entirely too preachy. If you read between the lines of the newspaper, there seems to be the assumption that if would could just get people on side, to think differently, then everything would be better. The paper reveals in banner headlines the mistakes being made, but never concedes that this may be the way of the world. Each breach of trust and each crime is reported as a failure in proper thinking, the proper thinking that the editors are more than willing to provide.

But what if all the failure and all the mistakes and all the sin has nothing to do with improper thinking or a failure to educate the masses? What if it’s just the way things are? For one thing it wouldn’t sell papers, because the selling of newspapers has to do with selling the unexpected, and if we expected failure and disaster, then it wouldn’t work. The paper is written with the underlying assumption that all these terrible things that happen are news, meaning new or unexpected, when that’s not the case at all. Read today’s paper and read the paper from a century ago: the names have changed but the news has not.

If we want to see the human way, the true constant in who we are and how we act, we need only look at the second half of our reading:

Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

We are weak, but we have a high priest who can empathize with our weakness. We are tempted to fail in myriad of ways, but we are led by one who overcame temptation. We may be given to despair, but we have a high priest in Christ Jesus who intercedes for us to the Most High, convinced that we deserve a place at the throne of Grace.

This, then, is the word we need to hear most: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We are elected to stand among the saved because of God’s great generosity, we have confidence in the face of difficulty because of God’s great generosity, and we have mercy in the face of our failure because of God’s great generosity. May it always be so. Amen.


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