Sunday, March 13, 2016

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Philippians 3
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

He was an unusual child, Isaac Watts.

Mastering basic Latin at age four, writing decent poetry at seven, seemingly incorporating verse into his conversations and annoying his parents to the point of anger. On one occasion he went too far and was quoted to say:

O father, father, pity take,
and I will no more verses make.

He went on, of course, to write some of our best known hymns (including “Joy to the world”) and be considered the father of English hymnody. It was Charles Wesley (author of 6,000 hymns) who said he would give up all his hymns to have written Watts’ hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross.”

Ironically, Watts had greater success with a book of verse for children called Divine Songs for Children. From 1715 until well into the last century, this collection would have been found in most English classrooms and many homes. It went through over a thousand editions. Watts’ goal was to introduce children to morality and the value of hard work. Here’s a sample:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

That’s lovely. How doth, and why doth the little busy bee keep busy? The answer is in verse three:

In works of labour or of skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

At this point kids get on the straight and narrow path and seldom trouble you again. Of course, the poet’s gift is to take something complex or wordy and reduce it to something manageable and well, poetic. So Watts took parts of Philippians 3 and parts of Galatians 6 and gave us this:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

The hymns of Isaac Watts constitute a turning point, from the singing of metrical hymns and scripture songs, to adapting scripture to describe and enhance the personal and the devotional. He wanted to transcribe scripture and add a layer of emotion, allowing us to enter the Bible in a new way.

So he takes verse seven (“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ”) and makes it personal: “My richest gain I count but loss/ And pour contempt on all my pride.”

In many ways, it was the ultimate 18th century struggle. Ruling a vast empire, achieving material wealth unknown to previous generations, advances in science, art and industry, Britons had a growing vanity problem. And for Watts, as a non-conformist and evangelical, a renewed morality that took seriously the idea that pride was a deadly sin. He made Philippians 3 personal.

And he would no doubt urge us on today, encouraging us to personalize the reading, make it our own. And we do this both for the season and the era. So beginning with the season, you might say that as far as our Lenten journey goes, it’s time to cram for the finals. And like Isaac Watts, the best place to begin is Philippians 3. St. Paul said:

10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

We began Lent as we often do—in the desert, tracing the outline of the temptation that confronted Jesus. We paused before entering the Holy City, recognizing the ‘city who kills the prophets’ will likely claim one more. And last week we looked at Romans 8 and recalled that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

In other words, we know that we are in a liminal place, the border between suffering and glory, cross and resurrection. And like the urge to sing all the carols in Advent, we need to resist moving to resurrection before we meet the cross. You can’t understand one without the other. The cross is the context of resurrection, and one is unreal without the other.

Paul, of course, is not inviting us to seek out suffering. He wisely knows that it will come. Being religious doesn’t drive troubles away, it draws trouble closer, since living with integrity will always clash with the ways of the world. Paul knew this, from prison cell and time in chains, and insists that joining in Christ’s suffering is like joining in his death, and joining in his death like joining is his resurrection. Call it the circle of life, according to St. Paul.

So that was the season, what about the era? And as I hesitate to give more air time to a certain presidential candidate, it is top-of-mind for many, a very disturbing phenomenon that may loom larger for us before it fades into oblivion. The so-called “Trump Revolution” is the perfect storm of celebrity culture, economic inequality and bigotry and it threatens more than the future of one political party or even one country.

Historians, of course, will tell you that taking people who are feeling angry and vulnerable, giving them vague promises about a return to greatness, adding a dash of xenophobia, and praising strength over weakness will only lead in one direction. But that connection is lost on many.

And the most telling shift is the movement from “we” to “I,” the language that takes the sin of pride to the next level. “I will make the country great again” and “I will help you take your country back” (which is a coded racist message when an African-American is in the White House) are both positing that only a strongman can save them. Add lists of enemies and you have totalitarian rule.

The ongoing question is why and why now? Thousands of pages have already been written about the demise of the middle-class, the appeal of the anti-establishment, the seeming overreach of government. Or maybe people just like being angry.

It seems to be in the human heart to nurse our anger, to allow it to drive our thoughts and words. It seems we can be perfectly calm and rational until we join an angry crowd and enter the emotion. When we feel fearful or vulnerable, when we feel that others are getting our share, when we feel that the system is somehow stacked against us, the result is anger. And we self-declared ‘good people’ can pretend we don’t have it, or we’ve learned to control it, until one of our triggers comes (on hold for 20 minutes only to be told ‘we can’t help you’) and you give in to the anger.

Next week we will enter Jerusalem, and we will wave our palms and say “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The elation won’t last. Days later we will be in the crowd, shouting “crucify him” and “we have only one king, and that’s Caesar.” We too will pick the strongman over the servant-leader, and God will have the same response to every act of human folly: forgiveness.

May God bless the end of our journey, and help us enter the story once more: to understand ourselves, and try to understand our God. Amen.


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