Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sermon for Lent I

St John's, Decatur--Deuteronomy 6:5-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

When I was in school, and studied world geography, I learned that there was a country in eastern Europe—north of Greece and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy—called Yugoslavia. It was communist, and ruled by a dictator named Tito, and that was about all we needed to know. In 1984, Yugoslavia hosted the winter Olympics in the city of Sarajevo. There was the usual skiing and skating and sledding, and not much mention of politics. A decade later, Sarajevo was literally a war zone, virtually in shambles, as was the supposed “nation” of Yugoslavia. In its place were new countries we never learned about in school—Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And inside Bosnia, as we later learned in a terrible way, is the region of Kosovo, with its own claim to distinctive identity. It’s as if a strong wind blew through Europe and swept away the fa├žade of Yugoslavia, and exposed the underlying reality of, not one nation, but several nations, stitched together in a rather crude and artificial manner.

What we have learned is the difference between a state—which is a political entity—and a nation, which is rooted in blood. A nation, at its heart, is a distinctive people, a tribe, a clan, an ethnicity, with a common culture, a common language, and, most significantly, a common story, a shared history. If we learned anything in the final decade of the twentieth century, and in the first decade of the twenty-first, it was that the power of ethnicity cannot be taken lightly. Not only in Yugoslavia, but all across the world—the former Soviet Union, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Rwanda, South Africa, Iraq, the Mexican state of Chiapas, and in other places too numerous to mention—ethnicity is at the heart of people’s sense of identity and at the forefront of their consciousness, and, sadly, at the root of civil strife and terrorism and incalculable suffering. Ethnicity is a volatile force, and it will be a long time, I suspect, before anyone can put that particular genie back into its bottle.

The ancient Hebrew people, whose descendants are now more familiarly known as Jews, knew a great deal about the power of ethnicity. The evolution of their national consciousness, their self-identity as a people, took place in a matrix of divine call and human response, rebellion and disobedience, faithfulness and forgiveness, distress and deliverance. Across the generations, these experiences of interaction between the Lord and His people coalesced into a coherent narrative, a compelling story, in which the Israelites could see not only their ancestors, but themselves, and one another. In the twenty-sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, we find this story in a nutshell: 
A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.  And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
This declaration is so compact and concise, it summarizes so much history, that is has the character not so much of a story, but of a creed. It is a veritable Israelite confession of faith. But it is not an abstract or propositional creed. It is not about a static or conceptual God. It confesses and bears witness to a dynamic God, a God-in-motion, a God who acts, a God who is constantly bringing His “chosen people” into existence.

This is the very image that St Peter picks up in his first epistle, but, by extension, applies it, not to the Jewish nation, but to the Church: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people . . .” Those of us who are not related by affinity of blood, but affinity of water—that is, the water of baptism—we constitute a tribe, a clan, a nation, an ethnicity. As the Christian “nation”—and please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not talking about America or any other political entity that may ever have considered itself a Christian nation, I’m talking about the Church, scattered throughout the world, in every land, as the Christian nation—we have our culture, our language, our common story and shared history.

On the surface, our creeds may appear more abstract and propositional than the one which begins “A wandering Aramean was my father...”, but they are, in fact, not mere collections of propositions requiring our intellectual assent. They are our story. They make us, they constitute us as the people of God. The creed we are most familiar with is the one which we proclaim during the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days, the Nicene Creed. Do you know the story that lies behind the Nicene Creed? In the early years of the fourth century—we’re talking 1,700 years ago—just after the persecutions ended and Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, an Egyptian priest named Arius began to publish and preach to the effect that the divine being known as the Logos, or the Son of God, and who became incarnate and took human flesh in the person of Jesus, this Logos was not actually equal with God, but was himself created by God before the beginning of time. Another Egyptian cleric by the name of Athanasius, who was at that time a deacon, but later became bishop of the important diocese of Alexandria—Athanasius took great exception to the views of Arius. He responded that if Jesus is not fully God, sharing utterly and completely in the essential nature of God, equal with God in every way, then he cannot be our savior, because he does not bridge the gap between God and Man. A great controversy arose between Arius and his followers and Athanasius and his followers, and it spread throughout the church. The Emperor Constantine, who was himself a Christian, was disturbed by the controversy, and wanted it settled, so he summoned all the bishops to the Mediterranean port city of Nicaea for a solemn council in the year 325. The bishops met, and argued for weeks on end, but the consensus of opinion finally swung in the direction of Athanasius. The views of Arius were repudiated as heresy, and a document was issued which is the basis for what we know as the Nicene Creed. Every Sunday, phrases like “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father,” roll off our lips, and we tend to take them for granted. But in that they assert the full divinity of Christ, and were chosen not in the cool ambience of academia, or in a casual committee meeting, splitting the difference between opposing positions, but, rather, in the heat of prayerful and passionate debate, for which was spilt tears and sweat and, one might suspect, blood, these words of the creed are as much story as they are theology. They bear within themselves the weight of our heritage, they are a narrative shorthand for our history as the “Christian nation,” the Christian ethnicity. The more familiar we are with that story, the more emotional we will be about the Creed!

Of course, the kernel, the nugget, of our story is simply this: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is the essential Christian confession of faith, the “no frills” form of the creed. The Jew begins his or her story with the words, “A wandering Aramean was my father.” The Christian begins his or her story with “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Or, as St Paul tells us in the tenth chapter of his epistle to the Romans: “...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And wrapped up in that kernel, wrapped up in that nugget, is Jesus’s own essential confession of faith. Near the beginning of our forty days of Lent each year, we recall our Lord’s own forty-day visit to the Judean desert. At the end of that time, he was tempted by Satan—tempted to put his trust elsewhere than in his unity with the Father, tempted to worship as God one who was not worthy of such worship, tempted to abandon his mission for the purpose of gratifying his own ego. In the face of each temptation, Jesus confessed and bore witness to his relationship with the Father. This confession formed Jesus in his commitment to the ministry which he was on the brink of commencing. And his confession forms us in our “national values” as the Christian ethnicity: We are to worship God and God alone. Anything that distracts us from that purpose is the devil’s temptation.

This, then, is our invitation for Lent in this Year of our Lord, 2016: We are to claim our story, we are to own our history, we are to rejoice in our “ethnic” heritage—not so we can lord it over others, not so we can demand our rights, not so we can be an influence for division, but so we can be a beacon of light and hope, so we can spread the good news that, as we are formed into the people of God, a people constituted in the baptismal font and regularly reconstituted in the liturgy of the Eucharist, we transcend the barriers of race and class and ethnicity that are so much a part of the human tragedy that we witness day by day. Jesus is the world’s hope, and we are the medium of that hope. Amen.

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