Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sunday's Actual Sermon

St. Barnabas Church
August 26, 2007

Year C, Proper 16
Isaiah 28:14-22; Psalm 46; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:22-30

Shaken, and Stirred
by Anastasia McAteer [note: the title is just for fun; it wasn't published anywhere - except here!]

Aren’t these readings fun? Isaiah says, “when the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be beaten down by it” and the Psalm tells us “the kingdoms are shaken; God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away” and Hebrews says God shakes the earth, and that God’s voice makes the “hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them,” and then finally Jesus caps it all off with those knocking on God’s door being told, “go away from me, all you evildoers!”

Well. I would like to start by thanking those who create our lectionary, for giving me such delightful passages to work through with you this week. This is a preacher’s joy, believe me. I’m not being entirely sarcastic – I actually realized pretty quickly that it’s an interesting grouping, because they all have something in common. It’s something we here in LA are rather used to: and that’s being shaken. Shaken to our very core.

In our epistle reading, we are reminded again of this ongoing theme of God as a consuming fire. Remember that from last week? And this week, the writer goes on to talk about how God shakes the earth with warnings from heaven, and the psalm speaks of the mountains trembling and the sea foaming, and the Old Testament passage spoke of hail and floods.

God shakes the earth. After the images that have come to us from Peru in the last few weeks – not to mention our own memories of Northridge and other quakes – I have to say that this isn’t a very comforting scripture to meditate upon.

It forces us to remember that God is not safe. The reality of dealing with the living God is that he cannot possibly be contained by us – not in our community, in our church, or on our altar. Even in our world. This God makes wars cease – we cause them. He rains down hail and floods – we turn them into acid. This God speaks and people beg for him to stop; he causes “sheer terror” and an “overwhelming scourge.” God has power like we can’t imagine.

Thinking on these passages, I remembered a well-known line from The Chronicles of Narnia, the great allegory of the kingdom written by C.S. Lewis. The children who star in the story learn that Aslan, the Christ figure, is a lion. They are afraid to meet him, and they ask, “Is he quite safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

The writer of Hebrews struggles for the words to describe the presence of God: “We have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and a darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet.” It’s beyond our imaginations. It’s not safe. But it’s good.

This bothers us, our not being able to understand God. We want to know why. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that Christians are like schoolchildren who want to look in the back of the textbook for the answers instead of working through the problems themselves.

And why shouldn’t we demand some answers? The world is falling down around us. People who love each other can’t agree, can’t get along. We make war, we coerce, we argue. Our own denomination is splitting up. We’re banging on the door and God is completely silent; or worse, he seems to be telling us to go away.

God’s work is strange, and alien, says the writer of Isaiah. God does things we cannot understand. How often do we ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” Why would God shake us, or if God’s not causing it, why does God allow it to happen?

Let’s continue reading in Isaiah, and see if we can figure out what this passage is talking about. Turn in your Bibles to Isaiah 28, verses 23-29. This is right after the reading we just heard. So God has just declared that he is going to bring a scourge upon the enemies of his people, and has promised a new kingdom of justice and righteousness. But there will be a lot to go through before that kingdom is established – and God’s people will be caught up in the flood and in the hail. They aren’t safe from the scourge to come.

But the writer of Isaiah goes on to explain why this is necessary, and to promise that there is a reason behind it all. He uses a very common metaphor for them: farming. Let’s read it together: (23-29). Here we are reminded of the violence required to farm land and make crops into food. The dill and cummin – these are spices – have to be threshed and beaten. The grain has to be crushed and the chaff shaken away, so that it can be used to make bread.

So, maybe we should understand the scourge and the terror of the earlier verses as God “farming” the earth. God is plowing under and pulling up weeds and beating the chaff away so that something new and good and nourishing can be created. God wants to make bread out of us: living bread that will feed the world’s real hunger. But in order to do that, we have to submit to being crushed, to being shaken.

Is God punishing us? Or, as the psalm says, is God simply ending human fighting and foolishness? Is this God’s wrath – or is it God’s love?

Last week, we read from Hebrews that God disciplines those he loves. The process is painful. I’m sorry to say it, but faith gets harder, not easier, as we progress through the Christian life (Yancey). There’s no trotting into home base, easing up to a comfortable cruising altitude. If we’re at a comfort level with God, then we’re no longer in touch with the God who isn’t safe.

There is hope, though, right at the end of this passage: the grain is not threshed forever and not pulverized. God doesn’t want to destroy us but make us into something healthy.

Bread is a good thing – a nourishing thing – that comes out of the violent process of threshing. Destruction comes and we are shaken. We are beat like dill and cummin, we are threshed like grains of wheat. Sifting, processing, grinding, pressing, kneading, clarifying – just pick a button on your blender – so much we do in the kitchen can be applied to this strange work of God’s. God shakes us to sift out what cannot be used for the kingdom.

And in the Psalm, we are reminded that no matter what is going on around us – even if the mountains themselves are falling down – God is in the midst of a kingdom that does not shake, that is not moved. God’s voice shakes the earth, Hebrews says, but only to remove the shakeable things. God’s kingdom is not shaken.

Our kingdoms are shaken. The nations make much ado – another Bible version says they are “in an uproar” – because God makes their wars cease, breaks their bows, shatters their spears, burns their shields with fire. God takes away their weapons of mass destruction and commands them to “Be still!” God brings desolation – desolation of our desires, destruction of that which we pursue which is not justice and righteousness. God will drastically change our way of life, our standard of living. What awesome things God will do in this world. What strange and alien things.

We stand before this God with reverence and awe. This God is not safe. But he is good. I don’t even think, from our Hebrews reading, that we can assume heaven is safe. God lives there, after all. But it’s good: God is our refuge and strength.

I think we’re going to be shocked and probably a little scared when we meet God face to face and see with our own eyes how vast God’s kingdom is, how it stretches north and south and east and west, beyond our imagining. We’ll be amazed by how much it encompasses, and especially by all who are there. That’s what our Gospel lesson is about today. Those who try to enter by the narrow door may just find it locked, and those who come from east and west, north and south – they are the ones eating in the kingdom.

In the gospel reading, someone asks Jesus how many people, really, will make it in the end. How many will measure up to God’s standards? So Jesus humors the question: he tells this person to go ahead and strive for the narrow door. Take the difficult path that few will tread. But as he so often does, Jesus follows this up with a reversal: that narrow door may be shut on you. You may think you measure up, but there are no guarantees. Just because you’ve strived for it, the narrow door will not automatically open for you. You can’t be sure that anything you do will ever be enough.

But what Jesus has done, that is enough. Jesus blood is a “better word” than Abel’s, because Jesus’ blood cries out not for vengeance on his murderers, but for mercy on them. For the Father to forgive them, for they know not what they do. Jesus is the Passover lamb, and the mediator between us and the holy God whom we dare not approach alone. God isn’t safe. But God’s Son will be there with us when meet him. Jesus Christ mediates our new covenant with God by shedding his own blood.

Jesus is the ultimate example of bad things happening to a good person. Very few, if any, have tread a path as difficult as his. But he was willing to accept what God called him to – his prayer for his fate to pass from him went unanswered. And those in the kingdom, eating with God, are Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets, who risked everything for God, who gave up their livelihoods and families and were unpopular and even killed for the sake of what God asked of them. Their’s was a difficult journey, marked by pain and confusion and most of all, not knowing what would come next. Spending years waiting to hear God's voice again.

We must be ready to be changed, to be sifted and shaken. The life of faith only gets harder the longer you live it.

I want you to know that I’m not saying God causes every bad thing that happens as some kind of divine test. I don’t believe that. On the contrary, I think God has very little to do with most evil in the world, but God can always work with it. Know that when you push on God is with you. God can use whatever is happening to refine you, to make you more ready to eat in his kingdom. God is with you. God knows you and loves you and is making you into something new that will nourish this world. God will not pulverize you. God will not let you be crushed beyond what makes you better.

Remember the story of Job? The classic biblical tale of a person who got exactly what he didn’t deserve? Rabbi Abraham Herschel once said, “Faith like Job’s cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.” [can't find citation for this: anyone?]

The most dangerous person is one who has been shaken and still believes. In another of his novels, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes (and I paraphrase): The enemy’s “cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

Dill is beaten out with a stick, and cummin with a rod. Grain is crushed for bread.

We bang on the door and the voice within calls out “I don’t know you!”

How painful it is when God is silent! How difficult it is to be disciplined! But if we want to walk on our own two feet, God has to let go of our hand. (Lewis)

God’s “decree of destruction” is not against us, it’s against evil. God is coming to sweep away the refuge of lies with hail! God is like a fire: he consumes, he destroys, he purifies, and he warms. This work of God is strange, alien to our understanding. He is not safe. But he is good.

We have come to something that cannot be touched, a blazing fire, and a darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words make the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. His voice shook the earth…but now he has promised, “Yet once more will I shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain. True faith cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.

“Be still!” commands the Lord. We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. God is in the midst of the city and that city shall not be moved.

When we are shaken, what is useless will fall away and we will be formed into something nourishing and healthy, something desperately needed for life itself. Like our Lord Christ, we will be blessed and we will be broken, as we offer ourselves for the life of the world.

So let us give thanks…for being shaken, and for the removal of what is shaken so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

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