10 March 2017

Homily for Lent 1 Evening Prayer - 2017

"Our Need for Faith--First Commandment"
First Commandment & Close of the Commandments
(second in a catechetical series)

It was a curious thing to observe the reactions to our recent presidential election. On the one hand, many were ecstatic as if Donald Trump’s victory meant that all was going to be right now. On the other hand, many became despondent, grief stricken, and frightened, and some even threatened to leave the country. I wonder: have we turned politics and elections into matters of primary, or ultimate, concern, rather than matters of secondary, or penultimate, concern? In other words, do our well-being and our happiness in life depend that much on who becomes president? And if it does, aren’t we going to be sorely disappointed in the end?

Such reactions to elections go to the heart of what it means to be human beings, that is, we are dependent beings. We are not autonomous, self-sustaining, and self-determining persons. I know, this goes against the grain of our Western civilization and our American ethos. After all, we Americans highly prize being free, being self-sufficient, being independent. The last thing many of us want is to accept charity or to be a burden on others (especially on our children).

But the reality of real life says that we need other people. We need the earth. We need the sun. We need food. We are unable to live by ourselves or from our own resources. We cannot live without looking to someone for our well-being, our security, and our identity. So why do we need to rely on other people—parents, family, friends, and community—for guidance or help? This question goes to the heart of who and what we are.

When we begin with the Bible and a Biblical worldview—that is, how we make sense of the world and how we live our lives in the world—we begin by admitting what we are not. We are not God. This may seem obvious. After all, we at least have an inkling that we are not all-powerful or all-knowing. But there’s more. It means that we are not the Creator. Instead, we are creatures of the Creator. Yes, we are made in the image of God, but that’s not the same as being God. We’re still His creatures. This key fact establishes our relationship with God and with the world.

Let me try a little exercise to illustrate. Consider these eight items: God, frogs, angels, rocks, humans, heaven, earth, and soul. Now in your mind’s eye, organize these eight items into two different circles, or categories. How would you organize them?

Most people would put God, angels, heaven, and soul into one circle, or category, and they would put frogs, rocks, humans, and earth, into the other circle. And what is their organizing principle? They’re thinking of the difference between spiritual and material. And most people would say the spiritual things are more important than the physical. My soul is more important than my body, right? That seems to make sense. Unfortunately, this way of viewing the world—organizing the things in the world—comes from the Greek philosopher Plato, not from God’s Word. Other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, also value the distinction between immaterial and material. They even elevate the immaterial, or spiritual, above the material, or physical. And for some, the material world is the problem and the cause of suffering.

But the Bible works much differently; it teaches a much different view of the world. Here’s how the Bible would organize these eight things: Into one circle, you put God. Then into the second circle, you put everything else! You see, I have more in common angels, frogs and rocks than I have in common with God. What do I have in common with angels, frogs and rocks? We were all created! We are all creatures of God. There was a time when we did not exist. So, in this view of the world, my soul is not more important than my body. Both were created by God. Both were redeemed by Christ. I exist as body and soul together.

So in the Biblical worldview—the way the Bible organizes and makes sense of the world—we distinguish between the Creator and His creatures. God creates; we are created. God gives life to us; we receive life from God. In other words, we are dependent. We are dependent upon God creating us, giving us life, and sustaining our life in this world. We are dependent upon Him for our very identity, security, and meaning in life. This applies to everyone—atheist or believer, non-Christian or Christian. We all need to look somewhere for life.

We can put it another way; we can express it in terms of the First Commandment. No person can live without a god. Everyone has a god, because everyone has to look somewhere for his/her source of life, purpose, security, and meaning. As Martin Luther expressed it, a god is someone or something to whom we look for all good things. A god is someone or something from whom we expect nothing but good things.

Now our gods may be of two sorts. Either we can look outside ourselves, or we can look inside ourselves. First, we may look outside ourselves. We may seek our well-being in the quest for money, fame, or family. Even Luther, in his day, complained that money (mammon) was the most common idol. Nothing new under the sun, right? In our day, though, we might also add politics or even science. In our culture, we see science as the solution to many or most of our problems—everything from extending our lives to taming the climate. Some scientists are even suggesting that someday we’ll be able to download our very consciousness into some kind of computer or machine.

Second, we may put our faith in ourselves. Hasn’t this been our problem since the Garden of Eden? In fact, we can describe all of human history as the quest of human beings to live their lives as anything but creatures who are dependent upon their Creator. That sure explains book titles such as The God Species or The World in Human Hands.

So the question is not whether or not you will have a god. The real question is: What is god? The question is not whether or not you have faith. The real question is this: Is your faith in the one true God or not? If we put our faith in creatures or anything in creation, we will soon be disappointed. You see, creatures—created things—cannot bear the burden of their god-hood. Sooner or later they crumble under the pressure. Stock markets go down as well as up. Spouses can abandon us as well as remain faithful. Children can reject their parents as well as love them. Politicians can falter as well as succeed.

When we expect all good things from anyone or anything other that the Creator, we engage in idolatry. Idolatry confuses them. It thinks that creation or a creature is in fact the Creator. The First Commandment calls us to distinguish between the Creator and His creation.

So the story of Jesus that we follow this Lententide offers something remarkable and unexpected. Human creatures try to become like God; they try to escape the creation or take charge of the creation. And yet the Son of God—the very Son of God “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6)—became a creature. He became a human creature with a creaturely body in order to restore us creatures to be fully human once again. And He does even more. He restores us to be human creatures who are now adopted as children of God, human creatures who can run to their Creator, not as a frightful stranger, but as a beloved Father. This is the gift given to us and received by faith. What is faith? It is being restored to that Creator-creature relationship—that relationship in which God gives and we receive, that relationship in which we rest in the boundless, inexhaustible love of God.

This faith is the basis of all the other Commandments—two through ten. One Christian philosopher/theologian (Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation) put it this way: To be a creature is to live by receiving and giving. Consider this illustration—our breathing, by inhaling and exhaling. When I inhale, I receive the life-giving oxygen produced by plants and trees. When I exhale, I breathe out carbon dioxide which plants and trees need in order to live. This is our life as God’s creatures and as God’s children in the Body of Christ. We are interdependent. We need the plants and trees. The same applies to our relationships with others. I receive my life and support for my life from God through my parents. As a parent, I also give that same life and support to my children. I need brothers and sisters in Christ for comfort, for strength, for encouragement, for confession.

By contrast, death is taking and keeping. When I take and keep for myself, I isolate myself from others. I cut myself off from them. Thus I cannot receive their help, and I also harm them by depriving them of my giving. When I put my faith in anything or anyone other than Christ the Creator, I must cling to the creature and keep it for myself.

In our Lenten journey, we encounter a Creator who has not given up on His creation. Rather, He has come to restore us as His creatures. Thus we say that we are saved by faith alone. That means we trust God. It means we have confidence that He will keep us close to Himself both now and into eternity. It means that we rest upon Him whose love is boundless, Him whose life is inexhaustible—the very life He now gives each of us and all of us. It’s good to be a creature. It’s good to need God. It’s good to rest in His hands, the very hands that bear the nail imprints. Amen.

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