Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who is like God?

Who is like God?

This is the feast of Saint Michael and all angels. The name Michael comes from this Hebrew question: who is like God?

And the first answer to this question is “No one.” No one is like God: God stands alone. There is no other who is creator of the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in it. There is no other who created, redeemed, and sustains humankind.

No one is like God. God alone is our rock and our salvation. But our mind wanders from this first answer, and the image of St. Michael, the archangel that fights the powers of evil, brings to mind another answer to this question: The angels are like God.

Indeed, the image of angels draws our mind to contemplate God. In his dream, Jacob saw the angels going up and down the ladder, the stairway to heaven, and knew he was in the presence of the divine. When Jesus conveyed to Nathanael that he would see extraordinary things, he said “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus invoked the image of the angels ascending and descending to tell Nathanael that he would see things he had never seen before. The image of the angels in this story tells us that something beyond ordinary human experience is going on here.

The angels are otherworldly, preternatural. The scriptural images of them fall into two categories: first, praising God, showing us just how highly exalted God is, that an entire cohort beyond our ordinary experience exists just to praise God.

To the extent that the angels are “like God” — powerful, otherworldly, transcendent — they draw attention to the greatness of God in that however much the angels are like God in comparison to us, God is greater still. The angels help us to contemplate the greatness of God.

The lesson from Revelation alongside today’s collect evokes a second function of angels in scripture: to serve as proxy defenders of human kind. In the Revelation lesson, Michael defends the world from the forces of evil. We pray: Mercifully grant that as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth.

This collect predates the Book of Common Prayer, although Archbishop Cranmer added the phrase “by thy appointment” to make it clear that the angels help and defend us because God tells them to; in other words, they may be like God, but they are only our help and protection because God, our ultimate help and protection, so decrees.

So the angels are mighty beings that exist to worship God, and to help, protect, and serve human kind. They worship God, and serve human kind. Worship God, and serve human kind. We’ve heard that somewhere before.

Hear what our Lord Jesus saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

But these aren’t commandments for the angels. The Law and the Prophets give the task of human kind. For the mission of the angels, to worship God completely, and to love and serve humanity, is none other than the end our own existence.

The angels remind us just how high above us they are, and how high above them God is. And yet their task is the same as ours, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. We speak of the angels to bridge the gap between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God.

So we have a third answer.

Who is like God?

When through God’s grace we live out God’s high calling for us, despite our failings and fallings from our creation in God’s image, we are like God.

May the witness of the angels and the grace of God help us to live accordingly.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Operators are standing by

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I hate being rushed into decisions. If I'm making a purchase, I like to shop around, weigh my options, look at different products and prices, and then ponder whether I really need to make the purchase at all. I don't like to hurry to a hasty decision. And that's for something minor, like buying a new six-pack of dress socks. (I ended up getting the Target store brand ones). So Matthew's abrupt life-changing decision in today's Gospel is pretty shocking to me.

One verse. Jesus saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth. Jesus called Matthew. Matthew came. Just like that.

And let's be clear, Matthew at the tax booth wasn't some bureaucrat leaving a desk job. Matthew's job was more like being the front man in a protection racket. Matthew wasn't paid according to a civil service pay schedule; he got a percentage of whatever he could extort from his own people on behalf of the hated occupying Roman army. Walking away from the tax booth meant leaving not just his job, but also his political allegiances and likely his safety. It's not an easy job to quit. So how did Matthew do it so decisively? Is there more to this story? Perhaps our other scripture for the day can help us unpack this.

Paul's second letter to Timothy reminded him to cling to the scripture he had known from childhood that would instruct him in salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Now to be clear, the scriptures Timothy could have known as a child weren't the Gospels, or Paul's letters, which would have yet to be written, but the Hebrew scriptures. Perhaps THIS is Matthew's story. Could the scriptures of his childhood have set the stage for his sudden conversion? If anyone was in need of teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, it would seem to be Matthew, who got rich by helping the Romans steal from the Jews. Yet all Jesus said to him was "Follow me." What sort of seeds had been planted in him, ripening from the days of his youth, that he might be so ready to be harvested when Jesus came past his tax booth?

To answer this question, we turn to the other lesson we shared today, a lesson Matthew would have known from his youth:

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes,* and I shall keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law;* I shall keep it with all my heart.
Make me go in the path of your commandments,* for that is my desire.
Incline my heart to your decrees* and not to unjust gain.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless;* give me life in your ways.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,* which you make to those who fear you.
Turn away the reproach which I dread,* because your judgments are good.
Behold, I long for your commandments;* in your righteousness preserve my life.

When we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures, when we practice little steps of following Jesus in unremarkable but real ways in our lives, the seeds are growing in us. And when the acceptable time arrives when God speaks to us, on the day of salvation when God calls us to take a leap to faith and risk everything for the sake of the Kingdom of God, these seeds may come ripe in us as they did in Matthew. We, like Matthew, can cling to what we once learned and firmly believed so when Jesus says, "Follow me," all that remains is to follow immediately. No need to keep those operators standing by. Amen.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Article for the Messenger

My role in the Recycling Ministry is the simplest thing in the world. In Kit Cone’s daily Recycling Ministry newsletter, he puts out a call: someone to help with a pickup from a donor in, say, Boonton on Tuesday at 9:30 am. I check my schedule. If I can, I say, "Here I am." The truck shows up at my door. I get on. Kit drives somewhere. We move things. In contrast with my overly cerebral life as a college professor, it’s a welcome change of pace.

In the monthly Messenger column about the Recycling Ministry, you've probably become accustomed to reading stories about deliveries the Recycling Ministry has made. Lives changed. Workers on the truck profoundly moved by the poverty and gratitude they encountered. "Clients" who say the RM workers who intervened in their lives with the critically needed furniture or more must be angels. We often hear about deliveries because they are so often most obviously, as Kit Cone aptly titles them, "Moving Experiences."

The bulk of my RM experiences, and all of my recent ones, have been pickups. They’re important, of course. We can’t deliver what we don’t have. Without beds and couches and chairs and cribs and tables coming in, they can’t go out to those who so desperately need them.

Despite this critical role, it’s undeniable that there’s just far less glamour in pickups. No one says, "Now I can sleep at night because the sofa I had in my storage unit has been passed along to your warehouse" (not unless they take Luke 12:20 particularly seriously). No one says, "I never thought anyone cared enough about my family to take away our old bookshelf." No one breathes a sigh of relief that their children will now be safer at night because the crib their children have grown out of isn't in the attic anymore. Donors are genuinely glad to be able to share, and perhaps even grateful for the freed-up storage space, but, of course, it’s just not the transfiguring mountaintop experience that deliveries are.

Delivering beds to a family that has been sleeping on the floor can be transformative for both the receiving family and the workers who experience how deeply they are touched. Picking up a used mattress is unlikely to be a life-changing experience for either donor or mattress-hauler. Its quotidian nature, though, is part of its beauty.

I love working on pickups, and even more I love the less-glamorous-yet task of unloading the truck into a warehouse, or even moving things from one storage space to another. There’s something almost meditative and prayerful about the sheer mundanity of it. Much like reciting the Psalms during the Daily Office, the lack of excitement or too much thought to the process allows its sheer repetition to sink in and shape the soul. Can loading a truck be prayer?

What better way to train to be a disciple than to repeat the unremarkable motions of service until they become second nature? What better way to contemplate the presence of Christ than to toil for those of whom Jesus said whatsoever you do to the least of these you do to me? My experience of Christ’s presence when I’m kneeling at the altar rail and Christ’s presence when I’m lugging a mattress are profoundly interconnected.

The Anglican poet John Keble, whose feast we would celebrate March 29 if the date were ever available for a Lesser Feast, wrote words that seem apt for reflecting on the gift of mundane service:

If, on our daily course, our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.

The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.

Only, O Lord, in Thy dear love,
Fit us for perfect rest above,
And help us, this and every day,
To live more nearly as we pray.