Monday, March 31, 2014

A Subversive Gospel

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on March 30, 2014.  The texts were 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, and John 9:1-41.


For all of the wonderful things that Facebook allows us to accomplish, a new announcement this week sent shudders down my spine.  The tech giant recently spent $2 Billion to acquire Oculus, a company that specializes in creating virtual reality technology and experiences.  While that may seem like a fairly harmless technological purchase, it was a quote from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that gave me cause for concern: “After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home. This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."  While I’m not necessarily opposed to new technologies that enhance communication, especially across great distances, I’m quite troubled by the idea of a virtual reality nearly indistinguishable from true reality…and I’m troubled by it for a very simple reason: I’m convinced that we live in a world with too many illusions already.

Think of all the illusions we deal with on a daily basis.  From the idea that a new body spray will suddenly make you more attractive to the opposite sex, to the idea that purchasing a new vehicle will make your daily commute to work or school more exciting and significant…we live in a world that produces, packages, and promotes human experiences that trade reality for an illusion.  On a more deep and personal level, we live in world that fears brokenness, a society that privileges the illusion of happiness over the reality of brokenness.  If I were to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve ever had the experience of coming to church just after massive blow up with a spouse, partner, or friend, but instead of letting those feelings out, you put a smile on your face before you leave the car…I bet I would see more than a handful of you nodding in agreement.  In all honesty, there are days that I’ve come to church feeling a bit down, but once the collar comes on, so does a smile.  Though there are so many different reasons why we might feel uncomfortable wearing our emotions on our sleeves, the fact remains that it’s often easier to feign happiness than to allow someone else into our brokenness.  We live in a world of illusions.

It seems the prophet Samuel also lived in a world of illusion. At this point in the story, it has become clear that King Saul is no longer fit to rule over Israel. God has forsaken Saul and announced that a new king will be anointed. And though the wickedness of Saul is visible to all, even Samuel is at first unable to accept this reality. He prefers the illusion that Saul should remain king rather than accepting the reality of his failures. So the Lord says to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul. I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” The word of The Lord has come to Samuel with a clarity that should cut through any illusions, that should blow away any illusion like a fog cast away by the heat of the sun. And yet, Samuel still cannot fully accept this reality: “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” Even in the face of the Lord’s declaration of a new king, a new reality...even in the face of the Lord’s command to go, Samuel still cannot imagine a world without the kingly reach of Saul’s violent hand. Illusions have a way of making us fear the truth, whether in ourselves or in others.

Eventually Samuel arrives at Jesse’s home.  And though he has answered the word of the Lord, and sought out the new king, Samuel must still confront the assumptions and illusions he harbors within his heart.  Samuel’s eyes are fixed on Eliab, presumably a man of great stature, a man who appears fit for the role of king.  In a moment of great confidence, Samuel says before all who were present, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” Though we don’t know exactly what Samuel saw in Eliab that convinced him Eliab was the Lord’s anointed, we can glean something from the Lord’s response: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” In the past, I’ve heard this lesson reduced to nothing more than a ‘Scriptural’ reason for why judging someone’s appearance isn’t the most charitable thing to do.  And while I agree with that sentiment, it seems there is so much more going on within this story.  It’s not so much that Samuel was guilty of judging the appearance of Eliab to be greater than Jesse’s other sons.  It’s that Samuel is operating out of an illusion…an illusion of what it means to be anointed with the power of the Spirit…an illusion of what it must take to be a king…an illusion rooted in his assumptions about the kind of person the Lord would choose to lead the people of Israel.  He was unable to see the truth and the reality of what the Lord was doing in his midst because he was blinded by his assumptions and illusions. Eventually David was anointed, the one who was expected to amount to nothing more than a shepherd.

The Pharisees and the Disciples suffered much of the same problem in this Gospel story. As Jesus suggests, ‘sight’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to isn’t sufficient enough to penetrate through the illusions and grasp the truth as it really is. The disciples’ question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” reveals a deeply flawed assumption: those who seem broken must be on the receiving end of God’s judgment against sin. Though they had been with Jesus long enough to see the way he overturned the old reality and ushered in a new reality, their ability to see and discern God’s new things in their midst was compromised. The Pharisee’s statement, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” reveals a depressingly inadequate grasp of how God, in Jesus, was doing something new in their midst that might step on their toes and rub up against old traditions and old interpretations of the Law. Their statement, “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man we do not know where he comes from” reveals the assumption and illusion that someone is unworthy because they have a questionable origin. They seem able only to trust what they can fully understand and trust what they can control. Even then, the illusion of control was oh-so-tempting.

On Ash Wednesday, just a few weeks ago, we were invited to observe a holy Lent by engaging in a few habits of holiness: self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and meditation on God’s holy word…practices that I believe can do much to cut through the assumptions and illusions we all encounter within ourselves and in the world we live in.  Now is the time to take seriously our call as Christians living in the midst of Lent to look deeply within ourselves to face the illusions we have internalized.  What do you carry within you that you fear to acknowledge, or fear revealing to the world around you? What masks do I wear that keep me from truly discerning, truly seeing how God is working in my life, how God is calling me into a deeper relationship with God?   What must we let go of in order to get into rhythm with the God who is always calling us forward in holiness?

Courageously, our rector witnessed to us the power of ‘coming clean’, of admitting his illusions so he could embrace the new things that God has for him.  Such a public admission was no easy task, but he is living proof that there is nothing to fear in facing the illusions and assumptions we all carry.  Ultimately, what comes from owning up to our illusions and removing our masks is true liberation, and a clearer vision illuminated by the light of Christ’s grace and mercy.  I’m not quite sure what mask God is calling me to remove.  But I do hope that when I hear God’s call to remove a mask and confront an illusion, I will have Richard’s courage.  Friends, let us all hear the Apostle Paul’s words with open ears and softened hearts, that we might walk into the new things God has for us all: “Sleeper, Awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!”

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