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F. Earle Fox
- a sermon at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Placentia, CA. 1/27/08
Epiphany 3, 2008 -- Amos 3:1-8; Ps. 139:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-17; Mt. 4:12-23
All four Bible lessons raise the issue (as do probably most Bible passages) of human failure. That is, of course, because salvation is meant to be the remedy for our monumental human failure -- the Fall. And the Bible is all about salvation. We are in a state of affairs from which we are incapable of extricating ourselves. We have trapped ourselves in a labyrinth out of which there is no exit, no escape. And the devil prowls about seeking whom he may devour.
The Bible and centuries of tragic experience both teach us that we are incapable of making our own remedy. Most of our remedies just compound the problem. It takes, as we say, the grace of God. God must intervene in our labyrinth, enter our self-entrapment, and lead us out. We are not capable of solving the problem on our own.
But to get a handle on our failure, we must first get a handle on what success would mean. Failure is the warping of, or rebellion against, success. Would we recognize success if we should bump into it? What would success look like? If the Biblical version of success is the real one, the efforts of the world have been radically wide of the mark. We do not know even where to aim.
The Fall was out of creation. We fell out of creation because we (represented in Adam and Eve) chose not to be creatures, dependent on and obedient to God, but rather to be independent, autonomous decision-makers. We want to do it on our own. We dislike being dependent and we dislike having to be obedient. But that did not, and does not, change the fact that we are dependent beings, that we need many things to happen merely to survive, let alone flourish, which we do not and cannot control. We are, and always will be, dependent beings.
If we could "be like God" as the serpent promised in the Garden, we would not need God. We would be able to manage on our own. That, of course, was precisely the illusion he successfully implanted in Adam and Eve. But rebelling against God did nothing at all to make us really independent, it merely made us dependent beings trying to carry on the illusion of being independent. Because we were still dependent, but no longer on God, we would as Paul says in Romans 1, begin to worship the creation rather than the Creator. And that, as God warned Adam, meant certain death. A false god will always betray you into the opposite of what he promises.
So salvation is about our returning to be creatures again, agreeing that we are creatures, that we need God for our very existence, and that He and He alone can define our purpose for existence. We must learn again how to trust and obey.
The Western Church during the late middle ages began to slide off center and become sin-oriented rather than creation oriented, focusing on how awful things were rather than on the vision of God as both Creator and Sovereign. They often emphasized the Sovereignty of God at the expense of the Creator part. So the emphasis was on our compulsive disobedience and sinfulness, rather than on God as Creator who holds us, even as sinners, in the palm of His Hand. God creates nothing but good.
So, with a hyper-masculine God, many Christians fell into a new legalism, attacking not their sins, but their very being. We began to think that repenting meant putting oneself down, often resulting in self-hate.
No one ever told me to hate myself, but I nevertheless grew up with a confusion between repentance and self-rejection. Many, perhaps most Christians do. I was well into my adulthood before I realized what I was doing and repented of hating myself.
Self-rejection does not aid repentance, it prevents it. As Jesus implied in the 2nd Great Commandment, unless I love myself, I will be incapable of loving my neighbor. Self-hate will always prevent you from getting at the real problem, not your being, but your attitudes and your behavior. The name Satan means adversary, devil means slanderer, and Jesus calls Satan the father of lies. Satan wants you to hate yourself because self-hate becomes compulsive and paralyses you from serving God or loving your neighbor.
But creation, not the Fall, happened first, and there is a goodness to creation that no creature can remove. Anything God makes is good. It is therefore always right for you to be yourself, or for me to be myself. It is not our being that is in question, though it may be bent out of shape by our sin. Our being is what Jesus came to save. It is our behavior which God is challenging. Sin is behavior, not being, not existence. The goodness of creation, as it were, surrounds the Fall. The Fall cannot undo the fact that we are, and will always be, creatures of God. It is precisely that which makes us redeemable despite the Fall.
Back in the 1980's, I was chaplain and teacher at a school in Connecticut for troubled youth. It had an outward bound, nature-adventure type of discipline, and the students were under strict control. Many of them, of course, resented it, and made their resentment known. They wanted to be free to make their own decisions.
It occurred to me as I pondered the situation that there are indeed five decisions which they could make, and if they made them, they would become truly free individuals. If they did not make them, they would always be slaves to their passions, their false goals, and illusions of false independence. As I thought about these decisions over the years, I discovered that the decisions outline the way in which we can cooperate with the salvation offered by God to get us out of our troubled state.
They can be, in effect, an acceptance of that salvation, but they are put in generic terms, raising issues common to all mankind, not just to Christians. The answers we give to these issues will be either a positive response to God, the Biblical answers to the issues, or they will be some version of a pagan or secular response. But they effectively challenge all persons with the five crucial issues of all living beings.
The five decisions to be made are these:
1. To be a truth-seeker at any cost to myself;
2. To rest the weight of my being, my dependent nature, on a completely stable & secure foundation (if I can find one...);
3. To be an open, honest, living-in-the-light, truth-speaking person in all my relationships;
4. To find my reason for existence and to pursue and obey that with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength;
5. To do all those things with a loving spirit.
One can give various answers to any of the decisions. But the Biblical Godly answer is the only answer that leads to life. Any less than a full commitment to a Godly answer will in the end, sink our ship.
A few weeks ago, we started our "Living in the Light" group at the home of a parishioner, beginning with a period of teaching, and then sharing and reflecting on where we are with our personal spiritual growth. We will soon be digging into these five decisions, and learning to put them to work in our lives. We still have room for three or four more.
The decisions are a good plumb line to hold up to yourself to measure your spiritual growth; they are a good test for one's emotional stability and wholeness; they make a good series of questions to ask yourself when you are confused, depressed, fed up with life, etc. or when you are confessing your sins, to see where you might be failing. You can run through the list and ask the Lord to show you where you are being tripped up -- or avoiding the issue.
Notice that truth-seeking comes first. That is because, if we do not make truth our first priority, we will fail in all subsequent tasks. We will not know where to find a truly substantial and secure foundation for our dependency; we will not know what it even means to live in the light, or what our reason for existence might be; and we will not know the right meaning of love, as the world continually demonstrates. Truth-seeking -- at any cost to ourselves, is the foundation for all else.
Truth-seeking means a humble spirit, a willingness to know if I am wrong. If I am wrong, I want to know. I am open to legitimate correction. A teachable spirit. It means a passion for living in reality, come what may.
Secondly comes the dependency decision. We are by nature dependent beings -- creatures There is no possibility of becoming autonomous and self-sufficient. We will always need a whole host of things beyond ourselves going right to even survive, let alone live the abundant life. Most of those things we need are far out of our control.
In our fallen world, we are always at risk because there is no place upon which to rest our being and our dependency. So relationship becomes a place of vulnerability and danger. Hence we invent defense mechanisms, fig leaves, and run for the bushes.
If we cannot find a safe and secure foundation upon which to rest, then we are eternally at risk -- or, as eternal as we are lucky enough to survive. Survival then is largely matter of luck and fate. And life is a power struggle against the incessant negative forces surrounding us.
And, in the end, they win.
But if our being is resting on a secure foundation, one which the negative circumstances of life cannot touch, then we can be secure in our relationships. Our being is no longer a question mark. We are no longer at risk in that deep, vulnerable way. That is what chapter 8 of Romans is about -- the deep foundations of God upon which we can depend, the Hand of God which come from outside the circle of creation making us invulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
But finding this place of rest depends on our having first made the truth decision -- so that we can discern between true and false dependencies.
Thirdly comes the living in the light decision -- to be open, free in one's communications, speaking the truth, not hiding or pretending. A WYSIWYG person. What You See Is What You Get. Transparent. Able to be fully yourself before other people.
Imagine a world in which all persons were open in that sense. What difference would it make to you if you knew that all the people you would meet today would be of that caliber?
But we cannot become that open and free unless we have already made decision #2, to rest on the Hand of God. Only in that deep security of our inner being can we risk openness to the chanciness of life. In that security, we cannot have the rug pulled from under us. We are standing on God's rug, not the world's rug. I no longer need the world's permission to be myself. We are standing on God's ground, not the world's ground. We can be hurt, we can feel pain, but we cannot be destroyed. We can outlast any evil that attacks us. More than that, we can grow through the attack and come out stronger than we were before.
The fourth decision is to seek our reason for being, and to pursue it with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We are to find out why we are here, which is the only objective basis for moral standards. And our reason for being comes from only one place -- from the mind and heart of the One who gave us our being. Only He can know why we are here -- because it is His original and originating intention, and nobody else's, that we exist.
That is the significance of the law, as Jesus responded to a query one day. The law is all about the meaning of our existence, why we are here.
But one can do this fourth decision with credibility only if he has first done the third. For, if one has not determined to be open and honest, his vow of obedience is at best suspect. Of what use is a vow of obedience from a person who has not yet determined to be clear about his inner intentions, to be transparent, to have a reliable word?
And the fifth decision emerges right out of the fourth -- to do all things with a loving spirit, to become a lover of souls. That, of course, is precisely what Jesus said is indeed the very meaning of the law. The two highest laws in the cosmos are the laws of love -- love of God and of neighbor -- by one who has first learned to love him- or herself.
One can successfully make this fifth decision only if he has first made the 4th decision to obey God. If we do not take on a loving spirit as an objective obligation, a command, not just "a good idea", our love will not survive the constant temptations to compromise, to pull back in the face of conflict and disappointment. Love and duty are not contraries, they support one another as the law and the grace of God.
So each of these five decisions needs and builds on the previous ones and supports the following ones.
Notice that truth comes first, and must be the foundation of all the others, and that love comes last, the most difficult of all, requiring the most preparation (the four previous decisions). Love is not something you "fall" into, it is something you die into, the death to self, which is accomplished as you go through the decisions. We do not begin life as loving persons, we begin as self-centered, egotistical, demanding persons. That is why God makes babies small. Imagine if we came into the world fully grown and that self-centered! We learn to love with agape, self-giving, love through our life journey, on the way of the cross, at each decision repenting, giving something of our life back to God -- and receiving it back again.
Yet, the making of these five decisions is the loving of oneself, it is our part in cooperating with the formation of oneself in the Image of God, treating oneself to the highest possible good in all existence -- at the invitation of Him who is the highest good -- the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
And so we find our identity -- we become (1) truth-seekers, (2) stable persons down to the very root of our being, (3) honest and transparent persons, (4) obedient to Him who commands the highest, and (5) lovers of souls, living in the Kingdom of faith, love, and hope.
This is what success might look like -- and a vision of how God reaches down into our lives to draw us back to Himself -- to remake us in His image, the Image of God.
The best of all possible worlds. It does not get any better than that.
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