Well, the sermon came and went (transcribed in the extended section) , and people seem to have received it cordially, though I would myself level some criticisms of it (in line with yesterday’s post). In fact, Pippa herself gently prodded me to justify what she took to be a relatively tenuous link from the readings to the sermon. She had missed an explicit thematic connection, but she’s right that it should be stronger, and I’m intensely proud that she can listen critically and identify flaws.
In one of those preacher’s-nightmare scenarios, the 8 o’clock congregation read a different psalm fro the 10 o’clock
I thought of David and the congregation at St. Patrick’s; I hope that today’s service helps them make another step out of devastation into restoration.
Jos 24:1-2a,14-25/Ps 16/Eph 5:21-33/John 6:60-69
Proper 16, August 27, 2006
I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.
In the name of God Almighty: Father, Son and Holy Spirit — Amen.
I claim some degree of expertise in the matter of falling. When my father referred to me as “the Rudolf Nureyev of Woodwell Street,” he meant the comparison affectionately, but not in a straightforwardly flattering way. When my college friends identified “Akmitis” as a magnetic field disturbance usually observed in close proximity to Akma, characterized by objects suddenly being knocked over, breaking, or otherwise being upset, they had noticed that whenever I’m around, they ought to keep a close eye on their glassware. From years of playing street football and coming home with scrapes, bruises, lumps and contusions, to years of spilled bottles, tumbling books, cascading stacks of papers, I have to acknowledge to you this morning from this very pulpit that I have learned about gravity on an experiential basis. I am a clumsy man, and I know a good bit about falling.
I know about falling not only in the literal gravitational sense, but also in the spiritual sense. We fall from the grace for which God created us into all manner of wrongdoing: sometimes trivial, and sometimes dreadfully malignant. Falling comes easily, it’s second nature to us; it requires less energy than standing up. When someone asks me a difficult or embarrassing question, I feel the temptation to fall into a simple, convenient deception; when other drivers speed on the highway, I fall into keeping pace with them; and we won’t even talk about procrastinating and day dreaming (I may get around to those topics later). St. Paul said that all of us have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God, and in this area as well as in my physical coordination I know well what he means.
Speaking, then, as an expert on falling, I will add that I usually do not experience falling as something that I have chosen to do. One moment I’m going about my business, managing moderately well, and the next moment I’m rapidly approaching the floor with my nose — or one moment, I’m conducting myself in a manner befitting a decent, middle-aged Christian man, and the next minute I’m stumbling into some waywardness. Falling overtakes me and catches me, and the hard part is actually not the falling itself, but the sudden stop at the end. We can relax and get used to falling; the starting and stopping, though, make falling a painful, frustrating part of life.
To a people who sometimes fall, who fall more often than we really ought to, Joshua calls out the reminder that we don’t need to fall. Although it’s easy to live down to gravitationally-determined standards, we can break out of the habit of falling, of drifting ever downward, of letting forces beyond our control pull on us. Joshua gathers the congregation together and asks them to take stock of themselves: will they fall into habits and practices that “everyone does,” worshiping the gods from Beyond the River, the gods of the Egyptians and the Amorites, gods that draw them away from the God who called them together from the first? “Choose this day whom you will serve”: will you yield to the terms of a fallen life? If so, you have little to expect but more bumps and bruises, more relaxing rushes followed by more painful encounters — and the prospect of a very sudden stop at the end.
As an expert on falling, though, I have to warn you that the topic of choosing entails some precipitous dangers of its own. “Choosing” invokes a whole boatload of stumbling-blocks about power, freedom, ability, and our capacity to form sound decisions about how we should order our lives. Joshua’s challenge affords the temptation that we can simply take control of the reins of our lives and make right things happen, choose only correct paths, and thereby bring about a happy ending with no bruised bones, no shattered china, no dented haloes. But falling isn’t like that, and choosing isn’t like that, and even on our best days we exercise relatively little control over what befalls us — let alone the days when cataclysmic hurricanes wipe out whole regions, or disease devastates our loved ones. Choose ye this day, and choose wisely, but before you make any choices let’s review a basic, subtle point of the physics of Christian discipleship. Let’s recall, and let’s never forget, that grace lifts us up beyond the pull of gravity.
The physics of grace defy the laws of daily routine, the confute common sense. Through grace, we extend love and patience to people who don’t deserve it — and I don’t mean just those people over there, but you and me right here. We know in our parish life that church people engage in behavior unbecoming an emissary of the Gospel because we have caught ourselves doing that. St. Luke’s rises this morning not because we’re so unimpeachably pure, but because grace will not let go of us. God gathers us as a people upon whom unfair blessings are lavished, and God reaches out ever further, ever more patiently, to bless more and more, nation upon nation and generations and generations of people who didn’t qualify on an entrance exam, didn’t pass the lie detector test, who didn’t get extra credit points for optional questions, but who were willing to let grace break their habit of falling.
Most of the time, that change comes upon us not as a choice that we make standing with Joshua, presenting ourselves before the Lord at Shechem. A strong will determined to make a choice for God can hinder our spirit and weigh us down. More often, we don’t so much make a dramatic choice; instead, we let go of our persistent inclination to fall, let go of the familiarity of falling, and permit God to buoy us to new possibilities that we hadn’t known before. We stop grousing about this religious nut with the hard teaching about “I am the bread of life,” and we taste and see that in this communion we savor a soupçon of eternity, of unity, of the truth. In fact, we do many of the same things we did before we crossed the threshold of grace — but they begin subtly to mesh, to extend themselves, to draw us away from the attraction of falling and they gently pull us heavenward. At first we’re falling, then just drifting, then floating, then without fanfare or foofaraw we notice that falling no longer has a claim on us, that our lightness has come as we release our pride, our control, the felt necessity of our being in charge. When our spirit lets go of the urgent expectation that we set God and the universe straight on our terms — if only God weren’t such a slow learner! — we allow the Holy Spirit to show us that it was our own will, our own self, holding us imprisoned all along.
If we bracket, for a minute, the specific asymmetrically-gendered language in the Epistle to the Ephesians and read the passage for its model of how disciples interact with one another, the epistle can remind us that we inherit the family occupation of demonstrating God’s ways to the world — and that we most truly represent God’s ways, God’s own habits and practices, by giving, sharing, forgiving, waiting. Jesus walked among us as a healer and feeder, a teacher and comforter, and he did not stop nourishing and tenderly caring for us even to the point of showing us what faithfulness meant, what generosity meant, yielding up his mortal life rather than relinquishing to gravity.
And what gravity could not hold onto, arose.
Speaking as an expert on falling, I can tell you with confidence that this rising business differs from falling in more ways than just an opposite direction on the vector arrow. When we free ourselves from falling, when we permit God to free us from falling, we move more fully into a life unlimited by the exigencies that overload us. When we come clean about the density of our sin, no power on earth will be able to use that weight against us. Our new life brings us joy, as grace displaces gravity with levity. Forgiving grace lifts the burden of our frailty off our shoulders and we rise, liberated from the crushing obligation to do it all on our own. We rise, stronger and lighter and freer to do what lies within our grasp and trusting that God will bring to completion what we cannot attain unaided. We rise from the shackles of the agonizing curse of having to save ourselves. We rise, because we are possessed by a grace that no force of nature can stifle. This isn’t just better than falling, it’s the truth, the way things ought to be, the way things are if we don’t devote so much misplaced energy to making them our way.
I have copious experience of falling, in the flesh and in the spirit, and I’m not done falling yet; the new life still giddies me, I totter, and in clutching for balance I knock everything out of alignment. Maybe you fall a little, too. Maybe each of us now staggers, now lurches — and yet we learn in our unsteady path, teetering toward the table around which our parish dances its halting dance, and our church jitters around us, and all the churches, and all God’s people, and creation and earth and heaven, we learn that the swoops that used to hurtle us down to the Pit, now take their place in a choreography of motion so exquisite that our mere perception of it lifts us up, laughing, weeping, gladding our heart and rejoicing our spirit, resting our bodies in hope. For the Body of Christ has not fallen: He is risen, we are risen, and we will rise and keep on rising, to new and unending life in him.