July 31, 2016

Charting the Path


Text: Ps. 107:7: “He put their feet on a straight path, to go to a city where they might dwell.”

Since the last time I stood in this place, I have been doing a great deal of traveling. I feel a little bit like the old Johnny Cash song “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I’ve been to Ashfield, Harrisburg, Hastings, Sharpsburg, Bentonville, Villanova, Philadelphia, Minneapolis... well, you get the idea.

I’ve been spending my sabbatical visiting other parishes, churches where the rector is part-time and has another job—rather like our circumstances here. What I’ve learned is that we’re part of what is emerging as a trend—but that is another sermon for another day.

I did most of this travel in a car. I’ve put a lot of miles in behind the wheel in the past four months, pretty much all of them guided by the modern miracle of the GPS device.

The purple line of affirmation

The purple line of affirmation

What I most love about these devices is that I can simply type in an address that I’d never even imagined, let alone ever been to, and the little device paints a line of purple pixels all the way from where I am to where I need to go. It can be across town, or it can be six hundred miles away; it doesn’t matter. No matter where I’m starting from, the way ahead of me is absolutely clear. I don’t have to guess.

What’s even better about it is, it doesn’t actually matter if I make a mistake, or miss a turn. The little purple line magically appears right in front of me again, and it leads right in front of me to whereever it is I want to go.

In fact, it turns out that it actually doesn’t matter what direction I’m going—whether I’m headed toward where I want to go, or do a U-turn in the middle of the highway and head off in the opposite direction—the little purple line appears right in front of me. The GPS is very affirming. So far as the GPS is concerned, I am always going in the right direction.

And that is a pretty good summary of the kind of relationship we want to have with God. We want God to be a GPS. We want our faith to be the little purple line right in front of us, patting us on the back and telling us we’re headed in the right direction, no matter what.

The problem is, that’s an idea of God that fits well with our cultural preferences, but very poorly with how God actually works—how our life of faith, how the search for aligning our actions and our choices with the will of God, actually works.

•   •   •

There are few more dour and dreadful books in the whole bible than the book of the prophet Hosea. The book of Hosea is not the kind of thing that you read to your kids at bedtime. He’s sort of a prophet for our present moment, if only because he says completely outrageous things, things intended to shock his audience—things you would think would get him fired from being a prophet, in order to make his point.

His point is, very simply, that the people of Israel are headed in the wrong direction. They think they are going in the right direction. They think that because they’re doing everything the people in power tell them they’re supposed to be doing to stay safe and secure. The people in power happen to be the Assyrians, who have the biggest army on the block. Everything goes just fine in Judah as long just as the kings in Jerusalem, the leaders of the Hebrew people, understand that the boss is the king of Assyria, and that Assyria’s gods are the gods that matter.

Hosea is talking about a God, and a covenant, that everybody has pretty much just plain forgotten—out of necessity, or out of fear, or out of just plain apathy.

It’s been a long, long time since they took seriously the obligations of the covenant between God and their ancestors. They are going along to get along. They are worshipping the same thing that all the powerful people worship. And, of course, so far as they can see, there is a big, bright purple line right in front of them.

Hosea is talking about an idea about God, about the relationship God wants with God’s people, that everyone has just about forgotten. And the idea that he offers them is very different from the one they want to be true.

It’s that God has given us a path, but it is God’s path, not ours. The way that God has taught is not one that will magically appear in front of us no matter which way we choose to go. We can be wrong. We can be on the wrong path, and if we choose it we can move farther and farther away, every next moment, from where God wants us to be.

Paul is saying pretty much the same thing, to a different audience in a different time but in similar circumstances. For Paul’s audience, the dominant power is Rome. And the ideas of the people in power are pretty materialistic. Raw power is the measure of human worth. Ultimate justice, the idea of divine judgment, is a completely meaningless idea. This world, this earth, is all there is, and all you might ever get is right here for the taking.

That is the set of ideas that are in power in Paul’s world. That really is a world in which whatever direction you want to pursue, a purple line will appear in front of you. There is no better direction to go in than the one that gets you what you want, and where you think you want to go.

Paul is saying that that’s a very attractive, and a very wrong, idea. All of the qualities he lists—fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, anger, wrath, malice, abusive language—all of those are things we know we’re supposed to look down on, all things we’re supposed to shake our finger at and avoid; and yet it would be pretty hard to argue that they’re not pretty much exactly the qualities that we reward in a lot of ways.

Or at least, if you look at the people we elevate to positions of leadership—in our political life, our cultural life, our economic life, our intellectual life, even in the life of the church—it seems as though we end up rewarding, even applauding, exactly some of those qualities. The path you follow if you track those qualities may not be the path toward God, but they sure do seem to get at least some people the goals of fame, and wealth, and—bizarrely—even respect and admiration.

It’s not that Paul’s advice, or Hosea’s advice, is wrong. It comes down to a choice of where you want to go—of knowing that there really is a choice to be made, and that we are making it all the time.

We want our faith, we want God’s work in our lives, to be a GPS, always ready to point us back to the right path. But it turns out that our faith is more like a compass. A compass doesn’t tell you exactly what path to follow. It only points the way to North.

Faith gives us the gift of grace, and that grace works on us like magnetism works on a compass needle. It gives us the sense of where we should be going—or, at least, it gives us a sense that our path is straying off-course.

We want to think that we are no different from anyone else, that all good conscience among all human beings would lead them all in the same direction. And the upshot of that would be to think that, in some fundamental way, our faith makes no real difference.

But that turns out not to be true. Our faith does make a difference—at least if we take it seriously. It does set us on a different path, and toward a different goal—a goal different from the one many, if not most, of the people around us are seeking. And we have to choose whether we’re willing to be on the right path, even if it seems like most people aren’t following it.

Said differently, our faith makes a difference if we choose the difference it makes. Grace by itself is a great gift from God, but if it does not bend the path of our life somehow it isn’t a gift that amounts to much.

There is nothing wrong with what that successful farmer did. Any farmer would either admire or envy a farmer who did well, especially in this year of drought. All my neighbors in Hardwick are trying to figure out how they’ll get much of a harvest at all this year. A farmer who decided to build bigger barns this year, that would be a pretty amazing farmer.

That’s the reward this world gives. Jesus is reminding his audience that while that farmer is accumulating more and more to store in barns, people are dying of famine and hunger. All that grain, all that money, all that power, all that fame you have accumulated—whose will it be? That is the question Jesus is setting down right in front of us.

•   •   •

Having visited a great many churches during my time away, I think I can say with genuine gratitude that I am glad our ancestors in this place did not decide to build bigger barns. There must have been years when that was a temptation—not a temptation, a seemingly prudential idea. There were years when so many people came to church that the overflow got stuck on folding chairs in the parish hall, and enjoyed the liturgy by way of a loudspeaker.

But we followed a different path, and it has led us here.

Looking across the lessons I’ve learned from the generosity of all those other churches I visited, I think we followed a good path. It was a path of investing in the quality of the community, in the character and the ethos of the place, rather than in its material expressions.

The path the people of this place who came before us put us on may have looked a little strange to people has set us up well to chart a path toward the future—a path guided by the gentle tug of grace more than the plain path of riches or fame.

But we might as well know that our course will probably not look like it’s headed in the direction most of the world around us is headed in. If we follow that path of covenant faithfulness, of gentleness and forgiveness, of sharing rather than accumulating, we probably will look like we’re not quite headed in any direction anyone else can understand—not liberal and not conservative, not left and not right.

Calibrating that path is not a once-in-a-lifetime decision. We don’t get a baptismal guarantee of getting it right. What we get is this weekly moment of recalibration, of gathering to look out at the horizon together and compare the angle of our compasses and the guidance of our stars. If we keep at it, and we keep at it together, we will, by grace, come at last to the city where we God calls us to dwell. Amen.