Thursday, April 11, 2019

Practicing Faith

As we prepare for Holy Week, with its daily dose of drama, conflict, and suffering, is it fair for me to ask why? Why not give up the extra services--the daily Eucharists, the special gatherings for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the nighttime worship for Easter Vigil--and just jump from Palm Sunday to Easter Day? The story is, more or less, complete even without the daily journey. We could give our choir, altar guild, ushers, bread bakers, bulletin creators, janitorial service, and clergy a break and just hit the high points? Why not? Because a faith worth holding on to takes practice.

Religion is designed to do one of two things: reinforce the instincts we already have or remind us that our instincts aren't good enough on their own. And we don't need religion to tell us that we were right all along. As I read the first lesson from Morning Prayer today (Jeremiah 26:1-16), I am reminded that prophets come to tell the people of God what they need to hear even though they don't want to hear it. God's blessings are not manifest in the riches of this world but in its poverty. Self-interest is ultimately doomed to fail. Love wins where the sword cannot. God loves me even though I don't deserve it. My value as a human being is not measured in my accomplishments or my possessions but in my createdness--my fundamental identity as a relational being who is loved in order that I might share love. Those aren't the things we can learn in economics class. They are the things we need the prophets to tell us. They are the truths we need Holy Week to instill in our hearts.

On Sunday, if we're still paying attention, we will hear the prophet Isaiah declare, "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced." The prophet tells us what our sin-blinded selves cannot see without help: the one who suffers innocently is not rejected by God but embraced by God.

In the collect for Palm Sunday, we ask God to "grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection." Wouldn't it be easier to skip the first half of that petition and ask God to help us jump past the suffering part and live only in the resurrection? It might be, but that's not where resurrection is to be found. Death comes first. Loss comes first. Struggle and suffering and hardship come first. We could skip the tough parts, but we would inadvertently skip the good ones, too, because, in Christ, God shows us what our instincts fail to see: God is not found in the absence of suffering but in the heart of it. Until the prophets teach us to see the world that way, we won't find God in it.

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