Sunday, February 5, 2012

Waiting Upon That Which Gives Meaning to the Apparent

5 February 2012: Year B, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 and Mark 1:29-39. Preaching: The_Hero_of_Canton.
Denominational Background: Raised United Methodist, Local Ministerial Candidate in the Free Methodist Church on track for (eventual) ordination as an elder in the church.
Educational Background: Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Philosophy (with a heavy concentration of courses in Ministry), prospective Seminary student next fall.
Vocational Background: Two years youth ministry experience, one semester as a T.A. in the Religion and Philosophy dept. of my Alma Mater.

For those of you who don’t know me very well (which is the vast majority of you, I would imagine), I enjoy being silly. I don’t mean this in the rambunctious sort of way I was silly as a child, but in a more refined and, if I’m being honest, pompous sort of way. This largely comes from an oversaturation of my father’s sense of humor, which was heavily informed by Monty Python, as well as a heavy dose of the Pythoners myself and some Douglas Adams, whose sense of humor is not too far removed from the Pythoners. All this is to go the long way around to telling you that I rather enjoy Douglas Adams’ hysterical science-fiction series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Perhaps many of you have seen the more recent film adaptation of the first book, but I first was exposed to it on the BBC television program and Arthur Dent will always be, for me, Simon Jones, and Mos Def can never become Ford Prefect in my mind.
            There is an oft-repeated quotation from the first book in the five-part trilogy that is favored by atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins. Despite the sad fact of this quote being favored by atheists, I think putting it into some context will help illuminate our texts in what I hope will be a delightful and, dare I say it, amusing manner.
            The quote goes like this: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
            Now, this quote was written by an atheist, so I don’t think Richard Dawkins is that far off when he quotes Adams as saying it, although it bears mentioning that attributing the quotation of a character in a novel to the direct thought of the author is typically bad form. However, I wish to put it in some context so that we can better understand the concept of waiting upon, a prevalent theme in our texts for today.
            When this particular quote comes up, we are, along with Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Trillian and Zaphod Bebblebrox, treated to a description of the indescribable beauty of viewing a binary sunrise from space. Nothing is quite like it and few things are more breathtaking. Zaphod, however, is not looking at the sunrise, but the planet that the suns are rising over. Zaphod is searching for the lost mythical planet of Magrathea – a planet he has been actively seeking out and a planet whose existence Ford Prefect is incredulous of because he previously thought it was a story mothers told their children so they would become economists.
            The quote in question comes up as an annoyed Ford Prefect would just like to look at the sunrise without bothering about the planet and is rather annoyed that Zaphod can never really let things be; he always needs to make things extraordinary in order to appreciate them. The problem, of course, is that it is the mythical planet Magrathea below and, had Ford voiced his thought, he would have been made to look quite the fool.  
            It is in the light of this story that I wish to speak about waiting upon.
In the text from Isaiah we see that Israel has been haughty; She has not obeyed the Lord nor has she recognized the sovereignty of He who is beyond comparison, who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name. In short, they have not pleased God. Yet they are promised that those who wait upon the Lord will be blessed. This lens, that of waiting upon – or serving the Lord – as a blessed undertaking, is how I want to examine the texts from the Bible as well as Adams’ quirky little comedy so that we might become transformed into people who truly wait upon the Lord.
            Paul’s relation to waiting upon shines clearly in this passage from his letter to the church in Corinth as well. He wishes to offer the Gospel “free of charge.” It bears mentioning at this point that Paul preferred to earn his living as a tentmaker rather than encroach upon the hospitality of those in a city in which he was evangelizing. Perhaps more profound, however, is the commitment he lays down here: to be all things for all people so that he may save some. He weaves here an intricate web of perception. That is to say, he knows that he is, at the core of his being as an apostle of Christ, free from the Law, but he is willing to undergo the Law so that might those under the Law may be saved. He is even so bold as to claim that he may become as one outside of the Law even though he admits to submitting to the Law of Christ.
            This can seem a bit confusing, I think, unless we look at Paul’s agenda. This agenda, we must understand, is more than simply “to save souls,” although that was certainly a primary goal of his. What I think we ought to examine is Paul’s emphasis on the cruciform life. The chapter in Corinthians appears to be shaping up to be a defense of his rights as an apostle, which it partially is. What is more important here, however, is that Paul is advocating the voluntary suppression of one’s rights as an act of solidarity with those in his charge. This, for Paul, was an expression of cruciform love, a love that re-actualizes the sacrificial love of Christ, and also demonstrated the true freedom he had come to possess in his renunciation of possession.  
            To live a cruciform life is to constantly live in the shadow of the cross, to live a life conformed to the sacrificial life of the loving Christ. We see this taking place in the Gospel reading from Mark: Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and then proceeded to heal many others. What’s more, Jesus did not stop there, but continued along the path, never really having a home or a place of comfort. It is this attitude that characterized Paul’s understanding of living a life in the shadow of the cross.
For Paul, this sentiment has no higher expression than self-sacrifice. Paul lowers himself for those who need saving; he does not ride in on a high horse so that he may talk down to the people and coerce them into the faith that transforms lives. Paul, in the tradition of John the Baptist, believes that if Christ is to become greater, he must become less.
            Indeed, this is the path to salvation. This is the topsy turvy view of the world that Christianity presents: salvation comes through weakness, not through power or coercion. Love, not hate, provides the strength to win the day. True wealth comes from freeing yourself of possessions rather than enslaving yourself to them.  
            What could the lives of Jesus or Paul have been like if they had not waited upon others? They would have been lives without meaning. If Jesus of Nazareth had not given of himself, then I seriously doubt he would have risen above the status of the many magicians and charlatans of the day. But the fact of his divinity implored him to do more, to be more. And had Paul not given of himself inasmuch as he understood the life of a follower of Christ to demand, he would have been a far less effective minister of the Gospel and his writing might not have been considered suitable for canonization.
            Both of these men waited upon people, to be sure, but it was only because they first waited upon the Lord that they were able to wait upon their fellow man effectively. It was their assuredness in the provision of the Lord that allowed them to execute the tasks of their lives in the special kind of loving humility that accompanied many of the early church.
            Let’s return to Zaphod Beeblebrox, the man who waited upon the Lord. OK, maybe not exactly, but I think it’s an effective metaphor. Ford Prefect wanted to appreciate the binary sunrise without bothering so much about the planet below that held Zaphod’s concern. It is the mythical planet of Magrathea that makes the sunrise possible, however. Without the planet, the suns would have nothing to block them from view, robbing us of the unspeakable beauty to be had in viewing a binary sunrise from space. Zaphod, the man of faith, effectively waited upon that which gave meaning to the apparent and he did not falter. Were it not for his steadfast faith in Magrathea, the whole story, no doubt would have ended with Arthur and Ford dying in the vacuum of space. Zaphod thus becomes the man who brings salvation to the protagonists of the story.
            Zaphod was only able to be such an agent of salvation because of his devotion to that which gives meaning to the binary sunrise. Zaphod shows us what waiting upon looks like by his sheer irrational devotion to a mythical planet which can only be perceived secondarily by Ford prefect through its effects.
            So too, do we see that Paul exemplifies waiting upon the Lord in his devotion to living a life of sacrificial and cruciform love. It does not make sense to our modern sensibilities, I think, to give up the rights we have. All you have to do is look at the vibrant debate in American politics revolving around socialized health care to see that people are not willing to give up what they feel it is their right to have so that others may live in less strife. But to Paul, this irrational devotion to living lower than he is privileged to is the perfect embodiment of the example we see in Christ Jesus.
            It may be easy to come away from this message thinking that if we wait upon the Lord then we shall be saved. I do not deny this, but there is much more going on here. I want to propose that waiting upon the Lord will allow us to be transformed into agents of salvation so that we may not be satisfied simply with our own salvation, but strive to achieve the salvation of all peoples.
            I implore you all to take a leaf out of the book or Jesus, or Paul, or even Zaphod Beeblebrox. We must allow ourselves to become so consumed with waiting upon the Lord that we invariably wait upon the needs of others as well. For it is through a love of God that we can truly love people and it is through devotion to God that we might not only save ourselves, but others as well.