The Hill We Cannot Climb (Lectionary 22, Year B)

Lectionary 22 (13th Sunday after Pentecost)
Psalm 15
August 30, 2009

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

There's a commercial on television these days that shows people
    dressed in casual and business attire alike,
        each gripping a laptop computer like a relay runner's baton,
    and running through the otherwise abandoned streets of a big city.
It's not quite a race, but the spread-out mass of runners
    is moving forward at a frenzied pace nonetheless.

Early in the commercial we see a casually yet fashionably dressed young man
    running down an alleyway to join the masses on the city's main thoroughfare.
    Under his arm?  A Toshiba laptop computer, clearly branded with the company's logo.
He bobs and weaves through the crowd,
    joining them in a stampede toward a finish line yet unseen and unknown to the viewer.
Gentle yet intense synthesized chords provide the musical background,
    and a lonely whistling, reminiscent of an old Western soundtrack,
        provides a sort of eerie descant.
After about fifteen seconds something odd happens –
    one at a time these runners, going at full speed, hit their own invisible wall,
    being flung backwards with rather vicious force,
        sending their bodies – and their laptop computers – flying.
Men and women, in business and casual attire,
    one on a bike, most on foot,
    all, at different points along the road, hit their invisible wall
        and meet their unforgiving fate.
Finally, the man we met at the beginning of the commercial, slows down.
Up ahead of him he sees the remaining runners all hitting an invisible wall at the same time,
    a mass of people, some on the ground, others standing in disbelief
        at the impenetrable and invisible barrier before them.
After a reassuring glance at the laptop computer in his right hand,
    he picks up his pace and confidently hurdles a man
        huddled in a ball at the base of the wall,
    and continues forward, the only one able to keep going.
The rest look on longingly, through the invisible wall,
    at the one who got through.
At the end we hear the narrator: Technology can hold you back, or set you free. Toshiba.

Each runner on this path shares a common goal,
    yet there's something in each of them that keeps them back,
    something that prevents them from breaking through the walls,
        some impurity that keeps them from reaching their goal:
    their under-performing laptops.
Technology can hold you back … or set you free.
In this salvation-by-technology scheme,
    the one who sets you free,
    the one who leads you past every barrier on the road of life, is Toshiba.

In today's psalm we read:
LORD, who may dwell in your | tabernacle?
    Who may abide upon your | holy hill?
Those who lead a blameless life and do | what is right,
    who speak the truth | from their heart;
they do not slander with the tongue, they do no evil | to their friends;
    they do not cast discredit up- | on a neighbor.

I think that journey to enter the Lord's tabernacle,
    to ascend the Lord's holy hill
        is not unlike the Toshiba commercial –
    imagine the scene …
    all of God's people running together toward that common goal,
        to ascend that hill, to be in that holy place.
But then we read verses 2 and 3, the entrance requirements,
    and all of a sudden we start hitting walls of God's law.
Who may dwell in your tabernacle,
    Who may abide upon your holy hill?
Those who lead a blameless life and do what is right –
    At these words the crowd begins to thin out
    as some of the runners are suddenly repelled by unseen walls,
        by righteous laws that reject those who don't live up to the law.

Who may dwell in your tabernacle,
    Who may abide upon your holy hill?
    Those who speak the truth from their heart –
    Again, more runners are flung all over the place,
        not owing to inadequate laptops, as in the commercial,
        but to personal inadequacies and failures,
    for they do not always speak truth from their hearts as the law requires.
Who may dwell in your tabernacle,
    Who may abide upon your holy hill?
Those who do not slander with the tongue –
    Those who speak ill of others immediately crumple,
    smashing up against invisible walls,
        kept by their sin from ascending our Lord's holy hill.
Who may dwell in your tabernacle,
    Who may abide upon your holy hill?
Those who do no evil to their friends –
    All of us who have wronged our friends are now stopped in our tracks,
        unable to advance.
Who may dwell in your tabernacle,
    Who may abide upon your holy hill?
Those who do not cast discredit upon a neighbor –
    And now, desperation falls upon the crowd…
        as the remaining few runners are stopped at a wall,
        unable to advance because of the ways they've sinned against their neighbors.
    They – we – look forward longingly toward that holy hill,
        a prize we cannot attain, a destination we cannot reach.
    Some are huddled on the ground,
        others stand with their hands lifted up toward the heavens
        in grief-filled disbelief.
    None of them able to go forward, to ascend the Lord's holy hill.
    The entrance requirements just too steep.

In my re-visioning of this commercial
    as a tale of human efforts to ascend the Lord's holy hill,
    I see a pathway that is impossible for us to bear,
    a route that repels us and our sin
        and keeps us from dwelling with the Lord upon his holy hill,
        a place that requires, frankly, more than any of us can give –
            a blameless life.

Senator Edward Kennedy sure as heck did not lead a blameless life.
His many sins have been aired for all to see,
    and upon his death this past week some have felt it somehow proper
    to look not on his legislative and public service legacy
        – a legacy that conservatives and liberals alike honored this weekend –
    but on his sins and his failures.
One television commentator said that out of respect for the Senator and his family,
    on his show that night he wouldn't discuss all those things about Senator Kennedy
        that he found objectionable – and then in a bit of intentional irony, I'm sure,
he host rattled off a list of precisely those objectionable traits and events
            that he pledged not to speak of.
    So much for respecting the Senator and his family in this time of grief.
Senator Kennedy surely did not lead a blameless life.
Yet yesterday at the beginning of Senator Ted Kennedy's funeral mass
    halfway up the aisle at Boston's Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help,
    his casket was ceremoniously stripped of its American flag by an honor guard,
        which was then replaced with a white funeral pall,
        as the priest sprinkled the casket with water
        and recalled the promises given to Kennedy in his baptism.
The white funeral pall is a massive garment
    different only in size from the baptismal gown he wore as an infant
        when his parents first brought him to the font,
    garments given to him in life and in death not as some sort of reward for holiness,
        not as some sort of recognition for his public service
        or for being lucky enough to be born into a privileged, wealthy family.
No.  The white garments of his baptism and of his funeral
    are symbols of God's promises in Christ Jesus our Lord,
        a garment of our Lord's holiness that is laid upon him and upon each of us,
        that God our father is pleased to give to us,
            just as the father in the famous parable is pleased to clothe his prodigal son
            with the best robe in his wardrobe.
Ted Kennedy, a sinful man guilty of many sins, as are we all,
    is cloaked in our Lord's righteousness, as are we all.

Dear sisters and brothers, the only way to ascend to our Lord's holy hill
    is to do so cloaked in our Lord's garment of righteousness.
We cannot climb onto the Lord's holy hill on our own,
    we cannot enter into his tabernacle as we are,
    for we are fallen creatures,
        fallen away from God's plan for us,
        riddled with sin and unable to lead blameless lives.
We do not measure up to God's law.
We do not meet God's standard.

But the Good News is that what we cannot do, our Lord Jesus freely does for us.
We cannot lead blameless lives,
    but our Lord does.
In baptism our Lord cloaks us with his own garment of salvation,
    freely clothes our sinful nakedness with holy righteousness,
    taking away our sin and giving us a promise of new life,
        a promise that, shepherded by his grace,
        we will one day join our Lord and all his people upon his holy hill,
        sing his praises in his tabernacle,
            be his people living in righteousness.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
    this is not our Lord's holy hill,
    but in the meal at this table we catch a glimpse of what that place might look like,
        we taste a morsel of its goodness,
    for in this holy meal we come as beggars, with our hands open to God,
    not with blaring trumpets to tell of our good works,
        but with humble hearts glad to receive what our Lord has to offer.
And what he offers us is this – food of new life,
    a meal where all are fed and filled with life and grace.
We walk past that font each time we enter into and leave from this place,
    recalling the everlasting promise given to us
    that nothing shall keep us from our God,
        not even our sin.
Who may dwell in your tabernacle, O Lord?
Who may abide upon your holy hill?
    Only the blameless one, Jesus Christ our Lord,
    and those whom he carries with him, underneath his cloak of righteousness.

Hold us, O Jesus, in your loving embrace,
    and carry us through to your Father's heavenly hill.
Amen.  Thanks be to God.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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