Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

Where Righteousness is at Home

            In the days before there were the sort of electric refrigerators and freezers that we all now know, there was already refrigeration. It was achieved by placing large blocks of ice in “iceboxes,” which were big insulated metal boxes that cooled their contents. In reality, that time wasn’t all that long ago. I am old enough to remember an icebox that my grandparents had at their cabin in northern Minnesota. Whenever we went up to the cabin for the weekend, we had to stop by the ice store and buy a couple of blocks of ice to put in it. I remember it well enough that every now and then I still refer to the refrigerator as an “icebox.”

            Since there weren’t freezers, obviously freezers weren’t going to produce those blocks of ice that you had to put in iceboxes. You had to find them in nature. But that was easy enough. Every winter, crews would go out to lakes and cut large blocks of ice. They would then store them in large, shaded warehouses and the blocks were packed in sawdust as a sort of insulation. The ice would then last through the summer.

            A story is told about one of those crews. One day, as they were packing ice blocks, one of the crew members shouted out that he had lost his watch, a watch that was very valuable to him since it had been given to him by his grandfather. Everybody on the crew felt for him, and all immediately began searching for the watch. They turned everything upside down, and sawdust was flying everywhere. Despite their fevered efforts, however, they could not find it. Finally, they gave up and went outside to take their lunch break.

            It was only about ten minutes later, however, that a young boy, who had not gone outside with the others, came running out of the icehouse, waving the watch and shouting, “I found it!” Somewhat chagrined that all these men couldn’t find it despite their efforts, one of them asked the boy how he had come to find it. “It was simple,” said the boy. “I just waited until everybody left, and the sawdust settled, and it got real quiet. Then I listened for the ticking.”

            Whenever we search for something lost, we become anxious, and we end up kicking up a lot of dust, dust that can keep us from finding what we want. It is the same when we anticipate something. We have a hard time waiting quietly. We want to make things happen and then we try to force things, and, in trying to force them, miss what we are waiting for. Sometimes, too, in such cases, instead of waiting for what we really want, in our hurry to have things the way we would like them to be, we accept cheap and false imitations of the genuine article. We cut deals, and do not get the justice that we want. What we really need to do in such cases, however, is to learn how to wait, and to give ourselves the sort of space that waiting requires. Above all, it involves using that time and space to become the sort of people who can recognize and welcome what we are waiting for. After all, sometimes we miss what we want because we are not yet the people who can see and hear what it is that is most important to us.

            This is why, in today’s epistle lesson, Peter tells his readers, readers who seem to be anxious about the Lord’s delay in returning, that they should not think of what is going on as a delay. They should realize that with God a day is a thousand years to us. But it is not the calculation of time that Peter really wants to stress. Instead, what is most important is that they should realize that this is time that should not be spent in anxiety, but in becoming, he says, people “leading lives of holiness and godliness.” The time is not a delay, but actually the space we need to become the people who can fully welcome what we are waiting for.

            Christian faith is concerned with salvation. But, excepting certain situations, I think we misunderstand what that means. Salvation is not always like a lifeguard saving a drowning man although we sometimes think that it is and talk that way. A lifeguard pulls somebody out of the pool, and then maybe gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. That is the end of it. The salvation that God offers is different than that, though. At first, it may certainly be a matter of pulling us out of danger, but when God does that, it is for a reason. The reason is so that God can give us the real substance of salvation which is its very best part, for it is the way that God himself fills our hearts, controls our wills, enlivens our imaginations about what is possible, and then indwells our minds, until we are wholly God’s, and God is wholly ours in love. The best part is when we have become the branches to God’s vine. But that takes time. And because it does, even those who want the right thing can get anxious about the time that it takes. They are always trying to hasten it on, trying to force the issue, trying to make things happen, trying to fill in the apparent gaps. But it is usually time itself that we need, and it is time that we are given. As the psalmist says, “Thou hast given me room when I was in distress.”  God does not push us where we can’t go, and God pushes hard on us to go where we should. But God gives us space, and God gives us time.

            Yet, even as I say that, understand that it is more than just space and time that we need. We also need hope that what we are waiting for -- what we are to become -- is real, and that it will come. We need to know that we won’t always be the same, even though the evidence seems to points out that we change very little.  I, for one, don’t know that I am getting better for having more time, and I really doubt, given the trajectory, that the past would indicate that I am on, that I am going to be anywhere close to where I should be at the end. So, somehow, we above all have to hope that we will be filled, no matter what, no matter how much time we do or don’t have. We have to hope that God’s word is true, even when we waver. That then tells us how we can use the time we are given.

            Let me explain what this is about by giving what is also an illustration. One of the more notorious doctrines of the Christian faith, one that has been strongly identified with the Reformed branch of Protestantism, namely our tradition, is the doctrine of predestination. It has been grossly misused by groundless speculation, and by presumption. But there is something very simple and basic that is behind it, and it is important. Announced by St. Paul, predestination was first developed in a full way by St. Augustine. Augustine probably pushed it too far at the end, although that was because he was pushed. But when he first talks about it, one gets the sense that here is an old man, whose heart burned all his life to know God, but now as life is short, he realizes that he is still far from what he has striven for. He also writes at a time that the world he knows is coming apart. Rome, the eternal city, was sacked by the barbarians in 410 AD. At the time Augustine died in 430, they were at the gates of his diocese. That is an important context to keep in mind when he then explains that whatever predestination is about, it is about God’s wanting to give us grace and having wanted to do so from before our creation itself. Quoting St. Paul, he says, “We are what God has made us, created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10) God wants us to be good. God works to the end that we do good things and are good people. Given the short time Augustine knows that he has, writing two years before his death and seeing the coming onslaught of the barbarians, these are words of brave hope. Nothing looks like it is going to come to pass as he thought it would. Yet, without any visible hope, with all the evidence pointing in the opposite direction, Augustine firmly declares that we will walk in all such good works as God has prepared for us. We will be filled with God’s Word, and be united to him.

            This is also I think what Peter means when he then declares that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” There is a time and place when righteousness and justice and human fulfillment will not be an occasional but very rare thing. There is a time and place, and it belongs to us and we to it, where righteousness is at home. It is our home. Therefore, we are not only given time that we need to wait for it, we are given a sure and certain hope, a hope that is firm and that is far more than any bits of hope that the world might offer.

            There is a wonderful phrase in Homer’s Iliad, where, as the Greeks and Trojans slaughter each other for glory and survival, usually mixing the two up, Homer describes justice as a “fugitive from the warring camps.” We live in a time when righteousness and justice seem to have become fugitives. But understand what that means. There may be plenty to argue about the problem of justice at the level of policy. We all have our opinions about that and tend to think they are the sum of justice. Thus, we use policy to cover up a lot of sins against justice. For where justice is most a fugitive is at a deeper personal level, at a level where there is less and less justice and righteousness in persons, less and less caring about others and about how to live together. This is the level where justice really needs to dwell, but where it is a fugitive more and more often. For example, we live in a time when the President of the United States is either fool or liar enough to claim that by increasing the level of conflict between ancient enemies he is going to bring peace, and that he will be acclaimed a great peacemaker. That sounds like policy but, in reality, it is the playing to a portion of the American electorate by a man who has never made peace between anybody, and who, internally, has not the faintest experiential idea of what peace might mean. We also live in a time when it turns out that any number of high-spoken defenders of justice have abused their personal power in their sexual harassment and abuse of women. People whom we want to follow and to establish justice turn out to be sleazy and to not understand power and force at all. But, to our despair, in all likelihood, people will continue to elect them, as they seem about to do by voting into the Senate a sexual predator of youth, shamelessly endorsed by one of his ilk, and they will do it at the same time they throw others out for similar and even lesser transgressions. That is only this week’s news. Yes, justice and righteousness seem to be fugitives from our camp.

            That makes us anxious. It makes us want simply to ask the world to stop so that we can get off, or it makes us want to do something, do something to force the issue. It makes us want to ask why God isn’t doing something, which is another way of putting the question of “Why does God delay?” We worry that justice will not just be a fugitive, but that it will completely disappear unless we force it to stay.

            That makes us wary of Peter’s admonition that this is a time that is given to us to use so that we might greet a time and place where righteousness really is at home. But we need to listen because these words are spoken to us as they were to people so long ago, and they are spoken to us as to them for precisely days such as this. We do need a hope that there is a time and place where righteousness is at home, and we need that hope so that we do not have to accept any substitutes for real justice and righteousness. We also need to know that we are given the time to make ourselves into the sort of people who will know what righteousness really means, and who can greet it as full citizens.

            That might be just so much rhetorical encouragement. But Peter also gives us something specific about what it means to wait and hope like that, in a time where it seems that the Lord delays. He tells us what our waiting is to be like and how we are to spend that time. We are, he says, to strive to be found by God to “be at peace, without spot or blemish.” That sounds simple but it is really a very tall order. In a world where, as the Nobel laureate poet Czeslaw Milosz once described it, everybody characteristically is in a moral frenzy, throwing up sawdust everywhere in the name of justice and righteousness, to be at peace, to learn and practice what peace is, and to use the time to be people of peace is a very tall order. Why? Because to have that sort of peace is a very rare thing. The peace we need to find and to develop in this time when justice is a fugitive is the sort of peace that the world does not give, never has given, and that makes it rare.  It makes it a miracle. But it also makes it all the more precious. And it is also the sort of peace that we need, and that the world needs, to greet the place where righteousness is at home and that we are meant for. Let us then, as we wait for God, be people of peace in the center of a world of conflict and vain ambition. God has chosen us to be that people and has given us the grace to do this good work. So, let us give the world what is rare and use our time well.

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