Sunday, May 25, 2008

Little Bear and the White Robe

In the name of God, source of all being, eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Little Bear wanted to go play in the snow. But it was cold. So he asked Mama Bear, “May I have a pair of mittens to wear so that my paws will stay warm?” She gave him the mittens and helped him put them on. Little Bear began to go outside; but it was still cold. So he asked his mother, “Mama Bear, may I have a scarf to wear around my neck while I play in the snow?” “Yes,” she said, and draped a scarf around him. Then he asked for galoshes… but before he clumped away, he turned back. “May I have a cap to wear, so that my head will stay warm?” And his mother put a cap on his head. Finally, Little Bear said to his mother, “I’m still afraid I might be cold when I go outside.” And she said, “Do you think you would like to wear a warm fur coat?” “Yes!” Little Bear. “That’s just what I need.” And Mother Bear took off his cap and his galoshes and his mittens and his earmuffs and his scarf. There was Little Bear, standing before her, and she said, “There you are, Little Bear. There’s your fur coat!” And he went outside and played and was happy.

Little Bear was worried – what did he need before he went outside to play in the snow? It turned out his Mother had given him everything he needed, long before he asked. Underneath all the special garments he put on, there was the essential thing: and when he saw that, he was okay.

He thought he needed more – he thought he needed to use a phrase, “to paint the lily.” But what he had already been given was just what he needed.

Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess. (Wm. Shakes., King John, 4. 2. 11-18)

Like Little Bear, sometimes it takes a while for us to trust what we have been given. We want to add to it, to make it safe, make ourselves secure. Pilate wanted to be secure. Jesus throws caution to the wind, the wind of the Holy Spirit, and calls for ultimate reliance on God. The providence of God is the one true security measure. And making anything less our ultimate allegiance is idolatry.

You cannot serve two masters – God and your own security, and you cannot find shelter under two roofs at once. You are called in humble trust to rely on God for what you need. “Give us this day the bread we need.” Single-hearted devotion, service, confidence, in God’s care, are what make us safe, and keep us warm in the snows of the world – however inviting they are, however threatening they seem.

Underneath all their other vestments, priests in Roman times wore the alb – a white garment, loose fitting, gathered at the waist by a cincture or rope. It was white, alba, like the white garment worn at baptism. It shows us that, underneath all the other functions a person may have, there is the fundamental identity of a person baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Christ, and the founded hope of eternal life in God’s own dwelling.

Think of us, then, as servants of Christ, having stewardship of God’s mysteries. To be judged by any human person is a very little thing; we belong to God. Let God be the judge; don’t try to forestall him. And for ourselves, stay together, focus on mission, know that God provides, and move forward in Christ.

More than Solomon in all his glory – we will be clothed as we need to be clothed, with the white garment of baptism, the white robe of the martyr – if need be. Each of us will be clothed as a child of God. In Christ is our safety and in him is our security.

There was a man in ancient times, in the third century or fourth after Christ, who lived in a Roman town in Britain, north of London. His name was Alban.

It was a time of persecution for the church. Under the emperor’s orders, priests were being hunted down and made martyrs, made witnesses who died for the faith. One such came to Alban’s door, seeking shelter. Though he was a pagan, at the time, Alban took the priest in, gave him hospitality, comfort, and sanctuary; in turn the priest gave Alban comfort, hospitality, and sanctuary: in Christ, in Christ’s identity of him first as a whole person, baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Christ, founded in hope of an everlasting home.

The soldiers came to the door. By then Alban had received what the priest had to give him, and he was ready to take on the white garment of the baptized, the white robe of the martyr – and so he did. When the door was opened, there stood a man in the cloak of the priest – and the soldiers took him away.

When they got to the judge, they demanded to know his name, his parentage, right away: “I am Alban,” he said, “and I worship the one true and living God, who made all things.” And so they led him away – toward the arena…

In his words Alban confirmed the faith he had already shown in his deeds.

Alban made his security, his home, in his identity with Christ; in God was his refuge. And in his service he found perfect freedom. The Romans could not touch him there. What happened to him then was of consequence, surely: but with him it was a very small thing to be judged by any human court. He did not even judge himself, either to acquit or to condemn. “It is the Lord who judges me.” It is the Lord who held his fate – he had put his life in God’s hands.

From God, who alone discloses the purposes of the heart, Alban would receive his commendation. And so he could proceed, without undue anxiety, on the path before him – in the keeping of God.

We have the assurance of our Lord that we are in his keeping, too: that true security lies not in the world’s goods, however much we amass – or however strongly we assert our independence. All things rightly are free under one Heaven – because all things will be drawn together under the one Christ.

For God has put all things in subjection under his feet… so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15: 27-28)

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, … so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory… May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that we may know in our inmost being the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his providence, and the greatness of his power. God put this power to work in Christ and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:17 ff., paraphrased)

Blessed are… There is nothing left for us to do but put ourselves in his hands, put our hands to his work, and put our feet on his way. As he taught his followers, so the Lord teaches us to pray: Our Father...

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