Sunday, March 11, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent

Ephesians 5:1-9 / Luke 11:14-28

In The Two Towers, the second novel in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hobbits Merry and Pippin, having fled from the orcs that had captured them, escape into ancient Fangorn Forest, and there encounter Treebeard the Ent, one of a race of tree-men awakened ages ago by the elves and given the power of speech. Merry and Pippin see the goodness in Treebeard's heart and hope to convince him, and through him his fellow Ents, to join in their struggle against the rising darkness that threatens to corrupt and destroy all that is good in Middle Earth. To the hobbits, the question is clear. While at an earlier time they might have seen such affairs as well beyond the concerns of simply people like themselves, they now know that there is no third position, no neutral stance in the struggle they face. One is either on the side of the Free Peoples or is aiding and abetting their fall. One is either on the side of the Dark Lord, or struggling to resist him.

Treebeard the Ent is less convinced. He regards wars as the affair of Men, Elves, and Wizards. Yet, why does he see things this way? Why does he not at least sympathize with those who are fighting for the right? As Treebeard tells the hobbits sagely and not without regret: I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me. For the Ent, as often for us, most, if not all, struggles that come before us do not admit to an easy resolution between the party in the right and the party in the wrong. We have our own dreams, our own personal projects, our own way of envisioning what is right and just, and rarely does any side in a conflict embody most, or even much, of what we hold dear. We find it hard to commit ourselves wholly to a project that undermines and compromises our integrity as the price for advancing the cause of other things we hold dear.

So, the words of Jesus Christ may well strike us as difficult to hear: He that is not with Me is against Me: and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth. Can anything so complicated as the living out of human life be reduced to so simple an equation? Do we not rather hold that there is greater wisdom is marking out nuance, in seeing not black or white, not this or that, but rather many shades of gray, many truths and many paths, a harmony across diversity rather than a binary and irrevocable separation of the right and the wrong?

There is a deep truth to Treebeard's lament that nobody is altogether on our side, but there is a deeper way in which Treebeard, and we, are mistaken. There is in fact one who is altogether on our side, namely our Lord and God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. More than that, it is God, and God alone, who is altogether on our side. The irony and tragedy of sin is not merely that we become enemies of our neighbor and enemies of God, but that, in becoming enemies of God, who is the very source of our being and our integrity, the very good we seek in every choosing, the truth we perceive in every thought, we become enemies of ourselves. Sadly, then, we ourselves must be counted among those who are not on our own side.

It is precisely because we are not, so long as we are broken by sin, entirely on our own side that we will necessarily be scattered unless we side with Jesus Christ. It is only through Jesus Christ, who alone is altogether for us in a way that not even we are for ourselves, that we can have restored to us the very selves we thought we meant to defend and protect. Our loves, our desires, our personal projects, our imagined self-authenticity: none of these are or can be true except insofar as they are the real truth about ourselves, namely, that about us which Jesus Christ aims to bring to fruition. Apart from Jesus, we are necessarily and unavoidably, a kingdom divided against itself. With him, we need not fear that within us that still lives in rebellion, for we can take confidence in the stronger man, Jesus Christ, who will despoil our own rebellious self, and bring us, at once both captive and set free, into his own divine and glorious life.

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