Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Power of Dust

ASH WEDNESDAY – February 25, 2009

A Meditation based on Genesis 2:7 & John 9 

By the Rev. Walter D. Clark

Reproduced with permission

"Remember that dust you are and to dust you shall return." 

   Lent is a season of remembering – remembering that not only are we not God; we are dust.  "Remember, O man, that dust you are."

   DUST:  The Bible's way of pointing to our perishability, our impermanence, our impotence, our finiteness.  Dust settles for a while and then is swept away.

   In general, we are embarrassed, even repulsed by dust.  By preference we choose to think of things other than dust and to regard ourselves as something more than dust.  When we wish to praise people, we call them "jewels" or "gems" or "diamond in the rough".  When we wish to denigrate people, we call them "fluff" or "scum" or "dirt".  But seldom, if ever, do we call people "dust".

   Only in the Bible are we called dust.  Not only that, we are commanded to remember we are but dust.  Why?  Because in the biblical view dust, more than fine gold, is considered the most precious substance of all.

   In Genesis we read: "The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life."  Dust is precious because God considers it precious.  Picture no one less than God stooping low to the earth; gathering a handful of dust; and molding it into the very image of himself.  God took what was seemingly worthless and made it imperishably worthy.  Out of virtually nothing God brought forth somebody.  Into the temporal God instilled the eternal.

   Centuries later, in the Gospel of John, Jesus reenacts the creation story when he, of all people, stoops low to the ground and spits upon it to make a paste with which he daubs the eyes of the man born blind.  "Go and wash" he says to him.  And so, as we do in baptism, the man goes and washes, and when he returns, he can see.

   Seemingly ignominious dust returning vision to one who could not see because of his participation in Sin which blinds us to the fact that we are but dust.  Jesus, the light of life and the light of all, gives sight and insight to the blind by coming down to earth to gather up a handful of dirt.  And behold, out of nobody comes somebody.  Out of the less than human, with all its arrogant potential for cruelty and violence, comes somebody capable of loving, persons clothed in dignity and integrity and humility.  Out of blindness comes sight.  Out of deafness comes hearing.

   Lent is a time to remember what we are – a season once again to recover our need for God.  "Blessed are those who know their need for God," said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  Blessed because ever so frequently we fall prey to following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts that inevitably push us towards self-destruction.  And when we follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we transform ourselves into dispirited, aimless nobodies with no one to rescue us until we are again met by the risen Christ who Emmaus road-like assigns ultimate value to the dust we are by breathing into us new and eternal life.  What a story of love and compassion it is!  How right it is to make this story the centerpiece of our Lenten contemplation! And as we do, may each of us become greater agents and distributors of this same love and compassion to a world in need, beginning with our own community.   AMEN.

         The Rev. Walter D. Clark  |   Beckford Parish   |     Woodstock, Virginia  |      Mt. Jackson, Virginia

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tomorrow, you must go...

to an Ash Wednesday service.

I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.

Open your hearts to the saving Victim, the one who loves you even though... in spite of...

Don't just give up sweets...

Learn what it means for you to take up your own Cross.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Last Epiphany B. 22 February 2009.


 

 

          The Transfiguration of Jesus is so often treated as an isolated incident.  Not only is it the standard reading for the last Sunday after the Epiphany—meaning that it is read each year just before Ash Wednesday, but the Transfiguration is celebrated as its own feast day, August 6th.  The story seems to have a life of its own in the Church.  However, if you read Mark's gospel—not in little chunks on Sunday—but as a whole book, it is clear that the Transfiguration is the conclusion of a longer story.

 

          This seems confusing, but we will read the part that comes before the Transfiguration two Sundays from today.  The part that comes before is Jesus asking who the people say he is, which ends in Peter's famous confession, "You are the Messiah."  What follows that is Jesus foretelling that he would have to undergo great suffering, and be reject by the scribes and chief priests, and be killed, and on the third day, rise from the dead. 

 

          Peter, you will remember, rebukes Jesus upon hearing these things, essentially saying, "We can find away around this.  You don't have to suffer and die."  And Jesus turns away from Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan!  For you have set your mind, not on divine things, but on earthly things."

 

          Jesus then turns to the crowd, and addresses them along with the disciples.  He says, "Folks, I need you to listen very carefully.  If any of you want to follow me, you will have to deny yourself and take up your cross.  Those of you who want to save your lives will lose them, and those who want to lose your lives for the sake of the Gospel, will find them.  If you are ashamed of me and of my words in this perverted and sinful generation, then I will be ashamed of you when I come again in the glory of my Father."

 

          Mark then writes, "Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them.  His clothes became a dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them."

 

          What connects these two stories is the transitional phrase, "Six days later…"  The transfiguration is meant to follow directly from Peter's confession, Jesus' foretelling his own death, and Jesus then telling the crowds, "if you want to follow me, you must deny yourselves and be willing to suffer as I am willing to suffer."

 

          When we come up the mountain and Jesus is transfigured, look at what happens to Peter.  Remember Peter had been saying from before, "No, Jesus…it doesn't have to be this way…we'll work something out.  Let's not talk about suffering and crosses, and all that stuff."  And here Peter sees Jesus transfigured with his own two eyes, and he once again goes into the same kind of preservation mode.  He says, "Lord, it's good to be here!" 

 

          What is he really saying?  He saying, "There are no crosses here!  This is a good spot.  You have been glorified!  Life is good!  Let's stay on the mountain!  I'll even build you and Moses and Elijah three dwellings!  How does that sound?  James and John and I will build some houses.  Andrew and Thomas can work out the zoning issues.  Bartholomew and Judas can  get us some pizza and beer.  We'll get you some servants.  This is where it's at!  No cross!  No denial of anything.  See, I told you you didn't have to die!"

 

          It is at this point that the cloud comes in and the voice of the Father is heard, "This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him."  You will no doubt remember those words from Jesus' Baptism. 

 

          Now, there are all kinds of interesting details about this story.  The appearance of Moses and Elijah is thought to confirm that Jesus is the Messiah.  There is a theme that runs, sometimes unconsciously, through the gospels of Jesus as the new Moses.  Moses led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt, Jesus leads them cosmically out of a "this world" slavery to sin.  Elijah is, of course, the herald of the Messiah's coming. 

 

          If you saw Jesus in a conversation with two people who seemed to be from heaven, Moses and Elijah would be the natural conclusion.  The cloud is also an interesting detail.  You find the appearance of clouds or smoke or fog in many Old Testament accounts of God's presence.  You remember the call of Isaiah, "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.

 

          2Seraphs were in attendance above him;…3And one called to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.' 4The pivots* on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke."  Clouds, smoke, fog almost always attend something ethereal in the Bible.5

          But to me the most interesting aspects of the Transfiguration are not the supernatural elements.  I'm not saying that the Transfiguration is unimportant, or irrelevant.  I think it's a very beautiful story.  It helps us see Jesus as more than just an ordinary man.  It confirms the Church's belief that he is one with God.  However, the dialog we are given is not between Jesus and Moses and Elijah.  It's Peter's voice we hear.  The only other voice is the voice of the Father saying, "This is my Son; listen to him."

 

          I get the feeling—and I might be wrong—but I get the feeling that there are two things going on here.  One is the confirmation for Peter that Jesus really was the Messiah, and two, that what the Father was saying to Peter was, "Listen to him.  He knows more than you do about what's going to happen."

 

          I don't want to put too many words in God's mouth.  That's a very dangerous thing to do!  But I think that God is saying to Peter, and by extension to us, "Look. Jesus is my son.  You're not going to get all the details right now." 

 

          "If my Son says that he will have to suffer, and die, and that if you want to follow him that you will also have to be willing to suffer and maybe die, then you will have to accept that.  Listen to him.  He knows.  You don't know what you've gotten yourself into.  You need to listen to my Son."

 

          It may be hard to accept what I've just said, and you can fuss with me all you want about it, because I have run from this gospel for years.  I have treated it like a self-contained story that reads more like a children's fairy tale than the Word of God, but I think I finally see it for what it is.  It is a story of reassurance, but it also reinforces the all too challenging call to take up our Cross.  When Jesus is coming down the mountain with Peter, James, and John, he then tells them not to tell anyone what they saw until after he is raised from the dead.  Again, reinforcing the fact that Jesus must die.

 

          I'm not going to talk this morning about why Jesus had to die, but I do want to address the very natural feelings Peter had about it.

 

          I remember a couple years ago when Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" came out.  Everyone went to see it.  I did not.  Karin went to see it because she had a church group that was  discussing it.  I did not want to see it, because I cannot bear to watch that kind of violence.  I was told that the brutality and gore exceeded that of what was written in the Bible, and what was written in the Bible was enough for me.

 

          I can meditate on the crucifixion.  I can read the gospel accounts again and again, and use box after box of Kleenex.  But I have difficulty getting too close to it, because I know that, being a part of sinful humanity—and I am very much a part of sinful humanity—I know that I am partly responsible for putting him up there.  You see, it's not that they killed him.  We killed him.

 

          I am so grateful that Jesus let himself be emptied of everything, but I wish that somehow it didn't have to end that way.  You can say, "Well, it didn't end that way."  And you're right.  The Resurrection is the end of the story.  Things ended well.  But the Resurrection does not erase the Crucifixion.  Jesus heals from his wounds, but the wounds are still with him in the next life.  They are eternal symbols of the fact that God is not untouched or somehow impervious to his creation.  That God can be wounded by us, and still love us and redeem us.  I think that is even more painful than hatred. 

 

          Still, it's hard to let Jesus end up on the Cross.  Some Christians cannot accept it.  I remember talking with man whose son had died.  He was a nominal Episcopalian; he never came to church.  He said to me once, "I just can't believe in God anymore."  He said, "How can you love a God who would let his own Son be killed."  Well, I wrestled with that question.  It seems to me that God is even better than I had believed if he is willing to let himself be touched by the deepest pain anyone can feel—the loss of a child.  I don't see God as wanting Jesus to die; but there are more things in heaven and earth than I can dream of.

 

          The Crucifixion is a mystery.  Part of being a Christian is living in that uncomfortable place where we have to love him, and let him go—trusting that he knows better than we do.  It is so frustrating to say that, especially when we see him today transfigured before us: face shining, clothes dazzling white.  It's hard to let this wonderful, holy man walk down off the mountain and go on about his life, knowing that eventually…

 

 

 

 

          I wish that I could preach for you a more imaginative sermon today.  I love everything about preaching: from the first reading, to the research, the prayers, the constant whirr of my brain as I fall asleep at night thinking about sermons.  It is my great joy and honor to stand here on Sundays and give you my very best efforts. 

 

          But there comes a time when the preacher falls silent.  The words dry in the mouth, and the brain can no longer think of stories, because in his heart he knows that he is not worthy to be in the pulpit.  That time is when the preacher is standing at the foot of the cross, looking up at Jesus, and knowing that in his hand—in my hand—is the mallet that drove the nails.  

Thursday, February 19, 2009

When he died

Jesus had to encounter injustice, violence, and hatred, because they would have revealed any injustice, violence or hatred in him.  There was no injustice, violence or hatred found in him.  The agony he experienced forced him to empty himself of everything--everything except the one thing that he could not give up, which is the essence of who he is, which is total self-emptying love. 
 
Only the Father could give the very essence of the eternal Son he had called into being before the creation of the world, which is why on the Cross Jesus says, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."  Only God could then make the final "gift" of letting death overcome the eternal life that had already belonged to Jesus. 
 
Jesus is total self-emptying love, and if you would follow him, you are going to have empty yourself of everything but the essence of who God has called you to be as Christ's follower.  You too are called to be self-emptying love.  The Cross is meant to draw out of love everything that obscures love's purity.  The amazing part is that self-emptying love, which is the essence of who God is, cannot die again. 
 
The strife is over.  Christ is risen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What was it like?


Mark 8:31-34

"Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
 
And the question is:  What was it like for Jesus to live with the earnest belief that he would have to undergo great suffering and be killed?  No matter how many people got healed, fed, forgiven, loved, restored to new life, no matter how good his sermons would be, or how many people came to hear him, the end of the road is the Cross.
 
What was that like for him?  Something inside me has begun to hurt from this question.

 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Epiphany 6B. 15 February 2009.


 

            As I sat down to work on my sermon for today, I did so with that icky-tickly feeling in the back of my throat.  It's that awful, painful feeling that you're sick.  I went to the doctor and I'm feeling better now, but these little nuisance illnesses seem to be everywhere.  It's a frustrating, sometimes painful thing, to be sick.  No one likes it.  It reminds us that we are not in complete control of our lives—that something can come out of nowhere and change our plans.

 

            We know so much more about illness than many generations ago.  We know about handling food more safely—not using the same board to cut raw meat and vegetables; washing our hands. 

 

            We know that illness is contracted by germs, and that germs are transmitted through lack of hygiene or carelessness.  I remember when I was a hospital chaplain in the days before Purel stations were in every room, I was instructed to wash my hands after visiting each patient—whether I touched them or not.  The point was that whatever you touched in the room could have some kind of germ on it.  We were taught that the ambient bugs in hospitals and nursing homes were called nosocomial germs.  It's kind of frightening when you think about it.  The rates of infection in hospitals is staggering, mostly due to nosocomial germs.

 

            It used to be—before science answered these questions—people believed that illness was a result of a moral defect, or some mysterious character flaw.  We don't see things that way anymore.  People used to believe that God punished people with illness.  Did you know that the word "stroke" comes from a time when people thought that God struck people?  "Struck down in the prime of his youth"—people will still say that.

 

            We can also give thanks that we can differentiate between communicable or contagious diseases and those which are not easily passed from one to another.  We can shake hands and hug and kiss people who were once quarantined.  I remember when AIDS was becoming a major scare, and being told that it could not be passed from toilet seats, or hugs or hand shakes.  But people were scared.

 

            You remember Sars and Bird Flu?  Occasionally something pops up and has everyone worried until the scientists tell us how these things are contracted and what our risk is.  But in the ancient world, no one knew anything about it.  If you got some kind of malady, it was bad news.  And if it wasn't something that could be easily treated and go away, then you might be shunned by the community—a kind of forced quarantine.

 

            This is the way it was with lepers.  We don't know for sure what leprosy was back then.  We don't know if it was what is now called Hansen's disease.  But we do know how people were treated who had it.  They were forced out of their community, forced to beg for food, because they couldn't work a trade to earn money. 

          Everywhere they went, they had to shout, "Unclean, unclean."  Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine the inherent shame?  And there was no hope, none.  No medicine, no one would touch them. 

 

            You think about the most common interactions you have with people.  Making eye contact, shaking hands, hugging.  Even just talking.  You go to a restaurant and the waiter comes over to the table to take your order.  Pleasantries are exchanged, a little light banter, and "I'll be right back with your drinks."  Right there you have experienced more human intimacy than a leper was able to experience with a non-leper in the course of a year.

 

            What I am trying to describe is a living death.  Can you see that?  Lepers were dead to the world outside them—no one wanted to think of them, no one thought of them as worthwhile people, no one wanted anything to do with them, because if they got the leprosy, then they'd be out of the community, too.   It's a living death.

 

            So when we read in Mark 1:40 that a leper came to Jesus, you have to understand that it's not just like someone blind, or with a broken leg.  This was much more serious, Mark's readers would have been horrified.  The only way that I can update what this meant would be to say that it would be like if a man walked up to Jesus with a belt of explosives around his waist and his finger on the detonator.  Because if Jesus catches the leprosy, that's it—Messiah or not, leprosy would have instantly made Jesus an outcast.

 

 

            The leper says to Jesus, "If you choose, you can make me clean."  Now that's interesting.  You would think that the operative word would be "able."  If you are able, you can make me clean.  But the leper says, "if you choose."  Fascinating.  The man believes that Jesus is able to cure him…but he is not sure if Jesus would willingly choose to touch him.  This man is taking a huge risk.  I'm not sure about this, but I believe that he might have been subject to stoning for walking up to a healthy person.

 

            Jesus, the text reads, "was moved with pity."  And he "stretched out his hand."  "And touched him."  Now, let's just pause there for a second.  To me, this moment is so filled with holiness that it's like the moment of silence when Jesus gives up his spirit on the Cross.  "He touched him."  Jesus broke through every rule in the book and a couple that hadn't been written down.  Jesus touched the leper. 

 

            The story can end here, as far as I am concerned.  Even if the man had not been healed, it would be enough of a miracle that Jesus touched that man.  But then he said, "I do choose."  I choose to touch you.  I choose to see you, not just your illness.  I choose to know you.  I choose to accept you as one of my own.   "Be made clean."  And immediately the leprosy left him.  Why?  Because Jesus chose to see the man, not the leprosy.  Jesus chose to accept the one, and reject the other.

 

 

 

 

            Now, we're not going to go into the science of healing here.  I don't know medically what happened.  I don't know what it looked like.  But I do know this—there is more going on here than just physical healing.  That said, it would be insensitive to not take a moment and acknowledge the frustration many people—including myself—have with the stories of healing.  From time to time someone will ask me why it is that Jesus was so willing to heal people, often miraculously, when he walked the earth, and yet many Christians seek healing and feel that their prayers are not answered.  Well.  Let me give you an answer for why that is:  I don't know.

 

          When I was first ordained I was so worried about being a standard-bearer, that I thought those kinds of questions exposed the weaknesses of Christianity.  But somewhere along the line I learned to accept, and then even come to love, these kinds of questions.  When I was a teenager, I was very interested in faith-healing.  I had heard stories of people who had claimed to have prayed for God to heal their eyes so that they didn't need glasses.  Well, I tried that.  I prayed fervently that God would heal my eyes.  It never happened.  Some folks go through experiences like that and give up on the faith.  I can understand that. 

 

          But I can't say I ever felt that way about God.  God and I have a deal.  I don't know if I've ever shared this with you.  It's a standard contract that we made out together a long time ago, probably back when I was in the sixth grade.  I've lost the original document, but God has it on file.  It reads that I will love and serve him with all my heart and ability, and in return for my love and service, I expect him do whatever he pleases. 

 

          So if he chooses to heal me from something, I will be grateful; and if he chooses not to heal me from something, I will be grateful.  If he chooses to bless me, I will give to his church.  And if he chooses not to bless me, I will give to his church.  You might say, "That's not a very good deal."  Let me tell you: it's a great deal.  It's the best deal I have ever made, because I can't tell when things are good or bad. 

 

          I know a man who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.  He was a monk, and he wrote something that disagreed with a fundamental teaching of the Roman Church.  His superiors told him to recant, and he wouldn't do it.  He said, "The Church is wrong about this.  If I change, I will be committing a sin against myself."  He was excommunicated by the Pope.  (This is a true story.) 

 

          On the night before he left the monastery he prayed, "God, I dare you to be less than you are.  I dare you not to love me.  I dare you to not redeem this situation.  I dare you not to take care of me in the future.  I dare you to be less than God almighty." 

 

          The next day, according to the tradition of his Order, he knelt before his abbot and asked for a blessing before leaving the monastery for the last time.  After he said goodbye, he turned to leave, and the abbot called him back.  The abbot had fallen to his knees, and said, "You too must bless me."  That monk, who dared God to be less than God, became one of the best bishops the Episcopal Church has ever had, and was my spiritual director in seminary.  You see, God can't be less than God.  God has to be God.

 

          I don't know why God doesn't always heal people as suddenly as we read in the Bible.  I believe that God does do it, though.  But with the leper, I don't think the story is primarily about physical healing. 

         

          When you look at all the cultural stuff that's in play, I think you have to conclude that the story is much more miraculous than that.  Lepers were like walking dead.  This man wasn't just healed; he was resurrected.  And it all happened because Jesus didn't look at the man and see "Leper...Unclean," he saw: Child of God, Human Being, the Son of two people, the Father perhaps of others, a Man who is despised and rejected like Jesus himself would eventually become.

 

          And moved with pity (such beautiful words), Jesus stretches out his hand, and touches him.  The story can end there.  You know that that man was healed, because you know that if you were in his place—no friends, no family around you, sick with no cure—you know that you'd be healed, too, just to know that Jesus cares.

 

          I can't get into anybody's head, but I'd be willing to bet almost anything that every person in this church has felt at some point like a complete outcast.  You can be hurt so bad that you feel like everyone can see it. 

 

          Sometimes I'm out driving to a parishioners' home and I find myself going down a back road, and there's this old empty wood frame house on a wind-swept field, windows and doors wide open, curtains blowing.  

 

          People look at that house and see wood, shingles.  I see the remnants of life.  I see lost memories of Christmases and birthday parties.  If you walked through that house you'd see where sons and daughters stood in the door frame to have their height marked next to the door knob.  You see old sticks of furniture that once gave rest to people who spent the day tilling the soil and praying for rain.  And now, it's empty.  Family gone—who knows why.  "I think I knew that family."  "No, dear, it's not that family, we didn't know them."

 

          You know, there are people who feel like that.  There are people who feel like they are nothing but walking dead—just a shell of a body in which someone used to live.  And when you feel like that, you feel like the people who are looking into your eyes are looking right through those open windows—like they can see the pain, the teasing, the abuse, the neglect, and the cold, numb anger that can't even speak. 

 

          And you feel all alone.  Like no one cares, and no one else feels as broken and empty as you do.  But that's not true.  You're not the only one.  I'm not the only one.

 

          People walked on by us, ignoring the silent signs that something was wrong, or perhaps not knowing how to approach us.  And then a man came up one day, and moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched us, and hugged us, and healed us. 

 

          The man said to us, "You are not unclean.  You are not the pain you feel.  You are not worthless, or uncared for.  You are mine; I love you." 

 

 

         Many people have been healed by this man; but they don't know where he came from, or what his name is.  But just think: we know exactly who he is.  He is the one who says to us every Sunday:  "Take, eat: This is my Body which is given for you.  This is my Blood which is shed for you.  Eat, drink, laugh, cry, be healed, be loved, be welcome in this church, be at peace with the living God." 

 

          You and I were dead.  But thanks to this man, we have come back to life. 

 

          Do you know his name?

          I know his name.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day

is one of those days with which I have trouble. I understand that it is meant to be a day to celebrate romantic relationships, and I am very grateful to be in one. I think, however, most couples--except for the ones that are new-ish--tend to be like Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." They are "too wise to woo."

Face it. If you are married to someone you really love (lucky are you) then you know them pretty well. That knowledge can lead to all sorts of problems. You know them too well to be all that surprised, even by surprises. The constant, insidious temptation is to take the other for granted; or to behave in less polite ways that one would with any stranger.

But my point is that I have trouble with Valentine's Day precisely for the same reasons that I have trouble with birthdays, anniversaries, and any other holiday at which one is expected to feel a certain way. I am not a rebellious person, but when I am, it is typically a desire to rebel against a feeling that someone (or society at large) wishes me to feel.

Part of it is that I find these secular traditions somewhat shallow. I don't need a day of red cards and construction paper hearts to give thanks for my wife, or the love we share. I feel this way, in part, because I'm a Christian. Love doesn't look like red lace hearts and mushy greeting cards.

Love looks like a back rub from a wife who has spent the day selflessly caring for our children with no break, and very little help from me. Love looks like someone folding my underwear, cooking dinner, feeding the baby, wishing she had been able to get to cleaning the bathrooms today. Love is an enduringly selfless commitment.

When I go to church on Sunday morning, I sit down in the pew and look up at the Altar decorated for the liturgy. My eyes are drawn up to the flowers, and finally, the Cross--symbolizing both the crucifixion and resurrection of Love incarnate, Jesus.

That's what love looks like.

And when you know what real love looks like, you'll never be satisfied with anything else.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jesus in the wilderness

I have been researching Mark 1:9-15, the Marcan version of the Baptism, Temptation, and initial steps into ministry, of Jesus. As all the scholars have said, whenever we read Mark's account, we almost always superimpose the Lucan text with the itemized temptations. Reading Mark's version is like reading Matthew on fast-forward, or like Cliff's notes. I was taught never to blend the Gospels. You don't read Mark and preach Matthew, but that is hard to do with Mark because most people who know the longer version will be thinking of it.

One benefit I can see to Mark's version is that it allows the preacher to talk "topically" about Jesus in the wilderness--which is very freeing. The poverty of detail gives one license to speak more generally about the state of being in the wilderness. Also, the pericope, as it is given for Lent I, gives you a set of culturally understood rites of passage. It is a common theme across time and culture that hero is tested.

I think of us all lined up in front of the Bishop when my group of ordinands were ordained. There's a lot of promise in the air--a fresh infusion of young transitional deacons to an expectant Church. But what happens next? Testing. Going to a tricky parish, or two. Ups and downs, sometimes more downs than ups. But you hang on.

This is not specific to my vocation. Every young man or woman heads out into the world with the vigor of youth, new ideas, fresh face, and there is always a period of testing with whatever you do.

The wilderness is such a fascinating place. It can be a desolate place, but it can also be crowded. I have been shopping in a crowded mall and hiking in the woods and felt just as alone in both places. The wilderness is a spiritual place. I don't know why, but God chooses us to lead us into it from time to time...in fact, drives us there, according to Mark.

You can be so emotionally numb to the people around you that no amount of emails, cards, well wishes can bring you out. Sometimes you just have to hold on, say your prayers, watch out for the wild beasts and wait for the angels.

So I don't know what I'm going to do with Mark 1:9-15. There might be a seed or two of a sermon in this entry, but the wind might blow them away.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Foreshadowing, anyone?

I decided not to preach on yesterday's Gospel lesson. Mark 1:29-39 I preached on the Second Isaiah lesson. But since the Episcopal liturgy requires me (as a priest) to read the Gospel lesson, I had the rare enjoyment of reading a text and not having to delve into it, but rather let it play around in my mind.

One of the drawbacks of preaching is that sometimes one can be so focused on finding something to say that can be teased and explained and explored, and usually that's a lot of fun, but the little bitty things that aren't enough for a full twelve minutes just fall away.

So I got to play with the Gospel lesson yesterday, and the little bitty thing that got to me was, "In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up..."

There it was, buried in the first story of Jesus ministry in Mark's Gospel, a foreshadowing of the Resurrection. In the morning, while it was still dark, he got up. Yeah...okay, shrug your shoulders. Mark wasn't that educated; you can't say that there was a deliberate foreshadowing. Okay...all right. But when I read of Jesus getting up, in the morning, while it was still very dark, it is so eerily close to the Easter story that when I read it aloud, I got a little thrill up my spine. And remember the story of Lazarus? He's not dead; he is sleeping. For Jesus there is a blending of those two meanings.

Well, think what you will. I don't have a fully formed thought on the matter. You can't build a sermon around the foreshadowing, because there is nothing else to support that idea in the story. You can read it as a mere detail, but I put it to you. If Mark didn't intend for us to think "Easter," then he might have written it, "Before light, Jesus woke up and went to pray..." But no! Mark wrote: "In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up."

I think Mark wants us to think of Easter there.

Epiphany 5B. 8 February 2009.

          Today, I have decided to preach on the lesson from the Old Testament, the Book of Isaiah.  Actually, the Book of Isaiah is three books in one.  We read from the second book today, what is called "Second Isaiah" chapters forty through fifty-five. 

 

          Second Isaiah was written to the Israelites living in captivity in Babylon.  I could spend the next half hour talking about the history, but suffice it to say that the book was written for people who are nearing the end of their exile.  How the prophet knows this is another matter, but it is clear that he is trying to help his people to see that God is loving, but that God is also powerful.  

 

          See, the people understood their captivity to be a direct result of having been unfaithful to God.  So the prophet's task is to renew their understanding of who God is—what God is like—what God can do.

 

          This, then, is our lesson for today:  "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,  "My way is hidden from the Lord,  and my right is disregarded by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

 

          You will notice the poetry of those lines.  There are times when something of God cannot be conveyed in the strict boundaries of prose. 

You will, no doubt, have heard a refrain, like you sometimes hear in a song.  You know the song "Go Tell It On the Mountain," right?  "While shepherds kept their watching o'er silent flocks by night, behold, throughout the heavens there shone a holy li-ght! : Go tell it on the mountain…."

 

 

 

          You see how the refrain carries the point of the song?  "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?  Refrain: The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind."  Now, what blowing in the wind actually means is anyone's guess, but it is the refrain—it carries the point.

          Here's a refrain in Isaiah, "Have you not known? Have you not heard?"  God is bigger than you think.  And you see how the refrain carries the message just as powerfully as all the poetry that surrounds it, "Wake up!  Look up!  Understand!  Have you not heard?  Have you not known?  Has it not been told to you from the very beginning?"

          And then Isaiah describes God, "It is he who sits above the earth, and we are like grasshoppers compared to his might.  He stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent.  He brings kings and princes to naught, and any ruler of earth to nothing.  Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither.  The wind blows and they're nothing…"

 

          And then the prophet speaks for God, "What can you compare to me?  Who else do you know who brings out armies of angels, calling every one of them by name?  Why would you say…why would you even think to say that you can keep secrets from me.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is an everlasting God! Creator of the ends of the earth! He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted."

 

          "But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

 

          You will hear those last words a lot.  You will read them on Bible bookmarks, and written on coffee mugs, and posters.   Tune in to any Christian radio station and I'll bet you'll hear those words, but you won't hear what comes before them.  Even though, it's the part that comes before that makes those words so powerful.

          It's like the serenity prayer.  Do you know about the Serenity Prayer?  "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."  It was written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a Union Seminary theologian, but the prayer is longer. 

          Listen to the original: "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.  Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next."[1]  Do you see how the rest of the prayer puts the most famous words in context?

          One of my favourite speakers is Winston Churchill.  You can't be a public speaker and not like Churchill.  He knew how people listen.  Churchill had an ear for the most amazing turns of phrase, but what you'll always remember is just one sentence.  "Now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."[2]

          My favourite Churchill speech was given in the House of Commons on June 18, 1940.  Everyone remembers the last line, but listen to what gives the last line its meaning.

          "…the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."[3]

 

          Do you feel it?  Those words stir the heart.  They stir up everything you hold sacred.  You don't have to be British to want to wave the flag of England at those words.  (I'm sorry General Muhlenberg…but times have changed.) But if you just say "This was their finest hour," without the words that lead up to it, it just falls flat.

          Every year—and I can understand why this happens—but every year there are people who will come to church on Easter Sunday, but won't come to the liturgies of Holy Week.  John Glover, my priest, used to say that not coming to Holy Week services is like eating a hamburger without the meat.  If you don't stand at the foot of the cross, then you can't celebrate at the door of them empty tomb.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard? 

          For some reason, I suppose it's human nature, people just like to shorten things down.  But when you cut too close, especially when it comes to God, you miss out.  You get something that looks like a hamburger, but it's really just the bread.

          I like to have Morning Prayer in the morning, but sometimes I'm a little pressed for time, so it gets down to…well, okay, I'll just read the Psalm and the lessons, no canticles, no creed, the Lords' Prayer and a couple collects. 

          But you have to watch that, because that can become, just the readings, or just the prayers, and finally you're driving to the office trying to remember the last time you actually, really, sat down, and prayed.  And you think…well…that's okay.  God doesn't mind.  God knows I'm busy.  But wait a minute… I think God does mind.

          A lot of people think that religion is a selfish activity.  They think that they go to church to get something.  And it's true that God offers us quite a lot.  But the faith is not a crutch, or some kind magic that makes you feel good.  It's a relationship.  The only thing God really wants from us is to live in relationship with him, and let all the chips fall from that.  He's not angry.  He doesn't fuss. 

          He doesn't think you have a long way to go.  You here people say that.  "I've got a long way to go."  Where are you trying to get?  To God?  God's right here.  It's an excuse.  It's like saying, "I wish I could take a walk but I got this car, and now I have to drive it."  No.  You don't have a long way to go.  God loves you now.  This is not something you earn.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  God loves you now!

          See, that's the point Isaiah is trying to make.  That's why you're in exile, Israelites!  You have clipped your prayer life, and your church life, and your family life, down from every day, to every week, to every once in a while, to almost nothing…  And who has suffered, Israelites?  You have suffered, yes.  But God has suffered, too. 

          God has missed the time you have spent with him in prayer.  He has missed your heart-level cries. He has watched you collapse your relationship down to a recitation of some stale little prayer that you barely even notice yourself saying.

          But for those of you who wish to renew this relationship, if you will take it seriously and diligently, "he will renew your strength.  You will mount up on wings like eagles."

          I'm going to ask you to do something.  Go ahead and enjoy the rest of the service.  Enjoy the company of each other, drink some coffee…but then go home, and in the privacy of your heart, tell God you love him.  Tell God how much he means to you.  Tell him in the same way that you would want to hear a child say it to you.  And then sit there.

          Don't reach for the remote control.  Don't fiddle with the magazines.  Just sit there.  We're such consumers when it comes to relationships.  We want everything on our terms.  God isn't like that.  God doesn't pick up the phone just because you dialed the right number…you have to wait.  And if you wait long enough, I promise you, he will whisper something in your ear. 

          No, it won't be audible.  If it is, God bless you!  But chances are it will come as an understanding, a feeling of peace, a feeling of God's presence.  It might be comforting.  It might be challenging.  It might even be funny. 

          You can tell him anything you want.  You can say that you're anxious about the economy.  You can tell him that you are still very much in pain from the loss of a loved one.  You can tell him that you don't know which way to go right now.  If you wait long enough, he'll tell you something.

          But, if you don't have much time to really get into it today, just tell him you love him.  Just say, "God, I love you."  If you do that…  Well…

          I know what he said to me. 

          I have a feeling he'll say it to you, too.

          Have you not known?  Have you not heard?   



[1] The prayer is thought to have been a conclusion to a sermon.  Its original appearance is in dispute.

[2] The Lord Mayor's Luncheon, Mansion House "The End  of the Beginning" November 10, 1942