I am someone who is a planner and who prefers to be organized as much as possible in everyday life. Perhaps you are the same way? For me, it is partly temperament and partly a theology. I figure the more we can schedule tasks and appointments and take care of our mental to-do list by planning, the more available and truly present we can be physically and emotionally to others throughout the day. This is fine as far as it goes. However, there are serious limitations to how much of life can be planned for. There are some times in life when we feel out of control because we are. Events overtake us.
Jesus is at such a point in his own life path. Jesus is entering Jerusalem and is approaching his own Holy Week. John’s gospel has a very high Christology, meaning that Christ is very clearly Lord of life and death and fully Divine. And yet over and over again, even John emphasizes that Jesus chooses our human experience of real life and real death. Jesus allows events to overtake him, and chooses to live fully into his humanity, especially his vulnerability. Part of Jesus’ vulnerability is the fear we hear in today’s gospel: Now is my soul troubled. He debates his options: What shall I say, Father save me from this hour? And then he decides: No, for this I have come. Jesus chooses our experience: not to be in control, to be subject to the machinations of others, to suffer, to die.
Lent and Holy Week are for following Jesus and learning from him how to let go, not only how to die but also how to live. How do we allow greater life in us and through us for others?
There is a big difference between being there for others from a position of strength, empathizing with the vulnerability of others, and being vulnerable ourselves. When we are coming from a position of strength and non-vulnerability, a benefactor position, we can be removed from experiencing our own vulnerability. Jesus is not the only grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies in order to bring new life. Part of following Jesus into Jerusalem and into his Holy Week is letting ourselves to go all the way down into our own vulnerability as Jesus does. To be still for long enough to experience our own fear, our own diminishment, even the shadow of our own mortality.
It is easy to connect the dots in the life of faith between God and joy. Beautiful sunset: God is good. Falling in love: God is love. We are forgiven: God is merciful. We need more help connecting the dots between sickness and death and God-with-us. We need help approaching the grief and fear and anxiety we all have about suffering and loss and dying. This is part of what Lent and Holy Week are for.
And what we find is that God is already there. God has been there from the beginning of time. God has prepared a place for us with himself not just in heaven but on earth, in suffering as well as in joy. When we are afraid, we are with Jesus in Jerusalem. When we suffer, we are with Jesus on the Cross. In some small way, we are with Jesus in his vulnerability and suffering. God does not hold back any part of God's self from us, including God’s own suffering. Suffering is an invitation to go deeper into the mystery of God's love and closeness to us in our full humanity.
We don’t have to go looking for suffering; sooner or later it comes to all of us. Sometimes we say particular losses are necessary, or particular pain is self-inflicted - our own fault. Well, I think suffering is suffering and pain is pain and sufferings cannot be quantified, nor need they be set against each other and measured. It is not so much that we offer up our suffering or that our sufferings “complete” Jesus' own suffering. Jesus’ suffering is already complete and I am not sure what that really means. We don’t have to suffer as Jesus suffered. But Jesus can help us to see how to surrender to our own humanity; how to live through fear and remain present with others; how to endure and to forgive the wrongs done to us and to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we have done to others.
We are not meant to “like” how this feels all the time. And in truth, the Way of Jesus is deeply at odds with much of our culture teaches is the good life and the meaning of life. Instead of acquisition, giving away; instead of mastery, surrender; instead of grasping, releasing. The Christian life is not about feeling good all the time. It is not happy people getting happier or nice people getting nicer, or knowing more and more intellectually about God or the correct way to “do church”. It includes but goes deeper and higher than feelings or intellect. Christian life is the formation of the heart, soul, mind and strength. It is about the growth of our whole person towards God. We gradually let go of (die to) a false egocentric self that imagines we are masters of our universe so that we can live to God and neighbor more fruitfully and lovingly.
What Jesus does through his Passion is puncture our defenses by letting us stand with him, if we allow it. In Lent we are urged to repent for our sins. Repentance is really an abiding and true sense of our humanity, our vulnerability. Repentance is being punctured by God's love. It has been described beautifully by Sr. Miriam Pollard as "taking our finger out of the dike, of letting our walls be broken, our shell punctured" - by the love of God (from The Laughter of God). We “open the barred doors and the arms wrapped around ourselves, so that we can embrace the love which has never ceased beating on those doors and waiting for our arms to be free". Jesus gets through his own Holy Week by letting God in. Jesus takes his finger out of the dike and the waters pour in, drowning him and baptizing him into his death, and into our Resurrection. AMEN
The story of the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness is a strange one. Everyone thinks so. Its strangeness is one of the reasons we only hear it read in church once in our three-year cycle of readings, and always paired with this reading from the Gospel of John in which Jesus refers to it.
Why strange? Well, where to begin. The story takes place after the death of Miriam and then Aaron, siblings to Moses. The wandering Israelites are trying to gain entrance to the land of Canaan but have been denied safe passage through Edom, so they must go around by an indirect route. They are tired and grumpy. The text says they are “short of soul” or “short tempered.” They are at the end of their rope. And they complain of the wilderness and the God-given manna they eat day after day.
Who can blame them? It’s been a long three decades plus wandering in a hard place, even with the miracles of God’s providence keeping them alive. They want to come home at last. How long, O Lord, how long?
God becomes angry at them and sends poisonous snakes in the camp to bite them. Many die. (Does anyone else think the punishment seems a good deal worse than the crime?) Understandably, they just want the snakes to go away. So they repent of their grumbling and ask Moses to pray that God will deliver them from the fiery serpents.
Here’s where it gets weird. The same God who has told them in no uncertain terms that they are never to make any graven image of anything that is in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth commands Moses to make a graven image of a serpent and set in on a pole, that those who are suffering from the bites of the fiery serpents should be able to look up at the image of the serpent and be healed.
Even the rabbis shake their heads at this one in the Mishnah and the Talmud. This is clearly over the line. Why would God command the breaking of another commandment? And if we doubt that the bronze serpent falls in the same category as an idol to be worshipped, the second book of Kings tells us that hundreds of years later, one of the kings of Israel had to destroy it--this same bronze serpent Moses had made in the wilderness--because the people had given it a name and offered incense to it day and night as if it were a god.
Without the Gospel of John’s glancing reference to the story, it might have fallen into obscurity like so many other stories that we file away as important, but perhaps not central to our understanding of what God is doing in the world.
But here is the reference: Jesus makes an analogy between the raising up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness and his own raising up (on the cross) for the salvation of all of us who suffer.What do the stories have in common? How does one illuminate the other?
First, it’s not hard to see ourselves in the wandering Israelites, in their grumbling and complaining even in the midst of God’s providence and generosity, in their affliction by fiery bites. We are bitten by all sorts of snakes in this life: anger, jealousy, lust, hatred, greed, fear, pride, contempt, envy. Indeed, as we look around, the world seems to be full of snakes and bites and suffering, in need of lots and lots of healing.
Second, healing begins to seep in as our eyes are drawn up to the image of something we fear being lifted high for all to see. The earliest disciples must have been surprised that they were drawn to contemplate the paradoxical glorification of Christ through his shameful and excruciating death on the cross. And that gazing upon his loving surrender, his willingness to suffer for us and for our salvation, brought an unexpected comfort and healing.
In the village of Isenheim, near the town of Colmar, in France, there is a painted altarpiece that I’m sure many of you have heard of. It was painted by Matthias Grunewald in the early 16th century for the Monastery of St. Anthony, widely known in its time for its ministry of caring for sick people, especially those suffering from the plague. Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion is graphic, painful even to look at, yet if you look closely, it looks as if Christ crucified is covered with pock-marks and sores like those of plague sufferers. It was painted so that those receiving care at the monastery could look at the image of Christ crucified and know that they were not alone.
How can gazing upon Christ crucified bring comfort? Only because, through the eyes of faith, we see the image of the one who emptied himself and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, to show God’s love for each and all of us and this broken, crazy, suffering world. In Christ, the one Henri Nouwen referred to as the descending God becomes one of us, shares our human nature, suffers what we suffer, endures what we fear most, betrayal, injustice, pain, abandonment, failure, mockery, annihilation.
Maybe we can take the risk to trust a God who comes to us like this, who will walk the valley of the shadow of death with us. And in that trust, there can be healing and the beginning of a new life.
Our reading from Exodus this morning is one of the classics. Whether you think of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner or the more recent animated adaptation, Prince of Egypt, you have to admit the scene is iconic. Moses converses with God on Mount Sinai. The horns, the cloud, the thunder and lightening all set the stage for the reception of the Ten Commandments by God’s chosen people Israel.
This morning I would like to focus on one specific commandment. In my opinion, it is perhaps the most overlooked. The fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
What does it mean to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy? Well, when I was little… like any good Episcopalian child. I assumed honoring the Sabbath meant going to church and going to brunch. The church was the keeping it holy part and the brunch was the eating waffles with friends part. As I got older, the idea of keeping the Sabbath always seemed like the easy after thought of the Ten Commandments. I interpreted it loosely as enjoy your weekend and try to make it church. I am not so sure that is the originally intending meaning. We tend to fall short of keeping this commandment. We are tired and the Sabbath often gets lost in the busy shuffle of our lives.
One thing that I think is often over looked when contemplating the Decalogue, is often over looked is that all ten of the commandments are equal. There is nothing that specifies that one is more important than another or that breaking one is more of a sin than breaking another. Yet, I think we would all agree that we take thou shall not kill is taken a lot more seriously that remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. But why? Why is it less important? And it begs the question… what if we kept all of the commandments equally? What would it look like to take Sabbath rest as seriously as murder? How do we hurt ourselves, each other and our relationship with God by not taking rest seriously? Are there time is your life where you have said something you wish you hadn’t or done something you really should not have because you were exhausted? I know I have had those moments. What would our world look like if rest and relaxation weren’t luxuries but a base line necessity?
My own personal journey with Sabbath keeping started in seminary with my dear friend, Liane. Liane and I met our first year of seminary at Yale. At the time she was an Episcopalian in the ordination process in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Devoted to social justice and peace-keeping efforts in the Middle East, during our time at school, Liane fell in love with Hebrew scripture, Hebrew language and Judaism. God works in mysterious ways. After long and prayerful consideration, she withdrew from the ordination process and began the process of converting to Conservative Judaism.
By the time we lived together, our third year, she was deep in the process of conversion and was meeting twice a week with her rabbi about her spiritual journey. As part of her process, she observed Jewish law, kept Kosher and journaled about all of it. One of her biggest struggles was during this process was Saturday, the Sabbath. The important and often under emphasized part of both Jewish and Christian tradition, keeping the Sabbath was made mandatory by her supervising Rabbi.
The root of the Hebrew word for Sabbath means "to stop"--stop doing what you do during the other six days of the week. Our model for Sabbath rest (Sabbath stopping) comes from Genesis 2:2; when God finished the creative work, he "stopped" on the seventh day. Our instruction for Sabbath rest comes from Exodus 16. God commanded that humans stop, put aside their daily chore of gathering bread, and marvel at God's provision for them. In the wilderness, God forged a relationship with the people that called them to trust God to provide for their every need, not just for today, but for tomorrow as well. In the Jewish tradition, Sabbath is observed from sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday.
During that time, Jews are supposed to refrain from anything that resembles work… that includes but is not limited to cooking, cleaning, running errands and using technology (even for recreation). Some people even refrain from driving, and using electricity. On the Sabbath, people are supposed to spend time together, praying, worshipping and being with family. It is a time for visiting neighbors and relaxing.
For me, Sabbath rest always sounds intensely rewarding but near impossible. So how did Liane do with Sabbath… well… it was hard… really hard. She went off Facebook, disconnected the Internet, turned off her cell phone, put down all her school books and flashcards. She did not wash dishes. She did not watch TV. She even unscrewed the tiny lightbulb in our refrigerator so she would not accidentally break Sabbath prohibition against kindling fire. I know first hand… her first couple weeks were miserable. She was bored and grumpy. She was so worried that she would miss something going on in the outside world. She was so worried that she would fall behind on her work… It was just so hard to stop, but an amazing thing happened. It got a little easier. Liane found that really she did not miss anything or fall behind in her work. She got some sleep and actually spent time with her friends and family.
Liane is now at the University of Chicago where she is working on her Phd in Hebrew Bible. While it is still a struggle for her to keep Sabbath, and I know she occasionally watches TV and studies, carving out a little bit of time for true rest is a powerful thing. It is a beautiful idea that taking care of ourselves can be a way of honoring God.
Sabbath rest is something that I aspire to but struggle with… I am not quite ready to turn off the cellphone or unscrew the refrigerator light but I know that I need and the God wants me to rest… Sabbath rest is a difficult concept in our twenty-first century world. How can we simply "stop"? What will happen to our jobs, our families, our sense of identity if we "stop" for Sabbath? And, what does it mean to "stop"?
I know in my life, just because I am not at work does not mean I am not working. Sabbath rest will look different for each of us in this room. For some people it may be visiting family, for others it might be turning off the ipad, some it may be curling up with a good book and cup of tea, or being out in nature…
Sabbath has to do with cessation, with taking time to contemplate our place within the created world. Stopping has to do with reflecting on the good provisions of God in our lives. And that is the wonderful gift of coming together for worship. We can gather together here and pause from the business of our lives and spend a moment with each other and God. We can let these moments of peace and contemplation set the tone for the rest of our lives. It is my hope that each of us will do ourselves the favor of intentionally taking time to rest. In a culture were over functioning and over performance is not just the norm but something to be aspired to, perhaps remember and observing the Sabbath is a radical way for all of us to remember God and remember to take care of ourselves.
There are no literal crosses in my life, other than devotional objects. I don’t ever walk out to find that someone has been strung up by the police or by the Army and nailed to huge cross-beams to die, naked and exposed to the elements. You and I are not likely to be crucified. So what does it mean to take up my cross? I ask that question with a desperate urgency because I want to follow Jesus. And this instruction is at the heart of the Gospel: the way of the cross is the way of life. Unless the seed dies, it remains alone.
What is my cross? How can I take it up unless I know what it is?
The first thing that comes to mind is enduring suffering. Whether it’s wrongful imprisonment or psoriasis, slander or the craving for chocolate, ridicule or a bad tempered friend, we all have things in our lives that are painful and that don’t go away as we would like them to. For better or worse, our best course of action seems to be to just put up with the suffering as gracefully as possible. And there are certainly those who have interpreted this passage this way, as an acknowledgement that life is prone to painful episodes and sometimes we just have to grin and bear it. But is this really what Jesus means?
Let’s look at the context. Let’s rewind to the chapter before this one, when Jesus asks who the disciples who the people think he is. Peter alone confesses that he thinks Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus tells them all to hush and tell no one.
Jesus then goes on to tell about how he will suffer and be scorned by the religious authorities and be killed. Peter doesn’t like to hear that kind of talk. The Messiah is the one who will come with power and great might to rescue Israel from her oppressors, who will vanquish all her enemies without mercy and restore the nation to the glory and prestige among nations promised it by God. Peter takes Jesus aside to talk some sense into him.
But Jesus talks sharply to Peter, not in private, but publicly, in front of all the disciples, saying, in effect, “Get behind me, Tempter, Adversary! I met you in the desert when you promised me the kingdoms of the earth if only I would bow to you. I said no then and I’ll say no now!”
THEN Jesus says, “If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I don’t think Jesus is complaining about random suffering or the pain of human limitation or misfortune. He is not ruing the fact that he has nowhere to lay his head or that his students are slow learners.
He is talking about the suffering that comes from telling the best truth you know, no matter who doesn’t want to hear it. He is talking about the violence that lashes out from the centers of power at anyone who rocks the boat or calls their bluff. He is talking about putting his body on the line for the truth. And he is saying that running from that suffering--the suffering that comes of standing up for what’s right--is worse than pain and death.
He is not doing it so we don’t have to. He is doing it so we know how to.
I am convinced that what Jesus is talking about is what Gandhi called satyagraha, the force of truth. Gandhi coined the word out of two words in sanskrit, satya meaning “truth” and agraha meaning “insistence or holding firm to.” It is the force of love that stands in the face of violence and oppression and will neither run nor fight. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the heirs of Gandhi’s teaching: satyagraha informed the civil rights movement here in the United States. Essential to the teaching of truth-force is the insistence that those who take up the practice of truth-force to confront the injustices and lies of the world must be willing to accept suffering for the sake of the truth.
When Rosa Parks sat down in the white section of a bus and would not get up, she was taking up her cross. When Dr. King was imprisoned during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he was taking up his cross. When both Dr. King and Gandhi are assassinated by gunmen, each was taking up his cross. Each was an icon of the One who was willing to put his body on the line in the service of truth and love, no matter what the cost. Each one was following in his blessed footsteps.
So we return to the question: what is my cross? Well, to answer the question, we have to begin with another: what is the truth I am so convinced of that I would be willing to risk my possessions, my reputation, my career, even my safety? What is that truth, that reality, not just a word or an idea, but a comprehensive perception of the mystery of our existence that will not yield to rationalizations or deceptions? What is the truth that I would die for?
Please understand. Though I believe this is what Jesus taught, this language makes me deeply uncomfortable. Haven’t we seen enough of fanatics who are more than willing to exploit and kill in the grasp of some truth that only they can see? Isn’t harmony in this world about learning to see everyone’s truth, partial though it is?
I have to believe that there is a bedrock to reality, a large clear truth of which we partake. Because I know all the ways I deceive myself. And I know all the ways in which I have been deceived in my life, told lies about myself, about my family, my country, our humanity, our place in this world. Behind the veil of deception, there has to be something that is true, something we share like blood or like our DNA. And that truth is so fundamental to our humanity that losing it or obscuring it would be worse than the death of my body. It would be the death of what makes me, and us, human.
We take up our crosses by placing our bodies on the line for that truth. By speaking what no one wants to hear though our voice may tremble. By giving of our time and money without knowing for sure what will come of it. By showing up wherever oppression and deception have the upper hand and saying ‘Enough.’
Until we find that lifeblood of truth and the will to accept pain and discomfort to make it plain, we are at risk of gaining everything, but losing what matters most. There are many roads that will lead us away from that pain. We can run by shutting ourselves down, by shielding ourselves, by numbing ourselves, by fooling ourselves. But all those roads lead to death. There is only one road to resurrection and it leads through the pain
But we have a consolation, a hope that lights the way like a star: that Jesus has gone before us. And that he will meet us in the suffering and lead us through to the other side. The way of the cross is the way of life.
The story of the Transfiguration has puzzled generations of New Testament scholars. The origins of the text are obscure, and they have little consensus about what it is doing in the narrative. Theologians also have scratched their heads, offering a number of different guesses about what this event might mean.
While scholars remain unsure of this story’s meaning, it appears in our lectionary all three years. For the Church, therefore, it is a central story. As a preacher, I always feel pushed to give theological explanation of the Transfiguration. To explain how or why…but when has the idea of a glowing holy figure hovering over a mountaintop never made logical sense anyway. Perhaps, the transfiguration is not something that is supposed to be figured out, reasoned with or explained. It is something to be appreciated and wondered at. Maybe this is one moment where we are not called to deduced or analyze but instead marvel and be in awe.
Artists throughout the history of Christianity have given insight into the experience of transfiguration. 10 years ago, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens put out his Seven Swans album, which included a musical rendering of the transfiguration story. An almost haunting banjo chord progression undergirds his airy, almost ethereal voice. His lyrics focus on the voice of God coming out of the clouds, and the listener is brought evermore upward, higher and higher until it feels like the listener is floating.
Renaissance artists also were inspired to paint the images of the transfiguration. One of the most famous depictions, Raphael’s transfiguration expresses the raw power of the moment. Rather than sharing the airy or wispy quality of Stevens’ song, one is struck by the dominant figure of Christ in the center. Jesus is surrounded by bright white clouds, floating off the ground, flanked by Moses and Elijah who also float just below Jesus. A massive group of people gather around, bodies contorted, looking shocked, terrified by the scene. The viewer is overcome with the glory of the moment—the painting itself is commanding 13 feet by nine feet.
Yet other artists pull us down out of the clouds. Giovanni Bellini, of the Venetian School, painted the image of the transfiguration twice. His first image has Jesus not on a cloud, but rather on a high pedestal like a statue. Bellini’s second composition was even simpler. Jesus is depicted plainly in a pastoral landscape. No bright lights, no flashy clouds. The three apostles have been knocked over and look at the ground. There is no large crowd of people witnessing the event, as in Rapael’s painting. On the contrary, people in the background seem to be going about their everyday lives. Off to the side of Moses, there is man caring for his cow. I love the everyday nature of this. The viewer wants to yell out to the man… “hey the transfiguration is going on!” “ Hey you… come over here… heaven and earth have just met?” Bellini is successful in capturing the ordinary quality of the scene. Jesus is on a walk with his friends—nothing strange there. And then, suddenly without warning, Jesus is transfigured. The sublime breaks through the monotony of daily life.
In our postmodern age, where people are talking more and more in terms of being spiritual and not religious, maybe what we all long for is the transfiguration. In the end, we want a sense of the transcendent, the luminous, the holy, something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder. We all long for transformation and treasure those moments in our lives. . More than just a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, Transfiguration matters.
In his book, Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner muses on the Transfiguration this way: “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing”
(Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).
Buechner captures the heart of the gospel. The glory of God’s presence revealed to us in the midst of our ordinary lives. Our experience of transcendence can come where and when we least expect it.
Elizabeth Barret Browning captures this brilliantly in stanza from her poem Aurora Leigh, she writes.
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
And daub their natural faces unaware.
If we are not careful, like the folks in the poem or the man with the cow, we miss the presence of God so often because we don’t look past our everyday lives. How often are we so absorbed in the trapping of our own reality that we miss God among us? There is a story told about St. Francis of Assisi. He, much like Jesus, was out one day on a walk with his friends. When suddenly, they heard the approaching of a clanging hand bell. “Leper approaching,” the voice cried out. In the middle ages, it was made the law that lepers had to ring bells and announce their arrival so people could clear the way. The voice and bell approached closer, and Francis’ friends dashed off into a ditch where they thought they would be safe from the disease. Yet to all of their surprise, Francis ran toward the bell and voice. Finding the man, unwashed, in tattered clothing, with skin decaying, Francis embraced the leper and kissed him. The leper was then transfigured, engulfed in a bright fire, and he vanished. Francis was thrown to the ground his lips and hands burnt. His friends came out of the ditch to help him. “Where is the leper?” They ask. But Francis smiles and replies “ There was no leper here, only our Lord Christ, hidden in ordinary flesh, waiting for us to help him.”
I think most of us would love the courage to be like Francis to reach out past ourselves and be open to the possibility of being transfigured. But when we are honest with ourselves, we find that we are much more likely to be his friends hiding in the ditch. The transfiguration asks us to find God breaking into the all earth’s spaces— to see God in the most unlikely places and most unlikely people. What in your life needs to be transformed? How can we get out of our own way and let God in? There is a reason that this is the reading for the Last Sunday of Epiphany. That is the invitation as we move forward from Epiphany into Lent. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of God that is all around us if we are brave enough to see it.
What are you giving up? For centuries now, each time Lent rolls around, Christians ask each other this question. Traditionally, Western Christians gave up eating meat for the entire season. In remembrance of the crucifixion, faithful Catholics still avoid meat on Fridays. In some Orthodox Churches, the Lenten fast is even stricter. The faithful are encouraged not only to abstain from meat but fish, dairy, eggs, wine and oil as well. In the past, these practices served a double function. Not only were they a spiritual discipline, reminding us that we do not live on bread alone, but also a way of conserving limited resources. As winter continued on, dwindling food supplies made Lenten fasts necessary.
Lent has changed over the years. Fortunately, we live in the age of supermarket and refrigeration and to us fasting is not done with the same sense of urgency. However the desire to drawer closer to God during this holy season remains. People have shifting ideas about what to give up, when, and for how long. So, what does it look like to observe a Holy Lent in 2015? What are people giving up these days?
Well, this has become a topic of great debate on social media. That’s right… as it turns out in 2015, Facebook and Twitter have a lot to say about Lent. At least my Facebook and Twitter accounts do, I suppose it should not surprise me that my friend group is a rather religious one. So all forms of social media have been a buzz with Lent prep. As far as I see it, my friends and clergy colleagues really like to talk about two topics in particular; giving up and taking on.
People post about giving up things for Lent. All sort of things: Chocolate, alcohol, coffee, meat, television, swearing, gossiping, Netflix, driving a car… even Facebook and twitter. Yes, my Facebook is currently littered with people saying goodbye to Facebook for 40 days of technological silence. And it is all done in the name of Lent. These are all forms of fasting.
The idea of giving up something for Lent has taken on a certain cultural cache. It is a strange phenomenon in our culture of overindulgence. On the surface, I see it as a good thing. Self-denial is a much overlooked virtue. So I applaud all of those that, in the name of God or their faith, are trying to give up something for Lent.
I just want to add a tiny word of caution. Don’t let your giving something up for Lent replace an actual relationship with God. We give things up to make room to take things up. That brings me to my second group of friend. More and more, I see people adding to their lives as a spiritual discipline for Lent.
One of my favorite examples of taking on is Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz Webber 40 Ideas for keeping a Holy Lent from her site A House for all Sinners and Saints.
On her website, Bolz Weber outlines 40 days worth of spiritual practices which include:Praying for enemies, donating to nonprofit, looking for beauty in nature, checking out daily office prayers online, giving clothing away to Goodwill, baking a cake, introducing yourself to a neighbor, Praying the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news) and lighting real and virtual candles.
The invitation of Lenten disciple is clear. We are asked to give up things that are getting in the way of your relationship with God and take on things that draws us closer in relationship with God and each other. At no other day in the church calendar is this more poignant. Yet Ash Wednesday is more challenging than giving up chocolate or taking on new prayer practices. Ash Wednesday is not an easy day. It asks us to remember an uncomfortable truth. Ash Wednesday reminds us of core truth of Christianity: we must give up in order to take on.
The solemn ashes to ashes, dust to dust, points to the paradoxical, deep truth of the Christian faith: those who lose their life will gain it. What we must give up is not a food, habit or even a particular sin, but the practice of making God’s love contingent on our own achievements. And the liturgy of this day goes right to the ultimate reality we struggle against, death itself. We are reminded, both by the words we say and the burned palms imposed on our foreheads, that we will die. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust…
This is not something we can fix or escape. It is true for all of us. All human attempts at controlling our own destiny are stripped away on Ash Wednesday. We are seen for what we are – frail mortals. Power, money, self-control, even efforts at reform cannot permanently forestall our death.
Our return to dust is inevitable. The penitential rite is recognition of our inability to love and do perfectly. It points to our need for God’s grace.
On Ash Wednesday, our confession of sin really is saying, “we give up.”
Ash Wednesday is a day for honesty. While that honesty can be challenging, It is also hopeful. Even while we fall short, even while our efforts are in vain, we are still held in the hands of a loving God.
As St. Paul wrote, “Neither death, nor life, nor angles, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. “
So let’s give up… give up on the delusion that we don’t need God and can fix everything ourselves. Give up on the delusion that we will live forever in this mortal form. When we give up on our own abilities and efforts, then the reality of God’s grace truly is felt.
So what do we take up? Love and acceptance… If we give up the delusion and the myth of self-sufficiency, we can take up a loving acceptance of ourselves in all of flawed imperfection take on grace and the redemption of Christ.
Tonight I would like to begin with a quotation from C.S. Lewis. It gets to the heart of what Ash Wednesday is for. C.S. Lewis writes:
“The Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay… and it is no use at all trying to go on to the comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in …everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” [From Mere Christianity: C.S. Lewis].
Another way of describing the “dismay” C.S. Lewis speaks of is the brokenness of the world and our part in it. Closer to home, it is our resistance to the love of God making all things new.
Sometimes, as we confess our sins, we may think that we are not so bad on the whole. At least, we may think, I haven’t done anything bad to anyone else. Not really. Even when I have felt angry or resentful, I have kept that to myself. I haven’t acted on my less good impulses. OK... So let us ask ourselves: have there been ways in which I have resisted the love of God?
There are so many ways in which we can keep God at arm’s length. We don’t want to be forgiven so we don’t ask, we would rather stay angry, we don’t want reconciliation with that person or those people. So our struggle with the love of God might not be something bad we do but something good we resist. We might be pretty good at identifying the moral crusades, the causes for justice, the marginalized needing our advocacy at home and abroad. We are perhaps not so great at building a human community based on acceptance and vulnerability. Grace grows and people blossom when we co-create with God a community where it is safe for people to come out from hiding, to be vulnerable and to give and receive love and acceptance based on who they really are without fear of being shamed or excluded or gossiped about. This is the hard work of love that we can so easily resist because it asks of us daily change of habits of exclusion; habits of mind, habits of the heart.
In his sermon on the ordination of the Rev. Allen Shin as Bishop, the 25th Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold spoke of the essential poverty of any Christian. Bishop Griswold said that we can put all kinds of fancy clothes on bishops, but spiritually they – like all of us - remain in spiritual poverty. I think that this is true for every one of us – for all Christians, and I think for all human beings. This essential poverty may or may not be connected to material poverty. It is spiritual in nature and although it is not depression it certainly can include emotional discouragement, even despair. It is the place of honesty in us when we say to ourselves: I can’t figure this out. I can’t do this. Why is this happening? I don’t know where God is in this. And unlike material poverty, spiritual poverty is something we all experience. We may not talk about it much, even with God, but it is there. It is the moment when the knowledge of our utter dependence on God and of our own mortality moves from our intellect to our heart to our gut.
There is another sense in which awareness of our poverty is at the heart of things tonight. Essential poverty. Our spiritual poverty is the little door that opens to the infinite treasure house of grace. Our spiritual poverty is directly connected to the grace of God. This is how Lent is Holy. This is why Lent is a gift. Ash Wednesday tells us that our poverty, our sinfulness, our brokenness of spirit is not useless. Our spiritual poverty is not meaningless -- just the opposite. It is the path to grace and the real comfort on the other side of dismay. Our sins are not the stopping points but the starting points of grace.
Our own spiritual poverty – admitting it – honoring it – loving our own need of God as much as God loves us in our need of him -- here is where the hope comes. This is what C.S. Lewis is talking about. This is the comfort on the other side of our despair when our illusions of self-sufficiency are unmasked. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to be less defended against our own spiritual poverty. This is a day to remember that grace is not only for other people, it is for you and for me.
Repentance and forgiveness are difficult for us, so Jesus hardwires it into the basic prayer he teaches his disciples: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Over and over again, we practice admitting our need to forgive and be forgiven by God and by others. Forgiveness is difficult for us but apparently not so hard for God. It seems that God is less defended, less afraid to be vulnerable, than we usually are. There is no limit or condition attached to God’s grace. We call it unconditional, and we mean it. There is nothing that cannot be confessed tonight and nothing that cannot be forgiven.
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. AMEN
Lent 1, Year B | February 22, 2015 : “Into the Desert” The Rev. Caroline Stacey (Readings, RCL: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15)
In his book Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes:
“People only come to a deeper consciousness by intentional struggles with contradictions, conflicts, inconsistencies, inner confusions and what the biblical tradition calls sin or moral failure… In other words, the goal is actually not the perfect avoidance of all sin, which is not possible anyway (1 Jn 1:8-9; Rom 5:12), but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes from it.”
This is surely what the desert experience is all about. Today’s gospel is about a specific long retreat that Jesus takes in the wilderness, alone except for the Divine companionship. And yet the desert is also a place inside us. This is an essential journey that we can go on too, like Jesus and with Jesus. Part of the discipline of a real retreat is intentional stillness. We close out the usual distractions like the web, the email, the social media. We call them “distractions” but they can also be our lifelines, our ways of escaping ourselves that we deploy every day to avoid undiluted, exposed relationship with God and ourselves. The desert is having nowhere to hide.
And what is left in the interior desert is: the sound of silence. Except it is not silent. The noise in our heads can be deafening. Jesus has the experience of what the desert fathers and mothers called the noonday demons, and their urges towards power, control and gratification. Jesus has that experience in a way that fits who he is. We become aware of similar struggles in ways that fit with who we are.
When I was 23, I was in my first semester as a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. It was the day before Thanksgiving and most of my classmates had gone to their families. I was going for Thanksgiving Dinner the next day to an older seminarian’s home, who lived nearby. I was grateful for her invitation because I had minus amounts of money and didn’t have enough to fly anywhere. The day before Thanksgiving, I remember waking up and having breakfast in the usual way but then, as I started to go about my day I felt this increasing isolation and loneliness. There were still a few other people around but my existential anxiety grew and I could not shake it. I sat on the floor in my Divinity School dorm and thought: I have no family in the USA. I only know a handful of people in this whole country. Who should I list as my emergency contact? I am in truth completely alone even though this school is full of others. And I found I could not concentrate on my studies or focus in my prayers. I went for a long walk and came back with the realization that my internal disarray was only partly to do with being fresh off the plane in the USA and starting seminary and a new life. It was deeper than that. I remember thinking as I sat on the floor in my dorm room: if I cannot learn to be still and quiet in myself I will never be grounded or content in life. I must settle into my disquiet and learn to be with myself. A teacher had earlier recommended a book with the first sentence “Life is difficult”. I thought – that sounds like a book that starts where I am. And so I read that book by Scott Peck called The Road Less Travelled and absorbed it over the break. I stayed in my interior “cell”, the “monastery of the heart” as Joan Chittister calls it, and it was the beginning of a wonderful journey to the inner sanctuary where God lives in each of us.
I didn’t know it at the time, but now I know that I was undergoing one of the most significant experiences of young adulthood. I call it the “integration breakthrough”, though I am sure it has a proper psychological name. What I mean by integration breakthrough is learning to tolerate our own company. The desert father Abba Moses of Scetis told a young seeker: “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” This is exactly it. Learning to sit with oneself quietly and experience all of the range of feelings and fears and hopes and anxieties that we have in ourselves without self-medicating with social media, or entertainment, or obsessive working or compulsive socializing or more obviously, drugs or alcohol. Until we can do that we are not able to live as a whole person. There is no still center from which to move out into the world. I am not a psychologist so I don’t know for sure, but my sense and experience tell me that this integration breakthrough can happen at any age and in fact needs to happen for mature adulthood and mature spirituality to unfold.
“Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” This ancient wisdom is ever new. Lent is the time when we make more space for ourselves and God to be together in quietness. Thomas Keating says: “God’s primary language is silence”. We need to sit in stillness with God precisely when we feel like running away or distracting ourselves or when we think nothing is happening in our spiritual life. That is when everything is happening.
We are all called on that interior journey through the desert. It is the other half of our earthly pilgrimage – the journey outwards towards others in relationship and service is balanced by the journey inwards. Go deeper on that journey this Lent. If you would like a list of spiritual companions in the form of books to read, my clergy colleagues and I will gladly recommend some. Go on retreat if you can – maybe you can go on the parish Lenten retreat next month? If you cannot get away physically, set aside extra time for reading, prayer and reflection. My Lenten encouragement is simply: Don’t be afraid of the desert wilderness inside you – it is the place of clarity, wisdom, peace and Divine friendship. You may be in solitude but you don’t journey alone and whether or not it is obvious to you, you will be transformed.
In the desert of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise
[-- from W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”]
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany | January 24, 2015 “Jonah: A Whale of a Tale” The Reverend Emily LloydFebruary 5, 2015
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be always acceptable to you, oh God my rock and my redeemer.
In our readings for this Sunday, we have a brief passage from one of my absolute favorite stories in all of scripture, the timeless story of Jonah. Complex, beautiful and funny, it is sad that we only get two tiny snippets of the story during our three year lectionary cycle. Even the smallest Sunday School child knows the basics of the story. With its great drama, high sea adventure and special guest appearance of the whale, there is just something about this scripture passage that demands artistic representation. It is not surprising that so many artist have chosen to depict this tale. So this Sunday morning, let’s spend a couple minutes with our old pal Jonah, arguably the most poorly behaved prophet in history.
Picture our main character, Jonah, living a quiet life as a peaceful man of God. He is going about his daily work when suddenly he finds himself in the presence of God… the great I Am. The voice of the God calls down to Jonah, terrifying him of course, and tells him to go at once to Ninevah, the great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness know no boundaries.
Jonah thinks this sounds like the worst idea ever and instead of leaving his nice cozy home at once to go do the Lord’s work in Nineveh, he hightails it the closest port, Joppa and hops a ship heading for Tarshish ( the opposite side of the know world… as far away as he can get). The text tells us that Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord.” I don’t know about you but there have been many times in my life where to escape an unpleasant task at hand I have wanted to hop on the proverbial ship to Tarshish. And we all know how this part of the story goes. Jonah’s plan does not work. God calls up a great wind on the sea and the ship is tossed about violent. There is a great scene where all of the crew is assembled on deck each praying to their own gods. Jonah is nowhere to be found and the captain goes off in search of him. He finds Jonah down below in the hold sound asleep. The Captain is enraged and orders Jonah on deck and commands him to pray to his own God. The sailors cast lots to determine the cause of the calamity and the lots fall to Jonah. Jonah confesses that he is the cause and commands the sailors to throw him into the sea. The sailors and understandably horrified by this idea of sacrificing Jonah to the ocean but after hours of struggle they relent and over Jonah goes into the water.
This part is priceless. The text reads “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” This is the part that I missed when I was a little girl in Sunday School. I always thought that Jonah was swallowed by the whale as a punished when actually the whale or large fish, in this translation, saves Jonah’s life. Who knew that being swallowed by a giant marine creature could actually be a act of God’s continued love and commitment to you. This is the part of the story that we all love. We are endlessly fascinated by the logistics of being inside a whale. At my last parish, our nursery school children where particularly concerned about the levels of smell and stickiness in the belly of the beast. Four and five year olds are so earnest and they get right to the heart of the story. They always want to know exactly what Jonah did in the whale. Well Jonah prayed. For three days and three nights without stopping, Jonah prayed to God. On the third day, the Lord spoke to the whale and it spewed Jonah out on the dry land in Nineveh. This is a great image. I love the idea of the prophet crawling ashore covered in, what I can only imagine is best described as whale goo. John the Baptist has nothing on this guy.
This is where we meet Jonah in our reading today. Whale slimed covered Jonah is wandering the streets of Nineveh preaching doom and repentance. And this is where we have perhaps the most surprising part of this tale… even more surprising that the whale incident. The people of Nineveh listen and repent. The great and the small don sack cloth and ashes. The king in his palace makes a decree that all people and animals must fast. No food and no water. And then something equally extraordinary happens, God sees the people and how they turned from their evil ways and does not bring destruction upon the people. God forgives the people of Nineveh. By all accounts, this should be the happy end of the story. The people are saved. God is happy.
But our story does not end here, there is one person who is less than happy of the turn of event, that’s right our man, Jonah. Jonah is angry and basically throws a temper tantrum of biblical proportions. He yells at God. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Basically, Jonah knew all along that God was just going to forgive the people anyway so was all that whale nonsense really necessary. Jonah is quoting the LORD’s own self-description (from Exodus 34:6) a description taken up by prophets and psalmists throughout Israel’s history to remind us all of God’s nature. But in Jonah’s mouth, it is an accusation: You, God, are gracious and merciful. I KNEW this would happen! I declared your judgment on this sinful city, and you changed your mind! Then Jonah goes out of the city to sit and pout. The scripture say he constructs a little hut like booth and sits in it.
I love Jonah. I love how human he is, prone to fits of sulking and melodrama. Sure he, Jonah deserves a second chance, but do the people of Ninevah? God answers with a resounding “yes”. This is a lesson in forgiveness. This is a story full of people who are hard to love. The brilliance of this story is in its humor. We are all called to love our neighbors as ourselves but sometimes that is almost comically impossible. This week we are asked, who is it hardest to love. Now I am not talking about terrible abusive relationships, but your average run of the mill jerks that get on your nerves, go ahead picture them now. Well God loves them, and loves you too. Like Jonah, we are grateful the God’s mercy and compassion extend to us and our shortcoming but it is a little harder to imagine them extending to everyone else too. My prayer for all of us this week is that we might learn from Jonah and rejoice in the goodness of God. We don’t have to sit outside the city and pout but instead we can celebrate God’s gift of forgiveness and peace given to all.
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany | February 1, 2015 “The ‘Impossible’ Happens”: Eve of the Presentation, The Rev. Caroline StaceyFebruary 5, 2015
Happy are the people who strength is in you O Lord, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. (Ps.84:5)
So here we are. Another Sunday, another annual meeting celebrating another year of mission and ministry at St. Luke's. And yet this day is more. This day is the last day the parking lot is the parking lot. It will remain St. Luke’s land and today we will bless the grounds. Beginning this month, construction materials and equipment will start to move in. Foundations will be laid and over the next two years an elegant residential building will go up. A diverse group of people will move in, including some middle income folks. Families will be raised here. People will live their lives on this block who wouldn't have lived here before. The annuitized income from this development will strengthen mission and ministry immeasurably for the next 99 years of this ground lease. What will our successors - rector, vestry, church leaders decide to do in 99 years when the ground lease is up and the building comes back to us? We have no way of knowing. That will be their choice to make. All we can do is make the wisest decision we can now and for the future as well as we can see it. For those who are newer to this parish, this day is the culmination of years and years of work, and a growing urgency. To flourish, we had to convert property assets into liquid assets for capital repairs, to rebuild our endowment, and for mission and ministry. Churches need sustainable budgets to do their ministry…very basic economics.
And yet faith is primarily an affair of the heart. It is a love affair. “The Faith” is the story of God's love for us, which we humans have never ceased to wonder about. And the story of the church is the story of our loving God back. Sometimes gloriously and magnificently and sometimes brokenly and hurtfully and often somewhere in between. What we do in our economics, what we do with what we are given to work with, is about what and Who we love. So today is about our love for God. God is connected to our parking lot.
The church lives between heaven and earth. At its best, the church is a bridge between the two. It is a very human institution like any other and yet it is also Christ living and walking and talking and breathing through us. Church is human and divine. Grubbing around in the dirt and soaring high. Ordinary and mystical. The beauty of the church is in the mix. It is a sacramental mix. Bread and wine are the Body and Blood of God. You and I become the Body of Christ. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, like many biblical stories, is a mix of the sublime and the, frankly, ridiculous. The endless waiting of Anna and Simeon. Onlookers in the Temple must have thought - crazy old man, crazy old woman - waiting for decades for what? God?! Do you think Simeon and Anna woke up that morning and thought: Today is the day? Probably not. But it was. Because here’s the thing about this ordinary/extraordinary mix that we call the life of faith. Sometimes the seemingly impossible happens. This is what Simeon and Anna come to know. This is the lesson of their lives for us. Sometimes by the grace of God the seemingly impossible happens. This is not to say that it doesn’t take a lot of time. This is not to say it is easy. This is not to say it doesn’t take blood, sweat, tears, prayers, patience and perseverance and human effort. It does. But by the grace of God, the longed-for reality comes to pass and sometimes we are the ones who are alive to see it.
One thing I do know. This day is not for us alone. It is not all about St. Luke’s. The journey we are on is for those we will be called to serve.
In the Episcopal Church, the basic unit of the church is the Diocese, not the parish. Bishop Dietsche, our Diocesan Bishop, and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about St. Luke’s projects. Bishop Dietsche said some wonderful things and at announcements I am going to read you a letter from him, since he cannot be with us in person today. The Bishop also told me a true story of how when Synod Hall was built on the Cathedral close, two wealthy New York families competed over who would have the honor of paying for the construction. We have lost that, reflected the Bishop. A sense of the honor and privilege of giving; of being able to give generously beyond ourselves, to go above and beyond for ideals we believe in.
I hope we never lose that at St. Luke’s. The privilege of being able to serve and to give is why we are not going to be keeping all of our newfound resources for ourselves alone. That is why the third strategic initiative – the Community Center which will eventually follow the residential building and the school expansion – is the apex of our vision. It will be the capstone and the cornerstone, because that is what we are here for – to serve beyond ourselves. Through the community center, hands-on good work will flow to people of all faiths and none. The community center will be the outward and visible sign of our commitment to the privilege of serving. I know it is unfashionable to be idealistic and tenacious in pursuit of the highest possible good. It is easy to be scornful or cynical of such dreams and hopes. I am very grateful to have a Bishop who shares my high hopes and expectations for St. Luke’s and for the Diocese. And I do trust that at St. Luke’s we will always hold fast to that idealism and vision and passion for the highest and best good. Part of what is so awesome about this day is precisely that it aligns with being a community that is a blessing to others. Let us reaffirm in our prayers today that St. Luke’s is not afraid to dream and to work for the highest and best outcomes, and that we will not rest until those hopes and dreams become reality. We will create a legacy of blessing for the generations that will come after us.
Ready or not, a time of change is upon us. Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in our love affair with Christ and his Church. Happy are the people who strength is in you O Lord, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. AMEN