Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Honoring Jesus

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; and John 12:1-8.

A lot is said in that first sentence of our Gospel today: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” John the Gospel-writer sets the context for all that will happen in Holy Week: Jesus has withdrawn to a safe house, and from there he sets his course to coincide with the arrival of all those pilgrims from around the Mediterranean Basin for whom Jerusalem is the destination. Destiny is more what is on our Lord’s mind. And his destiny is prefigured in what happens in that safe house.

To call it safe is a stretch. At table with him is Lazarus, for it is his home. And it is because of the raising of Lazarus from his grave that the death warrant for Jesus has been issued by the powers-that-be in Jerusalem. Jesus healed many lepers, madmen, and blind beggars; and with each healing, his reputation grew, and his following. But a tipping point was reached when he summoned his friend Lazarus out of the sepulcher. From that moment, our Lord’s street cred peaked. Listen to the next verses that follow our portion today: “When the great crowd learned that Jesus was at Lazarus’s house, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many were deserting the old religion and were believing in Jesus.”

How to understand that plotting by chief priests whose calling was to serve and celebrate the glory of God? They didn’t recognize the divine glory when it appeared before them. They expected it to reside in the box of the temple in Jerusalem. Instead, the divine presence erupts all across the Judean countryside, especially the villages, especially among the poor, especially among the outcasts and riffraff of society, where God was pleased to dwell. You might say that God’s glory was perfectly camouflaged from the eyes of the chief priests. Like many upright ordained professional leaders of institutional religion, their time was not spent socializing with outcasts. Living inside the box, they thought inside the box.

And very soon, their nemesis will come knocking on the walls of that box, reaching its gates in militant humility, laying siege to the walls of Jerusalem not with an army but with the shekinah, the divine presence and glory, burning within him.

What Rome expected of the chief priests was that they excel at crowd control. Pilgrimage crowds, for example, which offered good cover to radical zealots, as they do to this day. In the first century, as close as one might come to a suicide bombing might be a self-appointed messiah setting up his soap box in the city precincts, calling on Israel to rise up and overthrow the infidel Caesar. That speech would not last long. But that it might happen in the temple precincts, that the speaker might have unusual command of the law and the prophets, that this radical demonstration might command a big restive audience—all that could come home to roost on the chief priests and elders and scribes, all of whom might lose their power and their influence at the discretion of Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea. And so they plot to protect themselves, while simultaneously our Lord’s destiny is being reached by his becoming vulnerable to that very plotting, even by one of his nearest and dearest.

It’s not primarily his own destiny that concerns him. Passover celebrates the action of God calling-forth and gathering-up his people, freeing them from bondage to tyrants, setting them on the world stage as a nation capable of blessing all nations. Jesus knows that the divine glory is breaking down all barriers to the in-gathering of all God’s children, and to that inclusiveness he gives his passion. As if on cue, some Greeks approach the disciples during this festival and announce that they wish to see Jesus. Pharisees are heard slapping their foreheads muttering, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

But I’m getting ahead of our story. Today, this is still a safe house, where Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha live. Martha has prepared one of her signature meals, prefiguring the Last Supper that will soon take place. And Mary has spent an entire year’s wages on a pound of perfume.

Was it she who worried, back on that gracious fateful day, that there was already a stench coming from her brother’s tomb? Now the room fills with the sweet sting of pure nard, the lavish extravagance of this prodigal daughter. She is at the center of this little Gospel story.

What she does prefigures yet more of Holy Week. That she anoints Jesus looks ahead to how he will be anointed for burial. That she anoints his feet calls us to see Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the night of that future supper, the night in which he was betrayed.

In art across the centuries, men usually occupy all the spots at that upper room table. Notice here it is a woman who shows us what discipleship looks like. New Testament scholar Gail O’Day says it so well: “In Mary, then, the reader is given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship in John and the recognition of Jesus’ identity that is the decisive mark of Christian life. The power of the witness of Mary’s discipleship in this story is that she knows how to respond to Jesus without being told. She fulfills Jesus’ love commandment before he even teaches it; she embraces Jesus’ departure at his hour before he has taught his followers about its true meaning… She gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at his hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at his hour.”

She expresses in action what St. Paul expresses in words: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

And then there’s Judas Iscariot. John has us inhale the sweet fragrance of all this devotion, then says, “But…” But Judas, one of the twelve, said by some to be among the closest to Jesus, Judas raises an objection. Why hasn’t someone grabbed that pound of perfume out of Mary’s wasteful hands and sold it to feed the poor?

Which gives the evangelist John his gratifying moment to tell us that Judas was all about Judas, not about the poor.

Reacting sharply to Judas’s blaming Mary, Jesus rebukes him: “Leave her alone. This is her choice, and she has provided for me so generously that it will be enough for the day of my burial. You do understand that this is where we’re heading, don’t you, Judas? A genuine concern for the poor will always be a hallmark of the people of God, and it will be to honor them as God honors them. Mary is honoring me. Are you?”

We must allow ourselves to hear that question asked of us. We are practical souls who plan to spend our time carefully. When Holy Week comes, seven days from today, how generously, like Mary, will we honor our Lord Jesus Christ by our presence at his table Maundy Thursday, in the hours of his passion on Good Friday, and as his church gathers at his empty tomb on Easter Eve?

Will these be expendable moments that just can’t hold a candle to the more pressing things we’ll have to do that week, or will we recognize that it is time to allow ourselves to be anointed yet again by this sweet and precious knowledge that Christ Jesus has made us his own?

(Gail O’Day’s commentary on the Gospel of John is found in Volume IX of “The New Interpeter’s Bible.”)

Friday, March 19, 2010

And Who Are We?

The Gospel appointed for the 4th Sunday in Lent is Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. Also cited in this sermon is Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons”, published by Doubleday, 1992.

“Hey, Dad! Drop dead. I want your money.

“No, not all of it. Give me SOME credit… just my share of the farm.

“Acreage? No use for that. Flocks and herds? Who has time for them? Cash is what I’m after. Some habits cost money, you know! Especially the finer things in life. But you wouldn’t know about that, living in this Godforsaken wilderness…

“I want what’s coming to me, right now.”

So opens what may be the best known of Jesus’s parables. What is a parable? Put it simply, a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Another definition is offered by C. H. Dodd in his book “The Parables of the Kingdom”: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving
the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into
active thought.”

So come, let’s be teased.

Start with the setting. As in real estate, a parable is affected by its location, its context. St. Luke gives it to us like this: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable…”

There were two types of people in that audience. Tax collectors got no respect; they got lots of grief, because they were seen as traitors betraying their people to a greedy Roman empire. If the emperor didn’t do it first, a greedy tax collector would suck the marrow out of your bones. Tax collectors “and sinners”, use your imagination to fill in the blanks of their guilt, get lumped together in this first portion of Jesus’s audience. And they are conscious sinners, aware that they have no right standing, no righteousness, of their own to boast.

The second type in that audience consisted of Pharisees and scribes. The New Testament gives them a bad rap, but scholars tell us that these were educated, progressive, spiritual, influential, powerful community leaders—upright, even if too upright for their own good, trusting in their own righteousness.

If you would be teased by this parable, you must place yourself in one camp or the other. Sinner, or saint? It’s easy to get a bunch of churchfolk admitting that they’re sinners, and of course we’re too modest and honest to call ourselves saints. But come on, who wants to cross the line and sit down with traitors and outcasts, downcast and frowned-upon types, when you could take your proper place among God’s own chosen (if also frozen) people?

Whichever side of the audience you’re in, it’s easy to catch the character of the younger son in this story. One side is likely to give him a more sympathetic hearing than the other, but both will shake their heads at how over-the-top spendthrift he is. That, says my dictionary, is what “prodigal” means: extravagant, wasteful, even lavishly wasteful.

And, as I suggested at the start, it’s this son’s rush to fast-forward to the death of his father that makes his attitude grisly. An inheritance, after all, ought to wait for a death to trigger it. Until then, the farm belongs to Dad. But in this story, Dad chooses not to respond in tough love and tell junior to get a job. Dad decides, not by law but by generosity, to allow junior’s flight to freedom.

Which, we know, is exactly what junior does not find. He spends all that he has. Had there been VISA and MasterCard, he would have kept on spending. He is not unlike many an American before the Great Recession. He lived way beyond his means, and then came the famine. His bad habits and his lack of vision and discipline cost him control of his life. And then came what was even more beyond his power, a bad case of economic collapse.

Sinners in the audience might already have found him a sympathetic figure. I can hear the comments, “Been there… done that…” and “There but for the grace of God…” But are there rumblings of compassion even from the saints? Does this young man’s fall in the recession earn him some mercy? And how about the fact that he does get a job? Are the saints breaking down at all? Ah, they’re a hard bunch…

Maybe it’s when he comes to his senses and realizes how he has traded his birthright for a mess of pottage… Saints love conversion stories. And what a high view of human nature is at work in this story, that this moment of hitting bottom should be described as his coming to himself, as if waking from a long drugged delusional sleep.

But wait… Is he rehearsing a speech to give to his father? Having manipulated his way off the farm, is he now plotting his way back in? O saints, unite and defend this Dad from his ne’er-do-well son!

We find that that’s a lost cause, as we turn to the father and hear in one astonishing sentence, “But while the boy was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” That little speech gets mumbled into the folds of the father’s embrace, a moment that Rembrandt captures in his haunting gorgeous painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. I’ve put a print of this in the display cabinet at the back. Please make that an additional station of the cross to visit today.

How can I describe what Rembrandt sees? The father stands in quiet strength, the son kneels, collapsed in weariness. The father wears rich clothing and a mantle of scarlet, the color of passion and blood, while the boy’s clothes need to be taken and burned. A tattered shoe is on his right foot, but it has no heel; his left foot is bare. The father’s hair and beard are long; the son’s head is shorn, or is it patchy from scabies and bad diet?

But all of that is the outward visible expression. The inward spiritual grace—his yearning for it, his moment of feeling it—we see in just how the boy has laid his face against his father’s chest, or is it even lower, the bowels of compassion mentioned by writers of old.

In one of his books, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “The cry to God as Father in the New Testament is not a calm acknowledgement of a universal truth about God’s abstract ‘fatherhood,’ it is the child’s cry out of nightmare.” Abba! Daddy!

Of Rembrandt’s painting, theologian Henri Nouwen says what we could say about the parable itself: “the painting… contained not only the heart of the story that God wants to tell me, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God’s people. All of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there… (in) a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God… a huge gate that allows me to move to the other side of existence and look from there back into… my daily life.”

And there, on the other side of existence in this story, is the older brother. In the painting, he looms over the scene, but far to the right, in profile so we catch the hard glint off his left eye as he literally looks down on both his brother and their father. His hands are clasped as if he is wringing them. He stands on a platform on a different plane from the reconciliation that is beneath him. In the story he isolates himself from his own flesh and blood, angry, refusing to join them. When his father pleads with him to come in from the cold and celebrate their reunion, the elder brother lets it all rip.

You heard his words. “All these years I haven’t had a life. You pity junior because he wound up a servant—well, I’ve been your slave, never disobeying your command. But when did you give a party for me? This son of yours works his way back into your heart, and you go all out for him. What about me?”

The saints can be hard. Even when his generous father assures him that the whole farm will pass to him, this older brother is still calculating what his young brother has cost him, the net loss from the prodigal’s escapades. Even when his father tries to help him feel this joy of resurrection by turning back his harsh words and turning them around—“this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found,” the story has no more words to say whether he turned the heart of his older boy to his younger brother. As we leave the story, #1 son is stuck, paralyzed, too upright for his own good.

And what do you think of the father? Both sides of the audience think he’s a prodigal too, lavish, extravagant, willing to see his hard work turn to dust as it passes through his younger son’s fingers, all so that the boy will discover what he most values and so find freedom to walk into the embrace of life.

The embrace of God… for doesn’t this story, revolving around this parent, get us thinking about the nature of God? As Jesus tells the story, God is exactly who you want to meet, if you’re a sinner. But those who think they’re righteous may find God difficult to approve.

How have you been teased to active thought by this parable? I invite you to be still with that question, a while.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ablaze with Passion

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 3:1-15; I Corinthians 10:1-13; and Luke 13:1-9

The St. John’s Bible tour bus is on the road. Our first stop today is a desert hillside at Horeb, where Moses is minding his own business, tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep. They’ve just been spooked, and Moses turns to see why.

A bush is blazing, and of course it is: an angel of the Lord is working that thicket, flashing about, trying to catch the attention of Moses, to whom this messenger of God has been sent.

It is tough, the work of an angel. No body to show for it, this kind of being that manifests itself best in the air, but sometimes must land to catch the imagination of near-sighted humans.

But landing is no easy thing. Crashing through the atmosphere is a trip in itself, and the nearer one gets to that crusty surface of earth, the greater the friction as one kind of being slices its way into the realm of the other, the physical. Watch the homeland security alert for angels rise from yellow to orange to red, as even one celestial messenger flashes its way to a landing. Well, more a hovering, as close as an angel gets. And the best this one can find is a thicket, a bush, for heaven’s sake.

Moses’ eye is caught. “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, why this bush burns but is not burned up!”

“Unbelievable!” mutters the angel. “That’s all he can see? How promising can this shepherd be? I know I’m just the messenger… but the Nameless and Holy One does tend to pick the odd ones, little imagination, fearful types… They all need teaching about sacrament, outward and visible signs bearing inward and spiritual grace… But here, this one’s getting close enough for encounter…”

And it is then that the force-field changes. The angel conveys the voice of God, calling by name the gawking shepherd, “Moses, Moses!” And proper introductions follow.

Now, if you don’t cotton to angels, I understand. Even the Bible itself at this point dismisses the angel and has Moses dealing with God directly. I suspect the ancient story tellers would laugh at us, though, for drawing any distinction between God and how God manifests (which can be any way God chooses).

Even as the story changes, I see the fire keep blazing, because the fire is the passion in the belly of God.

Granted, God has no belly… which is why, in the fullness of time, it should be so useful for God to be manifest in one who is both Son of Man and Son of God, Jesus Christ. If one thing is clear from the theological history over the millennia between Moses and Jesus, and in turn over the millennia between Jesus and now, it is that God must reach us through our bellies as well as through our imaginations. Famines must be survived, manna must be found, multitudes must be fed, God’s presence must be revealed as water flows from a rock in the desert, God’s generosity found in the flow of milk and honey, God’s deepest mystery known in the breaking of bread.

But all these affairs of the belly are outward and visible signs of inward spiritual grace, to those with eyes to see and ears to hear and imaginations wide open. And what that inward spiritual power is for, what it yearns and burns to accomplish, is the just and merciful saving of life. That is the fire in the belly of God. In Holy Week, we will see that fire in the passion of Jesus, whose radical preference for the poor advances them in the kingdom of God while simultaneously consigning him to a death sentence.

And in the old days of the Hebrew Bible, nowhere does the passion of God flash more brightly than in the Exodus rescue of Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt, fulfilling God’s promise to make of them a nation that would be a blessing to the world.

But this is the moment, at that place of fiery passion, when God tells Moses, “I need you in order to fulfil my promise. I who am what I am have the fire within me that must light the torches that lead my people through their darkest night and out into freedom—but yours must be the hands that carry this fire, the feet that travel such distance, the presence that confronts evil, and the heart that carries my people.”

Fair warning to us on the Bible tour bus: to stand this close to that burning bush is to hear the same need of God who observes the misery in Haiti, hears the cries from Chile, sees the oppression that perpetuates homelessness and a host of other injuries and injustices right here in this county. And needs our help manifesting presence and passion.

Before Moses could let the holy flame of God burn away the shame and fear and self-preoccupation fueling his resistance (“Who am I that I should go? And what if I don’t know how to do what you give me to do?”)… Before Moses can let all that light of God cross the short vast distance between bush and brain, the first leg of the Exodus… Moses must take off his sandals and spend some time alone with God. He must recognize that the ground of this present moment if holy with grace, power, presence that will be sufficient for every day and every task.

Doesn’t that sound like the invitation of Lent? To take off your shoes and spend time with God-- it’s early enough yet to start one of the Lenten guides at the foot of the aisle—and let God’s light cross that short vast span between source and self, the first and gracious step of renewal.

Putting Out and Letting Go

Scripture appointed for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany include Isaiah 6:1-8; I Corinthians 15:1-11; and Luke 5:1-11

Last Sunday, Jesus escaped an angry crowd in his hometown, Nazareth. They were furious at him because he told them stories they didn’t want to hear, stories in which God gives away his love to foreigners. Incensed, the hometown crowd rushed at him to send him headlong over a cliff, but he somehow slipped through the loopholes of their inefficient rage and went on his way.

And his way would bring him next to Capernaum, a city in Galilee where he performed a number of healings including bringing an old woman through a high fever. The more people he helped, the more people were brought to him, until he had to slip away from the dense pressure of so many needy people.

Then his way brings him today to the lake of Gennesaret, where again a crowd presses in on him, to hear him express the word of God. You will understand why his eyes travel to those two boats offshore. Jesus wants a Plan B.

And the more he considers those boats, the more swiftly they become his first choice for a pulpit. A portable pulpit, one that leaves him free to achieve that critical distance which preaching and teaching, and listening and learning, require. And then he’ll be free to move on. His earlier experience in Nazareth has taught him a thing or two.

It’s Simon’s boat he chooses to get into. Back in Capernaum just days ago, it was Simon’s mother-in-law whom Jesus had visited and brought through that deadly fever. So Simon and Jesus already have a history of grace, though Simon is still new to this generous love that is about to be shown.

Jesus has Simon put out a little way from shore. Jesus must have had a big voice, to teach them from that boat. I don’t imagine they hear him, though, when he turns to Simon and turns his life upside down.

“Put out…” (there’s that phrase again) “into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Sure, Jesus could have spoken loudly enough that the people on shore would hear his words to Simon… but I can’t picture that. That would have been like staging an act, like treating Simon as if he were more a prop than a person. No, I think he spoke quietly and directly to Simon, in a way that Simon would trust—because trust is just what it takes to outweigh logic in this instance. What he has seen at Jesus’s hands already leads him to trust the teacher—but it’s hard, letting go of what logic teaches him.

All night long, Simon and his crewmates have thrown their nets and caught nothing. As Simon is about to tell Jesus, none of them is in any rush to let down their nets any time soon because their own recent experience has taught them that the fish aren’t there.

Anticipating that someone here this morning might wonder about the practice of fishing at night, I consulted my closest commentary and found… nothing on the subject of nighttime fishing. When in doubt, google. And there I learned that here in the U.S., especially in summer, night is the time to fish if you’re after bass, catfish, or carp. And what the Bible commentator did tell me is that two of the three most common fish in the Sea of Galilee are, yes, catfish and carp. Like human beings, catfish and carp would just as soon escape the heat of the day, when they sink down to the deep places, rising at night to do their own feeding, up near the surface. So it’s with a certain authority that Simon could say to Jesus, “Master, if the fish weren’t rising last night, they won’t be rising today.”

I imagine Luke the story-teller relishing this moment. Simon thinks he’s an authority on the topic at hand, but he is clueless as to how much more Jesus knows about things of first importance. Simon deals in fish, but Jesus deals in resurrection. Simon knows how fish rise; Jesus knows how people rise.

And if nighttime represents the realm of human weakness up against the limitations imposed by darkness, if night ultimately symbolizes death, right down to the little dyings we do as each night we surrender consciousness and sink into sleep, then can’t you hear Luke the Gospel-teller setting the stage for Jesus, the light of the world, in full daylight launching the kingdom of God by speaking the Word that can be answered only by trust, not by logic: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

With these words, Jesus turns Simon’s world upside down. Soon, he’ll even be known by a different name, Cephas, the Rock, or Peter as the name is translated. This is the story of his being called to discipleship by Jesus. And the setting isn’t a temple, as in Isaiah this morning when the calling of the prophet happens in an ethereal venue complete with seraphs flying and God sitting upon a throne. Our setting in Luke is a fishing trip, and the divine one is seated on the plank of a small boat bobbing on the Lake of Gennesaret.

One similarity between the divine call of Isaiah to be a prophet and the calling of Simon Peter appears to be God’s penchant for needing and calling not the most capable, or the most qualified, or the most promising candidates. Nothing about young Isaiah or about Simon the fisherman merited or deserved the singling-out that came to each man. We can hear this in their common response of anguished amazement, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…” “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

The Bible’s stories of God calling people to discipleship and leadership demonstrate that the call is to grow and share an interior life, both learning and leading spiritual life. And whether it’s in your household, your career, or your parish, equally, the principles shown by these call stories from Isaiah and Luke are these: Those whom God calls, God equips. And those whom God calls may resist and sputter, and by grace get over it.

Neither of these men thought that he’d won the Lottery. Each knew instinctively that he had been called to a life of service, complete with obstacles, risks… and grace, as each in time would understand and come to utterly rely upon.

But right now for Simon Peter, the Rock is sinking. His own boat is filled to the gunwhales, and so is the boat belonging to James and John, sons of Zebedee. None of them had ever seen the likes of this, and they were beginning not to like the looks of this, as their boats road lower and lower in the water. It is possible to have too much of a good thing.

In terms of the story-telling here, Luke is probably familiar with the metaphor of fishing, common in Greek literature for the activity of philosopher-teachers, where a good catch might be a point well made and readily taken.

In time, Simon Peter might have agreed. What becomes of all those fish we aren’t told. But what becomes of Peter the fisherman we know: his life is turned upside down. In one of my favorite hymns, it’s suggested that these were such “happy simple fisherfolk, before the Lord came down. Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.” It’s then that the hymn says, “Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died. Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified. … The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing—the marvelous peace of God.”

What upends their lives isn’t the catch of fish, isn’t the momentum of the crowds, isn’t even the number of healings they witness and take part in. It is God who turns their lives around by calling them to claim the liberty of that abundant life which they see and feel and receive in Jesus. Through Jesus, God makes them free to serve, free to rise.

He weighs down their boats with fish to catch their attention, convincing them that they will never lack what they need with which to serve. For just a few moments, did it it nearly kill them, discovering that they have to let go of the catch of fish to become free enough to catch people?

Their suddenly gaining the material prosperity of all those fish almost puts them out of their boats, could put out their lives.

Their suddenly losing the material prosperity of all those fish puts them out a lot of money—but this they put out of mind as they recognize what is of first importance.

What happens to Simon and his fishing buddies today frees them to put first things first. In all our gainings of prosperity, in all our losings of prosperity, may we lay claim to the liberty of that abundant life which we see and know in Jesus, who has come not to be served, but to serve.

What Tempts Us

The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Lent is Luke 4:1-13

I opened my Ash Wednesday homily by noticing how, every now and again, we get a vague stirring of spring in the air, in the light, in the smell of the earth. Lent is our season, and that name comes from the same root as “length”, as in the lengthening of days. At this time in the calendar, smelling spring is very much a matter of hopeful anticipation, and the forecast of a snowstorm this week suggests how tentative that looking-forward may be.

I ended my Ash Wednesday homily by urging each of us to decide what kind of Lent we want, and then go for it. Don’t be satisfied with vague stirrings of the heart and tentative movements of the will. Be bold, as our artists have been, creating the Stations of the Cross that surround us here. Welcome a season of purposely growing your faith, your hope, and your love. At the foot of the aisle are daily guides through Lent. By far the best and boldest is Martin Smith’s book A Season for the Spirit. Henri Nouwen’s meditations are there, as well. As bold as these authors are, just reading isn’t what I have in mind when I recommend boldness; but what your reading may lead you into… now that’s where you may want to recall the adage, “Fortune favors the bold.”

And there’s nothing quite like temptation to discourage boldness, or to recklessly exaggerate it. So a good question for today is, “What’s tempting you?”

I notice from the temptations described by St. Luke that it may be the very thing you lack that defines your temptation. Jesus has fasted for forty days, a perilously long time to go without food, and he is famished. What’s the nature of his first temptation? Bread. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Martin Smith, in his book, says that in the early days and weeks of our Lord’s public ministry he was not focused on being Son of God. Rather, he was keen on fulfilling the role of Son of Man. “The True Human Being” might be another way to understand that role. Unless he was fully identified with every reality of being human, Jesus would do us no earthly good as Son of God. There would be no pathway for the grace of God to reach us through a Messiah who didn’t put his sandals on one at a time like the rest of us.

Martin Smith takes us back to our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River, and says, “In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering Heart and Self before God. As soon as Jesus had done that decisively, God flooded him with awareness of his unique relationship as Son and anointed him with the life-giving Breath for his mission.”

Now in the desert, temptation rears its ugly head again with the prospect of his becoming a political Messiah hungry for national (even international) influence and glory, and Jesus recognizes one more category of what he lacks. He doesn’t have that kind of power, nor, as Son of Man, does he want it. (For that reason, I think this temptation is actually weaker than the first… I believe he really could have welcomed that bread.)

If this second temptation sounds vague and tentative, so does the third. Jesus is invited to imagine himself as a snow-less Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, flying down the halfpipe of the Temple parapet, executing a Double McTwist 1260. “It is written, He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” cooes the Great Promoter.

To which Jesus replies, “And it is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus is not called to gravity extreme sport. Rather, says Martin Smith, “To exploit miraculous powers would be to insulate himself from day-by-day dependence on God’s voice, and force him to part company with ordinary men and women struggling to be faithful to a hidden God…. To stand with them means he may never stand over them.”

These three temptations suggest that what we do not have may uniquely and insidiously tempt us. There is Jesus in a barren place, void of civilization, and he has no bread, has no political power, has no need for the limelight. He is hammering-out the balance between being Son of Man and Son of God, and in each temptation what he doesn’t have could cause him to reach in a way that breaks his balance, distorts his nature.

I wonder if we are likelier to face temptation rising from what we do have. Here we are in an abundant life, a well-off society by comparison to so much of the world, many in this room living prosperous lives, even in a recession, in a land still blessed with a flow of milk and honey.

Our daily temptation may be to live within our homes without being thankful for them, without (to echo our first reading) celebrating “with all the bounty that the Lord our God has given to us and to our house.”

Our temptation may be to more quickly undertake home improvements than address homelessness.

Our temptation may be to never see or meet a homeless family, our lives being as well insulated as our homes.

Well, fair warning. Today’s Gospel is neither vague nor tentative in its presentation of Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, the author of our salvation, and the one into whose likeness and stature we are called to grow.

“His surrender to the Spirit of God allows him to break through to the truth that his specialness as the Beloved Son gives him the freedom to take human suffering upon himself and to be the Servant of all.”

His church, his people, have the same calling. You might say that our calling is to hammer-out the balance between loving obedience to the Son of God and loving obedience to the Son of Man.
Our Lenten mission focus on homelessness in North Berkshire is a step in responding to that call. It’s one that our children are hearing, and they’re leading us to be bold in answering.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Glory, Glory!

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; and Luke 9:28-36

We hear about two kinds of glory today. One is fading glory. The other is transforming glory. I suppose you could say that it’s the first that brings us to church. And it’s the second we hope to find here.

Fading glory by its nature looks backward. Consider Moses. Every time he and God had a tete a tete conversation on Mount Sinai, Moses came down to the people with such radiance beaming from his face that he caught their attention and held it. But, says St. Paul in a rather catty way, the day came when that glory faded and, to keep the people from noticing, Moses took to wearing a veil over his face. Approval ratings hang on appearances, don’t they?

And consider Peter, John, and James. They’re present when transformation strikes on another holy mountain. “The Transfiguration of Jesus”, it’s called, and the moment makes you picture the aurora borealis in all its glory, and then some. Helpless (and who likes feeling helpless?) and clueless in the face of such evanescent glory, these three boys propose a small building project to capture the moment. Which, of course, cannot be done. Fading glory won’t be captured.

I’m wondering how many of us came through these doors today with a case of fading glory. The first cold of the new year (that was my week that was)… the demands of our workplace… frustrations and fears within the nuclear family (and let’s not even talk about the extended family)… disillusionment at how our federal legislators seem more helpless and clueless than Peter, John, and James (who at least offer to build something that isn’t located in their own congressional districts)…

And would it be about right to say that we, like Moses, know how to veil our fading glory? “How are you today?” “Fine, and you?” Our own little private version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”— self-protecting, subtly isolating, a veil we lift very selectively, when we believe we’re safe to do so (sometimes mistakenly).

If fading glory helps get us to church, it’s nothing we should have to hide. The first law of spiritual physics that we learn in the Foundations Course is the Renewal-Outreach model, the simple rule that human beings require a regular rhythm of cycling between (on the one hand) giving ourselves to the work of Christ in workplace, family, and community and (on the other) renewing ourselves in our baptismal identity and purpose, bathing ourselves in the mercy and healing of God.

In our second session of Foundations tomorrow evening, we’ll examine the Baptismal Covenant, that set of renunciations, affirmations, and vows which create the holy space where we may re-immerse ourselves in renewal of vision, identity, and grace.

If you will recall the last infant baptism you witnessed, you’ll find familiar a pair of questions asked of the Godparents and parents, “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?” And the second question is yet more staggering and wondrous: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”

The Christian faith never expects us to make vows trusting in our own ability to keep them. To get that wrong is the surest path to a fading glory. Always, the Christian answers, “I will, with God’s help.”

The maturing Christian accepts responsibility for bringing up in faith, hope, and love that self who was once the responsibility of parents and Godparents. The maturing Christian staggers with wonder into that transformation of a limited human self into the full stature of Christ. The language of our vows teaches us that if we have the will to so grow, the will to be so transformed, God helps it happen. And we learn that God doesn’t sweep away our human limitations, but sweeps them into the mix, which is shown in our Collect today: “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of Jesus’s countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” No cross-- no struggle with our own limitations and those of other people and those of this world—no cross, no transforming glory.

This is not a spectator’s sport, not the Olympic performance of a gifted few. This is the life of the Spirit opened by Jesus Christ for participation by all who have the will to seek the grace to walk the rhythmic walk that cycles between outreach and renewal, work and prayer, mission and repair, embracing in ministry and being embraced in mercy.

Here I am, nearing the home stretch in this sermon; we’d better turn our attention to transforming glory. If fading glory looks backward, transforming glory moves forward. If fading glory gets us in the door, within this house of prayer and time of worship aren’t we hoping for at least a trace of transforming glory? Better yet, a solid dose of it here in this holy space where we may re-immerse ourselves in renewal of vision, identity, and grace?

But wait… those were the same words I chose, moments ago, to describe the Baptismal Covenant that shapes our relationship with God. I referred to those several renunciations of evil, affirmation of faith, and vows of our baptism having created a holy space. So what we do here in this space is related to what you do in yours. Transforming glory may touch you from here. But you may touch what we do here with the transforming glory that meets you in the holy crucible of your life. And if you aren’t meeting it there, maybe you won’t recognize it here.

In our second lesson, Paul prepares us for the encounter wherever it will happen. And he tells us first to lift our veils. Take off your coats, take down your self-protection, lay down denial, be honest, be open. He might also invite us to slip off our self-absorption, and offer up our mirrors for a thorough cleaning, the mirrors we adjust ourselves in, the ones we check to make sure we’re still alive, still recognizable.

Then listen to what he says: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit…and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

Catch this stunning message: Your mirror may show you a fading glory, and you must lay it down for a thorough cleaning. But the Lord Jesus is not scolding you for needing that mirror. Wondrous thing: when you lift your veil, you will see him meeting you there within the reflected image—“as though reflected in a mirror” you will meet transforming glory within your own experience, within your own limitations, walking your own walk, dealing with your own issues.

For he knows them all. It is written somewhere in the Gospels that he has no need to be instructed about human nature, for he knows what is in the heart. His way of the cross makes clear that he is no stranger to the forces that would fade all glory.

As we step into Lent this week, we will walk the way of the cross both here and there, in the sacred space of our own lives. Walking and praying the stations of the cross, as we shall do from Wednesday on, we will find him walking our way, as well. Looking into each of the fourteen stations of his passion, we will find mirrors along the way, where his likeness meets our own reflection. May the closeness of the two—of him with us and us with him—strengthen our will to be open to transforming glory.