Monday, March 23, 2015

His Passion Is for Us

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

I want to dispel two rumors. One is that I have given up preaching for Lent. But I will tell you how much I have enjoyed doing what you do on Sundays, listening attentively to someone other than myself, someone who has already listened attentively to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. I have enjoyed lying fallow these past two Sundays. I have gratefully received the gift of first Ben’s, then Steve’s preaching. I could get used to this. But, on the other hand, as St. Paul put it, “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.” And I know what he means.

The second rumor I’m here to dispel is that I have asked the Vestry for a 65-million- dollar jet to fulfill my responsibilities as a pastor. It’s tempting, but I’m not sure Harriman Airport is ready for that; and to overshoot that runway in takeoff would indeed put me right at the doors of several parishioners, but not constructively.

Pastor Creflo Dollar—and isn’t truth stranger than fiction, for the man is well named—complains that his current jet has been in and out of the shop for repairs over the past thirty years. I can relate to that. If I had accumulated the dollars I’ve spent fixing the cars I’ve driven over the past three decades, it would be a tidy sum. Though there have been unexpected secondary gains: I would never have met the fascinating array of mechanics who have displayed their own brand of pastoral care (including the mother of two of them, whose coffee and biscotti can’t be beat), nor would I have ever finished reading “High Tide in Tucson” or any of the other waiting room books I’ve kept handy for such vigils.

Speaking of reading, I’ve had an experience in the week just past, assigning parts to sixteen parishioners who have volunteered to help read the Palm Sunday Gospel in Many Voices. That’s eight readers per service. The approach we’ve used has been to provide a sign-up sheet with the number of spaces that correspond to the number of parts to be filled. That has seemed wiser than listing the parts; who’s in a rush, after all, to fill the role of Judas Iscariot, and, for that matter, how many takers do we expect for the key part, Jesus? Wiser, it seems, to find out who’s up for the adventure in general, then get specific. Whether this approach is fairer isn’t so obvious. One might sign up, hoping for a plum part, only to be cast as a heavy. Such, I suppose, is show business. It is, for sure, how church business gets done via servant ministry, the first being last and the last first.

Having this task on my to-do list has given me the opportunity to reconsider who these people in the Passion Gospel are, and what they’re expressing. It is the Church’s task to hear what the Spirit is saying through this passionate story that fills the crucible of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, year after year, unaltered except for how it is read and who it is who reads it. The words, the actions, remain the same over nearly two thousand years of hearing.

And I hasten to add actions, not only words, because no sooner had I matched parts with readers, relishing the completion of that task, than it dawned on me that there was one more part to fill: at the 10:00 service, our custom calls for a nearly life-sized cross to be brought up the aisle to the altar. I had almost succumbed to a basic temptation: imagining the Passion of Christ without his cross, expressing the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, at a discount, discounting the hard news of Good Friday, when the incomprehensible love of God comprehends all loss.

So we will have this story full, action as well as words. And the fullest part, at least in terms of air time, is the Evangelist, the Gospel writer St. Mark, who narrates the action, setting the stage for each of the readers in turn.

The first whose voice we will hear is Jesus. Instantly, we are drawn in, literally inward, to our Lord’s interior experience of all that is happening to him, through him, in the vortex of outward actions penning him in like a sheep in the shearing pen. First, we hear him pray. Moments later, he shakes Peter out of sleep. Temptation is at work all around. Peter, James, and John have escaped into sleep, avoidance, denial.

Our Lenten journey began with the signing of the cross on our foreheads, calling us to pay attention to reality and to give obedience to God. Jesus’s Lenten journey began in the desert, where he mastered those arts of attention and obedience.

But no sooner is the inner core of disciples discovered sleeping, than Judas actively betrays his master. Insidiously, his kiss signals which man it is to be seized in this dark garden. Could there be a greater perversion of justice, that a sign of love should abuse the One who embodies perfectly the love of God? Notice that history does not judge only that ragtag police force in the garden of Gethsemane for the violence they inflict wrongfully: History judges also the Church for falling asleep at the switch, neglecting the requirements of justice, allowing the perfidy of Judas. Judas, disappointed by the kind of Messiah Jesus is, tired of the servanthood message, itching to advance his own political zeal; Judas, the undoer of Jesus, comes undone by the same temptations his master resists.

A high priest is heard next, filling the role of Jesus’s Grand Inquisitor. Here is where every member of the clergy ought to tremble, from Fr. Elvin to Pastor Dollar to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Each a kept person, tempted not to rock the boat or bite the hand that feeds. The laity who profess and practice faith are no less accountable for how they represent God in the world. Nor are they less susceptible to the temptation not to disturb the status quo of whatever it is that keeps them, their career, their social set, their family, their country— whatever we defend, right or wrong, unthinking, uncritically.

A servant-girl will be heard. She identifies Peter as a disciple of Jesus. A more mature post-resurrection Peter would know how to welcome such a moment as this. But in the build-up to Good Friday, temptation is all about yielding to fear, and he does.

But the voice of the servant girl is thought to be the voice of social prejudice. Peter’s accent gives him away as a Galilean, and her dark role is to profile him based on appearances. How ancient is this temptation, to judge someone’s otherness, assume him blameworthy, diminish his humanity, expose him to ethnic cleansing.

And all of this is about to happen full-bore to Jesus, who now appears before Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea. But the title neither impresses nor intimidates Jesus, who refuses to answer Pilate’s questions.

After witnessing this encounter, we will stand for the final third of this story, which keeps escalating in intensity. Over and again, we hear voices punctuate the narrative, catapulting heavy boulders of harsh judgment against Jesus— and they’re our voices! It’s as if we’re rehearsing yielding to the temptation to project onto the innocent one all the spleen and blame that fuels scape-goating, all our swallowed rage at a lousy economy, failed leadership, the scourge of brutality, corruption in high places. Wholesale helplessness.

One more voice will be heard, the last word, a word of truth and sanity from a least likely fellow, a Roman centurion, the officer in charge of this public execution. In one sense, he assesses the loss the world has just experienced in this unjustifiable punishment. But to the ears of those hearing what the Spirit is saying, the centurion ‘s verdict is the seed from which the green blade rises: “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

And is, his people respond. Though that response will not appear in the script,the very action, the annual rendition of the Passion Gospel in Many Voices, recognizes that his story addresses our temptations, trains us to pay attention to our own reality, calls us to give our hearts’ obedience to the One whose passion is for us, for the world and its salvation.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lift High the Cross

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

March 1st. We’re on the right side of winter. One week from today, Daylight Saving Time begins. Can summer be far behind? But let’s have spring first! The Spring Equinox is Friday, March 20th. And we’re due for snow, today, tomorrow, and the next day.

Against the constantly changing backdrop of seasons and forecasts, Christians affirm the constancy of God’s love for us in the Anointed One, Jesus Christ, a love experienced in our spirits’ engagement with the Holy Spirit. We read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Regardless of the weather, the month, or the day.

The sign of that utterly dependable continuity is the cross. Life in Christ begins with the imposing of that sign of new life, on the forehead, in the water and oil of Holy Baptism. On Ash Wednesday, ashes, the final form of last year’s palms from the Sunday of our Lord’s Passion, reduced by fire, trace the same baptismal sign in the same baptismal spot. When healing is sought, the sacrament of unction brings the same sign to bear upon that site, outward anointing conveying inward anointing by the Spirit of God.

And, one day, that sacramental sign may be made upon the forehead for the last time as the Christian, dying, affirms radical continuity, commending human spirit into the carrying and keeping of Jesus Christ. When death reduces a believer’s body to its basic carbon components, earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, the sign of the cross is traced again as a handful of earth is released on casket or urn, using even the humus of decay to declare the utter constancy of God’s love for humankind, one by one.

The Church’s consistent use of the cross—and I’ve mentioned only a few garden-variety examples—reminds and teaches and expresses what St. Paul names in his Letter to the Romans today: God’s promises rest on grace and are guaranteed to be far more generous and all-embracing than we can imagine. “It depends on faith,” says Paul without quite making clear what “it” is, so we’re free to consider that “it” might be our comprehending, our imagining: Unless our imagining is shaped by our faith, we won’t grasp that each of us is grasped by God in Christ through the Spirit. It’s all so amazing, Paul says, as he alludes to the Abraham and Sarah saga to demonstrate how God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

“It’s enough to let you hope against hope!” Paul exclaims; Like Abraham, he reminds us.

And in that spirit of extravagant grace, the Church keeps making the sign of the cross over us, even when we present flimsy evidence that we truly get what it means, that cruciform sign of hope and faith and love. A bishop makes it on the forehead of each person she confirms, however promising, however ignited, however committed. The sign of the cross appears at the top of each priest’s certificate of ordination, reminding him that this calling is not to proclaim himself, but Christ crucified and risen. And when a couple kneels to receive God’s blessing in holy matrimony, there is a hoping against hope that this union will continue generating and sustaining life, so help them God.

The Gospel moment we witness today has Jesus expressing to his disciples openly the role that the cross will play in his life, and in theirs. Peter scolds him for discouraging their devotion, rebukes him for daring to imagine such an outcome as the one Jesus confidently foretells. “It’s enough to make us go back to our fishing nets!” Peter says, more or less.

Last week, we heard about temptations Jesus faced. Here, his disciples are tempted to imagine not the radical continuity of Christ and what that will mean to them, but rather their brand of continuity, keeping alive their delight in him, their thrill at having important work to do, their Robin Hood and his Merry Men spirit that they’re not going to yield freely.

To this, Jesus is said by Mark to have scolded Peter. But does he call Peter Satan, or is Jesus clearly seeing this moment as one more of Satan’s wily returns to erode his mission? For certain, Jesus summons Peter (and the rest of us) to set the mind on divine things. And, within moments of that, he urges them to take up their cross and follow him.

If you’d like to know where the custom of making the sign of the cross comes from, here is the Gospel answer: It is a way to set your mind on divine things. It is also a way to receive what God offers. There are at least eight moments in the Holy Eucharist when tradition says, “Here is an important moment to set your mind on divine things. Here is a ripe moment to intentionally receive what God is offering.

The first is at the very start. As Maria sings in “The Sound of Music”, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…” It’s in the ABCs of liturgy that the opening salutation always gives us a moment to set the mind. Find your worship leaflet, page one, at the salutation, and notice how a Lutheran salutation we’re using this Lent reminds people of the custom of signing themselves with the cross. Yes, that’s Lutheran. No, the Roman Catholics do not have the property rights on this custom.

What’s the interior meaning of the custom? It’s a prayer without words, but if we were to add the words, they would be, “God be in my mind, God be in my heart, God be in my weakness, God be in my strength.”

And what’s the house rule for such matters as this? All may… none must… some should. That’s the Anglican rule regarding religious practice in general.

A second moment in liturgy comes earlier in our Lenten order than in the rest of the year: The absolution that follows our prayer of confession is an example of God offering you something that deserves conscious receiving. At any point while the celebrant is announcing persuasive good news that your bacon has been hauled out of the fire by our Savior Jesus Christ, making the sign of the cross is in order.

A third moment is just before the reading of the Gospel. The fact that the Gospel reader troops down the aisle is a give-away that something good is on offer. It’s customary to welcome the Gospel by making a threefold sign of the cross on forehead, lips, and heart. I’ll bet that barely needs explaining, but the lips part is a key: for the Word we welcome to influence our talk, it must first land in the heart.

A fourth moment comes at the close of the Creed. This is another example of setting the mind on divine things. Having recited such a mouthful as the Nicene Creed, describing the Church’s faith and hope more fully than many of us might agree with or claim we understand, it’s good to deal with that sense of “Whew!” by the nonverbal prayer of the cross that lets us cast our care, our faith, and our questions upon God.

Fifth, near the end of the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…”) comes a verse that is meant to recall us to the city gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Custom invites making the sign of the cross on that word “Blessed.”

Sixth is a moment well into the prayer at the altar when bread and wine are consecrated to their sacramental purpose. That purpose is named, right after the Holy Spirit is invoked to come upon these gifts of bread and wine: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” In that moment, so reminiscent of baptismal mystery, we recognize that we have unity with God and one another as gift, and the gift is being replenished. This is another time to intentionally receive what is being offered.

Two more remain. One is obvious: After receiving the bread and the wine.

And the last is hard to miss: When the blessing is declared, it deserves to be caught, received, welcomed.

Why adopt an ancient custom, one that may feel unfamiliar? In the first half of this sermon, I mentioned seven instances of the sign of the cross made upon or over us, as it happens, by clergy: Important times of transition, rites of passage, times we couldn’t imagine the sign of the cross not being made.

In the second half of this sermon, we’ve considered eight moments when everyone may exercise this practice (remembering that all may, none must, some should). These eight are expressions of the priesthood of all believers, a truly Protestant principle if ever there was one.

With that in mind, why not experiment with this ancient custom? Rather than adopting it, try it for a season and see what it gives you. Don’t grade yourself as to how many of those seven moments you can remember—use the moments you do remember, to set your mind on divine things, to welcome and receive what God is giving you.

Christian worship, Christian practice, is sacramental. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

Though unearned and undeserved, that love of God does not make us passive bystanders. Making the sign of the cross is one humble way of receiving, responding, to God. One more way to pray with the body, without words.