Monday, February 29, 2016

You Can't Mess This Up

There once was a stormtrooper named FN-2187, but his friends called him Finn, and he was called to stand up to a great evil, but he was terrified, certain that he knew that he and his friends would fail.  

Finn, a former Stormtrooper, becomes a hero.

There was a hobbit named Frodo, who was charged with a sacred quest, to destroy one of the most powerful artifacts ever created, even though he refused the quest initially, afraid that he, a simple hobbit, could not possibly achieve such a goal. 

Frodo Baggins and the One Ring.

And there was a lion named Simba, who had run away from home out of shame, but then his home fell into disarray under the rule of his uncle Skar, and when an old friend found Simba and urged him to return home and take his rightful place as king, Simba put his paws up and refused.  

Simba reluctantly returns home to assume his place as king.

Who was Simba take on such the awesome responsibilities of being King of Pride Rock?  Who was Frodo to be entrusted with the One Ring?  Who was Finn to stand up against a great evil like the First Order?

If you’re familiar with Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, or the Lion King you know the stories of these brave heroes. (Apologies to those who don't and just wasted your time reading the first portion of this blog!)  It’s a common story, an ancient story—someone to whom society pays little attention, or who is seriously lacking in self-confidence, is given a call, a purpose, a mission, to undertake something bigger than themselves for the sake of others.  In the case of Finn, Frodo, and Simba, they each initially refused the call issued to them—“Who am I?” they said.  But in the end, with some encouragement from those around them, they proved to be heroes and lived into their call. 

In the lectionary on Sunday we met the greatest hero of the Hebrew Testament—Moses.  This guy is far from the model for a hero.  He’s a murderer, having killed an Egyptian that he saw harassing one his fellow Israelites, and he’s a coward, having fled from the wrath of Pharaoh and settling in the land of Midian.  We find him this day tending the flock of his father-in-law near a mountain called Horeb, or Sinai as it will be called later in the story.  This is hardly the stage for the calling of a great hero, and yet that is exactly what happens. 

Like those other heroes, Mosses is taken off-guard by his call, which comes from a bush that is burning but not consumed.  In the midst of the fire is a voice, and when Moses hears it, he hides his face out of fear.  For anyone who is ever called to a higher purpose, this is generally the very first response:  fear. 

An artist's rendering of the call of Moses.

The voice is that of the God of Moses’ ancestors, the God of Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.  This God has heard the cry of Moses’ own people—the people from whom he ran away—and is charging Moses, this cowardly nobody, with the task of liberating these people.  And Moses’ response is the same as all those other heroes:  who am I?  Who am I that I should go to Pharoah, he says.  Who, indeed?

This question holds a lot of power.  It keeps us in-check, prevents our egoes from getting out of hand.  But it can also cripple us, hold us back from saying yes to something new in our lives.  Perhaps it’s because of our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, the very elements of our lives that we take time to recognize during this season of Lent.  Who am I?  Who am I to stand and preach on a Sunday morning?  Who are the lectors, that they should proclaim God's Word?  Who are the Eucharistic ministers, that they should share the Cup of Salvation with us?  Who are any of us, that we should come into the presence of Almighty God and dare to be the people God is calling us to be?  

There is a wonderful animated movie Prince of Egypt, which does a remarkable job at retelling the story of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrew people.  This particular scene—the call of Moses—is, for my money, the best scene in the movie.  I'll let it speak for itself here: 

Moses is called by God in Prince of Egypt.

The very one who calls Moses is the very one who gave him life, who crafted the world from nothing, who holds all time and all things.  This is the one, as Anselm of Canterbury said, "of whom nothing greater can be thought."  This is the one calling Moses to this new life. But it isn’t that Moses will go and do all these things.  God will do them, using Moses' hands and feet and voice to liberate God's people.  

Who is this God, Moses inquires.  The response is not entirely clear.  The words “I AM”, all capitalized, show up three times in the text.  In the first the Hebrew is “ehyeh asher ehyey” (I am who I am), the sceodn time it’s simply “ehyeh” (I am), and the third it’s “yhwh” (the one who is causing to be).  There is an ambiguity there, Moses does not get to know the name of this god, for if he knows the name then Moses will have a degree of authority over God.  Instead, the answer to Moses’ question is a phrase that can be translated anything from “I AM” to “the one who has been, is being, and will always be into enternity.”  The point is that the one who calls Moses is the supreme being of all the universe, it is not Moses himself who undertakes the call, but this God, the God who was, is, and ever shall be, who will go with him and work through him.  And we all know how this story ends.   It ends with Moses being a hero.

Being called into a new venture is scary.  The response can easily be the same as Moses, or as Finn, Frodo, or Simba.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of failure.  A sense of inadequacy.  Who am I to do this?  Such a response, though, is actually quite self-centered.  Because it makes the call about ourselves.  I can’t do this.  I don’t have what it takes.  What we forget is that it isn’t about us; in fact, NOTHING is about us!  It’s about God. All of it!  It’s about the one who was, is, and ever shall be.  That One, the only One, is at the heart of everything we do, every place that we are called, every new venture that is set before us, every relationship that we find ourselves in.  It all flows from this One.  The One who is causing to be, is the one who causes the Holy Spirit to stir us up and push us out into the world, into the unknown, into glory.  

Who are you?  You're God's beloved child, just like Moses, broken and frightened, but your God's.  The call to be someone new or go someplace new may be fearful, but it is God who is calling you.  And you know what the best part is?  You can't mess it up.  You really can't!  There is nothing you can do to mess it up because God is in it. God has already worked out the plan of salvation for this world. You cannot, no matter how hard you try, derail that plan. You can't upend God's plans for this world, and you can't get in God's way. Because, as Paul tells the church in Corinth, 'God is faithful.'  Then and now. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. So relax, take up your walking stick like Moses did and make that first step into whatever God is calling you to, and hold on tight because God is going to do take you someplace incredible and do with you more than you ever thought possible.  Who knows?  You might end up a hero.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

As a Hen Gathers Her Brood

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!  The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!"
--Luke 13: 34

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem you’ll find the Church of Dominus Flavit, the Church of the Lord’s Weeping.  It’s in the shape of a teardrop and overlooks the city; in fact, if you look at my Facebook page you’ll see that my cover photo is taken from inside the church, looking through a window behind the altar and out onto the city, where the remains of the Temple, the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are visible.  

Behind the altar of The Church of Dominus Flavit.  The Temple Mount can be seen in the background.

The site commemorates this moment, when Jesus weeps over the city and laments, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.  Actually, there is a mosaic on the alter of Dominus Flavit showing a hen gathering her chicks, piercing her breasts so that they can feed on her blood. 

There is so much pain in Jesus’ voice, so much disappointment that the very people to whom he has come preaching forgiveness and love have rejected him.  That pain runs deep, as prophet after prophet has been denied or killed by the same people.  It is a pain that is still visible when you look just outside the Dominus Flavit Church and see barbed wire, used to keep unwanted folks out, or when you look to the west and see Bethlehem far off in the distance behind the separation wall.  Amazingly, it is this place, a place that has never truly known any kind of peace, that God chose as a dwelling place and keeps coming back to, and over which Jesus weeps. 

Barbed wire just outside of The Church of Dominus Flavit on the Mount of Olives.

Why did he weep?  Maybe because Jerusalem served as a microcosm of the whole world—since in ancient times it was actually believed to be the geographic center of the world; there is still a marker inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Jerusalem was the place where all folks--not just Jews gathered.  It was diverse, but it was also full of pain.  Jerusalem had corruption, it had violence, it had oppression of the Other.  It still has all of those things.  So does the world.  When Jesus weeps for Jerusalem he doesn’t just weep for the city God loves, he weeps for the whole world that God loves, a world full of sin, where people worship their own needs and pay more attention to what the world values than what God values.  These are the kinds of folks of whom Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, "their god is the belly," meaning that they honor only those appetites of the flesh, instead of the higher purposes that God has for them.

We have, all of us, been enslaved by sin. Some of us can casually shake them off, treat them as if they’re no big deal, but for others they can weigh pretty heavy on us.  This is especially the case for those of us coming from traditions that focus more on our own wretchedness and sinfulness, rather than God's abounding love and mercy.  Maybe we made a decision years ago that has affected where we are today, and that decision haunts us.  Maybe we find ourselves stuck in a rut, and we think it’s because God is punishing us for something we did.  Maybe we hurt someone we care about, and we don’t know how to ask for forgiveness.  Maybe we just don’t believe that we are loveable, that God could possibly love someone like me. We’ve all been there, weighed down by sin in all of its twisted forms.  And if we say we haven’t, we’re lying. 

But there is good news in all of this.  Paul reminds the people of Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven.”  Philippi was a Roman colony.  All around those folks were reminders of the power and prestige of Rome, but Paul reminds them that it is not Rome that is the great power and authority over this world, and it is not Rome to whom they belong.  They belong to the place where the King of Kings rules with sacrificial love, not wealth and military might.  That is where they belong. 

It’s where we belong too.  And it’s all because of the love that Jesus has for each and every one of us.  It’s the same kind of love that he showed when he wept over Jerusalem, wanting to bring the whole city, and the whole world, into his loving arms.  He has, in fact, done just that.  Like the hen with her chicks under her wings, he has brought the whole world into himself--those who believe in him and those who do not.  For those of us who know him as our Lord, he has fed us with his own blood, as that hen fees her chicks.  His blood has nourished us, brought us forgiveness, and given us hope that, too, are citizens of something so much bigger than this world.   

We can easily dwell on our own sins and beat ourselves up.  It is especially easy to do so during Lent, a time when many of us feel like all we are meant to do is beat our breasts and wail and lament.  We could hold on to our sins and let them eat away at us.  We can hold others’ sins against them and refuse to show compassion toward them.  Or we can hold on to the truth that Jesus loves us.  You, me, them.  Everybody.  Yes, the world is full of sin, and yes we will fall over and over again.  In our baptismal vows we say that we will promise to repent and return to the Lord, not if we fall into sin, but when. But just as God kept coming back to Jerusalem, so Jesus keeps coming back to us.  He does not quit on the people he loves.  And he asks us not to quit on him, nor on one another.  To forgive even unto "seventy times seven."  To keep coming back.  As he keeps coming back.  

It goes against all logic.  Who could possibly come back over and over again?  Who could love THAT much?  Wouldn't Jesus, at some point, just say that he's done with us miserable, horrible sinners?  It doesn't make sense. But that’s the gospel, brothers and sisters.  It turns the world on its head, and while it may not make sense when we really think about it, it is the hope that we cling to.  No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done,  you are more than the worst thing you have done.  You are more than your sins.  You are beloved.  Beloved children of God.  And for that reason above all others, Jesus loves you.  All you have to do is live your life like you know it’s true.  

The mosaic on the altar of Dominus Flavit showing a hen feeding her chicks with her blood.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Driven Into the Wilderness

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil."
--Luke 4: 1-2a

I was out to dinner with a group of people in a non-church setting a few nights ago and got asked one of those priestly questions.  Out of the blue one of the folks I was with blurted out:  so Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness…why did it happen after his baptism?!  This is what I like to call a coffee hour question:  it’s a clerical question that you get asked in a social setting, and it usually catches you off-guard.  I gave this person an answer, but I wasn't sure whether or not it was the right one. After sitting with this gospel through the week, however, I’ve decided that the same answer I gave to that person at dinner is the same one I’m going to give y’all.  

An eastern mural's depiction of the Temptation of Jesus.

We find Jesus having just been baptized by John. God has declared him as God’s Son, and he is driven into the wilderness, filled with the Holy Spirit.  It is out there in the wildnerness that he encounters the devil.  The word here is diabalus, which is used for devil, demon, enemy, or accuser.  It’s not capitalized, so this is not meant to be the end-all-be-all devil with a vibractated tail and carrying a hay fork.   This is an enemy of God, whose sole purpose is to stand between Jesus and God, to distract him from what God wants him to do, and to entice him to follow, not God’s will, but the will of mortals. 

So Jesus is presented with three temptations:  the first is to always have his fill.  Jesus has been fasting out there in the desert and is no doubt famished.  Turn the stones to bread, the devil says, and you’ll never be without.  Jesus refuses.  The next temptation is to have authority over nations. The devil takes him on a mountain and brags that all of these kingdoms are his and could be Jesus’ if only Jesus worships him.  Jesus refuses.  And lastly the devil uses Scripture—Psalm 91 to be exact—to convince Jesus that if he tests God and jumps off the pinnacle of the temple that God will save him.  Jesus refuses.  Three temptations:  to always be filled, to have authority over others, and to put God to the test. 

Brothers and sisters, these three temptations, these three devils—if you will—are still very much alive in the world.  We experience them regularly.  We are often tempted by a consumer-driven society that tells us we need more and more, and that if we get more, we'll finally satisfy our hunger.  Get just the right amount of money and material possessions, and we won't hunger for anything anymore, including God.  We see the temptation to power and prestige, as well, especially in our presidential candidates. Just look at what that ambition for power has done to these folks!  Meanwhile, we are tempted to look out only for ourselves, for our own family, friends, and church brethren, and to forget everybody else.  That's a temptation to lord over others.  And every single one of us has given in to the temptation to test God. We've all prayed to God to give us something, and we've all tried making a deal with God (“if you give me this, I’ll do that for you.”).  These temptations haven’t gone anywhere.  They’re still here, they’re still lurking, they’re all around us, constantly poking and prodding at us, doing anything possible to turn our attention away from God, away from God’s promise of love and mercy. 

This, I believe, is why Jesus was tempted after his baptism.  Jesus’ baptism was his first public act in his ministry—at least in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  All three of them say that he went immediately into the desert to face these temptations.  Why now?  Why not when he was younger and may have been more prone to give in to the devils’ offers?  Perhaps it is because baptism—that public action—was the agent that drove him out there, and that Spirit that filled him was the same Spirit that rested on him as a dove and called him “My Son.”  Jesus was tempted after his baptism because this sequence of events in his life mirrors our own. 

We are baptized not for the purpose of staying in the church where it is safe and friendly.  We are baptized for the purpose of being driven out by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness of this world.  It is a world that is full of temptations, full of devils that seek to undermine the love and mercy of God in our lives.  It is a world that offers us a quick fix for our problems, a world that says we should gain power for ourselves at the expense of others, and a world that tries convincing us that it understands the mind of God when, in fact, it’s as bad at interpreting the meaning of Scripture as that devil was to Jesus when he missed the point of Psalm 91.  In spite of those temptations, though, we, like Jesus, have been filled with the Holy Spirit.  We, like Jesus, face temptation after temptation everyday.  The devils, they come and go-waiting for an opportune time to return—but they do not succeed.  They cannot succeed.  Not so long as we are led by the Holy Spirit, who calls us God’s Sons and Daughters, and empowers us to face those devils head-on.  

This occurs, though, when we see church for what it really is:  the dress-rehearsal for the rest of our lives!  Church is not a country club that occasionally mentions Jesus.  It's not a gathering of like-minded individuals who've all be baptized and saved and who come together to sing songs and have pot-lucks.  Church is a collection of the broken, yet redeemed Body of Christ, called to go out into the wilderness and offer the message that will satisfy the hunger this world faces, so that we may bring the broken into our communities of faith.  But this can only happen if we let the Spirit drive us out.  It is scary to step out of our comfort zone, but I suspect Jesus was scared by it, as well.  With him as our guide, and with the Spirit driving us, we can, in fact, face that scary world and transform it!

Jesus had choices. He could have stayed put and gone back to Nazareth after his baptism.  He could have given in to those devils and put his own needs ahead of those of God.  He could have sought only his own power and prestige, but he chose to live out there in the wilderness, to be a man without a place to lay his head,  and to take the position of a servant, so that we might know what real leadership looks like.  We have those choices, too.  Do we stay cooped up in our cozy church and look out only for ourselves?  Or do we let the Spirit lead us into the cold, frightening wilderness, into the unloving and unforgiving world, so that, like our Lord, we can share the Good News of our all-loving and all-forgiving God?  The choice is ours. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Welcome to Lent

"Jesus said, 'Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So, whenever your give alms, do not sound the trumpet before you...But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret...And whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret...And when you fast put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.'"
--Matthew 6: 1-6, 16

Several years ago, when I had just entered the ordination process and was working as a youth minister, I learned that there are two days in our Episcopal calendar in which we are encouraged to fast:  Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. So I decided I would fast on Ash Wednesday, thinking it would bring me some kind of spiritual clairvoyance. My rector asked me that day if I wanted to go to lunch, but I said, 'No thanks, I'm fasting.'  I expected her reaction to be, 'Good for you,' or something to that effect.  Instead she cocked her head and said, 'Why would you do that?!' I didn't have an answer for her.  'All its gonna do, ' she said, 'is make you sick.  'God doesn't want you to make yourself sick.'

What a wonderfully prophetic voice she was!  It had not occurred to me that fasting would give me headaches, make me tired, and leave me unable to do the work God had called me to do.  So if I wasn't going to fast from food all day, what WAS I going to do?  It was then that I realized I had this fasting thing--and by extension, Lent itself--all wrong.

The season of Lent is so very different from the rest of our liturgical calendar.  In the sanctuary of Good Shepherd we can actually see the difference:  we wear the solemn purple, our baptismal bowls are emptied and turned upside-down, while our Christus Rex is veiled for the season.  We take up new postures during the liturgy and put ashes on our foreheads.  It is easy to see why Lent can sometimes leave us feeling like we have to beat ourselves up.  That was what I had thought Lent was about, after all. 

The Christus Rex is veiled and the baptismal bowl turned upside-down as we begin our Lenten journey.

In the years since I have found Lent to more than a somber, sad, and drawn-out season.  Rather I've come to see it as a wonderful, if not joyous, time.  You may be asking yourself how that is possible, given that we spend more time on our knees and speak with the voice of penitence with greater regularity during this season than any other.  I think it's because Lent, as I have experienced it, is meant to be a time in which we intentionally shift our focus.  For a relatively short time--just 40 days--we are asked to turn from our own selfish ways and shift our focus toward God.  And when we shift our focus, and we turn our attention toward God, we find that we are, in fact, beloved children of God, crafted by a loving Creator, whose very life resides in each of us.  We mark ourselves with ashes at the start of this holy season as a reminder that these bodies, these temporal artifacts, are not all that there is.  God created us from the dust of the earth, and while these bodies of ours will one day return to that dust, the breath, spirit, and love that God poured into us at our creation will endure forever and will one day return to the Creator.

As we intentionally turn our focus toward God we are reminded of the things that really matter in our lives.  And the things that really matter really aren't things at all!  This is where the practice of fasting comes in.  Fasting is not about seeing how long we can go without food in some kind of mystical attempt to pay better attention to God, as I had thought.  Fasting is about realizing that God provides for our every need.  What we choose to give up is generally something that, quite frankly, we didn't need in the first place.  We give something up so as to remember that our dependence is on God alone.  And God does not ask that we give something up willy-nilly.  Are you fasting from chocolate?  Why chocolate?  Are you fasting from Facebook?  Why?  In what way does giving a particular thing up bring you closer to God? 

Still, I wonder if we really consider the things we're giving up?  Most of us give something up--chocolate or Facebook--that we know we'll pick back up at Easter. What if our fast was something deeper?  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the guys who wrote the final version of the Nicene Creed in 381 AD said:  "there is a kind of fasting which is not bodily, a spiritual self-discipline that affects the soul; this abstinence is from evil....for Judas himself fasted with the 11, but since he did not curb his love of money, his fasting availed him nothing." 

Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa and co-author of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.  Kind of a big deal!

 So what if ours is a fast from the habits and behaviors that we hope to rid ourselves of for those days outside of Lent?  What if we gave up gossiping about folks behind their backs?  What if we gave up being indifferent and ignoring the needs of the people around us, especially those with whom we disagree?  What if we gave up triangulating and bullying each other?  What if we gave up the casual, everyday racism , misogyny, and homophobia of which we are all guilty? What if we gave up the greed, the bitterness, the jealousy, the self-loathing, and the hardness of heart that weigh us down and take over our lives and cut us off from the goodness of God and prevent us from seeing that goodness in each other?  What if our fast was about being in right relationship with God and each other?  I'm not so sure giving up chocolate or Facebook will have the same impact as giving up those destructive behaviors.

This is why Jesus gives the instructions that he gives.  He does not just say to give alms, pray, and fast, three great pillars of Jewish religious life.  Instead, he says to be intentional when we do them, to go deeper, to make what we do not about us but about God.  When we give alms, don't brag about it.  When we pray, do it in secret, behind closed doors.  When we fast, don't contort our faces, but wash them and smile, so that nobody knows we are fasting.  The point is not to just do these things but to open ourselves up to an experience with God, a deeper, more intentional experience in which we see how God's life is blooming in and around us during this holy season, so that what blooms on Easter will enrich our lives from that day onward.  This is what Lent is about.

 For centuries this intentional period has been used for deep discernment, particularly those seeking the sacrament of baptism.  It is during Lent when catechumens--those who desire to be baptize--pray, listen, and study as they prepare to commit their lives to Christ.  The 40 days of prayer and reciting of the ancient Creeds come to its fulfillment at the Great Vigil of Easter.  It will be the same for us at our Easter Vigil this year when we baptize the newest members of Christ's Body.  It is that very moment toward which we are all journeying this Lent--the moment of Easter's dawn. For some that journey will culminate in Holy Baptism, while others will find renewal in the resurrected Christ.  But for all of us, we are journeying toward something new, something greater than ourselves. We are invited, as we observe this holy Lent, to a time of intentional refocusing, of listening, feeling, and looking for God.

Lent is a marathon, not a sprint.  We may start out giving something up with great enthusiasm, only to find that by the third or fourth week we've hit a wall.  It can be grueling, but only if we allow it to be.  If we look at the lectionary and its longer-than-usual readings with dread, or lament the loss of some of our favorite hymns, or if we groan and complain about our fast, then yes, Lent can and will be a downer.  But if we look at Lent for what it really is, an opportunity to intentionally turn our focus to God, and in so doing recognize our dependence upon God alone and open ourselves up to a new, deeper experience with God, then we might find this season to not be so gloomy.  We might actually find it to be a a joyful and holy tide. Welcome to Lent!

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