Sunday, May 9, 2021

6 Easter, 2021-B: Fruit that lasts


Lectionary: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17 

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. 

Abiding in God who abides in Jesus and he in us repeats as a theme for us this week. Abiding in this way is so important that Jesus keeps talking about it. It is the fullness of reconciliation in which we are unified with God in our bodies, minds, and souls.

Most everyone has had a sense of that kind of unifying moment when you know God is in you and in everything there is, and you are one with all that is. The mystics call this a unitive moment.

Abiding in this way has been discussed, disputed, and defined by theologians throughout our church history. But one of the best descriptions I’ve ever seen comes from a 10-year-old boy named Turner whom I served at a previous church.

I had brought in a labyrinth and did a multi-generational teaching on how to pray using it. I asked everyone to write a reflection on their experience following their prayer walk. I’m going to share with you Turner’s reflection. You can hear how it incorporates the three-fold process of the labyrinth prayer walk: purgation (that is, letting go), illumination (clarity or insight), and union (integration and action in the world). 
“When I let go I began to feel warm and good inside. When I got to the center I felt like, I can’t describe it, but I just appreciated the fact that I was here and It (sic) felt for a moment, like I was the happiest man on earth. And I just loved everyone. And then it was gone and I went down the path feeling peaceful inside and the feeling has not left me yet. If felt as if god (sic) was there, beside me, walking with me, and spreading his kindness and love to me. I exited the maze ready for whatever the world would throw at me, because I knew, I knew that God was with me as he is with everyone I don’t fell (sic) happy, sad, anxious, or angry. its lik (sic) just everything is inferior to Gods love that is with me now. I have never been so calm and peaceful in my life. I know now that God is with me, and will guide me till I die and go to heaven. God is with me now and I know it for sure.”
I’m grateful Turner had his first unitive moment in a time of intentional prayer at church so that he can connect those things for the rest of his life. This is why Christian formation at church matters so much.

But this kind of experience of God is not limited to our prayers. At our Bible Study this week we talked about how seeing birds brings many of us excitement and joy; how we experience being in real relationship with creation through interactions with them, other critters, or creation itself. 

 They talked about these relationships as love – not the sentimental, romantic kind of love, but a love that makes us feel like kin, related to and connected to one another, concerned for the welfare of the other – which for many of us takes the simple form of birdfeeders we put out to feed and water the feathered members of our family.

When God connects to us in love, it’s a felt experience, that is, we feel it in our bodies. A joy fills us to overflowing, and in those moments, we feel one with all that is, or was, or ever will be.

That feeling is the joy Jesus is talking about when he says our joy will be complete. It’s a pervasive, almost overwhelming physical and spiritual experience of wholeness and unity, and it’s available to all of us.

Learning ways to pray and intentionally invite this experience helps empower us to serve God in the world, and that’s why Christian Formation for all ages is such an important responsibility of the church. Have I mentioned that already? I did… but it bears repeating.

When we have been made one with God, one another, and all that is in these unitive experiences, we are strengthened and empowered to serve God in the world because, as Turner said in his prayer, we are made “ready for whatever the world throws at [us] because God is with [us]… and everything is inferior to God’s love that is with [us].”

Abiding in Jesus who abides in the Father means remaining aware that we carry God into every part of our lives: our families, work or school, leisure, volunteering, and politics. We are God-bearers, just as Mary was.

Imagine if, in the midst of a contentious argument, we remembered that everything is inferior to God’s love and that God’s love, which abides in us, connects us to everything and everyone – even the one with whom we are arguing?

How might that affect our responses? For one thing, it would redirect our attention from being right to being loving, from winning to connecting.

Here’s how that might look. A friend or family member is ideologically on the opposite end of the spectrum from you. Pick a topic – there are a million hot topics to choose from right now: gun control, BLM, getting vaccinated or not.

This being a sermon, though, let’s use the story from Acts as our example. It’s an unlikely scenario in which a Roman mercenary, Cornelius the Centurion, and Peter, Jesus’ disciple and the rock on whom Jesus would build the church, are brought together.

When Cornelius meets Peter, he senses the presence of God who abides in Peter, and connects this sensation to a dream he’d just had. Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet.

Peter, probably unaware of how powerfully the presence of God within him is sensed by Cornelius, lifts Cornelius up and in that moment, Peter himself understands God’s message to him from his own dream: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter suddenly knows - in that way of knowing that is beyond thoughts - that not just food, but ALL God has made is sacred – even this man who represents everything Peter would be justified in hating. It is a unitive moment for sure.

Cornelius invites Peter to speak to his household, which was probably more than 200 people. Peter accepts and preaches the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ to them. Our reading today from Acts picks up from this moment.

While Peter was still preaching “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” In that moment all who were present, and all of us who read this today, understand that what had been divided has been made one by heaven on earth.

It can be done. It has already been done, and it continues to be done.

God is doing for us today what God did for Peter and for Cornelius: bringing us and our diverse neighbors into the presence of one another, to provide opportunity for the reconciling love of God to transform earthly divisions into divine unity. And God does that now through us – in whom Jesus abides. So whether the topic is gun control, BLM, or getting vaccinated or not, we have a model for how to act faithfully and participate in Jesus’ reconciling work in the world.

In ordinary circumstances, Peter wouldn’t have chosen to be around Cornelius … or baptize him. Each time I read that Peter offered Baptism to all those upon whom the Spirit had fallen, I rejoice even as I hear the voice of the liturgy police gasp with disapproval that this sacrament would be given without proper preparation. Yet, there it is…

I rejoice because this story reminds us that Baptism isn’t initiation into our holy club. It’s initiation into the body of Christ - a sacrament, that manifests and affirms the sacredness and chosen-ness of all whom God has made, reconciling everyone into one family – the family of God.

In the end, it is Love who chooses us, activates us, reconciles us, and finally, transforms the world through us. How sweet it is when our faith makes space for God to act. This is our victory. This is the fruit that lasts. Amen.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

5 Easter, 21-B: Beloved branches

Lectionary: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. 

 We are a people of the Good News and today’s news is truly good. Our gospel story today is the allegory of the vineyard, which is one of my favorites because of its simplicity, clarity, and assurance.

In this story, God the Father is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine, and those who follow Jesus are the branches. When Jesus says I am the true vine, it implies there are false vines too. If we remember that sin is the seeking of our own will rather than God’s will, then we see that the prophets in Scripture disclose to us when the people of God were themselves the false vine.

In Jeremiah God says to Israel: “…I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine? (2:21) The prophet Isaiah bemoans, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (5:7)

We all mess up, but they acknowledged when they messed up because they knew God loved them, chose them, and would forgive them when they repented. It was a cycle of their lives in relationship with God that played out over and over again. And in characteristic faithfulness, God always invited Israel back into righteousness.

We, on the other hand, fear that if we mess up, we’ll be condemned, thrown out of relationship with God, and into an eternal experience of suffering – even though this is neither Scriptural nor part of our Christian tradition. Still, we tend to resist owning up and repenting when we mess up, and when I say “we” I mean us as individuals and us as church. That’s why we often miss the gift in this allegory.

Production is a highly overrated cultural value right now and connecting it to a person or institution’s worth is dangerous, so we must be very careful not to impose that modern cultural value on the story in our Scripture. This isn’t a story about production or punishment. It’s one of the most beautiful stories found in Scripture of the assurance of God’s mercy and tender loving care. 

In this allegory, Jesus is promising that God, as the vinegrower, is watching over all of us and will have not only the awareness of what tending needs to happen but also the desire to do it. He is assuring us that he himself is the vine that provides us, the branches, all we need to live, grow, and bear fruit for the kingdom.

The vinegrower (God) is watching over not only the vine but also the world in which the vine lives. When conditions in the world change, the vinegrower responds, pruning the vine so that it thrives in the new environment.

If we connect this allegory to the church, which is appropriate, we can see the blessed assurance that as the world changes, God responds by pruning the church so that we can live, grow, and produce fruit for the kingdom in our changed environment. As demographics shift and economies change, church ministries that once were responsive to the needs of the local context may need to give way to new ministries that serve the changed environment.

So, what about the branches that wither on the vine? The ones Jesus said will be thrown into the fire and burned? Is this a warning to us that we must be productive?

I don’t think so. Jesus didn’t use fear or threats in his ministry or in his revelation of God to us. Instead, he continually gave us glimpses into the mercy of God, like when he asked those ready to stone the woman caught in adultery to cast the first stone if they had no sin, or when he healed on the Sabbath, or raised the son of a widow from death to life.

Also, is it even possible not to fear a God who threatens to torture you eternally if you don’t produce? As our epistle writer points out, “There is no fear in love, but perfect (that is, complete) love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (4:18)

As followers of Jesus when we read the gospels we are reading Good News. If what we read doesn’t sound like good news, we need to pray and listen for the continuing revelation Jesus promised us. As our Presiding Bishop is wont to say, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”

Being sent into the fire to burn isn’t a threat – it’s a gift, which is why Jesus offers it - and I can prove it. Where else in the Bible do we hear about fire? • Exodus 3:1-6 - (Story of the burning bush) Then God called to Moses out of the bush saying: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 
  • Exodus 13: 21 – (God’s guidance of the Israelites in exile) The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.

  • Exodus 24:17 – (Story of God giving Moses the 10 commandments) Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
  • Luke 3:16 - John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
  • Acts 2:3 – (the story of Pentecost) They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
Fire, in Bible-speak, is the presence of God, who, as our epistle eloquently affirms, is love. Entering into the fire, then, is entering into the presence of God who transforms and refines us, giving us new life.

Whenever we enter into the presence of God, we come out better than when we went in. Will it hurt? Probably, but not for long and the gift of new life we procure will make the transition to it worth it.

The Good News we know is that whenever we mess up, or when the world changes around us, God’s love is there for us, surrounding us when we are afraid, guiding us when we are lost, and transforming us when we need renewal, forming new life for us, for the church, and for the world.

Sharing in the presence and passion of God is one of the fruits of the truth that Jesus abides in us and we in him. When we pray then, we are inviting Jesus to align our wills with God’s will. That’s why he promises that whatever we wish will be done – when we abide in him.

Abiding in Jesus also means recognizing that we are to be as honest, merciful, respectful, kind, and humble in our dealings with one another as God in Christ is with us. We have some work to do here: owning up to and repenting of messing up in the church and in the world. For example, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk are still under-employed and unfairly paid in our beloved Episcopal church institution. Black people are killed nearly every week even as they sleep in their beds, play at a park, comply with authorities, or try to escape. The needs of some who remain vulnerable to COVID are unsympathetically dismissed by those who are tired of the restrictions. Yes, we have work to do… owning up and repenting.

Finally, abiding in Jesus means that when we are experiencing the pain of divine pruning we can rejoice not recoil and cooperate with God at work in us, preparing us to produce fruit, for living as beloved branches of the true vine assures fruit for the kingdom.

When we see withered branches being thrown into the fire we will not judge them. Instead, we’ll remember that they too are beloved branches, chosen ones being drawn into the transforming love of God that leads to new life.

God’s response to sin and death is forgiveness and new life, and healing is God’s response to all wounds. The Good News, therefore, is that we can offer ourselves and our church fully and continually to God, without fear of sin or changes in our environment, and anticipate the promised gift of new life. We are the beloved branches of the true vine from whom we have all we need to live, grow, and bear fruit for the kingdom.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Holy Saturday, 2021: Building strength through waiting

 This sermon was preached extemporaneously, therefore, it is in video only - there is no text available. Blessed Triduum to you all.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Maundy Thursday, 2021: Mandate for servanthood

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 En el nombre de Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. 

 It is often said that Episcopalians take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. Maundy Thursday is one of those nights it is important to go deeply into the Scripture and find the eternal truth and redemptive love within it. 

Thankfully, our forebears in the faith, the Jewish people, created a ritual designed to do just that: the Passover seder meal, the origin of the Agape supper we share when we can gather in person. The seder meal traces the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage to redemption but isn’t just a story of what happened once. It’s also a story of what happens now, eternally, because of who God is and how the world is – until that final day when all people and all creation are fully and completely reconciled to God.

A great deal of focus during the seder meal is on the children who are asked this question: “What makes this night different from all other nights?” The question is meant to encourage the children to ask questions and spark their curiosity. This is how Jewish children are taught about their faith and their identity as children of God.

Held in the Spring, the seder meal signals rebirth and renewal - symbolized by the dipping of greens, usually parsley, into water that is salted to symbolize the tears of the people enslaved by the powers of the world. The story unfolds in four parts marked by four cups of wine consumed during the meal. Each of the cups represents how God has acted to save and is taken from the book of Exodus (6:6-7). These four acts are: “I will bring out, “I will deliver,” “I will redeem,” and “I will take.”

It matters that we know this because each Sunday, when we bless and share our holy food of communion, we are lifting up the third of those four cups, just as Jesus did with his disciples at his last seder supper. The third cup is the cup Jesus claimed himself to be. To understand that, we need to know the meaning and cultural context of the four cups.

The first cup is the cup of SANCTIFICATION. God says: “I will bring you out.” To sanctify is to set someone or something apart as holy. This is where the people of God learn that they are “chosen” by God. God will bring them out from their slavery so that they can serve God, not a human master.

The second cup is the cup of DELIVERANCE. God says: “I will deliver.” Only God can save. We cannot save ourselves. The temptation most of us face is spending time and energy trying to do the right thing or to live the right way, in order to earn salvation. But that isn’t possible, because, as we know, redemption is a gift from God. We can’t and don’t earn it. 

The third cup is the cup of REDEMPTION. God says, “I will redeem.” In the Jewish tradition the word redemption also means “avenger of blood” and it is, by definition, a family member. This family member acts to set their kin free from slavery, paying a ransom, or great price for that freedom. The traditional image is of a father sacrificing his firstborn son for the freedom of his entire family.

At dinner with his friends, Jesus claims himself to be this third cup. It is his blood, that is, his life that will be given for the redemption of all by the forgiveness of sin. Because he is the second person of the Trinity, fully God and fully human, Jesus is the Father who pays the price, the Son who is the price, and the family for whom that price is paid.

As Christians, we are partners with Christ in his continuing work of redemption. And Jesus made clear to us how to do our part, saying, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

The Messiah of God humbly served his community by getting on his knees before them and washing their feet. I hope we all take this very seriously and hear the symbolic language of this Bible story of servant ministry. Jesus is mandating that we do now do as he did then: get on our knees (a posture of servitude), wrap a towel around our waist (the symbol of a servant) and humbly do the “dirty work” of tenderly caring for the most unappealing realities of the human condition, bringing refreshment and dignity to the lowest of the low.

To make this crystal clear, Jesus put this new approach into the form of a commandment – a mandate (which is the root of the word ‘Maundy”): “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

As the church, the body of Christ, we are in a position to lead the way to transformed understanding of leadership in the pattern and practice of Jesus, and the pandemic has opened wide a window of opportunity for us to do that. God give us the will to put into action what we believe in our faith.

I close with a prayer I wrote for Servant Leadership. Some of us have been praying this all year in the Compline for Servant Leadership my partner, Martin, and I developed: 

Fill us, most merciful God, with the power of your Holy Spirit, and free us from any bonds that continue to restrict our freedom to fully love you, one another, and ourselves. Enter our dreams each night and show us your will for us as your church’s servant leaders in this time and place. Loosen our tongues to speak your truth. Strengthen our hearts to birth your love into reality no matter the cost; and make each of us to shine with the celestial light that is the mark of your saints in heaven and on earth; for the love of your Son, our savior, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

5th Lent, 2021-B: The God-seed in us

 Lectionary:Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad… In the name of God who is Trinity in unity. Amen.

This beautiful season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday by remembering that the word ‘Lent’ means ‘spring’ and we committed to open the soil of our souls to receive the seeds God would plant, nourish, and cultivate in us, guided by the invitation from Pierre Teillhard de Chardin to “plunge into God.”

Today we consider what seeds God planted in us. What do they mean for our lives and journey forward in our faith? What fruit will they bear for the glory of God?

None of us wants to believe we have within us the power to be dark or destructive… but we do. Deep within each of us lie the cultural seeds of racism, elitism, able-ism, sexism… all the ~isms. When the truth of that hits us, it is painful.

It’s also painful to recognize that certain habits, ways of understanding, speaking, and acting, can be harmful and do not glorify God. We’ve all had those moments when we spoke words that we wish we could have sucked back into our mouths before anyone heard or registered what we’d said. But we couldn’t and the words hurt. They hurt the one who heard them, but also the one who uttered them.

Most of us have gotten good at sidestepping that pain by simply denying the truth of it: I didn’t mean what I just said. I’m not a racist, sexist, elitist (fill in the ~ist blank here). Or we project the pain out from ourselves, blaming someone else saying, ‘You must have misunderstood me.’ or ‘They took my words out of context.’

We are not immune to the cultural impact of the ~isms in which we were raised. We are, however, able to repent, but repenting isn’t easy either.

As hard as it is for us to acknowledge our own sin, deep down we also fear God’s acknowledgment of it and what that would mean. We stand on that unsteady bridge between guilt and shame with guilt telling us ‘I did something bad, I need to repent,’ and shame threatening us with ‘I am bad, and therefore, condemned.’

Shame is a lie, but guilt is a healthy signal to us from our conscience that we did a bad thing. While the world has become almost completely unforgiving and condemning, God isn’t, so the church can’t be either. In fact, the church must invite us to notice the guilt, recognize the wrong we did and repent of it, so that we can be reconciled back to one another and God. It’s a process that leads to new life.

This simple, life-giving truth was demonstrated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work dismantling apartheid in S Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The work they did, however, was painful.

About that pain of repentance, Teillhard says, “…when the painful comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great, unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you …who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion… For you bring new life out of every form of death.”

Even Jesus struggled with death. The gospel of John doesn’t have a Garden of Gethsemane story, but offers something similar when Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say - ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Like Jesus, we all have to come to grips with the reality that God has a plan for us and for the world, and it may not line up exactly with our plan - how we’d like it to work. But our plan is infected by the cultural seeds of ~isms in ways we only come to recognize over time.

This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ don’t refer to feelings. Love is that deliberate choice we make of one option over all others. Hate refers to being willing to walk away with indifference.

So then, what is our deliberate choice? Which option do we choose? God’s plan for our lives or ours? 

Only the former leads to eternal life. As Jesus teaches us in this gospel, we must not put the life we think we want ahead of the life God has planned for us, and we must be willing to walk away from life as the world presents it. Instead, Jesus says, we go deeply into our hearts, where we will find true life because there we will find God. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them… I will write it on their hearts.”

One clarification here: the law, in Judaism, is not about rules but about relationship. The law establishes a “way of walking” together with God leading the way.  When the law sounds and works only like rules to control behavior, it is the disclosure of human bias on the relationship God is offering.

On this final Sunday in Lent, as we look at the seed or seeds planted in us by God, we realize that God in Christ is in us, gently urging us to let go of everything else – everything we thought about and planned for – and let the God-seed that is in us break its covering and reach its roots deeply into us where it will bear fruit.

Jesus knows the pain these moments can bring. In the midst of his pain, he gave us the words to pray in our pain: “Father, glorify your name.”

One final thought: while the season of Lent is coming to an end, the journey it led us to is only beginning. I pray that we keep going deeply into our hearts, continually breaking ourselves open to God, allowing God to penetrate to our very marrow. I pray that we let each new seed God plants in us to lead us to death and new life in the mystical act of communion.

By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that God brings new life out of every form of death. By our faith, then, we glorify God when we die to ourselves and plunge into eternal life in him. Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

4th Lent: Redirected to life

Lectionary: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad... In the name of God who is Trinity in Unity. Amen. 

Today is Laetare Sunday, also known as Refreshment or Mothering Sunday. The word Laetare means “rejoice.” In the tradition of Mothering Sunday, we give thanks for our mother church, that is, the church in which we were baptized, the Mother of our Lord, and the motherliness of God.

The rose color of the priest’s vestments represents a lightening up of the purple used in Lent. On this day we relax our Lenten practices and pause to rejoice.

In our time, the association of the color pink with all things female provides an unmistakable embodiment of the feminine. I can picture God smiling, knowing this was coming for us…

We talk a lot about God the Father, but not so much about God the Mother even though doing so is true to Scripture and Tradition. For example, the prophet Isaiah tells us that God desires to comfort the people of Israel “As a mother comforts her child.” (66:13) Our Wisdom literature talks about the feminine character of God using feminine names and images for God. Jesus talks about the motherliness of God in the Gospel of Matthew, saying: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”

There are times in our lives when we need God to be motherly for us. At all times, we need to know and experience the loving nature of God, which Jesus talks about in our gospel reading today, saying: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God so loved the world. All of the meanings of the word love come into play here. God’s love for all that is created is so far beyond our ability to grasp that we tend to place ourselves outside of it.

I’ve had conversations with people that sound like this: God isn’t concerned with the details of our lives, just the broad strokes of human history. Or… I’m so messed up, I’m not worthy of God’s love. Or… I’ve done terrible things. I’m not worthy of God’s forgiveness.

But Jesus goes on to connect this important phrase: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Whenever we rebel, when we make mistakes or act badly, how does God react? The way God always reacts: to save us from death and restore us to life.

In our Old Testament reading, Moses is leading the people out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. On their way, they mostly whine about what isn’t right. They complain that they have no food, so God gives them manna. Then they complain about the manna.

Then snakes begin to attack them and many of them died. The people cry out, “Save us from the snakes!” and how does God react? God gives Moses a way to redirect their attention from death to life.

Put a snake on a stick, God says, and lift it up so they can see it. Anyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. While this may sound a bit superstitious at first, what it really is, is a concrete way to move the people from dysregulation to wellbeing.

Fearing death, when they look at the serpent on the stick, they remember God’s presence with them and God’s authority over all life. When we fear death, we look at the cross of Christ and remember God’s victory over the power of death.

God always meets us where we are and leads us to where we need to go.

Back when I ran a shelter, we had a woman come in who took emotional power over the other families by concocting curses, claiming herself a witch. Being in the deep South, most of the women we served were Bible-belt Christians, yet they came to believe that this woman had the power to curse them.

The woman would leave a thin line of ashes (a symbol of death) across the doorway of the person or family she was “cursing.” When they awoke and saw that they had been “cursed,” they panicked. In about a week’s time, this woman had almost complete control of the way the women and children in that shelter behaved toward her. They did her chores, gave her control of the TV, and no one crossed her.

It’s no surprise that this woman’s need for control was self-protective. It was also imaginative and quite effective. She didn’t trust the others, so she controlled them. They feared her, so they complied.

My staff was working hard in individual and group meetings to speak rationally about this, but their assurances went unheard, and the fear and anxiety continued to ratchet up. So, one day, at a house meeting, I confessed my Puerto Rican heritage and my great-grandmother’s claim of being a bruja (a witch). I told them that she had taught me some things and that I knew how to undo the curse magic. (I didn't.)

I walked into the kitchen where we had bread dough rising, took a handful of it, and went over to the doorway where the ashes had been spread. I scooped the ashes into a pile and plopped the bread dough on top of it. I covered it with a towel and spoke a prayer over it, using familiar words: light, love, life’s victory over death.

When the ritual was over, I lifted the cloth, picked up the bread dough, and the ashes were gone. They had been absorbed into the sticky dough. The relief in the room erupted into joy. Like the Israelites in exile, the women in my shelter had to be met where they were and their attention had to be redirected from death to life.

Even the woman who claimed to be a witch stopped cursing people and began to trust the other women and establish friendships. Peace was restored to our shelter household.

Bread is life. It is Eucharistic and powerfully symbolic to us. Back then, I let the chaplains at the shelter connect the dots for the women. Now it’s my turn.

Jesus is the “true bread which gives life to the world.” When we trust that, when we rely on it, we have eternal life, that is, “he lives in us and we in him.”

The word love used throughout this gospel refers to a deliberate exercise of judgment, a decided preference for one out of many options. It isn’t about feelings. It’s a decision by God to choose us, to choose life for us.

The last thing Jesus says in this gospel story is that God has already decided our final judgment: “And this is the judgment [he said], that the light has come into the world…” If we choose to trust and rely on that light, which is Christ, then everything we do will be done in God.

This doesn’t mean we won’t mess up. God knows we will. It’s part of being human.

So how does God react when we mess up? The way God always does - leading us from death to life. God comforts us like a mother comforts her children and protects us like a hen gathering her chicks under her wing to keep them safe.

Knowing this, trusting it, we give thanks to God who, as our psalmist says, is good, whose mercy endures forever, who gathers us from all directions, delivering us, healing us, doing wonders for us from age to age demonstrating over and over again God’s choice to redeem not condemn us.

Relying on this truth, we know, as the writer of Ephesians verifies, that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing. Our final judgment is life in the light of Christ.

I can’t think of a better reason to rejoice. Laetare!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

3rd Lent, 2021: Remover of obstacles

Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad… In the name of God who is Trinity in unity. Amen. 

Over the years I’ve learned that if you want to know someone’s true character, notice what flares up their anger. Who are they angry at and why?

In my years working with and advocating for persons subjected to violence and abuse, I witnessed toddler-like tantrums from plenty of adults who simply didn’t get their way and resorted to intimidation to enforce their will - and I’m not just talking about the abusers here, but also law enforcement, lawyers, and judges. Self-interest, power, and control are deeply rooted temptations for us humans, and the more we think we have power, the more we think we deserve it, and the less willing we are to let it go.

I’ve also seen my share of actual toddlers melting down as they learn the hard lessons that they aren’t the center of the universe and the world isn’t going to serve their every whim. At least that’s apposite for the toddlers. Can’t say the same for the adults…

In today’s gospel, Jesus pitches the only angry fit recorded in the gospels. This was no toddler-fit. It was righteous anger. Who was Jesus angry at and why?

A little background might help. The setting is the temple in Jerusalem, which was a huge complex, and the time is the feast of the Passover in spring. Thousands of worshippers have traveled to Jerusalem on spiritual pilgrimage to offer their sacrifice at the temple. The deluge of pilgrims strained local resources that had to house, feed, and clean up after them.

In order to make their temple sacrifice, people first had to exchange their Roman money for Jewish money – and the exchanges weren’t always done fairly. In addition, most of the sacrificial animals, even the cheaper birds, were too expensive for regular folk, but the religious leadership had convinced them that unless they bought and offered an animal for sacrifice, they couldn’t participate in worship and their prayers would go unheard by God.

Typically, the money changers, sacrificial animals, and merchandisers would have been 13 miles away in the Kidron Valley, but in our story, they are in the temple precincts, most likely in the Court of the Gentiles. It is believed that Caiaphas, the high priest, had permitted his supporters to move their stalls to the temple as a way of garnering their support while asserting power over his rivals in the Sanhedrin.

It’s a good bet that a lot of people were offended by the presence of the animals and merchants in the temple. Imagine trying to worship in the presence of the smell and sounds of the animals, while merchants are barking out their deals – not to mention the money changers fleecing hapless believers within earshot – all in the habitation of the Holy. (Source: Dick Donovan commentary)

Observing all of this, Jesus is moved to act. He fashions a whip to get everything and everyone out of “his father’s house.” The gospel says Jesus “drove” them out, using the same word for those times Jesus expelled demons. It’s a spiritually weighty word.

The exploitation of the poor and their cruel exclusion from communal worship unless they lined the pockets of the rich was so far off the path of righteousness that Jesus fairly exploded with anger at the self-serving exploiters, who also happened to be the religious leadership.

Why was he mad? Because they were throwing obstacles on the path for God’s people. Remembering what we said last week, that the literal meaning of “the satan” is “one who throws an obstacle across one’s path,” Jesus is making clear that the religious leadership were “satan” in that moment. Their eyes were on earthly, not divine things and it led them to insolence in the house of God and maltreatment of God’s people.

By his tantrum, Jesus reveals to us his true character and ours. Jesus is a fierce protector of the vulnerable people of God who was consumed by a zeal for the house of God. He also showed us, by contrast, that even when we are trying to be faithful, we can slip into self-serving behaviors or become complicit in the self-serving behaviors of others that harm many while serving only a few.

The merchants in our gospel story, for example, were only trying to make a living in hard times, and besides, a portion of the money they raised went to serve the church – so it’s all good, right? Wrong. These merchants were complicit in a system that was harming the many while serving an elite few. Their choice to manipulate their own reward from that exploitative system was their presumptuous sin.

The systems in our world that create and perpetuate harm to the many while serving the few are no secret to God, and no matter how we justify them or our participation in them, they are our presumptuous sins. Sins like racism, classism, sexism, and the other ~isms we’ve been discussing all year Once these sinful systems are put in place, they become accepted, then habit, then tradition. In the end, however, they are simply “the satan” and our response must be to remove those obstacles from the path of God – even if the obstacle is us.

Lent is the season we take the risk of allowing ourselves to see our own presumptuous sins individually and collectively, then respond to them. They are there, of course they are, because we aren’t perfected yet, but God isn’t finished with us either, and God continually chooses us to be removers of the obstacles on the path of the love of God.

Living out our baptismal vows is serious business and can feel arduous or unfair at times, especially in a world where leisure seems like the treasured reward – and people who don’t work for it seem to have the most of it! But we have a different goal. Our goal isn’t to live an easy life or a leisurely life. Our goal is to live a faithful life. That may look like foolishness to someone who is not on God’s path of love, but we’re in good company.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta and the sisters of the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, spent their lives and all of their resources serving the most despised, wretchedly poor, and outcast in India. The sisters successfully dispelled the darkness of those they served, enabling them to die knowing they were treasured by God and by the sisters.

So faithful was their approach that they became icons of loving service to the world. This tiny woman, and her band of faithful sisters in Christ, worked some powerful love into the world. Their story illustrates for us that when we let the strength of divinity perfect - that is complete - our humanity, we are transformed and we become instruments of transformation in the world.

As we enter our third week in Lent, I pray we wait through the discomfort of looking courageously at our presumptuous sins and commit ourselves fully to our loving God who is already working to perfect us, prepare us, and transform us so that we can transform the world in God’s holy name. Amen.

Mother Theresa Photo credit.