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.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

2 Lent, 2021: New life - Guaranteed


Lectionary: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38 

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

Our Scriptures today hold up for us the concept of righteousness. So, what is righteousness?

The dictionary defines righteousness as something that is morally right or justifiable. It says a righteous person is virtuous, having high moral standards.

By comparison, our Judeo-Christian tradition takes a radically different approach. For us, righteousness is right relationship – with God, one another, and all creation. The temporal fruit of righteousness is wholeness, harmony, peace, joy, and love. The eternal fruit of righteousness is life – on earth and for eternity – as we can see in our story from Genesis.

In this story, God invites Abram into relationship by inviting him into a covenant, that is, a formal agreement saying, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful…” By this time Abram is 99 years old and Sarai is in her 80s, and they have no son, yet God promises to make a multitude of nations from them.

Then God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah, which in Jewish tradition connects them to their redemption and signifies the new life God is bringing them. Abraham means “father of multitudes” and Sarah means “joy and delight.”

Their part in the covenant was to make a choice: to accept God’s blessing and abide in the covenant, despite what earthly barriers seemed to be in the way – or not. They chose to trust God and live as if the promises of God were true. That is what righteousness is.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the path of righteousness. Jesus tells them that he is about to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leadership, and be killed, after which he will rise again.

Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him privately. His love for Jesus, his respect and admiration for him, and his wisdom about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah are barriers for Peter, who is unable to look beyond the earthly circumstances to the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus – even in the devastating circumstances by which Jesus says that plan will be fulfilled.

Jesus makes his response to Peter publicly - indicating that this is an important lesson for all of his followers. Looking at the disciples, Jesus says these biting words: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” How are we to understand this?

Theologian and religious historian, Elaine Pagels, teaches that the Hebrew term “the satan” describes an adversarial role, not a particular character. “Along about the 6th century Hebrew commentary introduced the idea of the supernatural nature of “the satan.” The word “satan” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.” If the path is bad, the obstruction is good, thus “the satan” may have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm. If the path is righteous, however, “the satan” is blocking the path of the will of God. (The Origin of Satan, Vintage, 1996, pp 39, 40) This is what Peter was doing.

According to our early tradition, then, Satan is not a red demon guy with a tail and pitchfork who is nearly equal in power to God and spends his time trying to trick believers away from God. Besides, we don’t need Satan to trick us out of our right relationship with God. We’re perfectly capable of going astray ourselves.

When we go astray, which we all will at times, we also know that we have been baptized and marked as Christ’s own forever. Therefore, we can always choose to repent – to return to right relationship with God who is always faithful, steadfast in mercy, and waiting to forgive and be reconciled with us once more.

God does not give up on us but continually gives us the time, support, and resources we need to grow into our divine purpose. So, when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan” he was teaching Peter, the other disciples, and us this important lesson: ‘You can’t be my follower if you are in front of me telling me how it ought to go. Get behind me and follow me. I will lead. Remember, you can only see from an earthly perspective. I see with divine sight. Trust me. Get behind me and follow me.”

As our Lenten journey continues to bring us deeper into that wilderness where the wild beasts of temptation lead us to dare to tell God how to proceed according to our plan, Jesus reminds us to follow him. Sometimes the lesson stings at first, but the mercy of God is always there for us – guaranteed - and the love of God is ready to heal whatever wounds our naiveté causes in us, in others, and in the world.

The covenant in which we now choose to abide is the New Covenant: redemption in Jesus Christ. In this covenant, God promises new life to us – resurrection life – through Jesus. Our part in this covenant is to choose to live as if that promise is true. Notice I said “live” because the promise of God in the New Covenant isn’t fulfilled after we die but as we live, now, in the eternal presence of the God of love.

As we mature in our faith and righteousness, we will die little deaths like Peter did in today’s gospel - the death of an expectation, idea, habit, or prejudice - and God will lead us to new life after each of those deaths.

Our life as baptized Christians is one great ongoing resurrection reality because new life always follows death in the kingdom of God. Guaranteed. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Ash Wednesday, 2021: Choosing Lent


Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2,12-17;  Psalm 103 or 103:8-14;  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

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

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent – my favorite liturgical season. On this day, no matter how terrible the present times may seem, we ring the church bells (as it were) and call everyone together to pray and listen for God’s call to us to return with all our hearts.

We mark the sign of the cross of Christ on our foreheads with the dust of ashes – the traditional symbol of repentance and humility before God. This is the first act of sanctifying ourselves, the outward sign that says we are ready to step out of the center of our own attention and mindfully, voluntarily, and humbly turn our attention to God.

Lent is not a time for us to wallow in the misery of our wretchedness as hopeless sinners and we don’t fast in order to suffer, or as punishment for sin. We fast to allow ourselves to experience emptiness. In the deep, dark center of ourselves, we willingly choose to make space for something new, something nourishing and life-giving that God will supply. That is what our Lenten journey is about.

The gift of practicing a holy Lent is that when we stop and make time to get honest about God we remember that God is full of compassion, slow to anger, forgives us, and cares for us deeply, intimately, with a love that knows no bounds. Our creator knows our frailties and knows we’ll sin, yet God remains steadfast in redeeming us from death, even crowning us with mercy and loving-kindness.

The hard part of Lent, the part that gets most of the attention, is the part where we make time to get honest about ourselves. Every one of us will find ourselves, at times, lacking the will to be compassionate especially when it involves some amount of sacrifice on our part. There are (or will be) times in our lives when our anger erupts quickly, while forgiveness comes slowly – if at all. And we can be, at times, so preoccupied with ourselves that we become blind to the fact that all around us, our family, friends, and neighbors, known and unknown to us, are suffering.

Sometimes, our preoccupation with ourselves takes the form of addiction – and we can be addicted to many things. Some addictions are familiar: food, alcohol, or drugs. Others are more insidious, like addiction to being in control, being the center of attention, self-criticism, or pessimism.

The word “Lent” actually means spring. Lent is a time when new life is being formed, and the one forming that new life is the same one who forms all life: God.

The temptation we face is thinking that we need to choose what to do or stop doing for Lent. This would be that addiction to control I mentioned. So, rather than deciding what we need to give up or add in, maybe we can approach Lent humbly and let Lent happen in us.

Pierre Teillhard deChardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who died in 1955, once said: “Let us leave the surface and without leaving the world, plunge into God.” This approach fits our gospel reading which cautions us against practicing our piety for others to see. Without leaving the world, we can practice a holy Lent by immersing ourselves fully into God.

That doesn’t mean we do nothing. In fact, the hard work of Lent is emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. But emptiness scares us – the nothingness of it feels kind of like death, so we tend to avoid it.

That’s why Lent is different. Knowing that by our baptism we have entered into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have no fear of death, not even the little ones - like the death of a habit, or the death of an idea we hold about God, ourselves, our neighbors, or even (gasp) our church.

Teillhard says that death is about communion with God. He 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.”

The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tested and reliable ways to enter humbly into this season. Prayer brings us into the presence of God where, if we’re quiet, we will hear God speak to us, guiding us to new ideas, new habits, new life. Fasting reminds us of our mortality and human limitations. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved to do something to relieve it –even if it means making a bit of a sacrifice. Alsmgiving is one way we can do something to relieve suffering – offering a special financial gift toward the ministries of our church.

One final word about this: if you are diabetic, on medication, or for some other reason you can’t fast from food – don’t. There are so many other things we can fast from like self-focus, resentment, or estrangement.

Our Lenten practices aren’t about success or failure. We don’t score points for praying, fasting, or giving alms, and we don’t get demerits for not doing those things.

Remember, we don’t do Lent, we choose it. We choose to plunge into God who is waiting to form new life in us. God bless us all as we practice a holy Lent. Amen.