Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lent 3A: Persevere and be transformed

Lectionary:Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

So – here we are at the mid-point of Lent (my favorite liturgical season, by the way). How goes your Lenten experience so far? Are you loving it or are you ready for it to be over?

This third week of Lent is when the sacrifices we have chosen to make start to ache and the prayer disciplines we have added in begin to feel like a chore. This is the week we are tempted to relent and just wait it out until Easter.

The people in the reading from Exodus are also having a kind of Lent 3 experience. They have followed Moses, who is following God, into the wilderness, seeking the Promised Land. But now they are thirsty, uncomfortable and tired of the journey. They grump at Moses, who is a bit worn out himself. “What shall I do with this people?” Moses asks God. Trust me, God says, and do as I say. Keep going – go to the rock at Horeb and meet me there. I will satisfy you and all my people.

This story shows us an important truth about Lent – the truth that we don’t ‘do Lent’ – God does. As I’m sure Fr. Shawn has told you, the word “Lent” means ‘spring’ and it is the time when new life is being grown in the soil of our soul, soil we have made ready by our spiritual disciplines. Since God is the author of all life, it can only be God who ‘does Lent’ – only God can create and re-create life. Remembering that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” as we heard in our Collect, what we do during Lent is remove whatever is in the way of us offering ourselves totally to God.

If we, like Moses, choose to hear and obey God’s will for us, even if it sounds as impossible as bringing water from a rock, God will ‘do Lent’ in us. But how can we know God’s will until we approach God and ask the question Moses asked: “What shall I do…?”

Our Lenten spiritual disciplines are meant to prepare us to make a faithful offering of ourselves. For 40 days (symbolic language for ‘long enough’), we fast from such things as food or complaining or criticism – of ourselves or of others; we fast from the need for perfection or the need to be in control.

For 40 days we add in intentional time in prayer (hopefully something like Centering Prayer or The Rosary, where God is speaking, not us) or lectio divina, or Bible study. These Lenten disciplines allow us to put ourselves and our priorities aside – just for 40 days – so that God’s priorities for us and for the world have opportunity to reach our awareness.

A few years ago about this time of year, I was driving with a friend of mine, Janice, who rarely went to church. Janice’s parents were Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic. She was raised to be a believer, but not a church-goer.

After a rather lengthy pause in our conversation Janice asked me: “Do you have Lent in the Episcopal Church?” “Yes,” I said, grateful that I am in the habit of carrying a travel-sized BCP in my car. I handed it to her and told her where to find our Ash Wednesday service.

(Who knows where to find the Ash Wed service – quick! It’s on page 264. We have to know this sort of thing if we’re going to be builders of the kingdom in the Episcopal tradition!)

After looking over the service a bit, Janice asked: “Why do you have Lent? What good comes from beating ourselves up about sin? So we sin,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s worth beating myself up about. It’s not like I kill anyone. I’m basically a good person.”

“Why would you beat yourself up?” I asked her.

“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in Lent?” she asked.

My heart broke. How did she arrive at this understanding? Who is the God she’s envisioning? And who is she in relation to that God?

Jesus demonstrates what our relationship with God is in today’s Gospel reading from John. Having traveled to a city in Samaria, Jesus meets and talks with a woman at the well of Jacob. Violating canon law after canon law, Jesus engages this woman in a redemptive conversation.
It’s important, I think, to look at a few things Jesus doesn’t do in this story:
• Jesus doesn’t exclude the woman at the well according to all of her categories: Samaritan, woman, married 5 times, living with a man who isn’t her husband… which, by the way, countless preachers have done in the centuries since
• Jesus doesn’t ask her to repent or change the situation of her life (does this mean Jesus knew something about her life that caused him not to judge her as living in sin?)
• Jesus doesn’t forbid the woman at the well from proclaiming the AMAZING news he hasn’t even told his disciples yet – that he is the Messiah of God

The woman at the well, who has no name, no fame, and no legacy except in this story, is the first one to whom the Christ revealed himself. She is the first apostle – the first one to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus to anyone! She was chosen and sent (which is what an apostle is) because she opened herself to hear the redeeming word of God and was transformed by it. And that’s key: being transformed by the Word of God.

Duncan Gray, III, retired bishop of the diocese of Mississippi, once called his flock to move from change to transformation, saying: "Change is doing something differently. Transformation is becoming something more." Transformation begins to take place [Bp. Gray said,] when we offer ourselves, our souls, our bodies – our dreams, our visions, our plans – to Almighty God. And as we make our offering we say, not, ‘here are our plans, bless them;’ but, rather, ‘here are our lives, use them.’ And…it is in that offering … that [the] weak become strong, the proud become humble, and lives are transformed.

Our Lenten practices are meant to lead us to do things differently so that we can become something more. By them we make room in our hearts and lives for transformation.

As we enter our third week of Lent, may we continue to wait through the discomfort of these 40 days, offering ourselves - our souls and bodies, our dreams, and our plans – to Almighty God. May we persevere in our spiritual disciplines, making room for God to “do Lent” in us.

And may we hear again the truth we know about Jesus and be transformed by it. Then, like the woman at the well, God can send us into the world as apostles, so that others may come to know the transforming truth of our redemption in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

(Note: This sermon was given at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Gastonia, NC as part of the Piedmont Deanery puplit swap. I thank Deacon Pat and the good people of St. Mark's for their welcome and hospitality)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A note of thanks from Mother Valori+

My husband Steve and I thank you sincerely for your many prayers and messages of support during our time of mourning over the loss of Steve's mother, Emily. We also thank you joyfully for the beautiful and wonderful herb basket y'all sent us. How well you know us!

Our trip to Texas was long and tiring, but totally worth it. The memorial service was lovely and drew many positive comments from those present. Episcopal liturgies are truly amazing and people often respond with amazement at their depth and beauty. Emily would have loved it. Her friends and care-givers sure did.

We stayed with Steve's brother, Jack, and his family. This is the brother who suffered a massive stroke 1.5 years ago. His progress is slow but so very encouraging. Jack lights up each time his little brother, Steve, comes into view. I prayed over Jack, along with another healing friend of his, and Jack responded with kisses and hugs of gratitude. He is aware and responsive, and his body is beginning to unlock from its paralysis. Thanks be to God! Being with the Jack Sherer branch of our family tree was healing, fun, and life-giving for Steve and me.

You love and prayers mean so much to us. Thank you for sharing them so generously. We love you and keep you all in our prayers as well.

Gratefully yours,


Monday, March 14, 2011

Ash Wednesday, 2011-A

Fasting... it isn't about chocolate or TV or alcohol. It's about giving up those things that interfere with our relationships with God and neighbor. Fasting means shifting our priorities so that we aren't our own first priority, God and neighbor are. When we fast, we are making space for God to grow something new in the soil of our souls.

The word 'Lent' means 'spring' and the Lenten season is a time when new life is being grown in us by the author of all life. It's a time when we look deeply and honestly at ourselves and give our re-making over to the One who created us, loves and sustains us, and desires us to be perfect (meaning perfectly as God intends us to be). Remember we don't "do" Lent, God does.

This Lent, try fasting from anger that burns like an ember in your belly (give it up) ; fast from holding a grudge (give it up); fast from criticism or judgement of self and/or other (give it up). I suggested to one friend that they might give up the news. Our obsession with 24-hour information streams was causing this person to lose hope. Give it up! Watch once a day - the news doesn't change much in a day.

When you have made space, and tilled the soil of your soul with honest self-examination, then wait while God leads you to fill the space with things that will draw you into right relationships with God and neighbor... things like, Morning Prayer weekdays at the Chapel at Redeemer; praying the Rosary daily (since so many of you have asked for it, we'll have another Rosary Retreat soon - watch for details); mid-day Eucharist at the Chapel on Wednesdays; Soup Suppers and Lenten teaching on end of life planning on Thursday evenings; Sunday worship and Christian formation - our tradition is rich with ways to draw closer to God and neighbor and our parish offers a variety of ways to practice your Lenten disciplines. You might also work at the Shepherd's Table, visit the homebound, or mentor a child.

Listen... God will guide you. Check the Redeemer website for our Lenten activities

Note: I preached extemporaneously, but these were some of the main ideas. May your Lent be holy, intentional, and fruitful.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Epiphany Last, Yr A: Beyond our Limits

Lectionary: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Mountains and clouds, devouring fire and dazzling light. So much symbolic language, so much drama in our gospel today! God's self-revelation to humanity is dramatic, whether it's to Moses, the disciples, or us. It’s also a first – an important first. Never before has God revealed God’s self like this – and never since.

In today's gospel, Jesus leads Peter, James and John away from the others. They go up to a high mountain – the traditional location where God is met and heard, as we saw in the reading from Exodus. Suddenly, their friend and rabbi begins to shine with a light so bright they couldn't look directly at his face. Jesus' dazzling white clothes and the brilliant aura emanating from him are traditional symbols for transcendence (the greatness of God, surpassing all things created, including humans).

The gospel writer is telling us that what happened on that mountain was an experience that goes beyond the limits of all possible knowledge and experience. In that transcendent moment, the veil between earth and heaven is lifted, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear and they are talking with Jesus. The two most powerful prophets in Jewish history, Biblical heroes who were long dead, are suddenly not dead, and not gone. They're right here and Peter, James, and John watch as their ancient heroes chat with their beloved rabbi.

Aware of the historical significance of this event, Peter offers to build a memorial (a traditional response to a moment like this) – but before he can finish speaking, he and the other disciples are overshadowed by the Spirit of God who takes the form of a cloud, just as on Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the tablets of guidance; just as Mary was overshadowed when she conceived the Son of God in her womb.

In today's story, however, what these disciples conceive is the beginning of understanding of a transforming truth – the truth that Jesus is not just another powerful prophet or Biblical hero. He is the Incarnation, The Son of God – fully human, fully divine.

Theologian Raymond Brown says that the transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain made Jesus "transparent to the apostles' gaze.” Seeing him glow in that unearthly light and hearing the voice from heaven claim him as Son and Beloved, the disciples now were beginning to understand what they hadn't understood before. They were becoming aware that all of their preconceived notions about Jesus, including their grand expectations of him as Messiah, suddenly seemed so limited, so small.

Overwhelmed, they fell to the ground, …overcome by fear. Then their gentle rabbi touches them and speaks peace to them saying: "Get up [now], and don't be afraid."

Opening their eyes, the world has returned to one they can comprehend. Jesus wasn't glowing anymore. Moses and Elijah were gone. The bright cloud of God's powerful presence was gone. It was just them again – Peter, James, John, and Jesus – on the mountain, alone.

As they begin their journey down the mountain to rejoin the others, the disciples are still in that groggy state of mind that happens when your brain is trying to make sense of something it can't. We can almost hear their unspoken thoughts: Did that just happen? Was it a dream? It couldn't have been a dream… can you have a group dream? Wait till we tell the others! Maybe they saw the cloud like the Israelites did when Moses was on the mountain. But Jesus warns them, Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

The disciples' journey down the mountain marks the beginning of their new lives - transformed lives. The truth conceived in them begins to take root and grow. They do as the voice from heaven commanded them: they alter their lives so that they can continue to listen to him.

The remainder of Matthew's gospel shows us how their new understanding is nourished and expanded by their teacher, Jesus, with lessons on forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven and who belongs to it, healing as a sign of the generosity and accessibility of God's grace, and the very difficult concept of self-sacrificing,servant leadership.

It's a long journey for them. They constantly come up against the limits of their habits and thinking, and Jesus patiently guides them beyond those limits again and again. It is a comprehensive formation process, and it will be necessary to prepare them for the passion and terrifying crucifixion to come. It will also be necessary to sustain them after Jesus' resurrection as they go forth into the world baptizing and teaching in his name.

On this the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we begin our liturgical journey down the mountain and into the wilderness of Lent. There we set aside time to confront the limits of our own habits and thinking as we make space in our busy lives for Jesus to guide us beyond our own limits.

One of the limits we modern Christians constantly confront is our individualism. Throughout Scripture we hear about God's people, God's salvation of the whole world, and yet, we go about our lives as if salvation is about me, not us. But, as we hear in the second letter of Peter, the good news, the prophetic message we share lives in the community of men and women moved by the Holy Spirit.

If we, like the first disciples, are to be made ready to be bearers of the Good News, we must allow ourselves to be brought beyond all of our small, comfortable conceptions about God and ourselves. We must allow ourselves to be guided beyond the limits of our understanding and experience. We must be willing to practice Lent together, as men and women moved by the Holy Spirit, so that we can be made ready to serve together for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people.