Saturday, January 30, 2016

Re-enter the womb of God this Lent

If I could reduce the purpose and practice of Lent into a single idea, I would use this quote from a poem by St. Theresa of Avila:“[God] desired me, so I came close.” 

It’s very sad to me that the most pervasive notion about Lent (my favorite season) is that it is a dark and difficult season, to be approached with avoidance, guilt, and self-loathing; that we have to “tame” our desires by giving something up, then use all the self-control we can muster to keep our Lenten promises. Doesn’t it occur to those people that exerting our self-will is exactly what we are called NOT to do during Lent?

Lent isn’t a time of practicing self control. It’s a time of relinquishing it. During Lent we practice discipline and penitence. It’s a mistake to confuse discipline with self-control and penitence with wallowing. In fact, it’s sin: the sin of hubris – the very thing that got Adam and Eve in trouble in the garden.

Our discipline and repentance are the means by which we re-enter the womb of God where we can rest, be restored, renewed, and prepared. In his book, “Praying Shapes Believing,”  theologian Lee Mitchell reminds us that: “Joy, love, and renewal are as much Lenten themes as are penitence, fasting, and self-denial; and we need to remember that it is within the context of preparation for our participation in the Feast of feasts that [our] Lenten penitence is expressed.” (29). 

Or - as St. Theresa said, “[God] desired me so I came close.”

Temptation is that which leads us into sin – and sin is that which causes us to forget who we are, whose we are, and why we’re here. St. Luke tells us that Jesus, the Incarnate One, the manifest reality of the unity of humanity and divinity, was tempted to separate himself into a dichotomy of body and spirit; to focus on his humanity (he was famished) and forget about his divinity.

Next, though he knew his purpose on earth (the reason he came), Jesus was tempted to walk away from God’s plan for his life and live out a different plan – one in which he, rather than God, would get the glory.

Finally, Jesus was tempted to throw his life away, daring God to prove that he mattered.

Each of these temptations teaches us something about our relationship with God. The first temptation, separation from the spark of the divine that is within us, goes to our very identity. We are body and spirit. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, humanity and divinity were reconciled. Each of us is, therefore, a living testimony to that harmonious co-existence. To separate ourselves, even in our thoughts, is to undo the gift Christ died to give us.

The second temptation, putting ourselves and our wills ahead of our obedience to the will of God, goes to how, or even whether, we will live into our purpose. If Jesus’ life is any example,
living into our purpose won’t be all blessing and honor, but it will be redemptive – for us and for those whom God puts in our lives. When we’re honest, it seems ridiculous that we think we can devise a plan for happiness and fulfillment by chasing after that perfect life partner, or that perfect job, or that perfect body. Our hubris is, at times, astonishing.

The third temptation, trying to prove we matter by throwing away the very gift God gave us in the first place, goes to our core understanding of ourselves as beloved. It’s true that many people don’t feel very beloved, their earthly experiences have taught them to believe otherwise. But faith assures us that we are truly beloved of God.

The temptations Jesus faced in our gospel story aren’t the only temptations out there. Discovering what our temptations are and repenting of them is our goal during Lent.

Some of us eat to comfort ourselves. For these, repentance means honest self reflection along with substituting prayer or prayerful activity for cookies or chips.

Others among us work too much in order to win approval or to feel like we matter. For these, repentance means committing to a schedule that balances time devoted to work, family, leisure, and real time with God.

Some of us habitually deny ourselves anything good out of self-loathing. For these repentance means fasting from self-criticism or keeping a prayer journal which acknowledges the daily gifts and blessings God is constantly giving.

For all of us, Lent is a good time to commit to regular attendance at Sunday worship or Morning Prayer, remembering that we live out our purpose in community as the body of Christ in the world. Lent is also a good time for all of us to fast from complaining, self-criticism, foods or eating habits that will harm us, combativeness at work, in school, or in church – whatever leads us away from the love of God, self, and other. 

The disciplines we practice are meant to help us enter humbly into the presence of God, where we surrender ourselves to God’s unfathomable love and unfailing care for us. The emptiness in us that continually seeks satisfaction comes from our sense of separation from that love. We know this deep down but often don’t  pay it real attention.

It’s helpful to remember that God desires communion with us. Doing so quiets those voices of temptation that play like a tape-recording in our heads, saying: you’re not worthy, you’re not beautiful, you’re not gifted, you’re not loved. We are. We’re also unfinished… continually growing, maturing in body and in spirit.

Our brokenness is not something to be ashamed of or to avoid. It is as much a gift as any talent we possess because it is the place in us where God dwells most assuredly, most compassionately.

Our brokenness is the cross we bear; the place where salvation is victorious in us; the place where we witness the reconciling power of God still at work in the world.  When others see this growth and maturation in us they are empowered to stop being ashamed of their brokenness, to pick up their cross and walk into redemption.

Draw close to God this Lent. God desires it. We hunger for it. There’s nothing to fear.

The poem that I quoted from St. Theresa of Avila (which is a handout in your bulletin)
concludes like this:

A thousand souls hear [God’s] call every second,
but most every one then looks into their life’s mirror and
says, “I am not worthy to leave this

When I first heard his courting song, I too
looked at all I had done in my life
and said,

“How can I gaze into his omnipresent eyes?”
I spoke those words with all my heart,

but then He sang again, a song even sweeter,
and when I tried to shame myself once more from His presence
God showed me His compassion and spoke a divine truth,

“I made you, dear, and all I made is perfect.
Please come close, for I


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Farewell from your rector

During my time serving with you at Redeemer a couple of themes have risen up in my prayers, sermons, articles, and conversations. These will probably sound familiar to you, and I offer them as my farewell reflection.

1) We are temples of the Holy Spirit, and so, we have nothing to fear. The truth of this is alternately joyful and terrifying. The power of God’s love, the presence of Jesus’ own spirit dwells in us constantly transforming us and the world in which we live, move, and have our being. Most often it isn’t our circumstances or helplessness we fear but the power of God that lives in us, individually and corporately, ready to transform. As a result we often minimize that power in us, limit it, or outright deny it, choosing instead to rely on our own knowledge, experience, influence, etc. The good news is, since nothing is impossible for God (Lk 1:37), neither is anything impossible for us in whom God dwells. Not by our own efforts, of course, but by our… (see #2)

2) Surrender (or as Deacon Pam says it, “Welcome, welcome, welcome!”). Everything is a gift, even the hard and difficult things we face (Ro 5:3-5), AND redemption is guaranteed – in God’s time and in God’s way. In his meditation this morning, Brother David Vryhof, SSJE tells us we are called to let go, to relinquish our need to control and define, to manipulate and possess. Self-fulfillment comes through laying down our lives in obedience to God’s deepest yearnings for us.”

3) And God’s yearning for us is that we abide in love (Jn15:9) which is eternal life – life in the eternal presence of God. The ‘football passage’ (Jn 3:16), reminds us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that EVERYONE (emphasis mine) who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” And I always remind people to keep reading through verse 17 which says: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God’s judgement of us, God’s promise to us is salvation, which means redemption is guaranteed. God will see to it.

4) In the meantime, we who have received Christ Jesus, must choose to continue to live in him. (Col 2:6) By his own life, Jesus showed us what that would look like: a life full of friendship and betrayal, joy and hardship, miraculous ministry and rejected ministry, truth-telling that leads to conflict, earthly injustice and divine redemption. As it was for him, so will it be for us.

The Good News is that redemption has already been accomplished by our Savior and the outcome of that – reconciliation of the world to God in Christ - is our mission as followers of Jesus: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP, 855). Christians are part of a Jesus Movement, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls it. We are agents of Christ, gifted specifically to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation of the world. It is our duty as Episcopalians to take our place in the life, worship, and governance of the church which is the means by which our mission is accomplished. (BCP, 855) It is also where we are strengthened to serve by the nourishment we receive in Word and Sacrament.

God bless you all as you live into the fullness of life God has given you and gifted you to do. Steve and I will hold you in continuing prayer as you continue to grow in your love of God and your service to God’s people; all for the glory of God. Please come say good-bye at the service of leave-taking Tuesday evening (1/26) at 6:30. There’ll be food afterwards! Peace out.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Epiphany 2, 2016: Do whatever he tells you

Lectionary: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

The big picture behind our lectionary readings today can be summed up in this quote from Mother Theresa: “When you know how much God loves you, you can’t help but radiate that love.”

The reading from Isaiah has the prophet clarifying in no uncertain terms the identity and destiny of the people of God. Isaiah tells them how much God loves them and that God’s purpose for them will be fulfilled in and through them despite how impossible that seems in the difficult circumstances they are experiencing.

Let’s listen again to what we read from Isaiah: ‘For you, God’s people, I will not keep silent… I will not rest, until you are freed from all blame and your freedom shines like the dawn, until your deliverance from the consequences of sin shines like a burning torch. Everyone will witness this and the powerful in the world will see your glory. You will have a new identity which God will give you and you will be a crown of beauty, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No one will call you forsaken or desolate. Instead, you will be known as the one who delights God and you will be fruitful because you will be one with your God and your oneness will be a source of joy for God who rejoices over you.’

People of Redeemer, you are - right now -being given a new name, a new identity, and in this newness of life, you are a crown of beauty, a royal diadem: beautiful, valuable, and precious in the hand of God. Your new identity is grounded in a union with God, an intimate and permanent union, one that is a source of joy for God and, by your very presence in the world, a witness to the world of God’s love for the world.

And not just you, but all of Christianity – all people who are followers of Jesus. Look out at the world. It’s the same out there as it is in here.

Today’s psalm sings of the ridiculous abundance of the love of God which reaches to the heavens, is strong, just, given for the whole world, priceless and a place of refuge in times of trouble.

Then the letter to the church in Corinth describes how the love of God is expressed through the people of God as gifts given to individuals who live in a community of faith – and why. As Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The light of God’s love radiates into the world through the church. Each community of faith is given gifts as the Spirit chooses so that they are able to address the needs of the world in their time and place.

It has always been this way, as the gospel shows us. An ordinary event, a village wedding, becomes the setting for an extraordinary event: the first manifest sign of the marriage (that is, the intimate union) of the human and the divine in Jesus and what that means for the world.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, notices that the wine has run out - something that would cause shame for the host family - and mentions it to her son. Jesus’ response, as rude as it sounds, was typical response for an adult male of that time, firmly supported in the cultural position of gender superiority: Madam, he says to his mother, what business is that of mine? “My hour has not yet come.”

That phrase, ‘My hour has not yet come’ can also be translated as: ‘The time of my blossoming, the moment of my reckoning, has not yet come.’ Well, that’s what Jesus thought anyway, but apparently, his mother knew better.

Undaunted by Jesus’ public display of arrogance and immaturity, Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” And Jesus obeyed her, telling the servants to fill the water jars with water, then bring a taste of it to the master of the feast - kind of the Mr. Carson (from Downton Abbey) of the party. The water had been turned into wine – a wine of the finest quality and it was in ridiculous abundance – which is how the love of God looks when manifest in the world.

In addition, Jesus’ mother, who was just a woman, initiated this sign by saying something extremely profound: “They have no wine.” Was she talking about the drink made from fermented grapes? Yes. But this is Scripture, so there’s always something more, something spiritual. For example, our perspective allows us to connect this with the events of the Last Supper where our Savior shares a cup of wine which he declares to be his blood of the new covenant, shed for all for the redemption of sins.

“They have no wine” Mary said, and she was right – and Jesus knew it, so he humbled himself for the first time, and gave them their first taste of the New Covenant – and it was delicious and abundant.

To most who were there, and most who read this story in Scripture, it looked a simple event. There’s a wedding, the wine runs out, Jesus is there, so he makes more miraculously. But, as the evangelist tells us, only his disciples came to believe in him as a result of this sign. Most everyone at the wedding had no clue what was going on – except for the servants who also obeyed Mary when she told them: “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

The deeper meaning is this: Jesus, who is the firstborn of the marriage, that is, the real and intimate union of human and divine, is letting the fullness of himself be revealed for the first time in this moment. This story of the wedding in Cana marks the beginning of the disciples believing in him as the Messiah of God.

It’s also the beginning of the revelation of how Jesus does things and how that will transform the world. Stepping down from his lofty position of male privilege, Jesus humbly – and publicly - obeys his mother. This violates his cultural gender norms.

Serving the best wine last at the wedding also violates cultural norms, but that’s how Jesus rolls – over and over again – and this the first indication of a pattern Jesus will repeat and calls us to repeat in his name. It’s the one the prophet Isaiah describes like this: “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain… made low,[and] the uneven ground shall become level...” (Isa 40:4)

Another important part of this story is the direction the action takes. When Jesus was at the wedding he wasn’t aware of the moment presenting itself. When his Mother pointed it out, he thinking was about himself (My hour has not yet come), until Mary re-directed him to think of others (They have no wine). This is the direction we who are followers of Jesus must notice and practice.

Mary’s voice is echoed in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose holiday we celebrate tomorrow, who once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” (Source)

This is the direction, it seems to me, our primates in the Anglican Communion lost sight of this week as they gathered in Canterbury, England. Their concern seemed to focus almost exclusively on themselves: how the issue of sexuality affected them, their culture, and how they live out their Anglican identity. The Archbishop of Nigeria commented that this issue is a one of cultural difference – African culture being very different from American and European culture. ( I guess he forgot how many times Jesus violated cultural norms for the purpose of manifesting the kingdom of God in the world.

I didn’t hear a single primate, besides our own (God bless ++Michael Curry), speak of how all of this was affecting believers, especially LGBTQ believers around the world. I also didn’t hear much from our primates about how we Anglicans, in all our diversity, could serve the needs of the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, or the needy around the world. So many in the world have no wine. What are we doing for them?

One of the most precious memories I will take from my time at Redeemer is our ministry partnership with Living Waters and the witness that gave to our local community. We didn’t agree on practically anything theological, but we served the hungry together, and that was enough to form lasting bonds of friendship as we manifested the kingdom of God here in Shelby.

There are people right now in our neighborhoods who have no wine. There are people right here in this church who have no wine. This is why, in the words of Isaiah, I can’t keep silent; why I haven’t been able to rest - and why you can’t either.

People of God at Redeemer, you have been chosen by God and gifted for a purpose. You are a crown of beauty, a royal diadem in the hand of God. Let no one – not even you - call you desolate.

Your hour, your time of blossoming, has come. I pray you allow the fullness of God’s love which dwells in you to radiate with the brightness of Christ’s glory as you serve in his holy name. I pray you recognize, nurture, and use your many gifts because so many out there have no wine and you have it in abundance.

I know some of you don’t feel ready, but have faith, which as Dr. King says, “is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” You are followers of Jesus who has promised to be with you always, leading you, loving you. Do whatever he tells you. Amen.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Exciting true hope

The big news the last couple of weeks has been the record-breaking $1.5 billion Powerball lottery. The news frenzy has been astonishing and disturbing. There were reports of poor and working-class people spending huge amounts of money buying lottery tickets despite the staggering odds against winning: 1 in 292.2 million. (Source) The fact that buying multiple tickets, even thousands of them, does not increase the odds of winning, seemed irrelevant to many purchasers.

Even people who typically don’t play the lottery bought tickets for this prize. Lottery officials said they were selling 131,000 tickets a minute. (Source)


People continue to buy into the hope that winning a lottery will solve their financial problems, or at least ease their financial burdens. Yet, according to a study “by researchers at Vanderbilt University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Pittsburgh, the more money you win in the lottery, the more likely you are to end up bankrupt.” (Source) About 70% of all lottery winners end up going broke and filing for bankruptcy. (Source)

Contrary to popular opinion, most lottery winners also aren’t happier for having won. In 1980, for example, Evelyn Adams won the lottery twice, but quickly gambled away her $5.4 million winnings and lives in a trailer park, financially ruined. Billy Bob Harrell Jr. was a Pentecostal preacher and stock boy who won $31 million. “The stress of winning so overwhelmed him that he divorced his wife and committed suicide.” Jack Whitaker won $315-million, but said, “he wished he never won after his teenage granddaughter became addicted to drugs and then was found dead in 2007 of… an overdose. His daughter died in 2009 in another apparent overdose.” (Source)

The yearning the lottery taps into is deep and ubiquitous among humans, but it can’t be satisfied by money, not even lots of it. The hope is for happiness – but that’s where we go astray.

The goal of life isn’t happiness. Jesus didn’t come among us and send us out to spread happiness. Jesus sends us out to the share the Good News that the whole world is being reconciled to God in Christ right now; that God created, loves, sustains, and sanctifies us – all of us – not because of what we do but because of who we are: God’s own people, the apple of God’s eye. (Source, p 132)

Happiness happens, but so does pain, misfortune, blessing, and injustice. That’s called fullness of life. Followers of Jesus know that we must take up our cross and follow him – to the cross, the grave, and finally into resurrection life. Happiness isn’t our goal; faithfulness is.

The Good News we bear assures us that God is with us, within us, working out a perfect plan of salvation for us and for the whole world. It assures us that whatever we face in life and the world, we face as a community. No one is alone. We are one body, one spirit in Christ – the church – and we are assured that “nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” (Source, p 862)

If the Church could motivate people to participate in the work of reconciliation the way the lottery motivates people to buy tickets, think of how the world might be blessed and transformed! It staggers the mind and excites hope – true hope – which is: “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” (Source,p 861)