Sunday, March 22, 2020

Lent 4: Wake up and see the blessings

Lectionary:1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an mp3 audio file.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

My dear friends, we can’t gather in person today but, giving thanks for the technology of our age, we can gather virtually: one blessing among many being revealed to us in this time. As our bishops said in their most recent pastoral letter, “Keep awake.” Yes, we must keep awake so that we notice the graciousness of God who continually blesses us, and when we notice these blessings we can share them as good news, light in the time of darkness for so many.

This is basically the same message Samuel is hearing in today’s Old Testament reading. Wake up, Samuel. Stop looking back at what was. I know you grieve the loss of it, but look! I am sending you a blessing, a leader who will bring you forward into the life I choose for you, a life of peace and abundance.

A life so tenderly described for us in the 23rd Psalm where God calls our attention from the stresses of the world and invites us to come, to lie down and rest on the soft grass beside the still waters God has created for us. Once God has our attention, the calm begins to happen in us. Our breathing slows, our faces relax, the knots in our stomachs and chests release. We breathe deeply in - filling ourselves with the grace of God. Then we breathe out, releasing all our stress.

Now wrapped up in divine peace, we notice a beautiful table has been set for us, but not just for us. Also present are those who trouble us, but the divine peace within us keeps us from judging or questioning or excluding.

We sit together at tables covered in fresh, white linens. The flames of the candles on the tables dance in the soft breeze but never go out, and the tables are decorated with vases of fragrant flowers and herbs.

Sumptuous food is in the center of each table; and there are goblets of water and wine, already full, at every seat. It’s a family meal where no one is lonely, no one is left out of the conversation, and everyone has plenty to eat. Our cups are running over, and joy abounds.

Then, to prove just how much we matter God anoints our heads with oil - something usually reserved for kings and queens but is being offered by God to all. At that moment, when the oil touches our foreheads, we feel the power of God’s love enter us and course through our bodies like light breaking into darkness. The anointing reveals to us that all of us have been chosen by God to lead the world to this gracious place where everyone can be filled with the peace of God, where all are made one in the family of God.

This is what Jesus is demonstrating in today’s gospel from John. The man born blind would have been judged as cursed, punished by God for a sin someone else committed. But Jesus reframes the situation, revealing the blessing the others weren’t seeing, as if he were saying, wake up, and see the blessing.

This man was born blind. You have judged him, questioned his circumstance, and excluded him from your grace; but through him the graciousness of God will be revealed.

The ritual is simple, as were all of Jesus' rituals. He combines mud, the unglamorous substance of the earth with the life-giving water of Christ’s own self. Earth and heaven are made one in this outcast.

Go and wash, Jesus tells the man, and when he does, his sight is restored. By restoring his sight, Jesus also offers the man a whole new future. He has the potential for a job, a family, to be part of a community. His days as a vilified sinner are over - or are they?

The gospel story takes us to his community’s response to his restoration. They judge him, question Jesus’s revelation of God through him, and they exclude him again. The blessing God was giving them is rejected because the people wouldn’t let go of what was in order to receive the new life God was offering them.

We do this too. We’re subject to doing it now in this pandemic moment, which is why I’ve been asking everyone to watch for the blessings. Keep awake! God is always giving us reason to rejoice.

My vestments today are an outward sign of our commitment to that belief. Today is the 4th Sunday in Lent, also known as Laetare or Rose Sunday (hence the pink vestments). “Laetare” is Latin for “rejoice” and we pause our Lenten season to collectively lift up our faces to the light of Christ, rejoicing that he lives in us and we in him.

Throughout our long history, the church has gathered to ritually practice this reality through the sharing of Holy Communion, making present in our time what Jesus did in his: gathering his friends together for a simple meal of bread and wine. But in Jesus’ hands and by his prayers, that simple food became holy food, the food of life.

“Evermore give us this bread that Christ may live in us and we in him.”

Since the way we’ve always done it before has become suddenly unavailable we - the church and all of us who are members of it - have the opportunity to wake up and see the blessings God is offering us in this.

Last week, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well: “…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

This hour is our version of the hour Jesus spoke about - and it is here. It is now. As we prepare to share our Holy Communion virtually, we do it awake, noticing the blessing that even during a time of quarantine God invites us to eat and drink of the holy food of Communion which makes us one body, one Spirit in Christ.

As we prepare for our virtual Holy Communion I offer this prayer, adapted from the prayer of St. Alphonsus de Liguori (1696–1787):

Beloved Jesus, I believe that you are truly present in the sacrament of the altar. I long for you in my soul, to know that I am in you and that you are in me. Though physically isolated from your altar and the sacrament of your Body and Blood, I receive you spiritually into my heart and the depths of my being. United with you, help me know that my life is hid with you, O Christ, in the heart of God. Amen. (Edited by The Rev. Dr. Rob Voyle)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Lent 3A,2020: Our Lord, our love, and our life

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

(Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an mp3 audio format).

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

I’m not sure I could have chosen a better Collect to begin our worship today. As we and the whole church seek to respond to coronavirus pandemic, the Spirit has offered us this prayer to remind us that faith is a partner with science for us; both of them being gifts to us from God who is, in the end, the only one who can protect us and make us whole.

When we are rattled by something over which we have little to no control, we believers have the gift of faith to help us wait for redemption. In the meantime, we are called to notice, give thanks for, and respond to the blessings surfacing for us like flowers shooting out from cracks in the sidewalk. For example, I’ve listened to rectors and interims talk for years about the resistance to letting go the practice of intinction, despite credible and consistent information from medical experts about how unhealthy and risky a practice it is. Yet, in this coronavirus moment, the information we’ve had and preached for years about intinction is finally being heard and accepted, and intinction is, hopefully, gone for good.

As a pastor, I’ve noticed that the challenging moments of our lives, whether physical or spiritual, can strengthen our faith even when it weakens it first. I think of our beloved mystic Julian of Norwich who suffered terrible physical ailments, but didn’t judge or fear or disconnect from them. Instead, she faithfully awaited the revelation of the blessing in them, and as a result, experienced Christ in ways that completely transformed her, leading her to her famous description of Christ the Mother of Mercy: “And even though some earthly mother might allow a child of hers to perish, our heavenly mother, Jesus, may never suffer us to be lost, for we are his children. And he is almighty, all wisdom, all love… For now, he wants us to behave just like a child; for when a child is upset or afraid, it runs straight to its mother with all its might.”

What a lovely description of our relationship to God. When we are hurt or afraid, our Creator wants us to run, as a toddler runs, with all its might, into the divine embrace.

In her description of her vision of the hazelnut, Julian speaks to what we prayed in the Collect in which we ask God to keep us in body and soul. She says, “I saw three properties about this tiny object. First, God had made it; second, God loves it; and third, that God keeps it…he is the Maker, the Keeper, the Lover… I understood this revelation to teach our soul to cling fast to the goodness of God…what delights him most, is when we pray simply trusting his goodness, holding on to him, relying upon his grace.”

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus demonstrates the way earth and heaven relate for those who believe. Choosing to stop at the well of Jacob to rest the Word Incarnate, engages a Samaritan woman in a redemptive conversation.

Both Jesus and the Samaritan woman would know of the legend that when the water first rose up in Jacob’s well, it bubbled over the top, spilling out as a bold demonstration of the abundance of God. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he offers water that will gush up to eternal life!.

Then he demonstrates his divine-human nature by asking the woman to go home and return with her husband. She replies that she has no husband, and Jesus affirms that saying, you’ve had five, and the one you’re with now is not your husband. Even by today’s standards, that would turn religious heads, but what’s remarkable here is that Jesus knows this about her - and doesn’t judge her!

I think it’s important to look at a few other things Jesus doesn’t do in this story. Jesus doesn’t exclude the woman according to her categories: Samaritan, woman, married 5 times, living “in sin”… He doesn’t ask her to repent or change the situation of her life; and he doesn’t forbid her from proclaiming the huge news he hasn’t even told his disciples yet – that he is the Messiah of God.

This woman, who has no name, no fame, and no legacy except this story, is the first person to whom the Christ reveals himself. She rushes home, leaving her water jar behind in her haste, and proclaims this good news to her people, and, as our gospel writer tells us, “many Samaritans came to believe in him because of her testimony.” (39)

The Samaritan woman was transformed by her encounter with the grace of God in Christ and through her, her community was too. What she did is what all of us, all churches and members of them, are called to do: to share our story of how our lives have been transformed by our encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ. When we share our good news with others, the redemptive love of God gushes forth from us reaching farther and farther beyond us in the overflow.

Despite what we may see and hear to the contrary in the world today, it is not our job to save the world or even to save ourselves. Only God can save and Jesus has already done that. We have been asked to partner with Christ in the continuing work of redemption by telling our good news, by living as if we truly believe our good news, by clinging fast to the goodness of God, and by trusting God to “keep us outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls.”

We’re all aware that few things give Episcopalians the hee-bee gee-bees more than evangelism. Part of that is our sensitivity to how it’s been done wrong, but evangelism is vital to the continuing life of any church. Churches don’t grow because they possess the right doctrine or because they have well-done liturgies or even because of their budgets or programs. Churches grow because one person connects with another person and another person and the divine in each of them unites them into one body, one spirit.

It is in this divine union that we work together as partners with God in redemption.

The world needs the good news we have to share in a big way right now. When we and our churches we cling fast to the goodness of God, when we trust the source of the eternal spring of water that gives us life, it gushes up in us, bonding us in divine union in the eternal, redeeming presence of God, and spills out from us to the thirsty world we are called to serve.

Let us pray:

“Create in each one of us [ O God] a pool of peace, a deep well of healing that can transform [fear to faith,] bitterness to love,… irritation to tolerance, rejection to acceptance, and inadequacy to confidence…” Then empower us to share this good news of ours that your redeeming love may reach to the ends of the earth quenching all those who thirst and nourishing all creation from the spring of eternal life that is you, Jesus Christ our Lord, our love, and our life. Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Lent 2-A, 2020: Seeds of new life

Lectionary: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for mp3 audio format.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

I share with you a story about a dog we once had named Ollie. Ollie was a Dachshund - Jack Russell mix. We loved our Ollie, but he must have gotten the DNA bearing the most difficult qualities of each of those breeds, and it made him… challenging.

Ollie was just doxie enough to make training him difficult, and he found himself in trouble a lot. Ollie knew when he’d done a bad thing, so he obeyed when we told him to go to time out, which meant he had to go into his crate for a time

Over time, Ollie would put himself in time out and we’d look around to see what he’d done. Eventually, he’d just walk in and right back out of his crate. He wasn’t really repentant and knew we’d forgive him anyway, so he didn’t bother spending any real time in time out. He just got the procedure over with.

I tell you this story because I’ve found that many people treat Lent the way Ollie treated time out. But Lent isn’t about punishment and it isn’t just going through the motions without really repenting, that is, being willing to be changed.

So what is Lent about? The word “Lent” means spring (are you surprised?) and it’s a time when new life is being formed in us, in the depths of our souls; and the one forming that new life is the same one who forms all life: God, whose glory it is always to have mercy, as our Collect says.

Medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, talks about the “greening” of our souls which is, I think, a good image for Lent. I picture Hildegard’s concept like this: We go about our lives basically unaware that the demands and influences of the world have slowly but steadily dried up the soil of our souls leaving them hardened and with cracks like a dried-up river bed.

During Lent, we enter into a period of self-examination that brings to our awareness just how dry we’ve become – a revelation which brings with it the realization that we are unable to irrigate ourselves. There is almost a desperateness in this moment of revelation, a deep knowledge that without this irrigation, our souls will completely dry up and turn to dust.

But our faith assures us that it is from the dust we were created in the first place. So, we trust… and we wait… 40 days, and 40 nights.

At some point, the hands of our Creator reach into the soil of our souls, breaking through the dry surface. Then wetting our souls with living water from the well-spring of life, Jesus, the Christ, the Almighty ensures that the nutrient-rich, life-giving water reaches all the dry parts.

Into this divinely massaged soul-soil the Creator places the seeds of new life for us, sweeps the surface of the soil smooth, sprinkles on a bit more life-giving water, and asks us to wait while the seeds within us take root and grow.

So, you see, we don’t DO Lent. We let Lent happen in us – and we do that by faith.

This is exactly what our Gospel reading today is describing for us in the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. What does one have to do to get born from above? Nicodemus is understandably confused, so Jesus assures him that what is born of the Spirit is spirit. In other words, you can’t do it. The Spirit of God does it in you. Just trust and let it happen by faith.

Then Jesus tells Nicodemus, don’t be astonished by that. Be astonished instead by this: God’s love for the world is such that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. That’s pretty astonishing when you think about it.

But wait, there’s more (as Mona Lisa Vito would say)! And it speaks to the character of God whose glory is always to have mercy: God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

In the present day, this is such an important reminder. As partners with Christ in the work of reconciliation, we are not here to condemn the world or anyone in it but to “embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of Jesus Christ” and invite everyone we encounter into relationship with him through us.

As St. Paul reminds us, it isn’t our works but our faith in God’s works that enables us to be in right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves, and it depends on faith so that the promise rests on God’s grace and is guaranteed to all. We do not get to cast anyone outside the net of God’s love.

The time we set aside during Lent is our invitation to God to cultivate us and prepare us to live our divine purpose. Lent is not a time to wallow in the misery of our wretchedness as hopeless sinners as some would have us believe. We are not hopeless. We are redeemed!

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.

The hard work of Lent is emptying ourselves of all that already fills us. But emptiness scares us – the nothingness of it feels kind of like death, so we tend to avoid it. Knowing, however, 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, or our neighbors, or in the case of Calvary, the end of an era under the leadership of a beloved rector and the preparation for new life with a new rector.

Is the timing of this not perfect? God is good, all the time!

One final word about this: 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 let it happen in us, choosing to make space for God to cultivate new life in us.

Let us pray.

Creator God, in your mercy and wisdom, you have brought us together in this time and place to love and serve according to your plan of love. Knead the soil of our souls with your life-giving spirit. We promise to welcome the seeds of new life you are planting in us now, even knowing this means change is upon us. Guide us that we may nourish those seeds and bear fruit that gives you glory and serves the welfare of all your people in our corner of your kingdom garden. In the name of our Savior, Jesus, the Christ, we pray this. Amen.