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 Рguaranteed - and the love of God is ready to heal whatever wounds our naivet̩ 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.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Epiphany Last, 21-B: Strengthened and changed

 Lectionary: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9 

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

As Christians we are, I hope, dedicated to a life-long journey of formation to strengthen our spiritual muscles, as it were, to continually grow and mature in our faith. Most of us have spent a lifetime already learning and saying prayers, hearing the stories in our Scriptures, and wrestling with what they mean for us today. 

 The skill we use for that is what I call “listening behind the words.” There are the words in our prayers, and the greater truth behind those words given to us by “the Spirit [who] intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (Ro 8:26) There are the stories in our Scriptures and the eternal truth behind those stories that enable us to connect the divine intention to our lives today.

In Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story, Jesus leads his Executive Committee - Peter, James, and John - away from the others. They go up to a high mountain – Bible-speak for a place where God is encountered.

Suddenly, Jesus begins to shine with a light so bright his clothes dazzle and there was a brilliant aura emanating from him. These are traditional symbols for transcendence - the greatness of God, that surpasses all things created. Mark is telling us that what happened on that mountain was an experience that goes beyond the limits of all possible knowledge and experience - an eternal truth about God.

Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear and they are chatting with Jesus. The two most powerful prophets in Jewish history, Biblical heroes who were long dead and gone, are suddenly not dead or gone. They're right here and Peter, James, and John watch as their ancient heroes chat with their beloved rabbi. In this is revealed the eternal truth that death is not the end for us, but the gateway to eternal life.

Then Peter, God bless Peter, offers to build a shrine to mark this amazing moment. Peter takes some grief for his suggestion, but it wasn’t so out there. People make shrines all the time to leave a visual marker of an important event - like the crosses we see on roadsides that mark where someone died in a car accident, or grottos to Mother Mary in places like Lourdes, Guadalupe, and Fatima. It helps some people to go to a place where heaven met earth and pray there.

Then, Mark tells us, they are overshadowed by a cloud. A cloud is Bible-speak for the Spirit of God, as when Moses was given the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai. And these disciples were overshadowed by the Spirit of God just as Mary was when she conceived the Son of God in her womb, but what they conceive is a transforming truth – one that will take a little time to come to maturity in them. Seeing Jesus 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, so untrue.

Then, in an instant, the world around them returns to the one they knew and could comprehend. Jesus wasn't glowing anymore. Moses and Elijah were gone. The cloud of God's powerful presence has vanished, and it’s just them again on the mountain, alone.

As they begin their journey down the mountain, 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: What just happened? Was it a dream? It couldn't have been a dream… can you even have a group dream? Wait till we tell the others! As if he can hear their thoughts, Jesus warns his Executive Committee to tell no one until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Did they connect the dots that Jesus, who dazzled only moments ago, is actually the Messiah of God, and said that he will die and rise again? Did we?

The three disciples' journey down the mountain marks the beginning of their journey to new lives as the truth conceived in them begins to take root and grow. The remainder of Mark’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 their call to become servant leaders of this new way of being in the world.

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.

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 discover and confront the limits of our habits and thinking and invite Jesus to guide us beyond those limits into a new way of being in the world.

If we are to be “strengthened to bear our cross, and… changed into [Jesus’] likeness from glory to glory, then we must invite Jesus to guide us, to change us and how we live in the world as it is right now… a world where millions of people have insufficient access to safe food, water, housing, and medical care… a world where people are disenfranchised or killed because of the color of their skin or their gender or gender-fluidity… a world where people can get fired from their jobs because they are gay or trans… a world where the “haves” can ignore the needs of the “have-nots” and enforce laws and practices to maintain the status quo they have carefully engineered to keep them on top.

Thankfully, our liturgical calendar offers us the perfect opportunity to be guided in just this way. We call it Lent.
On Ash Wednesday this week, we will embody our awareness of “the shortness and uncertainty of human life” by marking our foreheads with ash in the shape of the cross of Christ, and we’ll begin an intentional journey toward truth and transformation in holiness and righteousness, boldness and compassion, in the manner of Jesus, whom we proclaim as Lord. 

May it be so for each of us and for all of us. Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

5 Epiphany, 2021-B: All things to all people

 Lectionary: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39 

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

Long ago and far away, I spent a year as a hospital chaplain on the oncology-hematology unit of a regional hospital deep in the heart of the Bible belt in south GA. All of my cancer patients died and my sickle cell patients returned regularly with painful recurrences of their disease. 

These people needed God to be bigger and more powerful than the diseases destroying their bodies. They needed the God described in Isaiah who is “great in strength [and] mighty in power.” As insignificant and undeserving as they often said they felt, they needed to believe that God cared about them and would, as Isaiah said, “give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless.”

During a typical hospital visit, I would spend a great deal of time listening. I often heard them say they feared God - not because God was so great but because they were upset with God for not caring enough to cure them. Then they felt guilty, which made them afraid that God might be mad at them for being angry. It’s a terrible spiral.

As their chaplain, I had to trust that my prayer would unite us to God, as Julian of Norwich said it would. It also meant putting aside my way of being a child of God and entering their way. For example, when family or friends were present, I would listen as they talked or prayed together.

I made note of the words and phrases they used – especially the ones they repeated. I would listen for the song of their prayers, that is, the way they used their voices. I learned the cadence and language of their prayers so that when I spoke the good news to them they could hear and understand it. I also noticed their posture so I could mirror it.

For the Pentecostal patients, I learned to pray as a Pentecostal: “Thank you, Jesus. We just thank you Jesus that we can come to you right now and give you praise. We call upon you, Lord, in the name of Jesus to lift the burdens of our hearts. Here is your child, Father God. Take him home now – home to glory-land. Thank you, Jesus. Glory halleluiah!”

For the Jewish patients, I prayed like a Jew: “Hear, O Adonai, and answer the prayers of your faithful servants. Look upon the suffering of this your righteous one and be merciful to her. Protect her with the strength of your right arm, for you are steadfast in love and mighty in power, and to you we give thanks and sing our praise forever.”

To the wounded Christians, I prayed as one also wounded: “Holy God, you are gracious and full of compassion. Hear our prayers for this beloved child of yours. Hold him close in the warm embrace of your healing love. Smile upon him and comfort him in body, mind, and spirit.”

Praying like this was meaningful for them and didn’t feel the least bit hypocritical to me. Was it hypocritical of God to become Incarnate – to become like us – so that we could understand and believe? By seeking to serve in this way, I came to realize that there is within me the free and fiery heart of a Pentecostal, the deep and faithful heart of a Jew, and the cautious but hopeful heart of the wounded ones.

My purpose, as a witness of Christ’s love, was not to analyze their theology or teach them mine. All I had to do was let God show me the connection between them and me, then be willing to be connected. Religious laws and theological perspectives become so beside the point in the face of the Love that connects us - especially in times of suffering or at death.

When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, he violated religious law. Jewish men were not to touch women who were not their family, and worse yet, this healing happened on the Sabbath. But for Jesus, compassion overruled the law – and it was the first of many times he would model such behavior.

Jesus proclaimed the good news to all regardless of the divisions imposed by culture – divisions like class or race or gender or nationality. We who carry on the ministry of proclaiming the good news must be willing, as Jesus was, to go to the people who need to hear the message of salvation, and like St. Paul teaches, give it to them in ways they can understand so that they can receive it.

Elizabethan English, which is found in the King James Bible and in the Rite I services in our Prayer Book, is the language of a past world, and it isn’t very useful when talking to “yutes” in ‘the hood.’ It is, however, the deep spiritual language of many over the age of 50 and a growing number of Millenials, so it continues to have value.

Then there is the “The Hip Hop Prayer Book” a translation of our Prayer Book by my good friend and colleague The Rev. Timothy Holder, or “Poppa T” as he is known. I admit - I was not always a fan of rap or hip hop and I had lots of valid reasons for putting up a wall against that kind of music - but that was my sin. God had a connection to make and I was refusing to be connected.

Now, one of my favorite artists is Tupac Shakur, a rapper who died at the young age of 25. I commend to you his video, Ghetto Gospel. Here’s a bit of Tupac’s message. St. Paul couldn’t have said it better: 

there's no need for you to fear me 
if you take the time to hear me, 
maybe you can learn to cheer me 
it aint about black or white, cuz we're human 
I hope we see the light before its ruined 
my ghetto gospel                                         (Source: Tupac Shakur, Ghetto Gospel.)

The beauty of our Episcopal tradition is that we can pray in Elizabethan English, preach about a rapper, and chant our Gloria – all in the same service. We are and we can be, as St. Paul says, all things to all people, as we proclaim the good news that the all-mighty God who is great in power, who stretches out the heavens, is also a tender, compassionate God who notices the suffering, lifts up the lowly, and renews their strength - because we all matter to God. 

 Like Tupac, “I [too] hope we see the light…” and speak it out there to all who need to hear it. Amen.