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.