Sunday, March 27, 2022

4 Lent, 2022-C: God is always present

Lectionary: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

Today is Laetare Sunday as I mentioned at the start of our worship. In the English tradition, today is also known as "Mothering Sunday” when people return to worship at the church where they were baptized as a kind of check-in on their spiritual journey which began at baptism. The goal today is to remember that as our Lenten journey changes us, the disciplines we practice are meant to lead us to joy, to rejoice, which is what “laetare” means. 

As the joke goes: If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. If the last two years have shown us anything, it’s that life can change on a dime and we have to continually rethink, redirect, and repent, that is, turn around and go another way. The good news is that God is always present showing us how to go just as God did for the Israelites in their exile.

As a people traditionally tied to the land, this wandering people had no laws to govern them, no traditions to sustain them. They had to figure it out as they went along – kind of like we are now.

The generation who began the journey into exile was now dead and gone and a new generation was arriving at their God-given destination. Honoring their forebears, the Israelites began re-instituting the traditions that proclaimed their identity and belief; but they did this as a new generation in a new place, with a new understanding. Again, this sounds like us right now.

Their time in the desert had revealed only part of the big picture of the will of God for them. The rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say) is found in the words of Jesus in today’s gospel from Luke.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Rabbi Jesus tells a wild story, filled with things that would make his listeners cringe. For example, a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance would be akin to a death wish; the image of a Jewish man, even a desperate one, wishing he could eat the slop of swine would be horror upon horror for a kosher people; and no self-respecting, elder Jewish man would ever run to greet his son. (Source)

I think there are a few reactions Jesus counted on from his listeners (then and now). For example, it was the son’s own choice that led him to his desperate situation. He was selfish, disrespectful, and disobedient. He made his bed… as some would say. He has only himself to blame.

And what about the older brother? He’s been good and faithful all along and hasn’t asked for any reward. But now his father kills the fatted calf for his low-life brother, and he’s understandably upset.

Looking at this parable from a “human point of view” these reactions make sense, which is why the parable works. We who are followers of Christ, however, must no longer look at things that way. We are a new generation, in a new place, with a new understanding.

Like the father in this parable, God does not count our trespasses against us. We’re good with that, of course, when it’s our own sin that needs forgiving, but we’re often less happy about it when it’s someone else’s sin. Then we, like the older brother in the parable, feel justified in our resentment. Some even feel justified in being violent toward “sinners” they particularly hate.

I once heard Brother Curtis Almquist from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, say: “If you don’t have mercy for someone, you don’t know enough about them.” God does know and God never fails to seek the lost and bring them home for a joyous welcome.

That’s why, as we consider this parable of the Prodigal Son, it helps to remember that we don’t know what led the lost brother to ask for his inheritance. We don’t know how he came to disrespect himself so much that he would live a life of such self-destruction. We don’t know how he came to believe that he wasn’t worthy.

Everyone has a story that plays out within the silence of their hearts. God knows our stories, our interior battles; and has mercy on us.

The invitation during Lent is to return and claim God’s love and mercy, just as the Prodigal son did when he ‘came to himself’ and returned home where he once knew love. Upon seeing his father, the Prodigal son utters the words of repentance: “…I made a mistake…” and in response there is rejoicing! Laetare.

Once we realize the unfathomable love of God for us, then we truly are a new creation, as St. Paul says. We begin to see with the eyes of God and we notice that everyone else is beloved too. We respond with the heart of God, which breaks over anyone’s suffering - no matter how it came about – and rejoices whenever someone returns to themselves… and returns to love.

A final word about the older brother in the parable, who represents us: the church. Like him, we try to live faithfully, and we’re tempted to be judgmental and resentful about those who seem to ‘get away with’ breaking our laws and traditions, but did you hear the father’s response to the older brother? Hearing this as the voice of God, the reply was: “Beloved one, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

What if we, the church, truly believed that? What if we lived in the abundance this represents? What if we honored the truth that everything – everything – is a gift from God who says, “all that is mine is yours.”

God gives freely to us and asks us to do the same. A cycle of abundant life is generated by this relationship. The opposite of this is found in our world where hoarding, or “damming up the river “as I call it, stifles life and leads to a sense of scarcity.

Growing up I knew a man who rose quickly through the ranks of corporate business and every year he and his family had more money, more things, more, more, more. The son of poor immigrants, he was living the American Dream, but it was never enough because the goalpost kept moving for him. Someone was always richer, more powerful, more influential. There was always something else he wanted that he couldn’t have – and he began to hoard. One tiny example: when he retired, this man had hundreds of neckties. Hundreds! Why neckties? They symbolize rank, status, and power (among other things) in the corporate world.

Rather than being grateful for the many gifts he’d been given, including his success in business, this man was fixated on what he didn’t have, what he couldn’t have, and it ate away at his soul and ruined many of his relationships. I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but from what I hear, he remains lost in his universe of scarcity.

I wish I’d known and could have shared with him the wisdom of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, so I’ll share it with you instead. In their book, “A Native Way of Giving,” Forrest S. Cush and Michael Carney tell us that for many native people “the only purpose for wealth is to give it away… A life-giving cycle is created [they say] as gratitude leads to generosity, promoting a sense of abundance that generates more gratitude, making it self-perpetuating.” (p. 10)

Giving wealth away… the needs of the community taking priority over the wants of the individual. It’s as counter-cultural today as it was in Jesus’ time. The good news in the parable of the Prodigal Son is: 1) it’s never too late to return to right relationship with God and one another, and 2) God’s gifts to us are always more than enough but God’s greatest gift is God’s own self always with us.

I close with a poem from our bishop, +Deon Johnson, about this. It’s called, “A note of God’s presence” 

I was there when you were called less than, 
Whispering you are enough. 
I was there when you watered your face with tears,
Warming your heart with strength.
I was there when you heard the impossible news,
Holding you close for the path ahead.
I was there when your heart broke,
Healing the wounds and holding the scars.
I was there when grief almost overwhelmed you,
Igniting the light of hope.
I was there when the unbelievably good news came,
Shielding you from the ugliness and fear.
I am the One in whom you live, and move, and have your being.
I was there. I am here. I will be there. Always. 

(Poem and photo by The Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, March 21, 2022) 

Now that is a reason to rejoice. Laetare!

Sunday, March 13, 2022

2 Lent, Awakening from a world-induced sleep

Lectionary: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35 

I begin with a story about one of my sweet dogs, Ollie, now departed. Ollie was a mixed breed dog, and it wasn’t a good mix. We loved loving Ollie, but he had quirks which sometimes made loving him a bit…
challenging at times. Ollie got in trouble a lot because he often was not a good dog. When he got in trouble, he was put in time out which meant he had to go to his crate for a period of time and wait to be let out.

Over time, when Ollie did a bad thing, he just went ahead and put himself in time out. We’d come home, watch Ollie walk himself into his crate, then look around to see what he’d done. As time went on, Ollie would put himself in time out and walk right out again. He knew we’d forgive him, so he didn’t bother spending any real time in the crate. He just went through the motions.

I tell you this story because that’s how so many of us treat Lent, but we aren’t meant to go through the motions of a penitential time-out, emerge knowing we’re forgiven, then go about our lives as usual. When we practice Lent, we are responding to God’s invitation to us with an invitation of our own. We are inviting God to change us.

The word “Lent” means spring and the season of Lent is a short, finite bit of time we set aside to allow new life to be formed in us. Our traditional Lenten practices of prayer, abstinence, and almsgiving represent our invitation to God to not only plant the seeds of new life in us but also to change the very nature of the soil, that is ourselves – our souls and bodies, which will receive the seeds of this new life.

Medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, talks about the “greening” of our souls which is, I think, a good image for our discussion of what Lent is and isn’t. I picture Hildegard’s concept like this: we go about our lives basically unaware that the demands and influences of the world cause the soil of our souls to slowly but steadily become hard and cracked like a dried-up river bed in a drought. At our invitation, the hands of the Creator reach into the soil of our souls, breaking through the hardened dryness.

The Almighty kneads our soul-soil, crushing the hardened bits of anger, judgment, hatred of self or other, that have formed in us. Then those great hands of Love trickle in water from the well-spring of life, Jesus the Christ, kneading and kneading until that life-giving water has softened every hard, dry spot in us.

This nourishing divine massage transforms our dryness into rich soil. Into this 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. 

This is Lent.

In our reading from Genesis, the dryness of our souls is depicted as a famine that forces Abram to leave his homeland, his identity, his security – and go to a new place to which God will lead him. The Scripture says he is afraid.

So, God comes to Abram in a vision and says those famous words of divine comfort, “do not be afraid.” Then God promises to protect Abram and lead him and his descendants to a new, abundant life. The key to this story is how Abram responded: leaving behind his identity, his land, and his life, and walking into the unknown trusting completely in God and God’s promise to him.

When we practice Lent, we enter a period of self-examination that brings to our awareness how and where we’ve become dry and hardened. This is the terrifying darkness Abram experienced - the realizations that we have such darkness within, and that we can’t save ourselves; because only God can save.

We always have the option to refuse God’s grace. This is what Jesus is lamenting in the gospel reading from Luke when he cries: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

When we choose to refuse God’s grace, however, we own the consequences. As Jesus warns the Pharisees, “…your house is left to you” or, in other words, ‘Have it your way. Walk on in the darkness. It leads only to death.’

When we offer our invitation to God, the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving offer deeply meaningful as well as tried and true ways for us to practice a holy Lent. Taking extra time to pray during Lent, we become aware of the voice of our Creator who gently calls us to awaken from our world-induced sleep. In prayer, we see the face of Love looking back at us, inviting us to leave behind our old identity, our old life, and walk into an unknown future trusting completely in God’s love, guidance, and promise of abundant life.

When we fast during Lent, we are actually and symbolically emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. When our stomach is empty, it cries out to us to fill it. 

Most of us here have the privilege of knowing that we can eat, and so we can choose not to eat (if that is medically safe for us) so that we can experience an embodied emptiness in solidarity with those who truly hunger. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved by compassion to do something to relieve it – even if that requires a bit of a sacrifice on our part.

When we give alms during Lent, we are consenting to enter into a new relationship with the poor. Within each of us is the capacity to judge, blame, and avoid those who are needy or suffering. This protects our own comfort and relieves us of the responsibility to answer their cry for help. During Lent, we make time and find real ways to draw near to those in need and welcome their story into our awareness and them into our lives. I think of the refugees we are welcoming into a new life here in Webster Groves, and the people of Ukraine whose need is presently so great.

So let’s not approach Lent like my dog, Ollie, going through the motions of a Lenten time-out. Let’s go deeply, faithfully, fully into the darkness of our inner hardness of heart and invite God to work the miracle of greening our souls so that we can run toward the new, abundant life God is preparing for us. Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

1 Lent, 2022-C: Loving Lent

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.

I’ve mentioned a few times that Lent is my favorite season, to which some of you have responded with surprise and confusion. I promised I’d clarify why Lent is my favorite season. Here’s a start...

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.” Here’s the fullness of that poem: 

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 sadness. 

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 

It’s very sad to me that the pervasive notion about Lent is that it is a dark and difficult season, to be approached with dread, guilt, and sometimes even self-loathing; that we have to work to “tame” our desires by giving something up, then use all the self-control we can muster to keep our Lenten promises.

The irony is that exerting our self-will is exactly what we are called NOT to do during Lent. Lent isn’t meant to be a time of practicing self-control. It’s meant to be a time of relinquishing it.

During Lent, we practice discipline and repentance. 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.” (29)

Temptation is anything that leads us into sin – and sin is that which causes us to forget who we are, whose we are, and why we’re here.

The gospel writer tells us that Jesus, the Incarnate One, the manifest reality of the unity of humanity and divinity, was tempted to forget his true identity and separate himself into a dichotomy of body and spirit. In the first temptation, Jesus was famished and he was tempted to focus only on his suffering earthly body.

Next, though he knew his divine purpose, Jesus was tempted to walk away from God’s plan for his life and live out a different plan – one in which he would get glory and avoid pain and humiliation.

Finally, Jesus was tempted to forget his relationship as the 2nd person in the Trinity and throw his earthly life away, daring God to prove to Jesus that he mattered by using divine intervention to save him; also daring Jesus to use his divinity to save himself.

We share with Jesus these temptations of identity, purpose, and relationship.

The first temptation, forgetting the divinity that dwells in us, goes to our very identity. We are embodied spirit. The actual coexistence of humanity and divinity was made manifest first in Jesus. Now each of us is a living testimony to that co-existence.

The second temptation, conceiving a plan for ourselves and putting that ahead of God’s plan for us, goes to how, or even whether, we will live into God’s purpose for us. If Jesus’ life is any indication (and it is), living into our divine purpose won’t be all blessing and honor, but it will be redemptive – for us and for the world.

When we’re honest, it seems ridiculous that we think we can devise a plan for happiness and fulfillment by chasing after the perfect life partner, the perfect body, the perfect job, car, home, or salary. That’s how the world tempts us away from our divine purpose, and about the only thing being fulfilled is the corporate bottom line.

The third temptation, testing God to prove we matter, goes to our core understanding of our relationship to God, one another, and ourselves. We are beloved of God. It’s true that many people don’t feel very beloved. Their earthly experiences have taught them to believe otherwise. But our faith assures us that God loves all God created. We will always have moments when we doubt that, or when it seems like God isn’t there so we have to rely on ourselves.

Learning to notice those moments of temptation, discovering what they look like for us and for our church, and repenting of them, that is, responding differently, is one of our goals during Lent.

For example, some of us eat, smoke, or drink to comfort ourselves. Repentance might involve attention to the stewardship of our physical bodies - noticing the physical signal that starts the process of filling an emptiness within us, then acknowledging the justifications as they speak in our thoughts (I can have this one cookie, or I deserve this drink) and responding differently - which is to say repenting - saying “no” to the temptation; saying “no” to the self, and living into the emptiness until it is redeemed by God.

Institutionally, this can look like trying to run a church as a successful business rather than as the mystical body of Christ in the world. Jesus was famished. The church will be too at times.

Others among us work too much in order to win approval or to feel like we matter. Institutionally, this can look like expecting too much work from church employees, misidentifying productivity with faithfulness or value. Repentance here might involve attention to the stewardship of our time and relationships - committing to and encouraging a schedule that balances time devoted to work, family, leisure, and includes time devoted to corporate and private worship of God. Lent is a good time to commit to regular attendance at Sunday worship or our Christian formation offerings through FaithQuest, remembering that we live out our purpose in community as the body of Christ in the world.

Some of us habitually deny ourselves anything good out of a sense of unworthiness or, at the other end of the spectrum, deny ourselves nothing from a sense of privilege. Repentance here might involve the stewardship of our spiritual lives - fasting from criticism of self or others, or keeping a prayer journal in which we acknowledge the daily gifts and blessings God is giving. Institutionally, this might look like trusting that God loves, sustains, and guides our church working through the servant-leaders God has called to serve here, from bishop, to clergy, to vestry, to the greatest and least among us.

The Lenten 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 within us that continually seeks satisfaction comes from a deep sense of separation from that love. Lent is when we go to that scary place of emptiness, but we go there knowing that God desires communion with us and that Jesus came to make that happen – once for all.

Remembering that helps quiet those voices of temptation that play like a tape-recording in our heads, saying: you are not worthy or beautiful or gifted… you don’t matter to God or to the world… you are not loved. We are worthy, beautiful, and gifted, and we do matter. 

We’re also unfinished… continually growing and 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 we witness the redeeming love of God still at work in the world. When others see spiritual growth and maturation happening in our brokenness, they are empowered to stop being ashamed of their brokenness, pick up their own cross, and walk into redemption.

God desires us to come close and we hunger for that too. Bound together in the eternal love of God in Christ we discover love that protects, satisfies, and delivers us.

This is our Lenten journey, and this is just the beginning of why Lent is my favorite season. It’s a time of deep transformation for us in the womb of our living, real, and present God. God bless us as we begin it. Amen.