Thursday, June 1, 2023

Trinity Sunday & Baptism, 2023-A: In the image of God

Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 2 (Rite I) and Canticle 13 (Rite II); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20 

It’s a wonderfully complicated day today. We gather to celebrate the baptism of Maeve Nash, welcoming

her into the Christian family. It’s Trinity Sunday, the day we ponder the mystery of God who is Trinity in Unity. It’s #wearorgange Sunday, complete with a march at noon to end gun violence as we remember those who lost their lives to it. And it’s the first Sunday in PRIDE Month.

As only God can do, our lectionary today is perfect. We begin with the story of creation from Genesis 1. God created and created and created like a mad artist; each creation leading to another burst of creative love revealing yet another dimension of the nature and character of God.

The creation story culminates with God’s creation of humankind… “in the image of God” they were created, male and female. While all of creation is infused with the breath of God’s creative love, only humans are created in God’s own image, and more than that, we are given responsibility to care for the rest of creation.

Please don’t let the phrase “have dominion over” trip you up. It can and does mean rule over, but it also means “noble.” God made humans noble in relation to all other creation. To be noble is to have higher moral principles and ideals.

Dominion is not the same as dominance. Dominion is relational. Dominance is hierarchical. Dominion is other-centered. Dominance is self-centered.

God did not make us the most important or powerful among the created. They made us the most trusted. God chooses us to care for creation in the image of God who created, sustains, and blesses all of creation out of love.

While we’re at it, there are two more phrases in our gospel text to clarify. The first is: “Go, therefore, and make disciples.” We had a lively discussion about this at our Bible study this past week. It’s the word translated as “make” that has led to so much coercive action by churches that may or may not have been trying to do the right thing. The problem is the word isn’t “make” – it’s “teach” (literally). Teach others to be disciples.

That’s exactly what we are going to promise to do for Maeve as we baptize her. We’ll promise to teach her – as her community of faith – to be a disciple of Jesus.

The second is the word translated as “obey.” Baptize them, Jesus says, in the name of the Trinity, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you. The word “obey” has also led many in the church to focus on enforcing compliance with rules, which is sad, because what Jesus actually said here is better translated as “observe, keep, maintain.”

So, the question is, observe, keep, maintain what? What did Jesus command? The answer is simple and is becoming about the only thing in my sermons lately – Jesus commanded us to love.

Love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. Love our neighbor as ourselves. Love one another as heloved us. Love our enemies. Love - in all its many, complicated forms. When we gather to worship and share Holy Communion, we reconnect ourselves to God and to one another, because answering Jesus’ command to love isn’t easy. In fact, it often seems impossible.

Every day we hear of another shooting somewhere in our country. Every day.

Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for our children. Our culture has politicized this so much that it’s become nearly impossible to have reasonable discussions about it – but we must, and church is where those difficult discussions have to happen, because church is where the love of God has dominion in our hearts.

Church is where the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ unites us into one body, one spirit. It’s where we recognize that the only true power is the power of God and that power is the power of love. Church is where we greet one another with a holy kiss – something only family did in St. Paul’s time.

We are the family of God in Christ in this time and place in the world. We baptize people and teach them how to love as Jesus commanded us to do, remembering that no matter how impossible or horrible the world seems at any moment of our experience, it is a beloved creation born of God’s love and it is our responsibility to care for it, to restore it to peace and unity, and to teach others to do the same.

I once served a church that held the first PRIDE event in that deep southern town – about 15 years ago. It was a picnic, a PRIDE picnic. We invited the local gay community as well as supportive groups like PFLAG to come and share information on how to be supportive allies. We grilled food, painted faces, and played games.

You can see why this was so threatening. Yet apparently it was. Protestors from Westboro Baptist Church and some other local church groups showed up to scream condemnation at us using foul language – in front of the children. Horrible words were graffitied onto our church doors and walls with black paint. They tried to disrupt our worship the next morning with a bullhorn screaming derogatory names and accusations at our faith community.

Is this how they interpret Jesus’ command to love? It didn’t feel a bit like love. It felt very much like hate.

Our LGBTQIA+ siblings in Christ are currently under attack. They are not being loved as Christ commanded, and tragically, it is most often by those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus, as holders of higher moral principles and ideals. They delude themselves.

We are witnesses of their terrorizing and dehumanizing of God’s beloved children, and as witnesses, we must call out what we see as hate, not love. We, the church, have a responsibility to love – and to teach others to do the same - in the name of God who created us all, in the name of Jesus who redeemed us all,and in the name of the Spirit who sanctifies us all.

Today, as we sacramentally welcome the newest member of the Christian family, we will also renew our own Baptismal vows – vows that call us to worship together, to seek Christ in ALL others, to love and respect their dignity as fellow nobles, all of us caring for God’s creation.

These are not vows we take lightly. They are our signposts, our guides on how to live as Christians, how to love as Christians in the world as it is.

It won’t be easy. Hate is strong, but love is stronger, and Jesus promised to be with us always – to the end of the “breathing of breath,” the end of human life. While we have life, we have Jesus; and having Jesus means having the wholeness of the Trinity.

Let us pray… Spirit of the Living God, who dwells in our noble human bodies, fill us to overflowing with your divine love, so that the world in which we stand is continually nourished by your living water. Open our hearts and minds, that we may keep your command to us to love. Give us courage to call out hate and restore relationship as we go, teach, and baptize in your name, that your peace may heal our troubled and broken world. Keep us connected to you and to one another, now and always. Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Ascension, 2023-A: Shedding our spiritual training wheels

Lectionary: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Note: The sermon acutally delivered was a little different. It can be viewed on the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Webster Goves YouTube channel at 39 mins 20 seconds.

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

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension, which falls on the 40th day after Easter, and so it’s on a Thursday every year. We have transferred it to Sunday because it’s a principal feast, so it takes precedence over Sunday. It’s a principal feast because this is the moment Jesus hands over to the church the continuing ministry of reconciliation in His name.

Reflecting on how to live in this state of reconciliation, the author of the letter to the church in Ephesus: says “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…”

Let’s take those things one at a time… 

What is the hope to which Jesus has called us?
  That there is no one, no thing, no event, no circumstance, that falls outside the reach of God’s redeeming love. That God’s plan has been fulfilled in Jesus the Christ, in whom we have been reconciled by the forgiveness of our sins. That every one of us will, at some point in our lives, be counted among those who are lost or gone astray, but because of our reconciliation to God in Jesus, no matter how lost we get, no matter how far we stray, we can never go beyond the reach of God’s redeeming love.

Our hope is grounded in the assurance that “nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (BCP, 862) I don’t know about you, but it’s a comfort for me to remember that even when I sin, I will not be cast out of the community of God’s love for it.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ. When we come into the presence of someone who doesn’t know that or has forgotten it, it’s up to us, as witnesses of Christ, to help them remember. When my kids were little our prayer before bed always ended with me saying, “There is nothing you could ever say or do that could make me stop loving you.” Imagine how joyful I was to learn recently that my daughter is saying the same thing to her children before bed! God’s love is like that – only better! …More faithful… More perfect… More merciful than any love we can offer.

Next question - What are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints? The “saints” are
all who believe. Think about how many people that is and how many riches they represent.

We have abundant riches right here at Emmanuel. In one person there is abounding generosity, in another – innocence and purity of heart, in another – a contagious joy. One brings poverty, another wealth. One is gay, another is straight, another trans or nonbinary. One is the teller of truths (even the hard ones), another is a source of gentleness and comfort. The gifts present among the body of Christ are brought together into a synergistic whole by God for the benefit of God’s people.

What is the purpose of these riches? To unite us one to another and to God – in love.

Finally, what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power – and why is it just for us who believe? The funny thing about God is that God gives lavishly, without regard to what we deserve. The greatness of God’s power is love and it dwells in each of us, and in all of us as a faith community, but it will go unrecognized, unobserved until seen with the eyes of an enlightened heart.

The ability to see and understand in this way comes from God. As we heard in the gospel, Jesus opened the minds of the apostles to understand the scriptures so that they could go out and proclaim the Good News to all nations, all people.

The same is true for us. The eyes of our hearts are enlightened by Jesus. The spirit of wisdom and revelation in us is the Holy Spirit of God which dwells in us that we have been reconciled by the forgiveness of sin.

When Jesus ascended, and the apostles were standing there gazing up at the sky, the messengers from heaven asked them, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking toward heaven?’ What you seek isn’t up there – it’s right here – in you.

To be fair, for the disciples, it wasn't yet, but it was about to be in them. Jesus told them to wait until they had been clothed with the power, that is, the love of God, from on high – which happened for them at that first Pentecost.

We, on the other hand, have already been clothed with this power. It happened for us at our Baptism. Some of us recommitted to it at our Confirmation. And all of us remember it each time we gather for Holy Eucharist.

Once upon a time, I visited a young church member named Lila at her home. This precious 4-year-old brought me outside to show me her new Princess bike. She showed me how she could ride it and how the training wheels would keep her from falling. She was quick to point out that she didn’t always need the training wheels – only sometimes - and one day, she wouldn’t need them at all.

I walked alongside Lila as she rode her Princess bike, leading me on a tour of the grounds of their home. She pointed out all the things I should notice as we went along, including her favorite purple flowers just coming into bloom.

As we journeyed together, the experience felt to me like an illustration of the path of Christian maturity. Lila knew she needed training wheels, not all the time, but sometimes. Lila also knew that one day she would learn to ride this Princess bike with no training wheels.

Walking alongside Lila and her Princess bike, I understood that if Jesus had not let us witness his ascension, we’d all still be riding around on our training wheels.

Jesus knew the disciples were ready. The disciples may not have realized it until they found themselves doing it – like when Peter shared his testimony with the household of Cornelius the Roman Centurion, or when he raised Dorcas from the dead in Joppa. Yes, Peter raised a woman from the dead!

Filled with excitement, fear, and confidence, the disciples went out and shared their Good News and amazing things happened. Now it’s our turn - and we're ready to shed our training wheels.

Let us pray: Give us grace, O God of love, to trust you. Give us confidence to pump our legs and ride out into your world, carrying your light in our eyes, your love in our hearts, and your gentleness in our actions. May our lives reflect the joy of being in relationship with you, and may our witness be one of justice, mercy, and peace toward all you created, in your Holy Name. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

6 Easter, 2023-A: The wormhole of spiritual understanding

Lectionary: Lectionary: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

(Note: there is no pre-recorded video of this sermon since I was out of town at my father's funeral this week. The sermon can be watched on the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Webster Groves YouTube channel)

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

Our gospel today is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse given at the Last Supper, and it begins with “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” He goes on to say that those, “ who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Is Jesus telling us that his love of us is conditional on our obedience? It sounds like it since it says, if this then that. But the word we translate as “if” isn’t a conditional in the original Greek. It’s a word that points to a future possibility that experience determines.

Also, this teaching has nothing to do with obedience. That’s a whole different word in Greek and it isn’t present here.

So, Jesus is saying: When you love me, you will discover that you will maintain and continue what I have commanded you to do. So the real question is: what did Jesus command us to do?

The answer is: love. Love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 13:34) Love your enemies. (Mt 5: 44) Love God with all your hearts, minds, strength, and souls (Deut 6:5), and love your neighbors as yourselves. (Lev 19:18) Love. 

Jesus is about to enter the most difficult moment of his human experience and the disciples are terrified and confused. They don’t understand what he is saying to them - again. But honestly, how could they? It sounds like riddles or circular logic: God is in Jesus, who is in us, and we are in him, and through him, we are in God… and because he lives we also will live.

Perceiving the fear and confusion among his disciples Jesus speaks directly to it saying to them (and to us), I will not leave you comfortless or alone. I am coming to you in another way - to comfort you and support you forever.

One day, he says, you’ll know the truth of this co-abiding with the Divine Spirit through me. It’s a truth that is beyond human logic, as much today as it was then, and can only be known by the experience of it again and again in our lives. Sometimes, it’s a series of light bulbs going off in sudden realization. Other times it’s a slow turn of the dimmer switch until, one day, the light comes on fully.

I remember about 3 weeks into our Greek class in seminary and we were all feeling so overwhelmed by how vastly different Greek was, from the alphabet to the layers of meanings, and the many conjugations and tenses. Our professor assured us that one day, we’d just get it, and he snapped his fingers.

Oh sure, we thought. Easy for him to say! But he was right. One day, it suddenly all fell into place and the learning began to happen at lightning speed like a wormhole had been opened.

That was Jesus’ promise. On that day, you’ll get it! You’ll know that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” When that happens, you will have spiritual understanding, and my commandments will be within you, and you will be able to preserve them for all time and continue to live in them now and always.

On that day, you will know union with divine love. You will know that you are cherished by God who will be eternally faithful and loyal to you, and I will be revealed to you in ways you couldn’t have understood before, and it will change everything!

Our beloved Dame Julian of Norwich speaks of this experience so simply yet eloquently. Here are her words: 
“I desired in many ways to know what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.” 
This is the love in which “we live and move and have our being” as Paul quoted from the poets of his time… the love who “holds our souls in life and will not allow our feet to slip” as the psalmist says. It all boils down to love: divine, eternal, sacrificial, joyful, mutual love.

This doesn’t change the fact that we will know suffering, doubt, and darkness throughout the course of our lives. In addition, we may get it, as Jesus said we would, then lose it again, and get it again, over and over throughout the course of our lives.

Knowing this love with spiritual understanding means that we will never be alone in any of the “changes and chances of this life.” (BCP, 133) We will never be comfortless. We will always be, as Dame Julian says, clothed in the love of God, which “wraps and holds us… enfolds us for love and will never let us go.”

We also have each other. Prayer not only “fastens us to God” as Julian says, it also fastens us to one another, connecting the love of God in you to the love of God in me, as it were. Those connections are real and through them God can change the world, working in and through us.

I pray this truth a lot because it was a life-changing revelation for me. I begin most of our Sunday services by inviting us to go deeply within, to our divine centers, where we acknowledge God’s connection to us and invite God to connect us to one another, making us all one as we celebrate our thanks together.

Since Julian of Norwich has been so present in this reflection on the Word, let’s close with the prayer assigned to her feast day, which was just last week: May 8. 

Let us pray: Lord God, who in your compassion granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers, to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Icon written by Anne Davidson, Diocese of Western Michigan. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

4 Easter, 2023-A: On being sheep and shepherds

Lectionary: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. (Note: At the Rite II service, the preacher brings the children up for the demonstration…)

Long ago, I was a Brownie Girl Scout troop leader. As an expert in the field of child abuse prevention, I was called upon every year to help teach the Girls Scouts of all ages how to stay safe. I used the following demonstration to show them that there are some grown-ups who may try to trick them in order to harm them, and it works because they are the ones who are supposed to be looking out for them and their safety.

I would begin by tossing a coin, saying, Ok call it. Heads I win, Tails you lose. One child would call out “Heads!” and I’d say, Heads – I win! I’d’ toss it again and another child would call out, “Tails!” Tails, you lose, I’d say. It wasn’t long before the kiddos understood the trick.

In today’s gospel story, Jesus makes similar points about the Jewish leadership. It’s important to remember that this story follows the story of the man born blind whom Jesus healed. Remember how his parents hesitated to answer the questions, was your son really born blind and who healed him? It’s because they feared the Pharisees would excommunicate them for being followers of Jesus causing them to lose their family, friends, and community.

Jesus is connecting this moment in the gospel to the passage in Ezekiel where God called the leaders of Israel false shepherds who fed themselves and not the sheep whom they scattered leaving them vulnerable to predators. God declares “I myself will search for my sheep, rescue them, and feed them with good pasture. (34:11-16) Jesus was a masterful Biblical scholar.

Jesus identifies himself as the shepherd who enters by the gate. He is also the gate. This is his unique status as the Incarnate Word of God, and not surprisingly, the religious leaders don’t understand what he is saying.

There is so much beautiful imagery in this short parable that may go unnoticed by those of us unfamiliar with farming sheep. For instance, it wasn’t unusual for several flocks to gather in the same place for pasturing. I’m told this still happens in that region of the Middle East.

One wonders how, at the end of the day, the sheep will be separated back into their proper groups, but a shepherd knows that the relationship they build with their sheep is so personal that the sheep develop great trust in their shepherd over time. They also know the sheep trust each other, so if a group of sheep heads in one direction the rest will follow – herd mentality.

The sheep know their own shepherd’s voice and will follow it. I’m told it’s pretty amazing to watch this in real life – several flocks separating following their shepherd who goes in front of them to show them the way.

The shepherd leads their flock to the enclosed area where they will sleep for the night. Most shepherds would put planks across the gate to keep the sheep from walking back out during the night. But the really devoted shepherd would lay himself down across the gate and sleep there. That way no sheep could leave, nor a predator enter, without him knowing. Of course, lying across that gate also meant that the gatekeeper was vulnerable to the predators.

Jesus was claiming to be that sort of shepherd – the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

Jesus identifies himself as the gate as well and says that whoever enters by him will be saved. This is often taken as an exclusive comment, but it isn’t. Not if you believe in the Trinity, and consider what Jesus says a few verses later as he continues this teaching: “I have other sheep which are not of this fold, and I must bring them too. They will hear my voice and we will be one flock and one shepherd. (16)

Did you know that the word translated here as “saved” literally means to make sound, in good condition – free from injury or disease? It means to preserve someone from danger, loss, or destruction. Jesus is saying, “Whoever enters by me will be made sound, preserved from danger and destruction, but even more, they will be given freedom to come in and go out and find pasture” …the kind described so beautifully in Psalm 23.

We are the sheep who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, and we are the shepherds in the world today as the church. It is now up to us to guard the gate – not to keep anyone out, but to make sure the gate opens every time a sheep comes in or goes out following the voice of God.

As shepherds in the world today, we are called to lay down our lives to protect the flock from those who would do them harm. The Emmanuel Black Lives Matter gathering every Friday night is doing that – taking insults and taunts directed at them as they stand for our African American sisters and brothers who suffer from continuing targeted racism in our culture and cultural systems.

In Missouri, there are currently over 40 anti-trans, and anti-LGBTQIA+ bills under consideration by our legislators. Churches United for Justice, a local group of faith communities, is watching that legislation, showing up to testify against it, and mobilizing people of faith to protect our vulnerable siblings-in-Christ who are being attacked culturally, medically, and personally. 

Within our own congregation are continuing expressions of fear over the potential for gun violence while we worship, run our preschool, and just go about our business as a Christian community of faith. I’ve counseled several women and one teen about the impact of the limits being imposed on women’s healthcare under the guise of “Christian values.”

As members of The Episcopal Church, we are out of step with the voices of false shepherds who benefit personally by fomenting fear, judgment, and condemnation of other members of the family of God they disapprove of or hate. Our Baptismal vows call us to respect the dignity of every human being and in our gospel story today, Jesus clarifies whose voice we are to follow – his, and his alone.

Luke tells us in Acts, that the early church “spent much time together in the temple.” We are called to do the same. The reason is, as Episcopalians, we discern the voice of God individually and in community. Hearing the voice individually only can lead us astray. False shepherds like David Koresh and Jim Jones thought they, and they alone, heard the voice of God. Look where that led. Our commitment to corporate discernment that affirms individual discernment is one of the planks we lay across the gate to protect our flock.

Listening for the voice of God is something we must choose to learn and practice, and church is where we do that. Some people worry about being able to recognize that it is God’s voice. It’s true, we are all vulnerable to temptation, but through his death and resurrection, Jesus defeated the power sin and death have over us. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that by his wounds we have been healed? Do we believe that having been marked as Christ’s own forever in our Baptism, there is nothing that can separate us from the eternal love and protection of God?

We can choose to walk away from God or the Church, mad about something, or disapproving of another thing. We can even choose to follow false shepherds who spin false narratives and employ threats, coercion, or cajoling; because the promise we cling to is that we are members of one flock, being constantly gathered back into the fold by our Good Shepherd.

The way of the world kills and destroys by infecting our hearts and our churches with fear, hate, and threat of abandonment. But our faith assures us that in the face of every earthly circumstance, we are not alone. We are in the eternal presence of God in Christ, who offers us abundant life; a life in verdant pastures, beside still waters, and lavish with blessings.

How can we help but share Good News like that? Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

3 Easter, 2023: Inspired with hearts ready to serve

Lectionary: Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35 

I love this lectionary today. It is so full of inspiration and heart – and I use those terms intentionally because to be inspired is to be roused or urged to do or know something. Inspiration is something that comes to us from outside us but it is also an internal physical process. To inspire is to breathe in. To be inspired is to be breathed into. For us, it is God who inspires us, who breathes into us, compelling us to live, do, or understand something.

In modern culture, the heart is the seat of love and compassion. For those in Jesus’ time and place, however, the heart was the center and seat of thoughts. It was also considered the location of the soul. In other words, it is the place in our bodies where heaven and earth intersect. 

So when Jesus laments that the disciples on the road to Emmaus are slow of heart, he isn’t talking about them being slow to love, but slow to understand. So, he explains the Scriptures to them, beginning with Moses, interpreting everything everyone had said about the Messiah.

They still didn’t get it though, and it wasn’t because they were stupid or resistant. It was because it wasn’t time yet. They weren’t ready.

You see, it is God in Christ who acts to open our spiritual eyes and each of us is approached differently. Mary Magdalene’s moment of inspiration happened when Jesus spoke her name. Thomas was inspired when Jesus offered to let him touch his crucifixion wounds. God always meets us where we are and inspires us to move from unbelief to belief - in God's time.

When that happens we recognize and connect with God on a deep, interior level. In the midst of the beauty and glory of this personal connection, we experience a physical sensation, the first sign of the process of transformation happening within us and it happens in that physical spot in our bodies where heaven and earth intersect – in our hearts.

Our Scriptures, Old and New, show us that God has always done it this way. In Ezekiel, God says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” (36:26). In Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it ton their hearts.’” (31:33) This is what the disciples were experiencing when they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was opening the Scriptures to us?”

The heart is where we co-exist, co-abide with God. It is a physical and spiritual reality that is made available for us to strengthen at every sharing of the Holy Eucharist. In the holy food of communion, we become one with the ultimate community, the community of the Divine Trinity. Jesus, the 2nd person of the Trinity, abides in us as we abide in him, making us the current locations of the coexistence of the human and the divine on earth.

The world tends to dismember us, to cut us off from God and one other. When that happens, we experience heartache. We all know how it feels to physically droop and spiritually sag under the weight of the turmoil in our world. As the psalmist says so well, “...the cords of death entangle me, the grip of the grave took hold of me. I came to grief and sorrow.” 

That’s been my experience watching the news this week. As I learned about Ralph Yarl, a bright, beautiful 16-year-old in Kansas City who rang the wrong doorbell and got shot for it and now struggles to live, and 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis, who was shot and killed when the car she was in went up the wrong driveway, I felt my heart break and my spirit sag. And these weren't the only innocent lives lost this week to guns.

Listening to the discussions about why some believe that everyone needs unlimited access to a gun and the legal right to “stand their ground,” my heart broke even more. How divided, how dismembered we have become.

God save us, I thought. Show us the way to go.

I’m grateful that preparing this sermon this week I was blessed to be reminded by the psalmist that God
hears the voice of our supplication. It enabled me to repent from my sadness and distress and return to the Lord, putting my trust once again in God’s love and loving plan for us.

Jesus knew this experience of worldly dismemberment too. He experienced it first-hand in Jerusalem when the shouts of “Hosanna “transformed into shouts of “Crucify him!” We watched as he physically drooped, falling three times as he carried his cross to Golgotha. We heard him spiritually sag as he cried out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani…. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

That’s why the risen Christ gave us a way to re-member ourselves, to put ourselves back together, to co-exist with God and one another in shalom. Every Sunday when we gather to worship, we intentionally breathe in the Spirit of God through our Scriptures, common prayers, and hymns of praise. We nourish and strengthen our souls with the holy food of Communion. Then we are made ready to breathe out the effects of this in our lives when we are dismissed at the end of our worship service to go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

If we don’t keep breathing it in, however, we can’t keep breathing it out. Coming to Sunday worship is not a duty (social or otherwise), and we don’t affect our eternal outcome by going or not going, but we do affect our present – understanding who we are, whose we are, and what our purpose is. 

 Being present at the Holy Eucharist opens our spiritual eyes and strengthens us, individually and as a community, to be witnesses of the Good News and stewards of the many gifts God has given us.

Jesus is the one through whom all things are made. All things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources– everything comes from God and belongs to God. We are not asked to guard God or hoard God’s gifts. We are called to scatter them far and wide, welcoming all people – all people – to live as part of one family: the family of God. 

As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb says in her book, She Who Dwells Within (Harper, San Francisco, 1995, 179), “Hospitality is the ability to give things away because one has replaced the idea of ownership with the idea of stewardship. A steward… equitably distributes that which is available… provides sanctuary and shelter, extends a warm welcome to her guest, and makes strangers feel at home.”

This is what church is meant to be, and do, and understand! And this hospitality is a gift Emmanuel has in abundance.

God is breathing life into us and we respond by living a Eucharistic life: a life of thanks and grace, a life that reflects our gratitude for all God has given us and demonstrates our commitment to using those gifts to serve God and all God’s people, welcoming and advocating for all suffering injustice or indignity, reconciling with all from whom we are divided or dismembered, and making them feel safe and at peace at our church home.

Let us pray… 

Eternal Reality, Creator of all that is, Opener of our spiritual eyes, and Inspirer our hearts, we willingly share your grief and sorrow each time one of your children suffers or dies as a result of our worldly dismemberment. Re-member us, we pray, Adonai-Shalom, Lord of our Peace, then send us out to be bearers of your life-giving presence to all we encounter, until your world is made one in the unity of your love. We pray this in the name of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Easter, 2023-A: Set free to proclaim

Lectionary: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

In John’s gospel account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb to finish the burial preparations interrupted by the Passover and sees that the tomb is already open. Keeping to the custom of her culture, Mary does not enter the tomb, but runs back to fetch Peter and John, who is the disciple Jesus loved. Mary, whose spiritual eyes had not yet been opened to the truth of the resurrection, informs the men that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb, supposing out loud that someone must have stolen it.

In our Bible study this week, we were pondering what Mary Magdalene might have been thinking in that moment – the great stone had been rolled away and someone had obviously been in the tomb… but they must not have been in a hurry because the burial linens were carefully placed here and there… anyway, who unwraps a dead body before stealing it? Suddenly, my watch Siri interrupted us saying, “I’m not sure I understand.” We broke up saying, neither do we, Siri. Neither do we.

When John arrives at the tomb, he looks inside, but he too waits until Peter, who held the top rung in the hierarchical ladder, catches up. When the two men entered the tomb and stood in its emptiness, they believed what Mary Magdalene had told them: Jesus was missing.

That’s a pretty radical statement for our Gospel writer to make considering that for them the testimony of women was considered unreliable. But Jesus made Mary’s testimony reliable.

Seeing the empty tomb, the disciples could only guess at what was going on “for as yet they didn’t understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead.” The author tells us that Peter and John simply went home. Unable to leave the emptiness she didn’t quite understand, Mary Magdalene stayed outside the tomb weeping.

Unable to overcome the cultural barrier that kept her as an outsider, Mary still doesn’t go inside the tomb. Instead, she bends over to look inside it. When she does, she sees two angels in white who ask her a simple question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

It’s helpful for us to remember that in those days men didn’t speak to women who weren't family. So, either the angels looked like women, or yet another barrier that impeded Mary’s call to be a witness to the Good News was brought down.

Then Mary turns around and sees a man standing near her. Motivated by her deep grief, and still unable to “see” the truth of the resurrection, Mary speaks to the man and another culture barrier comes tumbling down - the one that forbids women to speak to men.

"Sir," Mary says, if you have taken my Lord, please tell me where he is and “I’ll take him away.” Jesus replies by simply saying her name, “Mary,” and suddenly, her spiritual eyes are opened.

As promised, those who belong to the Good Shepherd know his voice. Mary spins back around to “look” again and sees – truly sees - her risen Lord. The very breath of life in Mary sighs his name using a term of endearment in their native tongue: “Rabbouni!”

In that moment, Mary’s understanding, along with her once broken heart, were made whole.

Jesus, her beloved Rabbi, is now Jesus, the risen Lord. She sees with her eyes. She understands with her spirit… and she believes with her whole self! Now she is ready to be a witness to the truth, and Jesus tells Mary to go and tell the others.

Our Easter experience today is spiritually the same as Mary Magdalene’s was that first Easter Day. We, like Mary, are called to go to the place where we will hear the Lord call our name, which opens our spiritual eyes. Then, we go when he sends us to tell everyone of the transforming Good News we know.

When my now 17-year-old mini-dachshund wore a younger girl’s clothes, she had a litter of puppies. I remember watching as my tiny dog’s belly swelled with the hidden life forming inside her.

My youngest child and I participated in the birth of those four new and precious lives. Then we watched as the puppies grew and formed into a community, a family, under the ever-vigilant and protective gaze of their mama-dog.

Soon, the puppies opened their eyes. They couldn’t see well at first, but little by little, experience and biology worked together, and their vision improved. And the better they could see, the more they began to explore, motivated by an endless curiosity, grounded in their sense of safety.

One of the puppies was braver than the rest. Following some interior call, he would venture out farther and farther from the birthing-box, and the others would follow him.

If one puppy got scared, he would stop where he was and let out a few cries. Either the Mama dog or another puppy would respond immediately by going up close, offering themselves as comfort to the one who was crying.

It was truly inspiring for me to watch the puppies grow in the newness of life that happened for them once their eyes were opened. The connection to our Easter story is easy to see.

After Mary Magdalene’s spiritual eyes were opened, Jesus cautions her to remember that her spiritual vision is young and still a little clouded. Don’t cling to me, he says to her. It isn’t about my returning to you, but about my returning you to God. So go and tell the others that “I am ascending to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

By sending Mary with this message, Jesus commissions her as the first resurrection apostle - an apostle is one who is sent on a mission. In doing so, Jesus finishes in his resurrection, what he started in his ministry: removing all of the barriers that oppress and hinder his chosen ones in their work as witnesses of the Good News. We too have been commissioned as resurrection apostles by our Baptism. And it is in Jesus that we are made to be reliable witnesses.

We too, have been set free from all that hinders us because Christ, who has been raised from the dead has brought us with him into resurrection life.

But what does that mean? When we leave here today, what does it mean to live in resurrection life? It means living in community where we gather to hear Jesus call our name, opening ourselves to spiritual awakening over and over again, remembering that once God opens our spiritual eyes, we need some time to mature before our vision becomes clear, and we do that as a family of faith.

As we learn and grow in our faith, we need our community around us. Not just for when we get scared, although that is important, but because with our friends nearby, we have the courage to explore beyond our comfortable boundaries to seek, find, and do the ministries God is calling us to do in this moment of our communal life. We learn together, confident that God is watching us vigilantly and protectively, ready to respond whenever we cry out.

So let us be like Mary Magdalene, bold witnesses to the Good News we know, trusting that Jesus will bring down all cultural barriers in our way. I mean… here I stand.

Let us proclaim to our trans and gay siblings the good news Peter first proclaimed that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

And let us preach “peace by Jesus Christ [who] is Lord of all…” In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told us to put down our weapons or we would die by them. He was right, of course, and it’s a daily torment for us as our culture clings to its clouded understanding of this.

Finally, let us get about our work of “doing good and healing all who [are] oppressed,” as Jesus showed us how to do on Maundy Thursday, commanding us to serve humbly, as servant-leaders of our faith.

It is our turn - right now - to “testify that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

For Episcopalians, being “saved” isn’t about keeping the right rules, or belonging to the right church, or having a culturally approved life-partner or gender identity. Being saved, as Jesus said so often, is about believing… believing in him. We don’t have to understand to believe. Understanding comes with time and experience and is always limited to our tiny human capacity. God is so much more than any of us can imagine or understand.

Here’s what matters: Jesus’ reconciliation of the world to God brings down all barriers that hinder our call to proclaim the Good News so that everyone can share the Easter reality, which we proclaim now together: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Maundy Thursday, 2023: Putting our lives where our beliefs are

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35  

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

Do this in remembrance of me.

Did Jesus actually say those words which we repeat every Sunday in our Holy Eucharist? Maybe. Paul thinks he did. Whether he said them or not, Jesus’ own tradition was big on remembering, therefore, so is ours.

It’s important for us to remember that ours is a Judeo-Christian tradition, one in which the grand love-story of God and God’s people begins with the Jewish people. That love narrative continues in them as Jews, and, thanks to Jesus, it continues in us too as Christians.

The revelation that we are God’s people and that our salvation is from God, came to us through the Jews and was always meant to reach all nations and all peoples, as Isaiah and other prophets proclaimed. This revelation was never meant to obliterate one group in favor of another. Just as parents can love more than one child, God loves all of the branches on God’s family tree.

Priest and theologian, Verna Dozier once said, “The ancient Israelites were a people of cultic memory, and in song and story and liturgy they kept that memory fresh. It was their memory of special events that had shaped them… The memory included the interpretation of these events that… had a special place in God’s plan. ... [they] began with the big picture — faith in a God who acted on their behalf.”

These forebears of our faith created a ritual designed to help the generations that follow remember God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Held in the Spring, the celebration of Passover signals rebirth and renewal. The seder meal, (seder meaning order) which begins the Passover celebration, unfolds in four parts marked by four cups of wine consumed during the meal which includes ritual actions like hand-washings, prayers, and hymns of praise. It’s very beautiful.

The first part of the seder meal is the telling of the story (called the Haggadah), and it focuses on the children who are asked four questions, beginning with “What makes this night different from all other nights?” The question is meant to encourage the children to ask questions and spark their curiosity. This is how Jewish children are taught about their faith and their identity as children of God.

The second part is drinking the four cups of wine. Each of the cups represents how God has acted to save and is taken from the book of Exodus (6:6-7). These four acts are: “I will bring out," “I will deliver,” “I will redeem,” and “I will take” and they occur at specified moments in the meal.

The third part is eating symbolic food. Roasted lamb symbolizing sacrifice, Matza referred to as poor persons bread together with parsley or other bitter greens that symbolize the bitterness of being enslaved. The greens are dipped into water that is salted, symbolizing the tears of the people enslaved by the powers of the world. There are many more and they are fascinating, so I encourage you to go to our website and read the teaching about this posted on our Christian Education page. There are also links to Jewish sites there. Passover is, after all, their holiday.

The fourth part is about hope - trusting the freedom given to them by God and looking forward to the future God has planned for them. The Jewish people acknowledge that though we live in an imperfect world, the day will come when spiritual perfection is achieved. They repeat a familiar refrain for this hope: “Next year in Jerusalem.” 

It matters that we know this and that we, who are not Jewish, don’t appropriate this holiday. It’s enough for us to know how we are connected to it – and we are connected in a very significant way.

Remember that I mentioned the four cups. Let’s look carefully at them. 

The first cup is the cup of SANCTIFICATION. God says: “I will bring you out.” To sanctify is to set someone or something apart as holy. The people of God are “chosen” by God. God will bring them out from their slavery so that they can serve God, not a human master.

The second cup is the cup of DELIVERANCE. God says: “I will deliver.” Only God can save. We cannot save ourselves. The temptation most of us face is spending time and energy trying to do the right thing or to live the right way, in order to earn salvation. But that isn’t possible, because, as we know, salvation is a gift from God. We can’t and don’t earn it.

The third cup is the cup of REDEMPTION. God says, “I will redeem.” In the Jewish tradition the word redemption also means “avenger of blood” and it is, by definition, a family member. This family member acts to set their kin free from slavery, paying a ransom, or great price for that freedom. The traditional image is of a father sacrificing his firstborn son for the freedom of his entire family. Sound familiar?

At dinner with his friends, Jesus claims himself to be this third cup. It is his blood, his life that will be given for the redemption of all by the forgiveness of sin. Because he is fully God and fully human, Jesus is the Father who pays the price, the Son who is the price, and the family for whom that price is paid.

The fourth cup is the cup of HOPE... hope for the future. The Jews understood this to be the cup of Elijah, for whom an empty seat is kept at the seder table. The filling of that seat would signal the coming of the Messiah. Jewish theologian, Tim Hegg says that, for the Jews, “redemption guarantees the final destination, but the journey is still necessary.”

The same is true for us as Christians. The Messiah has come so our final destination - reconciliation of the whole world to God in Christ - is guaranteed. This is not about where we go when we die but about how we live in the world. The journey is still necessary, and we participate in this journey by doing our part in the continuing reconciling work of Jesus until the whole world is reconciled to God.

That brings us back to the mandate: to love and serve one another as Jesus loved and served us – with a towel around our waist, in humble service to all. “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

To make this crystal clear, Jesus put this new approach into the form of a commandment – a mandate (which is the root of the word ‘Maundy”): “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Maundy Thursday reminds us to put our lives where our beliefs are and make manifest our commitment to be followers of Jesus Christ. As the church in the world today, it is our duty to live as servant leaders in the pattern and practice of Jesus. God grant us the will to put into action what we believe in our faith.

I close with a prayer I wrote about servant leadership. Let us pray...

Fill us, most merciful God, with the power of your Holy Spirit, and free us from any bonds that continue to restrict our freedom to fully love you, one another, and ourselves. Enter our dreams each night and show us your will for us as your church’s servant leaders in this time and place. Loosen our tongues to speak your truth. Strengthen our hearts to birth your love into reality no matter the cost; and make each of us to shine with the celestial light that is the mark of your saints in heaven and on earth; for the love of your Son, our savior, Jesus, the Christ. Amen. 

Links to Jewish sites for their teaching on seder meals: 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lent 4-A, 2023: Peace, assurance, Laetare!

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

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

Today is Laetare Sunday. Laetare means “rejoice!” What do we rejoice during Lent? The answer is in our Scripture today.

In the Old Testament reading, we hear a call to wake up, to stop looking back at what was. I know you grieve the loss of it, God says to Samuel, 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.

When we listen prayerfully to this Psalm a deep calm begins to happen in us. Our breathing slows, our faces relax, the knots in our stomachs and chests release. We breathe in - filling ourselves with the grace of God, and we breathe out, releasing all our stress.

Now enveloped in divine peace, we notice that 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 on the tables are 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 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. 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 we have been chosen by God to lead others to this gracious place where all are made one in the family of God.

This inclusiveness in the family of God is what Jesus is demonstrating in today’s gospel from John. The man born blind would have been judged by his village as cursed, his blindness from birth a punishment for sin. Jesus reframes this saying, yes, this man was born blind, but it is you who have judged him as sinful and unworthy, and you who have excluded him from your community. Wake up and see how through him the graciousness of God will be revealed.

Then combining the dust of the earth with the life-giving water of Christ’s own self, Jesus anoints the man and tells him to go and wash in the water called “Sent” (Siloam). As he does this, the man’s 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, and to be restored to his community. His days as a vilified sinner are over - or are they?

The gospel story tells us that his community’s response to his restoration was yet more judgment. His community and their leadership doubted all of it, and eventually cast him out – again! Why? 

At our Bible study a wise parishioner mentioned fear, which reminded me of an old Jewish saying attributed to Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidic Judaism, who said: "Fear builds walls to bar the light."* The reason is, the light can be challenging because it reveals truth to us – God’s truth, not a truth we concoct to comfort and affirm ourselves.

There were plenty of stories floating around in that time about miraculous healings where a person's sight had been restored, but this healing is different because this man's sight was created. When Jesus made mud from the dust of the earth (think about Genesis here) and wiped it on the man's eyes, he was doing what only God can do - creating something out of nothing.

This event shook all who witnessed it to the very core of their beliefs. It took them beyond their small, certain concepts about God and salvation, and left them confused and fearful as they tried to work out the conundrum they faced: such a healing could only have happened by the power of God, so Jesus must be from God. But the healing happened on the Sabbath, which violates the law of Moses, which means Jesus is a sinner…

The people eventually went to their religious leaders for an answer, but they also were unable to resolve the conundrum. Instead, the Pharisees shift their focus to reviling the man who was healed. He was, after all, a nobody, a beggar, whose blindness was a sure sign of his sinfulness. How dare this sinful nobody challenge the certainty of their beliefs! So, they drove him out. Problem solved. Except it wasn’t.

Hearing about the man's excommunication, Jesus finds him and asks him: Do you believe in the Son of Man? Probably unsure about any of his beliefs by then, the man asks for help from his healer: Tell me so that I may believe.

Jesus' response to him is so amazing: You (who were blind) have seen him… and the man gets it (spiritually and actually), crying out, Lord, I believe! Suddenly, the one whom the people unjustly excluded is graciously included by God.

The scary part of this story is that last bit, where Jesus proclaims a truth many of us don’t want to hear. For those who are ignorant of God, their blindness is not sin, but for those who profess belief in God, ignoring the way of God is sin. 

Sin is not the bad things we do - those are the evidence of our sin. Sin is a state of separation from the wholeness of God which leads to disharmony with one another.

The blind man’s community judged him as unworthy, a sin later repeated by the Pharisees. Only God can judge, and God’s judgment is always yoked to God’s mercy. As is clear in this story, ours is not.

Breaking community, casting out members of the family of God, is also sin. This is what the Pharisees did by casting out the healed man who had been born blind. The Pharisees and all of us who have received the opportunity to “see” know better than to repeat those sins.

It’s no easier for us in our time, however, than it was for the Pharisees in their time. If you have ever unjustly judged someone or cast them out of your lives (in the absence of abuse), raise your hand… No don’t! It’s a rhetorical question!

I'd like to close with a story about fear, friendship, and faith. Once upon a time, a woman was on a hike
with a group of friends. The place they planned to stop for lunch brought them across the crest of a small mountain peak. Just past the rocky crest, was a clearing where picnic tables allowed hikers to enjoy a magnificent view of the valley below.

As the woman stepped onto the crest, she looked up and saw a rock ledge jutting out into the sky. Suddenly, she lost her sense of where she was. There was nothing for her to hold onto, no wall to lean on, and she found herself paralyzed, confused, and very afraid.

She truly believed that if she tried to take a step, she might fall off the edge of the mountain. Seeing her friend unable to move, another woman in the group took her hand, and spoke to her, gently reminding her to look down at her feet.

Seeing that her feet were safely on the ground, the woman breathed a sigh of relief. Her friend continued to speak to her, asking her to trust her as she led her across the crest to the other side where their lunch was waiting on the picnic tables.

She did. And she said no lunch ever tasted as good, and no vista ever looked as beautiful as that one did that day.

We are children of God and so, we have nothing to fear. God will always provide a hand to lead us and a voice to speak the words that will center and ground us. And God will always lead us to a peaceful place where a table is already set for us.

Then, having been fed, we are sent – because we have seen him, and we believe! As a community of faith, bound together by the love of God in Christ which lives in us, as we live in him, we are assured of God's promises of forgiveness of sin, abundant grace, and steadfast love, so we can move forward together with confidence into whatever future God is leads us to, today. 

Laetare! Rejoice! Amen. 

*Baal Shem Tov, Reprinted from A Treasury of Jewish Quotations, edited by Joseph L. Baron, Jason Aronson, Inc. 

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Lent 1-A, 2023: Led by the Spirit

Lectionary: Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9 

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

Welcome to my favorite liturgical season! The deep, dark, transforming beauty of Lent is very simply this: learning and practicing being led by the Spirit to the Spirit.

Matthew tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil, diabolos, the disturber of our connection with God. This 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. In our discomfort over our own innate propensity for evil, we humans have projected that onto an outer character from whom we think we can disassociate.

The diabolos, the disturber of our connection with God, can be within us, e.g., those inner voices that mollify our guilt as we justify our decision to sin. It can also be outside of us – as Peter was when Jesus had to tell him, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you have your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt 16:23)

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says all people sin. How he explains that isn’t a shining theological moment for Paul, imho, but his point is well taken. We all sin, so how we understand sin matters. We simply must get beyond the childhood concept of sins being bad things we do and go behind those to what motivates us to do them. That is where we find our diabolos.

When we do that, we have the ability to see ourselves in truth and claim our salvation as the gift it is. As St. John Chrysostom once said, “Let no man mourn that he has fallen again and again, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.”

It's important to note that in our gospel story, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. This is a story describing Jesus’ discernment. Was he ready and was the world ready for Jesus to begin his ministry in the world?

This also may be the most comforting phrase in Scripture this season. God had a plan for Jesus just as God has a plan for each of us, and it is always a plan of love and redemption. God is leading us exactly where God was leading Jesus, not into temptation, but into a life transformed by our connection to the Spirit of God, a connection that will transform the world.

The temptations are present because that is the human condition and because we have free will in our relationship with God. Will we choose to be led by the Spirit into an unknown, possibly painful moment trusting God’s loving plan for us and the world, or will we choose not to enter, remaining where we are? The choice is always ours to make.

When we choose to be led by the Spirit, we know that we will see the truth about our own fragility, mortality, and all the other things about ourselves we often work hard to ignore or deny. That’s why Lent is often experienced as painful and depressing – because we confront the truth that we’ve led ourselves to believe in a version of ourselves that is comfortable but isn’t the whole truth about us.

Jesus opens that truth up in his three temptations: being self-centered, self-doubting, and self-serving. The one who came among us and gave up his whole self for us was as tempted as we are in his humanness. That’s why this story is so important because, by it, Jesus is showing us that as we face the temptations every human faces, the voice of God will speak to us from within as it did for him.

Please notice that at no point in this story do we hear Jesus straining as he did in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus didn’t need to fight or resist the temptations he faced. He simply needed to hear and heed his inner voice, which is the divine voice, that revealed the way for him to go. Our purpose during this season is to learn to hear and heed that same divine voice within us.

In the first temptation, Jesus had to confront his self-centeredness. His bodily hunger made him the center of his thoughts and attention. But the temptation of hunger goes beyond the stomach and into the soul.

Most of us know that some hungers can drive us to terrible decisions if we let them, hungers like the over-consumption of food, drink, or things that don’t satisfy… self-hate that projects out and does harm to others… fear that kills whatever threatens our sense of security – even when those threats are other people, innocent people. Trayvon Martin an unarmed, black teenager shot to death as he walked around his family’s neighborhood, and Breonna Taylor, a black woman asleep in her bed when police busted in and shot her, come to mind here… or the hunger to be important, noticed, or acclaimed.

Which leads to the second temptation: self-doubt. Are we truly worthy of God’s love, mercy, and salvation? Do we need God to prove it on our terms or would we accept it on God’s terms – as a core truth about divine grace?

With self-doubt, there is always the conjunctional temptation of self-importance. Wasn’t Jesus so important that all of heaven and earth would tend to him if he wanted it? For us, this is a classic story of the temptation of privilege. Jesus could have stopped the whole wilderness thing with a word, a divine word, but that would have made him the object of the salvation he came to bring.

Which leads to the third temptation: being self-serving. Jesus, the Christ, didn’t come among us as a King or military power like David. He came as a baby and served as an itinerant preacher whose ministry was by all earthly measures, a failure, as he ended up accused of sedition, tried, and executed. That’s because his ministry wasn’t about him or his success but about us and our successful connection with God. His was the quintessential ministry of servant leadership that we all strive to emulate today.

So, how does all of this relate to our temptations, our ministry in the world, and our Lenten experience?

Jesus was led by the Spirit. So must we be. Jesus was tempted. So will we be. The Spirit led Jesus through temptation, not into it, staying with him and speaking to him all along the way.

In the moment of his temptation, Jesus didn’t fight or exert his human or divine will to get through. He simply allowed the words of God to happen within him and show him the way to go. Likewise, our goal in Lent is not to exert our will but to relinquish it, to let go and be led by the Spirit to the Spirit.

With each temptation, Jesus “heard” a Scriptural quote come into his mind. When we confront the temptations in our lives, we too will hear the words of God come into our minds. Of course, that means we must be spending time in worship and Christian Formation, learning the words of God, the character of God, and the way of God, so that when the inner conflict happens, our preparation can bear this same fruit in us.

The season of Lent invites us to learn and practice being led by the Spirit to the Spirit. May we choose to go on a deep, dark, transforming, journey into ourselves, knowing that we will find God there already loving us, offering to guide, comfort, and make us ready to serve the world in Jesus’ name. Amen.