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.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Epiphany Last, 2023: Guided beyond our limits

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

Mountains, clouds, devouring fire, and dazzling light. There is so much symbolic language and drama in our gospel today! God's self-revelation to humanity is always dramatic, whether it's to Moses, the disciples, or us. This particular revelation is also a first. God has never revealed God’s self like this before or since. 

In today's gospel, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain – the traditional location where

God is met and heard, as we saw in the reading from Exodus. Suddenly, their friend and rabbi begins to shine with a light so bright they couldn't look directly at his face. Jesus' dazzling white clothes and the brilliant aura emanating from him are traditional symbols for transcendence - the greatness of God, surpassing all created things, including humans.

The gospel writer is telling us that what happened on that mountain was an experience that goes beyond the limits of all possible knowledge and experience. In that transcendent moment, the veil between earth and heaven is lifted, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear, and they are talking with Jesus. The two most powerful prophets in Jewish history, Biblical heroes who were long dead, are suddenly not dead, and not gone. They're right here and Peter, James, and John watch as their ancient heroes chat with their beloved rabbi.

Aware of the historical significance of this event, Peter offers to build a memorial (a traditional response to a moment like this) – but before he can finish speaking, he and the other disciples are overshadowed by the Spirit of God who takes the form of a cloud, just as on Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the tablets of guidance; just as Mary was overshadowed when she conceived the Son of God in her womb.

In today's story, however, what these disciples conceive is the beginning of understanding of a transforming truth – the truth that Jesus is not just another powerful prophet, great teacher, or miraculous healer. He is the Incarnation, The Son of God – fully human, fully divine.

Theologian Raymond Brown says that the transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain made Jesus "transparent to the apostles' gaze.” Seeing him glow in that unearthly light and hearing the voice from heaven claim him as Son and Beloved, the disciples now were beginning to understand what they hadn't understood before. They were becoming aware that all of their preconceived notions about Jesus, including their grand expectations of him as Messiah, suddenly seemed so limited, so small.

Overwhelmed, they fell to the ground, …overcome by fear. Then their gentle rabbi touches them and speaks peace to them saying: "Get up, and don't be afraid."

Opening their eyes, the world has returned to one they can comprehend. Jesus wasn't glowing anymore. Moses and Elijah were gone. The bright cloud of God's powerful presence was gone. It was just them again – Peter, James, John, and Jesus – on the mountain, alone.

As they begin their journey down the mountain to rejoin the others, the disciples are still in that groggy state of mind that happens when your brain is trying to make sense of something it can't. We can almost hear their unspoken thoughts: Did that just happen? Was it a dream? It couldn't have been a dream… can you have a group dream? Wait till we tell the others! Maybe they saw the cloud like the Israelites did when Moses was on the mountain. But Jesus warns them to tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

The disciples' journey down the mountain marks the beginning of their new lives - transformed lives. The truth conceived in them begins to take root and grow.

The remainder of Matthew's gospel shows us how their new understanding is nourished and expanded by their teacher, Jesus, with lessons on forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven and who belongs to it, healing as a sign of the generosity and accessibility of God's grace, and the very difficult concept of servant leadership. They do as the voice from heaven commanded them: they alter their lives so that they can continue to listen to him.

It's a long journey for them. They constantly come up against the limits of their habits and thinking, and Jesus patiently guides them beyond those limits again and again. It is a comprehensive formation process, and it will be necessary to prepare them for the passion and terrifying crucifixion to come. It will also be necessary to sustain them after Jesus' resurrection as they go forth into the world baptizing and teaching in his name.

On this the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we begin our liturgical journey down the mountain and into the wilderness of Lent. During this season, we intentionally set aside time to confront the limits of our own habits and thinking as we make space in our busy lives for Jesus to guide us beyond our limits.

One of the limits we modern Christians constantly confront is our individualism. Throughout Scripture we hear about God's people, God's salvation of the whole world, and yet, we go about our lives as if salvation is about me, not us. But, as we hear in the second letter of Peter, the good news, the prophetic message we share is for everyone and lives in us - men and women moved by the Holy Spirit.

Another limit we are compelled to confront as we live into Black History month is our place in the shameful history of the enslavement and oppression of other humans. We, sitting here, didn’t do that and never would, but we continue to benefit from our forebears who did. In addition, part of our privilege is the ability to not know, and therefore not act, to ensure that the dignity of all people is respected in our world today.

Did you know, for example, that even today, “If you own a home in St. Louis or St. Louis County, there is a good chance you will find—buried in the legal paperwork that came with your house—a document... [with] a title like “Conditions and Restrictions” or “Uniform Restrictive Agreement,” [which] may… include the provision that the owner cannot “sell, convey, lease, or rent to a negro or negroes,” or that “no lot in this subdivision shall be sold to members of the African race.” Source. I checked my house deed and I encourage you to check yours.

I have linked samples of these below along with some articles, including one from the History Channel describing how these “discriminatory governmental and market-based practices stacked the deck against… African American home buyers for much of the 20th century, keeping them confined to decaying urban neighborhoods.” 

The important thing to know is that even though these discriminatory racial covenants violate the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, they remain to this day on the books as law in Missouri. We can change that – and the Webster Groves clergy association, of which I am a part, is working on it now. If you’re interested in joining this effort, please let me know.

On a recent trip to Ghana for a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, Justin Welby, said, “Our response must begin on our knees in prayer and repentance. … But our response does not end there. We are called to transform unjust structures, to pursue peace and reconciliation, to live out the Beatitudes in big ways and small.” Source

If we, like the first disciples, are to be made ready to be bearers of the Good News, we must allow ourselves to be guided by Jesus beyond all of our small, comfortable conceptions about God, ourselves, and our world. We must allow ourselves to be guided beyond the limits of our current understanding and experience. We must be willing to go down the mountain, work to transform unjust structures, and alter our lives, as men and women moved by the Holy Spirit so that we can serve faithfully for the glory of God and the welfare of all God’s people. Amen. 

Links for more information:

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Epiphany 5-A, 2023: Living in Christ Consciousness

Lectionary: Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]. Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20 

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

One of my favorite companions among in the communion of saints is St. Julian of Norwich who once
said: “For our soul is so deeply grounded in God and so endlessly treasured that we cannot come to knowledge of it, until we first have knowledge of God, who is the creator to whom it is united. For our soul sits in God in true rest, and our soul stands in God in sure strength, and our soul is naturally rooted in God's endless love. And all this notwithstanding, we can never come to full knowledge of God until we first clearly know our own soul.”

Knowing our own soul and our relationship to God and one another is what St. Paul is talking about when he says we have received the Spirit of God, so we must have “the mind of Christ.” Priest and theologian Jim Marion says: “For the Christian… the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus Christ himself. (Jn 14:6) More specifically, it is ‘to allow God to transform us inwardly by the complete renewing of our minds’ (Ro 12:2) so that… ‘We have the mind of Christ (1Cor 2:16)… that is, the Christ Consciousness… which is the goal of the Christian path.” Source: Putting on the Mind of Christ (Hampton Roads, Publishing, 2011), xiii) Icon pictured: ©2005, Anne Pinkerton Davidson, Iconographer.

In Jesus, we witness how a beloved life lives in the world. No matter how the world reacted to him or treated him Jesus maintained a consciousness of love and mercy even forgiving his executors from the cross on which they hanged him.

Jesus showed us that Christ consciousness takes us beyond obedience to fulfillment of the law of love which forgives, restores, and reconciles all the world to God; and this is what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel from Matthew.

Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. In addition to salt’s unique ability to enhance the flavor of food, it was also used to preserve food, which often meant preserving life.

You are a commodity of great value, Jesus says. You are a preserver of life. And he followed that up with an equally powerful statement: you are the light of the world – something he said about himself…

When we hear this today, do we hear the power of these statements? Jesus says we are, not we will be, and not we could become… but we are a commodity of great value, “endlessly treasured” by God, as Julian of Norwich said, and the truth of this should radiate from us. As my other beloved companion in the communion of saints, Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “When you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

The sad reality is that many people don’t know or experience this truth. The world is far too ready to make us believe that we are valued only if we have lots of money, beautiful bodies, or light skin. We are valued if we are social media influencers, the first ones picked to be on the team, or we walk a red carpet bathed in the admiration of others.

It seems true, but it isn’t. It’s an earthly trap, a temptation that leads us to bondage in sin. Henri Nouwen once said: “…When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection... [which is] the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

And that’s why we who follow Christ must let our light shine. We must radiate with the light of our Christ consciousness and the truth of our existence: that we are endlessly treasured and beloved of God.

But what do we do when we don’t feel like we’re endlessly treasured or beloved? When the world beats us down and we can’t hardly stand up much less radiate our belovedness we come to church where among our family of faith is someone who will be radiating the light of Christ for us. Standing near their light is enough to dispel our darkness and open our eyes and hearts again to the Christ consciousness.

We come to church and worship, because even when we can’t utter the words ourselves, even when we aren’t sure we believe a single bit of it, the prayers of the community uphold us like a life raft on the river of life.

Recognizing the truth of our belovedness as individuals is only the first step, but it leads to the second step: recognizing everyone else’s belovedness too. Over the past couple of weeks, we have experienced a communal trauma in the beating death of Tyre Nichols, another beautiful young black life lost to unjustified violence. The hardest part of this is that Tyre is only the most recent example. There have been so many more before him: George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark. There are simply too many to name here, but each one was beloved, valued, and treasured by God, but not by our society - and the color of their skin had a lot to do with it.

As Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop, and an African-American woman, said in her recent reflection: “Even if brutality like this has happened before and will happen again, we need to sit with this particular incident. We need to sit and wonder why traffic stops so quickly escalate into police brutalization and then to tragic loss of life. Sit and acknowledge the depravity human beings are capable of when mob mentality kicks in. Sit and feel our own broken, haggard spirits, still raw from deaths too numerous to count… There have been other Tyre Nicholses, and I weep anticipating all the Tyres to come… Pray today that God will fill us with wisdom and courage, and move us to transform systems and hearts shrouded by evil, especially when those hearts might just be our own.” 

It is only when we all are willing to do that – to shine our light so systems and hearts shrouded by evil can be transformed - that we can be set free from the bondage of earthly blindness and look at ourselves and others with the eyes of God. Then we are living in Christ consciousness and as Nowen says, “Every time we encounter one another we are offered an occasion to encounter the sacred.”

The church must be a place where the truth of everyone’s belovedness is intentionally and even counter-culturally lived out. Every church’s mission is to shine the light of the truth of everyone’s belovedness until everyone believes it… and lives it… and glorifies God for it. Then we shall be called repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets we live in.

It isn’t our light we shine, of course. It’s the light of Christ. As I mentioned last Sunday, the world will often work to cover or douse that light in us. Our communion of saints is replete with martyrs whose light was so doused. But the light of Christ lives on and now it lives in us.

I close by reading our Divine Purpose statement, developed last year by your vestry. You can find this in your bulletin on the last page or on our website at the bottom of the Welcome page. This is how we currently commit to shining our light in the world:
WE BELIEVE that we are called to live in service to others following the example of Jesus Christ, our Savior, helping to heal a broken world by preserving God’s creation. As a Spirit-filled community of believers we welcome all to come as you are: LGBTQIA+, married, single, divorced, marginalized, from the youngest to oldest, exactly as God created you, regardless of where you are on the spectrum of faith or doubt. 
WE WORSHIP in community, in-person and online. We have a strong liturgical tradition grounded in the Book of Common Prayer with prayer and music that embraces diversity of spiritual life in this world. In our worship all people are welcome to receive Holy Eucharist at God’s table, and all are invited to participate as they are called and gifted. Our “prayground” reflects the importance of the presence of children in our worship. 
WE SERVE a broad community of people of all ages. In partnership with our local, national, and international neighbors, we serve all of God’s people learning from them and working with them toward true justice and equitable access to God’s bounty.
Shine on, Emmanuel. The bright light of Christ radiates warmly from you. Amen.