Sunday, May 21, 2017

Easter 6A

Easter 6A May 21, 2017 First of all, let me say how wonderful it is to be back with y’all today! I’d like to take a brief opportunity to thank you; I learned so much from you about how to love and be loved as a priest and her people. I continue to be deeply grateful for my time with you and for the continued friendships that have lasted over the years! Our gospel reading for today picks up right where we left off last week. Jesus is speaking to his disciples over the course of several chapters in John’s gospel that are known as the farewell discourse as Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for what is to come as they are gathered together in the Upper Room just before the Last Supper. He has just told them to not let their hearts be troubled and that he is going before them to prepare a place for them. In our reading for today, he promises that he will ask God to send them an Advocate who will be with them so that they shall not be orphaned. The King James Version actually translates it as “I will ask the Father to send you a Comforter” and he promises, “I will not leave you comfortless.” And doesn’t that sound lovely? When we, like the disciples, are faced with times of uncertainty and transition in our own lives, it is helpful to remember Jesus’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit to comfort us. I like to think of the Holy Spirit showing up, draping a nice down throw around my shoulders, giving me a cup of chamomile tea and patting me on the head and saying, “There, there, love. Everything’s going to be ok.” (maybe even with a charming British accent?) And sometimes the Holy Spirit does show up and do that. And in those times I am extremely grateful. But I have also learned that I cannot limit myself to that understanding of the Holy Spirit, because sometimes the work of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the life of the church is offered in different and unexpected ways. One of the presenters at the Preaching conference that we went to this past week, a United Methodist Bishop named Will Willimon said it this way: “Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit to teach us lessons we cannot learn on our own.” Three years ago, I was on an 8 week sabbatical in Hawaii where David was working for 10 months. Our family had a wonderful time and experienced so many unique and interesting things. One night, our friend Paul convinced both David and me to go skydiving with him and a group of our friends. (Let me just say I have no idea why I agreed to this! As most of you know, I am one of the least likely people to do agree to go skydiving. But I did.) As we went to bed the night before our skydiving trip, I lay awake for hours absolutely terrified. I lay there imagining what it was going to be like to stand in the doorway of the open side of the plane and to have to jump out into the great wide open. And I thought, “I don’t know how I’m going to do that.” But I had committed to going and didn’t want to back out. When the day finally arrived and we got all suited up for our jump, I was introduced to my tandem jumper, a very large Russian man named Viktor. As Viktor tried to make small talk with me, I think he quickly realized that a). I was absolutely terrified and b). I couldn’t talk much because I was trying not to throw up. We took off in the plane as Viktor wasis religiously checking and re-checking all the buckles and straps of our two harnesses, and all too quickly, it became our turn to go. The moment I had most feared loomed before me. I made my way to stand in the doorway of the plane thinking that there was no way I was going to be able to do this, when Viktor did something that surprised me. He shouted in my ear to sit down on the floor of the plane and dangle my legs out. I felt a certain degree of momentary relief as I followed his instructions, and the next thing I knew, I was out of the plane and hurtling through the great blue sky. Now, what I only realized later after talking to our friends was how Viktor and I actually got out of that plane. Our friends confessed how horrified they were to watch as Viktor actually threw me/us out of the airplane. And you know, as much as I like to see that lovely comforting Holy Spirit show up with a cup of tea and words of comfort, sometimes the Comforter shows up and, like Viktor, throws us out of the airplane because there is just no way we are getting out on our own. And thankfully, the Holy Spirit stays connected as we free fall for what seems like an eternity but is really only seconds and then deploys the parachute with a tremendous jerk that leads us to land (, sometimes softly, sometimes not), at our destination. How has the Holy Spirit has shown up in unexpected ways in your life or in the life of your parish during times of transition? In what ways might God be calling you to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit, as unexpected as it might be? What are the lessons that the Holy Spirit may be trying to teach you right now that you are not able to learn on your own? There are certain seasons in our lives when we are called, as followers of Jesus to wait and to watch, to open ourselves to new life that the Spirit is calling forthfor in us. These can be times of uncertainty and anxiety, but they can also be times when we grow in our faith, trusting in what another writer calls “the slow work of God.” The poet Jane Kenyon captures this openness to the unknown and the unexpected in her lovely poem Let Evening Come that I will share with you in closing. “Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon Let the light of late afternoon shine through chinks in the barn, moving up the bales as the sun moves down. Let the cricket take up chafing as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn. Let evening come. Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned in long grass. Let the stars appear and the moon disclose her silver horn. Let the fox go back to its sandy den. Let the wind die down. Let the shed go black inside. Let evening come. To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats, to air in the lung let evening come. Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Easter 5A

Easter 5A-2017 May 14, 2017 “Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’” Our lectionary crafters have given us as a gospel today on this 5th Sunday of Easter, that is the gospel reading that is most often chosen by bewildered and grieving families as they plan a loved one’s funeral. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Strangely appropriate today as we mark a very definite ending here. The context of this gospel is also important to us. This portion of John’s gospel is known as “the farewell discourse.” Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to be betrayed and handed over to die. The disciples are understandably bewildered, frightened, shocked, saddened and in denial as they hear Jesus say these words to them all gathered together in the upper room where they are about to eat their Last Supper. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus says this to those whom he loves because he knows that things are about to get very much worse for them before they get better. That is the nature of this life of death and resurrection that every follower of Jesus is baptized into. We see this truth writ large in the story of Stephen and the beginning of the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem that is today’s Acts reading. Again, context is important here. Stephen has been chosen by the community of believers in Jerusalem as one of the first deacons, selected to serve the community to free up the 12 apostles to “focus on prayer and …serving the word.” Stephen and the others are selected because they are “men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” And Stephen really lives into this, the writer of Acts tells us: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” But the leaders of the synagogue take issue with Stephen; they argue with him but cannot stand up to him, so they form a plot against Stephen. “They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses…” against him. So, standing before the council, Stephen preaches a sermon about the salvation history of the people of Israel: about Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses and the way that God worked through all of them to bring about salvation, now come to fulfillment in the person of Jesus. And Stephen’s preaching enrages the people in the council, and they take him out, and they stone him. And as devastating a blow as that must have been to the early Christians in Jerusalem, it does not end there. Stephen’s death begins a severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and all but the apostles become scattered throughout the countryside. Saul begins “ravaging the church” by going into peoples’ houses and dragging men and women off to prison. It definitely gets much worse for the church in Jerusalem. But, history tells us that this moment in time is the real beginning of the spreading of the good news beyond Jerusalem, as “those who were scattered [go about] from place to place, proclaiming the word.” It was the church father Tertullian who named this truth when we wrote, “The blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church.” Truly, in the pattern of death and resurrection, it often gets worse before it gets better. There’s a passage of scripture that Bishop Gray quoted at various times over the course of his Episcopate. I was thinking about it last week, and so I went searching for it. It is another way of summing up the heart of this cruciform life that we are called to, the pattern of death and resurrection that is found in all of our lives, whether we embrace it or not. The passage is from the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph, as you know, was his father’s favorite, and so his brothers sold him into slavery where all manner of indignities happened to him which culminated in him being falsely imprisoned in a foreign land. But God intervenes and positions Joseph, through the use of his special gift of interpreting dreams, in a position where Joseph is able to save an entire generation of people in Egypt and beyond from famine. At the end of the story, when Joseph and his brothers are re-united, the brothers are concerned that Joseph will enact revenge upon them for their mistreatment of him, and Joseph responds, with a clear statement of resurrection and forgiveness: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good…” We put our hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We know, even when things seem to be at their worst that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. We trust the truth that is found in both Joseph’s and Stephen’s stories: What other people mean for evil, God can and will use for good. And we know that sometimes, things have to get worse before they can get better.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A

4th Sunday of Easter-Year A May 7, 2017 “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” In some ways, those 11 words sum up the entirety of the gospel, of Jesus’s ministry, of his crucifixion and resurrection, and how we, his followers are called to be in this world. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But what does it mean? For us? For our church? For our lives? For our world? “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This heart of the good news needs to be set alongside the heart of the human condition for us to be able to understand how and why it is good news. The heart of the human condition is that each of us wants to know and believe and understand that we matter. And Jesus showed us this: We matter to God. Our deepest fear is that we do not matter. But the truth of abundant life is that each of us matters to God. You matter to God. And at some point or another, each and every one of us suffers. In that suffering, we need to know that we matter to God, that our suffering matters—God is not indifferent to it. Our readings today point to this; they reassure us of this truth of abundant life. You and your suffering matter to God: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,/ I shall fear no evil; /for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me./ You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; / you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over./ Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,/ and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” And in the epistle: “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” You matter to God. The other piece of Jesus’s promise of having life abundantly is to live out of a place where we know and trust that each and every one of us matters to God. So the flip side of this is really at the heart of all of our sinfulness, isn’t it? Not believing or knowing that each of us matters to God, not living like each of us matters to God, and therefore not treating other people like they matter to God. Most of the time we don’t mean to do this. We get busy. We become too preoccupied with our own lives. We don’t take the time to really listen to other people, to see other people, to try to understand what causes them to do what they do. Most of the time we don’t mean to treat people like they don’t matter. But we do. Each and every one of us. And I know when I reflect back on those times, I am deeply and truly sorry. That’s a part of being human too. Each and every one of us matters to God, and each and every one of us falls short of living into this fully, abundantly. So we forgive one another because each of us matters to God. So, if this abundant life that Jesus offers and promises us comes out of a place of knowing and acting like each of us matters to God, then how do we go about doing this better, more fully, living more abundantly? It is actually more simple that you might think. Back before I went to seminary, when I was working downtown at Stewpot, I was heavily influenced by my time spent in the daily chapel service at there, just before the noon meal. This service was open to anyone (but not required), so it was not uncommon for the congregation to be made up of other Stewpot employees like me, members of the homeless community who were coming to eat their one, sure meal of the day, elderly folk who couldn’t survive on their Social Security and came to eat a free meal to help stretch that money a little farther every month, adults with mental disabilities who lived in the area personal care homes and who were really looking for a safe community, and different members from Jackson-area churches who came to help serve the meal on that particular day—folks from law offices downtown, work-at-home moms who wanted to offer their time while their kids were at school, newly retired folks who were wrestling with finding new meaning and purpose in their lives. That chapel service was the most diverse community I have ever been a part of, truly a cross-section of humanity. And the chapel convener, a man named Don London, had an exercise that he liked to do during chapel (at least once a quarter). He would start chapel by quoting John 3:16 (the King James version): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And he would say it again: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And then he would say, “How many ‘whosoevers’ do I have in here today?” And the regulars, who knew the drill, would raise their hands quickly. But it would take the volunteers a little bit longer to figure it out. I’d see them look around the room, and tentatively raise their own hands, claiming their status as a “whosoever” too, until a hand from every person in the room was raised. And then Don would say, “This is what you need to remember, as you get ready to go out into the world. God loves you, and I love you too. God loves you, and I love you too. Now. Turn around. Shake your neighbor’s hand. Look him or her in the eye, and say it to them. ‘God loves you, and I love you too’.” And then he would wait for us to do it. And pretty soon, it would take on a life of itself. People were not content to just tell it to their immediate neighbors in that chapel, they wanted to say it to every person in that room: “Gove loves you, and I love you too.” And what I learned from Don and those people in that chapel is that it is never too late to claim the abundant life that Jesus offers. It is never too late to begin or to begin again. It is never too late to claim for yourself that you matter to God, and to help each and every person you come into contact know and remember that truth for themselves. “God loves you, and I love you too.” Let’s try it and see what happens. Turn to your neighbor, reach out your hand, look them in the eye and say to them, “God loves you, and I love you too.” Now, get up from your seat. And go find someone who is seated somewhere else in the church. Take their hand, look them in the eye, and tell them “God loves you, and I love you too.” Now do it with five more people. Tell them that they matter to God and to you. “God loves you, and I love you too.” This is what it means to live the good news that is revealed in the Resurrected Christ. It is to live our lives as if each and every one of us matters to God. To proclaim with our very lives the good news of abundant life to a needy world, “God loves you, and I love you too.”

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Great Vigil of Easter

The Great Vigil of Easter—2017 I have been haunted this week by a scene from the movie O, Brother Where art thou. If you’ve seen the movie, I feel certain you remember it. Delmer, Everett and Pete are all standing around in the woods trying to figure out their next move, and an unearthly singing breaks out in the woods around them. As they stop talking to notice, they see a multitude of people, robed in white, streaming past them, singing and heading to a muddy looking river. As I went down in the river to pray Studying about that good old way And who shall wear the starry crown Good Lord, show me the way! O sisters, let's go down, Let's go down, come on down O sisters, let's go down Down in the river to pray The other two characters seem curious, but Delmer is enthralled, and all of a sudden, he takes off running into the water to the front of the line where, after a sharing a couple of words with the preacher, he is immediately baptized. When he comes up out of the water, he says to his friends, “Well, that’s it boys! I’ve been redeemed! The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting is my reward!” Then Everett says, “Delbert, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry.” And Delbert replies, “The preacher said all my sins is washed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.” Everett responds, “I though you said you was innocent of those charges.” And Delbert continues without missing a beat: “Well, I was lying, and the preacher said that sin’s been washed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. Come on in, boys, the water is fine!” Water permeates our readings for tonight and our liturgy for this triduum—these three holy days. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Spirit of God has always moved in and on and through water. In the reading about the Flood, God cleanses the earth of corruption through the waters of the flood while preserving creation in the ark with Noah and his family and all the animals. In the reading from Exodus, God recreates his people Israel in the parting of the waters of the Red Sea. As they pass between the two walls of water unharmed, God strips them of their identity as slaves and renews them as God’s beloved and chosen people who God is willing to fight for and care for and lead home to their promised land. And in the reading from Ezekiel, God tells God’s people, who are once again enslaved and exiled, that God will “sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” And they will once again be claimed as God’s people, marked as God’s beloved, restored in God’s heart and in their homeland. I was speaking with someone yesterday (on Good Friday) about the services so far, and she said that she had always appreciated the Triduum services, but this year, they had taken on a new significance for her. This year, she felt as if she was being washed clean. I was stunned in that moment in that seemingly casual conversation, to hear her give name to the stirrings of my own soul these last few days: the sense that we as individuals and we as a whole community are being washed clean by God’s spirit in our walking together and in our holy remembering. God’s cleansing work is about to be finished in us (at least for the time being) as we stand in a couple of moments and reaffirm our baptismal vows. In those moments I invite you to offer to God your heart of stone, so that God may sprinkle it clean and replace it with a heart of flesh that is re-energized by God’s spirit, and reconfirmed as God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. As I went down in the river to pray Studying about that good old way And who shall wear the starry crown Good Lord, show me the way! O sinners, let's go down Let's go down, come on down O sinners, let's go down Down in the river to pray

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lent 5A

Lent 5A April 2, 2017 This past week I read a poignant news story about UN Peacekeeper Michael Sharp whose bones were found in a shallow grave in the Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier this week. The writer of the news story reflected on a time when he had met Michael, and Michael had shared with him about the peacekeeping work that Michael and his colleagues were already doing in the Democratic Republic of Congo among the rebels there. Michael’s vocation was to engage in dialogue with the rebels—violent people who perceived the world so differently from how he did. He would sit down with them and listen to their stories, and then he would usually persuade them to surrender. And he believed that his approach could be applied to other violent groups—from ISIS to neo-Nazis—who rely on myths to recruit members and sustain themselves. In a conversation with the reporter back in 2015, Michael explained how he would approach these very violent rebels he worked with. “It starts, he said, with understanding their world view of the past as ‘the good old days and we need to go back to that. And that is the classic narrative of exile.’ The rebels, he said, were nostalgic for a mythical home and aimed to rewind history to a time that never really existed in the first place. For the Congolese rebels, their fantasy was an era when they—in their imagination—ruled neighboring Rwanda and killed their ethnic enemies with impunity.”i The article continues talking about Michael Sharp’s methodology and how he worked within the mythical narrative of the exiled rebels to provide them with reasons to surrender, which had been a very effective model. But this story struck me this week in the ways that it resonates with our reading from Ezekiel today (and even a little bit with the gospel reading). We see the prophet Ezekiel, who has been raised up by God to serve as a prophet to the Children of Israel who have been marched against their will into exile in Babylon, where they live as a conquered people among their conquers. They are longing for home, and they tell stories of the good old days, the way things used to be. Ezekiel continues this exile narrative with the vision of the valley of the dry bones. The people in exile are a people who have lost heart, who are suffering a death of the spirit, a living death in exile in a foreign land. And the explanation given at the end of the reading is that they are, in fact, the dry bones that will be reanimated and re-energized by the breath of the Lord, so that they may be placed once again on their own soil and so that they may once again know Yahweh as their Lord and God. This story of death and resurrection, wandering and displacement and return to home is a central one in the Old and New Testaments, and really, if we think about it, we can all relate at least a little bit. Each of us, if we are truthful, has our stories of exile and loss, wandering and disappointment. Each of us has our own narrative of “the good old days,” “the ways things used to be” before… Before he died. Before she got sick. Before he became addicted to drugs or alcohol. Before she lost her job. Before the divorce. Before all this change… And each of us has our dusty, frustrated hope of all that now will never be. These are our own Valleys of Dry Bones. On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, the last before we enter Holy Week with great fanfare, triumph and pageantry on Palm Sunday, we are offered the invitation to walk through a graveyard of our own lost hope and frustrated expectations. We are invited to acknowledge and recognize our own heartbreak. And we are given the gift of freedom when we stand, in the middle of our valley of dry bones, let go of the shreds of the false narratives we tell ourselves, and admit brokenly before our Creator: “This is not how I hoped things would be.” “Can these bones really live?” Because, my friends, in that admission of ours, we offer God space, an invitation—to breathe new life into those valleys of dry bones in our lives, to breath new hope and renewed purpose into our stories, and to restore us more fully in relationship with God and each other. For the breath that fills us with new life is the same breath that created us, claimed us, and marked us as God’s beloved, belonging to Christ forever. So, take a moment and reflect on these questions, and take them with you out into the world and your week beyond this place: 1. Name the valley of dry bones that you are being invited to walk around in during this season. The dry bones can be dead people, dead dreams, lost or hibernating hope, or the promises of God you have forgotten or set aside. 2. How had you hoped things would be different? Name your hurt and your disappointment to yourself and to God. 3. What can you learn about yourself and the world from this painful, difficult path that you have been called to walk? 4. Can you offer to God your valley of dry bones, and when God asks you, “Mortal, can these bones live?” can you answer with faith in the resurrecting breath of God—“O Lord God, you know.”? i.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lent 3A

Lent 3A_ 2017 March 19, 2017 “Is the Lord among us or not?” You can’t really blame the Children of Israel for asking it. After all, it was God and Moses who brought them out of the security of their enslavement in Egypt. It was God who led them in the wilderness and told them to camp there where there was no water to be found. What do people do when they can’t get the water they need? People get angry. People panic. Even Moses begins to panic as it looks like the people are getting ready to stone him. So Moses cries out to God, and God promises Moses and the people that God is truly with them. God goes ahead of them and stands on the rock at Horeb so that when Moses strikes it the water comes forth. In a place where there is no water, God’s presence causes the water to bubble up from the rock. And yet the place is named after the people’s unbelief, their questioning, and their testing: “Is the Lord among us or not?” And it is used as a cautionary tale in Psalm 95: “Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” I had a conversation with someone years ago about this story and he asked “If the parting of the Red Sea was such a powerful event, definitive proof of God’s presence and care for the Israelites, how is it that they can doubt God’s presence among them? How was it that their hearts become hardened? It’s an interesting questions, I think. How is it that our hearts become hardened? If we are truly honest with ourselves, we know the answer to this. We may not understand it, but we certainly have experienced it. We, who have encountered God’s presence in our lives and in our community over and over again, still find our hearts failing and doubting God’s goodness and God’s presence. "Is the Lord among us or not?" We find our hearts hardened, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. We grow thirsty and we panic that we will not have what we need to assuage our thirst. We fear that maybe this one time, God won’t show up, won’t give us what we need. But that is not the nature of God as revealed in Jesus. Jesus reveals for us a God who always shows up, offering living water, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Knowing everything that we have ever thought or done and still loving us unconditionally, unerringly. In this season of Lent, perhaps we are being called to tap into this spring of living water that is already bubbling up in our souls. Perhaps we are being called to pay attention to our hardened hearts and to invite God’s love to soften us. One way to do this is through the practice of a daily self-examen. A self-examen is the practice of asking yourself a set of questions every day to both acknowledge our failures and to also tap into God’s presence in our lives through gratitude. In this practice,“by the interweaving of admission and thanksgiving we come to appreciate the love that upholds and guides our decisions, and at the same time we become conscious of our withdrawal from that love”—when and how our hearts grow hardened over the course of a single day. And in this particular self-examen that I am going to share with you today, we can see the connection between acknowledging our failures and our hardness of heart at the same time that it guides us to accepting God’s grace and acknowledging God’s presence in our lives through our gratitude. “To ask these questions of ourselves each day helps us to see patterns in our lives that are easily overlooked, avoided or forgotten. ‘In a sense, it is like a daily shower…It does not necessarily prevent our going back in the grime…but it does help us to know where the grime is found.” In addition to the daily examen, Lent is a good time to engage in one of the most-underused of our seven sacraments: Reconciliation of a Penitent. There are two forms in the BCP that you can look at (on page 447), and Katie and I will be scheduling times for folks who want to come in and partake of this sacrament to do so in the second half of Lent. Reconciliation is a gift from God available to all who desire it, and it is an important part of welcoming God’s healing our hardened hearts when the time is right. 6 Questions for a Daily self-examen: 1. When was I least conscious of God’s love today? 2. When was I most conscious of God’s love today? 3. When did I not act out of love today? 4. When did I act out of love today? 5. What opportunities for thanksgiving did I miss today? 6. For what am I thankful today? I have copies of these questions available in your pews that I invite you to take with you when you leave. One way to begin and end this practice is with the Collect for Purity that we pray here every week. I will close with that today, and invite you to sit and reflect on these questions for a few moments of silence. Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

First Sunday in Lent Year A

Lent 1A March 5, 2017 A few years ago, I was struck when one of my friends told me that she was “giving up fear for Lent.” When I asked her how she was going to do it, she talked about how: during the times when she identified that she felt afraid, she would gently remind herself of her trust in God and her belief that God would give her everything she needs. In reflecting on the practice afterward, she told me, “It was so much harder than it sounds or than I thought it would be. I didn’t realize how much we, even as Christians, allow fear to run our lives and our relationships. But it ended up strengthening my trust in God and my faith so much more than I expected.” On this first Sunday in Lent, we are reminded that Lent is a time when we, like Jesus, are driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for a season of fasting and self-reflection. But this wilderness is not a vacation to the mountains or the beach, a chance to “get away from it all” for a while and unplug and recharge. This wilderness is barren and wild. It is a place that can be lonely and dangerous, stark in its struggle and its solitude. And we’ve seen what happens to people in the wilderness. Just look at all the stories in the Bible about the Children of Israel who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after the Exodus! Most people, when wandering in the wilderness, become afraid. Afraid of the loneliness. Afraid that they will be hungry. Afraid that we will not have enough—not have what we need. Fear is a powerful motivator, especially in the wilderness. But the wilderness and the solitude it provides can also be a place where we distill and clarify our identity. In it, we can strip away what is not important, what is not really true to who we are and our relationship with God. If we will let it, wilderness can be a time of growth and clarity for us, even in the midst of its demands and hardships. My husband likes to tell a story about this gospel reading and the time that he saw one of the passages from it on an inspirational bible quote of the day calendar. The quote for that day was “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” He tells that story to show that context is important. And it’s true for us today as we think about Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness. It is, in fact, the context of the story that provides the key to how Jesus thrives in the wilderness, and the key to how we thrive when we, too, find ourselves driven into the wilderness. Because what has happened immediately before our story for today? Jesus has emerged, dripping, from his baptism, when he (along with all who are gathered there) hears the voice of God say of him: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” And each of those temptations are designed to chip away at Jesus’s identity—notice how two of the three start with “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus resists the temptations, not because he is some super-human. He resists the temptations, they have no hold over him, because he remains secure in his identity as God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. He trusts that God will give him what he needs, so he does not feel the need to take anything the devil is offering him. This past Ash Wednesday, I was struck by a connection that I had never noticed before. When the priest makes the sign of the cross in ash on each of our foreheads and says the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” it is the same gesture that is made in chrism oil at our baptisms with the words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Like Jesus we are sent forth from our baptisms into the wilderness that is life, to face hardship, spiritual hunger and thirst, loneliness, loss of control. The real temptation for us, like Jesus, is whether or not we will let fear overpower us, chip away at our identity and make us less than the one God has created each of us to be. All temptations boil down to a choice: whether we will try to assert our own will, which is always the way of death; or whether we trust in the God of the resurrection who always breathes new life. This season of Lent for us can certainly be a season in the wilderness, if we focus on worship and practices that allow us to be stripped of all that does not support our true identity as God’s beloved--marked as Christ’s own forever--that is given to us from the beginning of time, and if we allow ourselves to be stripped of all that prevents us from living more fully into that belovedness. I think this year, I’m going to take up my friend’s practice of giving up fear for Lent. In those moments I am afraid, I will acknowledge my fear and then say gently to myself, “Remember that you are God’s beloved. Do not be afraid.” I invite you to consider joining me in that practice this year. May God grant us all the clarity of our identity as God’s beloved as an antidote to our fear, now and always. Amen.