Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Gardener: Sermon on John 12:20-33

With only two full days left in March here in the Our Neck of the Woods, I finally feel safe saying it: spring may well be on its way. It’s not the warmer weather (though that helps!). It’s not that it’s light out past 6 PM (though I am so enjoying that). The reason I know it’s really spring is the excitement of the gardeners.

I know a gardener. She loves digging in the dirt. Beginning in early February, she waited patiently for a reasonably warm and dry Sunday so that she could do her spring yard clean-up. Three weeks ago, it came, and she spent about five hours raking the remnants of the leaves from last fall, pulling up the remains of the annuals she’d planted last summer, cutting back her clematis almost to the nub, picking up downed branches.

Next, it’s time to get the soil ready. Whether you have a small city garden or a large tract of land in a rural location, the quality of the soil, she tells me, is crucial. So, she spends time with a garden spade and a digging fork turning the soil over, loosening it to a depth of a foot or more, breaking up clumps, removing rocks, making the soil loose and open and aerated.

There’s one more step before planting. To really improve the quality of the soil, you must add fertilizer or compost. It’s one of the lovely paradoxes of planting that the gardener spends all this time clearing and cleaning out the garden, only to turn around and put something back that in other circumstances would be considered waste. The waste of animals and plants is used to gorgeous purpose in a garden. In fact, you might say, nothing is wasted.

Finally, all is ready. When the danger of frost is past (and for us, that’s still quite a few weeks away), the gardener can finally put the plants in the ground, can finally sow the seeds, can finally begin to see just a bit of beauty come out of all that hard work.

And you should see it, in the height of summer. The thickly blooming morning glories vie with the snapdragons, the tiny lobelia spread their carpet along the flowerbed, the pansies intersperse their small bright faces with bold upright asters. In the evening the moonflowers blossom, mysterious and fluffy, only to hide when daybreak comes again. The herbs make the garden a feast for all the sense… inhale deeply, and you’ll sniff wild mint, pungent rosemary, lemon thyme. Everywhere you look, what was just a seed or a seedling blossoms into 30, 60, even a hundred flowers. As the summer goes on, the volunteers from last year’s seeds pop up: a snapdragon elbows its way into the bed of nasturtiums.

But even at the height of summer, the work of the gardener is still not over… A gardener doesn’t simply plant and leave. She steals every moment she can throughout the spring and summer to water, to pinch back, to weed, so that at every moment the garden can be magnificent.

Jesus talked about seeds and gardens so much, you almost have to wonder… did his mother have a lovingly tended patch of ground? Did he grow up digging in the dirt? Did he know the joy of planting a single seed and seeing a dizzying yield of flowers, more than he could count? I wonder. We are doing things a little backwards with today’s passage from John’s gospel, because this conversation Jesus is having with people who want to follow him is taking place after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In other words, in our reading, it’s already Palm Sunday. And Jesus is well aware what he faces… he knows full well that the path he has been on now leads inexorably, inevitably to the cross.

And… he acknowledges this fact. Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” That is such a densely packed sentence. The Son of Man—a title for Jesus that means, simultaneously, the Mortal One, the Human One, and yet, at the same times, indicates someone sent from God for the purpose of a glorious deliverance, a mysterious and otherworldly victory. The Son of Man. It is time for him to be glorified. We who know the ending of the story—after all, we’ve seen the Easter Lily order forms, haven’t we? We know about the Happy Ending, the All’s Well that Ends Well we get to celebrate two Sundays from now. We know about the resurrection. But that is not what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of glory. Jesus is speaking in the code of the fourth gospel. Whenever this gospel, the gospel of John, uses the term “glory,” or “glorify,” it means one specific thing: the moment when Jesus is raised up on the cross. That is his moment of glory. That is what he means. The glory of Jesus, the moment when the Son of Man is to be glorified, is the moment when he is raised up on the cross.

After saying this hard thing, this really unacceptable thing… I say this as someone who generally regards violent death in a negative light… Jesus’ tone changes, a bit, and he speaks in this little agricultural parable, like a gardener talking to other gardeners about the hard work that must precede the harvest. “You know, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Such a calm and serene way to talk about one’s own impending death. But that is what Jesus is talking about. I find this hard to understand, this calm Jesus talking about the necessity of his death.

But in the end, Jesus sees himself as a gardener… and someone else will mistake him for a gardener before the whole story is over… Jesus sees himself as a gardener, and he sees his death as a necessary planting, a hard work that must be done, if he wants to see the harvest.

And he does. The harvest Jesus is hoping for is right here, in this sanctuary. It’s you and me, and little J., about to get very wet and not at all sure why. The harvest Jesus is looking for is the community that is gathered in his name. We are the “much fruit.” We are the ones for whom he considers his death to be a good and necessary thing, the reason he sees the cross as glory. We redefine life on the basis of Jesus’ death. We are drawn to the cross, because through Jesus we see it, ultimately, not as a symbol of torture, but as a sign of love. The cross is a free choice Jesus makes to lift the burden from someone else… in this case, the whole world. Jesus is the single seed that breaks open, giving its life for the sake of the millions and billions of flowers that will inevitably grow from this seed. And we are the millions of flowers, you and me and J. and people of Zimbabwe and Iraq and Johnson City and Detroit and everywhere else his garden has sprung up.

And he is with us still. A good gardener doesn’t simply plant and leave. He remains with us, abides with us every moment, watering, pinching back, weeding, so that at every moment we can come to flower, bear fruit, and even continue planting the seeds of his tender care. That is our call. That is what we do in baptizing Justin into our midst: we plant a seed, and we water it, and we trust that God will bring a gorgeous yield of much fruit. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, March 27, 2009

I Love My Kids: edited

Because, among other things, they didn't do this.

See what fun you can have subscribing to the Telegraph's Expat Bulletin?

Edited to add: the bar doesn't have to be unreasonably high, people.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What am I doing all the time?

Lessee... in this last week...

* Larry-O was home! My boy. He is well, he seems very happy, he has parts in two plays, "Balm in Gilead" (in which he plays David, a drag queen), and "Love of the Nightingale" (based on a Greek myth, in which he plays the Captain). He was here and then gone... we had dinner Thursday, then he and Petra stayed with their dad until Sunday after church, and then we had brunch. And... back on the bus, y'all.

Here he is in makeup for Balm. Isn't he pretty? Someone told him he looks like Ina Garten.

* Visits, visits, visits... a woman on hospice care, a young woman who wants to "rent" the church (minus pastor) for her wedding, a couple dealing with issues around aging... more.

* Auditions... Petra and I went out for HMS Pinafore last weekend. I was offered the understudy for Buttercup, as well as a chorus spot. This will be my first time in chorus... those women always seem to have so much fun! Petra and I are digging it. Oh, plus the understudies get a performance... which is cool!

* Jazz Vespers, last night. We are fortunate to live not too far from a Presbyterian jazz luminary/ pastor, who is also a son of this area. He came, with a member of his band, to lead vespers last night (and do the meditation, which is why I have not posted one). Oh, my. It was powerful. They did songs of longing and lament, all based on psalms, and his meditation was about... being a human being and suffering. He addressed it deftly, with a light touch, that had people smiling (and our people really turned out for this one!) and nodding. I was near tears as he shared this story. He read Psalm 13, and then played this piece, the Last Word... the idea being, God has the last word.

Not sure there's much to say after that.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lenten Journal: Supplanted

So, I had this great idea: to paint my bedroom. Which transmogrified into "to have my bedroom painted." Catch the subtle difference? Those of you with really long memories (and, perhaps, not enough to care about in your own lives? OR who absolutely love me) may remember that Petra and I painted our dining room to rave reviews before the cooling of the earth about two years ago (see smashing photos here).

Before that we'd painted Petra's room, also a beautiful outcome. So, naturally, my room was next on the list.

Except, you see, time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future, and my damn bedroom wasn't painted.

So I got the name of this woman painter, and she came to my house on Saturday. In theory, I should have had my new paint job by Saturday night: celery green walls and a lavender ceiling, with glossy white trim. (I was so excited.)

My painter settled in to prime and patch, and I settled in to write my sermon.

An hour or so later, my painter came downstairs. Let's call her, Alex.

Mags (brightly): How's it going?

Alex (smiling, tightly): This is what, later, I'm going to call a disaster.

We went upstairs together. She showed me the places where big pieces of wall fell apart. She showed me the ceiling, which was, inexplicably, wallpapered at some point-- and then painted over-- and which she was beginning to scrape. She showed me the patching she had done, and the patching she had yet to do. And...

My bedroom was not painted by Saturday night. My bedroom will likely not be painted by this Saturday night, or the next. (Alex works for a living... as a caterer. The painting is a side job.) Which means... I'm not sleeping in my bed. My wonderful, perfect bed, which I love very, very much.

Night one: I slept on the pull-out couch in the playroom. (The guest room was not really accessible to me, shoved full of my bedroom furniture as it was.)

Not so bright-eyed the next morning.

Night two: plan B. I moved furniture. I am now ensconced in the guest room. For a while.

I don't like not being in my bed.

Not really great planning on my part for the last weeks of Lent.

Image: Quilted Postcard by PamelaQuilts, available here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

New Wine: Sermon on Jeremiah 31:1-13, Mark 2:13-22

Tell me the old, old story,
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory,
Of Jesus and his love.

I’ve noticed something about a lot of the bible passages we read in church on Sunday mornings. Have you noticed that we always seem to be going back to the beginning, back over ground we’ve already covered before? Here we are, and Jesus is, once again, calling someone to be a disciple… today, it’s Levi, a tax collector. I know we’ve heard one of these stories before, and not long ago, a call story. And we hear these call stories every year, in the three-year cycle of readings known as the lectionary. What, do you suppose, is the source of our need to go back to the beginning, to hear, the old, old story again and again? What is it about memory or worship or our own need that brings us back again to familiar stories, like a family gathered together at the kitchen table, turning the pages of a favorite photo album for the hundredth time?

Jesus sees Levi sitting in his tax booth, and Jesus says to him what he always says in these stories: “Follow me.” And, like nearly everyone Jesus calls, Levi immediately gets up and leaves his trade and his source of income without even finding someone to cover for him, without so much as hanging a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door. In the case of Levi, as with so many of the disciples, Jesus has called an outcast. But he’s called a curious kind of outcast, because Levi is rich. Like the well-paid executives of AIG, Levi is comfortably well-off, but not particularly well-liked. That’s because Levi’s job is to extract taxes from his fellow Jews, and pass them along to the Roman oppressors… while, at the same time, taking a nice cut for himself. He would have been seen as a traitor to his people. And Jesus thinks he’s just the disciple needed to round out his inner circle.

Maybe the first lesson we need to learn over and over is that Jesus calls people to be his disciples whom we don’t expect him to call.

Later, Jesus joins Levi at his house. Though our translation says they were sitting at table together, the fact is, they were reclining at table, in the ancient near-eastern fashion for celebratory banquets. Jesus and Levi and Jesus’ disciples and lots of tax collectors and sinners were reclining together at the table. The scene is one of festivity, of intimacy, and of merriment. Jesus and his disciples and tax collectors and sinners.

Maybe the second lesson we need to learn over and over is that if we want to be in Jesus’ company we can expect to be surrounded by sinners. And, in fact, “they” are “us.”

Then Jesus becomes aware that some of the religious elite—the scribes of the Pharisees, those folks who are not outcast but who are really considered the in-crowd of Jesus’ day—they are challenging the presence of the tax collectors and sinners—not to Jesus directly, but to his disciples. “Why?” they ask. “Why would Jesus eat with these people?

Maybe the third lesson we need to learn over and over is that the welcoming ways of Jesus often make the religious authorities squirm, make them uncomfortable. In fact, Jesus often leaves the “good people” scandalized.

Table fellowship was something that was particularly important to the Pharisees. In fact, they were primarily a society for teaching and table fellowship… a kind of continuing religious education/ dinner club.[i] The particularities of table fellowship—the rules and regulations concerning who was welcome at the table of a righteous person and who was not—these were pretty much at the heart of their concerns. And so they want to know: why is Jesus eating with sinners?

Jesus responds by describing himself as a kind of physician. Who needs a house call from the doctor, he reasonably asks, the person who is hale and hearty or the person who has a terrible cough and a 102 degree fever? This is one of those beautiful moments when Jesus manages to disarm his opponents with a kind of compliment that rebounds upon them. You, he insinuates, are so clearly healthy! I will stay with these sick folks. But here comes the rebound: I’m not going with you, he says. Jesus rejects the rules for table fellowship that the Pharisees embrace. As I heard in a sermon not too long ago, every time we draw a circle in which we’re on the inside and someone else is on the outside, we can rest assured that Jesus is going to choose to be on the outside, with those we exclude.

The topic of food continues to be discussed—or lack of food, specifically, fasting. Why, someone asks, why don’t Jesus’ disciples fast… like those followers of John the Baptist? And, I might add, like the Pharisees, who fasted once a week.[ii] Jesus, I like to imagine, puts down the cup of wine from which he has been sipping. He places on the table the knife with which he has been cutting a lovely rich wedge from a honey and fig cake. And then he says something like, Look around you. These are not mourners. This is not a funeral. This is a wedding banquet. How can we fast? Today, it is time for a celebration.

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with images in which God is compared with a bridegroom, and God’s people of Israel are depicted as a bride. Our passage from Jeremiah hints at this:

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people… I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards… the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. ~ Jeremiah 31:1, 3-5

God’s people are depicted here as a blushing bride, ready to make merry at the wedding with the tambourine, ready to partake of the delicious local wine, ready to be “built up”—that is, to have lots of babies. God speaks in the language of a suitor: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have been faithful to you.”

The wedding imagery continues, as Jesus moves on to talk about the old and the new: garments (I think, wedding garments) and wine. In doing so he appeals to conventional wisdom, folk knowledge. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk” [that is, new] “cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” The old and the new, Jesus says, cannot be forced together… new wine will tear an old wineskin. A new patch will tear an old garment. I am going to go out on a limb and say, of all the words of Jesus, perhaps these shake up good church people the most. We tend to infer from what Jesus is saying, that the old must be discarded and the new embraced.

I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. In fact, the way I read these sentences, in one case, Jesus clearly is suggesting we embrace the new… the new wine… and in the other case, he is clearly suggesting we maintain and protect what is old… the cloak, which he doesn’t want to tear. It’s not the newness or the antiquity of something that should be the judge of whether we preserve it. It’s not whether something is new or old that determines if it is good. Rather, it’s the extent to which it helps us to welcome in or to build up the reign of God.

And the reign of God, Jesus tells us, is a celebration. It is a banquet. It is a feast where no one goes hungry and no one is told he or she cannot enter in. I hear you asking, quietly, what about the Pharisees? Truly, I tell you, by their exclusive ideas about who’s in and who’s out, they exclude themselves.

What is it about us that makes us return over and over to the same stories, the same themes in scripture? Is it the way our memory works? Is it the way in which we worship? Is it a matter of our own needs, as fragile and broken human beings? What do you suppose? This morning I’ve highlighted a few items we seem to need to hear over and over again (judging by their prevalence in scripture). The idea that Jesus calls unexpected people to follow him, the idea that he calls sinners, the idea that—oh my!—we are those very selfsame sinners. And the idea that Jesus’ inclusiveness is a challenge to us, a deep, real challenge.

Maybe the final thing that we need to hear over and over is this: Look around you. This is no funeral. This is a wedding banquet. We are the beloved people of God, brought into intimate covenant relationship with Jesus. This is what the “new wine” is about… not so much the “newness,” as the “wine.” Wine, symbol throughout history and scripture of all that is delicious, all that is wholesome, all that lifts the spirits and gladdens the heart. Wine, present at fancy dinners and weddings and last suppers and New Year’s toasts. Wine, reminding us that life as God’s people is, first and foremost, celebration… joy, festivity, merriment! Tambourines! Dancing! Smiles. Laughter. Warm hands extended. This, I believe, is what we need to remember most of all. This is why we tell the old, old, story again and again… so that we’ll finally take this in, so that we’ll finally believe it. Our life together, in Christ, is a celebration. A banquet. An occasion for taking in the new wine of the old, old story, of Jesus and his love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] J. Wilde as quoted in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, 1997), 158.
[ii] Ibid.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Men are from Tyre, Women are from Bethany (edited twice!)

But you knew that...

Thanks Joan Calvin, for the link to this nifty article on the theological, ideological and political differences between male and female clergy.

Photo: from Young Clergywomen's Gathering, Summer 2008. No, I wasn't there. 'Cause, I'm not a young clergywoman. Not that I have any feelings about that or anything...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What is a Cross? Lenten Meditation

I have Sophia to thank for posting the method of discernment used in this meditation. Her post awakened in me a desire to preach more directly on this issue (which I skirted nicely... or brazenly, you choose! here): what is a "cross"? How do we read Jesus' invitation to pick up a cross in ways that are neither self-destructive nor self-deluding? Finally, finally, after reading the words of Wuellner, I was able to articulate something that had been only vague vowell sounds in my head, but which had, at its heart, the conviction that Jesus does not want us to suffer.

“What is a Cross? Prayers of Discernment”
Mark 8:34-37
Lenten Meditation Week 4

Let me tell you a few little stories:

A registered nurse is living firsthand the reality of the sandwich generation: she has teenagers still at home, and parents whose health is deteriorating, necessitating her greater involvement in their care. And, of course, she works full time at the hospital. She sighs, “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.”

A man is attempting to play with his 4-year-old son on the beach; the child is severely autistic. A couple who are looking on from a distance murmur, “Wow, what a cross that must be to bear.”

A young couple witnesses the death of their 11-year-old son in a car accident. Distressed, a friend of theirs wonders, “Why would God send someone that kind of cross to bear?”

In popular parlance, for lots of people of faith, anything that is difficult for us to deal with in our lives constitutes a “cross to bear.” We’ve all been told, from the time we were small, that enduring everything from discomfort to terrible suffering can be our opportunity to do as Jesus tells us, to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him. This understanding has even, at times, led ministers and priests, otherwise well-meaning folks of the cloth, to encourage victims of abuse to stay with their abusers, since it would, of course, be Jesus’ will that they endure their suffering patiently.

I hope tonight we can walk away from that particular interpretation of this passage. That’s because I believe it’s wrong. Period. No qualifiers. When Jesus talks about our taking up our crosses to follow him, he is not telling us to endure the suffering that is out of our control. He is most certainly not telling us to put ourselves in situations (or to remain in circumstances) in which our safety was at risk, all because that is his will. When Jesus spoke of the cross, he had a specific understanding of it, and those who followed him understood what he was saying.

When Jesus speaks of a cross, he is referring to a specific instrument of torture and death that was used by the Roman Empire for purposes of intimidating and controlling those whose lands they occupied. The Romans lined their roads with crosses, to which they nailed one particular kind of criminal: insurrectionists, those who sought to overthrow Rome, to loosen its grip on their homelands or people. That way, people coming and going into the cities that Rome controlled had before them a gruesome vision of what would happen to them if they dared stand up to the Empire.

As Jesus begins speaking to his disciples about the cross, he is letting them know in no uncertain terms what he himself finally understands: that what he is preaching, the gospel of good news to the poor, release to the captives, restoration of sight to the blind and the ability to walk to the lame, the open table of welcome to all, young, old, saints and sinners… this is a dangerous gospel. This message has the power to confront Rome in all its oppressive, militaristic might, and to cause it some measure of difficulty. Therefore, Jesus knows, he understands in the deepest part of his heart, that the gospel he is preaching will lead inexorably to the cross. If he chooses to continue to preach that gospel, the cross cannot be avoided. Rome will look upon him as an insurrectionist, and there is only one path for an insurrectionist to walk, the path to crucifixion.

Now, mind you, Jesus is willing to walk that path. That is not to say he desires it. But he is willing to walk it, he chooses it, because he understands that, in the end, Rome cannot prevail, but God will. And he understands that it may well take his death to truly take on Rome and expose its ugliness to the world, and to bring life and hope and relief to everyone Rome has oppressed. Jesus is willing to take up the cross in order to lift the burden of suffering from others.

That is what a cross is. An instrument or situation of suffering, voluntarily taken on, so that the burden of suffering might be lifted from someone else. Our cross is our free choice to lift the burden of suffering from another person.

But notice: it is our free choice. No one assigns us a cross and forces it onto our shoulders. Our physical suffering (which may be profound), our mental anguish (which may be nearly intolerable), our burdens and responsibilities do not, in themselves, constitute our cross to bear. Our cross is something we choose to take on because we see that the end result is that someone else will suffer less.

The handout tonight is from a book by Flora Wuellner, Enter By the Gate: Jesus’ 7 Guidelines for Making Hard Choices. I have not read the book myself (yet), but I was struck by this passage, which a friend shared with me. In it, Wuellner shares her insights on how to discern if something is your cross… how to discern whether God might be calling you to pick up some measure of difficulty or suffering so that others’ suffering might be lifted. Here are some of the things she shares:

First, no one forces the cross on us. If we are in a situation from which we cannot escape—say, being imprisoned in a concentration camp during the reign of Hitler—that is not a cross. That is a horrible injustice of which we are a helpless victim. If it’s a cross, we are free to pick it up or to put it down.

Second, our cross will call to us. We will feel a deep resonance with taking it on, with picking it up.
Third, even though we will experience suffering and pain as a result of picking up the cross, we will also find a measure of joy, and strength, and even the renewal of our spirits. Picking up the cross does not mean unrelenting misery: there is also joy that comes along with it.

Fourth, and I think this is truly the most important piece of this discernment, our ability to love will deepen. I think of the second example I used tonight—the man with the autistic son. You know, caring for his son and the real challenges that presents could be a cross, if, in the end, his love for his son deepens, and he does find moments of joy even in the pain. But if all his life is miserable, or angry, if his ability to love diminishes rather than deepens… then what he is doing may be good, it may be noble, it may even be the right thing to do… but it is not his cross.

Fifth, if our cross is truly ours, truly legitimate, we will see some positive results, at least at times, our work will bear some fruit. Someone else’s suffering will lift. Wuellner cautions, if we so no positive results, if all is bleak and desolate, if suffering is not relieved… it may not be our cross.

Sixth, Wuellner tells us that angels will be sent to comfort us, as Jesus was comforted in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane. If there is no relief for us, no comfort from anyone or anything… it may not be our cross.

And seventh, a Simon of Cyrene may be sent as well. You may remember: he was plucked from the crowd that was watching to assist Jesus in carrying his cross to the place of the skull. That will happen to us. Someone will help us, and we’ll feel our own burden lightened, at least a bit. If not… it may not be our cross.

What is a cross? In terms of our discipleship, in terms of the path we walk as believers, the cross is a free choice we make to lift a burden of suffering from someone else. This choice often causes us pain and hardship. But it is our choice. It is not forced on us, it is an invitation to which we respond. Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, and to take up a cross—to lift another’s suffering—and to follow him. We have the ability to do that, or to not do it. We have assurance that, as Jesus received comfort and assistance, we will too. We have the hope that, even in suffering, we will have moments of joy and peace. We have the promise that Jesus himself—the one who sought in all circumstances, in every way to lift the suffering of humanity—we have the promise that he will walk the path with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fierce Friendship: A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

I realized this week that there are a number of weeks in year B we won't get to this year, and they have some texts from Mark that I love... so I'm off lectionary this week and next. Just couldn't rustle up whatever it was I needed to go to the temple with Jesus and his whips and all.

+ + +

The Martines lived what husband Layng called “a charmed life.” They met at 21 and 22, when Layng saw Linda for the first time through a screen door, adorable in an orange dress. He thought to himself, “If that girl will have anything to do with me, that’s it.” They married shortly afterward, the happy victims of a love at first sight that endured. About 20 years after that first meeting their charmed life changed forever. Layng writes:

Have you ever come upon a traffic jam on the Interstate and looked for an exit to try your luck on the back roads? That’s what I did the night of Linda’s accident. I drove right by my family without even knowing it. I bet I wasn’t more than 100 feet away. [i]

Now, years after the accident, they still take rides in the car, but, Layng says, Before the car even moves an inch… Linda has to put on her seat belt, because even a semi-sudden stop at low speed will whap her face against the dashboard as if she’s a spring-loaded bobblehead. She has no stomach muscles. Her body works only from the chest up.

Some of you will recognize the story of Layng and Linda from last Sunday’s “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. The piece delves deeply into the emotional aftermath of such an accident, as well as the physical care required once a member of a family has become paraplegic. It does so at such a level of detail that some readers were disturbed to be exposed to such intimacies. It’s not pretty, it’s not easy, but it is the story of a husband and wife who have learned to tolerate the intolerable. It’s the story of a fierce kind of love that will not accept defeat in the face of one partner losing much of her physical strength, ability and independence. It’s a story of a couple whose life together is captured in this vignette:

Not long after getting home from the hospital, when we were having dinner by candlelight at our kitchen table, [Linda] burst into tears. “I don’t know if I can do this for the rest of my life,” she said.

All I could say was, “We’ll do it together.”

What it takes to cope with paralysis is hard for most of us to understand, even in 2009, when technology and gadgetry exist that enable people in Linda’s condition to have a remarkable measure of independence. Now imagine life as a paralytic in ancient Palestine—a society where those who do not produce are expendable. A society where to be paralyzed means lifelong dependence on folks who already don’t have enough for themselves, to feed the people who are actually able to work for a living. A society where death looks like a reasonable alternative to being unable to move.

Jesus is at home, we are told, in the village of Capernaum, and the crowds have followed him there. In fact, the crowds are so thick around his house, it’s impossible to get anywhere near it. The crowds are assembled to hear Jesus, who is preaching to the people, sharing with them the word of God. Then “they” come, a group of friends. We don’t know how many, but we are told that “four of them” are carrying someone, apparently on a kind of makeshift stretcher. The man is paralyzed.

Then the story takes on a kind of absurdist turn. The newcomers can’t get anywhere near the house, but they can get near the roof? They brought, what, a ladder to climb to the roof? And that thatched roof is able support the weight of five men, the paralytic and his enterprising friends? And then they open it up or dig it out—the Greek says, they “unroof” the roof? It becomes a little cartoonish, or it would, if the whole thing weren’t so very serious. These four are fiercely determined to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Absurdities or not, the point remains: they allow no obstacle to stand in their way.

So, imagine the scene. The house can’t be very big, and it’s probably close and hot inside, and Jesus is trying to get through, let’s say, the parable of the sower, And all of a sudden there is thumping overhead, and maybe clods of dirt are falling here and there, and then, through a growing opening, light, and finally four sweaty men lowering one man—who is, himself, incapable of moving—into the middle of the dining room, plopping him on the floor, and then staring, expectant, into the face of Jesus. It’s quite a scene.

The next sentence is typical of this passage—densely packed, full of substance, capable of taking the reader down several different paths. Mark tells us, ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”’

We modern readers are taken aback by that last part—“your sins are forgiven.” What on earth does Jesus mean, saying to the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven”? Does he mean to imply that the man is somehow responsible for his own paralysis, for this dreadful condition that makes his life a nightmare? The people crowded into that hot room would have heard it differently. This juxtaposition—sin and sickness—would have made sense to them. It’s a tune they have heard before.

If you read scripture, you quickly catch on to the fact that sin and sickness are often said to be connected. Think of Miriam, sister of Moses who dares to question his authority—and so God smites her with leprosy. Pretty clear cut: her sin leads to sickness. However, if you read further in scripture, you find that the connection between sin and sickness is challenged… think of Job and his terrible boils. He is not a sinful man, he is a righteous man. Think of any number of psalms. The connection between sin and sickness is denied, often vehemently.

There is another way in which sin and sickness are related, however. Not long ago my daughter told me about an article she read for class, describing three people who had heart attacks—one a CEO making an 8-figure salary, one a mid-level manager, and one a chamber maid in a hotel. Guess which one got the best care? Guess which one got the worst care? Ancient Palestine was no different. The poor had the shortest life expectancy, the rich had the longest. Just as in our day. Sin and sickness do go hand in hand—corporate sin, society’s sin, the kind of sin that oppresses people and keeps them from enjoying even the fruits of their own labor, or from being able to be productive in the first place. The kind of sin that locates toxic waste near slums, so that the people living there suffer from chronic asthma or worse. The kind of sin that renders the weakest members of society expendable. There is a connection between sin and sickness… it’s just not the one we expect.

‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”’ That last part does grab our attention. But really… it is the first part of that sentence that grips me. Mark does not say, ‘When Jesus saw his faith…” He says, ‘When Jesus saw their faith…” This is the truly revolutionary moment in this passage, not the part when the man walks away at the end, pallet in hand. Jesus looks upon the kind of fierce friendship that will not let anything—anything—stand in the way of helping a friend in need, the kind that climbs up on houses and risks falling through to dining rooms and unroofs roofs, and Jesus sees—faith. Whether faith in him or faith in their friend or even faith in one another—I could not say. But Jesus sees faith. And he makes a decision to free this man from whatever it is that is burdening him. Whether he has sinned or been sinned against. Jesus sets him free. All because of the fierce and devoted friendship that constitutes a kind of faith, a faith that can even be borrowed.

Near the end of the Times article Layng Martine is describing how his and Linda’s lives have normalized… road trips in the car, jaunts into Boston to shop. He says, “You know those great old stores on Newbury Street in Boston with five or six steps up to each one? At first we could get up only about three of those a day. Now we can do every single store, one right after the other, all day long. My arms and my back are stronger — so are Linda’s.” And that is what fierce love and friendship do to us, and for us. They make our arms and our backs stronger. They make us do the extraordinary—unroofing roofs, carrying our beloved up and down stairs all day long—until it seems ordinary, as if it’s something we’ve always done. Fierce friendship opens doors to freedom… little doors and big ones… like the time Linda’s husband and son carried her into the Atlantic Ocean. To their delight and their surprise, “she bobbed peacefully, looking once again like every other person lolling in the sea on a summer day.” For that hour, Linda was free. Like the man who took his mat and walked. Free.

So I ask: who are your fierce friends? Who are the ones you can imagine standing around you like sentries, lifting you up when you cannot do it yourself? Who are those people in your life who, if everyone else has turned their backs on you, will be there, dropping by with a pot of soup and a deck of cards? Who are the ones who are praying for you, even when you have not asked them to pray? Maybe they are family, maybe not. Maybe they are new friends, maybe old. Maybe you are married to them, or maybe you were. Maybe you will be shocked, in the end, to learn who they are, the depth of their devotion. Maybe you doubt, even as you are listening to me, that you have such friends. But it doesn’t matter. In the end, we can borrow even the faith of such fierce friends. In the end, friendships like these mean freedom from those things that bind us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Layng Marine, Jr., New York Times, Sunday March 6, 2009.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More Knitting, en route to Larry-O

Finally, all my Christmas presents are finished! :-/

Here are two views.

A simple striped scarf:

Or... is it???

When in Doubt... Consult Jane R's Fabulous Book

Oh, today was not an easy day.

First a gathering of (regional) church leadership which was tense and difficult. And long.

Then, late for a meeting back in my neck of the woods, which meant...

late to church to prepare for the mid-week Lenten series...

for which the bulletins hadn't been finished...

and the meditation hadn't been started.

And then, some people dropped by.

Thanks be to Godde for one Jane R, prayer guru for all of us. I've been (re-)reading her book these last days, and I was blessed to be able to use her lovely and clear method of Lectio Divina (being careful, in my Presby congregation, not to use all that popish Latin). An hour and ten minutes, and I was pulling this off the printer as I threw my stole around my neck and ran into the santuary...

where the candles had not been lit.

(But the youth choir's singing "Lamb of God" made me teary.)

Not one of my best moments in ministry. Even for me, that last minute stuff was a little hairy. But people seemed appreciative of an opportunity for quiet reflection. And Jane-- you saved the day! Thanks my friend.


“Praying with Scripture”
Lenten Series Mediation 3
Jeremiah 1:4-10
March 11, 2009

As we listen to the voices of our young people this evening, we are experiencing their leadership. Through the music they make, they are leading us in prayer. When I saw that the texts from Jeremiah were a part of the daily readings this week, it seemed just right that we might turn to this story.

It’s a story about a very young man… he calls himself a boy.

It’s a story about a boy who lives during a particular crisis… a world crisis, to him… that affects his life.

It’s a story about God’s love for Jeremiah extending back in time, even to when he was a child in his mother’s womb. He was steeped in the love and care of God long before he took a breath of air or blinked at the brightness of the sun.

It’s a story about young Jeremiah’s growing understanding that, in the midst of this global crisis, God has a task for him to do, a big task… and that task has something to do with speaking up, and speaking out.

It’s a story about not feeling ready, about not knowing what words to say.

It’s a story about falling to your knees before the holy mystery of God and letting that mystery call the shots.

And all this… about a boy. A child. A child who is a leader.

No matter where we are on our life’s journey… whether we are 7 years old or younger, or 70 years old or older, or somewhere in between, I think this passage has the ability to speak to us. Tonight, I’d like to offer us an opportunity to see where our own lives intersect with this passage of scripture, by offering way to pray with scripture.

When I first learned about this way of praying with scripture, I had a hard time with it. That’s because I tend to be very goal-oriented. I want to say, “Today I will read chapter 1 of Jeremiah, so that tomorrow I can read chapter 2 of Jeremiah,” and so on. I like to set goals for myself to reach—markers so that I can say, “Accomplished,” and check it off my list. But this way of praying with scripture—a process called Sacred Reading -- does not work that way. This way of praying with scripture is not about accomplishing this or that task, or checking things of a to-do list. It is about openness to God speaking to us—the kind of openness Jeremiah demonstrated.

Here is how it will work. I will read the passage from Jeremiah again. As I read it, I will ask a few questions for you to ponder. The idea is to lead you deeper and deeper into the scripture and also into a sense of openness of God speaking to you through the scripture. You’ve heard the passage from Luke’s gospel: seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you. The method of sacred reading can be summarized in this sentence: Seek in READING, and you will find in MEDITATION; knock in PRAYER, and it will be opened to you in CONTEMPLATION. These are the four phases of Sacred Reading: Reading, Meditation, Prayer, and Contemplation. Listen.

Once again, I will ask you to sit upright, comfortably, taking a few deep breaths to relax yourself. You may close your eyes if you feel it will help you. I will read the passage from Jeremiah.

1. Reading: This is the first phase. As I read, listen to the passage carefully, with full attention. Personalize the words as God speaking to you, now.

4Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” 9Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

2. Meditation: Meditation is the second phase. Respond to the passage by receiving it at a deeper level. What does your imagination tell you about the scene? What images from the passage stand out to you, strike you, grab your attention? How do you experience the voice of God? Is it frightening? Is it comforting? Is it awe-inspiring? Is it powerful and loud? Is it so quiet you can hardly hear it? Let it move you. Experience whatever feeling you are having.

3. Prayer: Now, let your heart go where it wants to in response to the leading of the Spirit. Let your heart take over, let it long for God, and call out to God. Take just a few minutes for prayer. I’ll keep time.

At this point, you can open your eyes if you like. I’ll describe the last phase to you. It’s called “Contemplation.”

4. Contemplation: In the other three phases, activity has remained a dominant factor. In contemplation, you move beyond words. Words fall away. Prayers fall away. Images fall away. All you are left with is silence, and the presence of God. This is a phase of interior silence and loving attentiveness, of being drawn into the darkness of God’s love. For that reason, it’s hard to do this in a group, and much more natural to do it in solitude. Contemplation is a strange new land, where everything natural to us seems to be turned upside down: we learn a new language—silence—and a new way of being—not to do, but to simply be—and come to understand God’s seeming absence as presence.

As we experience the leadership of our young people tonight, we have also prayed through a young person’s experience of God’s call.

Because, in the presence of God, each of us is very young… a boy, a girl.

And each of us is living in a time of world crisis that affects our lives.

And each of us are loved in the same way by God, even to when we were just a child in our mother’s womb. We have been steeped in the love and care of God since long before we took a breath of air or blinked at the brightness of the sun.

And each of us, undoubtedly, has been singled out by God for some task that is a part of God’s great and mysterious plan, a task for which, perhaps, we don’t feel ready.

But still each of us is able to fall to our knees before the holy mystery of God, and letting that mystery direct our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Little Satans: Sermon on Mark 8:27-38

Poor Peter. Is there anyone in the gospels so maligned as he? Well, ok. Yes, Pontius Pilate doesn’t come off too well. Nor does Herod. And the scribes and Pharisees get kicked around, it’s true. But Peter! I think the reason the gospel harshness around Peter is so striking is, we know the rest of the story… even as we read this passage, we know Peter as a rock on whom the early church will be built… we read of his fearless preaching and healing in the book of Acts. We know that he is, in a very real sense, Jesus’ right-hand man. That’s why passages like this one just make us cringe. Poor Peter. He is the Rodney Dangerfield of the gospels: the man gets no respect.

Listen to a couple of the wrongheaded things Peter says and does. When he is on a mountaintop with Jesus, and sees Jesus and Moses and Elijah together, Peter’s reaction isn’t to fall to his knees in wonder, but to wonder if pitching tents there might freeze-frame the moment in time. That’s Peter. When Jesus looks at the disciples, clear-eyed, and knows the terror of his arrest will be too much for them, Peter says, “Not me Lord. I’ll stick by you no matter what.” And we all know how well that turns out. That’s Peter. When Jesus is in anguish knowing his death is at hand, Peter is one of the guys who falls asleep, leaving Jesus alone and weeping. That’s Peter. There are stories of the disciples having fights as to which of them is the greatest. Even though he’s is not singled out, we have a hunch: that’s Peter! Everywhere there are misunderstandings, or bumbling, where two or three disciples getting it just plain wrong… there is Peter, in the midst of them. All of which is pretty much the perfect set-up for today. Someone is going to get called “Satan” by Jesus… we can almost predict: that’s Peter.

The passage I’ve just read has been called the “hinge” of the gospel of Mark. It’s the moment at which the action of the gospel pivots and turns. From now on everything in this gospel points towards Jerusalem, towards Jesus’ suffering and death. From now on, the path Jesus walks is the path to the cross.

Up until now, Jesus has been preaching the Good News: the reign of God is at hand! And the power and truth of his preaching has been confirmed by miracles, healings and exorcisms. So, Jesus has been speaking and doing, and all his speaking and doing is infused with the unmistakable power of God.

The reaction to all this has been swift and unsettling: everywhere he goes, and almost everything he does, Jesus has attracted the criticism of the powers that be. The religious authorities are scandalized by him. He forgives sins—showing that the people can be free from the system of offering sacrifices in the temple. He heals on the Sabbath—teaching that God made the seventh day for rest and refreshment, not for domination and subjugation. He heals people considered untouchable, uprooting ideas about who’s “in” and who’s “out.” The authorities take note.

At the same time, Jesus keeps urging the people he encounters, including his followers, to help him keep a secret about himself, the secret of who he really is. Why does he do that? Today’s hinge story tells us pretty clearly why: Jesus is a wanted man. All his turning upside down of power and authority, all his bending and breaking rules about who is welcome at the table in the reign of God, all this has created a climate in which Jesus’ life is in jeopardy.

All of this is the background for today’s passage. And as you’ve just heard, Jesus starts off by doing a funny thing. He turns to his followers, including Peter, who really must have been his friends… the ones who live intimately with him day in and day out, the ones who see first hand all that he is doing, and he asks them, “Well, what are people saying about me? Who are they saying that I am?” And bearing in mind that Jesus is preaching the Good News, some say, “John the Baptist.” And bearing in mind Jesus’ miraculous deeds of power, some others say, “Elijah.” And because Jesus is kind of hard to pigeonhole, others say, “One of the prophets.”

Jesus responds with the million denarius question, “OK, but what about you. Who do YOU say that I am?” And God bless him… Peter answers. The Christ. The Messiah. Final answer. And Peter gets it right. The erstwhile fisherman from Capernaum, the bumbler, the king of misunderstanding… gets it right. Nice job.

Immediately, Jesus is back to urging his followers to keep this secret. Finally, the hinge is turned, and here is what happens next: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly…” This is what sends Peter over the edge.

To be fair, let’s try put ourselves in the shoes of the fisherman. It’s so hard for us to imagine what it must have been like for these followers of Jesus. They have been plucked out of jobs which were low-or-no-prestige labor, among the least respected members of their society. They have been invited to follow in the footsteps of this incredible man. Even without the overlay of traditional Christian understanding of Jesus, he must have been an astonishing presence, charismatic, compelling. Peter goes from being a fisherman-nobody to being the first lieutenant of a miracle-working, brilliant public speaker who is attracting crowds, and press, and followers. Add to this the fact that Jesus’ concerns are really ultimate things—God! God’s reign!—and you have an inkling of the excitement, the thrill, the wonder of it all for these men and women who are literally walking around covered in the dust of Jesus. (1)

And then Jesus begins to talk about torture, and suffering and death, not just as hypothetical possibilities, but as requirements for the job he has set out to do. No wonder Peter balks. No wonder he pulls Jesus aside and begins to hiss something in his ear along the lines of NO. NO. NO!

Now, let’s see if we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of the man from Nazareth. Jesus. How does he see all this? Well, it would be potentially risky and fairly arrogant to try to really get inside his head. I don’t think we can do that. But I do think we can know with some degree of certainty that he experienced himself called to be a certain person in the world, to give a certain kind of witness. And I think we can say with confidence that he believed that call came directly from God. So… from the point of view of Jesus, Peter’s words, Peter’s NO, is not only a NO to Jesus, it’s a NO to God. And Jesus is having none of it. “Satan,” he calls Peter.

Remember from last week… the word or name “Satan” has multiple possibilities of meaning. Sometimes, the New Testament writers are clearly referring to a supernatural being or beings. At other times, they are using it as a more generic noun as in its original Hebrew meaning: “satan” as a tempter or tester, an adversary. It seems clear that, here, Jesus is employing the second usage. Peter is a kind of satan… perhaps just a little one… for the role he is playing in trying to tempt Jesus away from being what and who Jesus knows God has called him to be.

Every day of our lives, each of us runs a gauntlet of little satans… temptations major and minor to deviate from what we know is our best path, the road we know God wants us to walk, hard though it may be at times. What are those little satans for us? The things that tempt us away from God’s path? Or perhaps more insidiously, what are those things and situations that convince us we are not able to be the people we want to be, that compromise and damage our best hopes for ourselves? Those little moments that infect our minds with doubt, that tell us, “You can’t do that. You could never do that.” What are our little satans?

Honestly, every single time I have been in the presence of someone using this actual phrase, “Get behind me, satan,” it has been accompanied by crossed fingers aimed at some fattening goodie. And my relationship with food has been a lifelong struggle, I will freely admit. But worse than a lapse in willpower, let’s say, could be the underlying cause behind the lapse. Perhaps, it’s the belief that I’m not worth taking care of, the idea that, who cares, really, anyway? That’s the real satan in the situation… the idea or suggestion that I am worthless. That there’s no point in caring for myself. That I am anything less than a beloved child of God, and so… you fill in the blank. Maybe for some you these feelings are conjured by the issues of diet and exercise, my personal hobgoblins. But maybe something else sends you into a tailspin of doubt. A dear friend described this week how filling out her son’s financial aid forms somehow pulled her into a terrible state of anxiety about her life choices to date, the things she has spent money on, the things for which she has saved… all circling back to doubts about God’s call in her life. Little satans.

I swear. I do think it all keeps returning to the same theme. I may start to sound like a broken record these Sundays in Lent, because I believe it returns again and again to the same starting place, the place of baptism, the place of our belovedness in God’s sight. Do we, can we carry that belovedness with us in every situation? Can that sense of God’s love somehow saturate us, soak us through, help us to stare down the little satans that plague us, that dance around us and in our heads, those little demons trying to get us to a place where all we can think and feel is that we are wrong, so wrong?

Few of us, if any, will be called in this life to truly pick up the cross in the same sense Jesus was called to it. Few of us, if any, will know what it is to be crucified, even figuratively. But every single one of us has been pronounced lovable and good in God’s sight. Every single one of us has been called to do some work for God and God’s beautiful and broken world. Every single one of us has a daily challenge on our hands, dealing with the little satans that try to divert us from being fully that child of love we are. Jesus and Peter, you and I: all God’s loved and chosen children. All equipped—fully equipped—to brush aside those little satans, and set our sights on the path, and walk. Thanks be to God. Amen.

(1) Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith: One of the earliest sages of the Mishnah, Yose ben Yoezer, said to his disciples, “Cover yourself with the dust of your rabbi’s feet.” This idea of being covered with the dust of your rabbi came from something everyone had seen. A rabbi would come to town, and right behind him would be his group of students, doing their best to keep up with the rabbi as he went about teaching his yoke from one place to another. By the end of a day of walking in the dirt directly behind their rabbi, the students would have the dust from his feet all over them.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Lenten Meditation: Praying in the Midst of Life's Messiness

There are some pretty heavy sounding commands in our reading from Deuteronomy. This is Moses’ last will and testament, and he is giving the Israelites everything he possibly can, so that he can say, “I did what I could.” Listen to what he is commanding them:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. ~ Deuteronomy 6:4-9

What I want to know is, when does the laundry get done? Or how do I slip out to the Deacons’ meeting, if I’m supposed to be involved in all kinds of recitations and remodeling projects and the creation of unique bodily adornments all in the name of trying to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might? It’s puzzling.

Here’s the bad news. We are talking about prayer, and the first thing I think we have to confront about it is: we don’t have time to do it. Not to really do it the right way, the way the books tell us… you know, where you set aside an hour or so first thing in the morning… a time when your house is completely quiet…and pray the scriptures and the psalms and commune with God. Who has time to do that? I am here to testify: to find time to do that is hard. And so, before we even start, we are left feeling like failures.

And now, here’s the good news. We can all completely let go of that particular understanding of prayer. Just let it go. Let go of the idea that there is a “right way” to pray. There is no right way. Let go of the idea that we need to commit at least an hour a day to prayer in order to pray authentically. We do not have to do that. Let go of the need for the quiet house. Prayer is not so fragile a thing that we need incredibly specific conditions or we can forget about it. Prayer is no hothouse orchid. God is neither that harsh nor that arbitrary, so as to require of all of us the exact same unvarying scheme, so that we might truly pray. So, let’s just let all of that go. Instead, let’s start right where we are, in the midst of our busy, messy lives. Let’s start with something we can do, no matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter what we are doing. Some of you will have heard this from me before. It’s ok. It’s worth repeating. We are all, right now, going to create our own breath prayers.

The breath prayer* is an ancient way of practicing an awareness of the presence of God. We believe that God is always present, but we often lose sight of that fact. It doesn’t spring to mind when we are compiling the annual reports or packing the college care packages or chipping ice off our windshields. The breath prayer is a way of re-tuning ourselves to that simple fact: God is here, right now. A breath prayer can be a phrase from scripture, or our faith tradition. It can be a line from a beloved hymn or psalm. The most famous breath prayer is also a very ancient one, culled from scripture. It’s called the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The reason it’s called a “breath prayer” is that you pray it on the breath. You break the prayer up into little bits that are prayed on the inhalation and the exhalation. So, for example: as you inhale, you would think “Lord Jesus Christ;” as you exhale you would think, “Son of the Living God;” inhale, “have mercy on me;” exhale, “a sinner.” The beauty of this way of praying is that you can do it anywhere, while doing anything that doesn’t require intense mental concentration. You are driving in your car: you can say your breath prayer. You are folding laundry or filing papers or doing dishes or shoveling snow: you can say your breath prayer. You can say your breath prayer while walking or running or riding your bike or swimming. It’s the most portable prayer going. So let’s do it.

Step 1: Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, with your posture in an upright and supported stance. Quiet yourself by breathing in and out several times. Let your tension go. Remind yourself that you are in the presence of God who loves you. Be still, and know that I am God, says the Lord.

Step 2: With your eyes still closed, imagine that God is calling you by name. Hear God asking you, “(Your name), what do you want?”

Step 3: Answer God with whatever comes directly from your heart. Your answer might be a single word, such as “peace,” “love,” or “forgiveness.” It might be more complicated than that. Try to boil it down to a word or brief phrase.

Step 4: Choose your favorite name or image for God. What’s the name your heart calls out? What name makes your heart sing? It might be God, Jesus, Spirit, Teacher, Creator, Light, Lord, Shepherd, Rock, Redeemer. Find that name that your heart wants to call God.

Step 5: Combine your name for God with your answer to God’s question “What do you want?” The most effective breath prayers are short enough that you can remember them and repeat them with ease.

Now you have a breath prayer. You can pray this when you are in bed, falling asleep, or when you awake, before you rise. You can pray your breath prayer any time you are engaged in activities that are mostly physical or automatic or repetitive. And… should you have a few moments when you can be quiet… when you can sit still… in a waiting room, for example… before church begins… you can pray your breath prayer then too, and see what that’s like.

You can create a new breath prayer tomorrow, if this one isn’t working for you. The point is this: we can practice an awareness of the presence of God, in the midst of whatever it is our lives hand to us. It is enough to start where we are and build from there. We can let go of whatever ideas of perfection hold us back, and we can begin, right where we are, with the deepest longings of our hearts, and the name of God that sings to us. It’s as simple as breathing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

* Breath Prayer from Ron BelBene, The Breath of Life: A Workbook (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1996), 12-13.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Lenten Journal: Feelings of Inadequacy

This is my dirty little secret for today. How some things feel entirely, entirely out of my ability to deal with or manage effectively.

Case in point: Sunday worship. Lent 1. Loved my sermon (better before I actually preached it, and got a great big "meh" vibe from the congo). But then communion... for which I'd hastily written a prayer I kinda loved... entirely. Fell. Apart. Smart and capable elders wandering around looking confused. Congregants scowling. Mags forgetting to serve (her favorite!) elder. Afterwards, all I could say to her was "I was rattled." "That's ok," she said. "I'll hold it over your head." Excellent!

My Lenten reading continues to provoke me in the area of forgiveness. There are things I love about the book, and things I do not. Something I do not love: cutesy "recipes" for reconciliation. And yet, there is wisdom in all the cutesy. The one I'm reading through right now begins with a "magnum" of memory, on the theory that forgiveness requires memory-- a lot of it, but not so much that you'll be swamped and washed away by it. This kind of hits me where I live. I have the ability to get totally drowned by painful memories, usually because I get ambushed by them. There I'll be, driving along down the street, and I'll see something or someone and.... bam, whoosh, it's five years ago and I am in enough pain to begin howling. (I usually don't). I'm working with someone to help me with this. But... sometimes I don't feel up to it.

You know?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Angels and Wild Beasts: Sermon on Mark 1:9-15

It feels like we’ve been here before. The first chapter of Mark, the 9th through 15th verses… the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his ministry. We have been here before, to be precise, on January 11th, when we read verses 4 through 11, and on the 25th, when we read verses 14 through 21. In the cycle of days and seasons that make up church-time, believer-time, we have tread this ground before, and recently. But we are back. And when we return somewhere, it’s usually because we have unfinished business there. Our unfinished business is comprised of the two verses in this reading that we have not read, that are, actually, new today, the two that were not included on those Sundays in January.

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

After the baptism, before the ministry, came the wilderness. After the transcendent moment when the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove, proclaiming that Jesus was God’s Beloved… before Jesus began his program of urging people to repent and believe the Good News… there was the wilderness. And… it’s not as if Jesus chose the wilderness. That’s now how our story reads. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” it says. Oh my. Why does this feel, all of a sudden, like some kind of mob initiation? Now I’ve got somewhere for you to go. Some people I want you to meet.

There is a violence to all these verses… heavens tearing, the Holy Spirit of God driving Jesus into the wilderness… the Greek word means something like “threw out.” The Spirit threw Jesus out into the wilderness, like some of our parents threw us out into lakes and pools so that we would learn how to swim in the context of terror for our very lives. This is no soft, squishy, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord” Spirit. This Spirit is scary. This Spirit reminds us that just a short while ago most folks referred to the Spirit as the Holy Ghost. Scary. Haunting. Not necessarily friendly.

The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with fear. Remember the Israelites, glad for about 40 seconds to be out of slavery in Egypt, suddenly face to face with what it means to be in the wilderness. No food. No water. The very real threat of death. “If only God had killed us in Egypt,” they moan, even as the Egyptian women are finding the bodies of their husbands washing up on the shore of the Red Sea[i]. “At least there we had food.” The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with death. Fear is always, on some level, the fear of death, whether the death of our bodies, the ending of our breathing, or the death of some part of our souls… the death of relationship, the death of this or that way of living. In the wilderness the people of God come face to face with death.

So it is for Jesus. Mark’s telling of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is famously short on detail, but evocative in what he does include. For forty days he was tempted by Satan… two of the other gospels spell that out for us, but Mark leaves it to our imagination to fill in the blanks. And you know and I know, the movie is always scariest before the alien or monster or wild beast appears on screen. Fear resides not in our eyes but in our hearts and minds. Fear is the “what if.” Jesus was tempted for forty days by Satan… and he was tempted in a rocky, scrubby wasteland, with no food or water to sustain him. We’ve been talking a lot about Satan in our bible study on Monday afternoons. One of the things we’ve discovered is that Satan is actually a Hebrew word meaning “Tester” or “Adversary.” And that it doesn’t always necessarily mean a bad thing. The one testing us doesn’t always wish for us to fail. Sometimes, in scripture, the one testing us is really God in a very clever disguise, and we know that God always wants us to pass the test.

We don’t know what the testing/ tempting of Jesus looked like. We only know that he emerged. But before he emerged, he had other encounters… he was with the wild beasts. I think there are at least two possibilities here, ways we can think about the wild beasts. In one, Jesus, like the ancient Greco-Roman hero that he is, encounters the wild beasts and masters them… he fights them off, sends them running with their tails between their legs, not a scratch on him. Jesus as super-hero! That’s one possibility. But it’s not the one I prefer. The wild beast scenario I prefer is an echo of a passage from Isaiah that we usually associate with the Christmas prophecies:

6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. ~Isaiah 11:6-9

Jesus is with the wild beasts, and they do not harm him. But it’s not because he puts them in a chin lock or a bear hug or any of the other hundreds of professional wrestling holds I found on Wikipedia… Jesus is with the wild beasts and they do not harm him because this is the beginning. The time is fulfilled. The reign of God has come near. Something new, entirely new, has dawned. And the angels complete the picture, waiting on Jesus, ministering to him, attending to him.

It feels like we’ve been here before. The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with fear. And, people of God, it is wilderness time, for you and for me. We have been invited into the wilderness, inadequate dining facilities, questionable companions, wild beasts, angels, and all of it. So the question for us is: what do we fear? What variety of death has its stranglehold on our hearts, chin-locking us with terror, bear-hugging us with doubt and insecurity? For some of us the fear is very, very real, it hits very, very close to home. For some of us the fear of death is literal, because we have looked it in the face and know in our bones and our guts, perhaps for the first time, the reality of it. The unknowingness of it. The solitariness of it.

And there are the other kinds of death that are different, though equally real. We fear the loss of our jobs… maybe it has happened already or is inevitable. We fear the loss of relationships, camaraderie and ease with those we know and love. We fear the loss of our future security, the possibility of retirement, plans for fun in our lives that have to be put on indefinite hold. Welcome to the wilderness. The good news is, look all around you. Here we all are.

Maybe Jesus looked around him in the wilderness and, abruptly (or, “immediately,” as Mark likes to say), the wild beasts were the angels. It’s all a matter of perspective. It all gets back to “Belovedness.” If Jesus managed to take the memory of that heaven-torn moment, the wild little dove descending and the possibly booming, terrifying voice speaking… “You are my Son, the Beloved”… Love has the ability to do this thing, where it absolutely obliterates the possibility of slipping down the drain of fear. There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear,[ii] the way that scary Ghost drives Jesus into the wilderness in the first place. And those who seem to be the wild beasts… the ones who, in our normal everyday mode of clutching from moment to moment, bring fear to full flower in our hearts… those wild beasts suddenly, immediately have the look of angels about them.

The angels waited on him. Somehow, in the wilderness, the rocky, scrubby wasteland, there was bread. And there were angels. Who are our angels? We might well ask. And who do we suspect are our wild beasts but who might really, in the presence of love, be wild angels who were just really cleverly disguised?

It feels like we’ve been here before. The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with fear. So it is, so it was, so it shall be. If we can just carry our Belovedness with us… the stones turn to bread, the rocks break forth with springs of living water, the beasts turn to angels, and the table is spread. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Or, the Sea of Reeds.
[ii] 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.