Sermon for Maundy Thursday ----April 5th, 2012
Imagine with me, if you will, what it must have been like to be with Jesus and the disciples on this night over 2000 years ago.
With less than 24 hours left on this earth for him, Jesus gathers his disciples together away from the crowds in an upper room. As the fanfare and busyness of the last few days fade away, the noise of the busy streets below is muted. There is something different about this room they are gathered in. Though they are gathered together for a meal, there seem to be no servants scurrying around making preparations, no one waiting to wash the disciple’s dusty feet before they recline together for the meal. This ritual of gathering for a meal is so familiar to them, yet this time is somehow different. There’s a feeling of uneasiness in the air, and it increases to discomfort as Jesus rises from his place, takes off his robe, and proceeds to tie a towel around his waist. Can’t you see the disciples now, turning and asking one another in hushed whispers “WHAT IS HE DOING?”
Once a year, our worship service takes us to a meal in an upper room where a friend turns traitor, to a garden of hard-fought prayer and then arrest, to a kangaroo court, and to an execution. Once a year, we peer into the abyss and we remember those whose suffering was mirrored on the cross: the oppressed, the dying, the unjustly accused, the deserted, and those who feel hopeless. Once a year, we leave this place of worship in dark, ponderous silence.
The term Maundy comes from the Latin “mandatum, meaning “command.” In today’s scripture, Jesus speaks of a commandment. Having startled his disciples by washing their feet, he says to them, “You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
We should be on our knees washing each other’s feet because that is precisely what Jesus did at the first Eucharist, demonstrating that the Eucharist is not a private act of devotion, but a call to-- and a grace for-- SERVICE. Both are meant to send us out into the world ready to give expression to Christ’s love, Christ’shospitality, and of course Christ’s humility!
The Gospels report numerous healings in which the sick found wholeness through physical contact with Jesus. Tonight we are representatives of the servanthood of Jesus. We are able through the healing touch of our hands to convey that loving contact with the divine.
As I reflected on this command this last week, I was reminded of the very first time I ever experienced a foot washing service – it was here at St Michael’s in the old sanctuary. Just as this part of the service was about to begin, Brian leaned over and asked me if I would wash his feet. I didn’t have a clue – how one did this - or - why me! I guess someone had to start the process and I was the closest one to ask.
I remember well, the feelings of awkwardness, and uncertainty; but as I begin to participate in the process, a sense of being engaged in a most profound and meaningful act took hold of me. My tears began at that moment and I wept through most of the service. I was experiencing what it must have been like for the disciples on that night. The humility, the love, and the sense of service was transforming!
What Jesus is saying to us is that there is no task too menial, no service so difficult, no need so off-putting that we shoule not do for each other – and also for those whom Jesus elsewhere referred to as “the least of these.” Jesus turned his world upside down when he took on the role of a servant and washed the disciples’ feet. I found myself thinking about how it would be to have a service on the street tonight, and to offer to wash the feet of the street people.
Last year in Miami, a church held a service on the street and washed the feet of 300 street people, gave them each a pair of tennis shoes and even had a podiatrist present to look at their feet and provide some advice.
In the 3rd century CE, the Roman emperor Valerian regularly persecuted the church. One day he summoned a deacon of the church named Lawrence and demanded to see “the treasures of the church.” The emperor intended Lawrence to bring the golden and jeweled vessels used for liturgical purposes. Lawrence returned instead with a gathering of the poor, the lame, and those without a home. Angered, the emperor demanded to know where the treasures of the church were to be found. Pointing to these people gathered around him, Lawrence said, “these are the treasures of the church.”
Hold that image in your mind this night “of the poor, the infirmed, those without a place to call home, as the treasures of the church”.
What is so unexpected, and so radically loving, about this foot washing is not just that it is the teacher and master doing a servants work. What sticks out in my mind is that Jesus held their dirty feet (which undoubtedly they were dirty indeed)…and in that moment of intimacy-- held so much more. Jesus held their untrusting hearts, their weak spirits, their calloused egos, their unwillingness to be so vulnerable!
Jesus is quite clear that this particular act of foot-washing is not about cleanliness but about relationship. IT IS INDEED ABOUT INTIMACY. It is the liturgical foundation of the new commandment which he then gives them: “love one another AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.”
So just how far does this kind of loving and making ourselves vulnerable stretch us? Well, Jesus’ teaching on the subject makes it pretty clear that the kind of love for which he is speaking ignores all the boundaries we human beings so imaginatively create. Political, ethnic, gender, economic, educational, age – all those lines are erased by this particular kind of divine love.
Serve one another this night, knowing that as we participate in this sacred act, we are experiencing God’s love for us through another. In this moment as we become truly present to one another, Christ becomes present with us as surely as He is in the breaking of the bread -- Washing away the pain and the wounds from each of us, tenderly touching us! Let us be Christ to one another!
Let us open our hearts to receive God’s love and to give Christ’s love as we participate in the rest of the service.
Sermon Mark 11:1-11
St. Michael and All Angels
April 1, 2012
One of my favorite moments in the church year is the Palm Sunday processional. We begin outside and everyone gathers in close waiting for the signal to begin. There is confusion, chaos, crowding, and anticipation. Something wonderful is about to happen. We look around at the people gathered tentatively holding palm branches and wonder what is the purpose of this parade anyway?
I wonder if this is what the parade was like when Jesus rode a colt through Jerusalem. Were people crowded, confused, and lost in the chaos? Was there a sense of anticipation? Did they have any idea what that parade was about?
Palm Sunday is an odd day. We began this season with ashes to remind us of our mortality. We’ve prayed, reflected, taken on practices to help us walk more closely with Christ and now we stand in this threshold preparing for the culmination. We know that the days ahead bring death and darkness. But what do we do with today?
Many churches have given up Palm Sunday. Oh, they take a moment to read about the Palms and then they move straight into the Passion. Their rationale is that too many people won’t come to church during Holy Week and they don’t want them to miss Jesus’ death and go straight to the resurrection. I wonder if that’s the reason or if they are really not sure what to do with Palm Sunday so they just nod in that direction and head to the more familiar territory of the Passion. Thresholds can be awkward. We aren’t exactly in Lent, but we haven’t entered Holy week either. Is it a day when we look backward and forward at the same time? Or do we simply pause where we are and allow this moment to sink in with all its fullness?
The scripture is odd with few cues about what is really happening. Most of the verses we heard this morning describe Jesus’ preparation. Why did he spend so much energy getting ready for this parade? Only a few verses recount his entry into Jerusalem. It is a strange parade…honoring one who has healed, taught strange things about a God whose love is more important than the law, and continually challenged the established way of doing things. This Jesus who frees people is riding through town on a colt. There is nothing triumphal about this ride. People are shouting Hosanna, which means “save us”. They may not understand who he is, but somehow they know that he has the power to bring life and they throw their coats and branches on the road as if they are casting their lot with this strange Son of God.
I have wondered how we respond as we stand on the threshold this morning. We came singing into church. Some of us enthusiastically waved palm branches and some of us were embarrassed hoping this would be over quickly, but none of us were shouting save us. We really don’t know what to do with this parade so we slide into our pew and tuck our palm branch away until next year. Should we feel hope, despair, fear, certainty, or something else?
Perhaps this day is the day of both/and. It is the day of life and death. It is the day of hope and despair. It is the day of holding on and letting go. It invites us to embrace the tensions that make up our lives and remember that we are neither living nor dying; we are both.
You have heard many references this season to the book we are reading as a congregation Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons. Philip powerfully embraces the tension of being fully human…of living and dying…as he comes to grips with Lou Gehrig’s disease and watches his body deteriorate. Somehow as he accepts that he is dying, he comes alive in powerful new ways. He says,
“We also touch the Divine through our experience of nature, and in spring we
celebrate the divine power of rebirth and renewal. Already the phoebes, after
a journey unimaginable to me, have returned to their nest under the eaves out-
side my bedroom window. Their presence renews my faith in the world’s extra-
ordinary competence, its talent for winning against long odds. I breathe in the
odor of wet earth and pines as though my sense of smell were being restored to
me. All about us roots grip down and awaken. Sprouts nudge toward light and
air. Everywhere the earth staggers to life.
And yet the example of Jesus, and the experience of mud season, also remind
me of a harsher truth: to be reborn, we first must die. The way to Jerusalem
lies through mud. Dying, like mud, can take many forms, but every death, in
the sense I mean, is a letting go. We let go of ambition, of pride, of ego. We
let go of relationships, of perfect health, of loved ones who go before us to
their own deaths. We let go of insisting that the world be a certain way.
Letting go of any of these things can seem the failure of every design, the loss
of every cherished hope. But in letting them go, we may also let go fear, let go
our white-knuckled grip on a life that never seems to meet our expectations,
let go our anguished hold on smaller selves our spirits have outgrown. We may
feel at times that we have let go of life itself, only to find ourselves in a new
one, freer, roomier, more joyful than we could have imagined. We need not
believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead to grasp the spiritual significance
of such a resurrection.” (pp. 86-87)
Perhaps that is what we are doing here today…taking stock of the new life bursting around us in the most beautiful spring trees and flowers while preparing to let go of our grip on life so that we can walk with Jesus through these terrifying, devastating days. Isn’t that what we do each day? We breathe in a bit of beauty while hoping to release some of what stands in our way of being fully alive. It just happens that today the stakes are higher. Today it is the ultimate LIFE and DEATH not the little life and deaths that happen daily.
How do we navigate through this liminal time? We stand at the edge watching Jesus ride by as the crowd shouts “save us”. We shift our gaze to the one riding the colt. He has prepared for this moment and he knows the direction he is heading. Our eyes follow him as he slowly, humbly rides through this crowd and we listen for his voice. He is silent. Instead of looking around at the crowd, we take our cues from Jesus. Perhaps his silence is an invitation to stop, take stock, and listen more deeply. The movement toward the cross beckons us into quiet corners to prepare for death. We began this day waving palm branches and singing Hosanna. Now we fall in step beside the one silently riding by and we walk toward the cross.
This isn’t easy to do when we know how the story comes out. It is tempting to just take a breath and wait for it to all be over so we can sing Christ is Risen. But that doesn’t seem very faithful. Rather than holding out for the good news, we are living our full yes to Jesus by walking with him all the way to the cross.
The coming days will confront us with humanity at its worst and somehow in the midst of that, we will glimpse goodness when we wash one another’s feet on Thursday and stand with others at the cross on Friday. Together we watch and pray. We keep our eyes on Jesus and discover what to do next as we step into these holy days.
March 25, 2012
The 5th Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
As we began our worship this morning with a reading from the prophet Jeremiah, we heard God offer a sweeping promise. <em>I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts. No longer will you teach one another, for you shall all know me, from the least of you to the greatest. </em>
God says, in effect, that you will be beyond any need for further striving. What is external will become so internalized that you will live God’s ways without having to think about it. No need for more understanding; no artificial effort to be good; only an integrated faith that comes from truly knowing God. As Jesus put it to the woman at the well, <em>Out of your heart will flow a spring of living water.</em>
I suspect most Christians think of this promise as only pertaining to the afterlife, to heaven. Many even go so far as to say that we can’t even taste God’s promise of fulfillment in this life, because we’re completely dominated by sin. As we slog through this wicked world, all we have is repentance and a hope for pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. That’s not my experience.
The Christian faith is not just a preview of another world. The gospel is directed towards this human life. It tells stories of fathers forgiving prodigal sons, healing and feeding, and great acts of generosity and self-sacrifice. It is practical, do-able. Jesus always pointed to this life, this human plane, and went so far as to say that we can become as he is. <em>You shall know God, and out of your heart will flow a spring of living water. </em>
Nobody said it would be easy. It isn’t automatic, as if belief inevitably translates into holiness of life. But it is possible. And there are tried-and-true pathways that many have used successfully before us. One, obviously, is a life of prayer. Another is immersion in sacrament, fellowship, and scripture. There is always study, and service. All of these pathways help us to write God’s ways upon our hearts.
But there is another tried-and-true pathway towards a truly integrated faith that we’re less likely to embrace. And yet it is the one that the gospel, the scriptures, and the saints always point to. It is the path of suffering. We are even told that suffering is at the heart of the matter.
Beginning with Palm Sunday next week, we reach the climax of our liturgical year. Everything in Jesus’ life and ministry culminates in the terrible and miraculous events of that week in Jerusalem. The second reading told us today that in that week, Jesus “was made perfect” through his suffering.
In the gospel today, Jesus is coming to terms with this fact. He looks ahead to what is going to happen and calls it his “glorification.” He speaks of grains of wheat that die but in doing so, bear much fruit. And then he turns to his friends and says that they, too, must come to terms with suffering. Those who love their life too much, those who try to avoid suffering, will lose true life.
Jesus’ heart was troubled. But he knew that he now stood before the gate to eternal life. For he understood what every spiritual teacher has ever taught - that suffering can be spiritually transformative, even though naturally, we would rather avoid it. The cross opens to the resurrection.
For millennia, humankind has pondered the events of Holy Week. I think this is because somewhere inside we intuit what Jesus understood - that suffering can perfect us, too; that God in us may well be glorified through our suffering. So let’s consider how this might be true.
What comes to mind first is what can happen in times of crisis. Right now several of our members are facing painful or frightening crises in their lives. We look at what is happening to them, shake our heads, and say “I don’t know how they do it.” They don’t either. But what they sometimes learn, and what we sometimes learn when things fall apart, is what really matters. This is always liberating, and it helps us to know God.
Now I haven’t suffered as some of you have, or anywhere near what many others in this world have to endure every day. But there have been dark times when I was lost or abused, times when I had no power to control or change myself or my circumstances. In each one of these times, as I was stripped down, a new person emerged - a stronger, clearer, even happier person. God’s ways were more firmly engraved upon my heart.
Suffering can also awaken us when we risk being in relationship with those who suffer more than we do. Some of you do this every week through our Food Pantry, or by taking communion to people in nursing homes, or by volunteering at St. Martin’s center for the homeless. Some of you work in your job every day with children or adults whose situations are heartbreaking. Or you may be in a close relationship with a friend or relative who is going through a very hard time, just being present and offering your love.
When we put ourselves in proximity to others who suffer more than we do, it tends to soften our heart. We see the complexity and fragility of things. We become less sure of what we think we know, or of how secure we imagine ourselves to be. But for a person of faith, rather than frighten us, this can free us.
For it can free us from our delusions about control, from our separateness as a person who has it together, from our rigid convictions about how other people should live. It can bring us into the human family, where we share one another’s burdens and know that we, too, will need the friendship of others when it is our turn to fall. And that kind of friendship is one way of knowing the God who lives between us.
But suffering can also be less obvious than personal crises and the sharing of hard times. It is also, more subtly, a part of everyday life. Maybe you have a happy-go-lucky persona. Some people appear to be that way, but in my experience, once you get past the smile and get to know them, even they live with some kind of anxiety, some kind of shadow. We all do.
We want things we can’t have. We worry about things we did or didn’t do, and we conjure up unsettling scenarios of the future. <em>Will I get this done on time? Will it be right? Did I say the wrong thing? I’m such an idiot. Do I have to spend another minute with this tiresome person? Why are others so disappointing? I’m so angry. Why can’t I be fully present to this beautiful day? I don’t feel good; what a drag...(sigh)...When shall I be released from this petty, nagging distress? </em>
Most consider this sort of everyday, low level of suffering to be inevitable. And so to temporarily lift our spirits, we distract ourselves with soul-numbing entertainment or self-medication. But the spiritual life suggests a different approach. It points us back into the suffering itself, saying that this thing we’d rather avoid is, in fact, the gate of heaven. This is the cross that leads to resurrection.
Pointing ourselves back into our distress is the same, whether it is petty or truly disturbing. It can be done in the safety of prayer, where we allow the suffering to be there, physically, emotionally, in the presence of God. As we breathe through it with God, we discover that it has less power than we thought, and that at least some of our distress is manufactured by our thoughts and fears about it.
Whenever we can bring awareness to our suffering, we can also release our grip on it. We can stop our mental scurrying to control or change it, and offer it to God as it is. We can trust that this, too, shall pass. And in this releasing and trusting and seeing its transience, we settle down and return to the fulness that surrounds us on every side. We remember that in God, all shall be well.
Whether we suffer in crisis, in empathy with another, or in the everyday struggle of being human, when we stop fighting or avoiding it and let it in, it has a way of transforming us. It simplifies and clarifies us. It softens our heart and makes us more human. And it settles us down in the miraculous present with God.
God said <em>I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts. You shall all know me. Out of your heart will flow a spring of living water.</em>
These are not empty promises. Nor are they mere previews of the afterlife. What God is saying is possible. There are many roads that lead there, but the one we mustn’t avoid is the path of suffering. It may be the most direct route.
March 18, 2012
The 4th Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Rebellion and Redemption
Today is one of those times when the readings call for more exploration than we’ve got time for in a sermon. We’ve got God killing complainers in the desert with poisonous snakes, and a magically healing bronze serpent on a pole. Paul says that following the desires of the flesh makes us children of wrath. And then there’s Jesus condemning those who don’t believe in him. I feel like a commentator after a Presidential primary debate. I don’t even know where to start.
For now, suffice it to say that the authors of scripture, including the gospel of John, were usually on to something true. But as they grappled with the mystery of God, they were limited in their understanding, and fell back on conventional misconceptions of their day: that God punishes, that sensual pleasure is bad; that there is only one path to truth. Nevertheless, underneath all this, they were on to something. So what were they on to in today’s readings?
All three of them tell stories of rebellion and redemption. This is a universal, human theme, and one that is worthy of reflection in this season of Lent. We all have a tendency to rebel against what is good for us and for those whose lives we touch. We betray our own best nature. But God is always ready to help us return to reality, to the center. We rebel and God redeems.
Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and now they were wandering as nomads, living off their wits, in a very dangerous land. They had been asked to go on this desperate journey completely on faith, with no guarantees. And they went, trusting in God, trusting in Moses, trusting that anything would be better than slavery.
But eventually, in the blistering heat of the Sinai, after watching their children bitten by deadly snakes, their trust faltered. They rebelled against what was ultimately the right thing - to keep on going, in faith. And yet even in their rebellion, God did not abandon them. God provided healing and encouragement to move forward through the wilderness. That’s the main point here.
Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, reminding them that they, too, were once rebellious, and had been redeemed. Paul likes to point to sexual misbehavior, but he could be speaking about anything. Once you were as good as dead, he says, living unconsciously, jerked around by what you wanted and what you feared, like selfish brutes.
But even when you were dead, Paul says, God made made you alive again. Now you are called to a higher way, to wisdom and love, and to good works. Paul encourages them to remain sane, to not go back to their former way of life. As it is put so graphically in both Proverbs and the 2nd letter of Peter, Don’t be like a dog that returns to its own vomit.
And in the gospel, the sometimes over-the-top Gospel of John, Jesus also speaks of rebellion and redemption. For even though God had come into the world, people loved darkness rather than light. And yet, the gospel of John also says that God so loves the world, that in spite of this, God enters into our darkness, as light.
So these are our stories, stories tainted by conventional misconceptions, perhaps, but underneath that, true stories about our humanity. We rebel against what is good for us and others whom we affect. We betray our true nature. We love our darkness, and sometimes we’re as good as dead. But this is never the end of the story. God comes to us, in spite of all this, and helps us make our journey to spiritual sanity.
How is it that this story unfolds in our lives? Why is it that we tend to rebel, and how is it that redemption happens?
We are, I believe, born good. The extreme Calvinists have it wrong: we’re not born into total depravity, irrevocably stained by sin. We are children of God, with a soul that wants to face into the light. We naturally want to love and trust, and to delight in this wondrous world. The face of any baby will tell you this.
But we’re affected by the broken world into which we are born. We’re hurt, some of us much worse than others, and confused by what happens. So out of an instinct for survival, we twist ourselves away from the light. We use whatever we think will work - anger, we hide, we play it safe, we lash out, we use drugs or alcohol, we try to be perfect. Whatever we use, it seems to be effective, so we keep doing it.
This begins before we know what we are doing, but at some point it becomes a choice. It becomes a habit to rebel against our true self, against our God-given nature. There is a part of us that loves our bad habits - we, too love the darkness rather than the light - because we believe that what we are doing will continue to help us survive, to give us what we need. We’re like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, who clings to his Precious - but soul-killing - ring.
But at some point we might become self-aware. We see that it isn’t working. And with courage, we begin the long journey back to our true nature. Here is where redemption begins, when we decide to stop rebelling, to return to the person that we were when God created us. But we cannot accomplish redemption on our own - we’re too habituated to our rebellious ways.
God doesn’t wait for us to get it together, but comes as an invisible force that enters into us, working with us. God so loves you, that God comes into your darkness as light - even while you are still grumbling in the desert, even when you still love your darkness, even when you are as good as dead, - God sneaks in, and starts working with whatever willingness you’ve got, in order to make our efforts effective.
Our part in this process, our willingness, is often portrayed in the Bible as obedience. We don’t like this word. It suggests to us hanging our head down low, buckling under, and doing our duty.
You may prefer other words, like commitment, diligence, conscientiousness, discipline: without which we will never progress. In applying ourselves in these ways, we obey - we aim ourselves towards grace, and we keep going. That’s obedience, and that’s what the season of Lent is all about.
But as St. Benedict said, the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. The life of someone who is serious about redemption will be a continuous Lent. This is not to suggest some dismal, joyless existence of unending duty. It speaks instead to the need for continual diligence in the journey of faith. Like the Israelites in the desert, the only way forward is to keep on keeping on.
Spiritual diligence has been described as removing the dust that covers the mirror of the soul, every time we notice that it has accumulated. An angry thought arises, and we dust the mirror. Fear of the future comes, and we dust. Impatience, resentment, greed, hatred, sloth, distrust - all dust. And every time we remove it, we rediscover what already lies beneath - the soul, as a mirror, reflecting God’s glory. As a favorite spiritual writer of mine put it:
When we resume our original nature and incessantly make our effort from this base, we will appreciate the result of our effort moment after moment, day after day, year after year. This is how we should appreciate our life. Those who are attached only to the result of their effort will not have any chance to appreciate it, because the result will never come. But if moment by moment your effort arises from its pure origin, all you do will be good, and you will be satisfied with whatever you do.
Here is the great paradox. We are already redeemed, but we must learn to live into that redemption. The Israelites were already in the Promised Land, out there in the desert, because God was already with them. But they had to keep on journeying until they understood that.
So continue your Lenten journey with conscientiousness, wiping the mirror of your soul every time you notice that dust has accumulated. Come out of your pointless rebellion and be obedient to the person that you really are, to the person God created you to be.
But do so with a light spirit, and with confidence. There is no judgment, only love. As you do your part, God is invisibly moving into your dark places, in order to make your effort successful. And remember that as this wonderful work of redemption takes place, you are only becoming what you already are, and will be, forever.
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March 4, 2012
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
I feel for Peter in this gospel story. He is like every close associate of those in danger of being martyred. I’m sure that friends of Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Gandhi were all horrified when their beloved leader, like Jesus, said “They’re going to kill me.”
Jesus and Martin and Oscar and the Mahatma knew that they had crossed a line somewhere along the way, without knowing exactly when. There was an inevitability to their martyrdom. And they accepted it. They would keep on going, and give their life for their cause.
It was from this place of complete commitment that Jesus spoke to his followers in today’s gospel. “If you want to be my disciple, you’ll have to deny your life and take up your own cross. Fair warning: If you keep going, you too will lose your life for the sake of this business we’re involved in.” And this saying was told later, by the early church, when the persecutions began, when they really did have to choose whether to keep on going and cross that line.
Christian martyrdom is rare these days, but it still goes on - in the Sudan, in India, and in decades past, throughout Latin America. I also think of those in Syria today, who have chosen to continue their pressure on the government, no matter what. They still hold public funerals, even though soldiers fire upon them. They still go out into the streets and demand democracy and an end to repression, even though they will be identified by secret government agents in the crowd, taken that night from their beds, and tortured for months on end.
For martyrs of a cause, today’s gospel becomes, for them, literal: they deny themselves, take up their cross, and lose their life for a higher purpose.
We can also see the gospel of self-denial in those who give their lives in the service of others. I think here of prison chaplains, social workers, teachers in poor schools. I think of those who care for elderly parents or disabled siblings in their homes. I think of young parents, whose life, for a time, is not their own.
Some of you deny yourselves for the sake of compassion or love. You empty yourselves, and allow yourselves to be used as a vehicle for God’s grace. And you might discover, in doing so, that you have found your purpose, your true life. You might have found that whatever you sacrificed - free time, money, the pursuit of personal interests - pales by comparison to what you gain from giving yourself away. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will find it.”
But what about the rest of us? We may not be giving our time to care for someone; we may not be called to a sacrificial vocation; we’re not going to be martyrs of the faith. What then does Jesus, in this gospel, have to say to us? Hear it again.
If you want to become my follower, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. So be careful - for what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul? But if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it.
In addition to its obvious applications I’ve spoken of, this passage also speaks to the very heart of the spiritual life. It says that the path to fulfillment is found, paradoxically, in self-emptying.
The world around us tells us that the path to happiness is about self-filling: doing what we want, getting what we want, working things out the way we want them to be, being the person we want to be. This is what defines a “successful life.” We are inundated with this message from every side, at all times.
Live the American Dream! Own a nice house, fill your spacious closet with beautiful clothes, travel to exotic destinations, eat at the finest restaurants. Be attractive and engaging, and you’ll have true love. Work hard and you’ll have a great job. Exercise, watch your diet, meditate, get a little therapy and some medication, stay positive, and you will avoid disease, stress, depression, suffering, and maybe even death!
That’s the point, isn’t it? Getting what we want? Having things work out well for us? Building a self, a good and happy and successful life?
Well, I strive towards the things I want just as much as anyone. It’s natural. I’ve got preferences, things I try to accomplish. But if that’s the purpose of our life, if that’s where we place our trust, if we think that by getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want, we will attain the fulfillment of our purpose, then we will be sorely disappointed. In the effort to gain the world, we may even lose our souls. We will have climbed the ladder and discovered there’s nothing at the top.
Here’s the problem. There’s always a fly in the ointment. We’ll get sick and we’ll lose people we love. Some of our dreams will fail. Even our pleasures and successes contain a shadow of disappointment, because deep down, we know they won’t last. Nothing other than God has any permanence, and we can’t control everything. And so by trying in vain to craft reality to fit the desires of the self, we allow ourselves to be jerked around by the circumstances of life, and we make ourselves miserable.
By contrast, self-denial can be the simple but very profound act of accepting what comes, pleasant or unpleasant, smooth or difficult - things that may not be our preference. By letting go of our insistence that life be the way we want it to be, by backing off the effort to always bend it towards our purposes, we deny the demands of the self. And in the process, we open to what is, which always has within it the seed of abundant life.
We get sick, maybe terminally. Our marriage ends. One of our children turn against us. If one of these happen, is it a bitter thing that shouldn’t be, an enemy to be conquered? Or can we somehow welcome even this, and learn what this twist in life’s journey has to teach us? Can we become curious and open to the intense energy that now flows through our days?
Less dramatically, we get into a fender-bender at rush hour. We get overwhelmed by worries and too many demands on our time. Or we don’t want to go and do what our calendar tells us we must do. What does self-denial look like then?
It is in the simple but profound act of letting go. Let things be what they are. Don’t grasp, and don’t push away. Breathe, open your heart, let it wash through. The sun is still shining. A snatch of some tune is heard from a passing car radio. God still is.
We will always have our preferences, and we will always make choices that support those preferences. We will always want various goods and favorable circumstances, and even get some of them, if we’re fortunate. We will always have a sense of self. But our problem comes in attaching to these things, as if they could last or provide us something that only God can provide. We are only pilgrims, traveling through this world of impermanence.
As St. Paul says, Let those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
When we approach our lives this way, the life energy, the inherent goodness in whatever is, always reveals itself to us. Out of this self-denial, this death to self, a strange resurrection happens, a new life that is not of our own making. Like the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus, it is not recognizable at first. But it reveals itself to be abundant life, as Jesus promised. Life is even more beautiful when we let it be itself.
Thomas Merton said, At any moment we can break through to the underlying unity that is God’s gift to us in Christ. At any moment, God is always there, the ground of all being. We scurry around on top of this ground, building a little empire of the self, and it all crumbles, eventually. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Nothing lasts, and we cannot control things so that we have a perfect little life. We will eventually lose everything we create, even our constructed self. So why not surrender it now?
For those who lose their life for God’s sake will find it.
Sermon: Lent 1
St. Michael and All Angels
February 26, 2012
"There you are with that mirror again. I should be used to it by now, but I'm not. Every Lent I come to you, O God, wanting your instant affirmation. Thinking you will be the god I thought I'd tamed. But in the quiet of your room, with never a word of condemnation, you hold up that mirror. I will not say what I see for the seeing needs no language. I will not deny the image nor question the reason for truth. Let the clock on the mantel be sound enough for what passes between us. Your warm embrace when I leave all the promise I need." Steven Charleston
The gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent takes us into the temptation story. We like to think we are talking about chocolate, television, alcohol or whatever we may use to dull our vision on any given day. We consider poor Jesus in the wilderness and we are grateful as we go into our homes and close the door safely behind us. It generally doesn’t occur to us to consider wilderness in our own lives. We prefer to live in a way that seems to be domesticated and safe. But what if we are wrong? What if the wilderness is right outside our door or worse yet, inside our very being? What then?
I love the words I read to you from Steven Charleston describing God holding a mirror up to us without condemnation, only the truth of who we are. He says that he begins each Lent wanting affirmation and thinking that he will meet the god he has tamed. So, here we are beginning another Lent and discovering a mirror. This journey we began on Ash Wednesday is not for the faint of heart. It is only for those who are willing to go with God into the wilderness and meet the wild beasts that are there. If you read each gospel account of this story, you will see that only Mark mentions the wild animals. That’s rather amusing because Mark’s gospel is known for lack of detail. Many accuse him of racing from one event to the next because he gives such little information. Why then, this detail? It is interesting that he doesn’t say that the wild beasts are with Jesus (as if they are learning from him), but that Jesus was with the wild beasts (as if he is taking his cues from them).
My friend Jan Richardson asks, “How will we see the angels if we don’t go into the wilderness? How will we recognize the help that God sends if we don’t seek out the places beyond what is comfortable to us, if we don’t press into terrain that challenges our habitual perspective? How will we find the delights that God provides even—and especially—in the desert places?” (www.paintedprayerbook.com)
Note the sequence of events in Mark’s lesson today: Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven proclaims him as Beloved, he is driven into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days and he emerges proclaiming the good news. Whew!! It makes me tired just repeating it. In a mere 130 words Jesus’ life is completely reoriented. From baptism and the opening of heaven to wilderness, comes one who is now grounded in God’s love in such a way that he proclaims good news for all. The good news is not separate from the wilderness, but a direct result of it.
Biblically, the wilderness is a desolate and dangerous place. It is also a place where we encounter God in a unique way. Barbara Brown Taylor describes Lent as an “outward bound for the soul”. That’s not a bad way of looking it. We understand it as a time to go inward and deepen our relationship with God and so we make commitments for this season that will aid us in the journey. So you’ve decided to join a book group and Learn to Fall? Wonderful! You are going to do the Lenten retreat? Fabulous! You will pray daily? Terrific! All of those will contribute to our growth as people of faith.
What about the wilderness? Have you made plans yet to join the wild beasts this season? Parker Palmer describes this journey not as an easy choice, but as something he stumbled upon in a time of desperation:
<em>Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.
Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye—but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself. (from A Hidden Wholeness p. 58)</em>
We tend to either romanticize or demonize the wilderness. Whichever way we lean, we often see ourselves divorced from it. We live in a world that is highly evolved…we are no longer nomadic people who depend on the land for our very survival. At least that is what we think. We are more like tourists when it comes to wild places. We may choose to visit a nicely manicured park. We may go for a walk with our dog in our neighborhood. We may have a picnic on our patio. In any case, we can look at the wilderness from a safe distance without really engaging it. But scripture calls us to do otherwise. Scripture calls us to go in to the wild places and trust God in a whole new way.
Philip Simmons has a chapter called Wild Things in his book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. He reminds us “the word animal comes from the Latin word anima, which means soul. To acknowledge one’s soul, then, is to acknowledge the animal within.” This may not be easy to hear because we like to put things in their proper place. Don’t blur the lines for us: wildness is out there; soul is in here. Wait. You mean wildness is inside us??? Philip encourages us to have a deeper connection to the wildness in our daily lives, that in becoming more fully wild we might preserve both our world and ourselves.
He suggests that we “live like animals, without doubt as to our life’s purpose so that our every act flowed effortlessly from what was highest and truest within us. It would mean rising each day to forage or feed, to shelter and care for our young, to laze or labor, fight or frolic without distraction, without self-judgment, without taking one step off life’s true path. And even in the face of misery and terror, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even as the sleet freezes our hides or the hawk descends upon us, it would mean living in the faith that this, too, is the way…cultivating your own wildness takes practice…With time (months, years, decades, lifetimes—did you think this would be easy?) such practice begins to open a space within us. Call it a wildlife preserve, a space where our wild selves can breathe while our judging, criticizing, worrying, doubting minds are kept safely on the other side of the fence. With practice we find ourselves living more and more inside this preserve, a place we come to recognize as our true home.” (from chapter 5, pp. 53-60)
That is what this season is about. We begin in ashes to remind us that we come from dust and we will return to dust. The coming weeks are not about transcending our humanness, but digging in more deeply to what it means to be human, to ground ourselves in God’s goodness, to look in the mirror and see what God sees, to grow in love by loving our way into each day.
Warning: this isn’t likely to make life easier for us. We may no longer fit into the world we have carefully constructed for ourselves. My favorite commentary this week said, “This story is a preview to the rest of the gospel in which Jesus is the wild beast who refuses to be domesticated into the household of conventional religion.” (Feasting on the Word, p44)
Yikes! Remember, Jesus started in the wilderness and was killed for the ministry that came out of that. The good news that Jesus proclaimed was not good news to those in power and authority. Do not be fooled into thinking that this is a journey of sweetness and light. It is a place of wild storms, darkness, beauty that will take your breath away, and the presence of God that comes in a way you have ever known before. How else do you think Jesus was able to make the journey to the cross? He knew God’s sustenance because he survived the wilderness.
As we fill our backpack to step out into the wilderness, we will discover that some of the things that we thought we needed, do not matter so much. We begin to set things aside that will not serve this journey and in so doing, we make room for God to travel with us into the deep unknown that awaits us. It won’t be easy. It shouldn’t be easy. It is, however, the place where we meet God. In the wilderness, we look to the wild beasts outside and within us for cues about how to live. We encounter a vulnerability that makes us uncomfortable and it is there that the angels minister to us. We discover God as we take a long look in the mirror and see we are growing into God’s likeness each day. Only then, will we emerge from this wilderness ready to be God’s people in a powerful new way.
The Fast God Seeks: Ash Wednesday Reflections
To the proud and the haughty,
To the bruised and the broken,
The prophet lifts up the trumpet of God.
The prophet declares the judgment of God.
To the impatient and smug,
To the sad and discouraged,
The prophet shouts out
The Word of God.
To some, words of comfort;
To some, words of challenge.
God speaks of rebellion in the form of a turn--
A sharp turn from righteousness into ritual.
To those home from exile,
To those living in ruin,
God offers a way,
A way into righteousness:
Leave that sackcloth behind.
Wash those ashes off your face.
God does not call for stoic denial;
A tender heart is what God seeks.
Leave that sackcloth behind.
Wash those ashes off your face.
This is not the fast that God desires,
This is not the fast we’re called to keep.
Don’t beat your chest.
Don’t wail or moan.
This is not the fast that God desires.
This is not the fast we’re called to keep.
It’s not about you; it’s not about me.
It’s not about our solemn ways.
It’s about our sense of us
Our common kin and our connectedness.
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Again and again
Our Ash Wednesday refrain.
Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust,
Words to remind us
That we are one.
“Loose the bonds; undo the thongs,”
“Share your bread;” God says to us.
This is the fast God chooses for us.
This is the turn into righteousness.
Commitment for life
Not just for a season.
Work harder by far
Than ashes and sackcloth.
The work of repairer,
The way of restorer:
Healing the breach,
Making safe the street.
Today we’re invited to a holy Lent--
To walk the way of righteousness; to do the works of justice.
This is the fast God calls us to.
This is the fast God chooses for us.
God—to whom we’ve always belonged;
God to whom we’re called to turn.
Remember that we are God’s
And to God we shall return.
The Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
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