Sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available at this time.
Sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available at this time.
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday March 29, 2009 Lent 5B
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: John 12:20-33
If you’ve ever read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, the idea of being “on search” is a live notion for you. The main character Binx Bolling describes search in this way. "What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is often overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life." Being “on search” is how today’s gospel story begins. Greek speaking Jews approach a disciple of Jesus, hoping to meet the teacher. These Greeks are “on search”, they have heard of Jesus, they are curious and want to experience this spiritual teacher themselves. To be “on search” is something that is a frequent theme in Christianity. We have all heard the beautiful expression of this in Augustine’s confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts cannot find rest until they rest in you.”
In an age so full of diversions and promises of happiness, it is tempting to always be on search for the relationship, the experience, the connection, or the membership that will fill the need inside of us. To the careful observer, it is painfully obvious how fickle humanity is in trying to meet its divine hunger. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, instructed us to pay attention to our desire. That we experience hunger implies some end to our hunger, that is food. That we do not like being alone but desire friends and companions tells us that we are made as social creatures. To pay attention to our desires, to know our hungers is to discover something important about ourselves. To fast during Lent is meant to awaken within us an awareness of not only our physical hunger, but our deeper hunger for God.
C.S. Lewis, the well known lay Christian theologian and author the Narnia Chronicles, the Space Trilogy and many other works, wrote of his own search for God in the book, Surprised by Joy. In the book he chronicles his own desire for God from his earliest memory. All earthly pleasure, all creature comforts are but a fleeting shadow of what he seeks. He wonders why there would be a search, a desire for something more, if there was no object of desire, no place of fulfillment? But in the midst of his searching he discovers something truly startling. It is not his searching that is so important, it is his discovery that the object he has been pursuing is pursuing him. For C.S. Lewis the point of his search is the discovery that God has been searching diligently for him, that God has been wanting him, that God’s love has been drawing him toward the relationship he most needs and desires.
Even for Augustine this became true, and you can find it in his writing. His book begins with “I searched, I read, I wanted,”….I,I,I.. and ends with You came, You touched me, You spoke…..You, You, You.” The God that Augustine was reaching for was reaching for him all along. The search for God is not one-sided. It is not just us calling into the vast universe, “Hello, Hello.. Is anybody there?”
No the Christian experience is that God is seeking us, just as we are seeking God. There is a wonderful section in Eucharistic Prayer D that captures this truth beautifully. “When our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death. In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you. Again and again you called us into covenant with you, and through the prophets you taught us to hope for salvation.” Listen again, “In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you.”
The truth is that God has been seeking us from the beginning. This is the kind of God that the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in our older testament reading. Jeremiah writes of a God who keeps coming toward his people, a God who keeps making promises to Israel, even when they break them or fail to live up to their deepest selves. Jeremiah actually talks of a New Covenant, a new kind of relationship between God and the people of Israel. It is a new relationship that will not be written on dead stones but on the living flesh of people’s hearts. For Jeremiah, God is always moving toward the covenant people. Even in times of crisis when many in Israel are wondering if God’s covenant with Israel has come to an end as enemy forces surround them, the prophet sees that God is still moving toward the covenant people. “The days are surely coming,” says the prophet. When God will write on our hearts, when God will come near to the center of our lives, the place of our affections, and write his love and desire on our hearts.” God isn’t content with our relationship the way it is. God continues to reveal and pursue us. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” God is ever coming closer, always drawing near.
In a surprising way today’s gospel confirms this pursuing action of God but it is not immediately apparent. The Greeks who are seeking Jesus do not get a particularly warm reception. In fact it is not clear whether Jesus ever managed to clear his calendar to meet them. Instead he delivers a rather enigmatic story about grains of wheat needing to die in order to bear fruit, of losing one’s life to find it. But then he speaks using a strange image of the time as one in which the Father will be glorified. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus says (John 12:22).
In a real way this seems to be what Jesus has been about all along. He has been traveling about the countryside healing, teaching, proclaiming the kingdom of God is near and drawing people to himself. He draws crowds wherever he goes, he has a faithful band of followers, and people from outside his ethnic religious circle are starting to seek him out. But he is troubled because things are getting dangerous and he is about to die at the hands of the powerful for challenging the status quo, offering a different vision of the world, stirring people’s hearts up which is always dangerous. Where is the glory in the cross? Where is the glory in dying a miserable and common death at the hands of powerful political forces? According to our story, it is the glory of God who is determined to have us no matter what the cost. The story of our faith is that God will risk everything to have us, even dying as a common criminal on a garbage heap outside of Jerusalem. “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
It is important to remember that God is nothing if not persistent. Jeremiah reminds us that God creating a people for himself was his idea. Moses was minding his own business not looking for a flaming shrub on his grazing lands. It was God’s idea to shape a bunch of slaves and nomads into a covenant people. One way to understand the story of the Bible is as God’s infinite creativity employed to find and be found by us. The prophets remind us of how often we have ignored God’s advances, abused the trust, ran away from intimacy, and generally made of mess of things. However, the prophets are hopeful sorts just as God is a hopeful suitor. “A day is surely coming.... says Jeremiah when our very hearts will be invaded by God’s love. Jesus proclaims that day has arrived as he is being, “lifted up.”
What we mean by lifted up here is important. If we mean that finally God, in human flesh is making his escape from this earth, ascending into heaven away from the mess of humanity we might be in trouble about God being in pursuit of us? However, if we understand his “lifting up,” his death on the cross not as being lifted away from us but rather closer to us then the whole notion of God’s search for us makes deeper sense. By being lifted up, Jesus moves closer to us. He moves into the heart of human pain, into the heart of human violence, the heart of human hatred, the heart of human cruelty, the heart of human abandonment, the heart of human suffering. When Jesus is lifted up, he is lifted deeper into the human experience, deeper into the heart of God, and closer to us.
As we stand on the threshold of Holy Week, our deep and patient meditation on the passion of Christ, let us consider what this lifting up is really about. The lifting up of Jesus, tells us that God will stop at nothing to get to us. God continues to pursue us and we can expect more surprises. God’s pursuit is infinitely creative, without pretense or snobbery. God is even willing to use a cruel instrument of capital punishment to woo us. It is God’s glory that through love and sacrifice, the cross, a symbol of hatred for human dignity is transformed into a magnet that draws all into its potent field. The lifting up of Jesus, is but another magnetic movement of God, drawing his beloved creation toward a deeper intimacy.
This gospel story about searching for Jesus, asks each of us a question about our life’s search. Who is doing the searching? Is your life best explained as your unending quest for something or someone that satisfies? Or is you life best explained as one long story of God’s deep desire for you? Look back on the twists and turns of your life, every step and misstep, even the one’s you thought you were taking away from God are, in the great mystery of God’s love, made into real steps toward your Creator. Wherever you go, whatever moves you make they are all within the magnetic field of the cross of Christ’s love. “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
May these gracious words be true for us as we journey into Holy Week, and may this be our prayer: Lord, in your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you.
I wish to acknowledge my debt to Will Willamon for his excellent writing about this new understanding of the lifting up of Jesus as being lifted closer to us which is a main idea in this sermon.
March 22, 2009 The 4th Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
I would imagine that some of you listening to this gospel would have preferred if the deacon had stopped reading at the middle of verse 18. At this point, Jesus has said that God loved the world, sending his Son not to condemn it, but to save it, so that all who believe in him would have eternal life. The good news.
But then it goes on…those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. The bad news.
There are, of course, Christians who are perfectly comfortable with the second part, insisting that all non-Christians lie outside the grace of God. I’m not one of those.
The way I see the Bible and the teachings of the church is that they were written by divinely-inspired but also very human authors, who were doing their best to express something that is ultimately inexpressible. They wrote poetry about a mystery. And like all poets, sometimes they got carried away.
The author of John’s gospel and St. Paul both had this overflowing enthusiasm for the power of the risen Christ. They knew from their own experience that those who placed their trust in Jesus would enjoy a life-changing relationship with him. They would enter into a new state of being, which they called zoe, “eternal life.”
And sometimes their enthusiasm took them over the edge. They became like the man in love who begins by saying “I’m in love with the most wonderful woman in the world. She has changed my life.” But then he goes on to say “In fact, all other women are rubbish, and those who love them have no idea what true happiness really is.”
I think that the good news really is good, and not bad news. A relationship with the risen Christ is life-giving. Period. We needn’t then go on to say that those who don’t have it are condemned and living in darkness. And I don’t mind saying that I think that the author of John, Paul, and some of our theologians have overreached in doing so.
So let’s stick with the good news. Those who believe in Christ will enter into a new state of being, into eternal life. But what do we mean by “believe?” Some think that belief is agreeing with things like the Nicene Creed – being able to say “Yes, those things are true.”
But everything in the gospels, everything in the life of the saints, everything in our own experience tells us that belief is something far deeper than agreeing that something is true.
In John’s gospel, Jesus said that those who live in him will become one with God, that if we eat his body we will live forever, that we must be born from above, that when he lives in us he will be for us light, bread, living water, a gate.
This is not about agreeing that he is the second person of the Trinity. It is an experience that comes from placing our trust in him and letting him live through us.
On the Sunday I returned from India I spoke about my experience in the historic St. Francis church in Fort Cochin, India. (By the way, you generously gave $2,800 that day to help fund their program that assists 10 of their poorest families. That was a big, spontaneous response, and they are very grateful.)
At any rate, St. Francis’ Vicar, Fr. Jacob, was talking to me about the tourists who wander in and out of the building every day. He said “By looking into their eyes I can tell those who believe – no, those who trust in God.” He knew the difference between intellectual belief and a living faith. When he said that I wondered “What is it that makes possible this living faith?”
This conversation came at a time when I was reading about Hinduism, visiting their temples, and learning how for them, a living faith is deepened through devotion.
A person who chants the name of Krishna with a sincere and humble heart takes on something of Krishna’s character. One who pours their devotion towards the Divine Mother becomes like her. The subject and object become one. This practice of devotion is called bhakti yoga. In the Bhagavad-Gita, which is perhaps their most sacred scripture, it says:
Not through sacred lore,
penances, charity or sacrificial rites
can I be seen…
By devotion alone can I, as I really am
be known and seen
and entered into…
(Bhagavad-Gita, Ch. 11 vs. 52-53)
The object of this devotion is to various forms of God, but it can also be to an avatar. An avatar is a human incarnation of God who appears on the earth in different times and places, just when they are needed. They consider Jesus, the Buddha, Rama, Krishna, Zoroaster, and many others to have been avatars. Again, the Bhagavad-Gita:
Whenever sacred duty decays
and chaos prevails,
then, I create myself…
I appear in age after age.
(Bhagavad-Gita, Ch. 4 vs. 7, 8b)
So Hindus consider Jesus to be for Christians our avatar, and all our practices of devotion to Christ our form of bhakti yoga. By uniting ourselves to him in love, we take on some of his qualities. The subject and the object become one.
We do this in so many ways. Some repeat Jesus’ sacred name while gazing at a crucifix or an icon of him, and he seems to be looking right into their souls. Others meditate on his words in the gospels, and the teachings come alive in their hearts. Some sing What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear…He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. Here in this place, during the vulnerability of worship, we open our hearts, we take in his body and blood, and we become one with him.
Or as Jesus himself prayed in the gospel of John, Father, I pray that I may be in them and they in me, that the glory you have given me may be in them…and as St. Paul said It is no longer I who live but Christ in me.
Over the years I’ve learned a tiny bit about Buddhism, about psychology, quantum physics, neurology, and now Hinduism. All of these insights have served to broaden and deepen my central Christian core.
One of the many things I took away from India is the certainty of how deeply Christian I am. Jesus is imbedded way down in my soul. He walks with me, and I am his own. We’ve been through a lot together, and I’ve placed my trust in him again and again.
This is the path of devotion, our bhakti yoga. By giving our hearts to the object of our devotion, we blend. Through devotion, all that Jesus lived and taught becomes internalized in us.
Because if we have spent the time softening our heart, exposing our sins and our suffering and our most passionate hopes, directing them towards our friend Jesus, if we given ourselves to him in worship and tried to understand who he is and what he asks of us, then he will live in us, and we become a little like him.
Like him, we see with compassion those who suffer, feeling their situation with them.
Like him, we are more likely to stand up against wrong and speak out for the ways of God. Like him, we learn to forgive our enemies, to love simply because people need love and God’s love is coming out of us, not because they’ve earned it. Like him, we gain more trust in Abba, our Father in heaven, and know that in God’s time, according to God’s purposes, all shall be well.
This is what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. There is no bad news lurking in the shadow, no hidden threat. If we place our trust in him, he will come to us and set us free. This is the good news we return to in this holy season.
March 15, 2009
The Economic Crisis as Cross
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Holy Week has come early this year. We’re just in the middle of Lent, and already Jesus has entered the temple in Jerusalem, driven out the moneychangers, and set things in motion for his crucifixion. Today Paul speaks to us of the cross, its foolishness to the world and its wisdom to the faithful.
For a moment I’m going to ask you to try to put aside a traditional interpretation of these things: namely, that Jesus was crucified because God sent him to be a sacrifice for our sins. I’d like to approach it from a different point of view.
All along, Jesus had been teaching a way of life that directly challenged the dominant religious, military, and economic powers of his day. He promoted friendship with those who were considered unclean by the purity codes of the priesthood. He healed people, even on the Sabbath, even though he was not authorized to do so by the religious hierarchy. He told subversive parables that exposed the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. He belittled the kingdom of Caesar by promoting ultimate loyalty to a spiritual realm instead, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.
And when Jesus came into Jerusalem, it all came to a head. Jerusalem was the center of temple and Roman life, where the hierarchies of both systems collaborated to keep themselves in power. Of course, power takes money, and both the temple and Rome extracted vast sums of money from the working poor through a complex system of taxes. If you couldn’t pay the property tax, your ancestral lands were taken away. If you couldn’t pay the temple tax and make expensive sacrifices, you were told that you were unable to be in a right relationship with God.
The people of Israel had been overtaken by a kind of idolatry. Those primary guidelines for Jewish holiness and morality which were recited in our first lesson today – the 10 commandments – had all been violated. Instead of worshiping the God of love and justice, the people had made for themselves an idol of money, sacrifice, and power. God’s name had been taken in vain as the temple was corrupted. The Sabbath had become just another day for moneychangers to make a profit. Parents were dishonored as they lost their lands. Jewish leaders committed adultery with Rome. Theft, murder, and false witness were carried out by those in power. And everyone coveted the spoils of this way of life.
All of the injustice of this situation rose up in Jesus as he entered the temple. He cracked a homemade whip, drove out the animals intended for sacrifice, overturned tables, spilling money everywhere, yelling and making a scene. Jesus and his disciples knew how dangerous this political demonstration was, for as he did it they remembered the verse from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” This is why Jesus was martyred. The Romans and the temple authorities collaborated to do away with this troublemaker once and for all. Or so they thought.
For the story doesn’t end with his martyrdom. He rose from the dead, becoming a force in the lives of his followers, who would continue to call people into the alternative kingdom of love, brotherhood, true devotion to God, and humility. It was foolishness to the world, but it is the wisdom of God.
Over the last 5 months, the tables of our moneychangers have been overturned, our coins and our stock certificates spilling all over the floor. Our powerful economic systems have been confronted. Our sacrifices have become worthless. Someone has entered our temple and turned everything upside down. Why is this taking place?
We naturally relate to events as they affect us personally. Many of you are justifiably worried about your security, your mortgage, your retirement, your healthcare. This economic crisis has hit many of you at a personal level, and it isn’t your fault. Forces beyond your control have been at work, and that’s part of the difficulty of this – the uncertainty that comes from not being able to control our own personal security. I pray with you that you might be spared any further anxiety or suffering, and I want to create, with you, through this community, ways of offering you spiritual, pastoral, and perhaps even concrete support in your struggles.
But today I want to look at this economic crisis at a national level, how we as a people got ourselves into this, and how we might head in a new direction. One way of interpreting what is happening on this level is to see it in light of today’s readings. Like Israel, we have violated the 10 commandments, and the chickens are coming home to roost.
We have worshiped the idol of prosperity and consumerism, even when it meant exploiting the third world, polluting the earth, and cheapening our own humanity. We have committed adultery against our own communities with the seductive lure of quick, selfish profit. We have abandoned the Sabbath and worked ourselves to death 7 days a week. We have allowed the moneychangers to bear false witness and steal because we thought they were growing capital for our economy. We have dishonored our mothers and fathers by allowing their pensions to disappear. We have even committed murder, causing hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis to be killed in our hope of gaining a friendly ally in the oil-rich Middle East.
Now our short-sightedness, our amoral policies and misplaced loyalties have caught up with us. Our glorious temple is laid waste. We walk the way of the cross. But this is not the end of the story. It is, in fact, the wisdom of God. It may be foolishness to the world, a stumbling block for many, but it is a humbling cross that could lead to resurrection. We are, in this economic crisis, in a time of great opportunity. Perhaps we will be desperate enough to change things that until now, we have not been willing to change.
Last fall in the presidential election millions of people in this country – indeed, all over the world - looked with hope towards a different kind of future. I believe that this current economic disaster, as frightening and painful as it is for so many, is the necessary first step towards the fulfillment of this hope. For sometimes new life doesn’t come gradually, rising up through the systems we already have in place. It sometimes comes as a result of crisis, like a quantum leap. Things have to be cast down before they can be raised up. My prayer is that we will be shocked into seeing ourselves as we have been and humbled enough to become different. My hope is that as everything breaks down, we will be desperate enough to try something new.
Keep in mind that resurrection is not resuscitation. It is new life. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was unrecognizable to his old friends. Paul said that what is sown is a physical body, and what is raised is a spiritual body. The Easter that will come out of our current Good Friday will not be a restoration of what has been; it will be new. We cannot go back to what we were. And we cannot foresee the world that is now in the process of becoming. All we can do is trust that everything works together for God’s purposes, and say “yes” to what God is doing in our lives, to what God may be trying to do with all of us at this time in history.
Perhaps we will learn to live more simply, working less frenetically, creating the space for our humanity, buying fewer things we don’t need, finding contentment with what we have. Perhaps we will become more generous, finding the will to care for the health and security of all our people, just because we are all brothers and sisters. Perhaps we will make our public schools for the masses as committed to excellence and creativity as any private school for the elite. Perhaps we will honor Mother Earth by becoming more faithful stewards of creation, the most abundant of God’s gifts. Perhaps we will be humble enough to see our country as just one among many equals in the family of nations, seeking above all else cooperation, understanding and the alleviation of suffering. Perhaps we will learn to respect the differences between us, even though we don’t understand them, abandon narrow self-interest, and look for a way forward that will serve the good of all.
Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance. This Lent, having been humbled by the economic crisis we suffer, we might examine how we have bought into the idolatry of our time, and how we might live more as God intends us to live.
As Bishop Mathes said in December, “a catastrophe is a terrible thing to waste.” My prayer is that we not waste this catastrophe we are in, that we use it to reform our lives. This reformation is not, however, the sole responsibility of our elected leaders. All of us created this idolatrous lifestyle that has turned out to be so destructive. Each of us can examine how we live; each of us can repent and turn towards a simpler, more humane, more common life.
Our grand and glorious temple has been laid bare, exposed to the judgment of God. The way of the cross that lies before us is foolishness to the world, but it is the wisdom of God. We pray for the grace to walk it in humility, so that out of this death, we might be raised to new life.
The experiences of my youth could have been easily lifted directly out of a New Mexico novel. It was filled with family, food, melodic Spanish, the villages of northern New Mexico and more importantly – faith. Faith not only represented going to Church on Sunday, faith imbued every aspect of your being - it was your heritage and identity.
Faith was all encompassing since my father was a member of Los Penitentes, the lay Hispano confraternity devoted to the sorrowful passion of Jesus and his mother, Our Lady of Sorrows. The Penitentes tended to both the spiritual and physical well-being of the community, and Lent was the apex of devotion.
This time brings back many memories. A dark adobe church, the only light being the hundreds of candles lining massive mud walls. The distinct smell of the wet earth comingling with dried incense. The archaic wailing prayers of worship called alabados. These prayers were brought over from Spain in the 1500’s, tinged with Moorish influence, they are still sung today. But the most enduring memory also held an element of fear.
I remember in the dark silence of the Church, looking up and seeing two representations of Christ. One was of Jesus standing before his accusers, beaten, bound and bloodied. The second was of Christ crucified, all the blood, torture and suffering. These representations were not mass produced sanitized versions of Jesus’ suffering. They did not portray a comforting Christianity.
They were 200 year old depictions, carved out of wood by hand, and painted with the colors of the earth. One could trace the life of the woodcarver in the pain of Christ represented. I was terrified of these figures. I certainly did not want to go through that nor look that.
I much preferred the other Jesus, the Jesus whose picture was at my friend’s house. One of my friends, Mark, was a White Anglo Saxon Protestant. His was a beautiful family who graced my childhood with love and friendship. You walked into their home and the only religious ornamentation was a small picture in their hallway of a blond hair, freshly scrubbed Jesus holding a delicate lamb. I liked that Jesus, he was your picture perfect Jesus. I wanted him.
I assume that is the same picture perfect Jesus that Peter wants in our Gospel. But it is not to be. Mark tells us that as he is traveling with his disciples, Jesus is teaching and he tells them that he will suffer, be rejected and killed and then rise again. Can you imagine the look on the disciples faces. They have seen all Jesus’ miracles; and now he is talking about suffering and die. Until this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has told great parables, performed great healing miracles, calmed a storm, fed thousands; he has even walked on water. Who would not want to follow this guy – times are good. The disciples have no idea that Jesus will die on the cross, so association with the cross must have been confusing and the imagery terrifying.
Peter probably notices the disciples’ reaction, and he pulls Jesus off to the side and then seems to speak in an irritated and condescending way. “Master, what are you saying? You are scaring the heck out of them! No one will follow you if you ask them to be uncomfortable. If you want them to believe in you – keep doing the miracles.” As usual, Peter does not understand. Jesus loses his temper, and yells at Peter. Jesus orders him out of the way and to quit thinking like a human. Jesus then turns way from Peter and addresses the disciples and the gathering crowd. In effect; he is speaking to each one of us.
Jesus tells them, you want to follow me, and then you really have to follow me. It requires changing your ways, thinking of others before self, discomfort, sacrifice. Discipleship means taking up the cross, it requires a tremendous amount of love. In this Gospel, Jesus places the price of discipleship squarely in the disciple’s face and squarely in our face.
Faced with the cross, I wonder how many of the disciples thought about leaving Jesus and going back to their daily lives or just get back to fishing. Many of us prefer that God that is always dispensing spiritual and material blessings. It is easy to believe in a miracle working God.
However, Jesus reminds us that discipleship is more than basking in miracles, listening to parables or walking along talking to the Lord. There is a point where the cross has to penetrate the earth, and the point where the cross penetrates the earth is where love radiates outward, toward one another. It requires movement on the part of each one of us.
We do not like the cross because we look at it as individuals, how heavy it is for us, without thinking of those around us. We are not called to be onlookers, we are called to be participants. Next to that old Penitente cross was a note etched on animal hide, written most likely in the 1600’s, it said: Jesucristo nuestra esperanza. It translates Jesus Christ our hope.
A simple poor shepherd in Northern NM understood that through Jesus there was something at the other end of the cross – hope. The highest form of hope is despair overcome.
But notice that the words used were not “my hope” but “our hope.” Taking up a cross means the deliberate choice of something that could be evaded. Taking up your cross means preparing the kingdom for everyone. We are asked to take up the cross not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters who cannot carry the cross by themselves.
I read a story describing an old comic strip. “Two guys would be talking to each other, and one of them says he has a question for God. He wants to ask God why He allows all of the poverty and suffering and war to exist in the world. The second guy responds, “Well, why don’t you ask Him?” The first fellow shakes his head and says he is scared. When his friend asks why, he mutters, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”
We do not need political parties, television commentators, theological magazines, or on-line chain letters to recognize that there is injustice in the world. 3 frightened children a day are being led into an unfamiliar room at All Faiths Receiving Home because someone they trusted, violated their trust. Where were we? There are 4000 children in the APS school system who are homeless, Where were we? A women and her children are checking is Barrett House because her husband decided to beat her. Where were we? And why did 13 young women turn to a life of drugs and prostitution that ultimately resulted in their bones being scattered on the West Mesa. Where were we?
Christ gave us his voice and it is our choice to use it. Christ showed us how to carry the cross, but it is uncomfortable, it is provoking, and it requires active involvement. It becomes more than expressing outrage from the comfort of our homes, or simply clicking on a computer screen, or donating to a cause.
It requires heavy lifting, it calls us to go out in the world and give Christ’s hope.
Jesus does not command us to go bring people in those doors, he asks us to follow him, which means walking out those doors and meeting others in their discomfort. It is not pretty work; it is much easier to invite people in, than to go out to them and meet them at their crosses. It takes effort, you get tired, you may get dirty.
It is not comfortable sitting with a homeless person at the shelter, or looking into the eyes of a person standing in line at the food pantry. The cross becomes heavy when you are insulted or ostracized for fighting on behalf of the oppressed. You may feel your shoulders weaken when not be invited to all the fancy parties because you make the plight of the poor, the immigrant, or the soiled your priority.
You will feel isolated and rejected when your voice for justice is the sole voice among your neighbors. But that cross has redemptive power. There can be no serving Christ without serving the people he loved and for whom he died, no love of Christ without loving and caring for the world he came to redeem.
That cross is heavy, when we give instead of receive, when we console instead of being consoled, when understand instead of wanting to be understood, when we love instead of expecting love in return. And we must carry that cross for everyone, not only those injustices that directly affect our own homes or surroundings. We must carry the cross whenever we encounter injustice, abuse and discrimination everywhere.
And we cannot place distinctions or conditions on the cross we carry. We must carry the cross for all our brothers and sisters, for the young and old, gay and straight, conservative and progressive, evangelical and liberal, Christian and non-Christian, Citizen and undocumented.
On of my heroes Bishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil wrote: Come Lord, Do not smile and say you are already with us. Millions do not know you and to us who do, what is the difference? What is the point of your presence if our lives do not alter? Change our lives, shatter our complacency. Make your word flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood and our life’s purpose. Take away the quietness of a clear conscience. Press us uncomfortably. For only thus is that other peace made, your peace.
I finally realized that the battered Christ in that small Church in northern New Mexico is the same perfect Jesus in my friend’s living room. We cannot have one without the other. By taking up the cross we feel the burden, suffer the pain, but in that cross we also know the joy of Easter morning.
During this sacred time of Lent, pray, listen and contemplate how you will make that first step, how much your arms and shoulders can bear. For those of you who are carrying your own crosses, remember, we are your brothers and sisters. We have strong shoulders. Christ calls upon us to be his body, his hands, and his feet. It will be uncomfortable, it will be lonely, but you carry Christ’s name – you are a Christian. Much is expected, but you have been given a spirit of hope to see the other side of the cross. When you walk out of those doors today, remember - the world is waiting.
March 1, 2009
1st Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
As you may know, Susanna and I recently returned from a trip to India that combined some of my vacation time and some of my annual retreat time. India was alternately sublime, very difficult, profound, and disturbing – a real pilgrimage. I am very appreciative that you provide me the opportunity to do things like this, and so eventually I want to share with you some of my reflections on this pilgrimage in writing.
Part of the retreat portion of our trip was time spent in Hindu temples, some of them used continually for the last 1,000 years as lively centers of daily devotion. There were times in these temples when I felt that I had been transported into another world, another dimension.
In a labyrinth of massive stone hallways, incense and chant rise up around dozens of shrines to the one God who is manifested as elephant, monkey, terrifying warrior woman, flute-playing cowherder, or as a primitive stone phallic shape. Bare-chested Brahmin priests daub ash and red powder on devotee’s foreheads. Bells ring randomly, liturgical dancers perform ancient symbolic movements, and little processions of loud drummers and reedy instruments blare by. Families stand before one of the idols, swaying and murmuring prayers, offer flowers and food, and then picnic on the floor with their children, while others around them sit in meditation. All of a sudden a group of people cluster together as a priest circles a dozen oil lamps around a four-armed figure festooned with marigold wreaths.
All of this activity went on at once, but it all flowed together, as only India can, in a complex, harmonious dance. We had entered the mythic realm. Because it was so unfamiliar to me, it sometimes felt like some dark, unfathomable, medieval underworld. The effect was a change in my consciousness. Walking out into the sunlight, I was aware of another dimension, knowing that our neat little material world is infused with a timeless, divine mystery.
Now I’m back here in 21st-century Albuquerque, New Mexico. But as I hear the scriptures for today’s worship, I feel transported again into the same mythic dimension. Something very deep is happening here, too, if we have ears to hear. And it has the power to change our consciousness.
In our readings today we have a flood that covers and recreates the whole earth, with a glorious rainbow as a sign of God’s love; we hear about one who was put to death in the flesh but remains alive in the spirit; angels, heavenly powers and spirits in prison about to be released; the sky ripping open and a descending spirit-bird; wild beasts, Satan, and a spiritual battle in the desert; and ordinary bread and wine will become for us the flesh and blood of God, which we will take into our bodies.
And as we continue our Lenten journey, we will walk the stones of ancient Jerusalem, wash one another’s feet, feel betrayal and suffering on a cosmic level, sit in silence at the foot of a dying God, and stand before the blinding light of an empty tomb. We too enter the mythic realm, and by doing so, our consciousness is changed from the mundane to the sacred.
This is what religion is supposed to do. It takes us out of our everyday mindset and rips open the sky to reveal the divine dimension that lies just beneath the surface. We humans have always sought this out because we need the stories and symbols and rites of our religions to give meaning and shape to things that we can only sense, things that would otherwise remain formless.
For we sense that all of life is inter-related, like one vast organism, but we don’t quite understand how. We sense that love has a creative energy to it, that it heals and brings things into being. We are aware of our own brokenness, of our damaged motivations, and how we go wrong before we even know what’s happening. And yet we also have the ability to see ourselves do this, and we wonder who is doing the seeing?
We sense that events are not just random, that there is a purpose and a direction underlying everything, but we can’t control this purpose to fit our own agenda. We sense that when we are in need and when we express this need, a force of goodness and wisdom comes to us and guides us where we need to go, but not necessarily where we want to go. And we sense that all of this is happening together in a complex, harmonious dance that began long before us and will come to its eventual fulfillment long after us.
Jesus called this dimension that we sense the kingdom of God. He invited people to enter into it, to trust in it, to allow it to change their consciousness and how they lived. In today’s gospel, Jesus, after his baptism and his pilgrimage in the desert, emerges from the sacred dimension, ready to draw others into God’s world. His very first words are these:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
Repent, and believe in the good news.
The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. In this moment, today, every day, all that we sense of the sacred dimension is very near, very real, and directly accessible. It is fulfilled, complete, all of it; it is near, even within you. Everything you have sensed about the potential power of prayer in your life, the wonder of rainbows and presence of angels, the meaning and purpose of whatever you have suffered and struggled through in your life, it is fulfilled here and now, in you. You don’t have to wait for the afterlife or even for spiritual enlightenment. You don’t have to earn it by being pure enough, or smart enough. The kingdom is already very near.
Jesus then says Repent, and believe in the good news. He encourages us: “Go ahead, walk into the sacred dimension with an open, trusting heart.” All we have to do is to turn to God, which is what the word “repent” means. Like Brother Lawrence’s “little interior glance,” all it takes is a turning towards God, and believing. But this is not “believing” in the sense of accepting doctrine, but believing in the sense of putting our whole trust in the goodness of God. Jesus says “turn towards the kingdom, and put your whole trust in it.”
Jesus asks us to risk becoming like a leaf on the river, letting go of our firm grip of control and trusting that for those who love God, all things work together for good. “Fear not,” Jesus and the angels said again and again. Fear not, give yourself to the power that has come near; you will not be disappointed. This is the good news that Jesus speaks of: that we can count on God.
We will see the beauty of this life in its ordinary splendor. We will know the efficacy of prayer and the healing power of love. We will understand that all of humanity, all of creation is a physical manifestation of the one Spirit, and we will serve our common good. We will know ourselves to be guided by an invisible hand through this journey of life. And we will see that everything, even the most difficult stuff, works together for good. As we turn, as we place our trust in the sacred dimension, both our consciousness and the way we live are changed.
Today, and every day, Hindus continue their ancient rituals of devotion, as do Muslims and Jews and Buddhists around the world. We do too, walking into the mystery of the divine with the help of story, symbol, and rite. It is a kind of daily pilgrimage, turning with openness towards a place of intuition, mystery, suffering, and hope. This pilgrimage site, this holy temple, is very near; it is, in fact, within our own heart.
In the 40 days of Lent we will be taken into our deepest truth, to the cross and the resurrection. This is our primary myth, our central story that gives shape and meaning to things that we can only dimly sense. But it is more than a mere story. It is the place inside of us where all that is not of God dies and falls away and all that is good and true comes alive in Christ. This is what we lay hold of.
The time is fulfilled; it is here and now, it is complete.
The kingdom of God has come near; it is always near.
Turn, and place all your trust in it; it will not disappoint you.
You will be made new.
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