Lent 4, Year C, 2016

When I was in high school and college, teachers loved group projects. Maybe that has always been the case and is still the case, but in the late 90s, the group project reigned. Group projects, I suppose, are designed to help a person learn to play nicely, to function well on a team. But as every tightly wound over functioning person knows, group projects are the WORST. In group projects everyone gets the same grade, whether one person does all the work or whether the work is evenly shared. You can be a member of a group project and do nothing but snap your gum and you can still succeed! Where is the justice?

I hate to break it to you other over-functioning types, but today’s Gospel is not going to make you feel much better. Well, it won’t at first. But hang in there, because this Gospel contains grace for all of us, whether we think we have it all together or whether we don’t.

Today’s Gospel is a family parable. We have a father and two sons. His eldest is a hard working, responsible typical first born. His younger son? Let’s just say he’s still “finding himself”. In a move that must have infuriated his older brother, the younger son asks for his share of his inheritance—while his father is still alive—and then goes and blows it all on fast cars, whiskey and women. Soon he is broke and working a terrible job as a pig feeder. The moment he realizes he would be grateful sharing the pigs’ food he “comes to himself”. He remembers who he is. He wakes up. And he goes home.

He prepares a whole speech, but before he can open his mouth, his father runs to him with open arms. Not only is this young man welcomed home, but his father throws him a huge party. His brother, though, is not happy. While the younger son has been out partying, who has held down the fort? Who has consoled their father? Who has done extra work? The first born. He just cannot understand his father’s forgiveness. His father assures him that “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” but we are left not knowing if he ever comes around to accepting his father’s love and letting go of resentment.

Jesus told this story to some Pharisees who were NOT happy with the company Jesus was keeping. They couldn’t understand why Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and sinners when he could be spending time with the rule followers. This prodigal son parable is the third one Jesus tells the Pharisees in response to their grumbling. The other parables are about a lost sheep and a lost coin. To Jesus, this prodigal son is also lost. And Jesus’ job was to find all the lost people and tell them how much God loves them.

And let’s be honest, the prodigal son is not any more lost than the first born son. Because the first born son thinks all his hard work and responsible behavior is what makes him a worthwhile person. He believes that love can be earned.

At the WomanKind conference at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond last weekend, Nadia Bolz-Weber was the keynote speaker. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, but if you saw her on the street you would not guess that about her. She is 6’ 1”, has short spiky hair, wears combat boots, and is covered in tattoos. On one arm is a huge Mary Magdalene and on the other is Jesus. Bolz-Weber is a recovering addict, and once made a living as a stand up comic. So, not your typical pastor. She pastors a church in Denver called Sinners and All Saints that was designed for people on the margins, but now attracts a wide variety of followers.

One reason Bolz-Weber has been so popular, besides the fact that she curses like a sailor, is that she seems to truly, deeply understand the concept of grace. She was lost and she was found, and she continues to have a deep understanding of what it means to be found by God.

During her session at WomanKind, she talked about how all of us have an ideal version of ourselves. My ideal self, for example, goes to the gym three times a week and does yoga the other days. She reads poetry for fun and definitely does not snap, “Get your bottom in the car seat!” every single morning. My ideal self has a tidy house, eats quinoa, and drinks green tea. She does not have a problem with sugar.

There is a part of my brain that thinks I’ll get there some day. Like, if I just tried hard enough, I would get my act together. But Bolz-Weber reminded us that this ideal version of ourself? IT DOES NOT EXIST. It is a fictional person. The actual self? The sloppy, chocolate eating, Entertainment Weekly reading self? That is my real self. That is the self that God loves. Bolz-Weber says the Lutherans understand the gap—the gap between the real self and the ideal self as the Law. And the Gospel is the answer to that gap. Jesus came to live in a human body because he loved actual humans and he wanted to redeem the actual human experience. Jesus does not love our ideal selves because our ideal selves do not exist.

Even the most responsible of us have this ideal self. And I think this understanding of the gap between our real self and our ideal self helps us understand God’s grace better. We may not all have spectacular moments of failure like the prodigal son, but that does not mean we do not need grace. Because none of us is perfectly comfortable in our own skin. We all think there is something else we need to be doing to be worthy of full love and acceptance. We all are striving to meet these ideals, to hit some external mark of success. In an interview with Commonweal, Bolz-Weber says,

“Any system where the message is: through your own striving you can become pure in some way, morally, ethically or politically—that’s impossible. That’s what we call being “under the law.” And when you’re under the law there are only two options: pride or despair. You’re either prideful about the way that you’re nailing it, especially if other people aren’t, or you despair that you can’t live up to it. Either way it’s not good news. But we all think the law will save us.[1]

But the law won’t save us. We’ll either be in the position of the prodigal son—who completely fails to live up to expectations and feels deep shame, or we’ll be in the position of the first born son—who is so blinded by pride he cannot allow himself to experience the love of his father.

And I’m not just talking about religious law here. We delude ourselves into living under all kinds of systems of law—if we eat nothing but local food and drive a Prius we’ll be saved, if we make more money than our parents we’ll be saved, if we believe exactly the right conservative or liberal principles we’ll be saved, if our bodies look thin or strong enough we’ll be saved. All these systems lie to us.

Jesus did not come to earth just for the sinners and tax collectors. He came for everyone, Pharisees and Prius owners included. Jesus is the prodigal father, with his arms outstretched, delighted his son has returned. Jesus is the prodigal father, who would be just as delighted to celebrate his first born son.

Jesus chooses to love us, our actual messy imperfect selves. He chooses to love you. Right now. Not because you deserve it, not because you have your act together, but because his Father created you and his Father loves his creations.

You are loved by God whether you are rich or broke, responsible or a “failure”, whether the people in your life are kind to you or if they are awful, whether you complete your checklist every day or never get out of bed.

If you were a coin that went missing, Jesus would turn over every floorboard in this church to find you. If you were a sheep that wandered off, Jesus would hunt you down, throw you over his shoulders and carry you back home. If you were his son and you spit in his face and ran away from home, Jesus would run down the road to meet you on your way back.

So, we can let go. Let go of that ideal self. Get to know your actual self. And get to know the God that loves you.

Amen.

 

[1] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/we-all-think-law-will-save-us

Lent 2, Year C, 2016

About a year ago in Kirklea, we heard a commotion out the window. I looked out the window and saw two foxes running as fast as they could across the lawn. I ran downstairs to get a better look and Jordan, shouted, “Did you see those dogs?” I scoffed and told him they were definitely foxes. I might have said something snotty about him being a city person. He looked at my quizzically and said, “But they were white and brown!” Sure enough, just then I saw two hound dogs running as fast as they could, clearly on the hunt for those foxes.

That will teach me to judge someone else’s experience!

We are quite fond of our little foxes at Kirklea. I haven’t seen them since that chase, but for a couple of years, we would see the mother walking across the lawn, looking for something to eat. The little kits would peek their heads out of the bamboo that has since been smothered by kudzu, as if they were saying goodbye to us at the end of a long day.

As any of you who own chickens know, though, foxes aren’t actually adorable. Foxes are cunning and tricky and vicious. Foxes will adapt to whatever situation they are living in. Foxes will figure out how to penetrate weak spots in any defense you erect. Foxes are the hunted, but they are also the hunters.

Herod was a fox, or at least Jesus thought so. Herod was tetrarch, he was the man on the throne, but he was also vulnerable. He was not in the line of David, and his behavior was atrocious. John the Baptist had gone after Herod hard for marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist had humiliated Herod in front of hundreds of people. So, Herod, like the crafty, threatened fox he was, had John the Baptist imprisoned and killed. But Herod also represents leadership in Jerusalem who had betrayed their people. They are the foxes in the hen houses of God’s people. Instead of looking after God’s people and teaching them about God’s ways, Herod is a leader interested in only his self-interest. He is part of a corrupt system.

If John the Baptist made Herod angry, Jesus made him terrified. Herod must have felt like he was dealing with a holy game of Whack-a-Mole. As soon as he takes care of John, this Jesus pops up in Herod’s place. Jesus has not been going after Herod directly, like John the Baptist did, but he has been going from town to town teaching people about God and doing miracles. Jesus is a huge threat to Herod.  What if Jesus starts a revolution? What if Jesus tries to overthrow Herod?

So, when some Pharisees hear that Herod is coming after Jesus, they warn him. Maybe they are being compassionate. Maybe they just want Jesus to get out of town. But Jesus knows who he is and what he is doing.

Jesus, once again completely cool and collected checks his day planner: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

Jesus is completely unmoved by the threat of the fox. Does Jesus see himself like a bloodhound, able to chase down the threat of a fox? Does he see himself as a hunter, ready to put a knife into the fox?

No, Jesus sees himself as a chicken. A chicken! And not even a brash rooster. He sees himself as a gentle, motherly hen.

Jesus longs to reach out his wings and embrace all the children of Jerusalem. He wants to gather in his people and share God’s love with them. Jesus wants to be the uncorrupted leader they deserve.

Oh, Jerusalem. It is no mistake that in the Gospel of Luke, the whole structure of the book leads up to Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been the hope of the Jewish people since the time of King David. Through Solomon’s time building the temple, through kings good and bad, through exile after exile, through return and rebuilding, Jerusalem has represented the hopes of God’s people. But Jerusalem also holds dangers, especially for prophets. When a prophet speaks God’s truth, he puts himself at risk, especially in a corrupted Jerusalem.

When the Pharisees warn Jesus, Jesus has not yet traveled to Jerusalem. But, he knows Jerusalem is in his future. He hopes it will greet him with “Blessed is the one in the name of the Lord!”, but he also knows that Jerusalem may be too corrupt to hear him. Jesus says, “Your house is left to you.” Jerusalem may no longer be God’s house if its citizens cannot accept Jesus. Jerusalem may lose its status if they align themselves with Herod instead of with Jesus.

The people of Jerusalem are left with a choice. Will they be fox people or hen people? Do they trust in the wily machinations of power or do they trust in the expansive, mothering love of God?

We are given the same choice. There are plenty of people who offer us a God who would be a stranger to Jesus. Whether it is televangelists promising healing in exchange for cash, candidates twisting scripture to use it for their own ends, or clergy using power to abuse God’s people, there are still foxes in God’s hen house.

Choosing the hen’s path can seem foolish. After all, hens are incredibly vulnerable. Hens couldn’t be lower in the evolutionary pecking order.

But there’s a catch—a huge catch—while a hen may seem incredibly vulnerable when in the same cage with a fox, our hen has the power of God behind him. This wily fox Herod is just no match for Jesus. For when Herod finally catches Jesus and does exactly what a fox does with a hen, just when it seems that the foxes of the world always win, God resurrects Jesus and changes all the rules.

We worship a God who creates a way for hen values: compassion, vulnerability, life to overpower fox values: power, greed, death. In our life with God, we will find that he will deepen those hen parts of our personality while he heals us of the fox parts of our personality. He will help us be brave and show our imperfect, vulnerable selves to the world. We will be shocked at how showing our true, open, loving selves will bring real healing in the world. God does not give us the kind of weapons we think we might need to get his work done in the world. He doesn’t give us bludgeons or swords, he gives us patience and hope and joy. These tools seem so impractical! You can’t even put them in a spreadsheet! They can’t be quantified.

But these tools are incredibly powerful. If you are an unrepentant church nerd, you might know that Lent madness started this week—the Episcopal Church’s ridiculous battle of saint versus saint as they “compete” for the Golden Halo. Think March Madness brackets but with St. Joseph, Christina Rossetti, and Absalom Jones instead of Georgetown and UNC. What makes each of these saints, saints was there ability to share their true, vulnerable selves with the world. Joseph put aside his respectability to father Jesus. Christina Rossetti bared her poet’s soul to the world and gave us gifts of words that have inspired generations. Absalom Jones risked hatred and violence to become the first African American Episcopal Priest.

It takes true courage to risk showing your hen self to the world. This Lent, I challenge you to take a risk when you interact with the people in your life and show them your true self. Show God your true self. You won’t regret it.

Lent 3, Year A, 2014

God was doing something new.

Thousands of years before Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, the Samaritans and Jews had fallen out.  The Samaritans are the descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Jews are the descendants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  At one time, they had been united with a common Torah and understanding of God, but over the generations, they pulled further and further apart.  The Jewish community added other Scripture, like the Prophets to their canon.  The Samaritans intermixed with the various peoples that conquered them.  The Jews worshiped in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans worshiped at Mt. Gerezim.  Jews went out of their way to avoid Samaria.

But not Jesus.  God was doing something new.

Jesus goes out of his way to walk through Samaria.  And then when his disciples are off trying to find some lunch, Jesus walks right up to a Samaritan.  And not just any Samaritan.  He walks up to a woman.  And Jesus doesn’t walk up to a woman Samaritan at some appropriate place.  Oh no, he goes right up to that Samaritan woman at a well.  Now, that would be like Jesus walking into a restaurant, finding the single lady at the bar, and sidling up right next to her.  If you’re familiar with the book of Genesis, the well is where love happens.  It’s where sparks fly, where marriage proposals are made, where first encounters happen.

But Jesus doesn’t care about convention.  Because God is doing something new.

This poor Samaritan woman gets a bad rap.  When we hear that she’s had five husbands, we think to ourselves, “Oooh, that hussy!”  But Jesus never says that she has sinned, and never offers to forgive her.  For all we know she could have been widowed five times.  Or been left because she was barren.  All we know is that her life has been hard.  Defying all convention, Jesus decides to engage her in a profoundly spiritual question.  He describes himself as someone who can provide living water.  Instead of dismissing him, the Samaritan woman is intrigued and begins a theological conversation with him.

God was doing something new.

The woman starts to suspect that Jesus is something special—maybe a prophet?  But she just doesn’t know how to resolve this fundamental difference between Jews and Samaritans.  She reminds Jesus that his people worship in Jerusalem and her people worship at Mt. Gerezim.  How can this fundamental division be resolved?  Is one place right and one place wrong?  Even if Jesus can provide her living water, what are the long term implications?  The Samaritan woman is very practical.

What happens next is where Jesus blows the Samaritan woman’s mind.  The Samaritan woman will go on to be a legend. In the Orthodox tradition she is called St. Photine—the luminous one—a woman who converted many, many people.  So what does Jesus say to her?  What is so utterly life changing?

Imagine going back in time two hundred years from now.  Imagine sitting down with your great-great-grandparents and explaining to them that in the future, you won’t need to be in the same room with a person to talk with them.  In fact, in the future, you can be anywhere in the world, pick up a plastic box, stare into it, and have a live conversation with someone you love.  Mind blowing right?  No longer are we bound by physical presence.  We can relate to each other wirelessly.

Well, God was doing something new and similar.  Rather than having a certain place be people’s link toward him, rather than making people choose between Jerusalem and Mt. Gerezim, God was going to do something new.  God was going to be liberated from the constraints humans had put on him.  Instead of being worshiped at Jerusalem, God was going to be worshiped in “spirit and in truth”.

The geographic and biological boundaries that had separated Jew from non-Jew were going to be erased.  No longer would God belong to one people or one place. Living water would not just be offered to women like Mary, but women like Photine as well.  Living water will be available to everyone, those who fit in and those who don’t.  Those who have had easy lives and those who have had difficult lives.  Those who have never married and those married five times.  The living water doesn’t just lie still in its cup.  Living water bubbles up, overflows, and blesses all kinds of people.

God was doing something new.  And God is doing something new.

The church is always changing.  We started out as small groups of people meeting in people’s homes in the middle east and now we have congregations large and small scattered all over the world.  You all have seen your own fair share of changes over the last few years.  You have two new priests and half your lay staff has overturned in the last year.  There are kids in church now and the music is a little different and I’m sure Eric and I have different liturgical, preaching and personal styles than you are used to.  That kind of change can be exciting, but it can also be unnerving.  Church is a place where a lot of us feel safe, so when it starts to feel unfamiliar, we feel uneasy.

The larger church is going through changes, too.  In some ways, it feels like we’re at the end of an era.  We are talking about downsizing our national church offices and even possibly moving them out of New York.  The College of Preachers closed, the Alban Institute just announced it was closing, and even the Virginia Seminary Chapel burned down a few years ago.

I’ve seen two reactions to all this national change.  One is to try to put the Episcopal Church in hospice care and mourn what it used to be.  Mourn the loss of our power and social standing. Mourn the loss of our buildings, some of which need to be closed.  Mourn the loss of what felt familiar and comfortable.

However, I’ve also seen people who believe that God is doing something new.  Church is not the center of our culture any more.  Suddenly, rather than being part of the fabric of society, the church exists on the margins of society.  Right where it was two thousand years ago, actually!

God is doing something new, but not something that hasn’t been done before!

In our own diocese, St. Paul’s in Richmond is experimenting with doing things in a new way by hiring a priest, the fabulous Melanie Mullen to be what they call a downtown missioner.  Melanie’s job isn’t to drum up membership or serve the poor from within the walls of St. Paul’s.  Melanie’s job is to be in the community, get to know neighborhood non profits and businesses and individuals and then learn how the people of St. Paul’s can serve them.  Her job is to bring the church into the world.

Like Jesus’ living water, the people of St. Paul’s, Richmond are experimenting with bubbling up and over the line of their property and into the world around them.

We are blessed to worship a God that continually offers us a cup of living water, even in the midst of change.  Where is living water bubbling up in our community?  How is God blessing us? What gifts and energies are we being called to pour over our walls into our community?

May we, like the woman at the well, shine the light of Christ into the world.

Amen.

 

Lent 1, Year A, 2014

When you were a small child throwing a fit did your mother ever point to a well-behaving child and say, “Look how nicely Johnny is behaving?  Why don’t you behave more like Johnny?”  Poor you!  Unfavorably compared to someone who wasn’t even your flesh and blood! You probably carried on with your fit, thoroughly unimpressed with Johnny.  We do this all the time—unfavorably comparing our bosses to other bosses, spouses to other spouses, our selves to other men and women.

We pull Jesus into this, too.  We read the temptation story and think, “Ah, man, I should be better at resisting temptation. Why can’t I just be more like him?”  We read Jesus’ time in the desert as a kind of morality play.

But the temptation story is not one of Jesus’ parables.  It is not a morality play.  The story of Jesus’ temptation is an epic battle between good and evil.  The temptation story is not a sweet PBS Saturday morning cartoon intended to teach our children morals.  The temptation story is The Lord of the Rings, Rocky, Star Wars.

Jesus is on an epic quest to save humanity.  Humanity is enslaved.  Not by each other, but by death and by sin.  No matter what humans have done, they have not been able to get out of the grip of these evil powers.  Death vanquished every human.  And sin wrapped its claws around people, too.  Sin ruined people’s lives, isolating them from each other and from God.  Jesus is going to go into the world and save humanity from both sin and death, but first he has to get ready.

Jesus has been baptized and is about to enter into his public ministry.  But before he makes any speeches, before he meets his first disciple, he needs to get ready.  In any epic battle movie worth its salt, you get a training montage.  Hermione leads the Hogwarts students in drills Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Yoda trains Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  Mr. Miyagi teaches Danny “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid.  All these “heroes “needed time to prepare.

In Jesus’ case, it is the Spirit who leads him into the desert.  The Spirit doesn’t stick around and shadow box with Jesus or make Jesus run laps.  The Spirit disappears and leaves Jesus alone.  For what Jesus needs to get him through his ministry isn’t physical strength, but spiritual strength.  Fighting the powers of sin and death will take every ounce of integrity and steadiness that Jesus has.  After forty days of prayer and fasting, the Devil, also described as the tempter, shows up.  Now the Devil isn’t particularly hostile here, in fact, he’s almost friendly.  After all, the Devil just wants what is good for Jesus, right?  If Jesus is really the Son of God, he should enjoy the perks!

First the Devil tempts Jesus to turn some stones into bread.  After all, Jesus has been fasting for weeks!  And if he is God, he surely has the power to make himself some food.  But Jesus roots down into Scripture and reminds the Devil that the only food he needs for his mission is the word of God.

The Devil gets really tricky with his next temptation—since Jesus used scripture to deny the Devil the first time, the Devil throws Scripture back at Jesus.  He tempts Jesus to leap off a tall building, telling him that Scripture says angels will protect him.  But Jesus resists the temptation to take a foolish risk and again roots himself in Scripture.

Finally, the Devil tries to make a bargain with Jesus.  He offers him power and wealth and land and all Jesus needs to do is worship him.  But again, Jesus finds within himself the discipline and Scripture he needs to resist.  The Devil flees, defeated.

This story gets sin just right, doesn’t it?  Sin isn’t a bully, at first.  Sin sidles up to us and seduces us.  Have you all been following the story Kevin Roose published in New York Magazine?  He has just published a book called Young Money.  He got to know eight young Wall Street brokers, followed them around and explored their world.  On one occasion he snuck into a secret society event and saw all kinds of crazy skits in which the richest men in the world mocked the 99%. At one point he started filming and was thrown out once they realized he was a journalist.  He didn’t get beat up.  The people who kicked him out got extremely friendly and tried to bribe him into not telling the story.  What a great metaphor!  Sin tells us we deserve it, that it won’t really hurt anyone.  Sin lures us in until it has us firmly in its grasp.

Sin is tricky and insidious and offers us things that appear good.  For Jesus to really minister to the people of the world, he had to go through that experience.  He had to know what it was like, how hard it is, to resist temptation.  Jesus had to learn who he was as a savior.  Was he going to use his power to physically strike down evil?  Did he need to become big and strong and throw his authority around?  No, his authority was rooted in total obedience to his Father.  Jesus would show his power by his humility, by compassion, by wisdom.  His power would be rooted in his deep understanding of Scripture in light of his loving relationship with his Father.

Jesus uses that deep knowledge of Scripture and connection to his Father when he recruits his disciples, preaches to his followers, heals the sick, casts out demons—in short, in every part of his ministry.  Jesus takes this experience all the way to the cross.

Jesus’ ultimate battle with sin and death doesn’t involve him sword fighting the Devil or heroically flying a spaceship into the heart of an alien spacecraft.  Jesus’ final battle has him face our sin and rejection and walk right toward us.  Jesus continues to walk towards us until we kill him.  And then he rises and keeps walking toward us.

In the movie Blood Diamond, a father has lost his son, who has been kidnapped and turned into a child soldier.  When he finally finds his child, the child is pointing a gun at the father’s companion.  The father recognizes the boy and starts to speak with him.  He walks toward him, calls the boy by name and tells him about his mother who loves him and the wild dogs who wait for him.  He describes his home, the place where he belongs, all the while walking towards this boy and his raised gun and then the father says,

 I know they made you do bad things. You are not a bad boy.  I am your father, who loves you.  And you will come home with me and be my son again.

The boy drops the gun and the two embrace.

For generations our sin and the power of death kept us separated from our God.  But God knew we were more than our sin.  He knew that sin enslaved us, keeping our true selves locked away.  And so he sent Jesus, who battled for us.  While it appeared for three days that sin and death won, on that third day Jesus rose from the dead and claimed us for his own.  His was the final word, the final victory.  Death and sin are still present, but they no longer hold dominion over us.  They cannot keep us from God.

A mere five days ago, I preached to you about Lenten practices and how they draw us closer to God.  But the really important message for you to hear is this:  Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  Not your worst sin, not the worst sin someone does to you, not the death of a loved one, not your death.  You can start and break 100 Lenten practices and that will not make God love you less or lessen the power of his victory.

God wins the battle, full stop.

Amen.

 

Lent 5, Year C, 2013

Mary wasn’t always so happy with Jesus, you know.

Just a few weeks before, Jesus allowed her brother Lazarus to die.  Mary knew Jesus could cure him, she absolutely believed in Jesus.  Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as Jesus’ friends in scripture.  They aren’t just his disciples, they are his people. They have a deep connection with one another.  So letting Lazarus die was inexcusable.

When Jesus showed up at Mary’s door four days after Lazarus had died, she was so upset she did not even notice he had arrived.  Martha had to come in and gently tell her he was there.  Mary wept at Jesus’ feet and told him that if he had been there, Lazarus would have lived.

Jesus is so distraught he weeps.  The text leads us to believe he tarried on purpose, but even if letting Lazarus die was intentional, Jesus feels the pain of his friend’s death like a lead weight.

We know what happens next.  Jesus shows Martha, Mary and all their friends how powerful he is.  He calls Lazarus forth from the grave and against all odds Lazarus comes back to life.

And how better to celebrate resurrection than with a party?

This house which had so recently been a house of mourning was now a house of celebration!  How thrilling to get a chance to honor Jesus, who brought Lazarus back to Mary and Martha’s life.

Of course, the party wasn’t all happiness.

Jesus has been telling his disciples for some time that he is going to die.  And the authorities were upset enough by Jesus that they were actively looking for him, to put him to death.

So, this party is a celebration of life, and friendship, but the looming threats to Jesus’ life means this also might be the last dinner Jesus will have with his friends from Bethany.

How do you adequately thank the man who has brought your brother back to life?  How do you express your grief that this amazing God-bearer might soon be killed?

The only way Mary can express the fullness of how she feels about Jesus is to break all the rules.  She scrapes together an incredible amount of money, and buys a pound of perfume.  She lets down her long hair in an incredibly provocative act. And then, in a society where women did not touch men to whom they were not related, she pours the perfume over his feet and begins to caress his feet with her hair.

She anoints Jesus for his death, but she also anoints Jesus as her King.  She is his only friend to acknowledge the reality of his situation.  The disciples never want to believe that Jesus is going to die.  But Mary, Mary is willing to face reality.  And Mary is willing to take big risks to show her love for Jesus.  Mary pours herself out for her friend.

How do we show our love for Jesus?   How do we offer thanks to a man whose feet we can no longer anoint?  How do we pour our selves out for Jesus?

We gather , we worship, we sing hymns of praise, but we can do more.

Glennon Melton is a woman who, in 2002, found herself alone, drunk and pregnant.  After 20 years of abusing alcohol she made the decision to quit drinking, keep the baby and began her recovery process through the help of AA.  She ended up getting married quickly and having two other children.  Through her recovery she began a blog called Momastery in which she has explored her faith, motherhood, addiction and living an authentic life without the armor alcohol gave her. Her blog has become incredibly popular with women responding to her unusual transparency.  A community of women has developed in the comments section of the blog who encourage and support one another.

This past year, Glennon has gone through unspecified troubles in her marriage, which have sent her through a tail spin and have led to a separation.  Out of that pain, though, has come something remarkable.  Because of her experiences she has been able to write a book.  Because of the book, she has been able to go on a book tour, and because of that book tour, she had met incredible people all across the country.  One of those women, Sarah, runs a home for homeless pregnant and new mother teens in Indianapolis.  She wrote to Glennon, in a long shot, hoping Glennon would come speak as a fundraiser for this home.  Glennon agreed immediately and the two women began corresponding.

Sarah wrote to Glennon explaining that there was a young woman with an infant who was homeless but very much wanted to join the program, but the program did not have the $83,000 needed for the young woman to join them.

After pondering this, Glennon announced to her followers that she was starting a flash Love mob.  For 24 hours she would be accepting donations on behalf of this girl.  The rules were no one person could donate more than $25.  Thousands of women responded and more than $100,000 was raised.

Women, and presumably at least a few men, around the world did something stupid.  They gave money to a stranger.  To someone they had never met.  I’m sure there were people in their lives who rolled their eyes and muttered something about a scam under their breath.  After all $83,000 is an extraordinary sum to spend on one girl and her baby for one year’s care.

But overwhelmingly, in the comment section of the blog, women who donated just wanted this teenager to know that she mattered.  They wanted her to know that God loves her and there is community of faith throughout the world that will support and uphold her.  A common refrain in the comments was a simple exclamation of “Love Wins!”

Since Christ’s ascension, we have become the Body of Christ.  To love Christ, is to love our neighbor.  To love Christ is to love a lost young woman and her baby.  To love Christ means being willing to look at the world honestly and see it in all its brokenness and all its love.  To love Christ means to reach out beyond ourselves and take a risk to love another.

There will always be Judases around to rain on the parade of people who do extravagant acts of love.  There will always be people who think going through life with their armor up, unmoved by the needs of others, is better than going through life feeling all the pain and need of the world.  And we should have compassion for these people—who knows what pain they have experienced in their own lives to make them create such a impenetrable exterior.

But we also know that the kind of barriers that Judas put up, how he hid behind righteousness and responsibility, ultimately prevented him from really having a relationship with Jesus.  His own anxiety would not allow him to accept the reality of Jesus’ divinity, death, or love.  Mary, on the other hand, whose behavior was so shocking and inappropriate, loves Jesus and Jesus knows it.  Mary hides behind no barriers, she puts herself forward completely honestly and authentically. Mary pours herself out for Jesus, as Jesus will soon pour himself out for Mary.

Will we have the courage?  Will we be brave enough to let down our hair and do something shocking for Jesus?  Will we put down our armor and let Jesus in?  Will we pour ourselves out for others as Jesus has poured himself out for us?

May it be so.

 

Lent 2, Year C, 2013

In the 2011-2012 school year, 29 students and recent students of Harper High School in Chicago were shot.  Eight of those students died.  The producers of the NPR program This American Life were deeply curious about what life is like in a school that lies in such a violent community.  They sent three reporters to spend five months interviewing students, parents, teachers, and staff.

What they found surprised them.  The violence was gang related, but not drug related.  The neighborhood around Harper is made up of a dozen small, loosely organized gangs based on blocks and neighborhoods.  A child is automatically a part of a gang, just by living on a particular block .  To avoid gang activity, the only option is for the child to never leave his home after school.  Gun violence occurs because of perceived slights, romantic relationships gone bad, revenge, and for no reason at all.  This violence affects every child at Harper High School.  Every one of the members of its football team, for instance, have been shot at some point in their adolescence.

Harper high school has an incredibly dedicated principal, teachers, and school psychologists.  However, the adults who emerge as having the closest relationships with students are the two social workers assigned to the school.

Crystal and Anita have an official caseload of 55 students, but many more come to their office to find a safe place to talk.  Their tiny office is often so filled with students, there is no place for anyone to sit.  You can hear the concern in their voices as they ask a student about his trouble sleeping after he accidentally shot his own brother.  You have the image of these women as hens gathering these children to themselves like chicks, using their limited resources to act as peacemakers, counselors, mothers.  They will do nearly anything to protect these kids.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, gathering in his chicks.  Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is looking for him.  Herod Anitpas was the Roman tetrarch of Judea–the territory where Jesus was most active.  Herod was the agent of Roman rule and culture, in opposition of Jewish rule and culture.   Jesus loathed Herod.  In describing himself as a hen, Jesus sets himself in opposition to Herod.  Herod is the fox that comes after God’s people and Jesus is the hen who protects God’s people.  Herod is leading the Jews away from God’s word and vision for them, while Jesus will walk straight into his death at Jerusalem for God’s people.

Crystal and Anita, the social workers at Harper High School, are trying to protect their students from the prevailing culture, too.  Roman culture said that the Emperor and his power should be at the center of everyone’s worship.  The culture of the neighborhood in which Harper High School sits says that power through violence is the central truth to which everyone should adjust.  Crystal and Anita are trying desperately to change the points of view of individual students, so that the culture at large will change.

Jesus, of course, is also drawing people to himself and trying to change a prevailing culture.  He wants desperately for God’s people to return to God and live lives of justice and peace.  He talks and talks and talks about what God’s kingdom is like.  He gathers followers one by one, and encourages them to transform their lives.

Back to Harper High.  A day or two before the big homecoming game and dance, a former student is shot.  As the student lies in the hospital, the staff at Harper High frantically try to find out what possible reactions might be and whether or not they should cancel the game and dance for security purposes.  The last thing they want is a shooting on their property.  The principal, Leonetta Sanders, attempts to recruit teachers, staff, and their spouses to act as extra security for the game.  Anita, one of the social workers has spent all day talking with students about what staff might expect.  Students have warned her that there is a very real danger of violence at each event.  Anita, mother of two small children, has made the difficult decision to go home so she will be safe.  At first she tells this to the reporter calmly, but soon she breaks down in tears of guilt.  She wants so badly to protect her students from their own terrible decisions, but she has reached a line she cannot cross.  Ordinarily, she is not fearful like this—she walks through the neighborhoods around Harper, talking with students, walking to their houses, meeting with parents.  But on this day, with a credible threat of shootings, she decides the risk is not worth it.

Who can blame her!  How many of us would even enter the neighborhood around Harper High, much less enter it every day, over and over again, tackling the issue of gun violence every day?  The teachers and staff at Harper have incredible moral courage, but even the most courageous person has limits, and for Anita those limits are making sure her children have a mother who is alive and well to care for them.

Jesus did not share these limits.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus seems completely aware that the inevitable outcome of his ministry is his death.  Jesus identifies himself in the line of prophets who die in Jerusalem, but unlike other prophets who have died after speaking God’s truth to God’s people, Jesus’ death will prove redemptive.

No matter how hard they try, Crystal and Anita are unlikely to create such a cultural change that the neighborhoods around Harper High become safe again.  The barriers of poverty and culture are incredibly strong.  Crystal and Anita may help get shepherd a few children safely through, and will undoubtedly help hundreds more along the way feel loved, but change of that scale is incredibly difficult.

We humans are a stubborn, stubborn bunch.  Over and over again we make choices that are bad for us.  Whether it is picking up guns in the streets of Chicago or driving after a couple glasses of wine on highway 29; worshiping a Roman Emperor or worshiping a paycheck; we court our own self destruction every day.  God knows this about us.  He tried helping us in so many ways—giving us time in the desert, leading us to a promised land, giving us judges, kings, and then prophets.  But no matter how charismatic our leader or wise our prophet, we always fell back into idol worship and injustice.

So God sends us Jesus, his very self.  And Jesus has to be more than a prophet.  He has to be more than a social worker.  We need more than encouragement.  We need more than love.  We need a miracle.

And so Jesus’s ministry is not just his miracles and cures, not just his words of rebuke and hope.  Jesus ministry is also Jerusalem, because without Jerusalem there could be no death and without Jesus’ death there would be no resurrection.  Jesus did not come to simply help us manage our sin and brokenness.  He came not only to comfort us like a mother hen.  He came destroy the hold sin and brokenness have over us.  He came to open the door for all of us, those in the pews here in Ivy, and those in the hallways of Harper High School.  He came to create the beginning of a future in which there will be no more violence, no more tears, only love.  We wait, we long for that future to unfold.  And while we wait, we join Crystal, Anita and Principal Sanders in extending our wings to the world around us, offering a vision of hope and peace and of a God who loves us, even to death.

Amen.

Lent 2, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

Our God brings something out of nothing.

Before the universe was created, there was nothing.  But God spoke a word and one Big Bang later, planets and suns and comets spun throughout the universe.

Before Adam and Eve got into mischief in the Garden, there were no humans.  But God breathed into some dirt and there they were.  Perfectly imperfect, walking with God in the garden.

Before there were Jews, before there were God’s people, before there was a law or a covenant, there was just Abraham and Sarah, elderly, childless, not looking for adventure.

God chooses them.  He appears to Abraham and tells him he will make a covenant with him and that Abraham will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God says he will bless Sarah and that she will bear a child.

Sarah overhears and she laughs and laughs and laughs.

God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah are absurd.  They are in their nineties.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes Sarah’s womb not merely as barren, but as deathly.  There is nothing for God to work with.  No fertility, no life, no potential.

And yet, eventually, there is Isaac.  Despite all odds, life grows in that deathly womb and soon a very real, flesh and blood baby is born, continuing the family’s line.  Sarah’s laughter transforms from disbelief into delight.

Why is the Apostle Paul dredging up this old story in his letter to the Romans?  What does Abraham have to do with new life in Jesus?  Paul is addressing the community of Rome, which most likely included both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  He appears to be addressing some conflict around interpretation of the Jewish law.  Before Christ, righteousness was understood as adherence to the Jewish law.  We were made right by our obedience, by our own efforts.

Paul is making the claim here that our righteousness cannot come from our own efforts, because Abraham was made righteous for his faith in God’s promises, long before the law came into effect.  Paul is reminding his audience that God has been at work much longer than our imaginations can grasp.  God has been making something out of nothing for as long as God has been God.

And, while Paul describes Abraham as not weakening in faith, we laugh along with Sarah, because we know the story!  Abraham’s faith was weak and inconsistent.  He and Sarah could not believe she would become pregnant, so they arranged to have Abraham impregnate Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar.  Even Abraham’s faith was basically worthless.

And yet.

And yet, our God takes those pathetic scraps of faith and builds a little family.  Isaac goes on to marry Rebekah and have Jacob and Esau.  Jacob goes on to marry Rachel and Leah and they have twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel.  Abraham’s little family becomes a nation.  His scraps of faith become the foundation for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In the same way, the Apostle Paul argues, we are made righteous not by how well we follow the law, not because of how well we adhere to the tenets of Christianity, but we are made righteous because God chose to make something out of nothing.  When we rejected Jesus and crucified him, God chose to bring life out of death one more time.  We are made righteous, not because of what we can do, but because of who God is and how he has chosen to relate to us.

So, then, why do we make Lenten sacrifices?  Why do we obey the Ten Commandments?  Why do we love our neighbor as ourselves?  If our righteousness is all about what God has done and not what we do, what is the point of trying to live a holy life?  Paul will spend several chapters of Romans dealing with this question, but in short, Paul thinks a sinful life just isn’t an option once you have been baptized.  For Paul, when a person is baptized, he is buried with Christ in his death and then raised again into a new life by Christ’s resurrection.

Once again, God is moving from nothingness to somethingness, from death to life.  Sin is part of that nothing, deathly world. When we join into Christ’s resurrection through our baptism, we become part of the new something God has created.  We are part of a life that is full and rich. We are motivated to repent of our sin and work on an obedient life because we see that a life of obedience to God is filled with deep joy and wholeness that our old lives just cannot match.

But we all know our efforts at obedience are just as pathetic as Abraham’s faith.  We do our best, but all of us break God’s law no matter how wonderful our new life in Christ is.  The Apostle Paul may argue that sin isn’t even an option for us in our new lives with God but we argue back, “Oh yeah, watch this!” and then we overeat or get drunk or humiliate someone.

And this is why Paul’s original point is such good news for us! Our standing with God is not dependent on our behavior.  The possibilities of our lives are not limited by our own weaknesses.  God can bring something wonderful out of nothing.

The power of sin may still try to worm its way into our hearts, but in the cosmic battle, God has defeated sin through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Madeleine L’Engle was my favorite author when I was a teenager.  One of her books takes its title from a wonderful William Langland quote  “but all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think, is no more to the mercy of God then a live coal dropped in the sea.”   All of our anger, all of our betrayals, all of our violence, all of our wars, all of our injustice—if you could quantify all of this some how and measure all our awfulness against God’s mercy, our sin would just be a blip.  Isn’t that amazing?

It’s hard to imagine the vastness of God’s mercy when we are in the thick of this very real, very sinful world.  We see the consequences of sin all around us every day.  Even if we are having a pretty good day, all we have to do is pick up the newspaper to see examples of greed, corruption, prejudice.  But if we put down the paper and pick up the book of Romans, we gain a new perspective.  We realize God’s story is much, much bigger than our story.

In God’s story, God makes us righteous, not because of our behavior, not because of our political beliefs, not because of the church we choose.  God makes us righteous because God is God and God chooses to enter a battle against sin and death. And folks, when God enters a battle, God always wins.

God makes us righteous because God wants to be in relationship with us and we cannot make ourselves righteous, no matter how hard we try, no matter how good our intentions.  God chooses us. God goes to battle for us.  God wins for us.  Not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

So, believe the impossible.  Believe that God can take your scraps of faith and turn them into an adventurous, holy life.  Believe that our measly little communities of faith have more power than the biggest army.  Believe that God can defeat all the evil powers in the world, no matter how vast or entrenched.  Believe God can bring something out of nothing.

In fact, nothing is God’s favorite material.

Thanks be to God.

Lent 4, Year A, 2011

The blind man did not ask for any of this.  If you’ll recall, he was quietly sitting by the side of the road, minding his own business, when suddenly the disciples notice him.  The disciples, who clearly have still not fully understood Jesus, ask Jesus whether the blind man or his parents sinned to make him blind.  I’m sure the blind man was used to this kind of conversation.  People probably felt free to talk about him as if he wasn’t there all the time.  Maybe the blind man was insulted.  Maybe the blind man wondered about the cause of his blindness himself. In any case, you can almost hear Jesus’ irritation as he tries to explain that the blindness was not caused by sin.  Without the blind man’s request or permission Jesus spits in dirt, rubs it in the man’s eyes and then tells him to go and take a bath.

Can you imagine?  The poor blind man just wants to be left alone, or maybe get a little change from a sympathetic passerby, and instead some stranger rubs mud into his eyes!  And not only mud, but mud that has been moistened with human spit. What a disgusting thing to do to another person!  The blind man gets out of there, goes to the pool that Jesus suggested, washes the mud from his eyes and sure enough, suddenly his sight is restored.  He can see!  Suddenly Jesus’ interruption into his life is not an annoyance, but a huge blessing.

The man returns to his neighborhood and once again the neighbors start talking about him as if he’s not there.  “Isn’t that the guy who used to beg?”  He can hear them gossiping.  Finally they ask him directly and he tells them exactly what happened.  A man named Jesus.  The mud.  The pool.  The sight.  No, he doesn’t know where Jesus is now.

This starts to happen over and over to the man.  The Pharisees drag him in for questioning.  He gives the same answers.  Jesus.  Mud.  Now he can see.  The man can see things around him for the first time, and he can also see what the Pharisees are up to.  The Pharisees start to whisper gleefully—“Oh, Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  He can’t be from God.  We’ve got him now! “ But the formerly blind man knows their logic is as short sighted as the logic about how sins cause medical conditions.  He is brave enough to tell the Pharisees that he thinks Jesus is a prophet.

Then the authorities haul his parents in for questioning.  Now, his parents’ sin might not have caused his blindness, but they don’t win parent of the year awards here, either.  Instead of rising to the blind man’s defense they say, “Yes, he’s our son, but that’s all we know.  We swear!  Ask him!  He’s old enough!”

Once again, the man is hauled before the Pharisees.  They tell him to “give glory to God” by admitting Jesus is a sinner.  The irony here is delicious.  Once again, the man sticks to his story.  All he knows is that he was blind and now he sees.  When they ask him the same questions over and over again he finally snaps back and asks them, “Why are you so interested?  Do you want to become his disciples?”  Our man has some spine!  The Pharisees are horrified, of course.   They tell the man that they don’t even know where Jesus is from.  They are starting to sound like old Southern biddies.  “We don’t know who his people are.”

What’s interesting here is that the more the Pharisees push, the more the man sees, and the more the man believes.  With every encounter, his boldness at describing Jesus deepens. He might have started out as a man on the sidelines, but the Pharisees are pulling faith out of him thread by thread, even though they intend the opposite.  After the Pharisees curl their noses at Jesus’ lineage, the formerly blind man uses their own logic against them.

“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  The Pharisees are infuriated and drive the blind man out of town.

The man has nowhere near the education the Pharisees have.  As a blind person, he could not have studied the Torah.  In their world view the Pharisees have all the knowledge about God and the formerly blind man has none.

We know the opposite is true.  After the man is cast out of town, Jesus searches him out and reveals his identity to him.  Jesus is not just a man.  Jesus is not just a prophet.  Jesus is not just a Godly person.  Jesus is the Son of God.  While the Pharisees are debating about the fine points of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, the man Jesus healed is having an encounter with the living God.  His lack of education, his lack of resources, his former disability—none of that stands in the way of the encounter.  His faith helps him see God in a way that the Pharisees are unable to see.  We learn that they are actually the blind people in this story.  They have every opportunity to see the work of God, but they are too caught up in their own rules and power to see it.

Jesus may no longer be walking around on earth occasionally muddying someone’s eyes, but Jesus still shows up in our lives whether we ask for him or not. Experiences with God are not limited to those brilliant professors at Princeton Seminary or the clergy in this town.  In fact, sometimes the “experts” get so caught up in the details, like the Pharisees we can miss encounters with God right before our noses!

The Holy Spirit can break in to anyone’s life at any time and give a person an encounter with the risen Christ.  History is filled with these moments.  St. Augustine, who had a notoriously naughty youth, was visited by a man named Potitian, who told him about the conversion of some other men.  St. Augustine was so moved by the stories, he ran into a garden, crying out to God and suddenly he heard the voice of children singing, “Take up and read.  Take up and read.”  He picked up his bible and opened it to Romans 13:13-14, “let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  In that moment, Augustine felt as if he had encountered the risen Christ, who was speaking directly to him.

My favorite modern story of this kind of encounter, is the story Anne Lamott records of her own encounter with Jesus in her book Traveling Mercies.

After awhile, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone.  The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there-of course, there wasn’t.  But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

And I was appalled.  I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen.  I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I just felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that ‘s not what I was seeing him with.  Finally, I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.”

Now, if Augustine or Anne Lamott tried to tell their experiences to the Pharisees, they would be stuck in the same position as the blind man.  They would sound ridiculous!  Their experiences are not logical.  Their experiences don’t fit into our understanding of how the world works.  But like the blind man, all they can do is tell what happened to them.  Augustine lived a selfish life, had his encounter with Christ, and became one of the great Saints of the Church.  Lamott was a woman with a serious addiction, had her experience with Christ, and went on to give up drugs and alcohol and became famous writing about faith.  They were blind and then they saw.  And when the saw the truth, they communicated that truth to those around them.

So, be on watch this Lent.  You never know when Christ will sneak up in your life and radically transform it.  Whether you are new to faith or have been worshiping for sixty years, Jesus may not ask first.  He may just come up to you and heal you in ways you never expected or knew you needed.  And if people don’t believe it happened to you all you have to say is “All I know is, I was blind and now I see.”

Amen.

Lent 2, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

My family did not grow up going to church.  I would go once or twice a year to the military chapel with a friend or to my grandmother’s Baptist church, but church was not part of the fabric of our weekly lives until my teenage years.  When I was in sixth or seventh grade a local youth pastor used to come pick up kids at school, bring them back to the chapel and have bible study at lunch time.  Somehow I ended up on one of these adventures—and they were adventures since she was a terrible, terrible driver, who absolutely should not have been trusted with the well being of middle schoolers.

The week I attended her bible study, she told the story of St. Paul, riding his horse and then suddenly being knocked off his horse by the power of God.  She used that story as an opportunity to talk to us about how Jesus offers us eternal life.  Now, I was a really uptight, nervous kid who worried about things like death with some regularity, so eternal life sounded pretty good to me.  The youth pastor told us that if we died, and were at the Pearly Gates, all we had to do was say that Jesus was in our hearts and we would be welcomed right in.

I felt like I had been given a secret code!  All I had to do was ask Jesus into my heart and I would be golden!  For at least the next three years, I prayed every night that Jesus would come into my heart.  By my account that means I have been born again approximately 1,095 times.

Of course, I did not quite understand the meaning behind the youth pastor’s words.  Nicodemus has a bit of a hard time following the concept of being born again as well.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which meant he was an authority figure in Jewish religious life.  If you’ll recall, Pharisees were not high on the list of Jesus’ biggest fans.  But something about Jesus intrigues Nicodemus, so he sneaks over to Jesus under the cover of night to ask him some questions.  Nicodemus can see there is something special about Jesus, because he has witnessed the miracles Jesus performs. Nicodemus is trying to wrap his head around who Jesus is.  He is trying to understand Jesus within his own framework.  He calls Jesus “rabbi” and refers to Jesus as a teacher. These are roles that Nicodemus can understand and accept.  Jesus, however, responds to poor Nicodemus with this completely strange sentence, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Poor Nicodemus.  He was probably expecting Jesus to say something like, “Thanks, I’m so glad you’ve noticed all those miracles I’ve been doing!”  Instead, Jesus throws this new theological idea at him like a hot potato.  To his credit, Nicodemus does not drop the hot potato.  Nicodemus is probably used to the process of midrash, where scholars go back and forth over scriptural language to try to understand it more deeply.  Nicodemus fires back—like any sensible person would—How can any grown person be born again?  We can’t crawl up into our mother’s uterus again!  (For which, all of the women in the room, are quite grateful, thank you.)  And now Jesus takes the opportunity to blow Nicodemus’s impression of him out of the water.  Jesus is about to clam that he is not just a rabbi, not just a teacher, but Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus says,

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”  He goes on to say, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Nicodemus got way more than he expected.  He was expecting a theological conversation, sure, but was not expecting to be confronted by someone claiming to be God and the vehicle for humanity to gain eternal life.  The text never explicitly states that Nicodemus leaves, so I just imagine him backing away slowly, not quite able to fully engage with this concept.  Nicodemus does not disappear forever, though.  He comes up twice more in the Gospel of John.  Once to defend Jesus’ right to a trial and when Jesus dies, Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body.  Nicodemus might not have been able to make the leap from Pharisee to disciple, but he clearly loved Jesus, even if he did not fully understand him.

This idea that Jesus presented Nicodemus—of being born again—is a powerful one.  The fundamentalist  traditions in this country are all over being born again.  In fact, my mother would use the phrase “born-again” as a way of describing someone who was fundamentalist.  And she did not mean it in a complimentary way.  In the fundamentalist context being born again means saying the sinner’s prayer, in which the person acknowledges his own sin, asks for forgiveness, acknowledges that Jesus is God, and then invites Jesus into his heart.  As someone who spent her college years with an evangelical para-church group, I can say that the poor students who had been life long Christians always felt like second class citizens.  Their life long faith was looked on with suspicion.  The real Christians were the ones who had the opportunity to sin a little and then repent in a public way, say this prayer, be born again, and be welcomed into community.

Right now you might be feeling a little superior.  You might be thinking to yourself, “Man, I’m glad I’m Episcopalian and I don’t have to worry about this born again nonsense.”  If you are thinking those thoughts, I direct your attention to page 306 of the Book of Common Prayer.  In the prayer over the water said at every Baptismal service, the priest says, “We thank you Father, for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”  And if that isn’t enough for you, I invite you to turn to page 858.  In the catechism we ask, “What is the inward and spiritual grace of Baptism” and we learn that it is, among other things, “birth into God’s family the church”.

Guess what folks, we are born agains!

We, too, believe in the power of new life through the resurrected Christ.  We may use different language, but we believe that when a person is baptized—whether that happens as an infant or as a fifty year old—that we die with Christ in his death and are born again and receive the Holy Spirit.

Now, many of you were baptized well before you started forming lasting memories.  You may have had this powerful spiritual experience, but you don’t remember it and you may not even feel any connection to God at all.  Feelings of alienation from God do not mean God has abandoned you.  When you are baptized and anointed, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, God has laid claim to you and won’t let go.

If you are feeling alienated from God and not feeling so filled with the Holy Spirit, there is hope!

Do you remember Fr. Paul’s sermon last week?  He preached about the idea of being totally honest with ourselves and with God.  He talked about telling ourselves the truth.  That kind of honesty is the first step in becoming renewed with God and reclaiming our status as baptized Christians.  Coming before God and telling God the whole truth about yourself may feel awkward, especially if you haven’t prayed in a long time.  But remember, God knows everything about you already and still loves you.  You clearing the air with God is more about you realizing you are forgiven than God actually forgiving you.

And once you’ve cleared the air with God, just stay in conversation.  Keep praying.  Try different forms of prayer.  Be patient.  Not every faithful Christian has amazing, emotional, transcendent experiences of prayer.  God may not show up in ways you expect, but God is and will be present with you as you pray and throughout your life.

Nicodemus was not ready to drop his life and start following Jesus.  Nicodemus wasn’t ready to trust this Jesus who claimed to be from heaven.  Nicodemus stood on the sidelines and loved Jesus in his own way—but he could have had so much more.  Nicodemus could have had a place at Jesus’ table every day.  Nicodemus could have walked alongside Jesus every day, marveling at the miracles and the new realities Jesus was bringing.

Too many of us live like Nicodemus, cautiously observing Jesus from the sidelines, rather than acknowledging that, whether we like it or not, we are born again, we belong to God, and Jesus invites us along for the adventure.

Lent 1, Year C, 2010

When I am feeling run down, I like to lapse into fantasies about destination spas.  Whether we’re talking about Canyon Ranch in Tucson or Mii Amo in Sedona, I day dream about their cloud soft bedding, private sunning decks,  hot stone massages.  (I think less about the healthy eating and the rigorous exercise, of course.)  The idea of getting away, of taking a break, of being taken care of, seduces me into wanting to leave my life for awhile.  I just know if I had a week or two at one of these magical places that promise physical, spiritual and emotional healing, that I would emerge renewed, peaceful, a better version of myself.

Man, am I ever lucky that as a Christian, I get a built in retreat every year!  And guess what?  You do, too!

Now, our retreat does not have pools bubbling with warm spring water, or gourmet meals for fewer than 350 calories.  But our retreat is free and it lasts a whopping forty days.

When you think about Lent, you might think about fish on Fridays and giving up something decadent for a few weeks.  But, Jesus’ temptation during his time in the wilderness invites us to experience Lent in a new and deeper way.  And a Lent experienced this way, might just leave us feeling more spiritually refreshed than any destination spa.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ time in the Wilderness comes immediately after his baptism.  Before he goes out to preach and heal and perform miracles, he is led by the Holy Spirit to this time of testing.

The devil tempts Jesus in three ways.

First, he tempts Jesus, who is famished after fasting for forty days, to make bread.

Second, he offers Jesus all the political power in the world.

Third, he tempts Jesus to throw himself off of the temple in Jerusalem in order to prove that angels would protect him.

And while Jesus’ retreat in the wilderness was not a pleasant one—I do not think Canyon Ranch offers any sort of devil temptation treatment—his time in the desert prepared him for the rest of his ministry.

Jesus did not stop facing temptation once he left the desert.  Luke 4:13 reads, “[the devil] departed from him until an opportune time.”  Throughout his ministry, I’m sure Jesus was tempted to rely on his special gifts rather than relying on his Father.  I’m sure he was tempted to use his follower’s adoration as a way to pump up his own ego, rather than pointing people to his Father.  Jesus’ time in the desert made sure he faced these temptations in a dramatic way so that he would know how to handle himself when they came up in his day to day ministry.

We are faced with the exact same temptations.  Lent gives us an opportunity to face them head on, without flinching.

The devil may not tempt us to make our own bread out of the air, but all of us are tempted to rely on our own resources, to forget that God provides everything that is.  All of us face anxiety about how we are going to provide for ourselves.

The devil may not make us an offer to rule all the countries in the world, but all of us are faced with opportunities to abuse power.  Many of you are in positions of enormous power.  If you are a professor or a PhD student, are you treating your students fairly?  Are you jockeying for power within your department?  If you’re a person with employees, do you treat them with respect and dignity?  If you’re a parent are you taking your responsibilities seriously?  If you write or blog or Facebook, do you think carefully before criticizing someone publicly?

The devil may not tempt us to jump off the bell tower at Trinity to see if angels will come and save us, but all of us are tempted to let God or others bail us out on occasion.  Do you get in your car without putting on a seatbelt?  Do you occasionally cheat on your taxes a little bit, assuming you won’t get caught?  Do you drink a little too often, do you smoke?

This Lent, you have the opportunity to ask yourself these questions.  Really reflecting on these temptations will have a much bigger impact on your spiritual life then giving up chocolate for six weeks.  As Christians we are called not just to show up to church on Sundays, but to live a life of discipleship.  We are called to follow Jesus, even when that leads us into the desert.  Even when that leads us into an unflinching examination of our own lives.

Again, here are the questions to ask yourself.

  1. Where in your life are you not trusting God to provide for you?
  2. Where in your life are you abusing the power God has given you?
  3. Where in your life are you taking unnecessary risks because you think God or others will rescue you?

When you ask yourself these questions you are communing with Jesus in the desert.  Just imagine, Jesus asked himself the exact same questions and struggled with the same temptations we do.  We worship a God who understands our experience, who knows what it is like to struggle to live a holy and ethical life.

We honor that compassionate God by taking our lives seriously, by taking Lent seriously.

Lent may not come with mints on our pillows, horseback rides and free yoga classes, but living a holy, reflective Lent can change our lives and give us the perspective we need to face temptations in our lives the rest of the year.

Amen.