Lent 3, Year B, 2009

Oh, Jesus.

Just when we think we know our incarnate deity, just when we think we’ve gotten a sense of his personality, just when we’ve gotten comfortable with him, he has a temper tantrum in the temple and starts causing real havoc.

Our mild mannered man-god starts acting more like testosterone fueled thug than a wise sage.

In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the cleansing of the Temple comes when Jesus is deeply stressed and close to his death, after he has entered Jerusalem for a final time.  Today’s reading, though, comes from the Gospel of John.  And, you’ll note that this scene takes place in the second chapter of John, right after Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  So, unlike Mark and Matthew, where Jesus is well known and has been ministering for a long time, in John, this radical act of clearing out the Temple is the first public act of Jesus ministry!

Talk about shock value-In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, disciples, Pharisees, Scribes, everyone knew who Jesus was.  So, when he turned over the tables and chased out the money changers, they had some context with which to understand his actions.  In the Gospel of John’s version of the story, he explodes onto the scene, introducing himself to the community at Jerusalem in a bold and violent way.

In the Gospel of John, rather than slowly ingratiate himself through healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, or dispensing wisdom, Jesus has no hesitation about immediately distinguishing himself and claiming religious authority by clearing out the temple.  John’s Jesus is carving out his territory and claiming his identity.

After all, Jesus not only clears out the temple, he also identifies himself as the temple.  He tells the horrified onlookers that if the temple is destroyed, it will be raised in three days.  They think he is talking about the building, but he is referring to his own body.

Jesus is differentiating himself from other teachers, other miracle workers and physically claiming the most holy part of Jerusalem for himself.  To insult his father’s house is to insult him, and Jesus will not tolerate that behavior.

Jesus knew who he was, and he was not afraid to make a scene in order to stick to his principles.

I think we, as Christians, are invited to be a little bolder and to carve out our territory, as well.

Let me be clear-I’m not talking about going after political or economic power or overthrowing the government, or even destroying the companies that make tacky Christian kitch by the truckfulls.

I think we are invited to carve out our own territory of hope and faith in the midst of a culture that is filled with fear right now.

A friend recently forwarded me a column that was found in The New Republic.  The column was responding to an article in The New York Times about the humanities needing to justify their worth in the midst of tough economic times.  While the quote I’m about to read is about the humanities, I think it applies to religions, too.

it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one’s existence will therefore be significantly determined by one’s attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor people and hounded people have always known this, but now the middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all, bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves.

As Christians, we have precious assets that we can offer to our friends and neighbors who are hurting right now.

As Christians, we are not rich because of our bank accounts, we are not stable because of rising home values, we do not alter our level of faith when the stock market swings to and fro.

We know that at our core we are valuable because we are created beings who are loved passionately by God.  We know that true power comes when we give up trying to control our lives, and release ourselves to God.

Middle class America has been pretty comfortable for some time now, and in its comfort, it may have lost some of its ability to deal with the very real crisis we are now facing.

When we carve out our territory of faith and hope, we are not being empty headed Pollyannas.  I am not suggesting we go around chirping about how everything is going to be okay if we just believe in Jesus.

I am suggesting that we lead the way in a sense of hope that is rooted in prayer and our knowledge that God will provide us the strength and courage we need to face any crisis with dignity and compassion.  I am suggesting that we can show the world that we can face this economic disaster by banding together and helping one another rather than by frantically scrambling to position ourselves. I am suggesting our faith can give us the courage to be honest about what is really happening in our lives rather than pridefully hiding behind a veil of false appearances just to keep our places in society.

A few weeks ago Lisa Ling did a special report about the foreclosure crisis in California.  She interviewed several people who were handling the crisis in different ways. The first group were representatives of the hundreds of people who were living in tents in a makeshift tent city.  Many of them were there because they were too embarrassed to tell their grown children that they had lost their homes.  They were so caught up in their pride, so rooted in their identity as being people with homes, that they would not seek help from others.  I understand that some families are so fractured that living together is not an option.  However, it broke my heart that these people would rather live in such a desperate way rather than reach out to the people who love them.

Alternatively, another couple in danger of losing their house invited a family to live with them and help pay the rent.  They were honest with themselves and with their friends and family about their financial situation.  Instead of isolating themselves, they reached out.  The couple found a website that matches people who need homes with people who own homes and invited a mom and her daughter to move in with them.  While this arrangement will certainly have its own bumps in the road, I think the flexibility, creativity, and openness of their response really reflected a mature spirituality.

We are stronger when we reach out and ask for help when we need it.  We have deeper relationships when we are honest.  We grow as people when we engage with friends and strangers rather than isolating ourselves.

We have a choice in this economic crisis.  We can act out of fear, or we can carve out our territory of hope and faith and be a witness to the world.



Lent 1, Year B, 2009

The story of Noah’s Ark is such a sweet story, isn’t it?  You’ve got a big boat, a colorful lead character, animals marching two by two.  We even have a big, beautiful rainbow wrapping itself around the story as the finishing touch.  Because it is sooo cute, Noah’s Ark imagery is very popular for children’s toys and décor for nurseries.  [Holding up brightly colored, stuffed, Noah’s Ark toy.]  This is adorable, right?

The story stays adorable until the kid who plays with the toy start asking questions.

“Why did Noah build a boat?”

“God told Noah he was going to send a big flood and that Noah should build a boat.”

“Why did God send the flood?”

“Because God was very angry with people.”

At this point the child starts looking a little concerned.

“God was mad at the people so he sent a flood?”


“So, no one else got to build a boat?”

“Nope.  Only Noah.”

“So. . .did the other people. . .die?”


About this point in the conversation is when I would suddenly offer the kid the opportunity to eat whipped cream right out of the can.  I would offer anything just to redirect the conversation.

The Noah story is not really an adorable story.  The Noah story is a horror story.  We have seen two mind-bogglingly terrible floods in the last few years:  The 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the terrible 2005 hurricane related flooding in the gulf coast.  There was nothing adorable about either of those tragedies.  Through the power of television, we saw the bloated, drowned bodies.  We saw survivors begging for food.  We saw the panicked faces of people searching for their loved ones.  We saw animals, separated from their owners, looking lost and forlorn.  No one is going to design a Katrina or tsunami themed nursery, that’s for sure.

So, why are we so quick to embrace Noah as a hero?  Why don’t we resent Noah for not trying harder to rescue his neighbors?

I find it helpful to think of the story of Noah as a myth.  There was some kind of enormous flood in early Mesopotamia. Nearly every culture in the region has some mythology surrounding this vast down pouring of rain and subsequent flooding.  The peoples of the time did not have a scientific or even historical understanding of the world, so they would not have recorded data or interviewed survivors like we might do today.  Instead the survivors would tell stories.  They would ascribe spiritual meaning to the flood and tell the miraculous story of their survival.

In this case, the survivors, Noah’s descendents, understand their very existence as a gift from God.  They tell the amazing story of Noah’s survival in mythic terms in order to emphasize what a miracle Noah’s survival was.

But that does not get Noah’s descendents completely off the hook.  The story of Noah’s ark has a disturbing “us” and “them” mentality.  The “us”, Noah and his family, become this superior, righteous family who were chosen by God to live. The  “them”-the rest of humanity-are judged as sinners so that we don’t feel too badly about their death.

We truly are descendents of Noah’s, because we still have the exact same tendency to divide and diminish.  As Episcopalians, we tend to judge Fundamentalists.  Northerners judge southerners.  Politicians judge Hollywood.  Homeowners with ballooning mortgages judge New York bankers.  Christians judge Muslims. Democrats judge Republicans. And, of course, all of these statements can be reversed to be equally true.

But here’s the thing.  Noah’s exclusive family boat may have worked for his situation, but none of us are going to be given the opportunity to escape from people who are other than us.  No one is going to call me up and say, “Hey, Sarah, we’re starting a colony on the moon.  It’s going to be GREAT!  The only people who will live there will be just like you. When can you leave?”

This moon colony has several problems, not the least of which is that I cannot imagine anything more annoying than being surrounded by people just like me.  But the larger problem, is that our Christian faith not only allows for incredible difference within it, Christianity compels us to open our churches and our lives to all kinds of people.

Jesus, if you will allow the metaphor, offers us an enormous boat and invites all of us to climb aboard.  While Noah’s family understood their survival as the grace of God.  Jesus widens this image so we understand that God offers grace to all people-the righteous and unrighteous, the ins and the outs, us and them.  We are all in the boat together.

The name for the part of the church building where you are all seated is the nave.  Nave comes from the Latin word for ship.  Architecturally, the word nave is a reference to the ship like appearance of the ceilings in Gothic cathedrals, but the image of the nave works for a simple church like ours, as well.

Every Sunday we gather here, together, in one boat, in Jesus’ boat, because of what Jesus did for us two thousand years ago.  We climb into this boat time and time again, because our God is a God who loves all people-people of all cultures, income brackets, skin colors, and beliefs.

We climb into this boat, because we need each other.  We climb into this boat, because if we are going to survive the floods that this life brings us, we are going to need the security of the faith and fellowship contained in this boat.  We climb into this boat because Jesus stands at its bridge and welcomes us on board with open arms.


Lent 5, Year A, 2008

The time is getting close.

The clock is ticking.

Our gospel story today has all the passion and intensity of the cliffhanger season finale of some character drama.

Immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some of the witnesses get freaked out and run to tell the Pharisees what happened.  This act, of course, leads to Jesus’ arrest and execution.  But, we’ll get to that next week.

For now, Jesus is still safe and sound.

We meet up with Jesus as he is traveling with his disciples.  Jesus gets the news that his friend Lazarus is ill in Judea.  We don’t know how Jesus knew Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, but they are the only people described as Jesus’ personal friends in the Bible.  Janice, our parish administrator, and I spent some time speculating about this.  We’ve decided, that we would like them to be childhood friends.  Maybe they went to grade school together.  Maybe they have known Jesus since before he was this big shot miracle worker.  Maybe they knew him when he was just Jesus, that carpenter’s kid.  Maybe they tossed a ball around or caught lizards in jugs and surprised their mothers with them.  Maybe with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Jesus does not feel any pressure to be “the Holy Son of God”.  They quietly accept him for who he is, they do not fawn over him or demand to be healed.

However they know each other, it is well enough that Mary pours expensive oil all over Jesus’ feet to anoint him.  They also know each other well enough that Martha and Jesus snap at each other when Mary is too lazy to help with the dishes at a dinner party.  Their intimacy with each other has a domestic, everyday feel to it.

We should feel no surprise then, at how intense Jesus’ emotions are around the event of Lazarus’s death.  Jesus seems to experience incredible internal conflict around Lazarus’s illness and death.  At first, he seems almost indifferent, delaying the trip to Judea and casually mentioning that the illness will lead to God’s glory.  Even after he hears of Lazarus’s death, Jesus seems very nonchalant as he tells his disciples he is going to Judea to “wake Lazarus up”.

Jesus does not fall apart until he sees his friends.  You know the feeling. You’re holding everything together, just barely, and then you see a person you trust and love and all your defenses crumble around you.  Jesus manages to hold it together through his conversation with Martha, where she makes great proclamations of faith in him, but when he sees Mary weeping, he falls apart. His dear friend Mary, who is so open and free with her feelings.  Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and then anointed those same feet with expensive oil.  Mary, who had such faith in Jesus and now seems so disappointed.

When Jesus does weep, he does not weep in the same  way that Mary does.  The Greek word used to describe Mary’s weeping is klaio.  The word for Jesus’s weeping is dakruo.  This is the only time in the bible the word dakruo is used.  We don’t know why the author of this story chose to use a different word.  I imagine the quality of weeping was different.  The culture of the time had a kind of ritualistic weeping that was done at funerals to properly honor the dead.  Perhaps the author wanted to distinguish what Jesus was doing from that kind of ritualistic weeping.

I imagine Jesus’ tears came from somewhere deep, deep inside himself.  I wonder if, because Jesus knew God had given him the power of resurrection, he was unprepared for the reality of Lazarus’s death. Jesus had grieved before—the death of John the Baptist was deeply upsetting to him—but never before do we see him weeping.  Not only does Jesus weep, but he also feels “greatly disturbed in his spirit”.  While some Bibles translate this word to mean compassion, the word has a more disruptive, angry edge to it.   Jesus was really traumatized by Lazarus’s death.

There is no passage in the bible, in my opinion, that better sheds light on Jesus’ humanity than this one.  Jesus has been ministering to people for years by this point, but somehow the reality of what it means to be human—to be finite, to have a beginning and an end, to be born and to die—really seem to sink in for him here.

Immediately before this passage, Jesus has been describing himself quite frequently as the Good Shepherd.  And in fact, he goes on and calls Lazarus by name, just as shepherds call their sheep by name.  Lazarus hears his voice, and obeys, even after death.  But for now, Jesus is just another sheep.  He is one of us.  For now, in this moment, he understands our feelings of grief and hopelessness.  He tastes the bitter reality of loss.

In this moment, Jesus cements himself as someone we can trust.  In this moment we realize that he has credibility—that he truly understands what it means to be us.

Because of this, we know we can trust him as a Shepherd, who will guide us gently and compassionately. Because of this, we can have the courage to follow Jesus on the rest of his journey to Jerusalem.  We feel empathy for him because of his own experience of loss, but Lazarus’ resurrection also makes us wonder if perhaps Jesus can outsmart his enemies, after all.

Maybe the road to Jerusalem, into the heart of political and religious power, is not a one way road.  Maybe Jesus still has something to show us.  Maybe the rising of Lazarus is just the beginning.

Starting next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we’ll spend eight days in Jerusalem with Jesus.  Come join us and find out how the story ends!

Lent 3, Year A, 2008

What is Jesus doing?

If you were his political advisor, you would freak out when witnessing our Gospel scene today.  You would pull Jesus aside and say, “Dude, you can’t just waltz through Samaria.  And you definitely, definitely cannot go hang out at the local well.”

You see, Jacob’s well is not any old well.  Jacob’s well is a place to meet the ladies.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament heroes like Isaac and Jacob met their wives at wells.  In fact, this well that Jesus approaches IS the well where Jacob met Rachel and fell in love.  If I were making a soundtrack to the Bible, I’d put some Barry White or Marvin Gaye on in the background.  This passage is supposed to make us very, very, VERY uncomfortable.

Is Jesus going to make a play for this Samaritan woman?  Is he going to reach for her hand and look deep into her eyes?  At first it looks that way.  He takes the brazen step of asking her for a drink of water.  Jews at the time considered Samaritans unclean and were not supposed to talk or touch them.  So, when Jesus asks for water, he is breaking all sorts of social taboos.  He’s asking for something that should have made his disciples’ blood drain out of their faces and pool somewhere deep in their gut.  They are probably feeling what you would feel if you ever ran into your pastor at a local bar, chatting up an attractive stranger and offering to buy them a drink.

The situation is fraught with meaning and very, very icky.

Soon, though, Jesus takes all these dangerous symbols and behaviors and turns them on their head.

Instead of flirting with the Samaritan woman, instead of offering her the fleeting affections of a human man, instead of using her up, like she had been used up in the past, Jesus treats her with incredible respect and dignity.

Not only does he treat her with respect and dignity, he also engages her on a theological level that is deeper and more challenging than any other encounter he’s had so far in the Gospel of John.

He meets this foreign woman who is “living in sin”, meets her eye to eye and reveals to her that he is the Christ.

He meets this broken hearted woman, who has had five husbands who have either died or left her and offers her insight into the nature of God.

He meets this shunned woman, who was invited to no dinner parties, who experienced people crossing the street just to avoid her, and he offers her living water that will never evaporate.

Maybe you are feeling used up and dried out.  Maybe you are being shunned by friends or family.  Maybe you have grieved the loss of a spouse.  Maybe you have a hard time trusting your partner because you have been left before.

Two weeks ago, we talked about bringing our baggage and offering it up to God for Lent.

Well, have you wondered what happens next?  God doesn’t just look at your offerings casually and pat you on the back and move on to the next person in line.

No, God meets you at the well, sits down, looks you in the eye, acknowledges the truth about who you are, tells you to cut out any inappropriate behavior, and then offers you the gushing, rushing, bubbling living water.

Life with God is not just about following a bunch of rules or having a wonderful community like Emmanuel.  God wants us to encounter him personally, intimately.  God wants to visit with us, to hear our sorrows, to speak the truth to us and to fill us up.

And instead of talking more about what it is like to encounter God, I’m going to end this sermon early, sit down and give us all a few minutes of silence so you can experience it yourself.  In this time of silence imagine yourself at the well.  What would God say to you?  What would the living water taste like?  How would it make you feel?

I’ll close with this prayer,

“Lord, we come to you, just as we are, and we meet you at the well.  Please be among us now and give us the Living Water.”

Lent 1, Year A, 2008

You’re a fraud, a fake, a charlatan.

That’s a rather rude way to open a sermon, isn’t it?  Well, I can say all those things about you with great confidence, because I, too am a fraud, a fake and a charlatan.  We all are.  That is part of our human condition.

Being married has been extremely eye opening for me.  I knew marriage would be difficult, but I thought it would be difficult because of something my husband would do.  Maybe he would be sloppy, or careless, or insensitive.  It turns out that marriage has been challenging, because now I have someone in my house to mirror exactly how selfish I am!  Living on my own for the last five years, I had no one to irritate, no one with whom to compromise, no one with whom to disagree.  Now, I have all sorts of opportunities to pick fights, whine, sulk, demand my own way. . .You get the idea.  Don’t get me wrong, Matt and I have a very happy marriage, but it has been shocking to me how my self image does not match up to reality!  I am very content to project the image of a loving, caring pastor, even when I am not behaving in a very loving or caring way.  You’ll notice our times of silence before confession have been longer since I’ve been married.  That’s because I just need more time now.

I would worry more about this, but I know I’m not alone.

After all, the authors of Genesis knew all about these kind of human tendencies.  The very first thing Adam and Eve do after they’ve tasted the forbidden fruit is to cover themselves.  Adam and Eve feel shame for the first time, and in order to deal with that shame, they disguise their naked bodies and hide from God. 

We hide ourselves, not with figleaves, but with nice Sunday clothes, and bright smiles, and the answer, “Fine.” when someone asks us how we are, even if we are suffering.  Somehow what has become important is what people will think of us, rather than how we are actually feeling.

We all experience shame, fear, or sadness in our lives-each of us is struggling with something.  I know you.  I know each of you has your own set of very impressive baggage along this journey, but here’s the secret.  No one’s baggage is any more spectacular than anyone else’s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, some Sunday, if we each brought a suitcase with us?  Mine might be labeled:  anxiety disorder, and tendency to be controlling.   Yours might be labeled: depressed, or out of energy to deal with my children, or struggling with addiction, or grieving a loved one, or having serious money problems, or really hate my job, or really don’t like my spouse.  We would air out our suitcases, listen to each other’s stories, and then march them up to the altar and offer them up to God.

(Sigh.)  That is basically my fantasy day at church.  But, back to reality.

At the beginning of the service today, to honor the beginning of Lent, we sang the Great Litany.  Some people love this part of the service and some people HATE the Great Litany. At times, it seems the litany of ways we fail God and each other will never end! But really, what the Great Litany does is give us a chance to bring our baggage before God.  The Litany gives us a chance to be honest, and to tell God, “You know what?  I can’t do this on my own.  I can’t manage my own life, I don’t always make the right choices, I need help.”

This kind of honesty is what Lent is all about.  Lent is not about self-flagellation, Lent is about surrender. We surrender to a God who loves us more than we can imagine. We surrender to a God who has faced all the same temptations we have.  We surrender to a God who was able to resist those temptations in a way we cannot. 

Lent is a time to lose our fig leaves.  We are invited to stand naked before God and offer ourselves-our broken, misbehaving, selfish, addicted, ungrateful selves.  We do not have to pretend to be okay in front of God.  We do not have to offer God a polite smile /and a “fine” when he asks us how we are doing.  We can tell him the ugly, unvarnished truth.

Lent is a time to get real.  Lent is a time to look at ourselves deeply and to start being honest with the people around us. 

The road to Jerusalem is a long and tiring one.  We’ll walk this road, following Jesus, for the next six weeks.  On such a long journey, carrying heavy baggage will just be exhausting, and pointless really.  You don’t need baggage where Jesus is going.  So, today, as you come forward to communion, I invite you to leave your suitcases on the altar, leave all that weighs you down and start this journey fresh, knowing that God will take good care of you and of what you leave behind.

Ash Wednesday, Year A, 2008

Today we begin, what seems far too soon, the season of Lent. We take off our Mardi Gras beads, put away the pot of chili from the Superbowl game, and turn off CNN after watching Super Tuesday coverage. We quiet ourselves, center ourselves, and open ourselves to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his own death.

To honor this, we traditionally choose some sort of sacrifice, a fast, to help us connect to Jesus’ experience.

This year, I was well on my way to considering whether to give up chocolate, or wine , or ice cream for Lent. After all, those are all things I really, really enjoy. I would be sad if I could not enjoy them for six weeks. I might even channel that sadness into moments of thinking about God, or a deeper prayer life. And giving up television would be cheating, since the Writer’s Strike took care of that, anyway.

In the midst of these deliberations, I began preparing this sermon. Oof. Our passage from Isaiah today certainly takes the wind out of our sails, doesn’t it?

Here we are, gathered to think about our own mortality and begin six weeks of repentant behavior, when Isaiah reminds us that the kind of fasting we begin today does not mean much to God.

Isaiah writes,

Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.


I have no workers to oppress and I don’t intend to start any quarrels or to strike anyone with my “wicked fist”, but the kind of fast I traditionally do MIGHT just serve my own interests. After all, giving up decadent foods would make my cholesterol levels drop, my skin clear up, make my pants fit more loosely.

It is important to note that Isaiah does not say all fasting is bad. His fasting would go a little bit more like this:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

While we probably should not go spring prisoners from local jails, there are fasts we can take that fit into these standards.

We could take the money we would normally use at Starbucks, Best Buy or J. Crew and send it to a food bank or homeless shelter. We can sacrifice a couple of hours of paid leave to help out at Disciples Kitchen later this month. We can go through our clothes, or even buy new ones, and donate them to Shelter for Help in Emergency or another worthy organization.

We could even do something radical like start thinking about what we can do with the tax refunds that will becoming our way later this winter or spring. We may not have trouble paying our mortgage, but maybe we know somebody who does. Or maybe we’d like to tithe part of it to a group that provides transitional housing or housing assistance.

We can also sacrifice our time and money by becoming involved in political advocacy for those who cannot advocate for themselves. We can join the Episcopal Public Policy Network or the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Instead of watching another endless hour of really terrible strike TV, we can write letters to our congressmen about the Millennium Development Goals to help eradicate global poverty.

There are many ways to experience the repentance that comes in Lent with out making the repentance all about us. Lent is not for endless naval-gazing, but for aligning ourselves with the One who came to earth to free us from all that oppresses us, even when that which oppresses us is ourselves. As people who have been freed and lifted up by God, we are then empowered to do the work God has been asking humanity to do since Leviticus was written—to treat one another fairly, to help the poor, to protect widows and orphans, to seek justice and to behave mercifully.

Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, to his own death, so that we might live within the grace and affection of God. In return, the least we can do is offer some of that grace and affection to our fellow men.

Lent 2, Year C, 2007

What are you afraid of?

Are you afraid of dying?  Are you afraid you’ll never find meaningful work?  Are you afraid because you don’t have the power to help someone you love?

Fear is something we all experience.  If we are observing Lenten practices, we become even more open to fear, as we strip away the things in life that soothe us and face the reality of our thoughts and spirits. 

This week in the magazine the Christian Century, Peter Steinke reminds us of the theologian Paul Tillich’s work with human anxiety.  Tillich believed there were three kinds of anxiety that all humans face.  First, the anxiety of non being (which is a fancy name for the fear of death).  Second, the anxiety of meaninglessness.  Third, the anxiety of fate. 

We are all too familiar with the anxiety of non-being, the anxiety of death.  We exercise, go to the doctor regularly, watch our cholesterol, get plastic surgery: all attempts to delay our inevitable meeting with death.

The anxiety of meaninglessness is more subtle.  The phenomenon of the mid-life and quarter-life crisis come from this anxiety-the anxiety that we are not fulfilling our destiny, that our lives lack import and consequence.  Moms who struggle with whether to work or to stay home are dealing with this anxiety.  College graduates who have not quite found their way are looking to ease this anxiety with work that is fulfilling and financially prudent.  Those who struggle with this anxiety often end up at church, seeking deeper meaning for their life.

Finally, the anxiety of fate.  We can only control so much of our lives.  We don’t know how long we’ll be in our job, or whether our children will succeed in life, whether we’ll always be healthy, whether our country will always be secure, and this week-whether the stock market was going to recover from Tuesday’s crash.  This finitude, this inability to predict or shape so much of our lives causes us great worry! 

In our scripture readings today:  Abraham, the Psalmist, and Jesus each faced anxiety, and illustrate different ways of dealing with anxiety.

We meet with Abraham as he encounters the presence of God.  Previously, God has told Abraham that he and his elderly wife Sarah will conceive a child, but this event has not yet occurred.  So, God meets with Abraham and makes a profound covenant with him-promising Abraham will have as many descendents as there are stars in the sky.  Well, Abraham and Sarah have a serious case of anxiety about their fate and take matters into their own hands.  Immediately after this profound spiritual experience, Abraham rushes home and lets his wife talk him into having their servant, Hagar, carry their child!

Abraham faced the challenge so many of us face: letting go.  How many of us, five minutes after relinquishing a problem to God in prayer, immediately begin trying to solve the problem using our own intelligence or creativity. 

Our psalmist, on the other hand, seems to have such a deep understanding of God’s love and provision for him that he is able to say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?”  The Psalmist comes to this conclusion as he meditates on his fear of death from his enemies’ hands.  Even as they surround him and he cannot control their movements he finds the place deep inside himself where he can wait on God patiently.  He writes,

O tarry and await the LORD’S pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; *
wait patiently for the LORD. 

The Psalmist has a profound understanding that God’s timing and provision is mysterious but reliable.  I, for one, am much more likely to tell God exactly what he’s supposed to do, rather than being patient and waiting on God.

Our gospel passage today is a really unusual reading, in that the Pharisees, who usually give Jesus such a hard time, actually warn Jesus that Herod is after him.  The want Jesus to run away and protect himself.  However, Jesus, being God, shows absolutely no fear.  He moves beyond even the Psalmist’s faith-telling the Pharisees that there is no way that Herod could be a threat to him, for Jesus knows he is not supposed to die until he reaches Jerusalem.  Phew!  I cannot imagine the kind of faith that is required to disregard a death threat so casually.  Jesus’ response was not a denial of his ultimate death-in fact, he fully acknowledged that his own death was imminent, but seems totally calm about this fact that would have most of us shaking in our boots!  Jesus knows that God is with him. 

One of my favorite gospel hymns comes from our psalm today, “The Lord is my Light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”  I am always moved that a group of people who had so much to fear-slaves-were able to sing this hymn as a meditation, as a cry for hope, as a testimony to their faith.  Like the psalmist, like Jesus those who sang this hymn were able to claim God’s presence in a very powerful way.

We, too, can claim the hymn’s promises.

As Americans, we are famously independent.  We are supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and succeed through commitment and hard work.  While these are fine principles, what ends up happening is that we mistakenly come to believe that we are completely in charge of our destiny.  Recently a video of motivational speakers called, “The Secret” was published.  The thesis is basically this:  The energy you send out into the world will come back to you.  Focus on what you really want on life and it will come to you.  Well, positive thinking is well and good, but positive thinking will not cure infertility or make the stock market bounce back or protect us from floods or terrorist attacks.  When we start putting our faith into positive thinking, putting faith into ourselves, we deny the reality that part of life is pain, part of life is suffering. 

What the psalmist is not saying is that God will rescue us from suffering.  What the psalmist is saying is that God will be with us in suffering.  We do not have to fear because God will be with us in the midst of both our joyous celebrations and our deepest grief.  God is with those we cannot protect or control.  God is even working somewhere deep inside people who torment us. 

So whatever it is that makes you anxious, makes you afraid, I invite you to meditate with the words of our psalm today:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

 God is with you.  Thanks be to God.

Ash Wednesday, Year C, 2007

Today we observe one of the most solemn days of the church year:  Ash Wednesday.  On this day we remember our mortality and begin 40 days of Lent, during which we prepare ourselves for Christ’s death and resurrection.

Last week at Children’s worship, Jane Lynch spoke to the kids about how Lent is a time to prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection.  When one little boy got back to his mother, he tugged at her anxiously and said, “They killed Baby Jesus!”  Because this was new information to this almost-three year old, he was able to experience the deep shock and pain of Christ’s death.  Just wait until he hears that Christ comes to life again!  He’s going to be blown away.

As adult believers, it is difficult to keep the sorrow over Christ’s death and the joy over the resurrection fresh.  We have heard the story over and over again, but the meaning of the story begins to recede as time passes.  We go about our days getting more and more caught up in the details:  what to make for dinner, what needs to be crossed off our to-do lists, where the kids need to be when.  We don’t have a lot of time to think about theological issues.

Ash Wednesday pulls the rug out from under us.  As we have ashes imposed on our foreheads, as we hear the words, ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” we remember that no matter how many errands we run, how many meals we cook, how many days we go into the office, all that will stop one day, and we will die. 

Suddenly Christ’s death and resurrection take on a great deal of significance.  For, through this miraculous event, our deaths are no longer meaningless and terrifying.  Because of Christ’s resurrection, we know we have a hope and a future. 

So, now that we have been stopped short from our crazy lives, how can we live the next 40 days in such a way that will ready us to hear the good news of God’s salvation?

Our Gospel passage today, guides us, through telling us what Jesus does not want.  What Jesus does not want is for us to beat our chests in public, shouting “woe is me!” so that everyone knows how fabulously penitent we are this Lent.

Like most of our faith, Lent is about relationship. 

When we sacrifice something we enjoy, we open space in our lives for God to enter.  Each time we reach for that cookie, or the remote, or whatever it is we have decided to sacrifice, we are reminded of God’s presence.  Think of that object of sacrifice as a little post-it-note reminding you to say hello to God, reminding you to meditate on Christ’s suffering and glory.  Sacrificing is difficult, but it turns us toward our maker, the One who gives us strength when we are weak and forgiveness when we are even weaker. 

Lent is not about how much you can punish yourself.  Lent is about finding a way to open yourself to the One who created you and who sacrifices his own identity for you.   Lent is about drawing near to God’s presence.  Sacrifice reveals to us our own weaknesses and the strength of our desires for things that are not essential, maybe even not good for us.  When we are reminded of our own weakness, we turn to God, for help and for mercy.

This last week, Chuck and I have been spending a lot of time with a young couple whose twins were born nearly three months early.  We’ve also spent a lot of time with families planning their matriarchs and patriarch’s funerals.  In both these cases-at the fragile beginning of life and the quiet end-these families were turned to God, seeking comfort, healing, and understanding. 

For these families, sacrifice is not an abstract concept, but a very concrete one.  They know that when their security is taken from them, turning to God can bring meaning and comfort. 

In a similar, but much smaller way, our sacrifices help us to cling to God.  For as our psalmist reminds us today:

As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the LORD endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children’s children.

God loves us and desires relationship with us.  This Lent we are invited to enter more deeply into that relationship.







Lent 5, Year B, 2006

You promise to pay a certain amount of money every month, and you get a house in return. 

You vow to stay in relationship with a person for the rest of your life, and she does, too. 

You sign a piece of paper saying that you’ll stay with a job three years, and you are promised salary and benefit in return. 

And you never, never, never date your best friend’s exes.

What do these situations have in common?  They are all examples of contracts, either official or implied.  In a contract, two parties exchange promises and the contract can be broken the minute one party does not live up to his or her promise. 

Humans have used contracts for thousands of years.  A contract assumes that both parties have equal responsibilities to fulfill the promises they make.  What happens historically if one party has much more power than the other?

3500 years ago in the Hittite kingdom, there were king like figures called Suzereins, who had money and armies and a great deal of power.  Because they had so much power, instead of making a contract, the Suzereins made covenants with the peasants.  If the peasants gave them a certain percentage of the crops they grew and cattle they raised then the suzerains gave them protection from invading armies.  However, if an invading army was going to come through, the suzerein was not going to check each peasant’s records-he was going to defend his territory.  So, the peasant, to some degree, could still receive the suzerein’s protection, even if he failed to deliver his end of the bargain.

So, why am I telling you all of this?   An understanding of covenant is important because God has related to human beings, throughout history, through covenants.  Suzerien covenants were happening roughly about the time when Genesis and Exodus were written and the covenants written in the Bible have the same structure as these Suzerein covenants.

Depending on how you count, there are anywhere from five to eight covenants between God and people in the Bible.  In our Old Testament reading for today, Jeremiah talks about the concept of God making a new Covenant, but before we can understand the New Covenant, we have to understand the old covenants.

And, because this sermon threatens to make all of you fall asleep, you’re going to have to help me list these first five covenants.  I’ll give you a few clues, and you tell me which biblical character I am describing.

The first covenant was made with the man who was the only righteous man left on the planet. Any takers?  Okay, another clue. . .there was a boat involved. ..

Right!  Noah.  Now, can anyone remember WHAT God promised Noah?  (Not to wipe out humanity)  What did Noah have to do in return?  What was the symbol of this covenant?  (rainbow)

Excellent work.  Now, on to the second covenant.  This one was made with a man who was married to a woman named Sarai?  Any ideas?  Another clue-this man had a child when he was very, very, very old.  Abraham!  Right, what did God promise to do for Abraham?  And what did Abraham need to do in return?  What was the symbol of this covenant?  Circumcision.

Okay, now we’re onto the third covenant.  This covenant was made with a man who discovered as a baby in a basket by the Phaoroah’s daughter.  He went on to experience God by a burning bush. . .Right, Moses!  God made a covenant with Israel through Moses.  He called Moses up on Mount Sianai-what did he give him there-right the Ten Commandments! 

In this covenant, God speaks directly to the people.  He calls Moses to Mt Sianai to warn the people that God’s coming to speak to them directly.  When God does speak to them, he reminds the Israelites that he is the God who delivered them from Egypt and gives the law, which will govern their life.  If they keep the law, God will remain with them.  This period also codifies the sacrificial system-if the people sin, they are required to make a blood sacrifice-either a bird or a sheep or cow depending on the offense and their financial state.

Well, soon enough, the Israelites, who are tired of wandering around in the desert, forget they’ve had this incredible experience of God and start worshiping false idols, complaining, and certainly not following the law. 

God, however, does not give up.  In Deutoromy 30, we read about the next covenant, the land covenant.  In this covenant, God says that if the Israelites come back to him and start behaving faithfully, he will gather them together and give them a spot of land to call their own.  And yes, this is the covenant that is still causing part of the problem in the Middle East!  But that’s a whole other sermon. . .

So, after Moses’ generation dies, the Israelites finally get their parcel of land, but again, they are unable to keep their end of the deal.  They live in the land of Canaan for awhile, but eventually the tribes start bickering with each other and the threat of invaders becomes very serious.

However, all is not lost.  In the book of Samuel, we read about how  the people of Israel start whining because they don’t have a king and everyone else has a king, so God decides to give them one.  The first king, Saul does not work out, so God chooses a second king.  Can anyone remember this second king’s name?  Here’s a hint:  as a kid, he killed a giant with a slingshot.  Yes, David!  It is under David’s leadership that Israel and Judah briefly reunite again and under his leadership that Israel captures Jerusalem. David’s 30something year reign is the Golden Age of Israel.  God loves David so much that he makes an unconditional covenant with him.  God promises that the Israelites will be a rooted people with land of their own and that God will establish an eternal kingdom from David’s line.

All this sounds well and good, but a theological problem developed when the Israelites were NOT able to stay in Jerusalem and the line of kings from David turned out to be kind of terrible and eventually died out. . .where does this leave us in terms of God’s faithfulness?  Our reading from Jeremiah today gives us a clue.  God decides to form a new covenant, a sixth covenant with us.  As you can see, historically, humans have not been great at living up to their ends of covenantal agreements.  Any wise businessperson would have written us off long ago.  Not only are we terrible at following god’s law, we’re not even that great about faithfully worshipping one God!  Any chance we got, we worshiped a golden calf, another God, a credit card. . .

Luckily for us, God is not a businessperson.  God is so interested in maintaining a relationship with us that he cooks up a new covenant, in which he does ALL the work.  In this covenant, he will write his law, the law of love, on our hearts.  While he required blood sacrifices in the past, all along what he really wanted was the sacrifice of our lives-for us to give up our selfishness and love God with our whole hearts. 

So, in order to make things right, God becomes human, lives a life in which he grows into perfection, and then is offered as a blood sacrifice on our behalf.  And while this seems barbaric and a little weird to our modern minds, we have to understand the context in which this happened.  All the sacrifices we offered, all our best efforts, were never enough.  And instead of raising the stakes, or wiping out humanity again, God decides to shoulder the responsibility, to continue the kingship of David through Christ and to offer us a new kind of covenant with him.  A covenant of love and trust and understanding-a covenant of the heart.

Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week.  Holy Week you will have the opportunity to attend church Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  I encourage you to attend these services as we reflect on and remember this miraculous and overwhelming, sad and glorious New Covenant that God has made with us.  We take God for granted, we take Easter for granted, but we are so lucky-God does not demand our money or our sacrifices. God just wants us-our hearts, our minds, our souls-he wants to know us and be known to us. 

All of the Covenants have been pointing to this-God’s desire to be in relationship with us and his desire to help us be worthy of that honor.  God has stuck with us the whole way-through all of our missteps, all of our false worship, all of our betrayals and he waits for us now, to turn our hearts to him and worship him with all of our mind, our heart, our soul and our body.

Lent 2, Year B, 2006

Is there any story in the Bible more horrifying than the sacrifice of Isaac?  Why would God, who had given Isaac to Abraham in the first place, then turn around and ask Abraham to kill his own son?  Even at the end of the story, when God rescues Isaac by giving Abraham a ram as a replacement, we feel uneasy with God’s behavior.  It seems manipulative, even cruel.  The point of the story seems clear-God wanted to test Abraham.  But what kind of test makes a person choose between God and his son? 

Today we have what we consider a reasonably sophisticated understanding of God.  God is love. God is One God.  God reveals himself in the Trinity.  However, we must keep in mind that Abraham was basically the first monotheist.  Imagine a world where every tribe has a different God.  Religion is rooted in superstition rather than relationship.  Imagine a world where the gods do actually demand human sacrifice to appease their anger.  This is the kind of world in which Abraham lived.  Abraham’s world was chaotic, loose.  He was a nomad, whose safety and livelihood was dependent on the generosity of the gods. 

God’s desire with Abraham was to start a new kind of relationship between God and people.  No longer would a relationship to God be about superstition, instead it would be about trust and love.  God had to show Abraham that he was NOT the kind of God that demanded human sacrifice.  He taught the lesson in such a searing way, through the near sacrifice of Isaac, that there is no way we can forget the image of last minute rescue.

There is something about the terror in sacrifice of Isaac story that resonates with us.  If you are walking the Christian walk, you are going to experience pain.  If you are walking the Christian walk, you are going to experience great loss.  Because, as our Gospel reading reminds us today, Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake.  The imminent death of Isaac reminds us of our fear of obliteration.  We fear that if we get too close to God, if we follow his call on our lives too precisely, we may lose everything we value.

When I was a small child, I saw a NOVA special about the Sun.  It described the power of the Sun’s energy and how eventually because of changes in its energy, everything around it, even the earth, would be sucked into the Sun and be disintegrated.  Now, as a child, I did not understand the concept of millions of years and so thought this would happen any moment, and I was terrified. 

A close relationship with God can feel like this sometimes.  God is so big and so amorphous, it can feel risky to draw near to him, to invite him into our lives.

While Isaac’s survival is small comfort, if we look more closely at this idea of losing our lives, we may be able to gain some courage.

Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake.  This sounds suspiciously like the kind of obliteration we fear.  However, we know that Jesus never threatened the life of anyone. He drew people out and loved them and helped them to grow.  He took immature, impulsive Peter and believed in him so much he became a stable head of the church. 

What if Jesus doesn’t want us to lose our true lives, our true selves, but wants us to lose our false selves. 

What do I mean by a false self?  I mean the self that has been constructed from other’s expectations and your own fears.  I mean the self that was taught by your parents that it was not okay to cry or to be fat or to be smart or to be an artist or to be. . whatever it was that they didn’t want you to be.  I mean the self that you’ve constructed so that your friends won’t be threatened by you.  I mean the self you’ve constructed so that your coworkers think you are always competent and never afraid.  I mean the self that you present to your partner so he or she won’t stop loving you.  I mean the self that buys a house you can’t afford and three fancy cars so you appear prosperous to your neighbors, when you’re actually drowning in debt and terrified.

The Christian life involves a huge amount of risk, and the biggest risk is living an authentic life before God and before each other.  Jesus calls us to leave behind the world and what the world wants from us.  Jesus calls us, invites us to sit at his feet and learn from him about who we really are.   

And who are we?  Paul answers this in our Epistle reading today.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We are God’s beloved.  We are the people for whom God sent Christ.  God does not demand human sacrifice, God sacrifices himself for us.  God is big and amorphous and scary, but he was also human, and kind, and gentle.  Above all, God is full of intense, specific love.  God sees you, sees your true heart, sees beyond every false self you’ve constructed, and loves you. 

[At 11:00]

And, like Isaac, right at the moment when life feels the most terrifying, God will swoop in and save you.  He will give you friends when you are lonely, courage when you are terrified, and love when you feel your most un loveable.  All we need to do is to surrender to him-perhaps the most terrifying step of all.

[At the 9:00]

We celebrate four baptisms today.  At first when I read the readings, I was dismayed.  I didn’t want Hunter and Anna Marie to link this image of the sacrifice of Isaac with their own baptism.  I did not want their baptism to be something scary, but something exciting and life giving.  However, these lessons reminded us that baptism isn’t cute.

Baptism is not something we do for sentimental reasons. 

In Baptism we die with Christ and experience his resurrection.  

In Baptism we commit ourselves to following Christ, to giving up our lives to do his work in the world.  But, through Baptism and a life of following Jesus, we will become more and more our true selves, the people God made us to be.  We will discover we can love more deeply than we thought possible.  We will discover great vaults of courage and integrity.  We will discover closeness with God that is not threatening, bur reassuring and life giving.

These four children being baptized are on the beginning of an exciting journey, full of ups and downs, but always rooted in the security of God’s love for them.