Sunday, March 30, 2014

eyes wide open

Lent 4, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Sometimes sermons are difficult to write because there doesn’t seem to be much going on in the passages. This is not the case in today’s readings, particularly in John’s Gospel account. We have here what appears on the surface to be a typical healing story. Jesus sees someone in need, heals them (on the Sabbath day, of course), and the Pharisees get angry. But we’re given more details in this story than in most of the others. 

It is interesting to observe the reactions everyone has to the healing, the vantage point of the blind man through the eyes of the other characters. Jesus sees the man as a gift, a vessel for God’s work of healing and mercy. The disciples see a sinner, or at the very least, the son of sinners. The neighbors see the man as a beggar. The man’s parents, afraid to be kicked out of their community, view their son as an endangerment to their way of life, and essentially disown him. The Pharisees see him as a sinner and a heretic, a nuisance and a threat that must be removed from the “true” believers. All of them are looking at the same person, but everyone has a different opinion of the man’s worth. 

On Friday I had the opportunity to watch the movie Divergent, the screen version of a recent popular young adult trilogy. Much like the Hunger Games series, Divergent tells the story of teens in a dystopian society of the future, in this case in the city formerly known as Chicago. Due to a devastating civil war, society has been reorganized into five social groups, known as factions. Each faction is known by the character trait they most value: Abnegation is known for their selflessness, Erudite for intelligence, Dauntless for bravery, Amity for kindness, and Candor for honesty. Each faction wears certain color clothing, and so everyone can be recognized at a glance. Separation into factions occurs at age 16, when each 16 year-old takes a test that tells them in which faction they best belong. After the test they are faced with a choice: they can go with the faction they tested into or they can choose a different one. The protagonist of the novel/film struggles to find her place within this hyper-organized society; she doesn’t feel that she belongs in any one place in particular; she is different, divergent. At one point her counterpart admits that he wants to be defined by more than just one characteristic, as well. He wants to be kind, selfless, intelligent, honest, and brave. 

The main problem with the society in Divergent and the way the Pharisees interpreted the law in Jesus’ time is that they both put rules and order above people. I’m not saying that rules or order or laws are bad, because rules help keep us safe and help us not to descend into chaos. But for the Pharisees to criticize Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath demonstrates that they consider the Sabbath law to be more important than someone’s life. In all of their arguments with Jesus over work done on the Sabbath, they fail to see that relieving human suffering is more important than following the letter of the law--remember the story of the Good Samaritan? 

Similarly, in Divergent, the leaders attempt to maintain this ordered society because they fear returning to a state of civil war, and so anyone who disturbs the order is considered a threat. Each faction, as a rule, interacts almost exclusively with their own kind, and disregard the rest. All factions are working for the good of the collective society in some way, but they are purposefully isolated in these roles; once they choose a faction, they can never return to their family. Their group becomes their family, and they must be loyal to them, no matter what. The motto is, “faction before blood.” Each faction harbors suspicions of the others, and it is very hard for them to look past their divisions. Regardless of their flaws, everyone buys into the divisions; in their minds the worst possible situation is to become one of the factionless, the people who cannot be compartmentalized, can’t be placed into a single category, and so are left to fend for themselves. 

After the blind man in the Gospel story is healed by Jesus, he no longer fits into the mold others have made of him, either. Some of his neighbors don’t even recognize him when he comes back able to see! Surely his appearance hasn’t changed that much; have the people who live by him, who probably pass him every day, never really looked at him before, only seeing his outstretched arms and not his smile? How can they not even recognize his voice? 

Each one of us is comprised of more than just one characteristic. We aren’t just bad or good; we all have good and bad within us. We all have the ability to be kind, selfless, intelligent, honest, and brave. We also all have the ability to exclude and ignore others. This passage presents an opportunity for self-reflection. What am I known for--how do people see me? How do I see the people around me? Do I only notice his or her most pronounced characteristic? Do I only recognize people by their race or gender or age or disability or economic status? Or do I take the time to know the story behind the person, to truly see them as a rounded character, a living, breathing creation of God?

In the story of the blind man, the man not only regains his sight, the way he views Jesus changes, too. At first he knows Jesus simply as a “man” who happens to have great healing power (John 9:10). Then, as he describes to the Pharisees what happens to him, he comes to the conclusion that Jesus is a “prophet,” for surely only someone who communicates with God can have such power (v. 17). And at the very end of the story, when Jesus approaches the man again, he recognizes Jesus as the “Lord,” and worships him (v. 38). 

Did you notice that after the man is thrown out of the synagogue--out of the community--for supporting Jesus, that Jesus goes looking for him? Jesus comes looking for us, too. When we are celebrating something new or exciting, Jesus is with us. When we are feeling lost, rejected, or excluded, Jesus is with us. When we have a relationship with Jesus, we get a better picture of who God is. We learn that God sees each one of us exactly as we are--with all our gifts and faults and doubts and fears and joys--and God loves every one of us unconditionally. 

The ability to see does not mean that we have clear vision. Thankfully, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). May our eyes be opened to the world around us, and help us to see one another as God sees us. 

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see” (“Amazing Grace” by John Newton, 1982 Hymnal 671).

The 5 factions from Divergent

This TedTalk is incredible, and I think fits well with today's Gospel. It's worth watching the whole thing, I promise (she does use a little bit of colorful language; please don't be offended). It will certainly open your eyes--it opened mine!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

quenching our thirst

**Wow, this is my 100th post! Thank you so much for reading and supporting me on my journey! In looking back at my posts over the past few years, I am reminded of the many thin places I have been blessed to experience. While the scenery has been incredible, I am beginning to think that perhaps "thin places" is a misnomer; I have found that it's often the people I meet along the way that make thin places so holy. Thank you for being one of them!**  

Lent 3, Year A, 2014
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

The reading from Exodus tells of the Israelites’ journey through the desert following their dramatic escape from slavery in Egypt. Previously, the Israelites complain to Moses because they are hungry, so God provides them with manna--bread from heaven--and quails to eat. Their hunger satisfied, the Israelites are now demanding water, questioning God’s motive for bringing them out of Egypt as well as God’s presence among them at all, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). God instructs Moses to strike a certain rock with his staff, and fresh water comes forth to quench the Israelite’s thirst. 

Have you ever been thirsty? I don’t mean that you could just use a sip of water, I mean parched mouth, cracked lips, can’t swallow kind of thirsty?

The summer before I began seminary one of my friends and I traveled to the Grand Canyon. We saw many incredible things there in addition to the breathtaking view of the canyon itself, including one of those yellow diamond signs that warn you of deer crossings--except instead of a deer, the sign had a mountain lion. We set up our tent, made dinner, and tried to go to sleep (I swear I heard that mountain lion breathing right outside our tent). The next morning, my friend and I decided to go down one of the trails and explore the canyon. At the beginning of the trail, we saw a sign that read, “Could You Run the Boston Marathon?” Since both of us were runners, we were intrigued, and stepped closer to see what the sign was about. We were surprised to read the story of a 24 year-old marathoner--a woman in excellent health--who had ventured down the canyon but had not brought enough supplies and sadly died of dehydration. Our eyes widened at this sobering tale, but we were determined to continue on our journey. 

We slowly made our way down the trail, taking lots of breaks to rest, drink water, and eat snacks; we wouldn’t make the same mistakes that the woman had made. It was early July and the sun was bright but the occasional breeze made the weather bearable.   After we had been on the trail for about an hour or so, we sat down on some rocks for another rest break. I looked down to find my legs shaking from exertion; if we hadn’t taken a break, we wouldn’t have noticed how hard our bodies had been working, and easily could’ve overworked ourselves. I realized how easy it would be to misjudge how much energy it would take to walk down the canyon, and just how bad things could be without enough water. 

I got a better taste of this last May, when I attended a young adult conference on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. One of the afternoon sessions offered was to take a hike through the badlands. So a group of us went on the hike, eager to enjoy the sunny weather and the stark, beautiful scenery. The hike was only supposed to take an hour or two, tops, so when two hours came around and we were still hiking in the same direction, some people turned around and headed back. My friends and I continued, assured that there was something really awesome just a little bit further away. Well, our guides never found this place, but since it was starting to get late, we turned back so that we didn’t miss dinner. We made our way quickly, racing the disappearing sunlight. The longer we walked, the thirstier I became, and I soon ran out of water--about halfway  back to our campsite. We finally made it back, parched and with chapped lips, grateful for safety, dinner, and mostly for fresh, cool water. 

When Jesus begins his ministry, he spreads the message of God’s love to people far and wide. He journeys by boat, but mostly on foot, often traveling great distances. On one such occasion, Jesus takes a break at a well while his disciples go look for food. Parched from a long day of walking, he asks a Samaritan woman to give him something to drink. So begins a conversation about water, but Jesus is talking about more than just H₂O. He helps the woman understand that her soul needs nourishment as much as her body does, in order to stay strong.

We all go through periods of time where we, too, find ourselves spiritually parched. Times where, like the Israelites, we feel adrift, or abandoned. Times when we aren’t getting enough of what we need to keep us alive spiritually. Just as, in the case of the marathoner, our bodies cannot survive if we don’t drink enough water, we have to remember to prepare ourselves so that we don’t drain our spiritual well dry. We need to find ways to refresh our souls along the journey.

Lent is a great season for discovering ways to help us stay spiritually hydrated. A season of reflection and intention, Lent gives us space to explore what parts of us are in need of living water. Our Lenten disciplines can include developing spiritual practices that make us aware of God’s presence in our lives. Making time for a daily spiritual practice can also strengthen our souls. Worshiping in community, where we kneel beside one another in prayer, give each other the sign of peace, and receive the body and blood of Christ, reconnects us with God and each other, and gives us strength for the journey beyond these doors.  

Like our bodies, our souls need nourishment, too. May we find this nourishment for our souls, and be refreshed by the living water. 

me at the Grand Canyon, July 2009

hiking down one of the trails at the Grand Canyon, July 2009

sign in front of the trail we went down

badlands, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
May 2013

Sunday, March 9, 2014

a different kind of power

Lent 1, Year A, 2014
All Saints’

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

We are presented in the readings today with two situations of temptation. The situations have some similarities; for example, in both cases, there is an outside person doing the tempting. Also in both cases, food is presented as the desired object of temptation, but the underlying object, the true temptation, is actually the desire for power.  

The first situation is the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Imagine it: the two of them living in paradise, surrounded by luscious plants, exotic animals, and getting to hang out with God on a daily basis. They have free reign over everything in the kingdom. The only rule they have is not to eat from--or even touch--two certain trees, because the fruit will kill them. That’s the only rule: “Do whatever you want, just don’t go near these two trees, ok?” It’s a pretty sweet deal, right?

Well, everything is going great and everyone’s having a good time...until the snake comes along. The wily serpent makes them question God’s motives and ability to take care of them. He convinces Eve and Adam that eating from the tree is not actually a matter of life or death, but that it will give them knowledge that God is keeping from them. Now, I don’t think the quest for knowledge is bad, in and of itself. The quest for knowledge has led everywhere from the invention of written language to pizza to cures for diseases to putting people on the moon. But remember what the snake said? “...when you eat of will be like God.” It’s as if he’s saying, “You may think your life is great right now, but you’re blind. Just think of how much better it’s going to be if you eat from this tree. God is keeping things from you because God doesn’t think you can handle it.” 

How many of us, faced with the same situation, would eat the fruit? There’s a reason why reverse psychology is effective. And this is why we get in trouble, over and over again, throughout history. The tower of Babel wasn’t bad on its own; it was bad because people were trying to equate themselves with God, literally attempting to elevate themselves to God’s level. 

After Adam and Eve eat from the tree, they realize that they are naked, and make clothes for themselves. Gone are the days of total honesty and openness with God. Now they have secrets, they have shame, they have regret. The complete trust they share with God is broken, and their relationship is shattered. 

Fast forward several millennia. Jesus has just been baptized in the river Jordan. There is no question that he is the Son of God--when he comes up out of the water, the heavens part, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove comes down from the sky and lands on him, and God’s voice says, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). Right after this, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted (Matt 4:1). 

On the surface, we might think, “Oh, it was easy for Jesus, because Jesus is God, so there’s no way he can sin. It’s not even possible.” But think about it. Jesus has been in the desert, alone, without food and water, for 40 days and nights. Jesus is the Son of God, but that doesn’t prevent him from experiencing pain and suffering. He is, most likely, physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted, not to mention starving. But when the devil suggests Jesus eat some bread, he is not really talking about bread. “If you are the Son of God” he says, “prove it” (Matt 4: 3). “You’re hungry, so just turn these stones into bread. You say you are God, so show me! Use your power!” But Jesus refuses; food is vital for the body, but the soul needs nourishment, as well. 

Next, the devil tries to convince Jesus to call upon angels, even quoting scripture. “Look, you know that you can get out of this situation if you want. Just do it. Don’t you want this to be over?” Jesus refuses again. “Yes, I can get out of this situation, but that would miss the point of me being here.”  

Jesus cannot be convinced to flex his power. He doesn’t just flip a switch and act all-powerful when things become difficult; he chooses to suffer, wholly embracing his humanity. God becomes human not to show us how good God can be at being human, but to show us that God knows what it means to suffer, to be hurt, to get angry, to feel lonely. God empties God’s self, chooses to lay aside power, in order to be fully present with God’s people. 

What was God’s purpose in coming down to earth, only to die 3 years after beginning ministry? Ever since Adam and Eve’s mishap in the garden of Eden, we humans had been growing further and further away from God. The more we learned about the world and each other, the more we convinced ourselves that we were self-sufficient, leaving less and less room for God to be a part of our lives. But the more we filled our lives with other things, the emptier our lives became. God saw the suffering and came down to mend our broken relationship. Jesus was the Son of God, but he showed his power in unexpected ways. The Jews were looking for a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and become their new king. However, the only thing Jesus ended up overthrowing was their expectations. Instead of a show of force, Jesus demonstrated the power of love, healing the sick and spending time with prostitutes, tax collectors, and simple fishermen. Instead of ruling as a mighty king, Jesus led by serving, washing the feet of his followers and wearing a crown of thorns rather than one of jewels. Instead of taking over and fixing everything, Jesus walked beside us, took time to understand the world from a human perspective. Ultimately, Jesus redefined what power was when he purposefully got on the path that led to the cross, offering his life so that death would lose its grip on us, once and for all.  

While the promise of eternal life means that death has been vanquished forever, we continue to face temptations to this day. There are so many things that call our attention away from God: we’re super busy people, and our time, energy, money, and compassion are all in high demand. It takes a lot of effort to set aside time for prayer, service, and study. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve already gotten sidetracked from your Lenten disciplines. But rather than despair at our weakness and give up because we didn’t make it through all 40 days, we can look at each moment as an opportunity to start over. The point of being in relationship with God is not for it to be perfect, but for it to be authentic. We come before God completely open, with all our faults exposed. We do not overcome temptation through our own efforts; we are made clean through the work of Christ. In Jesus, God grants us forgiveness of our sins. In Jesus, God gives us an “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). In Jesus, we come to know the incredible, improbable, life-altering power of love. 

video meditation on today's Gospel reading by Si Smith:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

you are invited!

St. George’s Chapel and All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Throughout the year we set apart specific times to remember important occasions in the life of the Church. Every year is the same; we follow the same pattern, the familiar rhythm of worship and rituals guiding us as we go about our daily lives. Yet every year is also different; our daily lives influence us, and we approach each occasion with new insights, fresh ideas, and different viewpoints. Some occasions, like Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter, are celebratory, marking Christ’s birth, light, and resurrection. Others, like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, are more solemn, calling to mind Jesus’ last meal and crucifixion. And some occasions, like Advent and Lent, are preparatory.

In the face of a great plague and drought, the prophet Joel encourages the people of Israel to return to the Lord. In accordance with the belief of the times, he sees the incoming destruction as punishment for the sins of the people. The only way the Israelites can steer away from disaster is through fasting and prayer. In asking for forgiveness, the people attempt to repair their relationship with God. While we no longer believe that natural disasters are signs of God’s disapproval of us, the reading from Joel has some good insights into the nature of God. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). I’m not saying that God never gets disappointed or angry with how we behave, but God does not stay that way for long. Throughout Scripture we see examples of God’s mercy and forgiveness: God forgives Jonah for disobeying God’s call; God forgives King David each time he apologizes after messing up; Jesus, God incarnate, pronounces God’s forgiveness in addition to healing. 

In the Psalm we hear, as in Joel, that God is “slow to anger” (Psalm 103:8). The psalmist is expressing gratitude for the Lord’s many gifts, hoping that his or her actions--indeed his or her very existence--reflects the blessings received. It’s as if he or she is saying, “Don’t forget all the wonderful things we experience in this life, don’t forget how God has come through for us in the past--remember how we were enslaved in Egypt? We have received much more than we deserve, and have not been punished like we ought to have been. We’re only on the earth for a short time, so let’s make the most of it!” The most poignant line of the psalm for me is “As far as the east is from the west, * so far has [God] removed our sins from us” (v. 12). Imagine a compass on a piece of paper. The lines of East and West are marked with arrows, which signify that the directions continue into infinity. God doesn’t just forgive us, God separates us completely from our sins, so that they can never touch us again! Now that is what we mean by “mercy and loving-kindness” (v. 4)!

Paul’s letter urges the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20b). Note that he doesn’t tell them to reconcile themselves, but rather to open themselves up to God and allow God to do the work of reconciling. So often we can build up walls between ourselves and God, hiding behind our weaknesses because then nothing will be expected of us so we can’t fail or disappoint. Or worse, we feel that we can’t possibly be forgiven for what we’ve done. I must admit, I have felt both ways many times, preferring to wallow in self-pity and guilt, pronouncing the words of the absolution for everyone in the congregation but not believing they could apply to me. But who am I--who are we?--to put limits on God’s mercy, to define what God is or is not capable of forgiving? And what would our lives be like if we truly believed that we were forgiven? 

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the season of Lent. We now have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for reconciliation through prayer, discipline, and penitence. In ancient times Lent was a time when people who had fallen out of favor with the community would be forgiven and welcomed back; perhaps God is calling you to repair a broken relationship in your life. In Lent, people prepare for baptism, confirmation, and reception; as they learn about the faith and prepare to become followers of Christ, we can be reminded of our baptismal covenant and strive to follow it more closely. Regardless of what things we give up or which disciplines we take on, we are invited to deepen our relationship with God, admitting our faults and opening ourselves to God’s loving embrace. After all, let’s not forget that after these 40 days are over we are left not with the cross but with an empty tomb!

We are not just Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; we are flawed but beloved children of a God whose love for us knows no bounds. These next 40 days, you are invited to open yourself up, to bring everything before God, and then to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. Will you accept the invitation? The choice is yours.

image found here