Monday, February 27, 2012

Wild Beasts & Angels: the Wilderness as the Peaceable Community

Lent 1 B           February 26, 2012 
Genesis 9:8-17; Ps. 25
1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

If we all wanted snow this winter, it came yesterday, with a vengeance: cold, driving, thick, wet. When we read the gospel account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we usually imagine a warmer place, but certainly one as inhospitable as being outside yesterday. Just ask Bill, our cat, when he tried to venture out of doors, thinking it was as warm as the day before. No wilderness for that not-so-wild beast.

We’ve read about this wilderness before; in the other gospel accounts, in Matthew and Luke, we get a lot more detail about what Satan thinks will tempt Jesus to leave this mission behind and take up the easy life. We read nothing here about stones becoming bread, nothing about daring God to rescue him if he were to jump from the Temple roof, nothing about how all the powers and principalities of the world would be his to command if only Jesus would worship Satan. In this gospel the temptations are left up to our own imagination. It’s all there together, perhaps for the whole 40 days: the wilderness, the temptations, the wild beasts, the angels. When we read this story, we can write our own temptations into it: what struggles do we have which threaten to take us away from what God wants to do with our lives, which undermine our assurance that we are God’s beloved child?
We think of the Spirit in our lives as a good thing. In the old Prayer Book language we would say, “The Lord be with you,” and reply, “And with thy Spirit,” as though that were something comforting.

But the Spirit in this Gospel passage is anything but comforting. The Spirit appears first in the violent tearing of the heavens. And then the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness – literally, the word in Greek, is “to throw.” The Spirit, no gentle, soft thing, throws Jesus, pitches him like a fastball into the wilderness, into the arms of Satan, into the company of the wild beasts, into the care of the angels. And here again, the story is so spare, so parsimonious on details, that we can imagine our own life against this scrim of a gospel: with what power is the Spirit working in our lives? Is the affirmation we hear from God, about our beloved identity, accompanied by the soundtrack of our lives being torn apart?

In these gospels, there is something about the wilderness experience that prepares Jesus for his mission – to proclaim good news, to bring about healing and wholeness. There is something about being there – with Satan, and wild beasts, and angels – that made him ready to recognize that the time was right. When John was arrested, it seems, the whole operation is set in motion. The kingdom of God is no longer in the distance; it is near, here, present tense, good news, time to believe that things are getting better. What went on in the wilderness that made Jesus ready to face the bad news of John’s arrest with the Good News that God’s reign has begun?

Curious, isn’t it, that this Gospel story is paired with the end of the story of the flood – with God’s promise to Noah that the world would never be destroyed, that God would live in harmony with the world he created. Every living creature can live in safety under that covenant – that never again would God’s anger be so great as to destroy it.
Such a human longing, this is, this vision of the peaceable kingdom. The prophet Isaiah spoke of it, that God would never let anything be hurt or destroyed on the holy mountain. Utopian dreamers like Edward Hicks would base their fantastical paintings on this promise of a created world in which all live in harmony.

Could that peaceable kingdom be what Jesus experienced in the wilderness? A place where the reality of wild beasts and angels and the beloved Son of God living in such harmony drove out the devil himself?

What are we doing in our places of wilderness? We can find them as places of trial and difficulty, the dark night of the soul, the battles we must fight to earn our “hero’s badge.” Or we can see the wilderness as a place of preparation, a place apart from the rest of our lives, where we can see God’s purpose clearly, where God’s harmony is revealed, where we live with wild beasts and where angels take care of us -- a place where we can hide out for a while from the Spirit, until that day when something big happens, when the plan is set in motion, and we know, with clarity and strength, just what God would have us do.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

When the rest of society values getting more, we are called give it up

 Ash Wednesday         February 22, 2012
Joel 2:1-12, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

Mardi Gras, I heard on the news, is an official holiday in New Orleans. No one would get anything done anyway, the newscaster said, so the city just decided to go along with the party. Let the good times roll, as they say.

The news media focuses on the more lurid aspects of the revelers on Bourbon Street, but really, of course, Mardi Gras has deep religious symbolism. During the Mardi Gras revels, the participants wear masks, to hide their real identities and carry on as someone else – as someone wild and irresponsible, as someone you would never be in your right mind. But today, on Ash Wednesday, the masks come off. The revelers of last night are revealed today as who they really are, stripped down and laid bare.

During Lent the church has for centuries encouraged the practice of fasting, of giving something up, as a spiritual discipline. Symbolically, fasting is a way for us to take off our masks, to lay ourselves bare before God – to be for once, at least, real to God. Fasting is about not pretending we are someone else, at least for right now. Fasting – even if it is a small thing we do or do not do, a small thing we give up, a small discipline we take on – is our symbolic way to journey inward, inside ourselves, with God.

In a few minutes, the liturgy will invite us to the observance of a Holy Lent, and that observance is about that inward journey toward intimacy with God, a journey that can take us into the very heart of God. In that sense, fasting has a deeply personal and private dimension.

The observance of a Holy Lent, through fasting and discipline, also has a social dimension. The prophet Joel makes it pretty clear that this kind of fasting is not to encourage humble piety, nor is it a personal exercise like a fitness routine or the latest fad diet! For the prophet Joel, fasting and doing justice are united. When we fast, or whatever we do during Lent, we are about justice: about restoring our right relationship to God and humanity. One theologian says fasting should be “considered the restoration of stolen things, not the generous gift of them to the deserving, out of our rightfully owned bounty.”[1] When we “give up” something during Lent, it is to remember what we have is part of the commonwealth - -the wealth common to all the people of God. This is how theologians understood this in the early church. St. John Chrysostom denounced inherited wealth as rooted in injustice. Basil the Great proclaimed, "The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry, the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes, the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor." St. Ambrose of Milan said, "God willed that this earth should be the common possession of all and he offered its fruits to all,” and Augustine takes us back to Isaiah: "Assisting the needy is justice."

Lent, then, is personal and social – and in this world, profoundly counter-cultural. Where the rest of society revels in sort of a permanent Mardi Gras of excess, consumerism, exploitation and even violence, we Christians are called to take off the masks and costumes and clothe ourselves in simplicity and silence. When the rest of society values getting more and more, we are called to give things up, to share what we have with those who have less. When the rest of society is in a mad rush, admitting no wrong and taking no prisoners, we are called to stop and think and pray and repent – to take stock of all that we have and all that we have done which keep us from the love of God, which keep us from taking that inward journey to the heart of God. When the rest of society strives for power and domination, we are called to follow the one who gave up all of that for love.

To follow that one who has loved us since the beginning of time, is the journey of Lent. In silence, in simplicity, in service, let us begin.

[1] Grant Gallup, Ash Wednesday sermon 2001, 2004

Monday, February 20, 2012


Last Epiphany B         Feb. 19, 2012
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

“This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”

What does it mean to listen – truly listen? To listen to God? To another person? To listen to what is going on in the world around us?

To listen means more than mere hearing, the mere physical sensation of sound waves hitting the ear drum. The old English roots of “to listen” are “to pay attention.” When we truly listen we lean in toward the person who commands our attention.

These past weeks we have been listening to stories of Jesus healing people. If we really paid attention to those stories, we would see that they are not about the mere physical healing, but about restoration – the person is brought back into community, into wholeness, in her family, into his society.

It is easy to be dazzled by God – to see so much glory or majesty or distance or power that we, perhaps, miss the point. In this story where Jesus and his disciples climb the mountain, something astounding happens – so astounding that the disciples do not know what to make of it. Jesus is transfigured – changed – morphed – yet all that dazzling glory gets in the way. The disciples are afraid – who wouldn’t be? Rather than leaning in, paying attention to what is going on on that blazing mountain, they step back. They want to contain the experience, by building shelters, erecting tents, hiding away this thing so glorious that they can barely stand it. They are so missing the point that God has to shout out from the cloud, Hey you! Stop running around! THIS is my Son, the one I love. Listen to him!

Jesus stands there with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. Both Moses and Elijah acted for God when things were bad for the people – Moses was the liberator who brought the people out of Egypt, the one who put up with their grumbling in the wilderness, the one who told them how God wanted them to live. Elijah, the man of God, lived when the people were ruled by corrupt kings and were tempted to worship other gods. Both Moses and Elijah are massive figures in Jewish memory and imagination. Jesus is standing on that mountaintop with the A Team, definitely.

But think on this: neither Moses nor Elijah got to the finish line. Moses died, having seen the Promised Land to which he was leading the people, but not able to cross over. Our story today, about Elijah leaving earth in the chariot of fire, is a story also of not being finished. There is more work to do, and Elisha, Elijah’s successor, feels unready to take up the task. What does is say that Jesus stands there with these two mighty ones?

This story is smack dab in the middle of the Gospel of Mark. From this point onward, Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem. Soon after these verses, Jesus tells the disciples the hard news of what they will face: the confrontations with the powers, the heavy burden of the cross, the inevitable suffering and death.

The disciples no more want to listen to this hard news than they can comprehend the dazzling glory of the mountain. Listening to Jesus now involves much more than they counted on when they became his disciples.
We are about to enter Lent; the church has always put this lesson of Jesus on the mountaintop, of God shouting out, “Listen to him,” on this Sunday before the beginning of Lent.

Lent is the time, then, when we are to be listening to God. When we are supposed to be paying attention to what God is doing in the world. In that sense, then, Lent is the season of solidarity. It is the season when we pay attention to what is going on – when we notice who is sick and in need of healing. When we notice what is out of whack in the world, what needs to be restored. When we listen to the cries and whispers, the hopes and dreams, of God’s people, the people God has put in our care.

Lent is the time we listen to Jesus. We try out that heavy cross a little bit. We pay attention to that dazzling glory. And we wait, in the days of lengthening daylight, for the great time of trial that lies ahead. Listen.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Last Epiphany preview ...

A blog to which I subscribe, Feminist Theology in an Age of Fear and Hope, has a particularly good post for this Sunday, February 19, the Last Sunday after Epiphany. The lessons for this Sunday are always those of Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, The writer of this post says:

No doubt mystical moments, when we are able to perceive them as such, sustain and deepen our faith. But more often we live in a world of skeptics, or as Mark is fond of saying, a world in which we fail to see God’s presence around us.

She then cites a perceptive writer about church life and development, Diana Butler Bass, reflecting on just how skeptical people around us are of "organized religion" -- like the religion we practice Sunday after Sunday. Part of our mission, our calling, is to find the words to reach people yearning for the things we are yearning for, and to invite them into our religious practice. How do we tell them that we find this place sustaining and hopeful? How do we engage with the world that so desperately needs abundance and blessing -- how do we do something significant and transformative for the community around us?

Our Lenten Wednesday night study will concern these very questions, as we engage with author Phyllis Tickle, and her ideas about "The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why." (Wednesdays starting February 29, and ending April 4 -- 5:30 p.m. supper, 6:30 Evening Prayer, 6:45 Phyllis Tickle discussion.) You don't need a book, unless you want to read further; Tickle's presentations will be on dvd -- wide screen!!

Read the post for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, in prayer, and preparation.
see you in church

Monday, February 13, 2012

God works from places that surprise us

Epiphany 6-B             Feb. 12, 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30
I Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Many years ago when I lived in New York, a woman frequently stood outside of Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue. Over and over again, she would shout in a monotone, “Help me I have cerebral palsy!” This was so disturbing on so many levels. She was an embarrassing reminder of dis-ease and dis-order. Passers-by probably had no idea what they could do to help. Other people, medical people, people perhaps with cerebral palsy themselves, people who had made strides to understand this disease, and bring it under control, and live their own lives with wholeness, were similarly dismayed – perhaps by the woman’s unabashed vulnerability, perhaps by her seeming unwillingness to seek the help available to her that would make a difference.

Leprosy, which today we call Hansen’s Disease, is treatable. We know what Jesus did not know: that this is a disease so treatable that people who contract it can be cured by antibiotics. But like the people in the ancient world, where our two stories of healing come from, we know that dis-ease is a sign of a disordered creation. Something in God’s good creation has gone awry, and cries out to be restored.

Also, today, like in the ancient world, we know that the healing of disease is something powerful, and when we don’t understand what is going on, we may feel things are moving too far and too fast, that things are getting out of control.

Naaman was a really powerful man. He was the general of a conquering army. The Bible says that even God thought well enough of Naaman and his skill as a general that God gave victory to this enemy of Israel. Aram, the homeland of Naaman, is today called Syria.

Naaman, despite his success and prowess, has a flaw: he has leprosy. This is apparently not a secret; even the conquered slaves knew this, and one of them, an unnamed girl, dares to speak up and offer a solution. Naaman could be cured, she says, by a prophet in conquered Israel.

This revelation prompts the King of Aram to send a negotiator to the King of Israel, to plead for his friend. This approach of power-broker to power-broker does not work. The king of Israel does not trust this request to help his enemy.

Like the unnamed captive girl, who offers her solution through the back door, Elisha, the man of God – not the man of “the king” – similarly breaks through the official denials. “Let him in,” he says. “Let him learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

Receiving healing must be a difficult thing. It is hard even for Naaman, who must want so much to be cleansed from this terrible disease, to drop his defenses and take Elisha’s advice to plunge into the healing waters of the Jordan. God’s mercy, and’s God’s abundance, know no bounds. Even the enemies of God’s people receive the overflowing abundance of God’s blessings.

The Gospel gives us another story about Jesus healing someone – also a leper, like Naaman the Syrian. Jesus, fresh from his experiences near Peter’s home in Capernaum, is moved – some versions say by pity, others by anger, or revulsion – and then, like Elisha, Jesus makes the man clean. To be clean, to be healed, is to be restored to society, and so Jesus sends the man to the Temple, where he can be proclaimed as a sign that God’s reign -- with its made-new-once-again community, restored, as Naaman’s skin like the flesh of a young boy – has begun.

There is a power unleashed in these healings that cannot be controlled – certainly not by humans, and we suspect, not even by Jesus. After healing the man from his leprosy, he becomes stern with him. Jesus does not want public acclaim.

Listen to these verses from the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, from another episode early in Jesus’ ministry. He had just taught a lesson from the Torah in his Nazareth synagogue. All were astounded at his wisdom – “at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Acknowledging their praise, Jesus then said,
‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. …There were also many lepers* in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Like it or not, God worms God’s way into our midst. Captive girls speak words of wisdom. Oddball prophets say, sure, let in your enemy; give him a chance. When we ask God to heal us, we have no idea what to expect. We might think things will be the way they used to be, and all of a sudden we are in completely new territory. Someone is healed, someone else is threatened, and all of a sudden the whole world changes before our very eyes.

 Look at how God works: from beneath, below, around the corner, from the outside, from the place that surprises us. We may be like that girl who whispers in Naaman’s wife’s ear, or like Elisha who says, sure, let the enemy leader in. We too might be like that former leper, befriended by Jesus along the road, who, despite the risks that somebody powerful might be unhappy, finds it impossible to keep all this good news to ourselves.

We here at St. David’s are embarked on a new thing. Our Celebration of New Ministry was an occasion to pull out all the stops – to name blessings we didn’t even know that we had – to give thanks in the midst of the ordinary wilderness of our own lives, and, in the memorable words of Bishop Adams, to take all of this into the streets. A power has been unleashed here, and God only knows what wonderful, risky and exciting things we have in store.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Healing & Restoration: Party like the Messiah has already come

Epiphany 5 B    February 5, 2012
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21 
1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

When Jesus enters Simon’s house and goes to see Simon’s ailing mother-in-law, he is not going as a doctor making a house call. He does not ask about her symptoms, or take her vital signs, or make a diagnosis.
Jesus enters Simon’s house as the bringer of Good News: the reign of God is at hand, here, among us, right now.

Jesus enters Simon’s house having been baptized by John, having heard the fabric of the universe being ripped open when God anointed him for this mission.

Jesus enters Simon’s house having preached that this Good News is at hand so compellingly that a group of fishermen dropped their nets, left behind their livelihoods in the everyday world in order to follow Jesus the herald of the abundant world.

Jesus enters Simon’s house having been recognized in the synagogue by a spirit so powerful that it had trapped a man in madness, a spirit so happy in the world of the status quo that it was furious to be exposed and dislodged.

Jesus enters Simon’s house on the Sabbath, and he knows right away that the divine order of abundance, and refreshment, and hospitality has gone very, very awry. Simon’s mother-in-law is ill, and without her, the Sabbath community will not be complete.

Jesus enters Simon’s house as the bringer of restoration. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth – that this is the way that God has always intended you to live?

Years ago a rabbi friend told me that during the Sabbath, that one day out of seven, that one-seventh in the life of a faithful Jew, you live as though the Messiah had already come. You live in a world without work, without worry, without toil. You rejoice in the beloved community of family and friends. There is always enough of everything to go around. This world of the Messiah is the world the prophet Isaiah describes, the promise that gives voice to all of our longings for a world that lives with all the blessings with which God created it.

So when Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, he is not doing that just so she will feel better and get up and serve them dinner. He is not working that miracle as a magician or a technician or just to show off.

When Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law it is a sign that the Sabbath has come, that the abundance of creation is now restored, that the reign of God is not only “at hand” but that it is here, right now. All those princes of oppression, those rulers of the world, truly are nothing in the face of this hospitality at the very root of humanity. Those who were excluded – like Simon’s ailing mother-in-law, and like all the other people Jesus will heal as the narrative of the Gospel of Mark continues – are now restored to this blessed community.

What Good News this is for all of the rest of us on the margins of this dog-eat-dog world, where we will never be pretty enough, or thin enough, or rich enough, or successful enough, or popular enough.

What Good News this is for people who get beaten up by the police because they looked at some officer the wrong way, for people who have to stand in line on the sidewalk just to get a hot meal, for people whose only respite in life is a five-dollar bag of heroin.

What Good News this is for people who whine, and carry on, and think they will never be able to reach down deep enough in their pockets to find the resources they need to live the abundant life God has promised them.

What Good News this is that Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, because now she can rise and rejoin her family, and the party can go on.
Have you not heard?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Tearing up the status quo

Epiphany 4 B    January 29, 2012
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28


That is the sound that opens and closes the Gospel of Mark. It is the sound of the heavens tearing open as Jesus is baptized, and it is the sound of the curtain in the temple being torn in two as Jesus dies on the cross.


That is the soundtrack Mark gives us to Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus is breaking through – Jesus breaks every barrier that gets in the way of us, and the fullness and abundance of life which is how God would have us live. Jesus is the last, and most effective, of all the prophets God sent our way. Straight from Deuteronomy to that synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the shoot that grows from the root of Jesse, is God’s ancient promise of a new beginning, the anointed leader who will begin it all again as the new David.[i] Will we finally get it right this time? Will we finally believe God’s promise that we will have life, and have it abundantly? That everyone will have it abundantly?

Things move right along in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus invited the fishermen to follow him, and they go right from the beach to the synagogue. Mark does not record what Jesus said in the synagogue, or what texts he read from; all that matters to Mark is that Jesus conveyed authority, and the first test of that authority comes when someone in the congregation rises up and challenges him. Something that Jesus has said has provoked the demons inside of him. This is a man who must have been otherwise unremarkable, a regular participant; only the “clean” could have been admitted to the synogogue. What was it about Jesus that the unclean spirit that he could have otherwise controlled screamed? What status quo, which kept this man together, was so threatened by Jesus that he had to cry out?

If we read this story literally, about someone who was crazy, or demon-possessed like in those sensational exorcism movies, then I think we miss the point. Although anyone who has ever been really ill will tell you that medicine is more of an art than a science, we human beings do understand more of how the natural world works than the ancients did. Our God-given curiosity and ability to figure things out has enabled us to make more sense out of things that were incomprehensible mysteries to our ancestors in faith. The people in the synagogue in Capernaum believed in a world of powerful spirits – spirits which were more powerful than humans, but less powerful than God – spirits that took over people’s lives, paralyzed them, prevented them from living with their families, prevented them from making a living, spirits that exploded from them in uncontrollable ways. When Jesus rebuked and silenced the spirit in the man in the synagogue, he demonstrated a power that was more than human, that was more even than these spirits. He demonstrated a power that proved that he was closer to God.

Remember: we are only in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has collected a few followers, and said some things in the synagogue that are beginning to get attention – some positive, some negative. We do know something about Jesus’ context: that he has allied himself with John the Baptist, whose words of prophecy have attracted people who are yearning to change the status quo, who are yearning to break free from the restrictions of the society they live in. Up until this point, the proclamations of the Good News – that there is a different way to live – have been only promises. With what happened in the synagogue, people now see that these promises have real power behind them. Something real has happened.
Let’s shift gears, then, to our reality.

This congregation is in pretty good shape. With the Annual Meeting next week, and the celebration of new ministry the week after that, we have the opportunity right now to take stock of who we are, what we have, and where we want to go. A few weeks ago I showed you a map of the spiritual geography of the Gospel of Mark; that map is on the bulletin board in the hall. Today, we are going to make our own map: we are going to map our assets. And since are assets are blessings, are all the things that God has given us, this will be a map of our spiritual geography. This map of our assets will point us in a particular direction. Maps have signs, so think about it: what signs have you seen lately of God’s grace in the world? In this place?

[i] Richard Swanson, in Provoking the Gospel of Mark, quoted in Kate Matthews Huey,