Sunday, March 29, 2009

5 Lent


March 29, 2009

Psalm 51.1-12; John 12.20-33

When I was in graduate school, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing, we had to have our work critiqued in writer’s workshops. These workshops were places in which we submitted our stories or poems, everyone read them and then brought them back with comments. It was a great experience—as difficult as they were—because they helped one see what areas needed work in a poem or story.

One of the things we looked for in a story were called “loose ends.” A “loose end” was usually a strain of a story that was never resolved. We were introduced to a character or situation and then, we never encounter the character again or the situation was just sort left hanging.

In our Gospel story today, we find a loose end. In our story, we find these Greeks looking for Jesus. The loose end of this story is that we never discover if they found him or not. The author doesn’t tell us. We find no resolve to this story of the Greeks seeking Jesus. However, despite it being a loose end, it does pack some meaning. What’s great about scripture is that even a loose end can have purpose.

One interpretation of this story is that that the Greeks—as Gentiles—were not allowed to “see” Jesus until he was lifted up on the Cross. Only when he has been “lifted up from the earth,” as he tells us this morning will he “draw all people to [himself].” Jesus’ message at the time of their approaching the apostles is still only to the Jews. But when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, at that moment, he is revealed to all. At that moment, the veil is lifted. The old Law of the Jews has died—the curtain in the Temple has been torn in half—and now Jesus is given for all.

It’s certainly an interesting and provocative take on this story. And it’s especially interesting for us, as well, who are seeking to “find Jesus” in our own lives. And like those Greeks, we are not always certain if we will find him—at least at this moment.

Certainly, this past week, many of us were seeking Jesus in various ways. This past week was a week of anxiety and fear. It felt like a war zone here in Fargo and Moorhead. Helicopters were flying over. Sirens blared incessantly. The earthen dikes rose and streets were blocked off. Increasingly, we became isolated from the rest of the world as the waters rose. It felt as though we were preparing for the invasion of an army. Or for Armageddon. On Thursday, in the grocery store, I overhead a woman say, “It feels like the end of the world.” And there were moments when it certainly felt that way.

Now, at this equally uncertain moment, we are in a holding pattern. We are here, waiting… And sometimes the waiting is more excruciating that the preparing. When we are preparing, we are doing something. But when we are waiting, we are susceptible to our fears and anxieties coming to the surface. In this moment, we are certainly living with a huge amount of uncertainty. The waters have risen up around us. We are living in a precarious moment—a moment that can change at the blink of an eye. It is frightening and downright exhausting to be living this way. And in this moment, it is sometimes hard to see Christ in it. We have been frightened and scared and anxious in these last days.

But we can take hope in one sound fact: this story of our seeking Christ is not a loose end. Our story is actually resolved. We do find Christ in moments like this. In some ways, we are like those Greeks in this moment. We too are looking for some light, some hope, in this difficult time. But unlike them, we actually find Jesus. Just as Jesus could not allow himself to be revealed to the Gentiles until he was revealed on the Cross, so, to some extent, is that is the case with us now. For us, we are looking for Jesus and we too are finding Jesus as the crucified Christ. We are finding the crucified Jesus in the faces of all of us who are being affected by the flood. We are finding the crucified Jesus in the faces of those who have lost their homes or are in danger of losing their homes. We are finding the crucified Jesus in the faces of those anxious and frightened people we see scurrying around us. We are seeing the crucified Jesus in the faces of all those workers—those truck drivers, cops, sandbaggers, and all the others who are working, day and night. We see the crucified Jesus in the faces of the National Guard soldiers who are keeping order and peace. We are seeing the crucified Jesus in the face that is staring back at us—tired and frightened—in the mirror.

Jesus is often revealed to us in moments and in ways we do not expect. Jesus often reveals himself to us in surprising ways that shock us and jar us and shake us from our complacency. And what more shocks us, and jars us and shakes us than to see someone crucified—crucified on a cross, but also crucified by their fears, by their anxieties, by the uncertainly of the future.

In this moment, we also find that we are helpless as well. We have no control over nature. We have no control over the waters that rage or the snow that comes to us in late spring, over the thaw that happens too quickly for our comfort. And we have no control over God’s power in our life. In moments like this we do what we can and then we leave the rest to God. We find ourselves in these uncertain moments doing something we don’t want to—something that is against our nature to do. We find ourselves trusting. We trust that the dikes will hold. We trust that the levees will hold. We trust that the waters will crest and slowly subside. We trust that this too will pass away. And we trust that, even if the worst happens, we too will survive this. We trust, knowing that no matter what this life throws at us—storms, or floods or even the Cross—God is in control and God will bring about good even when it seems like no good can come from the bad things of our lives. God is in control. And all will be well.

In a moment like this we might find ourselves echoing Jesus’ words: “my soul is troubled.” But rather, we can take to heart the words of this morning’s psalm. We too can pray to God:

Make me hear of joy and gladness*
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

We find here two images there that we can cling to—much as we would cling to life preservers in the water. The first is that image of joy and gladness. In moments like this emotions like joy and gladness seem far from us. Yet, despite what goes on around us, despite the crosses of this life, even then we still find joy and gladness deep within us. This is a joy in knowing that no matter what happens in this life we are take care of. Or to be more specific, we are sustained.

The second image we can cling to from our psalm is the idea of a broken body rejoicing. Moments like this do break us. They break us spiritually, emotionally and physically sometimes. But we also know that just because we’re broken doesn’t mean we’re out. The Cross is the ultimate proof of that. When the Cross is held up to us, the first reaction is of horror. This is what brokenness truly is. Nothing can been more shattered and broken than that body, nailed to that wood. But if we look closer, we realize that truly that broken body is a reason to rejoice. In the midst of that defeat there is ultimate victory.

To build off this image, we find Jesus in today’s Gospel, saying: “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls on the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In these moments in which we seem to be broken down, when we seemed to have died a bit—emotionally or spiritually, because fear and anxiety are symptoms of hopelessness, which is a form of death—we find that we can still bear fruit. God still works even through the negative things life throws at us.

So, as difficult as it might seem, allow joy to live in you and through you. Find a joy that will sustain you despite what nature or humans or life throws your way. And if we do, if we allow that fruit to flourish with in us, we will find that our story is not a loose ending. We will find that we are sustained, in joy and gladness, even through the difficult times. And we will find ourselves renewed, with a right sprit within us.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

4 Lent



March 22, 2009

Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-21

I realized the other day that, during this season of Lent, we often ignore the so-called “elephant in the room.” The elephant, in this case, is, of course that ugly word and that ugly concept—Sin.

I know, we don’t want to hear about it. Most of us have had to sit through countless number of hours listening to priests and preachers go on and on about sin. Many of us have had it driven into us and pounded into us and we just don’t want to hear it anymore. Let’s face it, sin frightened us when were younger and heard those preachers preaching at us, because we were told that we were all sinful and that unless we got rid of our sin—ultimately, an impossible task—we would go to hell. But the fact is, we can’t get through this season of Lent without at least acknowledging it. Certainly, I as your priest, would be neglecting my duty if I didn’t at least mention it.

Besides, whenever there’s an elephant in the room, I like to face it. And in facing the elephant, we sometimes realize the power we thought that elephant had has been overcome.

Also, I think most preachers today, certainly most Episcopal preachers, are wary of preaching about sin. We’re often afraid we might offend. Or worse, we’re afraid what we say may hit too close to home and we might come across as hypocrites. Or often times, people just don’t believe in sin anymore. But as much as we try to avoid it and speak around it or ignore it, for those of us who are Christians, we just can’t. We can say we don’t believe in it, but that doesn’t get rid of it. We live in a world in which there is war and crime and recession and morally bankrupt people and, in looking at all of those things, we must face the fact that sin—people falling short of their ideal—is all around us.

And during this season of Lent, we find ourselves facing sin all the time. It’s there in our scripture readings. It’s there in our liturgy. It’s just…there.

I certainly have struggled with this issue in my life. I don’t like preaching about sin. I would rather not do it.

But…I have found myself thinking about it a lot this Lenten season. And part of it has to do with the fact that I have been reading this Lent a fascinating book. The book is called Christ of the Celts by the modern Celtic scholar, J. Philip Newell. Newell begins his book with a very interesting definition of sin. Newell quotes the ninth century Celtic scholar John Scotus Eriugena as saying that sin is “an infection,” a “leprosy of the soul.” Newell writes:

“And just as leprosy distorts the human face and makes it appear grotesque and ugly, so sin distorts the countenance of the soul and makes it appear monstrous, so much so that we come to believe that is the face of the human soul.”

Newell goes on to write, “And just as leprosy is a disease of insensitivity, of loss of feeling, so sin leads us into an insensitivity to what is deepest within us, and more and more we treat one another as if were not made in the image of God.”

He refers once again to Eriugena who “makes the point that in the gospel story when Jesus heals the lepers, he does not give them new faces. Rather he restores them to their true faces and to the freshness of their original countenances.”

In other words, so many people tend to define us by the sins we commit—the define us by illness—the spiritual leprosy within us—rather than by the people we really are underneath the sin. And that person we are underneath is truly a person created in the image of God. Sin, if we look it as a kind of illness, like leprosy or any other kind of sickness, truly does do these things to us. It desensitizes us, it distorts us, it makes us less than who were are. It blots out the image of God in which we were created. And like a sickness, we need to understand the source of the illness to truly get to heart of the matter.

Alexander Schmemann, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, wrote, “Essentially all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride. If we are honest with ourselves, if we are blunt with ourselves, if we look hard at ourselves, we realize that, in those moments in which we have failed ourselves, when we have failed others, when we have failed God, the underlying issues can be found in either our pride or in our flesh.

Certainly, in this season of Lent, we find ourselves pondering our sins. It is a time when we take into account where we have failed in ourselves, in our relationship with God and in our relationship with each other. But it is never a time to despair. It is never a time to beat ourselves up over the sins we have committed. It is rather a time for us to buck up. It is a time in which we seek to improve ourselves. It is a time in which, acknowledging those negative aspects of ourselves, we strive to rise above our failings. To use the Celtic image, it is a time for us to seek healing for the leprosy of our souls. And, in seeking, we do find that healing. We find that healing in, to use the language of Martin Luther, “the long dark shadow of the Cross.”

The Cross is more than just a symbol for us. It is more than just a decoration we put in our churches on our pews and altars. It is more than just jewelry we wear. J. Philip Newell tells us, “[the Cross] is a revelation of the Presence [of God] at the heart of the universe. It reveals the greatest truth, that we will keep our heart only by giving our heart away, that we will find ourselves only by losing ourselves to love, that we will gain salvation only by spreading our arms wide for one another and for the earth, and that we will be saved together, not in separation.”

In the Cross, we find our healing.

In the Celtic tradition we find the so-called “Celtic Cross.” We, at St. Stephen’s, are fortunate to have a Celtic Cross above our altar. A Celtic Crosss is a cross with a ring surrounding the intersection. According to some defintions, that circle symbolizes eternity. It symbolizes God’s love showing through the death ofJesus on that cross. It also symbolizes for us the unending cycle of death and resurrection, of that fact that even though Jesus died a horrible death on that instrument of murder, God still triumphed—life still triumphed over death. The Celtic Cross is a very potent symbol for us in our healing. Gazing upon the cross, as those Israelites gazed upon the bronze serpent that Moses held up to them, we find ourselves healed. And as we are healed, as we find our sins dissolved by Christ on the cross, we come to an amazing realization. We realize that we are not our sins. And our sins are not us. Our sins are no more us, than our illnesses are.

For those of us who have had serious illnesses, when we are living with our illness, we can easily start believing that our sickness and our very selves are one and the same. When I was had cancer seven years ago, there were moments of despair and frustration. There were moments, as I lived with that illness within me, when I couldn’t see where the illness ended and where I began. We had become bound to each other in a way that I despised and hated.But now, as I look back at that time, I realize I wasn’t my cancer. For those of us who have had serious illness, it is a good thing for us to ponder and look back at our illness. It is important for our healing process to ask ourselves: how did it happen? Why did it happen? How can I prevent from it happening again?

The same is true of sin. In this seasons of Lent, it is important for us to ponder the sickness of our sins, to examine what we have done and what we have failed to do and to consider how we can prevent it from happening again. But, like our illnesses, once we have been healed, once our sins have been forgiven and they no longer have a hold over us, we do realize that, as scarred as we have been, as deeply destroyed as we thought we were by what we have done and not done, we have found that, in our renewal, we haven’t been given new faces. We haven’t been changed into some kind of super beings. We haven’t been instantly transformed magically into angels or saints. Rather, our regular familiar faces, scarred and destroyed as they were, have been restored and renewed. Our spiritual face, that essence of who we are and what we are to others and to ourselves, has been made into what they were intended to be—into something beautiful. Our faces, in which we can reflect the image of Christ to others, can show that image without flaw or shame or embarrassment. In the shadow of the cross, we are able to see ourselves as people freed and liberated in Christ. We are able to rejoice in the fact that we are not our failures. We are not what we have failed to do. But in the shadow of the cross we see that we are loved and we are healed and we are cherished. Once we recognize that, then we too can turn our faces toward each other, glowing with that image of Christ imprinted upon us, and we too can love and heal and cherish.

See, sin does not have make us despair. When we despair over sin, sin wins out. Rather, we can work on ourselves, we can improve ourselves, we can rise above our failings and we can then reflect Christ to others and even to ourselves.

So, let us gaze at the cross, held up to us as a sign of our healing God. Let our faces and our souls be healed. And, in doing so, let us reflect that healing to others so they too can be healed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

3 Lent


March 15, 2009

Exodus 20.1-17; John 2.13-22

The other evening I had a few friends over to the rectory for a bit of a soiree. During the course of the evening, one of my guests commented on how beautiful the rectory looks. She then said, “Isn’t it so much easier to keep a place clean without too much clutter?”

In a sense, that’s what this whole season of Lent is about, isn’t it? During Lent, we strive to get rid of the clutter. Clutter is that stuff in our lives—and “stuff” is the prefect word for it—that just piles up. We start ignoring our clutter. We don’t give it a second thought, even when we’re tripping over it and stumbling on it. In fact, often we don’t fully realize how much clutter we have until after we’ve disposed of it. When we see that clean, orderly room, we realize only then how clutter sort of made us lose our appreciation for the beauty of the room itself.

In Lent, what we dispose of us is the clutter of our spiritual lives. And we all have it. We have those things that “get in the way.” We have our habits. We have those things that we do without even thinking. And oftentimes, they’re not good for it—or at least they don’t enhance our spiritual lives.

Often the clutter in our spiritual lives gets in the way of our prayer life, our spiritual discipline, our relationship with God. The clutter in our spiritual life truly becomes something we find ourselves tripping over. The clutter in our spiritual life causes us to stumble occasionally. And when it does, we find our spiritual life less than what it should be.

During Lent, it is an important time to take a look around us. It is important to actually see the spiritual clutter in our lives and to clear it away.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus going into the temple and clearing out the clutter there. He sweeps the Temple clean, because he knows that the clutter of the merchants who have settled there are not enhancing the beauty of the Temple. They are not helping people in their relationship to God. Rather, these merchants are there for no spiritual reasons at all, ultimately. They are there for gain and for nothing else.

In a sense, we need to let Jesus come in and clean out the merchants in our lives as well. We need to have the Temple of our bodies cleaned. We need to sweep it clean and, in doing so, we will find our spirituality a little more finely tuned. We will find our prayer life a more fulfilling. We will find our time at Eucharist more meaningful. We will find our encaging of scripture to be more edifying. We will find our service to others to be a bit more selfless and purposeful than it was before.

It is a matter of simplifying our lives. It is matter of recognizing that in our relationship with God and one another, we don’t need the clutter—we don’t need those things that get in the way. There are enough obstacles out there. There will always be enough “stuff” falling into our pathways, enough ”things” for us to stumble over. Without the clutter in our lives, it IS easier to keep our spiritual lives clean. Without the clutter in our life, we find things are just…simpler.

How do we do this? Well, the answer is really no further than our scripture from the Old Testament for today. God lays it on the line for Moses on Mount Sinai. And each commandment that God gives Moses is really a matter of housekeeping. It is a matter of cleaning up the messes in the Israelites’ lives. Rather than the clutter of gods you have worshipped, worship only the One God. You shall respect this God by respecting God’s Name. You shall, in a sense, honor, love and worship this One God. Likewise, God cleans up the messes of their relationship with one another.

Love God. Love your neighbor. And if you do these things—if you don’t disrespect your neighbor, if you honor your mother and father, if shall not commit adultery, or steal or bear false witness, or covet your neighbor’s house or spouse or anything that belongs to your neighbor, you will be living the life that was intended for you. In a sense, we are not living the living the life intended for us when we allow our lives to mucked up. When we complicate our relationship with God with allowing the other gods in—the idols and gods we worship in our daily life—our lives become complicated. When we disrespect others—when we curse or are jealous or strike out against others—our lives become complicated and difficult. What we need to do is sweep out the junk, the trivial things, the dust and dirt that have accumulated in our lives and live in that simplicity that God intends for us.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also find that the Temple Jesus is cleaning out and cleansing serves its purpose for now, but even it will be replaced with something more perfect and something, ultimately, more simple. It will be replaced by something that will not need to cleansed. It will be replaced with something that will not be cluttered. It will be replaced with the Temple of the Body of Christ. And it will be here that we will find our true worship. It is here that will be find a true and living Temple of our living God. And, in a sense, our own bodies become temples of this living God because of what Jesus did. Our bodies also become the dwelling places of that one, living God.

Which brings us back to Lent. In this season of Lent, we become mindful of this fact. Our bodies are the temples of that One, living God. And as such, in this season, we find ourselves cleansing the temple. We find our selves examining our selves, looking closely at this things over which we trip and stumble. And we work on ourselves a bit. We work at trying to simplify our lives—our actual, day-to-day lives, as well as our spiritual lives. We spend time in prayer, in allowing that living God to dwell within us and enlighten us. We fast—emptying our bodies purifying our selves. We recognize the wrongs we have done to ourselves, to others. We realize that we have allowed the clutter to build up. We realize we have not loved God or our neighbors. Or even ourselves. Or we have loved ourselves too much, and not God and our neighbors enough.

Once we have eliminated the spiritual clutter of our lives, we do truly find our God dwelling with us. We find ourselves worshipping in that Body of Christ that cannot be cluttered. We find a certain simplicity and beauty in our lives that comes only through spiritual discipline and a concentrate effort to improve ourselves.

So, as we continue our journey through Lent, let us allow Jesus to take up the cords and go through the temple of ourselves. Allow Jesus to clear away the clutter of your lives. Allow Jesus to cleanse the temple of your self and make it like the Temple of his own Body. And you will find yourself proclaiming, with Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” for it will.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

2 Lent


March 8, 2009

Mark 8.31-38

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus explaining to us in very blunt words what it means to be a disciple. Hopefully, those of us who have gained any sort of maturity as Christians have come to the realization that being a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean being happy and cheerful all the time. Trust me. I know too many of these kind of Christians. These are the people who think being a Christian means having bright sunny days every day. They think every day is some Technicolor musical from the 1950s, where everything just works out for the best in the end. And when it doesn’t work out that way, they despair and lose faith. They rail at God and shake their fists at eh sky and cry to God, “Why?”

Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be joyful Christians. Yes, we should be filled with a deep and sincere joy. But, as the old song goes, no one promised us a rose garden. Nowhere in scripture have we been promised that life is going rosy and sweet all the time. Being a Christian means not always strolling around in comfort and joy in arose garden. As we are reminded in this season of Lent and especially in that week preceding Easter, being a Christian means following Jesus wherever he goes. And where he goes is not to the rose garden. It is to the garden of Gethsemane—to that place where he too would feeling anguish, where too would sweat blood, where he too would cry out to God.

Being a disciple means following Jesus. Now when we initially think of this, we no doubt have marvelous images of following Jesus as enraptured students following a great teacher. Certainly, I think, most of us would like to follow Jesus much the same way Buddhists get to follow the Buddha, or even Muslims get to follow Mohammed. Following in this sense is having a student-teacher relationship to some extent. We would like to take the best of his teachings, hold them close to our hearts and try to live them out in our lives the best way we can. Which is very, very good. We should try to do that as followers of Jesus. But being a follower of Jesus means doing just that, but also doing more.

Our relationship with Jesus is more than just a student-teacher relationship. Our relationship with Jesus is more like lovers. We love Jesus. Jesus loves us. And it is that love that drives us to follow Jesus wherever he goes. It is that love that makes us feel the anguish he feels. It is that love that makes us suffer with him. It is that love that makes us bleed with him. It means following Jesus not just through the moments of teaching ministry, not just through the miracles he performed. It means following him through the dark days of his last week, through the blood and excruciating moments of his dying. It means that, like him, our love for him causes us take up our crosses and follow him wherever he might go.

Jesus knew, as we find in our Gospel reading for today, that he there were certain things he had to do. He had to “undergo great suffering.” He had to be killed. He understood that fully. He in turn tells us that we too must realize that we will have to bear our share of suffering in this life. We too will have to take up our own crosses.

Now, to be fair, this statement about taking up our crosses needs to be examined a bit. The cross being referenced here might not be what we instantly think it is. Reginald Fuller, the great Anglican theologian, believed that the Greek word used for cross here—stauros—actually might not necessarily have meant the cross on which one was executed. Rather, he believed that it might actually mean the tau (the T) and chi (the X) that was used as a sign of ownership to brand cattle. This adds a very interesting dimension to this scripture. The brand of the cross that we must bear becomes God’s seal upon us. And when we look beyond the events of Good Friday, we realize that the cross on which Jesus died truly does become the brand we must bear upon ourselves as Christians as well. Even the thought of a brand is not a pleasant thought. Brands are painful, after all. And brands cannot be undone. They mark us forever. That is what the cross does to us.

Most of us probably don’t give a second thought to the crosses we see in our lives. We see this mighty symbol of Christian faith everywhere we turn sometimes. Crosses mark the steeples of our churches. We place them on our altars. We cover them in gold and silver and bronze. We wear them around our necks, or put them as magnets on our cars. We sanitize them and make them into something pleasing. But we don’t really THINK about the cross and what it is. We don’t see it as the symbol of pain and torture that it is. We certainly don’t see it as a brand upon us. We don’t see it as that place on which Jesus—as well as countless other people throughout history—were brutally murdered. The modern equivalent of the cross for us would be a hangman’s noose, or a lethal injection gurney. The cross is a symbol of degradation and physical, emotional and spiritual pain.

This is what we are marked with as Christians. This is what defines us and makes us who we are. And as such, the cross should be always before us—whether we want it to be or not. Because if it is, it is the reminder to us that following Jesus doesn’t just mean following him through the rose gardens of our lives. It means, following him all the way to that cross. It means taking up our own crosses and staggering with him along that path. It means sweating with him in the garden of Gethsemane. It means crying out with him in anguish. It means feeling with him the humiliation and loneliness of being betrayed. But, it also means following him to the very end.

Just as the cross is a symbol of death and torture and pain—it is, for us Christians, also the symbol of the temporal nature of those things. The cross is the doorway through those awful things, to the glory that awaits us beyond the cross. The cross is the way we must travel, we must carry, we must be marked with, if we wish to share in the glory that awaits us beyond the cross. And this brings us to probably the most difficult part of our passage in today’s Gospel. Jesus is blunt about the fact that those who refuse to bear the cross, to follow Jesus, to unashamedly be a follower of Jesus will be ashamed when the glory breaks through upon us. The shame of the cross will be turned back upon those who refused to follow Jesus through the shame of the cross.

Now, I said earlier that no one promised us a rose garden in scripture. I should revise that. While we might not have been promised a rose garden, we have been offered glory. It has been offered to us. It comes to us, when we follow Jesus. It comes to us when we let our love for Jesus lead us through the dark and frightening places this world can throw at us. If we let that love guide us, if we let ourselves be led by Jesus, we will find true and unending glory awaiting us.

So, as we encounter the crosses of our lives—and we will—as we allow ourselves to branded with the cross, as we allow our love for Jesus to lead us into places we might not want to go, let us do so with the realization that glory has been offered to us. When we look at the crosses we see around—on the churches, around our necks, on our altars, let us see those crosses tinged in the light of glory. And when we do, will know that there will be no shame for us. We will not be ashamed when Jesus comes in glory to us, with the holy angels, and offers us that place of refreshment and unending joy.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

1 Lent


March 1, 2009

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

Well, here we are on the First Sunday in Lent and no doubt people were prepared to come to church and hear gloom and doom in their scripture readings for today. But not so. Instead, we got water, Noah and the ark and baptism. What a great way to begin Lent. We begin Lent as we begin any important step as Christians—with solid footing in our baptismal understanding. We begin Lent with a remembrance of the covenant we formed with God at our baptisms—a covenant that is still binding on us, even now. This covenant is a covenant very much like the covenant God made with Noah after the waters of the flood. On this first Sunday of Lent, we should be rejoicing in our baptismal covenant.

And today, we also get another special treat. In our Gospel reading, we get, in a very brief scripture, an upheaval. What? You missed the upheaval in our Gospel reading? You missed the reversal? You missed, in that deceptively simple piece of scripture, a mirror image? It’s easy to miss, after all. Our Gospel reading is so simple, so sparse. But then again, so is haiku. So are koans. But let’s look a little closer at what we’ve just heard and read.

In today’s Gospel, we find three elements that remind us of something else. We find the devil. We find animals. And we find angels. Where else in scripture do we find these same elements? The Creation story in Genesis, of course. The story of Adam is a story of the devil, of animals and of angels. But that story ends with the devil’s triumph and Adam’s defeat.

In today’s Gospel, it has all been made right. Jesus—the new Adam—has turned the tables using the same elements. We find Jesus not in a lush beautiful place like Eden. Rather we find Jesus with wild animals in the desert—animals who were created by God and named by Adam. We find him there waited on by the angels who turned Adam away from Eden. And there, in that place, he defeats the Devil who defeated Adam. I have found this juxtaposition between Adam and Jesus to be a rich source of personal meditation, because it really is very meaningful to us who follow Jesus. If we lived with the story of Adam, is we lived in the shadow of his defeat, the story a somewhat bleak one. There doesn’t seem to be much hope. The relationship ruined with Adam hasn’t been made right. But today we find that the relationship has been right. The story isn’t a story of defeat after all. It is isn’t a time to despair, but to rejoice. The Devil has been defeated. And this is important.

We, in our baptisms, also defeat the Devil. Now, by Devil, I am not necessarily talking about a supernatural being who rules the underworld. I’m not talking about the horns, forked tail and pitch fork. By Devil I mean the personification of all that we hold evil. In our baptisms, we defeat all the evil of this world and the next, be renouncing them. By renouncing the devil and all the evils of this world, we turn away from the evil inherent within us—the evil that was set upon us from the beginning—from Adam’s being turned away at Eden. Our baptism marks us and in that mark we find the strength to stand up against evil.

This time of Lent—this time for us in the desert, this time of fasting and mortification—is a time for us to confront the demons in our lives. We all have them. In our wonderful collect for today, we prayed to God to “come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations.” The poet that I am, I love the tradition language better here.

“Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations.”

We all understand that term “manifold temptations.” We all have those triggers in our lives that disrupt and cause upheaval. Sometimes this upheaval is mental and emotional, sometimes it is actual. We have our own demons, no matter what name we call them.

I certainly have my own demons in my life and sometimes I am shocked by the way they come upon me. I am amazed by how they lay me low and turn my life upside down. They represent for me everything dark and evil and wrong in my life and in the world around me. They are sometimes memories of wrongs done to me, or wrongs I’ve done to others. Sometimes they are the shortcomings of my own life—of being painfully reminded of the fact that I have failed and failed miserably at times in my life. They are reminders to me that this world is still a world of darkness at times—a world in which people and nature can hurt and harm and destroy. And their power and influence over my life is, I admit, very strong.

Trying to break the power of our demons sometimes involves going off into the deserts of our lives, breaking ourselves bodily and spiritually and, armed with those spiritual tools we need, confronting and defeating those powers that make us less than who we are.
For me, I do find consolation when I am confronted by the demons of my life in that covenant I have with God in my baptism. I am reminded by that covenant that there is no reason to despair when these demons come into our lives, because the demons, essentially, are illusions. They are ghosts. They are wispy fragments of my memory. They have no real power over me despite what they make think sometimes.

Because the demons have been defeated by God. Again, returning to our collect for today, we have prayed, “as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”

God has been “might to save” us. The demons of our lives have been defeated by our Baptismal Covenant. The real power they have over my life has been washed away in those waters, much as all evilness was washed away in the flood in Noah’s time.

So, as we wander about in the spiritual desert of Lent, let us truly be driven. Let the Spirit drive us into that place—to that place wherein we confront the demons of our lives. But let us do so unafraid. The Spirit is the driving force and, knowing that, we are strengthened. Let us be driven into that place. Let us confront our demons. Let us face the manifold temptations of our lives unafraid, knowing full well that God is “mighty to save.” And in confronting evil and temptation, let us, with Jesus, defeat those demons. Strengthened by our Baptismal Covenant let us then be able to return from this place, proclaiming loudly, by our words, and by our actions,

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”