Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, March 27, 2011 Exodus 17:1-7 “God Among Us”

Oh the people of Israel! What a bunch of complainers! They’re like a bunch of twelve and a half year olds. Wherever they are, they find something to complain about. And they always assume that God has nothing better to do than pay attention to them, and their myriad needs…

…and it’s an assumption based upon experience. Think about it. Earlier in their journey, they complained about the lack of food. What did God do? Suddenly there was manna and quail, more than they could possibly eat.

So now they’ve been complaining about the lack of water. Moses got to hear all the complaints, as if he was the babysitter of these troublesome pre-teens. They whined, “We want water! We’re thirsty! Get us water! Did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us off with thirst?”

And by this time, Moses was pretty tired of their continual complaints. So he did what he always did, as the intermediary between God and God’s people. He went to the boss and complained, too: “these people are ready to kill me – what shall I do?”

And God sighed – parents of preteens often do – and said, “Okay, go over to that rock over there and whack it with your staff – you know, the one you used to strike the Nile River and make all those plagues? – and watch and see. The water will come out of it, and they stop complaining.”

A psychologist might say that God and Moses had set up this pattern of complaint and indulgence, and might even say that is pretty unhealthy. Teaching people that they get what they want by complaining about it…we don’t do that today, do we?

The squeaky wheel still gets the grease, doesn’t it?

Poor Moses was left once again with that bitter taste in his mouth, as the person who got the brunt of it all, so he named the place “Despair and Strife Plaza,” the literal translations of Massah and Meribah, as a reminder of what royal pains the people were in that place, and how they tested God.

Now when the Israelites grumbled about how thirsty they were, I doubt they were thinking, “let’s test God.” No, I think they were grumbling and murmuring among themselves because their throats were parched, their animals looked like they were about to keel over, and no one had had a good wash-up in quite a while.

But it was a test of God, because in their minds, bad things were happening, and they were happening because Moses had led them out of Egypt (which they barely remembered as a place of slavery) at the command of their God and they saw nothing of the land they had been promised. They were tired and they saw no end in sight, and Moses was the one telling them that God was with them, but they never saw God…only Moses saw and conversed with God. Not a surprise that they had their doubts!

Now, God could have done something simpler in response to the people’s complaints. There might have suddenly been a pool of water that they came upon, an oasis. That happened periodically to people walking through the desert. It would have been less dramatic.

But God understood that something more dramatic was called for, because folks were forgetting that God was behind this journey. Folks were losing their faith in the midst of their everyday troubles like sore feet and sick relatives and not enough water. So he gave Moses instructions to use that staff that had been turned into a serpent, that staff that turned the Nile into a river a blood before Pharoah…a staff with history, a history of God’s power. “Hit the rock with the staff,” God said. “The water will flow from the rock.”

A dramatic gesture that would remind the grumbling Israelites of the presence and the power of God.

God not only provided water, God provided a reminder of God’s continual presence with them, even in the midst of troubles.

We need a reminder, too, especially in Lent.

Lent is only forty days long, and yet it too feels like a long walk in the desert. A dry and difficult time when we don’t sing songs of joy; we sing songs of our own failures and of the necessity for Jesus’ death to overcome those failures.

We feel the limitations in our hearts most poignantly, and we struggle to find a way to feel the coming redemption.

But Lent is not only this season; it is a state of the soul. We are sharply aware of our heart-sickness when we are dealing with our difficulties and tragedies. Losses of those who are dear to us: losses from death or from dementia; losses from divorce or other broken relationships; losses that simply result from time and distance. And in that moment we cry out to God: “I am thirsty. Where are you? Why aren’t you taking care of me?”

We grumble and cry, feeling isolated in our pain, wondering why God isn’t there for us, tending to us.

But God is.

It’s like the old joke about the fellow who was caught in a flash flood and asked God to save him. The fellow was a devout Christian and had no doubt that God would provide. So he climbed up onto his roof as the waters rose and he prayed. “Dear God, please come and save me from the flood!” After a while, an oversized truck came down his street, which was now awash with water. The driver said “Come on into the truck and I’ll get you out of here.” “No need! God will save me,” the fellow cried. An hour passed, and the water was now up past the porch and the downstairs windows. A neighbor came by in his bass boat and said, “Friend, come into the boat and I’ll take you to dry land.” And the fellow said, “No need! God will save me!” And more time passed, and the water got even higher, pouring into the upstairs windows. Scary! And then he heard the whirring of helicopter blades overhead and then he heard a voice coming from a helicopter hovering above. “We’re dropping down a rope ladder. Climb up and we’ll get you off that roof and take you to safety.” “No need! God will save me!” said the very damp and devout fellow. So the helicopter flew off to save someone else, and the water rose, and rose, and eventually the fellow was swept away…and he drowned in the roiling waters. He went up to heaven and presented himself to the Lord. “God, why didn’t you save me?” the fellow demanded. “What are you talking about?” God said. “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter!”

God is present. God sends us what we need to survive the troubles of life. We doubt, though, in the midst of our pain. We are not the only ones. Jesus himself, as he was dying on the cross, cried out “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani.”

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

When we are in our darkest Lenten moment, in the deep purple shadows of doubt and pain and loneliness, we cry out, “Where are you? I’m thirsty. I’m lonely. I’m in pain. Why have you forsaken me?”

And God responds in ways that may not immediately be attributable to the divine presence among us.

A friend who gives us a hug and cries with us. A casserole left on a porch. A flower arrangement or a card. An offer to take us out to lunch, or to walk the dog. Helicopters, trucks, and boats come in many shapes and sizes, don’t they?

These are the presence of God among us in our times of trouble. We don’t see God directly. We see God mediated through another human being, just as God’s presence among the Israelites was mediated by Moses.

God responds to the needs of humans in pain through other humans, humans like you. This parish is good at this. When someone is in trouble, you ask what you can do to help, in ways ranging from the extremely practical to the extremely spiritual. You send cards, you call, you drop off food, you offer to run errands. And most of all, you pray. And your actions and your prayers are like cool water flowing from a rock into the parched souls of those who need it.

In this Lenten season, when we remember the pain that Jesus suffered on the cross, when we remember that it was our brokenness that required his sacrifice, let us also remember that we can be a part of the redemption by being God’s presence in the world. We offer our generous hearts as the pump for God’s cool water, as the rock is broken open by God’s power.

God is with us, at all times. God is in us, too. Let’s not forget that.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Chair, A Bar, A Cat, and some Quiet

Doug is back from the Psychotherapy Networker Conference, full of good information and some lovely poetry from David Whyte. We had a quiet dinner, suitable for recovery from a long drive and much thinking: beef stew, rolls, salad, red wine. A square of dark chocolate to end with sweetness. It is good to have him home again.

It was good as well, though, to have some alone time in the house. It feels quite snug and safe, even in our sometimes iffy neighborhood, because of the security doors and the stout walls. And I was glad to have silence, only broken by the mewing of Spooky the Chemo Cat. Her meds have made her more active and noisy, and more craving of attention. Still, it was quiet and sweet.

I ran over to the office to do some paperwork and assemble my nifty new office chair, fresh from Guangdong, China, via Staples. A good chair at a good price - I like it!

Because Doug was away, there was no Friday night Date Night, as is our norm, but I went to our local pub for a glass of wine (nice simple Malbec) and a chicken quesadilla. It was full of Friday night noise and activity, but I found a spot at the bar - no reason for me to take up a two-top - and perched on a stool.

I don't much like perching. It always feels like I'm either spilling over both sides of the stool, or am about to fall off.

So I sat there somewhat precariously, waiting for my food, reading "The Year of Living Biblically" while all around me folks were busy violating the many many rules that AJ Jacobs was trying to adhere to in the book. Many F-bombs were dropped, and not just by those watching the UR Spiders getting beat by the Jayhawks. A man sitting on my right (dark, small, may have been from Malaysia or someplace like that) said to me, "You come to a bar on a Friday night and you read a book?" "Mhmm," I replied. "It's restful, even with the noise."

I'm sure he thought I was crazy, and perhaps I was. I was glad when I finished the repast and paid up, and went out into the relative silence of the night. The cool crisp air, the darkness, it was all good.

Today was full of things like laundry, cleaning, the workout at the gym (Saturday is 45 minutes of circuit training on weights and 35 minutes on the treadmill), and finishing the sermon for tomorrow morning.

It was Sabbath, though, in the midst of the busy-ness, because it was quiet. I do need my quiet.

Tomorrow will not be quiet. It will be un-Sabbath for me, pastoring, listening to the subtext beneath people's words, hearing what I need to attend to in the coming week. Hospital visit after church, helping Doug get ready to head out to another conference (American Association of Pastoral Counselors, of which he is president), and planning Monday, which looks to be very busy indeed.

And the week to come includes the monthly newsletter. Thank goodness the Parish Secretary is back to do most of the work on it.

And thank goodness for quiet days, even if there is really no such thing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Wendy's, Hanover Tomatoes, and Kroger's

Tuesdays are when I usually trek to Kroger's (Senior Citizen 10% discount even applies to young old people like me). And one of the first things when I walk in is the produce department, and sitting smack in front of everything are tomatoes. Large pinkish-red ones, little ones in plastic clamshells or mesh bags.

It being March here in Richmond, suffice to say they are not local tomatoes. I'll buy the grape tomatoes sometimes, because they do have something like tomato flavor and because I miss the tart-sweet bite of them. But they are not REAL tomatoes.

Here in Richmond, the ne plus ultra of tomatoes are the Hanover tomatoes that come in in late June and are celebrated at the Hanover Tomato Festival in July (a sociological experience all its own).

Now, Hanover tomatoes aren't a specific variety, they are simply tomatoes grown in Hanover county. Something in the soil and water makes them wonderful. The kind of tomatoes you just want to slice on a plate, if you haven't just eaten it out of hand in the garden, sprinkle with a tad of kosher salt, or Duke's mayo if you're a Southern purist, and slurp with delight. They taste nothing like the tomatoes at the Kroger's. Apologies, Kroger's. I like you as a supermarket very much.

Driving through Wendy's yesterday - it was that kind of day, and I was starving - I came upon a sign that said that tomatoes are in short supply, so if I wanted a slice of tomato on my burger, I'd have to specifically request one. Well, I strongly suspect that the tomatoes that they have are from far, far away. Definitely not Hanover tomatoes, or even Jersey tomatoes (the Platonic ideal of tomatoes in my childhood in the Garden State). Probably Mexican tomatoes, grown to travel, and yes, rather pricey, even when Wendy's buys them in bulk.

Those Wendy's tomatoes weren't grown for taste. They were grown to put a slice of something red on top of a burger made with beef that wasn't necessarily grown for taste either. They put some salt and assorted condiments on it, along with plasticine yellow cheese, and that's where the taste comes from, such as it is.

I got the $1 burger. Hunger trumped noble food virtue. I didn't ask for the tomato. Lenten renunciation? I think not. Just no point in eating a tomato like that, for a whole variety of reasons, either from Wendy's or from Kroger's.

I'm holding out for June, and those Hanover tomatoes. Dreaming of them, in all their tomatoe-y deliciousness.

Now if I could only get past my craving for asparagus that has to come to us from Peru...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, March 20, 2011 Gen 12:1-4a “Walking in the Dark”

If you are like me, you have been glued to the news since word first came of the horrific disaster in Japan. Seeing film of the shaking crashing buildings, of that huge wall of water rolling over the landscape, taking everything with it and leaving a crush and jumble of trucks – even a tanker in a field! – was shocking. The news continues to be disturbing, and we pray for those affected by the disaster, and for those who are trying to help them.

Now we are starting to get some of the firsthand reports of what it was like for the people there. A Japanese travel agent, Michio Endo, who lives in the area near the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan wrote about his experience. He was in Tokyo while his wife was back home in the north:

“I went to Dai-ichi Hotel to see if there is limousine bus available to Haneda Airport. If available, I could take limousine bus to Haneda and from there I could take bus or taxi to my home. But bell boy said that all buses were out of service tonight and Haneda Airport was already closed. No one allowed to go airport. I went to back to the office again. All hotels were fully booked and there is no way to stay in hotel. I thought I better stay overnight in the office. Persistently I called my wife, but always recorded answering service said, "Sorry, lines are so busy. Call back later," or "Sorry, you cannot call to the disaster area".

Around 9 o'clock, I looked down the station and saw Shinkansen (bullet train) is running. So I walked to Tokyo station and luckily I could get on the bullet train [to Yokohama] around 9:40 pm. The Yokohama station was packed by the huge crowd of people, and subway was out of service. There is no bus service to my home direction. Usually, hundreds of empty taxis are waiting for the people, but I could not see even one taxi there. If I kept waiting for taxi, I must wait 4 or 5 hours. I decided to walk to my home.

I started walking 10:30 pm, alongside of highway. Last month, I could not take part in Malta marathon. I thought God gave me a chance to walk in my home town, Yokohama. In the dark, I kept walking with business shoes and clothes, without eating or drinking after lunch. Quite many people were also walking the same road. On the way, I saw a young businessman who sat down and took off socks. He was rubbing his feet. A young girl gave up walking and kept calling mobile, maybe asking parents for pick up. I called my wife by mobile, but it was out of service.

I recalled when I was a student in America in early 1960, I always hitchhiked to go school. On the highway, a number of cars are running smoothly. [Despite] Knowing that Japanese are not familiar with hitchhike, I was about to attempt hitchhike. But I kept walking, walking and walking in the dark. When I reached the 5 km point, I was so relieved. Finally, I arrived home 01:36, which means I walked 03 hours, 6 minutes. Last year, I took part in 21.9km in Malta marathon; my time was 03:00:53. Tonight I think I walked 15 km.

As for my wife, she was shopping at Yokohama Takashimaya Department [Store]. She was on the 8th floor. The announcement kept asking the guests, "Sit down, please. Do not move." When shoppers were allowed to get out the department store, she rushed to the taxi stand. She also saw hundreds of people waiting for taxi, and she decided to walk to home around 6 o'clock. She kept walking with high heels with two shopping bags. On the way to home, she encountered blackout. The city and street were completely dark. She arrived after 9 o'clock, which means she walked over 3 hours.

So we laughed that since we could not walk in Malta, the god gave us a chance to walk in our home town, Yokohama. We watched TV until 5 am. We were so shocked and felt so sorry for the disaster victims...”[1]

Walking in the dark. How often does your life feel like that? Walking until your feet are sore, not seeing familiar landmarks, wondering how long it would take to get to the place you were going. Worrying about what you would find when you get there.

I remember when I was going through the process for ordination. Some of you may know that it is a process that takes several years, and has many steps to it. At any one of those steps, you can hit a dead end, and your hopes and dreams of ordained ministry stop right there. I told a friend at the time that it felt like I was walking along a long, dimly lit hallway, with a T at the end. I had no idea which direction I should take at the end of the hallway, what would await me at either end of the T, but that I trusted that somehow I would know, that God would let me know, and I would end up somewhere I was supposed to be.

Oftentimes our life in relationship with God feels a little like that, wondering how we ended up where we are, wondering where God is going to lead us next. We feel like we’re walking in the dark without a flashlight, without familiar landmarks, but we know we are supposed to keep walking.

Abram faced that strange inexorable pull when God told him to start walking in today’s reading from Genesis. “Walk,” God says. “I’ve got work for you to do. I will bless you, and make you a great nation, and you will be a blessing.”

Why did God use Abram? It certainly showed God’s sense of humor, because he was asking an elderly man married to a barren woman to make a great nation. It showed God was willing to change his plans, because after God created humanity, humanity kept going astray. The apple and the banishment from Eden? The flood and Noah? God had tried punishing his wayward children, and it seemed that wasn’t really working, so he decided to try a new strategy. He would choose a righteous man – the aforementioned Abram – to act as God’s agent, and the people who would be part of this man’s family, a great nation, would have a special relationship with God. Even though it is always risky to guess what God is thinking, I think it would be fair to suppose that God thought that if curses and punishment didn’t work, then having a group of people who should be the models of relationship between God and humanity would be a better strategy.

So he told Abram to go walk. He didn’t give him very precise directions. Abram headed with his wife and nephew to Canaan. Somehow, even without guidance, Abram went where God wanted him to go. He didn’t question God’s directive – perhaps he was too shocked by God speaking to him – but he packed up and went. Walking in the dark, a figurative dark of not knowing what God really wanted him to do, or how it would work.

It wasn’t an easy journey. God gave him encouragement periodically. While in Canaan, God stopped by for a little visit and said, “this land is going to be yours.” No word on what the Canaanites thought about that, but Abram did what he was supposed to do: he built an altar and sacrificed a bull to God in thanksgiving. He went on to the Negev, and to Egypt. He kept walking with his family, not entirely sure what he should do next, like Michio Endo as he walked from the train station to his home in the dark, like me as I went through the process of seeking ordination…guided by nothing but faith in God.

I think sometimes we fall into the belief that if we are good followers of Christ, it will be obvious what we should do. We think the light of God’s love will show us the path, whether it is the right thing to do at work, or in our marriages, or in our church. But in fact sometimes God’s love and God’s will is not a light but a heavy blanket around us. It feels warm and comforting, but it’s hard to see out. It’s hard to walk with the blanket wrapped around us.

And so we have to wander in the dark, trusting that God will guide us along the path. We have to have faith that we are going to be nudged along by God, with the most gentle and imperceptible of pushes. It is not always clear where the endpoint is: I suspect Michio didn’t know he was near his home until the last kilometer or two. He was just walking, walking, walking along that highway and suddenly realized he recognized some things around him in the shadowy night.

In Lent, in this penitential season, it may also feel like we are walking in the dark, wondering how we are doing with God, fearing that we are veering off the path sometimes, trying to be good people but knowing our failings too well. The lesson of Lent is that we are to keep walking, even if it feels we are walking in the dark. There is a light, the light of the Resurrection, at the end of the path, and if we keep faithfully putting one foot in front of the other, we will come to the place of light on Easter Sunday.

Step out onto the path, even though the darkness frightens, even though we are not sure what awaits us. Step out, and find the risen Lord who awaits us at the end of the road.



Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Five: Springing Forward

Jan gives the RevGals a great Friday Five:

"Whether we liked it or not, we all "sprang forward" with the change to daylight savings time in the USA this past Sunday. There is lightness and brightness slipping in as spring approaches, so let us consider what is springing forth in our lives right now.

Name 5 things that are springing forth, possibly including :
  • what you hope for
  • what you dread
  • what you observe
  • what is concrete
  • what is intangible"

1) Springing up? All sorts of new possibilities around our parish for helping others. We created a "Guerrilla God Squad," essentially a list-serve of folks who have skills and are willing to receive emails when there's a project that needs attention. The projects could be helping things for a parishioner who is unable to rake his own leaves, or painting a porch for an elderly neighbor, or serving food to the homeless one night. These are "one-off" service projects rather than the ongoing monthly or weekly mission activities we have already been doing. We are also creating a special "Saturday School" Christian Ed and worship program for children for whom regular Sunday School is not a good fit. It's based on Godly Play and we hope to do a "soft launch" this summer, with just a few children. Lastly, our neighborhood clergy association is trying to launch a free clinic, and I've become the point person for it.

2) Dread? I don't know which I dread more, that these new projects will fall flat on their little faces, or that they will get more customers than we can accommodate. The latter problem, of course, is the one we all wish to have, but it will still require an effort to respond to.

3) Observing some real excitement and energy around these projects - I worry sometimes that our little parish is taking on more than it can manage, but the Spirit seems to be moving people in a new way towards service, and it is scary/sweet.

4) That which is concrete: people doing stuff, stepping up, donating times, talent and treasure. That, along with the daffodils in my yard, makes me smile.

5) That which is intangible: people doing stuff WITHOUT FUSS OR MUSS, doing it with a smile on their faces, enjoying it, enjoying each other. A sense of possibilities, even in an interminably long Vestry meeting the other night. Colleagues who understand when I'm feeling overwhelmed and who encourage me to make Sabbath time for myself and to honor my own emotions around all this stuff.

Haven't done a Friday Five in a while, and this was a fun one to get back in the rhythm of memes. Thanks, Jan!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, March 13, 2011 Lent I “Careful What You Wish For”

Be careful what you wish for!

My mother must have said that to me a thousand times in my childhood, and I thought of it often, and continue to, whenever I have a craving.

Be careful what you wish for: that lottery winning may bring all sorts of relatives you never knew existed, asking for a handout.

Be careful what you wish for: that job that seems so very shiny and powerful may turn out to be a nightmare, with the boss from hell and responsibilities that require you spend 80 hours a week chained to your desk.

Be careful what you wish for: that great guy at work who seems so intriguing may lead you to a place of deception and pain and eventual loneliness.

Would that Adam and Eve had heard that phrase, “be careful what you wish for,” before that snake turned up on the scene.

They had been living a blissful life in Eden, aware of nothing but each other, the delightful animals, the great things to eat, and their Creator God in regular conversation with them. It was easy conversation of course, although occasionally they would be given an instruction. Nothing harsh, just some gentle guidance about their life in this exquisite paradise. And one of these instructions was a simple one, regarding their food.

"You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

Well, that was a bit dramatic, that “you shall die” business! But nothing God had asked for was much of a problem, so Adam and Eve didn’t think too much about it. It was a lovely tree, of course, with apples as round and red and juicy as anyone could ask for, but it wasn’t the only apple tree in the garden. They could avoid this one easily enough, and they did…

…at least until the snake showed up. The snake, the one who suggested that God’s motives in keeping them from this tree were less than pure. “Can you not eat from the trees?” he asked. “Of course we can eat from the trees,” Eve replied; “just not that one in the middle of the garden. If we eat from that one, we die.”

“Nonsense,” the snake said. “It’s just that selfish old God keeping the best for himself. He doesn’t want you to eat from it, because then you would have the same knowledge that he has! Eat from it, and you will know as much as God!”

Hard to resist, a suggestion like that, isn’t it? Don’t we all want to be in on all the secrets, all the knowledge, especially if it feels like we should by rights have that knowledge too?

And Eve was hungry, not so much for an apple, but for knowledge. The snake understood that hunger, and played on it. So Eve ate, and invited Adam to eat, too. He ate just as willingly. No word of him saying, “Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t that the tree we aren’t supposed to eat from?” No, he bit into that apple just as greedily, while the snake slithered away, chuckling at their foolishness.

Be careful what you wish for, be it a winning lottery ticket or knowledge that is God’s alone.

The snake spoke truly: they ate and they got knowledge.

But what was the knowledge?

They looked at themselves, and realized they were naked.

Revealed in all their humanity, and in all their weakness. Something they had never known before, and now they had this new knowledge, this understanding of who they were and what they were and what they were not. No longer did they feel that great closeness and identity with their creator, who had made them in the divine image. No, now they knew their difference and it frightened them. It shamed them. They knew that they were less than their creator. That was their true nakedness.

And it was a nakedness of body and soul, born of their frailty. They were tempted, and they were left bare in their inability to fight the temptation. And in that realization, they worked to cover themselves, to hide that frailty as they hid their bodies.

What a different picture in the Gospel!

Jesus, praying alone in retreat in the desert, faced another snake, a tempter. What greater triumph for that snake, the devil, than to take the Son of God and crush him under his foot? Having crushed the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, now he would come full circle and crush this son of God. That tempter knew he was clever and so he waited for the right time.

It was forty days into Jesus’ time of prayer and fasting. Forty days without food. Jesus wasn’t in Eden, not in a paradise with everything you could want to eat before you. He was in the desert. There was nothing to eat. Jesus was famished.

Someone should have told that devil “be careful what you wish for.”

The devil knew Jesus was hungry. And he also knew that Jesus was ready to live into his divine ministry, with all the divine gifts to make miracles. And so he tried to seduce him with two things. The first was the obvious one: food. Jesus was starved. Bread…a whole loaf, fresh from the oven…it makes your mouth water as I speak….you can almost smell it, can’t you?...and you haven’t been fasting for forty days. But there’s more to it. The devil dares him to turn the rocks into bread. “If you are the Son of Man, do this thing. Prove that you really are who you claim to be. Do it.”

In his weakness, in his hunger, Jesus might be forgiven if he was tempted to do it. Hungry, tired, lonely. Such a simple little miracle, turning a rock into a loaf of bread. But he turned on the devil and said, “No, silly devil. I don’t need to do it. I’m doing something for God here. It’s not about the bread, it’s about the Word of God.”

That devil wished to challenge Jesus, to engage him. Jesus engaged, all right, and squashed him. Jesus would not be the devil’s pawn.

This Jesus, he wasn’t the pushover that Adam and Eve were. He was made of sterner stuff. So the devil upped the ante. He knew that Jesus would be leaving to start to teach and to preach, so he said, “You think you’re such hot stuff? Prove it to me! Show me that you’ve got the goods. Throw yourself off the cliff, and let’s see if the angels come to catch you before you splatter all over the desert floor.”

Jesus shook his head. “You’re going to quote my Father’s words to me? Come now! Remember the words say ‘don’t test God.’”

Oh, devil! Be careful what you wish for! Try to beat Jesus by using Scripture? I don’t think so.

But what about power? Commanding all the world? Surely this Jesus would want that power, wouldn’t he? He was about to start his ministry. Wouldn’t it be infinitely easier if the world would just fall at his feet? Quicker? More…I don’t know…FUN?

So the devil tried to offer him the big package. All the world at his feet. Wouldn’t anyone want that? All it would take would be a little concession, just a little obeisance…just worship me, your friendly devil, Jesus, and I’ll give it all to you!

Hah! Such foolishness. Jesus swatted him like an annoying bug: ”Begone! Worship you? I don’t think so!”

Be careful what you wish for…

The devil had said to Jesus, “take a flying leap off this cliff and the angels will come take care of you.”

After the devil was gone, off to lick his wounds after this defeat, what happened? The angels came to take care of Jesus.

Be careful what you wish for, for it may indeed happen.

Jesus, in defying the devil and his temptations, saw something in himself in that moment, just as Adam and Eve saw something in themselves when they ate that apple. They saw their nakedness, their failure. Jesus saw his divinity, his glory. He was affirmed in his mission and in his single-minded devotion to the task ahead of him, just as the Father had said when he was baptized. He was the beloved, in whom God was well-pleased.

But what about us?

We know who we are. We are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We know our nakedness, our failings, all too well. That gift of knowledge, bequeathed on us by our first father and mother, keeps us awake at night when we think of the ways in which we imperfectly follow Christ.

We struggle. We are tempted. The devil puts all sorts of things in front of us, and maybe a third of the time we say, “sure, why not?”

Be careful what you wish for. The extra beer or doughnut. The chance to make yourself look better at the expense of someone else. The sidelong glance by the cute co-worker when you know you should be true to your spouse.

We wish for things that we should not, and sometimes we get them, and then we face the aftermath as we look at our naked face in the mirror and say “why didn’t I say no?”

Be careful what you wish for.

But there is another wish.

“I wish you would help me to resist, Lord. Please give me the strength to say no.”

We take our naked weakness to the one who is strong, the one whose nakedness on the cross on Good Friday shows his strength and redeems our weakness. We cannot resist the devil alone. Only with him do we find strength.

We wish that our nakedness becomes more like his on the cross, that our frailty is turned to resolve.

What do we wish for? There is only one wish: to follow him, to learn from him, to be comforted and encouraged by him, to be found at the last day to have wished for righteousness.

We wish and we pray and somehow we cover our own nakedness with his power and strength and glory. We spend our Lent and our lives wishing and praying, and he is with us, saying, “you are my beloved.”


Copyright 2011 The Rev. Mary Brennan Thorpe

Friday, March 11, 2011

Day Off

With the exception of finishing the sermon for Sunday, this was a real, honest-to-goodness day off.

It was the first one in a while.

This is part of my Lenten discipline, keeping Sabbath time. I'm also leaving my laptop at the office most nights so I don't get sucked into work as I sit on the couch. I'm also not always answering the phone.

Some would say this is a denial of my call. But others would say this is a necessary thing to keep my mind and body whole.

Of course I will answer the phone if the caller ID suggests it is someone in trouble. One of the children of the parish was having a tonsillectomy today, and whenever the phone rang, I looked to see if - heaven forbid - it was one of C's parents.

I am slowly learning that much of what I do can be accomplished sufficiently (emphasis on that word) during normal working hours, and that after-hours is for my husband and for myself, unless there is an emergency.

Now I've got to start working on not feeling guilty about that.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, March 6, 2011 Matt 17:1-9: “Spring Break”

It’s a parenthesis moment. An odd bit of business, stuck in the middle of the story.

Jesus has been quite busy dealing with people’s problems and teaching the disciples how to function, and then, all of a sudden, we are atop the mountain where none of the regular crowd is.

No, there are only Jesus and Peter and James and John.

Scratch that. There are Jesus and Peter and James and John and Moses and Elijah.

No, wait a minute…scratch Moses and Elijah. Back to just Jesus and Peter and James and John.

Why would the evangelist Matthew stick this story in the midst of Jesus’ interactions with regular folks?

God the father, Moses, Elijah…definitely not regular folks.

If this were a novel and we were reviewing it, we’d say “Hmmm, continuity issue here. He hasn’t transitioned between one scene and the next very smoothly.”

But of course, it isn’t a novel, it’s the gospel. Gospel doesn’t always flow smoothly from one thing to the next. Often, and for no obvious reason, there is a break in the flow of the action.

What do we know?

Jesus has to get away from it all. He’s tired. Tired of explaining it all when it is so very difficult to explain. Tired of healing when there are so many who need healing. Tired of the inexorable walk toward Jerusalem and what will await him there. He goes up to the top of the mountain to pray, because praying is how Jesus recharges his batteries. He brings a couple of the disciples with him, because even when you need some time alone, you also need a couple of trusted companions who have your back.

Consider it, if you will, a little spring break in Cancun, only instead of being on the beach drinking Coronas, they are up on the mountain, breathing the thin, crisp air and praying. And Peter and James and John are the wingmen.

Now anyone who has gone on a Spring Break trip knows that stuff always happens when you’re on break that you couldn’t predict. For most people, the stuff that happens is generally unmemorable, sometimes problematic.

But since Jesus is Jesus, and he’s up on the mountain and not at Senor Frog’s, there are no shots of tequila, no parasailing off the beach. No, there is something very different.

They pray. They sit. They wait. No margaritas are consumed. No Coronas with the wedge of lime in the neck of the bottle. Just prayer and beautiful silence and no demands. A spring break for the Son of Man, following a different pattern than the ones we hear about in the news.

Prayer and silence and no demands.

And the stuff happens that you couldn’t predict. At least we can assume that Peter and James and John couldn’t predict it.

Something happens.

Jesus is changed – his face shines like the sun. His clothing is glowing white. He is flanked by the greatest of the prophets of the ancient way, Moses and Elijah. They are talking, as if they were merely standing on line at the ticket counter. And the brightness is shocking. Talk about the ultimate makeover! Jesus is no longer the guy the disciples have been traveling with, a special rabbi, of course, but so human, too.

But now he is anything but a regular guy, their road trip leader. Now he is something more. He is in the company of those who carried God’s message. He is now clearly something very different. And then comes the voice: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

I wonder what that voice sounded like?

Would it sound like the voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush? (Exodus 3:4) In that quiet spot, high on a hill, a voice Moses could not ignore? Perhaps not a loud voice, but a strangely compelling one.

Would it sound like the voice Elijah heard when he was hiding out in the cave? (1Kings 19:12) What drew Elijah out of the cave was not a thunderous booming, but what the King James translation calls a “still small voice,” and the New Revised Version calls “utter silence.” Elijah knew that was God. And the voice was called hQ")d: hm'îm'D> ((demamah lakah) : a gentle murmuring, a scant whisper.

Such a voice…a susurrus, a mere whisper, not a booming deep shout, but a voice so overwhelming, that Peter and James and John fall to the ground and hide their eyes. A bright cloud, not a picture of an enormous old man in white with the long beard, just a cloud so bright that the disciples’ eyes must be covered from the shock…and then the affirmation: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

And then….nothing. Quiet. The still air, chilling them to the bone. And Jesus, their rabbi, their teacher. Just touching them on the shoulder, saying “Get up. Spring break is over. Time to go down and get to work.

“Remember, what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain.”

But just like Spring Break, just like a trip to Las Vegas or even Tunica, what happens on the mountain rarely stays on the mountain, particularly when what happens is so shocking and game-changing, so transformative.

We know what happened up there because Matthew wrote about it, and Peter wrote about it in the letter we read this morning.

What happened on Jesus’ Spring Break – that moment when God gave the disciples a glimpse of who this rabbi really was – was not kept secret. When they finally understood who Jesus was, they couldn’t keep it to themselves. What happened on the mountain didn’t stay on the mountain. It couldn’t. Despite Jesus’ words in the moment, it was never intended to stay on the mountain.

I’ve been spending the past several days away, in something that was a cross between a spring break, a series of classes, a brainstorming session, a retreat, and a hen party. It wasn’t on a mountain, it was on a cruise ship. No, none of us started shining brightly like the sun, although some of us got pretty sunburned. There was no guest appearance from Moses or Elijah, or even from Elvis, although there was a Filipino lounge singer who did a good imitation of him…Elvis, that is.

Just a gathering of disciples, trying to figure out how best to share the Word and to live the Word faithfully and creatively.

Sometimes Spring Break isn’t as dramatic as Jesus’ trip up the mountain.

Sometimes it is just a chance to stop, breathe, listen for God’s voice in the silence, and regroup.

Sometimes it isn’t a big change, a transfiguration. Sometimes it is just a time to look at the work through a fresh lens, in a different time zone.

For me as your priest, it was this past week.

For us as Christians, it will be this season of Lent. Starting on Wednesday, we will enter into a season of break. Our Spring Break will be Lent. We will stop, breathe, listen, pray, try to hear God’s voice, that murmuring under the noise around us, that word or words that change us. We will imagine God’s plans for us as individuals and as a community of faith.

And in the process of listening and looking and imagining, we will be transformed in this Lenten season. Not quite transfigured…that was Jesus’ momentary transformation into divine radiance…but transformed, changed.

Spring break. The climbing of a mountain, the boarding onto a cruise ship, the marking of a season of penitential reflection: they are all the same at their heart. We separate ourselves from the everyday and go to a place in the world or in our hearts where we can be transformed, so that, forty days later, we can truly celebrate the One whose transfiguration is made most glorious on Easter Sunday.

Our spring break, this Lenten season, beckons us. Time to climb up. Time to pray. Time to ask for the whisper of what we might become, if we are brave.

Time to break, and be broken open, so that God can fill our hearts in ways we cannot even imagine.

Be broken open. Be refilled. Be renewed. It is time for Lent, and the break from the old into the new.


Copyright 2011 The Rev. Mary Brennan Thorpe