The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, February 21, 2010

You'll Never Walk Alone

21 February 2010
Lent 1C
Luke 4:1-13

There’s a degree to which this can be something of an awkward text for a preacher to encounter.

Of course it makes perfect sense in the setting of the liturgical year. Just as we are in the early days of our 40-day period of preparing for Easter, our period of self-examination and penitence, it makes sense that we would hear about and study Jesus’ own 40-day period of preparation for his ministry among us. During that time he fasted and prayed and was tempted by the devil to consider taking an easier way out.

But while the timing makes sense, the subject matter remains a little… awkward.

One of the things that I believe about the church and its work is that we are not just called to remember and study these major events and teachings of the past. The work of the church is not just about us, being separated from the work of God by millennia, looking back with fondness at the “good old days” when God was walking with us. If that were so, I would be the first to admit that the church would be entirely irrelevant. We certainly should remember and study these ancient stories, but our relationship with them and with the truths that they hold is much more intimate than just that.

We are also called to participate in the ongoing drama of the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ as it continues in our own time. Through the work of community we are called to recognize the times in our lives when we see Christ alive. Through worship, prayer, and introspection we are called to respond when we sense Christ’s death in the people and events around us and in ourselves. And after it all we are called to revel in the resurrection. Like the cliché says, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Resurrection is always the end of the story.

Because I believe so deeply in the truth of the Christ-story – not just as something long ago, but also as something happening right now, even in this room – it can be a little strange talking about the temptation story.

The thing is, our culture teaches us that the devil is a Halloween character or a villain in films. Even in the church, we tend to not talk very much about the devil. We’d much rather focus on things like love and forgiveness and shepherds and lambs. Those are all very real parts of the Christian story – maybe even the most important parts – but they’re not the whole story.

It gets awkward, because I have to tell you, I think the devil is very real.

Certainly not in any “the-devil-made-me-do-it” kind of way. That’s just an excuse, if you ask me.

And maybe not even in any kind of “individual being lurking in the shadows” kind of way. I just don’t know.

But evil, as it is often represented as the devil, most certainly is real. Demons are very real.

Just as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness with an easy way out, so, too, are we all tempted by our own demons.

We tend to think of temptation as a mostly physical reality – in the sense of appetites that are either sustained or suppressed – but that is often to the neglect of the spiritual side of temptation. Like Jesus, we are tempted every day to look for easy ways out of the challenges of God’s calls for us. It might seem easier and more attractive, at least in the short term, to live our lives only for ourselves or for the protection of our loved ones. It can be very tempting to “look out for number one”.

But we aren’t just “islands in the stream”. We are not lone bodies resisting the eroding waves of life without help. We are the people of the God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. The real erosion that we fear happens when people do just “look out for number one”. That erodes relationships. And relationships are always God’s chosen vehicle for action.

During the season of Lent many of us will turn our physical temptations into a spiritual exercise by giving up some pleasure or taking on some discipline. But it’s important to remember that these Lenten disciplines are not just a kind of Christian equivalent to a “New Year’s Resolution”. It’s not about the desserts or the caffeine or the wine. It’s not even about the self-improvement that can result from our disciplines. The point of our Lenten disciplines is to be intentional about practicing and perfecting our responses to temptation. If we are in practice, there’s a better chance that we’ll be more prepared to face the more serious spiritual temptations that are very real and lurking in the dim corners of our lives.

We need the practice, because, like Jesus, sooner or later we will all be in our own wildernesses facing our demons.

Every year at about this time I begin hearing people talk about how they don’t really like this time in the church year. Certainly that’s not true for all of us, but for many people, Lent can feel like something of a “downer”. But the truth is, Lent doesn’t take us into the wilderness. It merely helps us open our eyes to the wilderness in which we already find ourselves. We spend so much time “faking it ‘til we make it” that we can fool even ourselves. We forget that wilderness is already our reality. None of us “has it all together”. To greater or lesser degrees all of us are already lost.

But we’re only truly lost if we fail to follow the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so are we. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. The only question, really, is whether we are dragging her along or following where she leads.

It’s true. It takes a pretty stunning act of faith to follow the Holy Spirit. We may, like Jesus, be led into the wilderness. Following the Holy Spirit isn’t a “get out of jail free card” or a promise for some other easy path. In fact, it’s more likely the promise of a sometimes-difficult path. But more significantly, it’s a promise that on that path, we won’t be alone.

Like many of you, for the past week I’ve been occasionally watching the Winter Olympics. In general I’m not much of a sports fan, and quite frankly don’t care about the outcome; but, I have been intrigued by the spectacle of it all.

If you’ve watched much at all, you’ve probably seen that great Proctor & Gamble commercial. They scroll between scenes of mothers supporting their children in everyday life while singing that song from the old Rogers & Hammerstein musical, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. The climax is a mother singing from the stands at the Olympics.

I’m just enough of a sap to be brought almost to tears by such a commercial.

I’m not so sure about the connecting line between mothers supporting their children and Tide detergent, but the message to me is clear: none of us – whether Olympian or priest, Wall Street banker or Starbuck’s barista – none of us is an island. We exist in relationship and we all stand on others’ shoulders one way or another. We never walk alone.

That’s the message of the Gospel.

It’s the message of the Holy Spirit.

It’s the message of Lent and it points to the message of Easter.

Even in the wilderness – even in the face of temptations and demons and devils of every sort – even then, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Even then, we’ll never walk alone.

Even in your own wilderness, follow the Holy Spirit. Walk on.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

17 February 2010
Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

One of my favorite preachers of our tradition, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, says that Ash Wednesday is the day when Christians get to attend their own funerals.

I think she’s right.

She translates it into the language of our popular culture, but what she says, I think, truly captures the spirit of Ash Wednesday: it is a day of reckoning; a day of judgment. And that’s a lot of what we’re acting out in the funerals we offer for our loved ones. In recounting their lives of service, devotion, and love, we are asking God to look on them with mercy as they stand before the great judgment seat of Christ.

On Ash Wednesday we put ourselves before the great judgment seat of Christ. We lay our lives open before God, and there is no response more appropriate in the face of such honesty than to beg for mercy.

We can fool each other, but we can’t fool God.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

There’s a degree to which we can be tempted into performing our piety for it to be celebrated by others because we fear it is insufficient to be celebrated by God. We, more than any other, know our own inadequacies, so we try to wish them away. We wish our inadequacies away through our performance. But performance, on its own, always fails. It will always leave us empty. Only true repentance – the turning of our hearts – will fill us.

There is a lust in our culture for easy answers. But our faith is not easy. We see that in the text for today.

There’s something that seems almost sinister in the faith we are called to practice as it is expressed in the Gospel lesson for today. We learn that even righteous acts can be stumbling blocks to righteousness.

We are certainly called to give alms, and to pray, and to fast. But almsgiving, prayer, and fasting aren’t enough in and of themselves. Righteousness, in the sight of God, cannot be reduced to a series of check boxes – a “to-do list”. They must be done with a willing heart that seeks not its own reward.

There is a difference between acts of righteousness and righteousness itself.

In Lent we are invited into a season of self-examination. Disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting may well be tools to aid us in that self-examination, but they should not be confused for the fruits of self-examination. They may serve for us as paths to righteousness to the degree that they aid us in practicing true repentance – in turning our hearts ever more toward God – but they are not necessarily signs of righteousness in themselves.

This is what it means to keep “a holy Lent”.

As it now stretches before us, it may seem to be a pretty long road. But it ends with new life – just as our disciplines of repentance always do. Amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"More" is never "enough"

7 February 2010
Epiphany 5C
Luke 5:1-11

O God, the author of Peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom. Amen.

It’s a remarkable story that we hear in the Gospel lesson this morning.

Perhaps you will stand in awe of the crowds that followed Jesus. They knew him to be a worker of miracles, and the word of his wonders spread quickly throughout the region.

Perhaps you, like the people of that time and place, found it remarkable that he was able to lead these struggling fishermen to their catch despite their futile efforts up until then. Perhaps it is the miracle that grabs you.

Our bishop preaches on this text from time to time. He tends to be drawn to the instruction that Jesus gives to the fishermen – go deeper. Cast your nets into the deep water. It’s often a parable for our lives – just when we think we’re in over our heads, the answer is often to go deeper – to delve into the depths of a problem until the solution becomes clear. The advice is for us not to linger in the safety of the shallows, but to take a risk by venturing into the unknown for a greater reward.

I have, however, come to see this text as a parable of freedom.

“Freedom” is a kind of buzzword in American culture. It’s one of those words that we hear so much, that it begins to lose its power. We certainly hear about freedom in the context of national security – our soldiers around the world are fighting for our freedom; the terrorist threat is an attack on freedom. Our politicians talk about “freedom” as though it’s a commodity that can be bought from one supplier or another at competing prices. But perhaps the greatest degradation of “freedom” happened a few years ago with the suggestion of “freedom fries” – some politicians’ snarky attempts to shame the French for refusing to participate in the war in Iraq.

We spend a lot of time talking about freedom. But do we have any clue about what it really is?

To varying degrees, we are all captive. We are captive to our goals and ambitions. We are captive to those dreams and aspirations that linger just beyond our reach. We can be captive in our jobs or to the lack of them. We can be captive either in our relationships or to our loneliness. We are captive to both our possessions and to our lack of them.

I’m reminded of the movie of about a year ago, “Revolutionary Road”. In it Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as the Wheelers, a young couple on the edge of destruction. They had met, years earlier, as a couple of free spirits, each equally attracted to the promise of adventure held in the other. But as time progresses, their free spirits diminish at the hands of their plans for achieving freedom. They achieve their goals, but along the way they become seduced by the trappings of suburban mediocrity.

And they were trapped indeed. Trapped between a sense of security and a lust for freedom. Trapped between achieving their goals and achieving their heart’s desire. And when they recognized that entrapment, they were destroyed – as individuals and as a couple – by their unexpectedly competing lures.

I imagine that, were it not for the presence of Jesus, Peter, James, and John may have found themselves in the same kind of predicament as the Wheelers. They were fishermen. Their goal was to catch fish. It’s easy to imagine that throughout the long night of catching no fish they had prayed with all of their hearts that they might have a catch, for their own sustenance as well as for their livelihood. It was only once their goal was achieved that they were freed from it. Free to leave it all behind at the realization that their goal was short of their hearts’ desires.

Like the Wheelers, those first disciples had prayed for “more”. All the while what they actually needed was what they already had – “enough”.

We stand at the cusp of Epiphany and Lent. The joy of Christmas has softened into the glow of the Epiphany, but in just a few days’ time our collective focus will sharply shift. Like the cusp of a gothic arch, we will sharply plunge ourselves into a season of penitence – namely, penitence for the ways in which we inhibit our freedom in Christ.

Theologians often talk about the “cost of discipleship”. That is to say, following Christ very often requires leaving something behind: status or power or possessions. In the Lenten season, many of us will symbolically reenact this “cost of discipleship” by giving something up. And in the midst of that spiritual discipline we will recognize that in the “cost of discipleship”, the cost often gives way to “freedom for discipleship”.

Our faith in Christ is not all Lent – it’s not all about “giving up”. It is also Epiphany – the light, the invitation in Incarnation. And it is Easter – the dawn, the freedom of Resurrection.

We learn, in the Gospel According to Janis, that “Freedom’s just another word for ‘nothing left to lose.’” Freedom is the distinction between our goals and our hearts’ desires. The products of our goals entrap us, while the fruits or our hearts’ desires free us.

Peter, James, and John saw that their goals were fruitless when measured against the freedom that was offered in following Christ.

They got “more”. In fact, they got more “more” than they had imagined to be possible. But “more” wasn’t “enough”. It never is. “Enough” is enough. “Enough” is freedom. Amen.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Is there room for progressive politics in sports?

I know, I know....  Two Rachel Maddow posts in a row.  But this is a REALLY good one!!

Not only is it live from New Orleans on the Friday before the Super Bowl in which the Saints are playing!!!

Not only did they change the graphics to read "The Rachel Maddeaux Sheaux"!!!  (which just give me endless enjoyment!)

But it's actually a very thoughtful segment.  Tim Tebow is getting lots of attention for his anti-choice, "Focus on only ONE kind of Family" television commercials that will air on Sunday.  But, as usual, though the conservative voice may be the loudest, it is far from the only voice out there.  Drew Brees and Scott Fujita - and to a degree, even Peyton Manning - are showing that's there's more than just the Tim Tebow's of the world who care about sports!

Just as the Christian community is not a single monolithic voice of "conservative values", so, too, is the world of sports more than just the Tim Tebow variety.

I promise, this blog isn't just becoming an extension of the Rachel Maddow Show, but this is too good not to post!


Friday, February 05, 2010

Bishop Robinson on "the Family" and the National Prayer Breakfast

I remain so proud to have him as a spokesperson for our church... Go +Gene!