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, March 13, 2011

Lent is for new life

Lent 1A
Matthew 4:1-11

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Welcome to Lent. Contrary to popular assumptions, this season isn’t really about expunging all happiness from your life. For many people, Lent can seem like something of a downer - a morose season. But that’s really not what it’s about. It’s about looking deeper inside ourselves and uncovering those inner places where we feel most distant from God. It’s about uncovering our habits and temptations that keep us from feeling the truth of our connectedness.

But even more so, the reality is that Lent is not just a season in the church, but a part of the reality in all of our lives - at one time or another, anyway. We all have times in our lives when we feel lost in the wilderness - times when we don’t understand; times when feel alone. And we will all be stronger if we learn to see these times - whenever they come - as times of preparation for Resurrection.

Too often the church is accused of making people feel bad, or guilty. And when (and if) we do, we are acting in contrast to the nature of God. God makes new life. That is God’s nature. God draws life to God’s self. That is God’s nature.

Whenever we tear down life or draws lines of separation: that is not God. That is human failure.

So even though we may have gotten it wrong in the past, the job of the church is not just to point out how separate you are from God, but it is the job of the church to point you to the path of Easter - to the path of union and joy and Resurrection.

It is our job to point out the true nature of the God of all creation.

That’s what Lent is really about.

In the Gospel lesson today, we hear the story of Jesus’ lent. The road from our celebration at his birth to his ministry among us passes first through a season of discernment and preparation. We are told that Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. It was then that temptation crept in. He was hungry and he was weak, and he was tempted with sustenance and power.

That’s the way temptation works. It meets us in those places where we are most vulnerable and offers promises of power.

Lent challenges us to confront our temptation - to see it and to recognize it - to recognize it as one of those things that can make us feel separate from God.

You may have heard by now that one of our own members of this community died yesterday. Arthur Galloway: husband of Cassandra, and father of Serenia and Glenda. Death is always a sad time in the life of any community, and perhaps that sadness feels even more acute now, with the death of one so young, and who seemed so healthy.

So many of us find that we are in a wilderness of our own right now.

The truth is, there really are no easy answers as to why tragedy strikes. Whether it’s an earthquake in Japan that triggers tsunamis across the ocean, or the sudden death of a loved one, there are no easy answers. It can be tempting to look for them, but any we find will prove illusory sooner or later.

All we can really do is build community, and strengthen the bonds of love and affection that hold us together. Because in times like these we need them all the more. In times of crisis, they are the only things that will hold us closer to God.

God doesn’t cause suffering. But in all of our lives we will have a season of it here and there. So we prepare by loving, for it is only love, which can truly sustain us in the Lenten seasons of our lives.

Lent isn’t about feeling bad. It’s about learning to find life and resurrection, even when they seem most difficult to see.

And this Lent will pass and Easter will be waiting on the other side. It always is.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Time for traveling on

Last Epiphany A
Matthew 17:1-9

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Each year these are the lessons that we hear on the last Sunday before Lent begins - lessons about the Transfiguration. The Feast of the Transfiguration actually happens in the summer - on August 6th, but it makes sense to revisit this feast now, just before Lent begins. Because it’s not just about the Transfiguration itself - the event of Jesus radiating with the glory of God - but it’s about moving on - moving out into the world. It’s about leaving the place of comfort and holiness and moving into a world that can too often feel entirely unholy.

For many Christians, Lent is an uncomfortable time. And it’s meant to be that way. Lent is about facing the unholiness in the world around us and even in our own lives and souls. And through that, we come out on the other side, to bask in the joy of Easter - of Resurrection; of forgiveness; of new and renewed relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

But for us to be able to truly wrap our minds around the miracle of the Resurrection and the joy of forgiveness, we can’t take them for granted. We must know their complementary characters: death and sin.

One of the special places of my youth was Mt. Sequoyah, Arkansas. It’s just outside the small city of Fayetteville, Arkansas in the state’s far northwest corner. It’s one of those “you can’t get there from here” kinds of places. No one just stumbles upon Fayetteville or Mr. Sequoyah. But I had a lot of wonderful memories there. My father had to go there once a year for a conference, and my mother and I usually went along. But I also went from time to time on my own for various church youth events.

Because we moved around so often when I was growing up, I always had a kind of malleable understanding of the word home, and Mt. Sequoyah felt like one of my homes. It was there, at youth events, where I had some of the most profound spiritual experiences of those years. I came to see it as a place where I could reliably feel close to God.

A dull sadness would fall over me whenever it was time to leave. I always knew that the “real world” was waiting for me at the bottom of that mountain. My friends wouldn’t understand what I had experienced - real community; real peace; real presence.

If I had been given the choice, I might have stayed. I might have been Peter.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever been to the mountaintop, and seen the world in a little bit of a clearer way?

It reminds me of that famous speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of his assassination. He calls on the experience of Moses as a metaphor for the mountain he’d been climbing for so long. But he knew that it wasn’t enough to merely stand at the mountaintop and to see that glory. He had to travel on. Whatever that might mean.

The glory of the Lord may be clearest on the mountaintop, but the gospel is lived in the streets. So we’ve got to travel on, too.

For Christians, Lent is the “traveling on” time.

We spend a lot of time celebrating in the church. God is so good, how could we not? The Holy Eucharist - what we’re doing right now - is rightly called a “celebration”. As that great old hymn says it, we “come with joy to meet [our] Lord.” And we also celebrate all of life’s milestones together here - in baptisms and weddings, in holidays. We celebrate together when our children graduate from high school and college. Even when one of our own passes from this life to the next, we celebrate our time together even as we mourn, because we know that the choirs of angels and saints of the ages celebrate their homecoming.

Though we have a lot to celebrate, we should be careful to keep from acting as if that’s all there is in the world. We should be careful to keep ourselves from getting lost in the celebrations to the degree that we find ourselves turning a blind eye to everything that’s off of the mountaintop.

Like Peter, we might wish to just build dwelling places here on the mountaintop. But we can’t. We have to travel on. Not only because we’re called, but because staying on top of the mountain just isn’t honest. The glory fades. If we act as if it hasn’t, we’ll miss out of the ways that God lives in all the other aspects of our lives, and the dishonestly will bankrupt our spirits.

Over the next few weeks the church will be changing. The words that we say will change, and so will a lot of the things you see. The goal of these changes is to disrupt us. It’s meant to make us step out of our normal routines and to examine our spiritual lives a little differently. It may feel uncomfortable at first. Just remember that that’s okay. We’re traveling on. Like Peter, James, and John, Christ is calling us, too, off of the mountain and into the streets.

You may decide that you want to adopt a Lenten discipline to help bring you into the “streets” of your soul throughout this season. Sometimes people give up something that brings them joy for a while - like chocolate, or wine, or meat. Sometimes people use it as an opportunity to give up something that’s been holding them back - like smoking or using foul language. I always like to use Lent as a time to take on a spiritual discipline - perhaps adding something new or different to my daily prayer life, or bringing back something that has slipped away with time. Sometimes I commit to taking a retreat, or focusing myself for a specific time of discernment about some issue in my life.

But whatever you do, I urge you not to think of this as a kind of Christian version of the “New Year’s Resolution”. Whatever you decide to adopt as your Lenten discipline, the thing itself isn’t the point. The point is redoubling the role that your faith plays in your life each day. The point is to walk down the dark and winding streets of your soul, and to find that God lives even there - not just on the mountaintops.

The glory that we once knew may not always shine as vividly as it once did, but it is glorious nonetheless. In that same speech on the eve of his assassination, Dr. King also said, “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

Things may seem dark for the next few weeks, but look for the glimmer of God’s presence. Look for the glory. It’s there all the time. Even in the darkest night. God is there even when we feel most distant. Amen.