A Promise to Stake Your Life On

Preached on 26 March, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A.  The Gospel According to John chapter 9.

That’s not the end of the story.

Jesus continues talking to the people and interprets the sign they have just witnessed of a blind man receiving sight, by talking about the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd enters the fold by the gate and calls the sheep one by one.  The sheep come to him because they know his voice.  They follow him and he takes them to good pastures and he doesn’t abandon them to the wolves or other dangers.  They trust him.

Jesus goes on to say that he has come that they, the people, may have life and have it abundantly.  He continues talking about the Good Shepherd and when he finishes, the people are divided: some saying he’s mad or possessed while others say, “how could he be possessed and make a blind man see?”  The man who receives his sight is the sheep who knows the shepherd’s voice and follows when he hears him calling.

There are several themes running through the lessons this morning.  The first one I notice is Seeing.  In the Old Testament lesson, Samuel is sent to anoint the next king while the current king, Saul, is still very much alive and very much in power.  God tells him that God will show him which of Jesse’s sons to anoint.  Samuel focuses on their outward appearance, but God tells him, that God sees their hearts.

In the gospel, of course, the blind man sees, but it is more than being able to see what’s in front of him.  Seeing is also about seeing who Jesus is and so, coming to believe in him.  After Jesus gives him his sight, Jesus goes away and the people begin questioning the man.  He gradually progresses from saying that Jesus is a man, to calling him a prophet, and finally to Lord.  For him, seeing will mean a whole new life.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, can see what’s in front of them perfectly well, but their certainty in what they think they know makes them blind to what God is doing; makes them blind to who Jesus is.

There’s the theme of identity.  The man is identified by his limitation within the story – even after that limitation is removed. He is the man born blind.  He could just as easily be identified as the man who sees.

How often do we describe or define others by their limitations?  How often do we base our own identity on our own limitations?  What if we were to base it on our gifts, our abilities, what we have already received rather than on what we wish we would receive; what we perceive we lack?

The core of who you are, your identity, is a beloved child of God; sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  No matter what the rest of the world may tell you, you are God’s beloved.  What if we were to see not only ourselves, but others that way, too?

Letting go is yet another theme.  “How long will you grieve over Saul?” God asks Samuel.  It’s time to let go of the past and move forward.  Saul isn’t working out as king so it’s time to begin to prepare the next king.

The man who sees has to let go of his old way of life and find new work, new life.  HE can’t go on begging by the side of the road.  He has to learn to earn a living.  God invites us to look ahead, to move forward, to not be defined by or linger in the challenges or adversity we have overcome.

Remembering what we have been through, what we have overcome and accomplished is useful insofar as it can help us move forward.  Knowing what we have been able to do in the past can not only help us avoid repeating mistakes, but more importantly can give us hope and strength and courage to face the next challenge.

And finally, there’s the theme of Divine Promise.
God’s promise to be present with us always.  Even in the presence of our enemies, God hosts a banquet in Psalm 23.
God sends Samuel on what seems to Samuel to be a suicide mission.  “Saul will kill me!” he protests.  But God promises to be with him.  Bring a heifer with you.  Offer a sacrifice.
Jesus promises to be with us always.  The divine promise is in Jesus who comes that we may have life, life in abundance.  The divine promise that our core identity as beloved children of God, sealed and marked as Christ’s own.

It is the Divine Promise that makes all else possible – seeing, believing, letting go, moving forward.

It is the promise we stake our lives on.

God’s Call on Your Life

Preached on 9 March 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

Sometimes, especially in the Gospel of John, I find, Jesus can be very confusing.  Nicodemus is confused, too.  And we see him struggling to understand.  He focuses on the words – if he could just understand what born from above means, so he starts with the literal meaning – an old man can’t enter his mother’s womb again.

I can do the same thing – if I just dig down into what the Greek means….  Oh, except the gospel was written in Greek, but Jesus didn’t speak Greek, he spoke Aramaic…

As the conversation goes on, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere; he’s probably even more confused.  Jesus is telling him that in order to see the kingdom of God, he has to be born from above; to enter the kingdom of God, he has to be born of water and Spirit.  How can he do that?  What does it even mean?

But wait a minute.  What do we do to be born in the first place?  Nothing.  It just happens to us.  So maybe to be born from above is beyond our control, too.  It’s not something we do, but something we receive.  Maybe this has something to do with what John wrote in the prologue back in chapter one.  You know, the one that starts, In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

He goes on writing about Jesus, “… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.”

Children of God, born of God.  Born from above?  Born of water and the Spirit?  Perhaps Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus the kind of relationship that God desires; that God offers.

Finally, Jesus seems to say, “look, this is what’s important, what you really need to understand.”
In the last verse that we heard today, Jesus reassures Nicodemus that God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn it but to save it.  God loves the world so much that God sends a son, Jesus, to offer us eternal life; to show us the kingdom of God.

Maybe that’s the place to start to try to understand what Jesus is saying.  God loves the world, the whole world and wants to save it, not condemn it.

When I was in seminary, my liturgical music professor was an expert in orthodox chant, so as part of our formation, we listened to a lot of chant.  I found that the fact that I couldn’t understand the words was not a barrier at all.  Without struggling to understand the words, I could just relax into it and let it wash over me and surround me and lift me up.  The music transported me; it spoke to my soul.

I wonder if we could do that with scripture.  Without struggling to understand the individual words, just rest in it; let it wash over you.  Hear it as poetry, as music.  And maybe in that letting go of trying, it may speak to your soul.

Maybe you will hear God’s call on your life.


Lent in Real Life

Preached on 5 March 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
First Sunday in Lent, Year A

I go to Weight Watchers.  Our leader, Janet, often reminds us to be realistic in our planning and setting goals and calls out our tendency to fantasize about ourselves and our lives.  Using herself as an example, it goes something like this:

I say to myself, “I don’t want to pack my lunch tonight; I’ll get up early and do it.”  Somehow, I think that during the night, while I’m sleeping, I will magically turn into a morning person.

As we head into Lent, it’s important to know ourselves and recognize the reality of our lives – what we have control over and what we don’t; our responsibilities and schedules, our personalities and habits – as we decide how we want to observe Lent and what will make it a fruitful, holy time.  Our lives will not magically change overnight.  Ann Weems puts it a bit more eloquently in her poem, “The Way.”

The way to Jerusalem
looks suspiciously like Highway 40,
and the pilgrims
look suspiciously like you and me.
I expected the road to Jerusalem
to be crowded with holy people…
clerics and saints…
people who have kindness wrinkled in their faces
and comfort lingering in their voices,
but this is more like rush hour…
horns blowing, people pushing, voices cursing…
This is not what I envisioned!
O God, I’ve only begun and already
I feel I’ve lost my way.
Surely this is not the road
and surely these
are not the ones
to travel with me.
This Lenten journey calls for
holy retreat,
for reflection
and repentance.
Instead of holiness
the highway is crammed
with the cacophony
of chaos.
Is there no back road
to Jerusalem?
No quiet path
where angels tend
to weary travelers?
No sanctuary
from the noise of the world?
Just this?
Can this hectic highway
be the highway to heaven?[i]

Can this hectic highway be the highway to heaven?  The highway of our lives is not going to magically become less hectic just because it’s Lent.  So, how do we observe Lent in Real Life?  And that has two aspects: the Reality of our own lives and schedules; and the Reality of what’s going on in the world.

Immediately after his baptism, when the voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved Son.” And right after the Holy Spirit descended on him, that same spirit led him out into the desert.  There, he fasted for 40 days before facing the tempter, the devil who repeatedly challenged him, “IF you are the Son of God…prove it.”

Offering false promises, the devil tempts Jesus to use his power and privilege for his own self-interests, offering an alternate vision of the world.  This is a vision that is very different from God’s vision in which we are intimately connected with God, with God’s people and God’s world.

Now the point of this story is not to prove who Jesus is or how perfect he is.  It’s about facing temptation, examining it, naming it, figuring out what leads us astray.  In Real Life, we are bombarded with messages – temptations – that challenge our worth, our identity as children of God, that offer us alternative visions of the world, offering half-truths and false promises to tempt us to put ourselves in the center; drawing us away from God’s vision in which we are not at the center, but intimately connected with God, our neighbor, and the whole creation.

In the invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent, we are called to self-examination and repentance.  For the past few months, we have use the contemporary Lord’s prayer in which we pray, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

We have used a Confession of Sin in which we “repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.”

Now, whenever we start talking about evil, it can make us squirm inside.  And I think I can safely say, that you are all good people, you are even nice people.  You are not evil.  You are doing your best to do what is right and to make the world a better place.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t participate in the evil in the world or that you have no need of self-examination and repentance.

I believe we are living in a time of trial; perhaps we always have been. So, what do we do?

Now I want to say just a few words about charity and justice.  We are usually much more comfortable with charity work than with justice work.  Both are necessary.  Charity offers compassionate help to those who are suffering; we feel good when we help others and no one feels threatened.  Justice, on the other hand, is working to address the cause of the suffering.  That usually means challenging people in power; questioning the way things are and calling for change.  It’s uncomfortable and may even be risky.  There will be others who oppose what you’re doing.

Going back to the confession where we repent of evil that enslaves us; evil done on our behalf.  Let’s think about how we participate in evil, how we collude with power – and yes, doing nothing or staying silent is still participating.

I’m going to offer some examples and I want to remind you that none of this is new; it’s not about political parties or this administration.

I have a smart phone.  I love having the internet in my pocket; I tell myself that it makes my life easier or better or something.  But, the civil war in the Congo has often been waged on the bodies of women.  It’s horrific.  The war is, in part at least, over a mineral that’s used in cell phones.

Thousands of children die every day from preventable causes; lives that could be saved by food, vaccines, malaria nets.

Families are torn apart when immigration laws are aggressively enforced.

People fleeing political persecution, violence, war, any number of threats, are turned away at our borders.

People are threatened with losing health insurance or food assistance or educational opportunities from preschool on up.

Women die from cervical or breast cancer because those in power decide they cannot go to the high-quality, low-cost health care provider of their choice – even when there is no other choice.

People in Flint still have lead in their tap water.

People work full-time and multiple jobs but still can’t afford food or rent.  Military families depend on food stamps.

Pollutants are discharged into the atmosphere, the waterways and onto the land, harming wildlife, endangering species, and destroying habitat.

You get the idea; the list goes on and on.  This is the evil that enslaves us; the evil done on our behalf.  It is the other half of Lent in Real Life.  The list is overwhelming but it needn’t be paralyzing.  It’s impossible to address everything, but entirely possible to do something.

Now what would repentance be?  How do we turn toward God’s vision of a world in which we are intimately connected with God, with God’s people, and with God’s creation?  We face the evil, examine it, name it, and resist it.

It is incumbent on us as Christians, as citizens, as human beings, to resist injustice and evil.  When the outcomes of policies and practices are suffering, we hold people accountable, whether they’re in our families, in business, or in government.  Often, the most effective way to resist evil is through the political process.

You see, it turns out, that hectic, chaotic highway to Jerusalem is the only way.  It’s Real Life.  How will you navigate Lent on the hectic highway of Real Life through the chaotic highway of the Real World on your way to Jerusalem, on your way to Easter?  There is no quiet backroad tended by angels.  Jesus never said it would be easy.  But it is the way of life.

[i] Weems, Ann. “The Way.”  Kneeling in Jerusalem:Poetry for Lent and Easter. (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).


Reteaching Loveliness

Preached on 1 March 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Ash Wednesday, Year A

Another Lent, in another year, I was reading a daily devotional and I came across this excerpt from a poem by Galway Kinnell.

“sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness…
until it flowers again from within…”

It struck me that this is what Lent is about – allowing God to reteach us our own loveliness so that we may flower again from within.

Have you ever known someone whose faults and failings seem to be so many and so large that they seem to obscure everything else about the person?  That the faults and the failings are all you can see?  Have you ever found that to be true in someone that you care about or with whom you must have some sort of ongoing relationship – maybe a teacher or a boss or a colleague or even a family member?

And have you ever found that as time goes on, maybe with the help of prayer or stepping back or seeing the person through another’s eyes or trying to see the world through that person’s eyes, have you found that those looming faults and failings no longer hide everything else, that you can see a more complete person?  Have you been able to see beyond the failings to see the loveliness of the person?  And even to love the person?

Ultimately, I think, Lent is about Love.  It’s about opening ourselves so that God can reteach us our own loveliness.  The invitation of Lent, I think, is to embrace our own humanity, because God already has.

We spent the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany focusing on the Incarnation; on the humanness of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus embraced his own humanity taking on the limitations of our existence.  And now, with that assurance of God’s love, of God’s embrace, in this season of Lent we shift the focus to our own humanness.

In a few minutes, you will be invited to observe a Holy Lent by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and so on.  You will be invited to begin this season by having ashes smeared on your forehead as a reminder of our mortality of our limitations as human beings.  We will begin this Holy Season by remembering who we are and what we are.

Each week, we confess to God, “We have not loved you; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.”  To repent of that “not loving,” we must love, beginning with ourselves because it is difficult, if not impossible, to love another if we don’t love ourselves.  It is a journey; a journey with God, if you will, a Pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage of opening ourselves to God; allowing God to show us ourselves.

You see, the beginning of loving is knowing.  We must be willing to know ourselves – even those faults and failings that seem so terribly large that they obscure everything else; and even those faults and failings that seem so terribly small that they couldn’t possibly matter.  Love is not blind after all.  Love sees everything and loves anyway.

We must be cautious though, so that those faults and failings don’t become our idols, so that we don’t cling to them.  It’s important that we be willing to let them go, leaving them behind as unnecessary baggage on our pilgrimage to see what else God has to show us; to learn our own loveliness.

I was so taken by this little excerpt, that I Googled it and found the whole poem.  It is entitled,

Saint Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its    loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

My hope for you this Holy Season, is that you will open yourself to God, that you will feel God’s touch on your brow and you will hear God’s words in your heart.
That you will remember the perfect loveliness of You.
That come Easter, you will flower again from within, of self-blessing.

Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow” from Three Books. Copyright © 2002 by Galway Kinnell.