Into the Wilderness, Ready or Not

Preached on 18 February 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
First Sunday in Lent, Year B

Wow, what a week!  In case you missed the reminder of your mortality on Ash Wednesday with a smear of ashes on your forehead, you could hardly miss the one in the news.  Does it feel a bit like someone punched you, loaded you into an SUV, drove out to the middle of nowhere, opened the door and shoved you out, and then sped off?

Or maybe you’ve become numb to the news.  Or maybe, out of self-preservation, you have to shut it out, completely.

Even if we escape the emotional turmoil of events in the news, even if we skip the reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, at some point, life will hand us one; life will toss us into the wilderness, ready or not, to confront temptation, danger, evil, loss.
Eventually, we have our very own, personal first Sunday in Lent.

Each year, on the first Sunday in Lent, we hear about Jesus in the wilderness.  He is tested by Satan, threatened by dangerous animals, and served by angels.  This year, we hear Mark’s account.  It is brief, even terse.  He is very spare with the details, describing the entire forty-day ordeal in a mere two sentences.  He leaves us to fill in the silence.

The lectionary includes the verses immediately before and those immediately after.  It appears, actually, that this is how Mark intends to tell the story, all of a piece.

In his telling, we see two intersecting story lines.

First, there’s John.  He is just outside of Jerusalem, baptizing people in the Jordan River.  He is proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, the One who is greater than he.  And he is telling the people the time has come, they must repent of their sins and be baptized.  This story line ends in his arrest.

Then there’s Jesus. He leaves his home in Nazareth, up north in Galilee and travels south into Judea, to Jerusalem where he is baptized by John in the Jordan and by the Holy Spirit from heaven.  Immediately, the same Holy Spirit tosses him into the wilderness.  When he finds his way out, he learns of John’s arrest and returns to Galilee.  There he proclaims the kingdom of God.

So often we hear these as three separate events, but Mark tells it as all of a piece.  Baptism-Testing in the wilderness-Proclaiming the reign of God.

Now, I’d like to pause a moment and say something about baptism.  When I was going through baptism preparation, the priest told us that the word baptism comes from the cloth-dying industry.  It has to do with the cloth or the yarn being so thoroughly soaked in the dye that every bit is colored.  Likewise, he said, when we are baptized it is like we are soaked in God; God is in every part of our being.

Now, I have never heard or read that description anywhere else, but it was very meaningful to me and that is the image I still carry with me.  God is thoroughly with us and in us; we are never apart.

Mark describes it as the Holy Spirit descending into Jesus.  And then God’s assurance, “you are my beloved Son.  I am so pleased with you.”  Before Jesus even does anything, God expresses God’s favor.

This is all so important because immediately, the Spirit tosses him into the wilderness.
But not alone.
God is with him, the angels serve him.

Baptism and wilderness go together.  Danger and evil aren’t eliminated, but we have God’s help confronting them.  We mustn’t delude ourselves, thinking that we can or do overcome evil, resist temptation on our own.  We do it with God’s help.

Then, after John is arrested, Jesus returns home to Galilee to proclaim the time has come, it is now, the reign of God is here.  He proclaims the kingdom of God, not when everything is going great, but rather in the middle of a broken world.  He proclaims it to a people under the oppressive thumb of a foreign power, in the context of the unjust arrest of one of their own.

It’s time, he says.  Despite what you see, the kingdom of God is breaking through and the kingdoms of this world can’t hold a candle to it.  God’s is a different kind of kingdom.
It’s time to turn your heart and mind and spirit toward God.  It’s time to choose; to believe, to trust the Good News; to rely on it.

We undertake the work of Lent, of facing and seeing and challenging the darkness within ourselves, in our lives, and in the world around us.
We undertake the work God calls us to do, proclaiming the Good News of the reign of God in the face of the powers of this world, powers of injustice, powers that seek to destroy, because we don’t face them alone.

We do it in the presence of God;
with the power of the Holy Spirit,
held within the steadfast love of God,
and bathed in the light of Christ.

Thanks be to God.


Happy Valentine’s Day

Preached on 14 February 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Ash Wednesday

Happy Valentine’s Day.  The last time Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day was in 1945.  Did you look at the calendar this year and say, “you’ve got to be kidding!?”  I know I got a bit of a laugh – especially because Easter Day falls on April Fools Day.  But you know, when you think about it, it seems quite fitting that Lent begins on a day devoted to love.  Because, you see, the heart of Lent, in fact, its very foundation is Love.

Now Valentine’s day is sometimes called a made-up holiday or a Hallmark holiday; that it’s all about the commercialization – flowers, candy, fancy dinners, and expensive dates.  Yes, the marketplace has certainly turned a profit on this holiday, but there’s more to it than that.

Think about some of your earliest Valentine’s Days and what you may have learned about love.  I’m pretty sure my first valentines were from my mom: something tangible that I could touch and read and go back to and read again at those times when I might feel unlovable.  For as long as she could, Mom always sent us a valentine.  And I send them to my kids, too.

Then came the school parties, when we had to give a valentine to everyone or no one.  I don’t know if it sinks in at the time, but it may be a first experience of “you don’t have to like someone to love them.  You can choose to be kind instead of cruel.”

When God commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, it’s not about what we feel, and it’s not about liking everybody.  It’s about what we do; how we behave toward them.  It’s about ensuring they have what they need to survive, to live.

Love is more than an emotion.  Love is about relationship and relationships need attention and nurturing and even sacrifice, sometimes.  Love is tangible.

Lent is about Love; God’s love for us and God’s desire for us to be in right relationship with God.  Its foundation is God’s tangible, sacrificial love for us through Jesus Christ. It is because of God’s steadfast love for us; because of the assurance of God’s compassion, mercy, and forgiveness that we enter this holy work of relationship with God.

In a few minutes, we will be invited to the observance of a Holy Lent through self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on Scripture.

I would like to go a little deeper on a few of these practices, beginning with repentance.  Repentance is what it’s all about.  Turning away from that which is life-draining and toward what is life-giving, returning to right relationship with God and one another.  And in order to do that, we have to do some honest reflection on our lives not only individually, but as the various communities and groups we are a part of.

For example, how does Ascension love (or harm) our neighbor?  How do the policies of our local and state governments love our neighbors or not?  What about as a nation and how we treat all people?

Finally, a bit about Fasting.  One way to think of fasting is that we fast in order to feel uncomfortable; to miss things that matter to us.  Fasting can help us discover what may be more important to us than God.

Another way to think of fasting is as a form of repentance – turning away from those things which drain our lives or distract us from what is truly important and turn toward and embrace that which gives life.

We heard the prophet, Isaiah, speak to the people of Israel, Is this the fast that I choose…? To fast only to fight; to lie in sackcloth and ashes; to pretend to be humble?

Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to free the oppressed, to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; to cover the naked, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

What might you choose as your fast this Lent?
See if any of these resonate with you:

Fast from social media, from complaining, from worrying, from comfort or privilege, from the need to be right, from busyness.  Fast from bitterness, anger, envy, resentment, despair, self-pity.

What might you choose to embrace?  For example:

Embrace time and conversation with your family and friends.
Embrace volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, or donating blood.
Embrace activism against injustice.
Embrace gratitude, generosity, hope, joy, patience, forgiving others, reconciliation, compassion, kindness.
Embrace silence, simplicity, stillness.
Embrace movement, activity, your marvelous body.
Embrace listening – to the rain, to birds singing, to children laughing, to people talking, to music, to God.
Embrace rest and sleep; embrace Sabbath.

How might you share what you embrace with others?

In the 16th century, Bishop Bellarmine wrote,

If the body goes without food or drink for even one day, it immediately weeps and lets out a roar, and there is a great rush to bring it help.  But the soul fasts for whole weeks from its food, or languishes under the wounds received, or even lies dead, and no one takes care of it or shows it pity.  Visit your soul more and more often.

This holy season, may you frequently visit and tenderly care your soul.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Let’s go

Preached on 4 February 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

“Let’s go.  That’s why I came,” Jesus says.
That’s what Jesus says when his disciples come looking for him the next morning, saying, “where have you been?  Everyone’s looking for you.”
It’s what he says after some time spent away from the crowds clamoring for his attention, his help, his healing; after some time spent with God in quiet and in prayer, discerning what to do next.

And can’t you just hear the disciples?  “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute.  What do you mean, let’s go?  Don’t you know? Everybody’s looking for you.  We’re not done here.”

“But it’s time to move on. I have a message and I need to spread it to all the towns, not just this one. We have to focus on the main purpose, on why I came.”

“But you’re so good at healing and casting out demons and there are still so many people who need you,” they might say.

“But the message; it’s time to move on,” he would respond.

I bet you’ve felt that way before, and may even be feeling that way now.  Either the one saying, “let’s go, we need to focus.”  Or the one saying, “whoa, wait a minute, we’re not finished here.”

Mark packs a lot into these few paragraphs.  Today’s reading picks up immediately after what we heard last week when Jesus teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath and casts out a demon from a man there.

He and his disciples leave the synagogue and immediately go to Simon’s house whose mother-in-law is sick in bed.  Jesus raises her up and cures her of the fever.  What the NRSV translates as “lifted” is the same verb that is used later when Jesus is raised from the dead.  One could say this is a story of resurrection.

And immediately she begins to serve them.  She is embodying what the angels did for Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism – we’ll hear about that in a couple of weeks.  She is doing what Jesus does and what he tells his disciples they must do.  She serves.  So, one could say this is a story of call and discipleship.

As the story progresses, we see it move from the synagogue to the intimate privacy of a family home. Then, they move to the more public area of the doorway of the house, where the whole town gathers and Jesus heals many of their illnesses and casts out demons.  Next, it moves to Jesus alone with God, perhaps reflecting on what has just happened and thinking and praying about what to do next.  Finally, the disciples rejoin him and they move on.

We can see a pattern of action, then reflection, prayer, and discernment, and finally, new action.
Does one of these ways of looking at the passage catch your attention more than the others and invite you to further contemplation?

Perhaps the resurrection story invites you to look for and pay attention to the little resurrections happening all around us.  Whether it’s the flower bulbs that are starting to come up in our gardens or a physical healing or a relationship that has new energy or some other event that feels like new life bubbling up.

Or perhaps it’s the call story inviting you to ask yourself, in what way is God calling you to serve God’s people.  What does discipleship look like in your life?  In the life of this community?

Or maybe it’s’ the story of discernment and movement that catches your attention.

For me, this time, what caught my attention was that decision, almost like a turning point –  Let’s go.  That’s why I came.

We’ve all experienced that kind of decision point at some time in our lives.  Sometimes it’s a choice we make ourselves, but often it’s because of factors outside of our control.  In any case, we usually have a mixed bag of emotions and questions and even protestations.

I’m not ready.  We weren’t finished.
There’s so much more to say, so much more to do.
I don’t want to let go of or lose what we had.

On the other hand, we may feel relief that what was is finally over.

And alongside all of those, we may feel a mix of excitement and anxiety as we look forward anticipating what’s next.  What will we do?  Do we have what we need?  Will we be okay?
How will we know?

As Ascension enters into this time of transition, those emotions and questions may come up.  What will sustain us through this journey?  We can take our lead from Jesus:  take a step, then reflect and pray and discern, make adjustments as needed, and then take another step.

It also helps to have the words of a good prophet.  Remember what we heard from the prophet, Isaiah today?  This passage is from the Book of Consolation.  The people of Israel have been in exile in Babylon for decades.  They wonder if they’ll ever go home, Does God even hear them or has God abandoned them?  And Isaiah reminds them about their God.  “Did you not know?  Had you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning?  It is God who stretches out the heavens like a cloth; who created the remotest parts of the earth; who does not grow tired or weary. It is God who gives strength to the weary and strengthens the powerless.

This is the God who calls us, who guides us, who goes before us and behind us and beside us all the way.  This is the God who sustains us and gives us hope for the journey.

Let’s go.