Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lent 2

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."

2 But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." 5 He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." 8 But he said, "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.

I remember one very specific incident from my childhood.  This was when I was still in pre-school and so had a few days off during the week.  You know, all that counting and coloring can be a bit on the stressful side.  On said off-day, my mother promised that we would go to the park, and would do so in fifteen minutes.  This was an entirely reasonable time to wait, given how much else there was to do before heading off to the park, cleaning up the kitchen, getting my little brother dressed, paying a few bills, you know the routine of which I speak.  And reasonable or not, this was just not something that I, in my excitement and impatience, could abide, and so every few minutes I came to her asking if it was yet time for the park, if the fifteen minutes had indeed passed.  When they hadn’t, I would return to my activities in a fit of disappointment, inching ever closer to the existential cliff with each delay and rebuff.  I simply had no idea how this excess amount of time was going to pass.  How, indeed, was I to endure such cruel and gratuitous waiting?  Even as I pouted, my mother continued to do all the small things that were, in the end, for my benefit and safety.  Suffice it to say that my experience of those intervening minutes and that of my mother’s were not the same, and, yes, we did make it to the park.  And, yes, the swings and the slide were as glorious as I expected them to be.
“The waiting is the hardest part” sang that erstwhile theologian Tom Petty, and though several thousand years separates them, I cannot help but think that Abram would  agree with him; I know that the younger version of me desperate to hit the park certainly would. Our first reading finds Abram deep in his own sort of waiting.  As you will recall, the story of Abram and Sarai, later Abraham and Sarah, is primarily a story about divine promise and human impatience.  In their old age, Abram and Sarai are promised a child, a child through whom they will become parents of a nation as numerous as the stars, and against all the entirely reasonable reasons to the contrary, asked to believe that promise, and we pick up their story here, where the initial thrill of God’s promise has now been faded by each passing day and month without a pregnancy.  This promise of God’s has led to no little scandal, either. With all this wandering around, who can forget that  incident in which Abram and Sarai got thrown out of Egypt after Abram passed Sarai off  as his sister so as to spare his own neck?   And now we find Abram in that lonely and desperate place where he can see all for which he hoped beginning to outrun him,  never to be seen again.  The stabbing doubt that perhaps God is not as faithful as Abram had hoped, or perhaps Abram had, in all the delirium misunderstood God and the actual content of the promise.  So what does he do?  Well, he takes an action that you and I can absolutely relate to.  Abram leans into that adage, “if you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself,” and proposes to God a new plan: “Why don’t I just go ahead and adopt my servant, and then I will have an heir?”  asks Abram.  But God is having none of this.  Against this cautious attempt of Abram’s, God’s response is to take Abram out and observe the splendor of a thousand countless stars, and to tell Abram to look upon his future.  For his heirs will be as numerous as the stars that explode the evening sky.  One can certainly feel the incredible gulf between these two propositions.  Abram is content to adopt his servant, to gain the promise by a technicality, and to thus buffer himself from any further disappointment and worry, to do whatever is needed to just end this horrid waiting already.  God, on the other hand, is not interested in reducing this promise to something that will soothe Abram’s immediate anxiety.  There is too much at stake, and in spite of Abram’s concern and worry, God is in no position to doubt God’s own promises.  And so God shows Abram something even more glorious, even more extravagant than the initial promise of a child: a multitude of children, of offspring, too numerous to count, let alone comprehend.  So much for adhering to Abram’s low-risk policy. 
And what makes this moment so compelling is just how incredibly human it is.  Who, honestly, cannot relate to Abram?  Who among us has not, from time to time,  surveyed one’s life circumstances and wondered where God’s promise to be faithful was in the midst of all it?  Who has not felt the agony and oppression of the time that passes between a prayer and its fulfillment? Who has not felt the weariness of waiting?  Waiting for God, waiting for hope, waiting for a new job or reconciliation with a family member, or a sense of inner-peace and calm, or for life to slow down a bit, or for the grief to finally let up a bit, yes, who has not felt the pain of waiting for these things?  Who has not, in moments of desperation when everything seems to be falling apart, yes, who has not tried to take matters into their own hands, effectively telling God, “thank you very much, but I’ve got it from here?”  Yes, we know Abram’s waiting, because we are humans who must learn how to reckon with the promises of a mysterious God whose ways are not our ways. 
And plunged into this space where Abram is asked to believe something far more beautiful, and in that way disturbing, than he could have even imagined, what exactly is it that Abram does?  Well, in this most incredible moment, this moment in which Abram is led out, led out from himself and his expectations, led out from his sense of what is and what is not possible, led out from his myopic understandings and his thin comforts, it is this space, this vertiginous space that Abram is led to belief.  Led to trust God and God only.  Led to relationship with God in which the promise is again renewed and in that wide space of trust, both Abram and God are found to be righteous.  And in space of faith, God renews the promise in a startling way.  Passing through torn animals as a fire pot, God effectively tells Abram that, should the promise not come to pass, then God will suffer the same fate as those animals, such is the gravity of what God has promised. 
And it is to this space of faith that you and I are called.  Called against our fear and expectation, called against our own sense of time and the way that God fulfills what God has promised.  Yes called to lean not on our own will and self-sufficiency, but called together, with the whole of creation, with all those who wait on the Lord’s promises, yes called with all our sisters and brothers, called to this God as baby chickens are called to their mother hen, and make no mistake, there is fear and terror in this call.  We will be led out apart from and against ourselves, against that desire within us that wishes to remain self-sufficient, that desires to rely on no one and nothing.  We will be led ultimately and finally to a God clothed not in splendor and glory, but clothed in our sin and our neighbor’s needs and sorrow.  A God who, in his glory, will go to the cross, and there, as the Christ, endure all manner of thing on our behalf.  This is the God to whom our faith finally leads.  This is the God for whom we wait, and not just waiting as some sort of passive exercise.  But waiting with the sure knowledge that God’s promises will be fulfilled, and that, as the mystic said, “all manners of things will be well.”  And so we wait.  We wait in prayer and meditation.  We wait in service of all those whom crave mercy and justice.  We wait as we again take the Lord’s body and blood into our very selves.  And in all this waiting, we are found again by the God who promises every good.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lent 1

Luke 4:1-13
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone.' " 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' " 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11 and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " 12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

 “Lead us not into temptation” we will pray in a few minutes, and surely we must mean something more than do not put a extra piece of that chocolate cake in front of us.  Indeed, there must be more at stake than our waistlines, important though they may be.  What does it mean to be tempted?  And not just tempted, but tempted specifically as a Christian person, as one who has been claimed by the Christ in that baptismal flood?  After all, if we are to look to the culture around us for clues on what temptation means and why it must be resisted, we will, no doubt, be left with more emptiness and confusion than we started with.  Dare I say this, but it is my hunch that the culture around us has totally lost any notion of what genuine temptation means, and believe me, I know that 30 years old is way too young to be a curmudgeon, though please hear me out.  We have, it seems to me, lost the gravity of temptation in two steps.  First, we have come to think of temptation as only those things that are related to our bodily appetites-- plates of food dripping with rich, buttery sauces, an attractive man or woman, a really good bottle of wine or a really large amount of beer.   And then, because we have, collectively, lost any sense that maybe some form of discipline and not indulgence is the way into happiness, we go ahead and take whatever we feel we deserve.  Life is short we say, tomorrow is far from promised, so why not take what small thrills are afforded us in the present moment?  In this, we see succumbing to temptation as a sort of illicit, though I cannot imagine who is objecting, way to fill our lives with meaning and joy, fleeting though they may be, a little luxury to get us through the grind of our daily lives.  So according to a different creed, we eat; we drink; we are merry, as tomorrow we die.   
And the point I want to make this morning is that I don’t think any of the above is a helpful way to understand what it is to be tempted as Christian.  Certainly there is a good and holy discussion to be had about what it means to live out our discipleship in the midst of our creaturehood, to ask what it means to be a Christian with all sorts of good and God-given appetites, but that discussion is not the first and most helpful way into today’s text.   Because there is nothing frivolous or luxurious about the temptation that we see in today’s text.  Here Jesus is, led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness.  40 days alone, 40 days apart from the comforts of family or home or friends and loved ones, to say nothing of a regular and timely meal.  40 days to sit in utter reliance on God, the creator and sustainer of all things.  And so when the devil comes to Jesus, by this point famished, and makes the very reasonable suggestion that he use his divine power to procure a bit of bread, there is much at stake.  What hangs in the balance in this first temptation and will carry over to the second and third is this: what does it mean to actually trust in God?  You’ll notice that the devil, in his craftiness, does not ask Jesus to give up being faithful or anything like it.  Instead, he attempts to twist the meaning of words and sentiments to take what is good and God-given and bend it towards his own ends.  “If you are the Son of God, why not demonstrate that power and create a bit of bread?  Clearly, Jesus, you are a pious soul, so why not worship me and get a little more out of the bargain than 40 days in the desert?  Oh, God has promised to protect you?  Well, just to make sure that is true, why not a bit of base-jumping to make sure that God is still paying attention?”  You can see the deception at work, can’t you?  The point is to twist and corrupt this faith, this trust, step-by-conniving-step, so that Jesus is fooled into thinking that he needs more evidence than what he already has.  The strategy of the devil, the form of the temptation, is finally to try to expose God’s promises to Jesus as not being enough.  To call to question the proclamation at his baptism, to make it so that the Holy Spirit’s nearness to Jesus in the wilderness is insufficient, and in all of this, to take Jesus’ faith and twist it until there is nothing left at all.
All this, then, brings us back to the state of our own temptedness.  No we are not Jesus and we will not, are not tempted with this same intensity.  That is left for him alone.  However, as those baptized into Christ, as those who share of his life with the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can expect the temptations to come.  And no doubt, they come to us in our own wilderness experiences, when the things that gave us stability, meaning, a sense of the future, yes, when even these begin to crumble.  And that can come in the form of a health scare or a divorce, or a severe downsizing at work, or a suddenly rocky relationship with a family member, or 14 days in a row without any time off, or any number of other circumstances that we all face and endure.  And when these afflictions overcome us, the first thing the devil will try and take is our trust in God.  “Oh, God loves and cares for you,” he will whisper in our ears, “why is it that you still can’t find a job or that your mother is not well?”  Yes, this is the way the devil will tempt us, by trying to take away the trust in God that the Holy Spirit has created within us.  He, that is the devil, will try and tell us that the evidence just doesn’t match up.  That the good things of God, the Word, the holy meal, the communion of saints who comfort us, the joyful service of the neighbor to which we are called, that these aren’t as real as the pain and trials that we go through, and in this we are tempted, one niggling doubt at a time, to lose our trust in God’s goodness, and this is, no doubt, is much more serious than that extra piece of cake.
But these trials and temptations, these by no means must lead to those sins of despair and unbelief.  Though we ourselves are overcome by such things, the God who is near to us in Christ is not.  No, this God can silence these doubts and temptations by his strong presence and mighty word.  This is why the devil is so quickly defeated in Jesus’ temptation.  While the devil might be able to take and twist around the words of God, he himself cannot create them or withstand them.   In the words of Luther’s finest hymn, “One little word subdues him.”  And as St. Paul writes that Word, that Word which alone is your salvation and your comfort, that Word which comes to you in the flesh of Jesus the Christ, that Word which envelopes and guards you from all evil, that “word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”  And that Word is strong enough to guide and protect in all the wildernesses through which you must pass.  So cling to this Word  this Jesus as he cling to you, and know that he has withstood all temptation and pain on your behalf.  Know his mere presence is enough to scatter the powers of darkness.  So fear not when the wilderness comes or when God leads you out there.  For you are only being led that your faith may grow and you may return with deeper love for God, neighbor and all creation.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

[37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." 41 Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]

If you have the unhappy luck of being in a group of clergy-types, and trust me, I hope that this is not ever the case, you might hear these pastors gushing on and on about how much they love St. Peter.  The reason for this, as one who is a part of the St. Peter fan club, is pretty simple: in his unfailing humanity, he often gives voice to what is the most natural response in any given situation.  One minute he is proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ, God’s Messiah, and in the next minute, he is trying to direct Jesus on a different path. He proclaims his undying devotion to Jesus, and then in a scene that is heartbreaking because it is so true,  denies ever knowing the guy so as to protect his own skin, and what makes Peter so compelling is that this all feels entirely sincere.  He truly believes that he would follow Jesus to death, and therefore is utterly surprised when he denies knowing Jesus in a fit of self-preservation.  Peter may be wrong a lot of the time, but he is wrong with heart. 
And today, before us, is one of my favorite Peter scenes, the transfiguration.  After Jesus has proclaimed that his Messiahship will be one of suffering, one of pain and desolation and communion with all the downtrodden and ignored, yes, after he says these thing, he takes with him Peter, James and John to the mountain to pray.  And then, just then, the miraculous happens.  That thin veil which separates heaven from earth is burst through by the divine light of God’s love.  Jesus’ face begins to shine in eternal splendor, the very brightness of his clothing now a testament to things not of this world.   And then, as though this weren’t enough, Elijah and Moses, the two most important figure of the Hebrew Scriptures, manifest as out of nowhere.  And they come to this Christ in glory, that is in the dazzling light of the eternal Father to whom they had drawn so close all the days of their lives. 
            And as clear as it is that Peter’s response, “Master, it is good for us to be here” probably doesn’t quite capture the gravity of the moment, I am entirely certain that I would not have been able to do any better.  What words are given to humans that can witness to such things?  But here’s the interesting thing, if we want to think of Peter as speaking without thinking, of giving the natural and human response in any given situation, it is what he says next that is keeps things moving.   “let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” with Luke the Evangelist not being able to stop himself from editorializing that Peter did not know what he was saying.  The problem for Peter is not in his accurate if understated observation of the goodness of this moment.  No, the glory of God is finally the only lasting goodness that we may know.  Instead, the problem is that Peter wants to capture this glory, wants to contain and master it, so as to finally control this glory.  To build a dwelling place for the glory of God, after all, is finally an attempt to domesticate this glory, to experience it within the limits of human ambition and desire and boundary.  And this is Peter’s mistake, this is perhaps why the cloud overshadows him and the voice of God, both ancient and still just beginning, breaks into the midst of Peter’s earnest plotting and effectively tells him that rather than speaking so much, maybe a little more listening would do the trick. 
            Because here’s the thing.  Peter is right that it is good for them to be there.  Why else would Jesus take the disciples with them, and what other possible response is there to such divine nearness?  But the problem is that Peter wants this event to be good in isolation from everything that is happening; Peter wants a self-sufficient spiritual high.  And this is where he misses out on the true goodness of this event.  Did you catch the conversation that Jesus is having with Moses and Elijah?  They appear in glory and begin speaking with Jesus about his departure, more accurately his exodus, yes his exodus, to Jerusalem.  And what awaits this Jesus in Jerusalem, you might rightly ask?  Well the things that he had talked about eight days before this event.  The rejection by the elders and the chief priests, the farcical trial and the inglorious death, all of this that sin, death, and hell might themselves be defeated.  And this, is the fundamental link that Peter seems to miss.  As good and glorious as this event, as this transfiguration is, it is not the final resting place, not, finally, the point, at least not this side of heaven.  No, the goodness of the event is not that is can be contained, not that glory may find a resting place up on the mountain apart from all human misery and pain, but that, in being found by this glory, Jesus is himself strengthened for what is coming.  For the shame and fear and pain and suffering that he will endure, all for the sake of a broken and frightened humanity. 
            To be certain, we are convicted by Peter’s role in all of this.  Too often, it seems, we want to make a dwelling place of the glory of God; we want to have God’s goodness and love on our terms.  That way, we can limit what this glory might ask of us, and I dare say, act as the gatekeepers for this glory.   We can do this in all sorts of ways, deciding that the present will never match up to the past, and thus our memories become the only place where God can actually live.  Or when we encounter a stranger, so very different from us, and for whatever reason, determine them to be unfit for God’s glory.  Or when we seek a spiritual high that does not then transform us, does not send us into deeper love of God and neighbor, no matter the manner in which we encounter them. 
            Though honesty about such things is required, please, dear people of God, do not allow this to become a chance for despair, for that is the devil’s work.  For as much as we, like St. Peter, would wish to capture this glory for ourselves, God simply does not work that way.  For Christ does not stay on the mountain.  No he returns to the crowds who need mercy and forgiveness lest all be lost.  Which is, of course, to say, that he returns to me and you.  And he does not keep his glory to himself, but in the cross to which he is headed, he will pour out this glory on all flesh, so that you and I may receive all that he shares with the Father, that you and I may now live out of the fullness of God’s mercy which spills over from age to age.  Yes, that you may become children of the heavenly Father.  And this is why the glory cannot be kept on the mountain, because Christ is too intent to come down and give it to you.  To give it to you in the kindness of his presence, in the goodness of the body broken and the blood poured out. These gifts given so that you may know God’s eternal love for you.  But, oh dear people of God, do not expect this glory to leave you as you are.  That is just not how God works.  For when Christ comes into your midst as he has again this morning, he brings with him all those he loves and pleads with us that we would do the same.  That in this space, the poor and the lonely and the fearful might find comfort and sustenance, that the despised might find dignity and hope.  That those whose tremble with emptiness might know the fullness of God’s mercy.  For it is in this humanity that the glory of God now dwells.  And it is to this humanity that we are called in love, hope and joy.  Get out there.  For the glory of God awaits.  In Jesus’ name, amen.