Friday, February 29, 2008

Sermon: 4 Lent (2 March 2008)

Sermon: 4 Lent (2 March 2008)
(1 Samuel 16:1-13/Psalm 23/Ephesians 5:8-14/John 9:1-41)
Warning Labels

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

(The sermon for the Sunday of 4 Lent is a meditation and discussion of Jesus's sign of the healing of the man blind from birth. There is no written text of the sermon.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sermon: 3Lent (24 Feb 2008)

3 Lent: 24 February 2008
(Exodus 17:1-7/Psalm 95/Romans 5:1-11/John 4:5-42)
How Much More

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

Would you be willing to answer truthfully twenty-one personal questions in the presence of family and friends and in view of hosts of strangers – questions designed to be compromising and humiliating – all for the chance to win $500,000? That’s the challenge posed to a contestant on the new FOX Television reality/game show Moment of Truth. There’s a polygraph and money and humiliation – a voyeur’s dream. Maybe that’s why the show is popular in twenty-three countries.

I’ve never seen the program, but on one advertisement for it a young, female contestant is asked whether she really cares about the starving children in Africa. She looks stricken by the question. She pauses to consider her options and then the commercial moves on before she answers. I really don’t understand her response, or lack of response. Ask me that question and I can answer immediately: Of course I care about the starving children in Africa, and not in Africa only but in Haiti and Sudan and in countless villages and refugee camps in third world countries scattered around the world. I care about the hungry children and adults in Appalachia and in the slums of our American cities and under the overpasses in our own community. Now, ask me if I care about these hungry children as much as I care about my own daughter. Once again I can answer immediately: No, I am obviously less concerned about meeting the most basic needs of these children than in satisfying the desires of my own daughter. That admission humbles me, but it is demonstrably true. I spend more money on my one child each year than I do on all the world’s hungry children combined. I devote more thought and time and energy to her than to all the rest. I do care about the world’s children, just not as much as I do about my own child. The world’s children are abstract, my own daughter personal. They are far away while she is near. And in concern and prayer I find that proximity and relationship are crucial. It is much more difficult for me to pray meaningfully for impoverished third world children in the abstract than to pray for Xiomara, Majory, Karin, and Nehemie – children that either Trinity Church or my family sponsor, children with whom we have a relationship. And pastors and churches in restricted countries or under difficult ministry circumstances? Well, knowing Stephen and Florence in Nigeria or Daniel in Ghana – reading their letters, seeing their pictures – that makes all the difference. For me, proximity and relationship are factors in my concern and my prayer – not the only factors, but important ones nonetheless.

Our gospel lesson poses a Moment of Truth question to Jesus: Do you really care about the Samaritans? As the account begins, Jesus and his disciples are in Judea baptizing – conducting a ministry paralleling John’s. In fact, some rivalry apparently develops between Jesus’s disciples and John’s disciples, with the Pharisees keeping score; Jesus is in the lead, baptizing more disciples than John. This kind of attention is unwanted and unwelcome at this point in Jesus’s ministry so he decides to retreat to the relative safety and anonymity of his home in Galilee to the north. There are two travel options available for him: an eastern route along the Jordan River valley to the Sea of Galilee – a route favored by most Jews – and a shorter, more direct route through Samaria. Generally, there was no real contest between the routes; Jews did everything possible to avoid the Samaritans and would choose the Eastern route for this reason. Why the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans? The hard feeling between them extend back to the exile. When the northern kingdom of Israel, including the region of Samaria, was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C., the majority of the populace was deported and the land repopulated with exiles from other Assyrian-conquered nations. These peoples assimilated with the few remaining ethnic Jews – mainly the poor, aged, and infirm – to form a new people and culture, the Samaritans, who retained only an adulterated and deficient form of Jewish faith and practice. Some two hundred years later, when the Jews from the southern kingdom of Judah returned from their own captivity – returned to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem and to repopulate the land – the Samaritans opposed their incursion into the central region of the country and the resettlement of that region. That’s all the reason the Jews needed to despise their half-breed cousins in Samaria. The blood between these groups was so bad that Jews were not safe to travel through Samaria; even discounting the difficulties with finding food and lodging, physical attack was a real possibility. So the Eastern route from Judea to Galilee became the established route. But not for Jesus, not on this day. He heads straight through Samaria.

You know the story; we need not rehearse it in full detail. Jesus and company reach the Samaritan city of Sychar around noon. They are tired and Jesus rests by Jacob’s well there while the disciples head into town to try to find something kosher for lunch. In their absence a Samaritan woman comes to the well for water. And you know all the implications of that. This woman is a social outcast who will not or cannot come to the well in the early morning hours with the other women of the village; she comes late and by herself. We find out later that she has a very dubious sexual history – five previous husbands and a current live-in lover. And Jesus does the unthinkable: “Give me a drink,” he says to her, violating several social taboos at once: associating with a Samaritan; speaking with a woman, especially one of poor character; offering to drink from an unclear water jar or bucket or skin.

You know that a dialog occurs in which Jesus offers her living water and reveals himself as the Messiah. And in the midst of that dialog over where and how you are supposed to worship God – on Mount Gerazim as the Samaritans insist or in Jerusalem as the Jews contend – Jesus says,

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4:21-23, NRSV).

And with these words Jesus answers the question, Do you really care about the Samaritans? Yes, my Father cares – I care – for all those who will worship in spirit and truth; I care for them and I seek them out. I care enough to reveal my identity to this very broken Samaritan woman and to offer her the life-giving water of rebirth in the Spirit. Jew, Samaritan, even Gentile – it makes no difference. Each must be and each can be born again of water and the Spirit, and each can become a true worshiper of the Father. Yes, I care about Samaritans.

Well, OK, fair enough. But Jesus, do you care about the Samaritans as much as you care about the Jews, or are proximity and relationship important to you, too? With the possible exception of the Great Commission, the gospels leave this question relatively open. Jesus’s ministry is almost exclusively with the Jews. But Paul tackles this question – it’s central to his theology and vocation – in his magnum opus Romans, the epistle lesson appointed for us this day.

In the opening section of this letter Paul argues that all people – Gentiles and Jews alike, and we can include Samaritans, here, if we like – are sinners and are in rebellion against God. There’s his dismal summary in Romans 3 that begins, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,” and continues, “All have turned aside, together they have become worthless.” This is Paul’s candid assessment of the human condition before God. But at this point I want to ask him, Paul, is this how God really considers us – as unrighteous, as worthless? As soon as this question occurs to me Paul answers it, in the epistle lesson appointed for us this day from Romans 5.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8, NRSV).

Does God really consider us as unrighteous, as sinners? Well, yes, undoubtedly he does because that’s the truth of our condition and God majors in truth. But worthless? That’s another matter entirely. While we were truly weak and sinful and unrighteous God proved that we were not worthless in his eyes – he demonstrated that we are of inestimable worth: while we were sinners Christ died for us. If you ever doubt your worth, if you ever doubt God’s love for you, if you ever doubt that his unfailing disposition toward you is grace and blessing, look to the cross. See Jesus there, and seeing, bless God

for your creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for his immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace and the hope of glory (The General Thanksgiving, BCP 101).

So, yes, Jesus loves Samaritans – as much as he loves Jews. And, in fact, we are all Samaritans: outcasts, half-breeds, unrighteous, ignorant, sinners. But, go figure: God’s got this thing for Samaritans. He loves them to death, to the death of his only-begotten Son. That’s what Samaritans are worth in God’s eyes.

But God’s love – it’s truth and power – are more remarkable still. Though God loved us while we were yet Samaritans, he did not leave us as Samaritans – outcasts, half-breeds, unrighteous, ignorant, sinners. His love transformed and transforms us; his love justified us, reconciled us, and brought us near. Hear Paul.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rom 5:9-12, ESV).

You’ve seen the commercials on television -- I think Ronco was the first – commercials that make an offer almost too good to be true – and all for only three payments of $19.99 – and then almost breathlessly say, “But wait! There’s more. If you order today…”. That’s Paul’s theme in this text: But wait! There’s more! If you think you were loved while you were God’s enemies – and you were – wait, there’s more! His love has justified you by the blood of Christ; how much more now that you are his son or daughter will you be saved from wrath on the day of judgment. If you think you were loved while you were alienated from God, a love proved by the death of Christ – and you were – wait, there’s more! His love and death have reconciled you; how much more will you be saved by his life within you. And so we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, more and more and much more.

Because of his great love toward us, because although we once were, we no longer are Samaritans, we live not in fear of God and his judgment but in the grace of God and his mercy. And this love both frees us and compels us. It frees us to live boldly in the grace of God, to commend our lives into his keeping, to love and serve others as Christ has loved and served us, to live in confidence and without fear, to say with Paul,

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that [and there it is again, that glorious theme], who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:31b-35, 37-39, ESV).

And such love compels us – compels us to obedience, not from fear of punishment but from the desire to love him as he loves us, from the desire truly to be God’s sons and daughters and Christ’s brothers and sisters, from the desire to be like him. For, in our own moment of truth

we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.

And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:16-19, 21, ESV).

Because we are loved with God’s love, with a love stronger than death, we are free to love, we are compelled to love – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because we are loved with God’s love, with a love stronger than death, we are free to obey, we are compelled to obey this, his commandment, “that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23, ESV). For us, this is the moment of truth: will we accept his love, will we return his love, will we share his love?


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sermon: 2 Lent (17 February 2008)

2 Lent: 17 February 2008
(Genesis 12:1-4a/Psalm 121/Romans 4:1-5, 13-17/John 3:1-17)
The Power of Wrong

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

Being right exercises great power over weak minds – over strong ones, too. So does being wrong. You notice it in education. There’s the kid in the front seat of the center row whose hand pops up to answer every question, bouncing in the seat, body language screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” – a real life Hermione Granger. Her self-esteem is dependent on being right, on being right first, on being right always. Then there’s the kid in the back seat of the far-most row, head down, eyes averted, engaged only in trying to be invisible. This kid lives in constant fear of being noticed, of being called on to answer a question or make a comment or venture a conjecture, because this kid is terrified of being wrong. One kid is a little hollow inside, the other a little fragile. Perhaps you were one of those kids, or even are one of those kids. And honestly, there’s a little of each one of them in each one of us, isn’t there?

I read somewhere – I wish I remembered where – that one of the most difficult things for any person to do is to admit being wrong about a deeply held belief, especially if he’s taught or defended or just held that belief passionately and publicly. I believe it; I’ve seen the anguish this can cause. Why is it that being right is so important? Why is it that being wrong is so devastating? Being right exercises great power over weak minds – over strong ones, too. So does being wrong.

People will die to keep from being wrong and kill to prove themselves right. It’s true on a personal level and on a national level. If there were ever any doubts about that, 9/11 and its aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq should have erased them. Wherever you stand on the war, the battle is clearly one of ideologies: Radical Islam versus decadent Western culture or the inalienable right to freedom and democracy versus religious totalitarianism, depending on your point of view. It’s right there in our own Christian tradition, too, in the witness of the martyrs – men, women, and children, slave and free, ancient and modern, who would sooner die that admit they were wrong about Jesus, and in governments like Rome and Russia and China and Viet Nam and North Korea who are only too ready to oblige them. Being right exercises great power. So does being wrong.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-2a, ESV).

This is John writing the account of Nicodemus, a real literary stylist who wastes no words; everything is important. So, when John writes, “Nicodemus came to Jesus by night,” we should pay careful attention. Light and darkness are recurring themes in John’s gospel (cf John 1:1-10), symbols of good and evil, of knowledge and ignorance. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, in the darkness, in his ignorance, bound up in his sin and the sin of his people. That’s the truth of the situation as John wants us to understand it. But that’s likely not what Nicodemus was thinking about. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to avoid being seen with Jesus. Why? Because Jesus was wrong, and to be seen consorting with the wrong people, well, that just won’t do, will it? Every major cultural group in Israel would have considered Jesus wrong. To the Zealots, the first century Jewish equivalent of the Taliban or Hamas – the freedom fighters/terrorists who slit Roman throats at every opportunity – to these Zealots Jesus was a collaborator, as was anyone who refused to violently oppose the Roman occupation. To the Zealots, Jesus was wrong. To the Sadducees – the priests in charge of the temple and the true Roman collaborators – Jesus was an upstart who challenged their status quo, questioned their authority, and himself assumed religious prerogatives reserved for the priesthood and the temple. To the Sadducees, Jesus was wrong. To the Pharisees – the self-appointed watchdogs of Torah and the keepers of the flame of righteousness – Jesus seemed all too lax in his keeping of the Law and much too ready to feast with “the wrong sort of people.” To the Pharisees, Jesus was wrong. And the list goes on. In the eyes of every important first century Palestinian group, Jesus was wrong. Except for the common people, of course: the poor, the lame, the sick, the widows and orphans, the lepers and outcasts, the tax collectors and prostitutes and not a few Samaritans – these loved Jesus. But, little matter: they were wrong, too. And two wrong don’t make a right.

So, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, saying

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2b, ESV).

Unless these words are pure sarcasm – and I don’t think they are -- they cut right to the heart of a dilemma that Nicodemus seems to experience: If Jesus is wrong, as all his colleagues assume, then why does God apparently work so powerfully through him? The Jewish leaders had their own answer for this: Jesus is demon possessed and is in league with Beelzebub, the ruler of demons. It’s not God working through him at all. But Nicodemus apparently doesn’t agree, or is at least willing to entertain the notion that maybe Jesus isn’t wrong, after all. And that makes Jesus’s answer to his greeting all the more significant.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, ESV).

I’ve watched Clare this last week performing a real act of Lenten charity; she’s knitting part of a blanket to be given to a ill colleague from the members of her department, a gift of time and concern, the work of hands and hearts. Now, Clare can knit, but this particular pattern is much more complex than she’s attempted before. I’ve seen her agonize over a small mistake: Should she just leave it and continue – my answer is yes – or should she rip out several rows and start them over? In knitting it seems, some mistakes can be ignored, some can be fixed easily, and some – well, for some, things have gone so wrong that you just have to start over.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, ESV).

With these words Jesus turns the tables on Nicodemus as surely as he had turned the tables on the money-changers in the temple. Nicodemus, you are so wrong, that you must be born again. You must start over from scratch if you hope to see the kingdom of God. You can’t ignore this wrong and you can’t easily fix it. You just have to start over.

How hard these words must have been for Nicodemus to hear. How hard it is to admit you’ve been profoundly wrong about a deeply held belief, especially if you’ve taught or defended or just held that belief passionately and publicly, as Nicodemus surely had. Nicodemus is a ruler of his people, a member of the Jewish Council, a recognized religious authority, and this upstart rabbi who everyone else knows to be wrong, tells Nicodemus that he, Nicodemus, is wrong and must start over.

No wonder Nicodemus is stunned and confused. His response shows how little he understands or perhaps how hard he’s trying not to understand what Jesus said.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born” (John 3:4, ESV)?

This isn’t a biological question. Whatever Jesus means Nicodemus knows it isn’t about re-entering the womb. No, I think we need to see this as a cry of the heart and not of the mind, as a profound question from the depths of his being. How can I, a leader in Israel, a teacher of the law, a member of the Council, admit that I’ve been wrong all along and start over? How can you ask that of me? How can I possibly do that?

Do you remember the rich, young ruler who came to Jesus seeking eternal life – the one who left sorrowful when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him? “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said to his disciples as the young man walked away. “Who then can be saved?” they asked, just as confused there as Nicodemus is here. “With man it is impossible; but with God, all things are possible,” Jesus explained. And he says the same to Nicodemus.

“Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8, ESV).

How can you admit you’ve been wrong and start over again, Nicodemus? You can’t – not on your own; but with God all things are possible. This new birth is a gift of the Spirit, a blowing of the divine wind; it’s the breath of God. How can you admit you’ve been wrong and start over again, Nicodemus? Get in the water. It starts there with baptism, which is in every sense a complete death of self, a total admission of wrong, a ripping out of the stitches to start over. You must be born of water. Then comes the Spirit – new breath, new life, a wind blowing where it will, a wind that you will never fully understand. You must be born again, Nicodemus, of water and of the Spirit.

It wasn’t easy for Nicodemus then. During Jesus’s life it seems likely he became a secret disciple like Joseph of Arimathea, still afraid of being seen as wrong, still afraid of associating with the wrong people. He did once screw up his courage and defend Jesus’ right to a fair hearing when the Sanhedrin was ready to summarily condemn Jesus. And finally at Jesus’s death he came fully out of the closet, when he saw the wrong done to this good man by those whose opinions he once had valued. It wasn’t easy for Nicodemus then and it’s not easy for us now. We are resident aliens in a culture which seeks its life in so many places of death: in the accumulation of wealth, in the exercise of power, in the temporary self-gratification of shallow sensuality. And it is tempting and easy as resident aliens to assimilate, to put down roots, to worship these gods of the nations. Even here in the buckle of the Bible Belt where there’s still a veneer of faith, it’s not easy to come to Jesus and admit you’ve been wrong. It’s easier to come to Jesus only by night, afraid of being seen with him. He is, after all, slightly disreputable and somewhat scandalous in the eyes of the movers and shakers of the world. And even then we’re afraid that when we do come under cover of night we might just hear him say, “You must be born again.” Then what will we do?

Nicodemus knew that keeping company with Jesus would be disruptive, risky business. He opted for secret discipleship. Nothing much has changed through the years. Keeping company with Jesus is still disruptive, risky business. And many of his followers still opt for secret discipleship. It’s funny: we can be secret disciples and yet openly attend church, wear Jesus t-shirts and plaster our car with Jesus bumper stickers. The only real requirement for secret discipleship is that we keep Jesus in his place, confined to church or t-shirts or bumper stickers, compartmentalized and not free to roam the world, much less to rule it. As long as we don’t take Jesus too seriously; as long as we don’t place him at the center of our marriages, families, professions, politics, and finances; as long as we don’t let him make demands on our world we are secret disciples. But plant the cross of Jesus in the center of our being and at the center of our being in the world, and suddenly we find ourselves hanging out with the wrong people.

Whatever you think about this particular issue, let a pharmacist refuse to fill a prescription for RU486, a pill designed to abort a very early term fetus, refuse because she’s become an open disciple of Jesus, and suddenly she’s seen as associating with the wrong sort of people. Let a soldier lay down his arms because he’s become an open disciple of Jesus, and suddenly he’s seen as associating with the wrong sort of people. Let a prosperous business woman sell her company and move into an inner city neighborhood to live with and serve the poor all because she’s become an open disciple of Jesus, and suddenly she’s seen as associating with the wrong sort of people. And the list goes on.

At it’s very best the church is comprised of all the wrong sort of people, led by the worst of the bunch – Jesus himself. Life in the Spirit is this upside down, topsy-turvy world that Jesus warned Nicodemus and us about: the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the right shall be wrong and the wrong shall be made righteous. The Spirit blows where it will, and we hear its sound, but don’t always know where it comes from or where it’s going.

So, we in the church must be willing to be wrong in the way Jesus was wrong: wrong by reaching out to the marginalized and excluded – to the sinners and tax collectors among us – wrong by talking to Samaritans and assuring them that the day is coming and now is when God seeks all those who will worship in Spirit and in truth, wrong in feasting with those who have been excluded from the table of fellowship, wrong in associating with people who may be wrong in different ways than we are.

Ironically, being wrong in this way is actually being right in the only way that really matters. I’m willing to be wrong in the eyes of the world as long as I’m wrong in the company of the one who said,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sermon: 1 Lent (10 February 2008)

1 Lent: 10 February 2008
(Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7/Psalm 32/Romans 5:12-19/Matthew 4:1-11)
The Faithful Israelite: Jesus and the Mission of God

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

David Sedaris is an American in Paris, a satirical writer struggling with communication in general and with the French language in particular. His book of self-deprecating essays recounts his difficulties with the nuances of French; it’s titled Me Talk Pretty One Day, just the way an American in Paris might mangle the intended phrase. I though about David’s difficulty with communication and his longing to talk pretty as I prepared for this sermon: maybe Me Preach Pretty One Day. But today isn’t that day. Our lessons are broad and vast and sweeping in scope. They lie at the very heart of the gospel. I dare not risk obscuring them with clumsy attempts at rhetorical skill or even distracting from them by an eloquent turn of phrase. They call for simple speech and clear explanation – more teaching than preaching. That’s how I plan to engage the texts with you this morning.

In his book, The Last Word, on the nature and role of Scripture in the Christian experience, N. T. Wright describes the story of God and creation – up to the present anyway – as a play in five acts: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, and the Church. The texts selected by and for the church this day implicitly cover all five acts.

[As you can tell from its introduction, the sermon for 1 Lent is a bit different in format, an exploration and discussion of the texts which encompass God's creat plan of redemption and restoration. I have no "script," only thorough notes to guide the discussion. While it is not feasible to post these on the blog, I will be pleased to send an MSWord file to anyone wishing to have them. Simply email me and I will respond with the file.]

Monday, February 4, 2008

Ash Wednesday Homily: 6 Feb 2008

Ash Wednesday: 6 February 2008
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17/Psalm 51:1-17/2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10/Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
The Wilderness Way

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

For over 3000 years – from Moses until today – orthodox Jews have recited the Shema at morning prayer and at evening prayer and at the moment of death:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echud.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

The prayer continues with the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, words familiar to us because they were in the heart and on the lips of Jesus. When asked by a Torah scholar – a Jewish lawyer – what commandment in the law is greatest, Jesus replied,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment (Mt 22:37-39, NRSV).

Love for God is the greatest end, the highest aspiration of man – love which integrates heart, soul, and mind.

Heart, soul, and mind. Imagine one, grand, ecumenical church service with all the body of Christ gathered together on one, vast pew.[1] At one end – right or left at your discretion – are gathered all our Charismatic brothers and sisters. You can tell where they are sitting because they are not sitting: they are standing and dancing and swaying and waving their arms and shouting, “Glory!” and perhaps other words in other tongues with which we are not so familiar. At the other end of the pew we find the Evangelicals. They have organized a Bible study and have passed out paper and pencils for taking notes. All is quiet there, save for the voice of the teacher, the flipping of pages, and the scratching of pencils. On one end of this pew lies the heart of Christ’s Body, on the other end the mind. Between them lies a void, a wasteland where few sit or travel – a wilderness. Of course a body can’t exist with just heart or just mind; it needs a life-force, a soul, to bind them together. We need something to draw the two ends of the pew toward the middle, something to infuse understanding into one end and passion into the other.

Lent has something to offer the church just here, I believe. Lent recalls those on both ends of the pew to the ancient ways of the church, to the time-tested and time-honored practices of the church – prayer, fasting, meditation, charity, and sacramental living among them – practices which are the “soul” of the church, practices which unite heart and mind.

When we gather to remember Jesus as he asked us to, we tell stories about him, we listen to his words, and we think his thoughts after him – all activities which engage the mind. But we don’t stop there. We spread a table. We share a feast of bread and wine – a feast which makes glad the heart. Together these words for the mind, and bread and wine for the heart unify and nourish our love for God.

When we pray, whether in the ancient words of the liturgy of the hours or in our own words spontaneously composed, we converse with God as rational beings, mind to Mind. But, when our concepts and reason have taken us as far as they can, the Holy Spirit searches our inmost being – searches our hearts – and prays for us in groans too deep to be uttered by human lips and formed by rational minds.

When we fast, we are reminded that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God.” As we fast we cling to these words, we study them, we meditate upon them – all the more as our bellies grow empty. And, if we persist, we may just find a hunger deeper than that of our bodies and minds; we may just feel the hunger of the heart, a hunger that is satisfied only by Christ, himself. Fasting awakens that heart hunger, awakens it and satisfies it, so say the ancients, our fathers and mothers in the faith.

When we do acts of charity – and it’s time we begin to call these “acts of justice” since in God’s kingdom of righteousness and in God’s economy of justice all God’s people have their daily bread – when we do acts of charity our hearts open to our brothers and sisters in tangible expressions of love and our minds engage the powers and principalities of this dark world in seeking creative, Christian alternatives to rampant consumerism and gross economic disparity.

These ancient ways of the church, these Lenten practices, leave the ends of the pew and trek into the wilderness between them, beckoning people from both sides to follow. Those called to such ways follow Jesus into the wilderness; the forty days of Lent mirror his forty days in the wilderness praying, fasting, and meditating on the word of the Lord. No wilderness way is easy. The wilderness is a lonely place, a place full of temptations within and without. There are demons there. But there are angels also, and Jesus has gone before; he is there waiting for us.

Because the way is hard, we dare not go in our own strength. We go in the power of the cross, sealed by the cross as Christ’s own forever. We trace this cross on our brows with ashes – another ancient way of the church, uniting heart and mind – as a sign of our longing to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. The ashes remind us of our human weakness and dependence: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” The cross reminds of the all-sufficient grace and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, that we are and ever shall be his.

Jesus calls you to the wilderness. The church offers her ancient ways as sure and trustworthy guides. You go, if you heed the call, in company with all the faithful of every time and place who seek truly to love God with heart and soul and mind. You go sealed with a cross of ashes, bearing the mark of your sin and mortality. You go sealed with a cross of ashes, bearing the mark of your forgiveness and immortality. You go sealed with a cross of ashes to unite heart and mind. Bearing the seal of the cross, let us go.


[1] I have shamelessly “stolen” this metaphor from Robert Benson – with his permission, of course. For information about Robert and his writing, see