Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fourth in Lent, Laetare, 2018

John 3: 14-21

Good Morning.  Fourth Sunday in Lent, with the traditional name Laetare to connect to the first words in the old Latin Mass Introit for this day, from the 66th chapter of Isaiah. Laetare ierusalem.   In some Anglo-Catholic parishes the paraments change from purple to Rose, or as a Facebook Friend wrote the other day, a “hot pink” Sunday in the middle of Lent.  A day when we are allowed and even encouraged to relax our Lenten disciplines.  (I mean, not to go crazy—but if you’ve been off chocolate for Lent, feel free to have a Thin Mint or two at Coffee Hour this morning!)  The Latin Laetare an imperative usually translated “rejoice.”   Echoing choirs singing over the centuries, to lift the hearts of God’s Chosen People as they stand up straight and begin to recover as the heavy weight of their exile begins to be lifted from their shoulders:  Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .  The Lenten journey toward Good Friday would seem to be a “way of sorrow.”  But something like the assurance of the 23rd Psalm for Christian people never goes away.  We are never truly far from Easter.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.  At the end of the Burial Office we say, “even at the grave we make our song.”  So on this 4th Sunday-- even in exile, even at the grave--in deepest Lent we make our song, Rejoice, O Jerusalem.  Jerusalem the Golden.  The earthly city, above which our Lord and Savior is about to be lifted up and glorified, the heavenly city where he rules, in which there is no pain or grief, but life eternal.  

Just right as background music for our readings this morning.  The heavenly choir singing in the distance—Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.  Something like that.  See what the Lord has done for me, for us.  And the purpose I think of these three readings from John’s gospel in the three middle weeks of Lent to prepare us for Good Friday and Easter.  To refresh in us, to help us see and know and feel again just what it means, that Jesus has saved us on the Cross—the Atonement--to understand how that empty tomb is a sign of his victory for us, that he has defeated our enemy, the Last Enemy.

Last week we read in John 2--Jesus in his death and resurrection establishing  with his New Body a new Temple and a perfect sacrifice.  Next week in John 12 we will hear Jesus as he turns to the last leg of his journey to old Jerusalem share a vision of his own death and resurrection as the foundation again in his Resurrection Body of the Heavenly City,  New Jerusalem.  And today  on the Mid-Lent Sunday we are invited to lift our eyes up from all the busyness and distractions of our lives and to look at him, really to look at him, as he is  lifted up on the Cross, the One who is the only Medicine and perfect cure for the poison of sin that would sicken us and lead us down into an eternal death.  Jesus on the Cross:   in every way the author and the only author of our healing. 

At the beginning of Chapter 3 just before our reading today Nicodemus is very curious about this Jesus—so much so that he isn’t content simply to read reports or to hear what others are saying about him.  He  needs to find out for himself,  in person.  Nicodemus comes in the dark of night and asks, “what kind of program are you selling, Jesus?  What are you really about?  What are you trying to accomplish?  And Jesus replies, “well, Nicodemus, it’s actually pretty straightforward: I’m talking about a total and thoroughgoing transformation of who you are, of your identity, your character, your person.   It’s all about you  becoming a new creation.  About you being reborn completely in and through God’s Holy Spirit.”  Nicodemus is taken aback. “I’m too old for that.   How can a man be born again?  A new religious reform program, maybe I could get behind that. A new political party, a revised social agenda—no problem.  But a whole new identity?   Comprehensive, head-to-toe personal transformation?  That’s just over the top, too much for an old man like me.  My life is too settled, I have too much invested in things as they are. 

But Jesus says, “don’t worry, Nicodemus.  The Spirit is going to take care of all this for you, God’s got this all worked out, and you won’t have to lift a finger.  This is a hint of what Christians will come to know as the doctrine of grace.  God so loved the world that while we were entirely and irrevocably lost in our sin, while we were unable to do anything at all, he gave his only Son.
 And that gets us into our reading this morning as we might picture Nicodemus just stuck there on overload, trying to take it all in.  And then Jesus reminds him of this story from the Book of Numbers.  A defining episode in the sacred account, when terror and death had entered the Hebrew camp out there in the Wilderness in the form of all those poisonous snakes.  (When I preached on the text from Numbers a few years ago at the Church of the Redeemer during the Lenten midweek series I brought in a handful of plastic snakes that I had picked up at a toy store, and I talked about a movie that had just been released.  Maybe you remember, “Snakes on a Plane.”  A feeble attempt to come into the reading sidewise with a smile, but at the same time we know that these snakes are no laughing matter, no joke.  Each one of directly descended from the Serpent in the Garden, the one who sank his fangs into Adam and Eve so long ago and hasn’t let go yet-- infecting them and their descendants with the dark poison of sin and death.)  So the people out in the desert of the Sinai are dying everywhere , and everybody turns to Moses.  With agitation, frustration, fear, anger.  What are you going to do about this, Moses?  You led us out here.  You’re in charge.   Fix it!  Fix us!  Make it right!  Find some antidote, some potion, some herbal cure or surgical intervention. Do Something!  But Moses is helpless.   Sort of like how Nicodemus felt, I guess.   They are all helpless.   We are all of us helpless as this deadly venom courses through our veins.  There is no antidote, no potion, no cure.  No wellness program, surgery, fitness regime.  But then God speaks to Moses and says-- you don’t need to solve this problem.  The Serpent is my department, and  I will take care of him.  You lift up that bronze image of a dead and defeated Serpent, Moses, in obedience to me, lift it up high, as a sign of my presence, as a sign of my Victory, my  promise first to your ancestors and now to you, exiles from the garden, descendants of  the First Parents, the taste of that Apple still in your mouth, lift up that brazen serpent--and  those who in turn will lift up their heads and look upon it—they, then, I will restore to health.   To be saved not by their efforts, but by me.  By Amazing Grace alone.  Just let them know, look to me, and live.  Talk about Old Testament foreshadowing.   The Passion Gospel in the Wilderness.
The  Old Testament story  of course is familiar to Nicodemus.  One of those parts of the Wilderness story that shaped the identity and self-understanding of God’s Chosen People.  And the verse that opens our reading this morning and makes the connection to our Lenten journey and reflection on the Cross, as we see this powerful anticipation.  Jesus to Nicodemus:  “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

That’s where the poison of sin will be rendered powerless.  That’s where new birth and new life begin.   When we look up and see him there.   Good Friday.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him—whoever believes in him--may have eternal life.”  Healing.  From death to life.  From old creation to new creation.

If dying from a poisonous snake bite in the wilderness sounds like it might be a good metaphor for where we are in our lives this Lent of 2018.  If we’ve finally drilled down deep enough until we’ve hit something that our money and retail therapy and education and political candidates and the latest technology and social skills and every other resource we know about to try to fix our problems can’t seem to help us with, the big questions, the biggest questions, the ones that don’t go away when we close our eyes and count to ten--then this word of Jesus to Nicodemus is for us.  Not to be looking in the wrong places of the world for the answers and solutions and cures and promises that the world cannot give.  But to look to him.  Jesus on Good Friday.  How the Easter hymn goes: Death is conquered, we are free, Christ has won the victory.

The Cross as the Medicine of the World, the healing of the Nations.  And our healing.  God so loved the world.   Every snakebit one of us—the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve since the beginning of the world.  Fourth Sunday in Lent.  Look here, look to Jesus, put your faith in him, and be made well.  Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow, that you may exult and be filled.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Third in Lent 2018

 John 2: 13-22

In the middle  weeks of Lent this year we step back briefly from St. Mark’s Gospel and have three readings three weeks in a row from St. John: this morning in the second chapter,  the account of the Cleansing of the Temple; next week in the third chapter,  the last part of the conversation with Nicodemus; and then on March 18 in the twelfth chapter, the conclusion of Jesus’s public ministry and the hour of his turn toward Jerusalem.   What these have in common, as we get ready for Holy Week and Easter, is that they each give us a way of picturing or thinking about what in the formal language of theology is called the “Doctrine of the Atonement--the Church’s formal teaching about the “work of Christ.”  Everybody knows and pretty much agrees on the story.  Jesus came to Jerusalem.  He was arrested, tried, and executed—dead and buried on a Friday afternoon.  And then on Sunday morning the tomb was empty and his disciples proclaimed that they had seen him again, alive, but in a new and transformed way.  The journalist’s who, what, where, and when .  But the “why” of the story still needs to be addressed.  To what end, for what purpose?  That’s what is covered by this word, Atonement.

The reading today, the “Cleansing of the Temple,” is one of those parts of the Jesus story that is included in all four gospel s—John 2, Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke place the event in Holy Week, right after the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem.  John seems to organize his gospel thematically rather than chronologically, and he tells the story near the beginning , right after the story of Jesus and his first miracle at the Wedding Feast at Cana.  As though he were saying that we won’t really be able to understand the story he is about to tell, unless we’re hearing it with this story in mind.   In all four gospels  the event happens  at the Passover, which is the defining celebration of the great Covenant between God and his Chosen People, remembering the Bible story of their being rescued from slavery in Egypt and delivered to the land God had promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  What we might call the central narrative symbol of the Old Covenant, the heart of the Old Testament, the story that tells the Chosen People that they are indeed chosen, and who it is who chose them.  And in all four accounts Jesus at this Passover  turns over the tables in the Temple and announces that things have gone horribly wrong.  The Temple is the great visible sign of God’s continuing presence with his people, his House, his earthly Throne Room, the place where the priestly representatives of the Chosen People come into his presence and offer sacrifice as a prayer for forgiveness of sin.  And through neglect and misconduct those charged with the care and stewardship have failed to do their job.  Though we don’t need to be too hard particularly on these priests and officials.  Their failures really just stand for our sinfulness.  It’s all a sign of something deeper.  None of us would be of sufficient purity and righteousness to maintain this holy place in the perfect way that it needs to be maintained.  Perfect Spirit and perfect truth.   All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  Even if the Temple were being operated perfectly this whole system of ceremony and sacrifice is just a dog chasing his own tail.  We all work and work, struggle and sacrifice, try to make things right by our own huge and heroic efforts, but no matter how much we do, how hard we work, we wake up the next morning and the whole rat race just starts up all over again.  It was an instrument God allowed for a season to maintain the Covenant relationship, but it was always going to be imperfect and provisional.

And now, now, we hear and read and come to understand:  a new day is here.  The old is being swept away.  The new has come.   John describes the scene: Jesus charges into the outer section of the Temple complex, where those selling animals for people to offer as sacrifice are keeping their oxen and sheep and birds and where pilgrims  can exchange their Roman coins for Temple Coins to present in offerings, and he makes a whip to drive out the animals and he boisterously overturns the Moneychangers’ tables.  This whole crazy effort to turn our relationship with God into some kind of transaction where we can somehow earn or purchase our right relationship to him simply has to come to an end.  A system given to God’s people as a kind of place-holder,  until the appointed day and hour when the price could be paid once and for all. 

The sudden burst of holy energy in Jesus makes the disciples remember  Psalm 69, a Psalm associated with the expectation of the Messiah:  “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”   I find my own associations also rolling back to the scene in Luke chapter 2, when the young boy Jesus has been separated from Mary and Joseph while they are in Jerusalem on an earlier Passover pilgrimage.  Recall how they finally find him in this very Temple engaged in a precocious discussion with the elders and teachers.  When they begin to scold him he says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Why was Jesus born?  What did his life and death and resurrection accomplish?  The answer is in this, deep down.  “I must be in my Father’s house.”

And then there is this deep level shift as Jesus speaks to the authorities with amazing boldness.  “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  They think he’s talking about the building and scoff, but John tells the story even here right at the beginning of the Gospel with the Cross and the Empty Tomb clearly in mind, and he knows better.  The reference is not to this physical structure, this building, but to the “Temple of his Body,” he tells us--and we just note as well John’s statement that this was the moment that the disciples immediately thought of later on, when they began to try to make sense of their encounter with Jesus in his Resurrection Body.  Of all the things that they may have thought about as they tried to get their heads around what it meant to know for a fact that Jesus was executed on the Cross and then on Sunday to see him alive again, this was what came to their minds first:  Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.  This soaring edifice of stone only a foretaste, a hint, of the perfect Temple God was about to establish and make of himself in the midst of his people.

So for the Third Sunday in Lent, on our way to Holy Week, this is a way of thinking about Atonement, about the Work of Christ, about the “why”-- what the Cross of Jesus accomplished.  To commend to our contemplation, prayer, imagination.   The old Temple is no more.  Where do we go now to find our peace in God?  Where is the Temple now, where is the place of sacrifice, where you and I can find forgiveness, restoration, holiness, life eternal? 

Perhaps on Good Friday we will connect the story to the account in Matthew, how at the end of the Third Hour Jesus breathes his last, and how at that very instant at the Temple the great curtain separating the Holy of Holies was torn in two.  Through his death and resurrection Jesus tears down and then rebuilds, restores, renews the Temple, the Father’s House, in his own Body.  A place now—if we can think of the Resurrection Body of Jesus as a place, with dimensions that are spiritual instead of material—a place of true and radiant holiness--for God to have a home again with his people.  The Lord God almighty, renewed and purified, lifted up, again seated on the Throne of Israel—no longer hidden somehow behind walls and curtains, but here.  And everywhere, all at once.  Jesus fulfilling in himself, in his own flesh, the promise of God in the Scriptures that he would be with his Chosen People always as their one true priest and king.   

We might say that it’s a great association here on a Sunday as we celebrate a baptism, a renewal here for young Graham Frankle and for all of us of the New Covenant, as we are built into the one perfect Holy Temple of his crucified and risen Body.  In Advent we heard about how in his dream Joseph heard the Angel  tell  of the coming birth of Jesus by quoting from the Prophet Isaiah, “’. . . his name shall be called Emmanuel,’ which means,  God with us.”  That is what the Jerusalem Temple meant for God’s Chosen People.  God with us.  And through the Cross, God with us not in a building and human institution made with stones and stained glass and massive altars and priestly offices and rituals of sacrifice offered again and again and again—but with us in the true Temple of his own Body, where now God’s life and the life of his people will intersect, in one communion, where pure offerings may be lifted up, and true and perfect worship.  Where his one oblation of himself, once offered,  a true and perfect sacrifice, is accomplished once and for all.  That’s what we say to and for and with Graham today: Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, come into his courts with praise.  The mystery of the Cross, the mystery of his Church.  God with us.  When the disciples started in their amazement and confusion to try to make sense of it all, the Cross and the Empty Tomb and their first encounter with his Resurrection Body, his true and living presence, they remembered this moment at the Temple, and something clicked, fit together, made sense in a deep and spiritual logic.  Pray that he would open up our hearts and minds in this Lent to see what they saw when they looked up at the Cross, when he revealed himself to them in the radiance of his resurrection.  To know what they knew—that the strife is over, the labor done, and the victory won.  The Lord is in his holy Temple, let all the earth keep silent before him.

First in Lent

Mark 1: 9-15; Psalm 25: 1-9

Last Sunday as we observed the turning of the Church Year toward Lent I was reminded of the verses from the Old Testament Book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah—chapter 3 verses 22-23, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” For those survivors of the fall of Jerusalem back in the Sixth Century before Christ, those who were carted away from those smoldering ruins in a kind of anticipation of our Ash Wednesday, covered in dust and ashes, to begin their exile in refugee camps and ghettos in distant foreign lands and with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, as their homes and properties were expropriated by the victorious soldiers,  bereft and in grief and impoverished—to them, Jeremiah says, this is what you need to know, this is what you need to hold in your heart as the one sure thing, to sing by memory as you rock your children to sleep far from home:  “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” 

The words seemed counterintuitive then, as they do now, almost ironic.  But resonant of the deepest truth that would be revealed through all this suffering and loss.  And I would continue to share the thought that we might hold on to these words as maybe a kind of  background music, for all that we continue to do in response to the  invitation in the Ash Wednesday service: “I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  However we set apart this time on our way to Holy Week.  To have that playing in the background: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases . . .  great is thy faithfulness.

So the first Sunday in Lent – and perhaps in Lent of 2018 we feel some kinship with Jeremiah and the people of old Jerusalem.  A sense of the world falling apart.   Feels that way to me sometimes anyway.  This horrible school shooting, another one, down in Florida, not too far from where our daughter lives.  Endless wars in Afghanistan and Syria, to name just two of a long list of wars and rumors of war, ethnic conflict and religious violence and persecution in Africa and Asia and sometimes closer to home.  This kind of electric tension and polarization in our social and political lives.  Seems like everybody is mad, all the time, about something, or about nothing, or about everything.  Even in the Church, where some people might have thought there could be a quiet haven, a space of rest and refreshment, currents of anxiety and negativity.  Definitely Lent.  Definitely Lent.  And in this context, the First Sunday,  I would just pause for a moment with our gospel reading from the first chapter of Mark, centering on the story we read every year on this Sunday, immediately following the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River:  “The Temptation in the Wilderness.”

We notice first that Mark is the most succinct of the Evangelists in telling the story, really all of it in one efficient sentence, chapter 1 verse 13, “And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”  In Mark, none of the familiar dialogue and back and forth between Jesus and the Tempter.  We hear all that in other years of our Lectionary, in Matthew chapter 3 as we read on this First Sunday in Lent last year, and next year in Luke chapter 4.  But this morning Mark’s very economical shorthand--a few key evocative words and phrases.  First to highlight, the word “wilderness” of course not just a geographical description.  The wilderness a reminder of the Exodus, of the place of testing and transformation of God’s Chosen People in their journey from slavery in Egypt to the Land Promised to their Ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  One of the foundational narratives and symbols of the Holy Story of the Bible and the People of God.  40 Days an echo of their 40 years of nomadic life, testing and formation--and of the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God, the place where God reveals himself and establishes the great Covenant of the Law, and farther back in the story of the 40 Days of the Great Flood in Genesis 7, as God sustained Noah and his family and the remnant of the created order.  That flood and that wilderness journey a symbolic template for our 40 days in the Wilderness of Lent, our 40 Days in the Ark, our 40 Days on the Mountain, as we hear in many of our hymns and Lenten readings.  Then for Mark to say simply, so simply, that there in the wilderness in those 40 Days, the place of Israel’s testing and formation, Jesus was “tempted by Satan” is to reference by simple title the vast, cosmic, supernatural rebellion against God that Sin brought into the world back in the third chapter of Genesis. Beginning with Adam and Eve and the Serpent in the Garden. In our baptismal covenant each new Christian definitively renounces “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.”   Jesus now stands at the head of the line to take the force of the attack, the brunt of the battle, our shield and protector.  And then next Mark mentions the “wild beasts.”  Actually an interesting detail that Matthew and Luke skip over.   I picture scorpions and snakes in the desert wilderness.  The Psalms and the Prophets often refer to hungry lions in the wild places, wild dogs, dangerous bears.  It’s not just supernatural forces that cause us to struggle in this life, that push against our efforts to live faithfully.  There’s the fallen world around us, and even our own bodies.  Sometimes the place we see those wild beasts is when we look in the mirror in the morning.  In Romans 7 St. Paul talks about the “war within” our own members.  A war that all of us find ourselves engaged in pretty much every day of our lives.  Perhaps a bit of the practice of a moderate fasting on days like Ash Wednesday and the Fridays in Lent call that to mind for us.  Our aches and pains and diseases.  Our unmanageable emotions, and how we are hungry and thirsty for so much that we know is not good for us.  Wild beasts out there and wild beasts within.

And then finally in Mark’s one sentence, there are those angels.  They “ministered to him.”  Some supernatural nourishment and encouragement.  We may think that that happens in the Wilderness for Jesus, but it doesn’t have anything to do with us.  But maybe we just aren’t looking up to see what is going on.   Perhaps for us a reminder that those practices of prayer, fasting, reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word might just be his gifts, how he might come to us to feed us in our wilderness with manna from heaven.  The Lenten practices and disciplines not intended as deprivation, but instead to be for us his instruments of blessing.  As we turn our eyes toward Jerusalem and his Cross, our Heavenly Father sends his angels in his Word and Sacraments, and in the quiet prayers and contemplative spaces of our hearts—he sends his angels also to minister to us, just as they did for Jesus. 

A time in the wilderness, Lent.  Where perhaps for a few weeks we exchange the momentary intoxicating pleasure of the glass of wine at dinner to experience even more deeply the intoxicating refreshment and renewal that comes when we open our hearts and minds to his presence.  When we forgo the sweetness of the cookie at lunch or the slice of pie after dinner in order to know more intensely the sweetness of prayer.  When we take time in the morning before heading off to work to read a few Bible verses and to consider the reflections in the Lenten Devotional booklets linked on the St. Andrew’s website. 

Each of us finding our own way, we follow Jesus into his Lenten Wilderness.  Having before us his victory over the Prince of Darkness, having before us the hope in his Resurrection Body of our transformation in him.  A dark and confusing time in the wide world. But also this Lent, if we look up, opening our eyes and minds and hearts, angels, all around us.  Ministers of mercy and grace and peace.  Jeremiah 3, verses 22 and 23:  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.  His mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is thy faithfulness.

Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018
Blow the trumpet!  Sound the alarm!  The reading from the Old Testament prophet Joel certainly catches the abrupt and urgent moment that we experience in Ash Wednesday.  If we have been sailing along since Christmas on autopilot, this Ash Wednesday catches us up short, takes us by the shoulder with a good shake.  Wake up!  The enemy is at the gates.   It’s time to face the music.

In the 23rd chapter of Matthew Jesus calls the Pharisees and Rabbi’s who have been debating him “whitewashed sepulchers.”  Painted tombs.  Bright and colorful and attractive on the outside, but filled with corruption and darkness and death on the inside.

And it is a compelling image.  So much of life about putting up a good front.  Maintaining appearances.  Pretending to be fine, in great shape, when deep down we know the truth.  The truth anyway of what the Bible has to say about our condition and nature and character as human beings.  Which is to say that what Jesus said about those Pharisees and Rabbi’s is in reality true for all of us.  A paper thin veneer where we pretend to be what we aren’t.  Where we live in denial.

So today, Ash Wednesday we make that turn on the journey of the Holy Story, the road ahead of us moving directly to Jerusalem.  Holy Week.  Good Friday.  The Cross.  And the realization that the right way for us to travel this road, this spiritual journey, the only way actually to get to where we need to be six weeks from now, is to take every step, one step after another, on our knees.  Emptying ourselves of the illusion, the delusion, that somehow we deserve to ride in style.  The only way to get to the place we need to be at the foot of the cross, to scrape off the false front.  Give it a power wash.  Sandpaper and steel wool if that’s what it takes.  To a fresh understanding of the truth that gives the cross its meaning.  That we are dust and ashes.  Nothing pretty about us, deep down.  Nothing lovable.  Nothing worth paying attention to.  Nothing worth saving. 

And that it is for dust and ashes, for this heap of nothing, with nothing to commend it, with no value of its own, that he came down from heaven.  For dust and ashes, he gave himself up for us.  Nothing in it for him except the perfection of his grace and peace and love.  His nature.   The great Good Friday hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” ends this way. “Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.”
When the ashes come at this service, it’s not so much as if something is being placed upon us, as though we are being marked or disfigured.  It’s more that what we really are is being exposed to the light.  For just a moment or two.  Again, at the beginning of Lent.

So, blow the trumpet, sound the alarm.  Again, it is simply my prayer that in the weeks ahead we may walk the road to Jerusalem and Holy Week faithfully together, and that as we come to the cross we may be refreshed in the knowledge of his grace and love.  As St. Paul says, “that while we were yet sinners,” he died for us.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Quinquagesima 2018

II Kings 2: 1-15
Mark 9: 2-9

Again, good morning.  As we see on the leaflet, Quinquagesima on the old Calendar, the third of the Three Sundays of what we used to call the “Pre-Lenten Season,” and on the new calendar the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. In the church year a major point of transition.  The last hint of the Silent Night of Bethlehem disappearing from the rear view mirror.  We stand with Jesus and his disciples in this holy moment on the Mount of the Transfiguration, and we can begin to make out the glow on the horizon of the Holy City, Jerusalem, crowds of pilgrims already beginning to arrive for the great Passover Festival-- and as we come down from that mountaintop and are stepping toward Ash Wednesday this week we will begin to prepare ourselves for what will soon be here in Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday.  We’ve spent the last couple of months talking about what happened at Christmas, and now we turn to the next question: why did it happen?  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so that: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday.  The two great doctrinal centers of Christian faith, Incarnation and Atonement, inextricably linked, bound together, and connected here today.  Stepping across the continental divide into a new watershed.

In the Address that follows the sermon on Ash Wednesday the formal opening is announced in these words: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  When we commend each other to a “good Lent, a holy Lent” these are the categories we work in.  In all the busyness of our day to day life Holy Week still seems a long way off, but the message for us this week is that it will all be here before we know it.   So if this Lent is going to do us any good, there’s no time to waste.  As our last hymn will remind us once again this year, we put aside our singing of joyful alleluia’s for a season now, to enter into a quiet time of personal austerity and spiritual contemplation.  The front page of our St. Andrew’s website will have links to a couple of resources for daily reading and reflection in Lent.  We can follow that on our phones while we’re waiting for the coffee to drip in the morning.  That great Old Testament reading from the second chapter of the Book of the Prophet Joel always catches my attention.  I know for me it is always something dramatic as our first reading at that early 7:15 a.m. service on Ash Wednesday morning: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near . . . .”

So here, right at this pivot, a moment of transition, turning the page, and so interesting that in our Old Testament reading we have what is also one of the great transitions in the Holy Story. 
The Prophet Elijah has for a generation been God’s great man in a troubled world.  He has spoken truth to power, an army of one, facing down the mighty armies of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, a solitary, bold prophetic voice, boldly proclaiming the power and holiness of the Lord God of Israel in the face of an apostate religious establishment given over to the worship of false gods.  Alongside Elijah perhaps only Abraham, Moses, and David would stand in stature among God’s Chosen People.

But Elijah’s days are coming to an end, and there is a great anxiety.  Change is always a little scary, and here this big change is coming, on its way soon.  With Elijah there, we all know where we stand, we faithful can fall in behind him, unite our voices to his voice.  But as we think of his departure from us, there are all these doubts, fears.  What will we say now to the rulers of this world?  How will we defend ourselves against the powers that seek to destroy us and to ruin the great plan that God has for his people?  We will be like sheep without a shepherd, lost, unable to find our way.

So we come to the end of the story in the reading this morning, and we see Elijah riding the circuit through the land on this symbolic pilgrimage, a kind of farewell tour, enacting the pilgrim story of the people, their ancient journey through the great wilderness, crossing the Jordan.  Alongside Elijah, his reluctant disciple Elisha, who wasn’t sure at first that he even wanted to begin this journey with the Master and for sure didn’t want to leave home and family and the comforts of his settled life and his wonderful farm—who has no idea what his role is going to be, why he has been chosen to come along, what God intends to do.   He asks the Prophet to pray that he will be up to the task, whatever the task is going to be, because he doesn’t see how he can possibly rise to the occasion in his own right.  I’m going to need a double dose of the Holy Spirit to be even half the leader you have been, Elijah, and I just don’t know how that is going to happen.

Then we get the dramatic conclusion.  Elijah is lifted off into heaven, the chariot of fire, the horses of fire!  One of the most dramatic and even cinematic moments in all of the Bible.  And in that moment, something happens.   A pause.  And Elisha leans over, picks up the mantle Elijah dropped as he entered the chariot, and wraps it around himself.  And in our mind’s eye and imagination we see something happen to him, in him.  One of those Holy Spirit moments, no question about it.  Where before he was anxious, full of doubt, now he strides to the Jordan, strikes the edge of the stream with the cloth, and miraculously again the waters part, just as they had for Elijah.  And when the prophets of the nearby village see him coming they know right away, right away, what is going on.  They can see it with their own eyes!  They sing out in joy and wonder and relief, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”    And from this day forward Elisha sets out in Israel on a prophetic career of miraculous power and testimony.  A different vocabulary from that of Elijah, what we would call a different style of public ministry.  But with absolute confidence that the God who spoke to his people through the mighty words and miraculous acts of power of Elijah had not gone anywhere, but would continue to lead them and guide them, continue to call them to himself.

The moral of the story really summarized in the words the Prophet Jeremiah would one day sing in his Lamentation over the fall of Jerusalem, which is the lesson the Children of Israel and all of us seem to need to learn again and again and again, in the Biblical story and in our stories, whenever we wake up in the night fearful about an unknown future.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.”

Change is always difficult, of course.  Scary.   The kids are always growing and changing, our marriages and families, what’s happening at work, in the world around us.  The changes of our own physical bodies from health to sickness, from youth to age.   Are things changing in those places in our lives this year, this Lent?  Maybe we all can fill in our own blanks there.  And looking around for Elijah’s mantle, I suppose.  The outward and visible, sacramental sign of God’s presence.  Sort of what those practices of Lent might be.  Prayer, fasting, self-denial—reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

The point in Lent: taking that seriously even for just six weeks or so, and to see what might happen, in us and around us.  And we’ll see how it unfolds for us this year.  I would just invite you to join me.  Figuring out in our own particular context how this Ash Wednesday and Lent and the unfolding story of our lives, one chapter, one page, one sentence at a time, can be connected in new ways and even powerful ways to God’s story.  Prayer, fasting, self-denial—reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

Everybody, and Elisha especially, was worried about what would happen without Elijah around.  But it turned out they really had nothing to fear.  That God had a plan better than the best plan any of us could ever have come up with on our own.   It’s a prefiguring of the mystery of the Cross, as we enter this Lent.  At our weakest point, broken and defeated, lost, not able even to lift a finger in our own defense, we can leave it all in his hands.  He’s got this.  And in him, better things than we could ever ask for or imagine.   “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning, new every morning, great is thy faithfulness.” 

So blessings, as we turn now to the Lent of 2018, to see what God has in store for us this year.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Poem for Christmas

This piece by the English poet Jude Simpson is one that I return to in this season year after year.

If your heart yearns for a more it doesn’t know,
if you’ve suffered blow after blow
and can barely dare to lift your head,
if you’ve ever wished you’d rather been -
if you’ve bled, or tried to bind a wound
if you’ve cried then tied a knot to choke
the flow of hope before it can open up
a way to disappoint again
and leave you broken
then this is for you.
If you’ve longed, if you’ve wronged,
if you choke on the words to your favourite song,
if you need a Doctor,
or you’re beyond
medical help
then come.
If you’re cracked, if you’re splintered,
if your Winter is just too long,
if this Winter is just too long,
(but the thought of Spring is terrifying,)
then come.
Because Jesus came
for the broken brother and sister,
the ache, the pain and the blister,
the wrong decision,
the open wound
the blurred vision
the won’t-ever-hope-again.
Jesus came
for the insane, the unfulfilled, the searching
the street child, the tramp and the urchin,
the poor little rich girl snorting coke and
cursing, and the man who sold it to her.
Jesus came for those nursing a need,
nursing a drink
out of control,
on the blink,
on the brink,
falling overboard, and about to -
sobbing at the kitchen sink.
Jesus came for those the world drives mad,
for the bad, yes the bad,
Jesus came for the bad,
so if that’s never been you,
then fine, just go, because
Jesus didn’t come for the well, the swell,
“the hell – I’ve got everything I need”
the nothing’s-lacking, the non-cracking up.
He’s not interested in courting the sorted
he came to fill the cup of the thirsty,
the worst, the broken, the burst open,
Jesus came for the sick.
 the cracked-up, the packed-up,
the smashed, hopes dashed, and the picked-on,
the meek, the weak, the stuttering,
those who blush when they speak
and the walked-out-on.
Jesus came for those left behind,
for the cheats and the cheated,
the ones who crossed the line
and the ones who still don’t know where to begin.
Jesus came for the people who know how it feels
when you say “sin”
for the broken to open,
to break for those who choke,
for the people who don’t have everything we need,
for the ones who know we need hope.
© Jude Simpson 2007

Christmas Eve

December 24, 11 p.m.

In the name of the One who is Emmanuel, God with us, the child whose birth we remember so richly this night, who sits enthroned at the Right Hand of the Father, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns now and forever.  Amen.

Friends, grace and peace, and always, always to wish you a Merry Christmas.   Much merriment and warm hospitality, tender memories.  May this Holy Night, and the birth of our Savior,be a sign for us of all joy, healing, renewal of life: turning a corner, a new page, fresh beginning.  He was born for us as perfect gift.  Of the Father’s love begotten.  The gift of his own person, God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.   He lived for us.  He died for us. His one oblation of himself, once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction.   In his victory over sin and death, in his resurrection life, there is the one and only victory of our lives.  Chosen by him, names inscribed in the Book of Life from before time and forever.  Living in him, dying in him to the old world of sin, setting aside the rebellion of our hearts, lifted by him from the realm of the Prince of Darkness and raised in him to new and everlasting life.   In him, grace and peace, forgiveness, and the sanctifying gift of his Holy Spirit.  To strengthen us in all goodness, to prepare us in heart and mind for the life of the world to come.  A world where Christmas is no longer simply a day  on the calendar, but a present and everlasting reality and state of being, around the throne of the King.  Where it is always Christmas.

In our reading from the Old Testament, Isaiah the Prophet.  Standing in a moment of crisis and conflict, looking forward to a certain immediate future of defeat, devastation, exile.  Enemies from beyond the borders pressing down with relentless and overwhelming ferocity.  And  a corruption eating away from within.  Just as bad as it can get.  The ancient heritage of God’s chosen people, the memories and values and loyalties of the Patriarchs, of Moses and Joshua, of Samuel and David, all passing away.   Greed, deceit, false-dealing, in the highest places, and an insidious disease and rebellion in the hearts and minds of men and women of every station of life.  Every false god.  Moral failure.  Loss of faith.  Sin is a condition, but it is also a choice, and with consequences, and those consequences now about to cascade upon them.  A massive implosion.  The falling of the House of David and the ruin of Jerusalem not simply a geo-political disaster, though it is that, a national catastrophe, defeat, the brutal destiny of slavery and exile.   But a catastrophe for thousands upon thousands, home by home, family by family.  The end of every hope and plan and dream.  The Holy City in flames.  All in ruins.

And yet even as this horrible darkness gathers, for Isaiah, looking far ahead with confidence in God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness, there is hope.   So the vision of the prophet.  Beyond the catastrophe.  How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.  Even as the darkness gathers, he can see them.  The early Sentinels, the dawn of the new day and the Dayspring from on High, the return of the Lord to Zion.  God himself entering his throne room.  Ascending in glory. Restoring the ruins of Jerusalem, raising them to a new magnificence.  And not just that Holy City.  All creation.  Time and space.  Eternity itself.

And this is where it happened.  Returning to the source, to the place of beginning.  The great convergence, every holy promise and prophesy.  This holy night.  And Bethlehem.  Where the ancient Prophet Samuel saw the hand of the Lord rest upon a shepherd boy, and where God’s Chosen, David, was anointed to serve and lead God’s people.  Here:  Mary and Joseph.  Shepherds abiding in the fields.  Angels singing.  A Savior who is Christ the Lord.  The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks; when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.

And here he is. As Isaiah said, foretelling.  Tonight.  In majesty.  Ruling heaven and earth from his manger throne.   For his royal court, the rustic shepherds.  For his palace a stable.  Don’t let appearances deceive you even for a minute this evening.  He is turning upside down and inside out all our expectations.   Power in weakness.  To win victory by forgiveness.   Whose absolute power is known as perfect mercy.  To rule by blessing.  To govern in love.

The Law and the Prophets in grand procession, all shown this night to be true and reliable and given for us, for our encouragement and our benefit.  The word to Eve in the Garden.  The promise to Abraham.  That through his seed all nations would be blessed.  In fact, every word of Scripture pointing us to this hour.  In all truth.  To guide our lives and to fill our vision.  When darkness gathers, hope.   Fulfilled on this bed of straw.  Wrapped in swaddling cloth.    The ancient story not distant anymore, but now perfectly present.  Not about people long ago and far away, but about us, about the world we live in.  Who came for us, to die on the Cross, taking in himself our brokenness, our sin, and then to rise from death.   In the mystery of this midnight hour of Christmas, the fullness of Easter.  For us, for our salvation, he came down from heaven.

So, St. John: He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to come children of God . . . .

This is not a children’s story, though it is the story of a child.   Encountering and mastering every hard reality of our lives and of our world.  Bending back the darkness, overcoming the force of evil that rides so high in the world around us and in the secret corners of our hearts.  Forgiving sin, as we return to him in faith; bringing peace and reconciliation.   Come: bow down and bend the knee and kneel before the Lord our Maker.  Like the Shepherds.  For we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.  Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Let the whole earth stand in awe of him.

To know that this story is our story--not because we try through some act of will to make it true, to convince ourselves, but because his Spirit has prepared us, come to dwell in us, cleared a space for this gospel good news to be planted and to take root.  To know who we are by knowing first whose we are.  Is there a place prepared in you, ready to receive him now?

An invitation.  If we’ve never heard it before, perhaps we will hear it now.  There is a right time to receive this gift, a providential moment.  And perhaps tonight, as we listen carefully.  Scripture and song and the ancient prayers of his holy Church.  What do you hear?  What is the news?   For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.”

Blessings this night.  Peace in Bethlehem and in all the world.  Let this invitation be fresh and new for each of us this evening.  Listen carefully, as the angels sing.  He comes to us so that we might come to him.  Christ the Lord, the Newborn King.