Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday, Second Meditation

C. Garrett Yates, Seminarian

“The dripping blood our only drink, the bloody flesh our only food: In spite of which we like to think that we are sound, substantial flesh and blood— Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.” (That’s from Eliot’s Four Quartets)

...And yet we call this Friday good. Good? I want to pull back the curtain on that word and think about what we might be saying when we refer to this Friday as “good.” Do we mean the same thing by good as God does? Think with me back to the opening chapter of the Bible: God says good on the heels of life and abundance as he looks fondly at the proliferation and fecundity of creation. And he calls it good. He creates us on the sixth day, it is very good. Good, so this story tells us, has to do with creativity and freedom; with blessing and delight. Who are we to take this word that God has uttered and apply it to this Friday?

What if you had been there in the circus-like madness of the day? Jesus is thrown from one court to the next like a pinball, and beaten and whipped even more dramatically. This was of course all preceded by an unforgettable night of panic and fear in a garden, the terror of isolation, and the death of meaning, the pandemonium of an innocent arrest....he sweats drops of blood, choked in dread of the future. Maybe we should be careful with this word "good."

There would be something cruel if we were to go back in time and visit Mary Jesus' mother or John, or any of those others who had experienced the wrenching loss of a friend, and tried to stitch meaning into their experience; that despite appearances God was actually at work in it all. No, who are we to do that?

St. John of the Cross, one of the most relentlessly probing of the church's mystics, talked a great deal about the dark night of the soul; the experience of deprivation where all the glittery meanings and purposes that the soul formerly held on to are exposed as thin and wispy veneers, illusions that prop up a threatened sense of self. The soul becomes unmoored from all that it has known; there is only darkness and disorientation.

There is in all of us, I suspect, an initial aversion to such experiences as St. John describes: we prefer the straightforward, the easy and the tranquil, the times when life is neither too mean nor not too nice - it just rolls along without too much drama. We might even prefer days that are totally repetitive, like Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day, to the fluctuating and unpredictable. But as much as we'd like to immune ourselves from it, the inevitable comes, life happens, we experience something that puts our entire world in question: we lose a loved one, our much enjoyed hobbies are no longer available to us because of age, we are unable to kick that nagging depression, we are separated from our bodies because of pain or illness, or maybe we just open the newspaper for the umpteenth straight day to read about another case of human carnage. And as much as we'd like for it not to be, something like St. John's dark night sets in: the God who was so good to us previously is nowhere to be found. Darkness stretches taut on our horizon – we are left with questions that all spiral heavenward sounding something like, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”

Our Hebrew ancestors knew a great deal about this deprivation and loss of faith. In some sense, their entire history is one great exile of meaning: they think they get it, and then they are assailed by the darkness of enemy forces. We really have to look no further than the first few verses of the Bible to see what they thought about chaos and evil: they tell us that apart from God's meaning-giving and creative word there is only chaos. "Darkness covered the deep." Apart from the generative activity of God, they tell us, there is an abyss of darkness, nothingness. There is God and then there is nothingness. But that's not quite what we are talking about on this Friday. It's not God on the one hand and nothingness on the other: as if neither has anything to do with the other. What we see happening in the events leading up to the death, not to mention the death itself, is God entering into the nothingness Godself - God drawing the nothingness into himself. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so the first chapter of John tells us. That is, the Word came into our darkness and deprivation - the Word became, and indeed is still becoming flesh, and entering into our own private hells. There is no corner, no dimension of the human experience that is cut off from transcendent light and love. God has made his home among us, and in the dereliction of the cross, has plunged himself to furthest corners of the human experience. It’s basically what it means to be a Christian: to associate oneself with a God who refuses to draw limits or boundaries to his love; a God who has an infinite capacity to forgive; a God who withholds nothing but instead goes to the edges, to boundaries of the mess we’ve made and pitches his tent to stay with us there. Let’s not be mistaken: the darkness of this Friday is real, as real as death is real. But I also want to say that there is a strange goodness in this darkness – what I mean by that is that it is big enough for the darkness of the entire world to enter in, and thereupon enter into the very heart of God. The cross is God’s open heart to each of us; an invitation to take into himself the chaos, separation, and yes, even the madness of our world. There is no darkness, no dimension of our lives or of the world that is not invited to be assumed, drawn into the darkness of the cross – which we have been saying is the darkness of God himself.

One of the very great theologians of the early church – Gregory of Nyssa spoke much about the darkness that exists in God. He believed that the closer one grew to God the more and more one lost contact with one’s senses - the light of one’s reason is extinguished and darkness blankets the mind. But, he didn’t think the journey ended there. Beyond, beneath, and behind the darkness that is within God; surrounding and enveloping it is what Nyssa knew to be boundless love; the darkness finally yields to the inextinguishable love of God. That is what today is all about: the darkness that God has drawn into Godself opens up onto the infinite frontiers of God’s love. From everlasting to everlasting, there is love. And perhaps it because of that that we dare to call this Friday good.

Good Friday, First Meditation

Bruce M. Robison

The story unfolding before us—so familiar.  We can almost whisper along word by word.  The images fill our minds, perhaps glimpses from works of great art down through the centuries, or from films or songs, from the patterns and memories of the past. The old Good Friday hymn asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And it is indeed as though we were there, as though our experience of these hours is memory, deeply felt, deeply experienced. The sights and sounds and smells of that corner of the city landfill outside the gates of Old Jerusalem so vivid. We close our eyes, and we are there, on that day.

And of course that memory surrounds and permeates, explores, illuminates, embraces, interprets, haunts, so much of our lives. Day by day.   The horrors of this world. War and rumors of war. Natural disasters. Cruelty and crime.  A disturbed high schooler in Murrysville.  A ferryboat in Korea.  A public square in the eastern corner of the Ukraine.  A physician shakes his head in sadness as he reviews the latest round of test results.  We see him on that Cross and ask what it all means: how to make sense of what is beyond making-sense.   The fragility of our lives seems to go up there with him, the whole burden of our weakness, our vulnerabilities. Our tenderness. We bend. We break. 

Just a lot of Good Friday, all around us, in our midst, in our own lives. And we close our eyes, and we are there, on that day. We remember. It is not far away at all, but all too real. Nearby. And the Cross that is above us, overhead, not an ornament of architectural decoration, but the essential key to the interpretation of our lives.  At the darkest moment, a sign of dawn on the horizon.  Without it, it is night, and we are alone in the forest, without a clue, without a map, without a trail to follow. It is all we have.

Jesus said, I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself, that where I am, there ye may be also. And Thomas said, Lord, we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way? How can we know the way?

And he gives us this sign. Himself. On the cross. And with those words from John 14: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father, but by me. 

We of the church, the Christian family, friends of Jesus—we have been struggling to find the right words for two thousand years.  To share this essential news, this hope, this promise.  Sometimes all we can do is point.  This the way, as the Cross beckons us, the light on the path, the gate, the door, the way forward. He prayed in the Garden that last night: Father, if there is some other way forward, show it to me now. But there was no other way. Not for him, and so also not for us. Before Sunday morning, always Friday.

We carry this hope, we live in it, and for it, the deep foundation under us. The King of Love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never. But it doesn’t make this part any easier. Oh. Sometimes it causes me to tremble. Tremble. Tremble. 

And so, here we are. Trembling.  However strong, however, complete, however good we may appear to others.  On our way to the Cross ourselves, as he is before us on his. Listening for his last word for us: Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

Good Friday, and all of us together here with him. And even at the grave we make our song. It is his victorious Cross, trampling down death by death. 

The Way, the Truth, the Life. The Cross and only the Cross, this day, this hour, light in the darkness, the power of God, giving life to those in the tomb.  May his Cross be for you this day the opening door to life and eternal life in him.

Good Friday

All majesty has vanished
from the daughter of Zion.

Her princes have become like deer
that can find no pasture
and run on, their strength all spent,
pursued by the hunter.

Jerusalem has remembered
her days of misery and wandering,
when her people fell into the power of the adversary
and there was no one to help her.

Lamentations of Jeremiah 1: 6-7

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

Grace and peace this spring morning, the entryway to Holy Week, a sunny day but storm clouds gathering,  and simply to say that I hope and trust we will all find moments in the coming days for prayer and reflection, on the way toward Good Friday and then finally to Easter morning.  This winter and this lent have been very challenging in lots of ways,  but I pray in those challenges that it has been a time of growth and a deepening of faith.  So may the season ahead be rich and full of many blessings.

Those of us above a certain age will remember—perhaps with a smile or a sigh or a rolling of the eyes—Attorney General John Mitchell, at the height of the Watergate scandal and investigation, commenting on his famous wife Martha and saying, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

It seems appropriate or at least timely to notice on Palm Sunday that the behavior is more common than you might at first think.   If not shopping, to be immersed in entertainment.  Or drinking, or drugs.  Busyness.  So often, whatever it takes to duck the hard questions, to slide over the rough patches.  As they say in the 12-step movement, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”  A river that flows through every neighborhood and community, every home and family, touching each and every one of us.  “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

The desire to get out there into the churchyard for that champagne reception and egg hunt on Easter morning.  To skip past this dark week with its haunting and painful stories as quickly as we can.  A nod in the direction of some profound musical expressions, of course, and certainly there are those. The Cross on a distant green hill, far away.  But getting down to brass tacks in terms of our own lives and maybe what we would call hand-to-hand combat with the harder questions that the week ahead have for us may just be a little more than we had in mind.

On Sunday morning the crowd couldn’t seem to get enough of Jesus, but by Friday morning they were ready for him to be gone, and they didn’t much care how.   Let’s just get it over with.  And we just notice that over the centuries not much seems to change.  People are people.  We are what we are.

Palm Sunday.  The Passion Gospel rolling on around us all week long, echoing, catching us here and there through the routines of our lives.  Fleeting images.  Wonderings.  Perhaps extended and deepened if we stop in at Church on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.  But in any case, in the air around us.

The question that Peter wrestles with in the Courtyard of the High Priest.  Aren’t you one of those who have been following this Jesus?  One of his guys?   One of these nuts from the Galilee?  Maybe you ought to be in there with him.  What do you think?

The grand procession begins again, Station to Station through the streets of Jerusalem.  Cheering and jeering.  The sky grows dark as we approach the walls of the old city.  We can picture just about every step along the way.  As Billy Graham used to say at his Crusades: “A Day of Decision.”  A time to choose.  Put our cards on the table.  One way or the other.  Easy enough to slip away and go back to our normal lives, if that’s what we decide.

This past Wednesday on the new calendar of lesser observances in the church year we remembered the anniversary of the execution in the Nazi prison in April 1945 of German theologian and Christian leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Who wrote the famous book “Costly Discipleship.”  A principled pacifist who nonetheless after years of faithful witness in the midst of a world at war participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Who talked about Christian life not as a casual affiliation or a kind of aesthetic or emotional or social experience, but of a challenging uphill daily path, the commitment to a regular and deep and prayerful study of the scriptures, and of a commitment to a rigorous application, day by day.

So: didn’t I see you with him?  There’s even something about the way you talk that makes me wonder.  You are, aren’t you . . . one of his people . . . .  I mean, if you are, why would you be out here in the courtyard, in the shadows, by the fire, trying to look inconspicuous.  Are you with him, or not?

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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifth in Lent

 (A) Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Romans 8: 6-11, John 11: 1-45

Grace and peace this spring morning, Fifth Sunday in Lent, and certainly as we hear in the readings this morning we are drawing near Jerusalem now and the great drama of Holy Week and Good Friday and then the Sunday morning after Good Friday.  All coming into view on the road ahead.  Something of an advanced warning system.  Notice the fasten seat belts sign:  flying into some turbulence.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons are both part of the grand procession of readings in the new Prayer Book Easter Vigil service, which is structured like a service of Lessons and Carols for Holy Week and Easter.  As we read Ezekiel 37 we recall the long and horrific siege of Jerusalem, the whole world crashing down around them, in 587 b.c.  The inevitable judgment on unrepentant generations: a  long era of corrupt and faithless kings, religious leaders who turned away from the faith of their ancestors.  A people more concerned with self-interest than with loyal obedience to the God of their Fathers. 

And now this.  The city surrounded by the massive enemy army.  Starvation in the streets as supplies of food are cut off.  Fear, disease, death everywhere.  Beyond the city walls the whole valley a kind of bone-yard, as every effort to send troops out to break the siege ends in disaster and defeat.  Fathers, husbands, sons, and often impossible even to retrieve their bodies for burial.  And then the final attack, the Holy City ransacked and put to the torch, the Palace and the Temple pillaged, the few survivors among the poor flee to the countryside.  Those surviving among the working and ruling classes are bound in chains and carried off into humiliation and exile--to be settled eventually in slums and refugee work camps stretching from Egypt to Iraq, their lands and possessions divided as a war-bonus among the soldiers of the victorious Babylonian army.  The promise and Covenant of Abraham all but forgotten.  The pledge to David if anything an ironic joke.

 And then.  And then.  As Jeremiah the Prophet had prophesied,  70 years and two long struggling generations later the words of this new prophet Ezekiel ring out in the darkness: the Lord has spoken; open your ears, Israel: the promise is renewed.  Not because we’ve somehow earned it, through our suffering or our piety.  Not because we remembered him,  but because he remembered us.  

As the Spirit of God first breathed life into Adam, so his breath now renews, revives, restores his people.  Forgiveness, mercy, gracious gift.  What seemed beyond hope, a nation dead and buried and swept out into the dustbin of history, alive again.  The steadfast love the Lord never ceases.  His mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is thy faithfulness.

And of course as we’ve heard John 11, the last and greatest of the Wondrous Signs in John’s Gospel.  Lazarus.  Dead and buried four days.  And then the command, that the stone be rolled away.  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

All pretty amazing, wonderful, mind-boggling.  Again, speaking to us, shaping our hearts and minds, our memories and our imaginations, as we approach the story at the heart of the story, Friday afternoon and Sunday morning.  Still, hard to get our mind around all this.  What it all means.  Someone says, “Did you hear the news.  Jesus of Nazareth.  He was executed.  He died on the Cross on Friday.  But then on Sunday his tomb was empty, and he wasn’t dead anymore.  He was alive.”  

And perhaps the reply: “wow.  That’s amazing.  Boy, was he lucky.  Everybody I’ve ever known, everybody I’ve ever heard of, once they were dead they  stayed dead.  That Jesus story is really one for the books, no doubt about it.”

Which is why this snippet from Romans 8 is important for us to hear this morning, and critically important as we will turn the corner next Sunday at Palm Sunday to the drama of Holy Week.   This Letter to the Romans sometimes called the Gospel according to St. Paul, and the whole 8th chapter the heart of that Good News.  Turning away from this notion that we can base our hope on anything other than the faithfulness of God, who saves us before we know we need to be saved, who frees us from the grave while we’re still under the illusion that we are alive. 

Why these stories are important, Ezekiel’s vision, Lazarus’s return, Easter morning.  Not because they are about amazing and wonderful things that happened to people long ago and far away.  But because they are about what happened then and what keeps happening.  Because what was true for them continues to be true for us.  Again this morning, Romans 8, verses 10 and 11, as we would hear these words echo all the way down: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Life in Christ.

From a hundred camps and slums, the Word of the Lord spoken by the Prophet, the Spirit of the Lord, breathed new life into a people as good as dead.  And God opened a way for their return.  And the City was rebuilt.  The Temple again restored and filled with the praises of his people.  And on that evening at the dinner table Mary and Martha and their friends from Galilee were not in tears and sorrow for the one they had lost.  Their brother was with them again.  Amazement and joy, and to think about tomorrow.  And certainly the question: what should the rest of our lives be like, now that we’ve seen this?   Questions that we ask in Holy Week and Easter.  Same old world around us, but we’ve already turned the page.  “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun.”

A little later in Romans 8, at verse 28, Paul says, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

It takes more than a Sunday morning sermon to unpack all that dense language.  And I won’t even begin to try, except to say that it is the best news of all.  The flower of Easter that grows out of the soil of Holy Week and is the blessing of our lives.  

All about grace and peace, forgiveness and mercy.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  About what we can know to be entirely and absolutely true about the faithfulness of God, which is the foundation of his holiness, his divine character, and how that faithfulness then can make possible the renewal and transformation of our lives.  How it makes a difference when we wake up in the morning.  As we open our lives to his Word, as we manage and discipline our own bodies, as we apply our intellect, as we use our hands to work, as we live in relationship to others, our families, our friends, our communities, all the wide world.  Daily application, transformation, renewal.  As we show forth his praise not only with our lips but in our lives.

Paul continues at verse 38 of the 8th chapter, and I’ll just leave it to him this morning, as we will go deeper next Sunday in the Passion Gospel of Matthew and the whole week ahead after that, deeper and deeper-- the center and highlight of the Church Year.  The story we tell over and over, because this old story is our story.  Romans 8:38:  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all reaction will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth in Lent, Laetare

(Year A) I Samuel 16: 1-13; John 9: 1-41

Laetare Ierusalem.  The first words in the traditional Latin Mass Introit for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, from the 66th chapter of Isaiah.  Laetare Sunday, as it says on the front page of the leaflet.  The ancient choirs singing over the centuries, to lift our hearts from heavy weight of exile:  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 . . . .

Something of a pause, a resting place, along this journey of Lent.  Laetare.  A green and oasis on the trek through the wilderness.  A place of shade, out of the midday sun.  Sometimes called “Refreshment Sunday.”  Also in England called “Mothering Sunday”-- and in the Downton Abbey households of the great aristocracy a day when the upstairs family would fend for themselves and the downstairs staff would be given the day to go home for a family visit.  Ancestor of our contemporary “Mother’s Day” customs.   In churches where Lent is observed with a more rigorous discipline, the purple paraments and eucharistic vestments replaced (to be clear about this, not with pink, but) with rose-colored hangings and vestments.  The one Sunday in Lent when you might have flowers on the altar and something more than coffee and tea on the table at coffee hour.  Not a time to throw all our Lenten observance overboard.  Not yet a time for the trumpets and feasting of Easter.  But to relax the disciplines just a bit.  

A reminder, just in case we have been feeling a little tweak of spiritual pride in our seasonal austerity, that we aren’t earning our salvation here, but learning our salvation.  It’s not about working harder and being perfect, some energetic climbing of the holiness ladder, but about learning to practice our mindfulness, to remember, to awaken from sleep, in the living presence of the Lord whose property it is always to have mercy. To embrace the gift that has already been won on the Cross.  To learn again and again year in and year out in the long gestation of our Christian life that it is only by his grace and love that we can have any hope for this life or for the life to come.  It’s not about us, about all our busyness and accomplishments, not even about our best moments, our good deeds and admirable character.  It’s about him, about Jesus, and only about him.  Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .

There just isn’t any way to live as Christians except with joy.  So St. Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say rejoice.”  Philippians 4:4.  Perhaps remembering the title of C.S. Lewis’s spiritual autobiography: “Surprised by Joy.”   All joy, blessing, and peace.  There’s Easter joy and Christmas joy and Pentecost joy, and there is Advent joy, and Lenten joy, and Holy Week joy, even on the way to the Cross.  I guess especially on the way to the Cross.  

To feel that joy in our hearts this morning of Laetare.  Even as we take a deep breath and prepare ourselves for the last leg of the journey on toward Holy Week and Good Friday.  The season something of a metaphor for our day to day lives, citizens of the Kingdom still in exile, strangers in a strange land.  A reminder of our true citizenship.  Not to say there aren’t times of pain and suffering, disappointment and loss.  Sometimes crushing us.    In every one of our lives.   Illness and injury, failure, accidents and landslides.  I’m not preaching a prosperity gospel, at least as we measure prosperity by the ordinary metrics of the world around us.  The ancient Covenant doesn’t make things any easier for the Israelites; the new Covenant doesn’t make things any easier for Christians.  Wealth and health and happiness, all wonderful when we can have them of course.   Ephemeral as they may be.   And I would hope and pray that we would each and all of us have that and in abundance.  But that’s not what the joy we would talk about on this Laetare Sunday is about. 

Two images.

Old Samuel.  Years ago Prophet and Man of God had anointed Saul to be Israel’s first King, and now that is turning out badly.   Instead of unity and peace there is division and conflict.  Instead of faithful obedience and a renewal of the ancient Covenant there is rebellion and betrayal.  And now God has directed the Old Man to the country home of Jesse, just outside Bethlehem.  And as Jesse’s sons are paraded one after the other before him, Samuel’s heart begins to despair.  Fine, strapping young men, strong and noble.  Regal.  But the Lord remains silent.  Finally with a sigh: are there no others?  And the teenaged David, scrawny adolescent, is reluctantly brought in from the back 40.  Really, Lord?  Really?  This is the one?   And Samuel takes a breath, brings out his flagon of oil.  This decisive moment in the long purpose of salvation history.  “Young Man, God has a great plan for your life.” 

Hard not to remember the words of the Prophet in the second part of the Book of Isaiah right here, chapter 55: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” No kidding.  This reversal of expectations.  Exactly opposite what we would do.  How God works sideways, from the off angle.  Upside down.  Through the small, the weak, the broken.  The last first, the first last.

And the Man Born Blind.  This odd procedure—if that’s the right way to talk about it.   Mostly  Jesus just says a word.  Or with a gentle touch. But here, spitting on the ground, taking the mud and smearing it across his eyes.  Almost a kind of deep and distant echo of Genesis 2, as God made the first man from the dust of the ground.  New and renewed creation, new and renewed humanity.  A foretaste and hint of the perfect healing that we will know in him, as we come to know him perfectly.  “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  And of course the transformation, the words of the song that echo down the centuries, “one thing I do know, I once was blind, (but) now I see.”  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!

Be joyful, Jerusalem; be joyful Highland Park.  Good Christian people of St. Andrew’s.  It’s Lent, and the season for joy.  Not with trumpets, but in the deep quiet of our hearts.  God has a great plan for your life, for our lives.  Even if we are an assembly of odd ducks.  A great plan: we need to hear that, and to believe it.  As it was a reality for David, a reality for the Man Born Blind.  A great plan for our lives, in this life and for eternal life.   Gathered to hear God’s Word, to know the assurance of his real presence, to go out through these open doors to communicate the good news by word and deed.  Not only with our lips but in our lives.   Laetare.  Rejoice, Jerusalem of God.  The curtain is beginning to open to reveal the great celebration of his victory.  For each one of us.  The dark shadow of the cross giving way even in this Lent to the radiance of the Third Day.  Refreshment.  Our eyes opened as if for the first time.  Born blind, but now we see.  Light shining in every dark corner.  The oil of gladness flowing in abundance, anointing us with his mercy, his healing, his forgiveness, his love. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third in Lent

Year A: Exodus 17: 1-7, John 4: 5-42

Again good morning, as we continue our way now at the Third Sunday of Lent.  It’s often noted that the English word “Lent” comes from the same early English root as our words “long” or “lengthen,” and refer specifically to the season of the lengthening of the day, spring.  In these weeks before Holy Week and Easter a time of reflection, penitence, preparation—but also in the midst of that, to see and experience transformation and renewal, as the blanket of snow and ice and cold as we have lived through the long winter now gives way to the first signs of bright and warm new life beginning to emerge.  Maybe it doesn’t quite feel like it this chilly morning, but it is on its way! 

A meaningful and poetic analogy of image for the encounter we have in the great cycle of the church year with the pattern of our response to the gift of God, his grace and love in Christ Jesus, recognizing our sin and in repentance and in the commitment to an amendment of life to know and experience the spiritual renewal in his promise.  The awareness of sin, we might say, as the first and perhaps the most certain sign of the gift of God’s grace and power.  Even that awareness comes only by his generous action.  

That moment in the story of the Prodigal Son when the Wastrel has spent his inheritance and is plunged into the depths of ruin.  And in Luke 15: 17 as Jesus is telling the story, “and when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare . . . .  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you . . . .”  Again, “when he came to himself.”  The literal meaning of "repent," the imperative “metanoite:” “get a different consciousness.”  Get your head on straight.  Wake up and turn around.  What can be and probably should be an incredibly painful moment.  But also again, pure gift.  The first moment of God’s gracious hand reaching into our lives.  As he acts first, while we are still deep in our sleep, deep in our denial.  Quoting again the words of John 3:16 as we heard them in the readings appointed last Sunday, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Now, in the study of new languages we always need to be alert for what my 7th grade French teacher called “des faux amis.”  False friends.  Words that look to be so similar to, even exactly like, words of our own language that we mistakenly assume a common definition.  It can get you into trouble.   So here this morning from the first words of our Old Testament reading simply to say that the Hebrew word translated here as the “wilderness of Sin” has nothing to do with the spiritual condition of the Israelites and the rebellion against God that we heard about in Genesis last Sunday.

 It’s pure and simple a geographical marker of a region of the Sinai peninsula.  We know “Mount Sinai.”  From that same word.   And if we were reading the Bible in a German translation this morning we wouldn’t pause.   But you can’t help noticing. Because we are reading in English, and this is of course what the story is about.  The sin that goes all the way down in us.  Through and through. 

The great multitude liberated from slavery in Egypt by God’s mighty arm, passing through the Red Sea with the waters parted like great walls of either side.  Coming to the Holy Mountain of smoke and flame to receive the great commands of God and the foundation of Torah, the Law, that will define and constitute their identity and purpose.  But then day after day, in the desert heat, under the open sky, hunger and thirst, the weakest struggling to keep up.  Weeks turn into months, months into years.  Conflicts arise within, there are battles with Bedouin tribes, conflicts with those through whose lands they are passing.  Even the essentials of life at risk.  “At least in Egypt we had food to eat, water to drink.”  Who is this Moses, anyway?   Can we trust him?  We’ve followed, we’ve heard him speak of how God called him, of how God spoke to him on the mountain.  The God of Moses.  We trusted for a while, but now we need to see some results.  He says “have faith, the Lord will provide.”  But that’s not enough, not any more.  Give us something to drink! 

And at the Lord’s command, in the midst of all this grumbling and rebellion, in the heart of the “wilderness of sin,” Moses strikes the rock, and pure water flows.

Or as St. Paul puts it in Romans 5, the theological framework for the waking up of the Prodigal Son, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  While we were still wandering in that wilderness, before we even knew how lost we were.

What the faithless people of Israel deserved, after all that God had done for them, was nothing.  “Go ahead, then, all right, go on back to Egypt.  See how you like it.”  But what they got was more than they deserved.  In the wilderness of Sin, the water of life, a renewal of hope, an expression of love. 

And so the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well.  So lost in the “Wilderness of sin” of her life that she won’t even dare to show her face at the well in the early morning, when the women of the village would normally go to supply their homes and families. 

She comes in the noonday heat, when the neighbors are having their siesta and no one will see.  And she dances around in this repartee with Jesus.   Hiding her brokenness she thinks, avoids the subject of her true condition. 

And yet Jesus stays with her, and in a word reveals and shares with her such an abundance of grace and affection, his very self, that she is at once convicted and absolved, exposed and freed.  Dying to an old life, and rising in a miraculous transformation to be not simply renewed herself but to be the catalyst for others.  Those who wouldn’t speak to her, those to whom she wouldn’t dare to show her face—they are now suddenly lifted up with her to a new life.  This amazing converted village of Samaritans.  Inviting Jesus to come and stay with them, receiving him as guest and knowing and proclaiming him as their Savior.

The Israelites don’t manage their successful crossing of the wilderness of Sin because of their Boy Scout Camping skills, and they certainly don’t get to the Promised Land because they have shown themselves worthy.   The Samaritan Woman and her village neighbors don’t receive the blessings of new life in Jesus because they worshipped in the right words and ceremonies or because of their moral purity. 

It all comes to them as a gift, free.  More than they deserve.  An abundance beyond measure, when they really deserved nothing at all. 

If we could know this to be our story in Lent.   What that long reading of Psalm 51 on Ash Wednesday is all about.  “I have sinned O Lord, I have sinned, and I know my wickedness only too well.”  The long look into the mirror in the morning.

The awareness of where we are, in the "wilderness of sin," we might say, as the most certain sign there is of the gift of God’s grace and power.  Why Lent is such a blessing.  I had no idea how hungry I was, until he fed me.  I had no idea how thirsty I was, until from the Rock there flowed a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

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