Archives for February 2015

A second chance, a clean heart, 5 Lent (B) – 2015

March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

In today’s psalm we prayed, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

In Milwaukee, St. Luke’s Hospital is renowned for its cardiac care. Next door, there is a church that has a large lighted cross that can be seen by patients. Over the years, the church has received many letters from patients, saying they receive hope when they see the cross, especially lighted at night. The cross seems to have special meaning to many of the patients in the cardiac care unit, whose windows look out toward the lighted cross. Some of the people staying in that unit await heart transplants, and while they wait, day after day, sometimes month after month, they take comfort in the cross. The cross means for them new life, just like the chance for a new heart means a new chance at life, a second chance.

In today’s psalm, the writer tells of his desire for a second chance, a clean heart, a renewed spirit. Tradition ascribes this psalm to King David and says he composed it after he is confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery and then using his power to have a man killed to cover the king’s own wrongdoing. The writer of the psalm feels the weight of his sins keenly. He feels his sin as a disconnection from God. The image he uses to express his longing for reconnection, for restoration of right relationship with God, is his heart’s need for cleansing. Sin has soiled his heart, and so he cries out, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

What would we do with a clean heart, a renewed heart, a second chance?

In our Old Testament lesson, God says through the prophet Jeremiah that God will write God’s law on the people’s hearts and forgive their sins. In a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel 11:19, God promises an even more radical surgery: “I will give them a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within them. I will remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”

What would we do with a clean heart, a new heart, a second chance?

In Anne Tyler’s novel “Saint Maybe,” a character named Ian bears a terrible burden of guilt. He has too carelessly spoken words to his brother, expressing his unfounded idea that his brother’s wife is cheating on him. Ian’s careless speech, born of anger against his brother and sister-in-law, leads to their deaths, the leaving behind of their three children, and an aching pain in Ian that he bears part of the responsibility for how things turned out. He longs to be set free from his burden, to experience true forgiveness. Ian finds his way to a church where the minister tells him that he needs to take care of the three orphaned children. In taking on the raising of the children, Ian realizes that any forgiveness worth having needs to be linked to a change of life. The problem for Ian is that he sees forgiveness as something he must earn. He leads an upright life, but he cuts himself off from others, becomes distant from people, including himself. He wonders why, with all the good works he’s been doing, all the “atoning and atoning,” it still feels like God hasn’t forgiven him. He’s been busy trying to earn his forgiveness, and it’s not working. He lives in such a way as to avoid making mistakes. One of the children teases him, calling him, “King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe.”

Ian feels he has a second chance, but he also feels he has to be very cautious. Since he thinks forgiveness depends upon himself, his own ability to make things right, he can only live in a closed and cut-off way, a way that prevents him from experiencing the fullness of life, from taking risks for the sake of love. He has become a man, in a very narrow sense, of upright behavior. He has even taken a job as a cabinet maker, taking refuge in inanimate objects so he doesn’t have to deal with people, not risking hurting or being hurt.

What we hear in our gospel lesson is that, in Jesus, we know someone who not only knows our sins, but who does something about them. When we meet him in today’s lesson, Jesus is on his way to the cross. And he gives this promise: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Sin is what separates us from God, others, ourselves and our world. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he will set in motion the reconciliation of all people, the forgiveness of all people, the drawing of all people to himself. It is a picture of reconciliation or of the healing of broken relationships, with God, with others, with our own selves. It’s not about giving us a chance to earn our forgiveness. Since our hearts need cleansing, God is going to do it. And through Jesus Christ, we can have a clean heart that can love again. For a second chance, and a third, and a fourth.

So the question is not, “What would you do with a second chance?” but rather, “What will you do with a chance to start over again, and another, and another?”

In giving us new life, Jesus also gives us a way to respond, a pattern of life: his own. And it is not about living in a cautious and closed-off way. Jesus’ way of life is a life of taking risks, of reaching out to others, of serving the poor, of working for justice, of being reconciled with others, of being like grains of wheat that multiply if they are willing to give up the certainty of being seeds for the adventure of growth and new life and the spreading of blessings.

What will you do with your clean heart, your chance to start over again?

Eventually, in “Saint Maybe,” Ian starts to discover God’s grace in the ordinary details of his life. He begins to be opened to the possibility of risk, of relationship, of healing. He discovers that the three children are not a burden – they are what give his life “color, energy, and well, life.” He falls in love and marries a woman, and together they plan for the arrival of their new baby. He uses his carpentry skills to build a cradle of fine wood for the baby. And in this effort, done in response to love, Ian discovers something new, and he takes a risk. In all his woodworking until now:

“he had worked with straight lines. He had deliberately stayed away from bow-backed chairs and benches that require eye judgment, personal opinion. Now he was surprised at how these two shallow U shapes satisfied his palm. . . . He took special pride in the cradle’s nearly seamless joints which would expand and contract in harmony and continue to stay tight through a hundred steamy summers and parched winters.”

Ian realizes through being forgiven and forgiving, through being given a clean heart and a second chance, and a third and a fourth, the importance of vulnerability, the importance of taking risks, the importance of relationship, his own ability to participate in love and new life and hope.

The response to being forgiven, to being given a clean heart, a new heart, and more chances than we can count, is not bed rest and caution, but a new exercise program, a program patterned after the life of Christ, walking in his way, following where he leads, being willing to spend it all, like he did for us, to take a risk, to give up the certainty of being a seed for the adventure of new life, new growth, new possibilities.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

God so loves the world, 4 Lent (B) – 2015

March 15, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

John 3:16 – it appears a lot of places, and mostly not a quote of the text but just that citation of gospel, chapter and verse. Just the name “John” followed by the number “3,” a colon and the number “16.”

It appears on placards at sports events, on signs people post on their front lawns and inside the bottom rim of paper cups at fast-food restaurants.

The professional football quarterback Timothy Richard Tebow – you have probably heard him called Tim – has been known to print the reference in his eye black. This he did most famously in 2012 at what became known as “the 3:16 game,” when Mr. Tebow – then of the Denver Broncos – threw the ball a total 316 yards in a playoff upset against the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning the game 29 to 23.

Immediately afterward, “John 3 16” became the top Google search in the United States.

On Amazon.com today, you can find books titled “The 3:16 Promise” and “3:16: The Numbers of Hope.”

People seem to be really fixated with John 3:16 – and no wonder. The verse has caught attention of sports fans, casual readers and theologians alike.

Martin Luther famously called it “the gospel in miniature,” indicating that it is the very heart of our Christian faith.

It says: “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.”

The very heart of our faith – that God loves the world.

The “giving of his Son” part will resonate with parents, who sacrifice for their children; with soldiers, who sacrifice for their country; and with anyone who sacrifices anything out of love for another.

And the idea that everyone may have eternal life – well, that’s the basic Christian hope, right?

This, too, will make sense in other contexts. For what parents want anything but the very best for their children? What manager wants anything but the very best outcome? And eternal life is the very best God has to offer.

The sacrifice, the giving of one’s best, these are all premised on one simple thing: love; God’s love for us.

When you think about it, God’s love for the world is nothing short of miraculous.

God created the world, of course – so that accounts for some of it. We tend to like the things we have created, such as when we bake a pie, or fashion a table out of wood or even draw a picture with crayons.

But we humans have continued to be such rebellious louts. We ignore God’s plan, we bargain with God’s commands and we fight against God’s justice – at least some of the time.

Martin Luther once said, “If I were as our Lord God … and these vile people were as disobedient as they now are, I would knock the world in pieces.”

And you might think God would do just that – knock the world in pieces.

Knock the Taliban in pieces.

Knock Congress in pieces.

Knock the whatever in pieces. You fill in the blank.

And that’s not all. Each and every one of us is quite capable of doing the most vile sorts of things – and sometimes we do. We trespass against God, we commit offences, we sin.

After all, who among us has not done what we ought not to have done, or left undone what we ought to have done? Who has not – from time to time – denied God’s goodness in others, in ourselves, or in the world around us?

Maybe God should knock us in pieces, too!

But in the person of Jesus, we find a God who is not much interested in retributive justice. Not much worried about punishing offenders. Not much invested in inflicting a penalty for wrongdoings.

No. We find a God who seeks to forgive, for whom restorative justice is the priority, who seeks to repair the hurt – not inflict another.

And this, too, arises out of God’s love for us.

God loves us too much to cause us to cower in fear.

God loves us too much to inflict corporal punishment on us.

God loves us too much to make us suffer – or to suffer any more than we already do.

And that is Good News for us, for all of Christianity, and for all of the world.

God loves us.

This doesn’t mean we should go around deliberately committing offences and expecting we be forgiven.

This does mean that when we cause offense, we will be forgiven by God – but we may also have to pay the earthly penalty for our actions.

When we do things we know are wrong, irresponsible and dangerous, we can pray for God’s forgiveness. But we can also expect that our society will demand payment of a penalty, and as Christian citizens of a democratic nation we should be prepared to pay that price, make the necessary apology, restoring what was taken or serve the very community we have harmed.

Because, as the blessed Apostle Paul says in today’s epistle, God “loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, [and] made us alive together with Christ.”

When we sin, we sin against God, ourselves and the Body of Christ of which we are a part.

Yet, when we stumble into the pit of sin, God loves us.

When we follow the path of righteousness, God loves us.

So our job as Christians is first to recognize that God loves each and every one of us, and just how much God loves us.

When we truly appreciate this deep and abiding truth, our lives change.

We take responsibility for our actions, and we seek healing for those against whom we have transgressed.

We admit we have done wrong, and we strive to do better.

And we strive to be the very image of God in which we are all created – by loving others as God loves us.

“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.”

Let us pray, work and give to make it so – by seeking not punishment, but reconciliation; by sacrificing for others; and by loving as best we are able.

 

— A priest of the Episcopal Church, Barrie Bates currently serves as interim pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Staten Island, N.Y.

The love that binds the universe, 3 Lent (B) – 2015

March 8, 2015

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

One summer’s afternoon in 1665, Isaac Newton took tea amid the apple trees in his family’s garden. At just the right moment, an apple stem’s dwindling hold on the tree branch could no longer withstand the pull of the earth. The apple dropped. Newton got bopped on the head, and a series of thoughts was set into motion that ended not just with gravity proven out mathematically, but with a whole new world view, now described as “Newtonian.”

Newton saw all creation as a vast machine. Newton knew that scientific methods could reveal more about this machine, and the preferred method for Newton was that we should study the parts of this machine of creation.

In the past several centuries, scientists and mathematicians have come to know more about the universe by using Newton’s method. But beneath the fabric of the Newtonian universe, more recently, quantum physics has revealed a very different world at the subatomic level.

Whereas scientists had previously noted the emptiness of space, the lack of matter, quantum physics has revealed connections. A famous experiment found that when two subatomic particles interacted, after they are separated, a cause on one of the particles still had an effect on the other. They remained connected in some way.

These recent discoveries at the subatomic level have revealed that, although the universe may be a vast machine, we can never understand the world through understanding the parts alone. The connections also matter – and perhaps matter even more than the parts alone.

While describing these discoveries briefly in a sermon makes the changes seem tame, for the scientists who have done the work, it is disturbing. They expected the subatomic world to be just as uniform and orderly as the one in which the apple dropped on Sir Isaac’s head. Instead they found uncertainty and unseen connections, which Einstein labeled “spooky.” These discoveries continue to challenge the worldview of Newton.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is countering one worldview with another – he takes on the worldview of Greek philosophers with the wisdom of the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul’s challenge to the wisdom of ancient Greece is not a new and more compelling wisdom, but foolishness. That’s the way Paul puts it: The cross is foolishness. He writes, though, that, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

The city of Corinth is known to this day for a particular style of column with a fancy design at the top. These Corinthian columns held up great temples to the Greek and Roman gods. They were also the product of Greek and Roman thought. This was the sort of wisdom that Paul was seeking to overturn with his proclamation of the gospel.

Paul is writing to Christians. They have already become believers, but the church is facing problems. There are some who feel that they are smarter than others. So smart that they can bend the rules and still be OK. There are others with spiritual pride. And into a church facing these problems, Paul begins with a passage on the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. We get just the beginning of the case Paul will make in today’s reading. What he is doing is as revolutionary as Newton’s change of worldviews that we started with.

The paradoxes are wise foolishness and weak strength. At first, a paradox can sound like an oxymoron. An oxymoron has two ideas together that do not go together, such as “entertaining sermon.” A paradox is a statement with two apparently contradictory ideas that are somehow truer together. This is wise foolishness and weak strength.

Paul tells those who think they are wise that God’s wisdom is very different from their knowledge. He tells those who feel as if they have power or authority that God’s strength is very different from their ideas of power and might. The paradigm, the example, the key image to explain the paradoxes is the cross of Jesus. Paul begins:

“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’”

Paul quotes here from the prophet Isaiah. As a good Jew, Paul understood the context for Isaiah’s prophecy. The leaders of Israel were facing a much superior Babylonian army. Isaiah called on the people to let God sort out Israel’s salvation. But those words of trusting God alone when an opposing army was on the march seemed like folly. Israel ignored the prophet and put their trust in an alliance with Egypt, which, to them, seemed like the smartest course of action. God responded through Isaiah that the wisdom of the wise would be destroyed. When push came to shove, Egypt did not, in fact, have Israel’s back. Babylon won, and Israel was taken captive.

For Paul this situation is happening all over. The Corinthian Christians are not putting their faith in God alone, but are leaning on that old Greek standby, human wisdom. Paul sees this as something overturned in the crucifixion.

Because as Paul notes, the cross is folly. The idea of God suffering and dying was ludicrous. A suffering and dying God was an oxymoron at best and an affront to reason and wisdom to be sure. Anyone knew that if there is a God who created all that is, such a powerful God could not be harmed by mere humans.

But with wise foolishness, God did not just sit back and watch the drama of the creation unfold. In Jesus, God became man and entered into creation. In doing so, God became vulnerable in Jesus, the Son.

This action on God’s part is not just some new teaching or clever idea. The Incarnation is a world-changing intervention into human history. By reason alone, it would have been utter foolishness for the One who could be above and beyond creation to enter in. By reason alone, Jesus’ death revealed his weakness. But when we see by the light of faith, Jesus had a choice; he did not have to be faithful unto death. Jesus could have fought the violence of Rome with violence all his own. Instead, Jesus continued to love humanity, even when the cost of that love was suffering and death. And the Holy Trinity subverted all of human wisdom and power in overturning death with Jesus’ resurrection.

This is where the two threads of the sermon get entwined as we have explored the worldview of Newton and a quantum universe, then we looked at the worldviews of Greek thought alone or the power of God as revealed in the cross of Christ.

Notice that in Newton’s way of seeing the world, we are a vast machine of separate, though important, parts. This way of viewing the world ended with people feeling very separate, very isolated alienated from one another.

In a quantum universe, essential connections are revealed. Rather than being lots of empty space, the universe is full and connected, and the connections matter. This is the paradox on which the building blocks of the universe stand, that despite the fact that we do not see the connections, all is connected.

This we see even more clearly in the cross of Christ. We do not see a disconnected God, off distant in the heavens. We find Jesus having emptied himself, being born as a human and suffering and dying on a cross. God was more essentially connected to us than we had ever imagined.

And in the cross of Christ, this wise foolishness, we discover the strength of God’s love, that God would be willing to take on human weakness and would continue to love rather than fight back. It is a love that God calls you to enter in. This love of God is the connection that binds together all creation. Paul knew that this would sound like foolishness to some, but those who have experienced that connection would understand as wisdom.

This is why Jesus distilled all of Jewish Law to “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” He knew that love was the very real connection already binding us together. Paul taught us a worldview with that strong weakness and wise foolishness of the cross at its center. This undying love of God is the building block on which the universe stands.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

A covenant worth our lives, 2 Lent (B) – 2015

March 1, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

We human beings love our rules. The security that comes from knowing how things should be done comforts us in our chaotic world. God understands this about us, and so God comes to us in terms of covenant. In our lesson from Genesis, God provides a clear agreement that Abraham can refer to and rely on to know that God will come through on God’s promises. God willingly limits Godself out of love, knowing that making this clear and concrete covenant, promising to be our God forever and make our descendants fruitful, will bring us comfort and security.

Where we get into trouble is in thinking that our ideas about rules and regulations should govern God. Once we understand that God will always be faithful to us and care for us, we start to think we know better than God who God should be and how God should act. Consider Peter’s action in our gospel story today. At first, his boldness is shocking – how did he have the audacity to take Jesus aside and rebuke him? But when we examine our hearts, we might realize that we, too, have sometimes wanted to take Jesus aside and rebuke him.

Peter acts this way because he doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. How often have we felt that way ourselves? How often have we wanted to explain the realities of a harsh world to a Jesus who seems naïve and unrealistic in his expectations of us? What do you mean, sell everything we have and give it to the poor to follow you, Jesus? How can you expect us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”? It’s simply not realistic to “give to everyone who asks of you.”

The truth is that our human instinct is to remake Christ in our own image, rather than letting ourselves be transformed into Christ’s image. We want to dictate the terms of the covenant, but Jesus makes it clear that that impulse is from the darkness within us, and he will name it and call us out on it. Just a few short verses ago, Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah. Peter got it right! He knew the truth about Jesus and was not afraid to proclaim it. And yet barely a moment later, he has made such a mistake that Jesus is saying that Satan is acting through him.

What we can learn from this is the truth that even after – perhaps especially after – our mountaintop experiences of revelation, we still have so very much to learn. Even as we gain more and more knowledge of Jesus and enter deeper and deeper into relationship with him, the mystery of his full nature grows at the same pace. Just because we know him doesn’t mean we get to tell him what to do, a lesson that Peter learned in this moment and that we will learn over and over again.

This gospel lesson is full of truths that are hard to hear. Peter’s expectations are dashed by what Jesus says. He and the other disciples have witnessed Jesus’ power – it was very natural for them to assume that Jesus would bring about the fullness of God’s covenant promises by overthrowing Rome and restoring the throne of Israel. Now Jesus tells them that he knows he will be defeated, arrested and killed – and he fully intends to let it happen.

This is a bitter, painful discovery for Peter and the others. It feels like a betrayal. “Jesus, you have the power of almighty God at your disposal. Rather than rescuing us from oppression, you’re going to give in and give up and let the Romans win again?”

This “gospel” Good News is the worst news imaginable.

What Peter doesn’t understand in this moment is that rather than betraying God’s covenant with Israel, Jesus is simultaneously fulfilling it and rewriting it. The original covenant promise to Abraham in our lesson from Genesis was for many fruitful descendants, all of whom would be loved and protected by God. It was a covenant promising a future of life. Jesus is inviting us to a covenant of life also – but it is by following a very different path than we would expect. Jesus promises life to us if we have the courage to face death. Jesus promises that if we give our lives wholeheartedly to him and thereby to serving our neighbors, we will have rich and abundant life flowing through us, welling up to eternal life.

It is an enticing invitation – but a scary one. To know that Jesus is entering death willingly and expects us to do the same would give anyone pause. And while we know that one day we will all confront literal, physical death, there are many other deaths awaiting us. We will face the death of our pride, the death of our comfortable ideas about what God is calling us to do and be, perhaps the death of our financial security and the death of our ambition and slavery to success. The covenant to which we are invited has very high stakes, and the urge to take Jesus aside and rebuke him as Peter did starts to make more and more sense.

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? It seems as farfetched to imagine ourselves brave enough to follow Jesus into death, to lose our lives to save them, as he says, as it did for Abraham and Sarah to have children in their old age. This covenant to which we are invited, this covenant that takes this strange and frightening path of cross-carrying and death, is only possible under one condition. We cannot make it on hard work or determination or power or strength.

Our lesson from Romans tells us what we need to enter into this covenant:

“It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed. … Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations.’ … He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead. … No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Faith is the only bridge through death on the cross to the new life of resurrection with Jesus. But it is not a fairytale faith that closes its eyes and hopes for the best, blindly wishing for a happy ending. It is a faith that takes stock of the very real cost of discipleship to which Jesus calls us, the price up to and including our very lives, and deems it a worthy gift to the Christ who withheld nothing from us.

Some of us, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, may pay that cost of discipleship with their literal, physical lives. But most of us will not go out in a blaze of martyred glory. Most of us will carry the cross one small step at a time, one spiritual discipline at a time, one act of generosity or sacrifice or love at a time.

However we carry the cross, the giving of our lives willingly to follow Jesus will manifest in one perhaps unexpected cost: the risk of being changed. When Abram and Sarai committed to God’s covenant with them, they were changed at such a fundamental level that they could no longer be known by their former names. The man and woman who were God’s covenant partners had to be known as Abraham and Sarah, names that echoed their former selves but were profoundly transformed, just like their lives and their souls.

This is the risk we take when we sign on to Jesus’ covenant of life, the journey with and through the cross and its transforming power, the road through death to resurrection. We will emerge on the other side with the building blocks of our souls familiar to us, but the temple of grace into which they have been built strange and new and glorious. We can finally let go of our urge to rebuke Jesus, to remake him to be like we think he should be, like ourselves, because we know through faith that he will remake us to be like him.

That’s a covenant promise worth our very lives.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis. She blogs at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Defeating the beasts in our personal wilderness, 1 Lent (B) – 2015

February 22, 2015

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

The gospel writer Mark uses his initial words to move the reader very quickly into the story of Jesus. In 11 brief verses, we see Jesus in three critical settings. First, his baptism, revealing him as the anointed one of God, is the starting point of all. The third setting is the beginning of the rest of the story – Jesus emerging among the people to begin his ministry of proclaiming the Good News, living out and bringing to human kind the salvation of God.

But between these, Mark describes a second setting, one that flowed from the first and provided empowerment for the third. Immediately after his baptism, “the spirit drove him into the wilderness” – a separate place, far away from the hungry crowds that would follow him in the months ahead. This was the only place and the only sustained time he would have to wrestle with the forces that work against the will of God.

It wasn’t a choice for him to go there; it was a godly necessity. The Spirit drove him into the wilderness, not like a chauffeur in a limousine, but drove him like a cowboy prodding a steer. Before he could begin work as God’s beloved, Jesus had to face hard realities – he had to prepare for the test that would eventually ensure his obedience to God, even unto death.

The test involved beating down temptations to follow the ways of the world instead of the pathway to God, temptations to give in to the seductive powers that work against love and grace. Though alone, Jesus was comforted, in the form of angels, by the same Spirit that announced him as God’s beloved and that required his 40-day test in a dark place of ultimate danger.

And then there is this passage in today’s reading from Mark: “He was with the wild beasts.” This amplifies the difficulty of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and serves as a symbol of the strength of the temptations that confronted him. The Greek word used for “beasts” refers to animals with a brutal nature – not Isaiah’s image of lambs lying down with lions. Being tempted by Satan was as demanding as wild animals threatening to devour him.

St. Mark reveals a vivid scene, but with briefest description, leaving us to flesh out the details. Perhaps the image of the beasts can help us understand the lonely ordeal of Jesus’ experience. He had to face down the powers that would seek to prevent him from doing God’s will in his coming ministry.

Proof that Jesus defeated those powers – totally, completely and decisively – is found in the way he conducted himself after he left the place of temptation. Afterward, Jesus moved out among God’s people, loving them as God loves, teaching them about God, and finally proving that we are loved by God without condition, by his making us all worth dying for.

In responding to that gracious love, we find ourselves once more in Lent. As today’s collect reminds us, we, too, are “assaulted by many temptations.” We are called to dedicate ourselves in our “weaknesses” to face the same tests that Jesus confronted in his wilderness – but not alone, for we each can find God “mighty to save” us.

In our various kinds of wilderness experiences, we, too, struggle against the wild beasts of our times and our lives. When doing so, we can learn from Jesus. In the wilderness, he encountered all the evil that there is – because he found it in himself, in his own humanity. For in every human being lies the best of God and the worst of evil.

In the wilderness, the aim of the tempter was to move Jesus from faith in God to doubt. The forces that work against God also press us toward selfishness and away from love. Jesus resisted temptation by keeping himself connected to God. And that is exactly how we can resist the beasts of our lives, how we can overcome the evil that lurks within us and the sin that is a part of us, all that lingers in the midst of our humanity.

We resist, as Jesus did, by staying connected to God through the power of the scriptures and prayer and the sacraments, and through regular self-examination and confession, through repenting of our sin, accepting God’s forgiveness and leading renewed lives. By these means we defeat evil and overcome temptation.

Yes, we can defeat these beasts, as Jesus did, by staying connected to God. And we don’t do it alone. As the angels waited on Jesus in his wilderness experience, we are sustained by the Holy Spirit of God and through the aid of God’s beloved disciples in our midst, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who minister to us and help us face down the beasts of our lives as they face down theirs.

Just as Jesus’ time in the wilderness came after his baptism, so does ours, as our Christian formation continues to flow from that foundation.

Self-examination during Lent comes as essential reappraisal in the midst of our journeys in faith and takes form in our baptismal renunciations. As we promise at baptism, we commit to turning away from “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”

The beasts that we encounter in our wilderness reflect the power of evil that is real and active in our lives. If we dare become self-aware, we see it, hear it, feel it. It is a power that gets inside us and an influence that comes from outside of us – a force that draws us toward what is wrong. It is personal, because it deals with each of us as a person; deals with each of us individually in our darkest and most trying moments.

Evil can enter our lives when hard decisions need to be made, and we encounter it most strongly in those areas where we are weakest, in our desire to serve ourselves first, through greed, excessive pride, divisiveness and prejudice, gluttony of food and material possessions, the desire to control others, cowardice, faithlessness and many other forms of selfishness that draw us from the way of God.

Above all, the temptations we fight are destructive. Satan’s beasts find a way to poison and harm what is good and loving in the world and in our lives. The evil that works in us is our enemy, seeking to grab hold of us to work against God and against our brothers and sisters whom we hurt when we give in to such powers. The evil also works against us individually, eating us from the inside out, like a cancer.

The temptations that Jesus met in the wilderness are also our temptations, drawing us to a selfishness that prevents us from showing love and respect to others, pressing us to manipulate the world into the form that we want rather than that which God intends.

But the power of God’s love can help us resist the temptations and defeat the beasts that dwell among us. From our baptism, we gain the sign that marks us Christ’s own forever. Our success in resisting evil, turning from our sins into lives renewed in love, moves us beyond our time in the wilderness. And as recipients of the Good News Jesus proclaims, we are empowered by the reality of God’s kingdom that has come near, and can become a people, who, with God’s love, can transform the world.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of ”John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Good News in the ashes, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2015

February 18, 2015

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us here in both numbers and intensity quite unusual for a weekday. It’s more than just habit or duty – somehow more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on this special Wednesday has power.

A large part of that power probably lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There it is. Much else that we say in here we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die.

From dust, to dust. As if hearing the words were not enough, they are literally rubbed into our faces. Ashes mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.

Then Jesus goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of what we consider to be worth living for, as well. Moth and rust and thieves can – and will – reduce to dust virtually every goal, every dream, every value, every treasure we hold dear. And we know that to be true, too. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and that we usually do our best to ignore.

Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.

And that looks like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we have known it all along. These grim, honest words can be devastating.

We all know the personal crisis that comes with that first mature realization of the absolute certainty of our own death. We know how jarring it is, and on this day we are reminded of this, and brought closer to this.

From dust, to dust.

To find the Good News here, we need to begin with the past, and with a conviction we Christians hold as firmly as we know the certainty of our own death. This Good News is the conviction that we are created by God – that we did not just happen, that we did not emerge willy-nilly by some cosmic fluke. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Nothing less. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.

So, part of the Good News is that we have been made from dust. The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes, if we pay attention, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.

Notice something else. These ashes on our forehead are not just tossed there, or scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross – so today we mortals are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.

Dust and ashes are Good News: They point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return. To return to our risen Lord. That’s what “repent” means: to turn, to change the direction in which we are looking and moving, and to look and to move in a new direction.

If you’re in Chicago and you’re driving to New York, going west, then you just won’t ever get there – no matter how many times you pull over to the side of the road, stop the car, get out and apologize. To “repent” is to turn around.

And today’s call to us to repent doesn’t center on fear – on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.

At the same time, such turning – such repentance – is not something we can think ourselves into; it is not something to which we can pay lip service – or forehead service – and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We don’t think ourselves into a new state of being. We live and we act ourselves into it.

Both Holy Scripture and the accumulated spiritual insight of our tradition tell us that the classical and ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving are powerful helps as we hear and move toward obeying God’s call to return. They are universally recognized ways of keeping our journey moving in the right direction.

Jesus commands these three, and he goes the extra step of insisting not only that we practice them, but also that we do so privately – indeed, secretly. By the way, Jesus is being quite straightforward here, quite literal. God simply ignores the actions of those who deliberately attract attention to their religious deeds.

That’s why we’re counseled to wash our faces and to go about in quiet obedience. In that way our reward – our growth into Christ and his growth in us – will be something quite safe from rust, and moths, and thieves – and the admiration of others.

So, remember that you are dust – and rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. And repent, return to the Lord – in joyful obedience. For he who created us is calling us to him. To this end, we are given the special gift of Lent – a time to allow us to hear that call with some real depth, and to respond.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.