Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2014

God’s Passion, our passion

April 18, 2014

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

Each year, year after year after year, Christians gather on Good Friday to rehearse this story – what we call the Passion Narrative. On Palm Sunday we read versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On Good Friday it has always been from John. Each gospel offers a slightly different view of what happened on that day nearly 2,000 years ago. It is like looking at a diamond from different angles – one sees different facets, different sparkles, different ways the light plays off the gem stone.

For John, Jesus is Light – and His Light is the Life of the world. We call it Good Friday, even though it looks as if the light is extinguished. But for people of faith, we know that is just not the case. We know the rest of the story. We know that the darkness has not overcome the light.

But we do know a few things about darkness in today’s world. We see it from far off, we see it up close and personal. From the tragedy at the World Trade Towers, the tragedies of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see it in friends and family members who suffer from ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we see it in young men whose lives are so broken they go on senseless shooting sprees in schools, movie theaters, churches and shopping malls.

There is darkness for those who have lost their jobs, for the child born of a mother addicted to crack cocaine, for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute and those without jobs here and around the world. For those who live under oppressive military dictatorships, for those mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers who sit on death row, for those who live with HIV/AIDS. We know something about darkness.

Darkness for John is evil – specifically the evil of living under the military yoke of Rome. Even more so, John and his community hold the memory of Jesus standing up to evil, to the imperial powers and the ruling religious authorities, to say that a lot of people, most people, are not getting the kind of care and support they need to survive – the kind of care and support our God commands us to provide as individuals and as a community.

This month, on April 4, we celebrated the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the church we observe the date of the martyr’s death, not his birthday like the rest of the country does in January. The night before he was assassinated, he had been in Memphis, Tennessee, to support the sanitation workers, garbage men, who were striking for a living wage. In his last days he was also an outspoken critic of our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the war in Viet Nam. Some years before that, Dr. King was incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama, jail, from which he wrote a series of letters urging white Christians to join his movement to end racial discrimination – segregation, what amounted to apartheid in America.

In one of these letters, Dr. King quotes one of the 20th century’s most renowned theologians, Reinhold Neibuhr. Quoting from Neibuhr’s book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Dr. King reminds the white clergy of Birmingham that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” It has been observed that individuals rarely act immorally or practice bad ethics on their own. Such behavior patterns usually emerge in the actions and attitudes of a group – however large or small. It is the group mentality, or to quote the sociologist Erik Fromm, the “herd mentality” that drives greater hatred than the individual. Think of the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, Rawanda, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, the Expulsion by the Church of the Jews from Spain, the Crusades and numerous other similar movements throughout history.

This theory suggests that evil always needs help. Evil needs companions! Evil, the devil, does not and cannot act on its own in order to achieve its intended goal. By comparison, “goodness” or “godliness” can always stand and act on its own merits.

This is what is going on in this story about Jesus. Evil had just enough companions to crucify him on that Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which, that year, was to be on the Sabbath. The collusion and collaboration between the Roman soldiers, politicians, religious authorities already on the payroll of Rome, and the usual crowd of “rubberneckers” always looking for a gory site to behold, was just enough to put him on a cross and let him hang there for all to see what the consequences may be for those who dare to act out of goodness and godliness to speak truth to power.

It is the Day of Preparation before the Passover. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand, even to this day, that God’s new revelation and God’s Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill in her book “The School of Charity”:

 “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.”

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the Last Supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he”; Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall. But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, as his last act of divine charity gives up his spirit – or, as we used to say, handed over his spirit?

It is that “giving up” that compels us to pay attention to this story year in and year out. In both Hebrew and in Greek there is just one word that means “spirit,” “breath” and “wind.” All three are understood to come from God. God’s breath is our breath, God’s spirit is what sustains our life, and God’s wind fills our sails and directs us and sends us places we would never imagine going ourselves to do things we could never imagine doing. Here in his final act of charity toward humankind, Jesus gives up his spirit – he hands over, he offers us His Spirit: the Spirit of God.

Jesus does not give in to the herd mentality. He does not give in to group evil. He remains steadfast in speaking truth to power, just like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandhi, Pauli Murray, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin King, just like so many other individuals throughout human history who have made a difference.

This story we read together today is drenched with meaning. Today let us focus on the fact that the choice is ours. The choice is always ours. Evil is always looking for companions. Evil is always looking for help. And the choice to side with evil is often attractive. There always appears to be something in it for us, even if it is just the cheap thrill of watching someone else suffer.

The other choice, of course, is to stand up to evil. To stand our ground. Not to give in to the group. To speak truth to power. Or to simply walk away and say we will not participate.

The world is still a dangerous place. There is no limit, however, to how much goodness and godliness even one person can give to the world. If there is one moment to remember from this Passion Narrative of John’s, it is that final moment, when Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit – that moment when God’s Passion becomes our Passion.

He gives it to us. He is still giving it to us. The man who healed people, helped people, fed people, gave outsiders dignity, and welcomed all to sit at his table and share a meal, gives his spirit to us. The question that resides deep within the rites and rituals of Good Friday, however, is, will we accept his spirit?

Will we take God’s Spirit and make it our own? Will we set our sails to capture God’s divine wind, breath and spirit and allow it to direct us and take us to places we have never been to do things we have never done?

The world needs His Spirit. The world needs your spirit. The church needs your spirit. You can accept His Spirit, which he gives away, which is given for the world, not just for Christians, not just for believers, but for the whole world, and you can do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.

The World needs you. The church needs you. God needs you. We all need one another.

Our choice must be to accept that spirit of goodness and godliness, the spirit of God’s divine charity, and make it our own. We must allow God’s Passion to become our Passion. When we do, what looks like a tragic story becomes good – a very good story. This is why we call it Good Friday!

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2014

Our mandate for this day: Love one another

April 17, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The ancient designation of this day, this night, is “Maundy,” a form of the word “mandate.” And what is a mandate? It is a command, a demand, an order, an administrative determination, a legal authority, something required. It is mandatory, rather than optional. No choice.

So, what is our mandate on this day? To love one another.

The story of this day, this night, includes dinner with friends, some farewell speeches, the washing of feet, entreaties to wakefulness, sleep, betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and ripping apart. The stories we most often associate with this day, this night, and which we remember most fondly, are the stories of a last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me,” of Jesus washing his followers’ feet.

Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion for the institution of the Eucharist, what some call Holy Communion, to commemorate Jesus’ last meal. Numerous congregations will have a ceremonial washing of feet.

But do you remember, too, the entreaty of Jesus to “watch with me for a little while,” when his disciples wanted to sleep? Loneliness. Abandonment. The quiet of a slumbering night. Do you remember the betrayal of Judas, when he identified his lord to the soldiers? Treachery. Anger. The other disciples responded with horror. One disciple cut off a soldier’s ear before Jesus stopped him. Finally, Jesus was hauled away by the soldiers, the disciples were left alone in shock and grief, Peter stumbled around, lost, denying he even knew Jesus, and the cock crowed. Once. Twice. Three times. The dawning of a new and terrible day when people would be put to death.

This is not a time to be sentimental. It is not a time for pleasant reminiscing. There is nothing charming about this part of our Christian story. Indeed, it has all the elements of a modern crime drama of the worst kind.

In the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read of Jesus and the meal of bread and wine. Many details are missing from this story. Who prepared the meal? What else did they have to eat? Was anyone else in attendance? These gospel writers have distilled it down to its essence: It was a final meal of bread and wine during which Jesus instructed his followers to share these elements, to remember him in doing so, and to love one another.

In John’s gospel we get a different take on things, a different emphasis, with the story of the foot washing. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more on the show and tell: “this is what it looks like when you love one another.”

When we mark Maundy Thursday, we mark the beginning of the end, in a sense. It is the time when Jesus bid farewell to his followers on this earth and gave them final instructions for carrying on in his absence. It was a last opportunity for Jesus to tell them his message and show them what he meant: Love one another; do it like this.

But there is another aspect of the story that we must remember, and we need to tell if we are to be honest, and if we are to fully appreciate the events of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday. Yes, this occasion commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

But we must give consideration, too, to the brokenness of these events.

When we come together Sunday after Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” what do we do next?

We break the bread.

Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. It is also a practical action prior to sharing a meal. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the miracle meals of Jesus, such as the feeding of the 5,000 chronicled in John’s gospel. This breaking of the bread is an important part of the story as the synoptic gospels tell it, yet is absent from the Gospel of John, which we read this day. Why?

For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptics, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. Jesus ate the Passover meal, ate the bread. For John, on the other hand, Jesus was the Passover meal, the Passover sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us. Jesus was present in the actual bread. Jesus was the bread. It was Jesus who would be betrayed and killed and shed the ritual blood that would redeem the people before God.

Jesus was the Passover sacrifice.

And so when we come together for the Eucharist, to commemorate the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, and we break that bread, it is much more than simply breaking bread that we may share it out among the gathered community. It is breaking Jesus all over again, that he may be the ritual sacrifice for us.

We break the bread. We break the Body. We break his body, as we have broken our promises, our commitments, our relationships, our community. All. Over. Again.

This is a pivotal point of the Eucharist, a pivotal point of our Maundy Thursday story, when Jesus is taken whole and consecrated to God, and then broken on the altar of our sins.

In the record of the synoptic gospels, Jesus and the disciples are nourished, body and soul, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal, much as we commemorate in our Eucharist.

In John’s gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, Jesus is the sacrificial figure, but the emphasis here is not on the Eucharist. So that when Jesus washes feet, he is offering nourishment of a different sort. When he breaks himself, lowers himself, to take on water bowl and towel and perform this lowly act of comfort, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbor, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying oneself in love and modesty to be filled with the spirit of God in service to our neighbors.

John’s relation of the story of this day, this night, has a message for us beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond the breaking of the Body of Christ, which we do over and over again in our lives and in our Eucharistic worship.

John’s message is this: Remember me. Love one another. And this is how you do it.

“Love one another” is our mandate for this day. As we break the Body of Jesus once again in the act of breaking bread, may we remember his command to love one another, and better yet, his example given us in the Gospel of John, to take care of one another – in remembrance of our Lord.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2014

What audience?

March 5, 2014

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

Today’s gospel text almost comes as a relief: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. It’s a relief because we can be fairly reluctant to show signs of piety before others, especially when we’re outside of our worship service. If you want to get strange looks, read your Bible in public, pray aloud in a restaurant or talk about what Jesus means to you to the person next to you while you’re waiting for a bus. So a gospel lesson in which Jesus says it’s better to practice your religious duties in secret may elicit a sigh of relief.

But it’s odd, isn’t it? Especially when a few weeks ago when we read Matthew 5:15, Jesus talks about letting our “light shine before others, so they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” Why the emphasis today on secrecy? And why the emphasis on secrecy today, on the one day of the year when we actually receive a visible mark, the imposition of ashes, that unmistakably says, “Something different is going on here”? Are we trying to show something? If so, to whom?

We have to start by noting that the ashes are not for God. We’re not trying to show God something by wearing ashes on our foreheads. In Isaiah, God says it clearly: What I want from you is not sackcloth and ashes. I don’t want you sitting around looking miserable. I want you to get up and do something. Something good. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Give to the poor. Change the world. That’s the kind of religious offering I’m looking for.

Does God want to see something? Yes. But it’s not ashes. It’s us getting busy. Doing God’s work in the world.

Jesus wants to see action too. His message today is about practicing our faith, linking our spiritual lives to action, through almsgiving – giving money for the care of people in need, and through prayer and fasting. These were three very important demonstrations of spiritual devotion in the Judaism Jesus practiced. Notice that Jesus assumes his followers do these three things. He says, “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” and “when you fast” – not “if.”

Living our spirituality through action is an important way to respond to God. So why does Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others”?

Jesus’ words highlight two things that can rule human life, two things that can distract us from having a right relationship with God. Jesus knows we can be motivated and misled by concerns over audience and reward. By audience, we mean, for whom are we acting? For whom are we doing our religious activities? Who is our audience when we give alms or do any charitable act? When we pray? When we deny ourselves anything? For whose benefit do we do these things? Who are we hoping will notice?

Who is our intended audience? The word Jesus uses in his instruction is “hypocrite,” from the Greek word for “actor.” Jesus warns us against being like hypocrites who draw attention to themselves when they put their check in the offering plate or say maybe too loudly as they wave the plate away, “I give online”; who make a show out of praying in public, who clear their throats before taking their Bibles out to read in front of you. The hypocrite acts for others. The hypocrite plays a role, and may not even realize it’s only an act.

The other concern that goes along with audience is reward. When the hypocrites do their religious duty as an act for the benefit of being seen by others, they have received their reward: They have been seen by others. That’s it. They have been noticed by people. Jesus invites us to put our faith into action, not so we can be noticed by people, but so we will receive our reward from God. Three times he says, “and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.”

Is it wrong to be noticed by others? No. If we let our light shine, if others see the good we do, we can be powerful witnesses to God’s compassion, mercy and love. But Jesus says if we’re motivated by being noticed by people and rewarded by people, that will be our only reward. If all the attention you want is from other people, help yourself. But why settle for less than the reward God wants to give us?

So why the ashes? If they’re not for God, and they’re not about being noticed by others, why do something so visible and exterior?

Ashes are a reminder of humility and honesty. Sometimes we get confused about what true humility is. It’s not beating ourselves up. It’s not denigrating ourselves and saying bad things about ourselves to bring ourselves down a notch. It is not some strange reverse pride where we say, “Really, no one is as bad as I am, no one is as stupid, foolish or forgetful as me. I have achieved the bottom-most rung of human reality. How can God possibly love someone as lowly as me? God couldn’t possibly love me; I’m just dirt.”

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will hear as we receive our ashes, reminding us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground. If we are dust, we are beloved dust, and God can do great things with just plain dirt once it’s filled with the very breath and Spirit of God.

Humility is about looking at what is true and real. Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are: finite, flawed, dependent on God, and completely, utterly, totally loved by God, nonetheless.

As we begin our Lenten journey, we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. We are invited to spend this Lent learning to trust that God is gracious and kind and forgiving and merciful, and that what humans think of us isn’t as important as our relationship with God and what we do for others because we are loved by God.

We are invited to take on a discipline of doing some action solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God’s Spirit to come in and move around it us.

God wants to be the focus of our attention and longing. God wants to be our audience and our reward. Let’s not settle for anything less.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2013

'It is finished'

March 29, 2013

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

“It is finished.”

Many said words like those that day. Pilate pushed himself up from the judgment bench and sighed, “Jesus is finished, another political troublemaker out of the way.”

The religious leaders looked at one another and said in hushed tones, “Jesus is finished. No more offense from him.”

The soldiers as they turned their backs and walked away: “Finished. It is over, our unpleasant but necessary work for the day.”

The crowds as they watched Jesus breathe his last and his head slump down, lifeless: “Finished. The spectacle is over.”

All comments on the moment, comments on the day, comments made by those with limited vision.

Not so with Jesus’ final word, tetelestai, which is Greek for “It is finished.” This is a word of cosmic import, a word of timeless importance, of universal significance. It is finished. Jesus’ last word. It’s just one word in the language of the Bible.

“It is finished” – his concluding declaration, his last word, the final punctuation on a sentence begun before the beginning. With this word of completion, finality – “finished” – we are reminded how all began: in John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”

And so Jesus’ word, word of Word incarnate, this one word, which we translate as “it is finished,” is the final punctuation on a sentence begun before all that is, before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs, before the first light, first life, first spark, first dream, first bursting forth of creation.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken in love, spoken across space, time, through ages, prophets, patriarchs, matriarchs, sages, and in these last days, spoken to us by a son: Jesus.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken, lived in love; spoken, sung, breathed, in words such as “And I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself.” Words such as “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love, spoken in actions: touched and touching, taught and teaching, love reaching out, healing, embracing, lifting; calling “beloved” those called wrong, weak, small, outcast, other, sinner.

The Word incarnate spoke love in words, in deeds, spoke love in handing himself over, giving himself up, pouring himself out, until there is nothing left, nothing more needed, just one last breath, one last word. God’s sentence of love spoken across time, space, boundaries, on the cross – spoke its final syllables, in gasps, in an agonized whisper, in pain, yes, but with precision, point and power. This is no giving up, this is declaration: “It is finished.” Period.

Jesus’ word brings forth our words of prayer:

O Jesus, to you, now lifted up, with your arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, in your loving and giving until all is completed, to you in your finishing, we bring all our incompleteness, all our unfinishedness, all those things done and left undone: our fractional loving, our fragmentary living, our unrealized intentions, our unfulfilled potential, our unarticulated praise, our unprayed prayers, our underachieved service, our ungiven forgiveness, our conditional charity, our inadequate hope, our wanting faith, unfinished us, unfinished me. And you say, drawing each of us and our incompleteness all to you, “It is finished.” Period.

 

The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2013

The journey from head to heart

March 28, 2013

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

On September 11, 2001, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was in New York City to give a presentation to a group of clergy and spiritual directors at Trinity Church on Wall Street. What he hadn’t planned on was being an eyewitness to an epic act of terrorism on American soil. He reflected on his experiences that day in his book “Writing in the Dust: After September 11th.” He opens the book with a contrast between the religious language coopted by the terrorists to justify their horrific violence and the compassion of the secular language of those facing imminent death as they called their loved ones from cell phones in the Twin Towers and on airliners. Williams writes this about those last words:

“The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The nonreligious word are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged. It should give us pause, especially if we think we are religious” (p. 3).

Holy Week, and especially this time of the Great Three Days known as the Triduum, marks the climatic events of Jesus’ life central to the Christian faith. In the midst of a time fraught with religious drama it is ironic that John’s narrative tells us of Jesus doing something decidedly non-religious – washing his disciples’ feet. This act is not just ordinary and secular, it’s downright scandalous! In the honor shame culture of first century Palestine, no self-respecting rabbi would do such a thing. This is the work of servants, not revered teachers!

And if we are completely honest, like Peter, we are not very comfortable with the idea of our Lord washing our feet either. It’s just too much of a reversal of roles. Jesus, in this intimate act of care for his disciples, subverts the religiosity of his own day with a simple non-religious act of humble service and love.

It is easy for us to gloss over that Jesus was put to death by good, pious, religious people. The pious, religious Romans saw Jesus as a threat to the claim of Caesar himself being an incarnate god. The pious, religious Jews feared Jesus’ teachings and popularity would bring about the wrath of the military might of Rome and utterly destroy Judaism as the Babylonians had tried to do some 600 years before, which belies the sentiment uttered by the High Priest Caiaphas, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

At its best, religious practice is a means of encountering the living God. Through our liturgy, sacraments, corporate prayer, music and art, our religious praxis can elevate the soul and create a conduit of grace by which we can experience God’s presence with us, in us and through us. The danger lies in when we confuse the means with the ends. When religious systems and practices become the end goal, we will use them as a cheap substitute for God. They will denigrate into egocentric structures that we will then feel compelled to defend and protect at all costs.

As Archbishop Williams writes:

“We’d better acknowledge the sheer danger of religiousness. Yes, it can be a tool to reinforce diseased perceptions of reality. … It can be a way of teaching ourselves not to see the particular human agony in front of us; or worse, of teaching ourselves not to see ourselves, our violence, our actual guilt as opposed to our abstract ‘religious’ sinfulness. Our religious talking, seeing, knowing, needs a kind of cleansing” (p. 5).

Religion runs the great risk of becoming a mask we wear as we attempt to hide from a true encounter with Christ and with one another. It becomes a ruse by which we avoid the intimacy of conversion.

If we are completely honest, conversion is terrifying. It requires us to do things we’d rather not do. Conversion requires the death of our own small egocentric self. It demands we release our stranglehold on our need to control, to acquire, to exert power over others, to exploit for our own gain and thus do violence to ourselves and others. Conversion calls us into stripping away our need to be important, relevant, educated, popular and powerful. Conversion requires us to face our own guilt, sin and brokenness honestly and without rationalization. Conversion entails handing over, in the words of our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies” utterly and completely to the God who is able to love us more completely than we can even love ourselves. And this is terrifying precisely because of the intimacy and honesty conversion exacts from us. Conversion strikes to our very core – to our heart.

It has often been said that the longest journey any of us take in our spiritual life is the approximately 12 inches from the head to the heart. In our industrialized western culture, we have a tendency to live in our heads. Being rational and pragmatic is of high value in our capitalistic, utilitarian world. When we spend all of our time in our heads, our faith is reduced to a set of intellectual assents about God with which we can either agree or disagree. If we stay in this “head faith,” we will find ourselves frustrated by the paradoxes of the scriptures and our traditions. We will grow weary of a prayer life that appears to be nothing more than talking to air and waiting in silence for what seems like no answer at all. We will continue to hide behind religious practices out of habit or guilt, or perhaps even walk away from the whole thing in a bout of cynicism and reject God as nothing more than a figment of the imagination.

If, however, we pay attention to the humility and hiddenness of God in Christ, the Spirit is able to guide us into a journey of conversion. We will be led to seek Christ in new ways: not merely in our religious practices, but in the faces of each other and in the ordinary and often messy stuff of relationships. When this happens, the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to make space for those we otherwise would have overlooked – the last, the lost, the little, the least and the lifeless. This is why Jesus came to be with us, among us and for us. When we put our trust in Christ he will lead us on the journey from the head to the heart and back again – over and over and over again.

Jesus invites us into this intimate conversion journey just as he invited the 12 that night and, like Peter, we will likely experience an initial resistance to this invitation to intimacy and conversion.

The journey is only about 12 inches. Will you come along?

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

Palm Sunday (C) – 2013

'Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.'

March 24, 2013

The Liturgy of the Palms (RCL): Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word (RCL): Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Only in Luke’s gospel do we find this statement of Jesus from the cross. It is a truly remarkable statement. In fact, it may be the most powerful and transformative thing he ever said. And the really amazing thing about this statement is that it is a prayer. Abba, “Father.” The first words uttered by Jesus on the cross are a prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Now, we may suppose, to pray in a time of great pain and tribulation is not all that surprising. Turning to prayer in a desperate and terrifying time seems quite natural and instinctive. When the ground gives way beneath our feet, when some dire tragedy strikes us, when we feel lashed by bitter storms, it seems quite natural to cry out to God. In the midst of tragedy and in the midst of despair, we seem to instinctively cry out: “O God, Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us.”

But when we pray under such dire circumstances, it is almost always for ourselves. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain and tragedy and torment, we tend to cry out, “O, Lord, help me in my distress.” “O, God, save me from my struggles.” “Dear Lord, rescue me from my tribulations.”

What surprises us about Christ’s prayer on the cross is that he does not pray for himself. He does not ask for his own deliverance. He is taunted by others to save himself, who scoff at him and say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, his chosen one.” But that is not what he prays for. He does not even pray for his family or his friends who will be left behind.

Rather, the first words that Jesus utters upon the cross are a prayer for the people who are putting him to death. The first people who come to mind, who are lifted up in prayer, are his enemies. Not himself. Not even his family and friends. But his enemies are first and foremost in his heart and prayers. And it almost goes without saying, it is not a prayer asking for God’s vengeance upon them, but rather a prayer asking God to forgive them.

A natural human response might have been to pray for the destruction of his enemies. But the first words Jesus utters are a prayer for the forgiveness of the soldiers who paraded him through the city streets and who nailed him to the cross. With his arms stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross, high above the murderous hands of the soldiers who had crucified him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

And with these words, with this prayer, everything changes. These may be the most revolutionary and transformative words ever spoken in human history. “Forgive my enemies, for they know not what they do.” With this prayer, Christ takes all of the hatred and all of the violence and all of the vengeance of the world and says, “Enough.”

Enough. We’ve had enough of the spiral of violence and counter-violence that just leads to more of the same. It has to end somewhere. Enough.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

With these words, with this prayer, Christ shatters the glamour of violence that blinds us in this world, and sets in its place a vision of reconciliation and peace. We remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

What Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, he practiced on the Mount of Calvary. On the cross, Jesus prays for his enemies, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and everything changes.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in the real world, and it was a world saturated and captivated by hatred and violence. In these first words from the cross, in this prayer, Jesus reveals God’s own costly love for the world, mediating God’s forgiveness and friendship even in the midst of our violent world. In this prayer from the cross, Christ takes all of it upon himself, all of the hatred and all of the violence of the world, and he says “no more.”

No more. The deadly cycle of violence and counter-violence is broken, and begins to yield to a new world of compassion and solidarity and reconciliation. On the cross, we see God’s costly gift of love in the person of Christ, and in the prayer of Christ for the transformation of the whole world.

In this prayer, we see the truth of God’s love; the truth, as Daniel Migliore puts it in his book “Faith Seeking Understanding,” that: “God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world, that God’s glory can and does shine even in the deepest night of human savagery; that God’s forgiving love is greater than our often paralyzing awareness of guilt, that God’s way of life is greater than our way of death.” In this prayer, in these words spoken from the cross, Christ opens up for us, even in the midst of our broken and violent world, a new future of reconciliation and peace.

The first words Jesus utters upon the cross are the prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And with this prayer, everything changes.

How long will it take until this weary world of ours wakes up and realizes it?

 

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

5 Lent (C) – 2013

Love generously, give abundantly

March 17, 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

The United States Office of Government Ethics maintains pages and pages of rules related to gift-giving among federal employees. “An employee may never give a gift to the employee’s official superior,” is one such rule. On annual holidays and birthdays, however, an employee is allowed to give his or her superior a gift, so long as it does not have a cash market value of more than $10. Gifts received from outside the office are even more complicated, with anything valued at over $20 deemed unacceptable.

We can imagine that holidays in Executive Branch offices are a little hard to navigate, and probably not a whole lot of fun.

The reasoning behind these types of rules is good, of course. Expensive gifts to one’s boss could be seen as bribes, and the same goes for outside parties trying to influence the interests of government employees. It is an ethics issue, and an important one. But suspicion surrounding generous gifts does not begin and end in bureaucratic offices, and it’s not always for good cause. We seem to suffer from a common cultural wariness where extravagance is concerned. Whether we distrust the impulse behind the gift, or feel somehow at a loss by our own inability to reciprocate, lavishness and generosity can make us uncomfortable.

Today’s reading from John’s gospel tells a story of extravagant giving – giving that made Judas just as uncomfortable as it might make us. Jesus is in the town of Bethany, on his way to Jerusalem for the very last time. He stops to spend the evening with Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead not long before. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters and Jesus’ good friends, are there as well, making dinner, catching up and sharing in fellowship.

We don’t know a whole lot about the conversations that went on around Lazarus’ dinner table that night, but by the time that our story unfolds – the story of the uncomfortable, generous giving – it seems that almost everyone is on the same page. Almost everyone knows what is going to happen next for Jesus, and probably for Lazarus, too.

When Lazarus came back to life and tumbled from his tomb, the word about Jesus spread even farther than it already had. This was Jesus’ most incredible miracle yet – the defeat of death itself – and it caused many people to believe in him. As more began to believe, however, others began to fear. Before Lazarus could even change out of his burial clothes, the Pharisees had begun their plot to have Jesus killed, sure that if they didn’t stop him the Romans would destroy everything that they held dear. The very act of giving life to Lazarus was the catalyst that led Jesus toward death.

Gathered around the dinner table, Lazarus’ family seems to know what is coming. They are about to lose their dear friend. They may even know that Lazarus’ new life is at stake. Having been raised from the dead, he is as much a risk to the status quo as the man who raised him. The time is short and the grief is plentiful as they break bread together in Bethany.

Scarcity and abundance are the twin themes of Lent. In this season we have walked through the wilderness, challenging our reliance on the comfortable and known, replacing old habits with new disciplines. We travel the road toward Jerusalem, week after week, ever mindful of the suffering we will find there. It is a slow, plodding course, and one that we know well. Soon we will stand at the foot of the cross and watch as our Lord breathes his last. Viewed from only one direction, this is a very dark season. And yet, we are always mindful of how the story ends. We walk through the shadow of the Lenten valley knowing that while Jesus’ time on earth is scarce, God’s grace is abundant. Even as we struggle in the wilderness, God is at work making rivers in the desert. Easter is just around every corner.

In today’s gospel, we are treated to two different ways of being in the world; two examples of how one might confront scarcity. This is an old book, but here we learn that people are people throughout time and in all places. The Pharisees – and eventually, the Roman authorities – feel their stronghold threatened, and in the face of loss they choose to tighten their grip. By plotting to kill Jesus, they hope to stop their sense of helplessness in its very tracks by asserting what control they can.

Mary, on the other hand, has a different approach. We don’t know exactly what she is feeling when she slips from the table and kneels at Jesus’ feet with a pound of expensive perfumed oil. However, her silence seems to say something on its own. In gratitude for her brother’s life, in grief for her friend’s life, in total fear for the future, words fail Mary. So, instead of speaking, she lavishes her Lord with an absurdly abundant gift: perfume that would cost as much as a year’s total wages. This is a profuse gesture – sensuous and rich and effusive. John tells us that the whole room filled with fragrance as Mary anointed Jesus. We can imagine the cringing gestures as some disciples – including Judas Iscariot – look away from this woman, lost for words, absorbed in her task, who uses her own hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. It is all just too much.

In this little story, we see that there are at least two ways of dealing with scarcity: we can seek to control what we can, or we can give all we’ve got.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the dinner at Bethany is when Judas finally speaks up. He thinks that Mary is being wasteful, that the money that she spent on the oil would be better spent on the poor. Thank God for John’s little parenthetical reference, where he lets us know that Judas was stealing from the common purse, otherwise we would find ourselves precariously close to nodding our heads in agreement. “Yeah,” we might think. “What a waste! What a silly thing to do! We can find a much more righteous way to use this kind of wealth.” It is not Judas’ criticism that makes this moment uncomfortable for us, but how easily we find ourselves agreeing with history’s greatest turncoat.

Many of us have probably been here before. We have found ourselves uncomfortable in the face of generosity, and criticized it in order to limit its power. We’ve also probably stood alongside Mary. We have allowed ourselves to give to our heart’s content – to lavish our love on someone or something else – only to have our motive mocked or suspiciously picked apart. When this happens once, we rarely want to risk it happening again.

Sometimes our culture – and perhaps our human nature – pressures us to only take measured risks, and of course, in many ways this is wise. But our God is not a God of cost-benefit analyses. No, our God calls us to love without counting the cost. It would be a brave new Lenten discipline to engage the final days of this season as Mary would: to love generously, just because; to meet our impulse to give abundantly, just as our God gives, and embrace it. Knowing what we know about how the story ends and about how God will make rivers in the desert, wouldn’t we rather stand with Mary in the perfumed room than with the Pharisees in their powerful chambers?

 

— The Rev. Elizabeth Easton is the associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Omaha, Neb. A native of Washington State, she graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 2009.

4 Lent (C) – 2013

The altar is our banquet table

March 10, 2013

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

One year at the start of Lent, a sweet-natured seminarian with a wickedly funny approach to theology decided to give up his vegetarianism for the duration.

Part of his motivation was his absurd sense of humor and his great gift to be able to laugh at himself. But he also wanted to tweak his fellow seminarians about this whole Lenten discipline thing. During Lent, we always give up something we think is somehow bad for us anyway – alcohol, chocolate, dessert in general.

Food and drink ranks high on the Lenten give-up list.

It was a real struggle for this seminarian to, as he put it, become a carnivore again. Changing his diet that drastically, even for 40 days, made him newly aware of what he was eating, and made him consider why.

He knew that food matters and so do we. We know this as human beings and as spiritual beings. We must eat to live and we must kill to eat, even if we’re vegetarian. Those simple facts make eating a mysterious act of commitment to ourselves, to the world and to each other. We’re communing with the world.

We know how important food is to relationships. The bond of friendship is never truly cemented until we eat together. When someone dies, or is sick, one of our first instincts is to make some food and take it to the family. It’s as if, unconsciously, in the midst of illness and death, we acknowledge that we are still alive.

Think of all the times when it seemed your world was falling apart and you could barely find a reason to get up in the morning. A friend came by with a casserole and said: “You really need to eat something.” Translation: “You really need to go on living despite this loss that makes living seem impossible.”

As a people who gather around this table every week, we understand the symbolic power of sharing a meal together. Many of us who did not grow up Episcopalian joke that we came into this denomination because Episcopalians really know how to eat, and perhaps they’re not talking just about the coffee hour and the spaghetti supper.

In this morning’s readings, we hear of a people who celebrate their passing over into a new land and a family that celebrates the return of one of their members. They all celebrate with food.

The Israelites no longer need manna now that they’ve crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land where food is abundant.

The Prodigal Son arrives home destitute and hungry, and his father celebrates by serving everyone the sweet meat of the fatted calf.

Yet, these images are not all so sweet. Frankly, the first one might leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

The Israelites celebrate the end of their wilderness years with a feast. Granted, it’s only parched grain, but it must have seemed nice to not to have to worry if the manna would in fact show up every morning and the quail every night.

What about the Canaanites, though, whose crops the Israelites take for their celebration? The Israelites are invaders camped outside of Jericho. Soon they will lay waste to the Canaanite city, in the name of their God. They will kill every human being except Rahab and her friends who spy for them. They will kill every animal. They will drag off all the gold, silver, iron and bronze, declare that it all belongs to their God and deposit it in their treasury.

This story is part of our heritage as Christians. Yet, what if those are the not Canaanites, but instead are Oglala Sioux or Cherokee?

The story from Joshua might sound different if we recall what the people who came to this Promised Land did to the American Indians. There has been much thievery and death committed in the name of God and of religion.

At the very least, the implications of this story might make us wonder during this time of self-examination called Lent. They might make us wonder about of our own sense of entitlement. Do I expect that I will get certain things because of who I am, what I do for a living or what God I call my own?

There may be the same sense of entitlement lurking in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Not all of the experts agree about whether the son really had a conversion experience out there with the pigs, or felt at least a little bit of regret and thus turned toward home. Some say the boy sounds a bit calculating:

“Let’s see, I am starving, but my father’s hired hands have more than enough bread. I am slopping these unclean pigs, which, as a good Jewish boy, I would never own, much less eat. No one will feed me.

“I know – I’ll go home to my father and say whatever I have to, to get him to take me back. Then I can at least have the bread he’s giving to the hired hands. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Is he the least bit worried about his reception? After all, he’d declared his father dead so that he could have his inheritance early. Did he think he was entitled to even more from his father?

No matter the son’s motivation, there was his father ready to feast in joy and to feed him. No strings attached. No gotcha. No asking, “Now, have you learned your lesson?” We could call it unfair, as did the older brother. Or we could call it forgiveness and unconditional love, as did the father.

He gets “forgiveness with music and dancing,” as one preacher puts it. Forgiveness can seem so somber and fraught with seriousness, perhaps because of the circumstances that created the need for forgiveness.

Forgiving does not come easily to most of us. We have to learn about it. Often, we feel like the older brother of the Prodigal Son. Yet, when we are the ones who need to be forgiven, we can think of all sorts of reasons why this is precisely the ultimate fair thing to do.

Perhaps forgiveness, whether given or received, is not about fairness. Perhaps it is about love, and perhaps it is a gift of generosity purchased with the knowledge that each one of us is a mixture of good and evil, capable of great love and great mistakes.

Forgiveness is a gift that we give and receive because of God’s promise of unconditional love – the love that welcomes us back home each time we have wandered away.

Jesus lived this promise. He opened his table to everyone. The Pharisees and scribes sneered about how Jesus welcomed sinners and dined with outcasts. And now, Jesus has become for us the bread of life, as the collect for today says.

The altar is our banquet table. It’s where God welcomes us home no matter how many times we have squandered the inheritance that Jesus left us – the inheritance of equality, unconditional love and forgiveness.

Welcome home!

Let’s eat!

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

3 Lent (C) – 2013

Crooked little heart

March 3, 2013

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

In the movie “The American President,” Annette Bening plays Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Her job is to convince the White House to advocate for higher automobile emission standards.

During her first trip to the White House, she meets with A.J. MacInerney, the President’s Chief of Staff, played by Martin Sheen. During their meeting, Sydney Ellen Wade becomes frustrated, turns to a colleague, and tells the colleague plainly, “The White House won’t let us leave until AJ delivers the bad news.”

Her colleague is aghast at her brashness, but AJ answers, “I’m afraid she’s right,” whereupon he tells them that the President won’t support the high emission standards they want. And worse, that the President expects them to support his position.

The bad news. The uncomfortable truth. Most of us don’t like bad news or uncomfortable truth. It makes us, well, uncomfortable.

Rather, most of us want to hear what we want to hear. What some people call “words that tickle the ears.”

Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek out or believe only opinions and reports that confirm what we already believe to be true, not words that challenge us. We like people to agree with us.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the emperor wanted everyone to tell him how stylish and exquisite his new clothes were. But he was naked! Nobody would tell him the uncomfortable truth, except for one little girl. “He’s not wearing any clothes!” She exclaimed.

This is Lent, the Christian season of Uncomfortable Truth, and your nakedness is being discussed openly.

Even discussing why bad things happen to good people – such as towers falling and killing innocents – Jesus oh-so-uncomfortably tells us, “Repent, or you will likewise perish.” Not the ever-popular “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

“Repent!” Jesus tells us. “You have sinned. You have done things you shouldn’t have, and you have failed to act when you should have.” Jesus spoke raw, uncomfortable truths. Our problem is that Jesus still speaks the Uncomfortable Truth, only we can’t hear him.

One reason we can’t hear Jesus is this: the word “sin” has lost its edge, its meaning. It carries too much religious baggage. For some, the word “sin” conjures up images of Catholic confessionals in which teenagers are forced to admit precisely how bad they are. For others, the word conjures up evangelical images of God angrily hoisting helpless people as marshmallows over open flames. Because of its baggage, the word has lost its razor-sharp ability to challenge us.

Sin.

Did you hear the story of the little girl in the confessional? She confessed to the Catholic priest, “Father, I have sinned. I cannot stop looking at myself every time I pass the mirror, and I keep telling myself how beautiful I am.” To which the priest replied, “My dear, I have good news; yours is not a sin; it’s only a mistake.”

To reconstruct the term “sin,” consider its existence in two forms: as big S and little s.

Big-S “Sin” is the state of the world. The fact that the world cannot, despite the best and heroic efforts of so many people – from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., to you in this room – cannot seem to right itself. The world is shrouded in darkness. War continues. Brutal killing continues. Abuse and manipulation continue. Hunger and homelessness continue. Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea.

Little-s “sin” represents the actions, the things you, as an individual, do and the things you fail to do. Like cheating on your spouse or on your taxes. Kicking your dog or lying to your friend.

Most of us don’t like to admit the sin in our lives – big-S or little-s – so we try to hide. Adam and Eve certainly denied their sinful plight, metaphorically, which is what it means when the story says they hid their nakedness with fig leaves. We try to hide the shame of our own nakedness.

One way we hide the shame is by changing the language, using softer words. Which is a variation on confirmation bias, if you think about it. “I tried my best,” we might say. Or “On balance, I’ve lived a good life.” Or “I’m a pretty decent person.”

Euphemisms are inadequate fig leaves; you can’t hide nakedness from God any more than Hans Christian Andersen’s king could hide his nakedness from the people.

God sends Jesus along, who in his very public words, slaps us rudely across the face with the stark reminder that we are naked. That we require forgiveness. Restoration.

Because sin is not what you think. Sin is not sin because of the action itself. Sin is sin because of the result. In his essay “What Is Sin?” from his book “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner writes:

“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left.”

You get that? Nothing is left because of the centrifugal force of sin. What he means is this: Envy is sin because it pushes others away; haughtiness is sin because it sets you apart from others.

Buechner points out that even religion itself – and for that matter, “unreligion” – becomes dark when it expands the gap between you and those who do not share your views. Lent isn’t about sin and repentance because God cares about the silly little things you do – your little-s sins.

Lent is about sin because God cares about you.

God cares about your isolation, cares about a world of increasing isolation. Redemption restores relationship.

Jesus immediately proclaimed Good News, because in restoration there is hope that you do not have to be alone.

Lent presents Uncomfortable Truth – but only if you are paying attention – so that you might become truly free on Easter. Repent, therefore, and receive the very Good News.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

2 Lent (C) – 2013

Allowing the Lord to lead us through Lent

February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18Psalm 27Philippians 3:17-4:1Luke 13:31-35

We begin today with Abram at the earliest part of his journey with the Lord. Remember that Abram’s name is later changed by God to Abraham “the father of many nations.” Abram is to lead his people to a new land, but the journey is hard, even harsh. Abram knows he needs a male heir to continue his line, but he is distraught when the only heir apparent is the child of a slave.

Then one night the Lord takes him out to look at the stars – a sight too many of us never see due to light pollution. The Lord dispels everything in Abram’s doubts when the Lord tells him his descendants will be in number like the stars of heaven.

Next, Abram undergoes what seems to be some kind of vision or trance that is terrifying, in which the Lord, depicted as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passes between Abram and the sacrifices he has made. It all sounds primitive, evocative of something primal, strange and perplexing. It is a covenant assuring Abram the land he was promised would belong to him and his descendants.

It is hard for 21st century Christians to grasp the depth of this story. We cannot readily appreciate how land and descendants were primal forces that created identity in the ancient world. However, if you visit a farm or a ranch in rural America today, you can find vestiges of that primal concept. A rancher will defend her land as if it were part of her, because it is. The land shapes the people who live and work on it. Without it, their identity is compromised. The land itself defines their mission.

Farmers and ranchers today lament the fact that often their children don’t want to stay on the land, or are forced to leave it for economic reasons. The whole enterprise of farming and ranching is a family mission, and when there are no heirs who wish to continue, the mission seems lost. A rancher may grieve over this more than anyone.

So far we have looked at Abram’s encounter with the Lord from an agrarian point of view. The thing to remember is that land and heirs are the foundation for a mission, a journey that Abram and Sarah will take together. This mission ties directly with today’s gospel and Jesus’ mission that leads to the cross.

The season of Lent doesn’t mean much for us until we can view our mission as part of Christ’s mission, until we can see that our denial, fasting and prayer are ways to return to the journey that the Lord leads us on. How does that happen?

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a vision of what could be, working toward accomplishing it, often with a clear sense we were partners with God, only to have that “mission” taken away, radically changed or corrupted by others.

We are in good company. That is what happens to Jesus. His mission, his passion to heal, forgive and reconcile, ends up in betrayal and crucifixion. The very city, Jerusalem, that stands for God’s mercy and reconciliation ends up turning against him.

So if you are struggling with what the Lord seems to have promised you, if you feel your mission is declining toward failure, if your church seems to have lost members and energy, if your work seems to be undermined by opportunists and betrayers, you are not alone. Abram struggled with these same challenges, and so does Jesus.

An interim pastor found himself in the middle of a conflict between less-than-candid leaders, the diocese and his own hopes for turning the church around. For nine months he felt the sting of ridicule from every direction. Even the bishop suggested he might be in the wrong place. One night in his prayers he simply said to Jesus, “Show me where to go.” In his prayer he saw a vision of the cross, the plain wooden cross above the altar at the church he served.

He reports that vision changed everything. He stayed as interim, he rode out the conflict, and in the end those who were his enemies left and others came forward as honest leaders. The church began to grow both in numbers and giving.

Our Lenten journey is no journey if we don’t experience the cross, that symbol of what stands between the Lord and us. If we are unwilling to be challenged with change, or fearful that nothing can be different, then we will turn away from the journey Jesus leads us on to the cross. We will hide out in Lent. “I’m not making any changes this year.” “I’m going to lose weight by going to the gym.” And so on.

Instead, follow the path of Abram; ask Jesus what he wants you to do with this holy time. Watch for signs in your waking and sleeping. Each of us has our own journey, and it is one that will not only transform us but encourage others as well if we allow the Lord to lead, now, in this time and place where we are called by God.

— Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island, Ark.