LENT III

Have you ever wondered who chose the lessons for the lectionary and why do they group the readings as they do? 

The readings in Lent are chosen to prepare the community to prepare the community for the yearly remembrance of the passion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the implications for life since then.

  • The Gospel readings are stories in the life of Jesus which point toward the Passion, the Cross and beyond.
  • The Epistles are reflections on the meaning of the Cross, or the believer’s participation in salvation by baptism.
  • The reading from the Old Testament tell of the events from Israel’s salvation that are seen as “types” that “prefigure” the Easter event.

In the reading from Exodus, we one of the great events of salvation history.  It is so powerful that it has entered the popular expression, “having a burning bush experience.” How did Moses, the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter come to be in the Sinai wilderness?  Moses killed an Egyptian who he caught beating a Hebrew slave.  When this became known he had to leave town in a hurry. He left the Nile valley and wandered in the wilderness. There he found a wife, the daughter of Jethro, a name more familiar from the “Beverly Hillbillies” than scripture.  It was there in the wilderness that it happened.

Moses has joined the sheep-herding business of his in-laws and was minding the sheep one day when he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  The angel of the Lord appeared in a flame in the thorn bush.  Moses saw that the bush was burning but yet it was not consumed, so he burned aside to see this strange thing. 

At this point, Moses displayed the one thing required to serve God: RECPTIVITY.  Instead of saying, “Isn’t that strange,” and going on about his business, he stopped and to investigate.  Then a voice spoke from the bush and Moses did not run away; he simply said, “Here I am.”

Moses has joined the sheep-herding business of his in-laws and was minding the sheep one day when he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  The angel of the Lord appeared in a flame in the thorn bush.  Moses saw that the bush was burning but yet it was not consumed, so he burned aside to see this strange thing.  At this point, Moses displayed the one thing required to serve God: RECPTIVITY.  Instead of saying, “Isn’t that strange,” and going on about his business, he stopped and to investigate.  Then a voice spoke from the bush and Moses did not run away; he simply said, “Here I am.”

The voice tells Moses that God has a mission for him.  He is to go to Egypt and bring the children of Israel out of slavery to Pharaoh.  Moses was not thrilled with this assignment.  He said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Moses did not have a great self image.  He had no confidence.  He had a speech impediment and was terrified of public speaking, let alone, gently break the “good news” to the God-King of Egypt that Yahweh, God of the Israelites instructs him to free the children of Israel.  “Who, me, I don’t think so,” he said.  Moses wouldn’t be our choice for such a project. 

In the book, “The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said,” Philip Steifter, superintendent of schools in Barrington, Rhode Island is quoted, “After finding no qualified candidates for the position of principal, the school announces the appointment of George Smith to the post.”  To paraphrase Mr. Steifter, “After finding no qualified candidate for the position freeing the slaves, I announce the appointment of Moses to the post.”  Could God not do better than that?

That, of course, is precisely the point.  God does not have to do better at all because this is not about the chosen, but about the chooser!  Martin Buber in, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (p. 47) – “Moses said to YHVH (Yahweh), “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”  YHVH provides the assurance “Indeed I shall be present with you,” and he promises Moses a “sign” which at first seems strange to us.  The sight is that when the people come out of Egypt they will worship YHVH at the mountain.  In other words, what is now only existent in words will take on real existence.” 

Then God makes the promise that echoes down the millennia since, “I shall be,” I shall be present, assuring Moses that He would remain present amid his chosen, …” God promises to be present with those chosen by Him, to remain present with them, to assist them.  … I am and remain present.  YHVH is not like the Gods of Egypt that must be invoked, begged, and coerced.  It is superfluous to invoke YHWH because He is already there before He is called.

Moses continues, “If I show up in Egypt and say the God of your ancestors sent me, they are going to want to know who/what I am talking about.  Then God said, “tell them that, I AM WHO I AM, sent you.”  What does that mean?  Buber continues, (p. 51) “This is usually understood to mean, “I am that I am” in the sense that YHVH describes Himself as the Being One even the Everlasting One, the one unalterably persisting in His being.  … the very in the Biblical language does not carry this particular shade of meaning of pure existence.  It means, happening, coming into being, being there, being present, being thus and thus; but not being in the abstract sense.”

This is the ground of Exodus the Gospel reading for today grows.  Is God the enemy of those people that bad things happened to?  Those who the tower fell on or the Galileans who Pilate killed in the Temple.  Were they the worst people I town that this happened to them?  Jesus said, “no, they were no worse than anyone else, and besides that is not the point; but if YOU do repent you will perish as they did.

Then he told the parable about the unproductive fig tree.  The owner wants to cut it down but the gardener asks that it been cultivated and fertilized and given one more chance.  If at the end of that year there is still no fruit on it cut it down.

The call is there. The call is always there.  As God said to Moses, I AM He who shows up and keeps on showing up.  The question is not  how reliable is God, but rather how willing are we?

A story is told of Innocent of Alaska, an early Russian Orthodox Bishop in Alaska.  A deacon asked him, “If God is infinitely merciful, how can he deprive anyone of his heavenly Kingdom?  “And why do you keep twisting your head about from side to side?”  Innocent countered, “Why don’t you sit still?”  “Because the sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won’t leave me in peace,” the deacon replied.  “There. You’ve answered your own question,” the bishop laughed.   “God doesn’t deprive his heavenly kingdom from sinners who do not repent.  They themselves simply can’t bear its light – any more than you bear the light of the sun.”  St. Innocent of Alaska 1797-1897

The Lord will give a second chance, and third, and a fourth.  In the parable there is a definite limit to what may be done for the fig tree.  If it still fails to produce, even the gardener who cares about it will agree to its removal.  God’s patience is infinite, but we are free to refuse it forever.  The day of grace will someday come to an end.

God has promised to show and to keep on showing up.  However, He will not force us, because He created us genuinely free.  The same steadfast love of God was finally displayed on the cross and manifested by the resurrection of our Lord.  God is everywhere, with us in whatever we are in.

“A pagan once asked Rabbi Joshua ben Qarehah, ‘Why of all things did God choose the humble thorn bush as the place from which to speak with Moses?’  The Rabbi replied, ‘If He had chosen a carob tree or a mulberry tree, you would have asked me the same question.  Yet it is impossible to let you go away empty handed.  That is why I am telling you that God chose the humble thorn bush — to teach you that there is no place on earth bereft of the Divine Presence, not even a thorn bush.’”

The same God who promised Moses that He would show up and keep on showing up is still showing up.  In the first century, He showed up in the person and ministry of his Son, Jesus.  Since the day of Pentecost, He has been showing up in the person of the Holy Spirit.  That same Spirit is here today in you and me and in the sacrament of bread and wine.  The question is, will we show up?  That part is up to us.  The good news is that when we do show up God is already there! 

Amen.

Lent IV

“It’s snakes, why does it have to be snakes?” Indiana Jones

It is a true saying and worthy of all people to be received, that When 2 or 3 are gathered together, someone is always complaining

The Brazen Serpent - James Tissot

The Brazen Serpent – James Tissot

The children of Israel (note they were never called the adults of Israel) are complaining about, you guessed it, the food. They got really personal about it too, doubting God and sassing Moses.

So they certainly had it coming when the serpents slivered into camp with their names written on them. Naturally, they came running for help, given the bite of consequences. They never seemed to “get it” or at least the crowd that exited Egypt never got it. That is why only two of that generation made it to the Promised Land. It took wandering in circles for forty years for them to die off. Their children were a hardier lot.

Hold that thought.

Seeing the cross coming and going and coming again.

28-serpentJesus seeing his passion coming picked the story of the serpent on the pole as a metaphor for his coming death. This is called the type. However, this is a type only because what Jesus saw the striking similarity of the upward movement of the serpent on a pole and his body on a cross.

This is called the Antitype. After Good Friday, the disciples saw the connection and realized that the incarnation (Jesus coming as a man) reflecting back and forth.

Over time, they realized the New Testament as it developed, was concealed in the Old Testament and the Old Testament was revealed in the New Testament.

This is reading
• “forward (New Testament)
• backward (Old Testament)
• forward” (New Testament again with greater insight.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Let’s examine two words that are often misunderstood.

  • Believe
    Belief is not an affirmation of facts and data.
    Belief here is internalizing the truth perceived, evidenced by the reordering of our loves.
  • Eternal Life
    Eternal life is not endless chronology. An old movie device for the passage of time was a calendar with leaves for each day set upon by a fan. The days flipped by and then moving faster and faster, years and decades. Calendar leaves blown by gale force winds in perpetuity is not eternal life.

Eternal life is the quality of time, transcending the clock.

As Robert Capon once put it, “Clock time is, “what time is it?” Eternal-life time is, “high time, what it time for is?”

The eternal is the quality of reality outside time and space. Since we have never been outside either, we cannot conceive it (yet).

Some people are incapable of going to hell, because they are living there already in this present time. In the same way, eternal life begins now.

Take heart. God is not like us!

Moses did not hoist the serpent in the wilderness to taunt the Children of Israel with the image of the punishment they had earned by doubting God and sassing Moses. That is not how God works. Moses, not being God, was tempted to go that route a few times, but was, to his credit, mostly restrained. The serpentine image was a sign of and a source of healing and salvation. All this when the Children of Israel clearly had it coming.

Raising the Cross - James Tissot

Raising the Cross – James Tissot

Jesus was not lifted up to shame or pronounce judgment on the sinful and uninformed there that Passover. No, so that everyone who accepts the improbable good news of saving from the pandemic of sin, always fatal. Bizarre as it seems it makes perfect sense with the mind of faith. Don’t just do something today, stand there. Gaze upon the inoculation from death.

Is this not wondrous, O my soul? Is this not wondrous, beloved to your soul?

How then should we live?

Salvation is the free gift of God to sinners; in Christ, man is given union with God even though he crucifies it. We are saved through faith in this gift, and through gratitude for it perform good works. Alan Watts – Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (p. 198).

In this post-Christendom where we find ourselves, we no longer have the luxury of an unexamined and lazy spirituality. Now, we simply must know better. That being the case, let us live like it, being in constant prayer. What is ours in Christ Jesus is a gift. But finally it is a gift we must act on and live in. Lent will soon end. Easter is coming. When Saint Paul exhorts us to live in the power of the resurrection, it is not just a metaphor for moral living Life. Saint Paul means it literally. In this, we must be literalists!

Remember, Easter is coming. Amen

Pentecost XV

James Christensen

James Christensen – The Parables of Jesus

MATTHEW 20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers* for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

These workers are the best in town. Given a level playing field they come in first every time – often with a bonus! He goes and hires more at 9, noon, 3 and just an hour before quiting time.
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought [HERE COMES THAT BONUS!] they would receive more;  So here it comes – but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it,

Rembrandt - Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard

Rembrandt – Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard

 • they grumbled [murmured] against the landowner: Where have we heard that before, it began with Cain, Lot & family, don’t forget the poster children – the children of Israel in the desert for forty years, driving Moses crazy. No wonder he kept asking God to kill him, “Just kill me” – You know that original sin is the only doctrine that is so obvious that no one contradicts us. You have a perfectly lovely baby – Dorothy Biedenharn – only yesterday, handing out with Dad at SOULWorks – just glad to be there – but give it 18 months or so and it’s Katy bar the door. You hear it before you see it, the metal piercing whine that grates on the ear and enrages the heart.

They complained, not just about it amount of money… 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend” or in Southern, “Bless your heart, Bubba , I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Is your eye evil because I am good?”Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Envy, the green eyed monster, is always accompanied by its buddies: the sneaky, shifty, sly, Slander and Murder, shadowy, tall and terrible, violence – who is known as much reputation as by presence: whether it be a flash mob at Kroger or ISIS. But the ring leader is Envy – the very vermin that Lucifer the beautiful loosed into the world out of malice and spite.

Here we see the two economies:

•  Economy of scarcity, lack and fear
• Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, in contrast is abundant, pressed down & overflowing and bullish on the future.

Them There & Then – Us Here & Now

A story from the Chapel of the Cross years is instructive. Robert Farrar Capon, of blessed memory, lectured at the Chapel of the Cross back in the 1990’s.  He was teaching that salvation is Grace plus nothing!  No hedging your bets just straightfoward grace. Robert was ruthless about grace!   I’m telling you, I have learned more about grace from Robert than anybody.

So Robert reinterates, “It’s Grace plus NOTHING.  A lawyer raised his hand and asked, “Why be good?” That’s a fair question of course. Why be good?  With a twinkle in his eye, Fr. Capon replied, “BECAUSE IT’S MORE FUN!”   So, you’re saying, it doesn’t matter how you live, said the lawyer his voice revealing his tension and barely restrained outrage. “I never said that,” Robert said, “Of course it matters how you live! – But it doesn’t earn you anything”

Well that did it! Robert just ripped the bloom off their bush. The Room divided right down the center.  One half of the room were righteously offended, while the other half aroused up in hope. Do I need to say that they righteous didn’t show up the next night?

Well the other half did return and here they cam dragging their friends – the halt and the lame – blind – none physically but of spirit – those abused by the Church of their understanding! So the room was full.  I realized that I had just witnessed what happened when Jesus taught.

You see we are called to a life spontaneous, creative and playful . Jesus promised us that we would be absolutely free, fully joyful and always in trouble. Ready at a moment’s notice speak a good word for Jesus, Therefore as Hunter Thompson put it:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside/sideways in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow Jesus ! What a Ride!” HUNTER S. THOMPSON.

September 21, 2014 – Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee

JWS

Last Epiphany

Transfiguration-2The Light of the Incarnate Word revealed or manifested to the world is the great theme of Epiphany. On this Last Sunday after the Epiphany this theme comes to a great cadence as we encounter the manifestation of Christ on the Mountain, transfigured in light. Six days after Peter said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them to a mountain apart. And there he was transfigured before them.  The word transfigured is the same word used to describe the change a larva undergoes to become a butterfly: metamorphosi.  The glory of God broke through for a moment, and Jesus’ face was like the sun and his garments became white as light.

In the last year I have become fascinated with quantum physics. Quantum mechanics demonstrates that matter can be either particle or motion.  The physicist, David Bohm, writes, “The mental and the material are two sides of one overall process that are (like form and content) separated only in thought and not in actuality. Rather, there is one energy that is basis of all reality…. There is never any real division between mental and material sides of any stage of the overall process  It is now possible to examine the event on Mount Tabor in light of our greater understanding of reality. For a brief time, the matter that made up the physical Jesus shifted from particle to motion. Is that what happened? We don’t know, but it is interesting. The language of transfiguration is not limited to literary metaphor.  With Jesus, on the mountain, is Moses, the great Lawgiver and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. There the two great heroes of Judaism talked with Jesus.

I. Today there is a tremendous preoccupation in our culture with two Things: CONTENT and TECHNIQUE. If we just know enough all will be well. My mentor, Rabbi Friedman, used to say that our current preoccupation with content/data was a form of substance of abuse. I think this is what happened to Peter.

transfiguration Peter had what we used to call in the church of my child-hood a “mountain­top experience,” which means that he got to feeling really good. No, as a matter of fact he got to feeling great. He had to pinch himself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. Peter was drunk on the glory of super-time, super-space:  on the content of his experience.

And as it is when we get caught up with content we want more. In addition, Peter, was the one who always had to manage and control everything and everyone around him (and why should God be any exception), decided that they should settle down and get more content, data, and enjoy the experience. In other words, make data and content the end not the means.

I used to hear and old Gospel song that said, All I want is just a little cabin over in the corner of glory land.” Well not only did intend to have a little cabin over in the corner of glory land, he intended to build it himself! At this point in his spiritual journey, Peter is danger of delusions. If he were allowed to build his dwelling places, he would have spent the rest of his life in a kind of spiritual illusion, enjoying himself, founding a cult, and impressing his followers with his marvelous visions. Preoccupation with content really can be seductive and it will not lead to maturity.

icon 4

The dangerous thing about mountain top experiences is that the air gets terribly thin up there and tends to cut off oxygen to the brain, so that people trapped in their Mountain top delusions cease to think, mistaking content for spirituality.

II.      Technique: Meanwhile, as the old TV shows used to say, “Back at the ranch”, at the foot of the mountain are the remaining disciples, the ones that Jesus did not take with him on the mountain.

James Tissot

James Tissot

Matthew 17:14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, t and it f came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “why could we not cast it out?”

The disciples who have stayed the valley are preoccupied with technique. “Why could we not cast it our?” In the Gospels, Jesus healed people in all sorts of ways. Sometimes he touched people. One time he spit on the ground and made mud which he applied to a blind man’s eyes. If the technique of Jesus was the issue then we could divide into competing schools. We could have the touching school; or the spit therapy approach; or we could become practitioners of Mud therapy and be called the “mudites”.

One of the great divisions between Christians is the one between the “spiritual/content” and “activist/technique” points of view.

  • The “spiritual/content” camp says that the poor are always with us and that praying and saving souls  is what Christians are to be about.
  • The Activists/technicians on the other hand are interested in justice and the plight of the poor is ever before them. They are busy doing and developing new programs and approaches and are often suspicious of those who are not.

Faith is not Content or Technique or Content and Technique, But PROCESS. Process in the sense that we are in the presence of Christ. To use quantum language, Jesus the Christ is both particle and motion. He is the Particle/model of what we are to be. And he is the Motion/means by which we become authentically human. The emphasis is not on content or technique but on OUR MATURITY.

icon 2 Maturity involves:

  1.  Knowing where we end and others begin.
  2. Knowing what we believe. What would we die for?
  3. No fear of taking stands. “My Father’s house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”
  4. Staying the course in spite of resistance. And he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
  5. Remaining connected in spite of it all. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Maturity means learning from our experience. Whether that is on the mountaintop in glory or  with the gory/messy human beings in the valley.  The constant is to be our FAITH. The constant Will be the presence of the Risen One When they asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we cast it out”, He didn’t tell they needed to hold their mouth differently or find a new kind of mud.  He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a t mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

The Transfiguration #4 The point is not to run out and figure out the volume of a mustard seed and then to figure out how to get that quantity of faith. Jesus seems to making the point that it isn’t the quantity of faith it is where that faith is placed.  For We like Peter need to hear the voice of God, “This is my well beloved son, listen to him.”  Lent begins on Wednesday. Let us not be overly preoccupied with content/data or technique.

A priest was walking home late one night when a man put a gun to his back and demanded his wallet. As the priest handed over his money, the robber, seeing the priest’s collar, apologized and gave back the wallet. The priest was relieved and offered the man a cigarette. “0, no thank you Father”, replied the robber, “I gave up smoking for Lent.”

Lent is not about content or technique; it is about the maturing of our Faith. Whether we are on the mountain seeing visions or in the valley failing at what we think we should be able to do, the common companion is the Lord Jesus. What is important is not where we are, on the mountain or in the valley, but who is with us.

We would like to meet Christ wrapped in clouds of glory – matter in process. But, if we are to do so, we must first meet him in the particles of our lives, in the brokenness of our own hearts. We meet him in the stranger. We meet him the bread and wine at Eucharist. We meet him in the unexpected places of our lives, but meet him we will! Lent is about process, the process of the maturing of our souls. Let us remember that as we journey again to Easter.  JWS Transfiguration - RaphaelTransfiguration – Raphael